Five months ago I found a small bump the size of a pea behind my ear, under my skin, a few inches back in my hair. I discovered it much like I did the hominy-sized wood tick engorged with blood behind my ear in fourth grade: by fiddling around with myself.
Unlike the wood tick, which I pried off and threw alive and waving into the gray metal trash bin next to the teacher’s desk, my head bump was underneath the skin, not on top. No amount of self-torture was going to make it explode—no sticking pins into it, no squeezing it to death, no waiting a few weeks before launching another surprise attack—so I finally went to my dermatologist.
She told me it was a small cyst, and that I could either have it removed or leave it alone.
One way to divide the world is by all the Have It Removed people vs. all the Leave It Alone people. I am a Have-It –Removed-aholic, extremely averse to sporting anything directly on or under my skin that grows there against my will. I could write an entire book on emotions associated with growths and zits. Therefore, it’s no surprise that just a few days ago, I found myself face-down on an exam table in my dermatologist’s procedure room, my long hair taped back and snipped to the skin behind my ear, my scalp numb.
I lay there, feeling a little Auschwitzian. I hoped everything went smoothly. Sometimes it didn’t:
Many years ago I had what you might consider a beauty mark—a tiny flat brown spot—on the white of my breast. It had come to my attention over time, and I decided to have it removed. I thought perhaps the dermatologist would come in with an appropriately tiny metal spatula and gently rub the edge of it over the slightly raised nub of the little brown mark that surfed my whitecaps. The dark cells would quickly surrender, but they would tug on my skin a little as they left, a last goodbye.
What I thought was going to be a fairy spatula turned out to be a large drill of some kind. I was fascinated and stunned with the amount of flesh that was taken from me without my consent, a tube of my flesh cored out. That time there were no stitches; the doctor pulled the edges of my new breast cavity together and taped it shut. You can still go in there.
This time there were nine stitches: five on top, and four more deep down in my scalp fat, plus the shaved head.
I don’t know exactly what I thought my current dermatologist would do to remove the cyst. I’d had some ideas along the lines of the fairy spatula method, but of course they paled in comparison to what actually happened: My dermatologist walked into the room, put on her gloves, and then—unbeknownst to me at the time—cut a piece of meat out of my head. Later I saw that she had removed such a large piece that it had fat on it. I didn’t even know I had head fat until I got up afterwards and saw a chunk of my bloody flesh floating in a clear plastic cup. It had hair too.
It was dying.
What are you doing in there? I wanted to ask. Get back inside me. I had only wanted the cyst out, not my good parts. I already missed my fat and my stubble, everybody bobbing in the cup together. I put my hand to my head and pressed on my fresh wound, as if this had all been a dream and the missing piece of me was still there. But no, this was real. That piece of me was gone.
You think you’re in charge of your own flesh, when you’re awake at least (you obviously can’t help what happens to you when you’re unconscious, good or bad), and suddenly, a noticeably large part of you is missing. A chunk of your flesh. It lets itself be taken from you, sometimes like it was never attached at all, and suddenly there you are on the inside looking out at your finger on the floor, your organ on a plate, your hairline in a cup.
Goodbye, body part, my little honeybee. I’ll tell everyone you looked like me.