First, I lie under the MRI machine. Then I lie in bed with a puddle of wet Kleenexes at my feet. Then I lie, like a map, on a cold operating table three times in a two-month span.
“The doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong with my leg yet. That’s why they’re sending me for all of these tests,” I lie to my ten and eight year old daughters. The doctors know I have a rare cancerous tumor. The mass lies in the nook of space where my left femur bone meets the hip socket. The doctors know it’s malignant, but I don’t tell my girls that yet. A lie by omission, I concede.
In the hospital examination rooms, my eyes connect the dots on the ceiling tiles above me while I’m being poked and prodded. Under bright lights, I recall the nightmare of when this had all started. A nagging pull in my groin area for months led me to eventually visit a sports chiropractor. A running injury I had thought. But after a few weeks of treatment, the chiropractor grew suspicious. Then, what I had thought was a routine MRI resulted in a cancer diagnosis and urgent referral to an orthopedic oncologist. Post-diagnosis, I had wanted to kick myself for dismissing the smoke signals my body had been sending me all along. Night sweats for months, frequent heart palpitations and that darn groin pain that had been causing me to limp. I should have known something was wrong. The body doesn’t lie.
Headaches, dry throat, tense shoulders, pits in my stomach have all entered and exited through the revolving door of my recurring bodily symptoms over the years. One time when I was trying to park my car before a specialist’s appointment, I was blindsided by a nauseous spell so strong it seemed that the marked lines of the parking space began floating in space and I was drifting alongside them. I’m done with lying to myself. A headache is rarely just a headache. I ask it why it is occurring and I’ve learned to listen to its answer. Bouts of motion sickness usually hit me when I’m still as a picture and waiting to hear the results from my latest CT scan. That hollow I feel deep in my gut isn’t always hunger or indigestion, but sometimes a beckoning of hurt and disappointment from when my stepmother casts her evil on us. A deafening numbness froze my body over for days after my sister Kathy committed suicide. “It’s your body’s way of protecting itself from the shock it has endured,” my therapist suggested when I visited her after the funeral. My burdens manifest in my body.
When my now fourteen year-old daughter Annabel tells me she’s tired or that her stomach hurts, my thoughts run away from the obvious, a virus or hunger pang, and instead wonder if it’s nerves over a school-related issue, or distress due to a social media drama playing out. What is happening in her life and what is her body trying to tell her? In my mind’s eye, I map out the story of Annabel’s world, as best I understand it. I try to navigate her teary-eyed waters and eyeball where the elevation peaks and valleys. Who was she with when the situation happened? What is their history? Did she get enough sleep the night before? Perhaps not making the school soccer team affected her more than I had realized? I urge her to ask her body for answers and she looks at me like I’m crazy. To Annabel, the roads of her map are labeled but they aren’t connected. She’s just not hungry for breakfast the morning of a big science test, she says. And that’s when I realize that my own life’s journey has led me to appreciate the connection between my emotions, my thoughts, and my memories and the state of my body. The body doesn’t lie. I have to do the work of listening.
So I visit Nadine, a somatic psychotherapist and cranial sacral therapist who believes our bodies are home to all we think, feel and do. I lie on a bed and she places her hands beneath me. While we talk, her hands connect with areas in my body that cause me physical and emotional pain. While I cry and cry over my sister’s death, Nadine holds my heaving chest, whispering in my ear that Kathy was ready to go. As I’m swearing a blue streak, venting my anger at what I feel was a preventable death, Nadine as cartographer, thumbs the distance between my broken heart and healing spirit. “Let it out,” she begs. “You will recover from this loss.” Her words echo whenever I’m having a hard day.
When my left quad muscle seizes in spasms, Nadine grips it with the strength of a deep-sea fisherman. She holds on so I can let go. When I try to explain these appointments with Nadine to my twelve-year-old daughter Karina, she has one word. “Weird.” I’m not surprised. Karina’s own map, green and intact, is her point of reference. Except on days when her ponytail isn’t cooperating and she shrieks in terror at the thought that she might have inherited that dreaded frizzy hair of mine. Karina’s awareness is coming. How can I expect my young girls to understand a relationship between my body and my life that took me over forty years to discover myself? As abstract as this work that I do may sound to them right now, I have to believe the roots of empathy have been planted in them. They’re bearing witness to the power of healing when we tune in.
Time weathers the map. I stand in front of the mirror and notice Annabel and Karina watching me. To understand the map, study the legend. It doesn’t lie either. Staring back at me are the ravages of time and disease and life being lived; multiple surgical scars, a few extra pounds, greyer hair, a permanent limp from losing half a limb. For now, my girls see the surface of the map. Lying beneath these markers are the truths my body holds. Everything is connected. Grief, joy, stress, whatever I feel, is absorbed in my body. From this same body, Annabel and Karina emerged, along with the biggest truth of them all. Love.
Gina Luongo is the author of Slowly, Gradually, Gently a self-published memoir detailing her journey in learning to walk again following surgery to remove a rare cancer growing in her leg. Gina’s written piece “Music As a Gift: A Personal Narrative” about how music provided her refuge and inspiration during her recovery was published in the academic journal Music Est Donum. She also wrote and self-published Your Song and is the author of the novel Truth Is Beautiful. Gina lives in Toronto, Canada and works as a Consultant for Assistive Technology in Special Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Gina5Elle.