A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma and after a biopsy and surgery I fell into the routine of regular full body skin checks or scans. My “melanoma check” was a bit over a week ago on a Friday. I had my day all planned. I would go to my appointment, then pick up a cup of coffee, and then head to meet Father Patrick for confession.
As I waited at the desk of the receptionist I looked around me. It was early in the morning but already the waiting area was full. Every age, every color, every size, every gender, every income level.
I quickly checked in and looked around again. There was the teenager, his face scarred with acne, a mom hovering beside him dancing the awkward dance of concern and nonchalance. If scars could speak they would probably tell a story of merciless teasing by clear-skinned kids who knew how to make life miserable for one who already suffered. There was the older couple, he with a bandage over a part of his face, perhaps a result of skin surgery. And there were so many more, all of us with our imperfect skin, there to be checked over by a specialist who knew just which imperfections we should be worried about.
This yearly visit is fairly painless other than the humbling experience of having my naked body in all its wrinkled, spotted glory fully exposed to fine specimens of young male residents (where are the females in dermatology I ask you?) A resident goes over my body with a magnifying glass. Anything suspicious they swab with alcohol and take a closer look. All the while they are talking to me and asking me questions about my skin. Do you wear sunscreen? Any history of cancer? Any history of melanoma or other skin diseases? And then statements – Ah – looks like you didn’t wear sunscreen here! It’s a bit like a dentist asking me if I floss.
All I am to these physicians is a body with a skin disease. Nothing else. I am not a wife or a mom; an employee or a friend; a nurse or a trainer; most certainly not an author. It’s immaterial to them – what matters is my body, separate from my soul, my heart, and my mind. The Big Doctor comes into the room toward the end of the visit and the residents are clearly in slight awe of him. He talks about me in the third person and turns out the lights holding a black light over my leg, focusing on the four-inch diagonal scar where the melanoma first presented. See he says see you can really visualize all her sun spots here. This is called “solar lentigo” he launches into the technical name for the white sunspots that are now gleaming like stars in a dark night on my skin. For a moment I separate myself from my body as well and look down on my legs like they are a foreign thing, unattached to my person.
And then we’re done. All set. No need to come back for another year unless you see something that is cause for concern. Out the entourage goes. The residents (who incidentally looked like they were 12 years old) off to check another body.
And as I began dressing I thought about where I was going next and the juxtaposition of these two visits. From skin checks to confession. One interested only in my body, the other primarily interested in my soul, yet cognizant of the role body, soul, and spirit play in our personhood. One concerned only at that moment, the memory of my skin fading as quickly as a door closing and opening to the next patient; the other concerned on an ongoing basis – concerned with my outward roles as mom, wife, and more, but more so my inner being – my soul.
At the first visit a resident is equipped with a magnifying glass and a black light, at the second there will be no magnifying glass other than the eyes of God, there will be no black light, there will be no talk about me in the third person. It is my choice to reveal that which I want to reveal.
I am leaving a place where I am a specimen and entering a space where, as a human being created in the image of God, I have inherent worth. At one there is a Big Doctor, a specialist known worldwide, his residents trying to please at every turn.At the other – a priest relies on the Great Physician, the one who heals body and soul.The contrast has me shaking my head in consternation and amazement.
From skin check to confession. Both important but one infinitely more so. I check out of the office leaving with an appointment scheduled a year away and head to confession. My body is okay. My soul still needs checking.