An Opera Singer's Facial Cancer
And Life Transposed
REARRANGED tells of leaving the operatic stage for a starring role opposite the Big C. Bone cancer in my cheek ended my career as an opera singer and brought me face to face with mortality, disfigurement, the meaning and uses of beauty—and a lot of left over pieces.
A small corps of medical elites convened to excoriate my diseased bones with surgical wizardry and lethal toxins, and stayed on to restore me to myself through a brutal alchemy of kindness and titanium screws.
REARRANGED is a tale of letting go to hold on, of putting old pieces to new uses—and of the unlikely arrangements that make it all work.
Tidings From All Over
OUR DAILY MAIL BEGAN TO INCLUDE St. Jude medals, prayer cards, crystals, and candles. My own most recent religious affiliation had been distantly Mormon, so on a theory of weighting my odds, I approached the only Mormon bishop I still knew, to request a personal blessing for my health.
A great family man and a friend of my parents, Sedge met all the priesthood qualifications for administering the anointing oil. But his heart and mind were in oil painting. In his soul was the essence of linseed and canvas. He relished his periodic forays into Manhattan, where a Soho gallery hung his work, not far from Bernice’s apartment on Spring Street. We met there for the ritual blessing.
“You do know,” he began, “you might’ve picked the wrong guy for this, don’t you?”
He was perfect. I sat awkwardly beneath his warming hands and hushed blessing. I thanked him. I felt pretty much the same. We went for lunch.
The next day an art director friend happened to phone for random small talk. I regretted having no other news to share. But I felt I ought to bring him up to date, lightly, and appropriately grave. He replied, not unkindly, “Whoa, Kathleen. That’s the last time I call you to see what’s goin’ on!”
Another zany coworker whooped, “Hey, ’Thleen, what if you come out looking like Kim Basinger?” Deadpan was his specialty. And then, “You do know we love you, right?”
I learned later that an old friend and mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus had passed a hat for me in the Ladies’ Dressing Room, netting a tidy sum, though many there did not know me well. When I protested she said, “Just take it! These are rich ladies!”
Where was my fear, everyone wanted to know. How could I be so strong in the face of the Big C? But what I felt was nothing like strength. I simply had no choice but to move forward with what I knew, and learn the rest along the way. This role could not be rehearsed. All I could do was hit my marks, scene by unfolding scene. And I knew it was easier to be me than to be one of those who could only watch, and worry.
Perversely perhaps, I was in my element. Because I had to, I developed a recitation of what was about to happen to me, as much of it as I could understand myself, full of details so amazing that my voice glowed in genuine awe with every retelling. I watched my listeners’ eyes widen, their lips part. With practice, my delivery leveled out, becoming smooth, too smooth, even glossy. So I began to build in strategic pauses, suitable sighs, sometimes a slight stammer, to properly honor the horror in their stifled gasps. Clearly, others felt a fear that I did not. Others seemed to know something, something dire, perhaps, which no one dared share with me.
Fortunately, the run up to major surgery is crammed with busywork. In addition to a battery of preoperative testing that sometimes occupied whole days, I raced the clock to handle people and tasks. I felt almost tall, boosted by a general admiration, consisting mostly, I suspected, of others’ relief not to be me. I filed forms, paid bills, secured my insurance, closed out receivables, and tabbed my files. I made up beds for the caregivers we would be hosting. I stocked the refrigerator. I changed the outgoing message on the answering machine and packed my hospital bag. I didn’t have time to get worked up over hypotheticals.
I had to prepare myself both for success and for failure. The procedure was successful ninety-seven times out of a hundred, but these procedures were so new at the time, there were not yet one hundred cases in the books. I might have thought ahead, like Anatole Broyard, who wrote, “I started tap-dancing lessons, as a first step toward evolving a strategy for my illness.”
But hadn’t I been through this before? Didn’t I know how to prepare and show up for the downbeat? What is any audition but preparing to advance, whether advancing or not? Why not show up? Why not just be there in case a miracle should happen? Just in case.
The more I tried to grasp the deadly seriousness of my situation, the more it slipped my grip—a gift of grace, for sure.
An opera singer's facial cancer
And life transposed