Beautiful Ruins: Book MAMA’s Review for Moms

By: Jess Walter

I had a red mark on my forehead—nothing really, easily covered by make-up—except when it would flake and then scab and then bleed when I washed my face.  So after much urging from family, I had it checked; they did a biopsy, and sure enough…skin cancer—not the dreaded melanoma but basal cell carcinoma—whatever, I had to have a MOHS surgery, which is named after the guy who came up with it, as most things are.  Basically it’s a slow, deliberate flaying of the skin…one layer at a time so that they can “cut as little as possible but still obtain “clear margins”” in the end—that’s what you’re going for—clear margins all the way around—clear of cancer cells that is.  Both the dermatologist and the plastic surgeon assured me before we started that it looked relatively small so they were expecting the procedure to be short—1 layer, at the most 2, so it was a surprise to still be lying there 4 hours later waiting for the fourth sample to come back from the lab with a yawning open wound –bigger than my eye socket—on my forehead.  To add to the fun, the plastic surgeon had optimistically sewn me up after each pass so I’d been stitched and unstitched and restitched four times winding up at the end with 15 stitches on the outside, more on the inside and a giant bandage.  I also had the added bonus of timing this so well that I entered the holiday season with a perpetually inquisitive/cynical expression as one eyebrow was permanently raised.  Basically I looked like I had gotten exactly one half of a really bad brow lift from a drunken surgeon who forgot to hide the incision in my hairline.  Even my husband, the big tough marine, almost lost it as the wound continued to widen and bleed.  I’m pretty sure he nearly passed  out, though he thinks I don’t know that because I was under a “drape” so had really become my surgery site and ceased being a person.   Plus they had been giving me these lovely valium/opiate combination injections periodically so I was very quiet and peaceful under there but I could still hear the conversation, and I’m pretty sure the doctor asked my husband if he was okay at one point…if HE was okay?!  I’m lying here with my skull exposed practically!  Said husband did snap some pictures because God forbid something happens these days and it’s not recorded…he sent the worst one to my sister who cleverly responded, “wow, did you get to cut the cord?”  That in a nutshell does a pretty good job of capturing the gag factor: yes, my head looked like a post-delivery vagina.

So yeah, I’m thinking the Bain de Soleil and the foil wrapped album covers as reflectors back in the 80’s was maybe not such a hot idea.  That was some serious sunning.  So what are the upshots here?  We got the cancer out before it invaded my brain, hopefully.  I am a living, breathing cautionary tale for my daughters and my students so they will always wear sunscreen.  And apparently, according to my surgeon, I am a GREAT candidate for a facelift because my skin has some elasticity still and I heal well.  I am a good lil’ healer I guess, or maybe he just meant that I look like the Crypt Keeper and I better start nipping and tucking and filling if I don’t want to scare anyone.  Oh, and now I know that there exists in this world injectable peace and love in the form of hardcore and fast-acting opiates and if the shit really hits the fan, I just need to get a hold of a couple boxes of those shots.

Seriously though, one gigantic take away from this was that I cannot believe people do these kinds of surgeries voluntarily and electively and on both sides of their head just to get rid of a few wrinkles.  (I bet you thought I was going to say that I learned to stay out of the sun…nah…damage is done!)   But to get a full on face lift, or a brow lift, or eye job or nose job or chin implant or cheek implant or any lift or plant or what have you seems even more nuts to me now because when the shots wore off and the numbness wore off around the incision…it bloody well hurt!  And it got really swollen and it is still pretty heinous and red and I’ve been back 3 times for post-op checks and this is probably just the first of many skin cancers lurking and waiting.  God knows what’s on my back.  So, a little graceful aging could be just the ticket…

ON THE OTHER HAND…being 45 does kind of suck.  And sometimes it sucks more than other times.  Like for my same age girlfriend whose older boyfriend is also and simultaneously dating someone who is 30…then it sucks, or when your college football team makes it to the Rose Bowl and you drag your ass to Pasadena and all the players and most of the crowd are half your age and you keep thinking you see old boyfriends but really they are just kids who look like your boyfriend did 25 years ago because you keep forgetting to “age” them in your mind and when you finally do run into one you don’t recognize him at all because he’s 40 pounds heavier and the hair that is left on his head is pure white.  And later that same day when you go to get a beer and see a big sign that says OVER 21: WRISTBANDS REQUIRED FOR ALCOHOL, and so you say: can I get a wristband here? And the gal says, oh you don’t need one, we are only carding for people who look under 35.   Awwww.  I realize I’m getting greedy here because 35 was 10 years ago, but Christ almighty…throw me a bone!  I had myself believing I still had it as long as I had fresh highlights and a dark bar, but as Dylan says, “it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

Onward and upward, right?  Embrace the 40’s…embrace the now—we can’t stay young forever.  We can’t wallow in our dead dreams, lost loves, deep longings, regrets—intrinsic parts of the reality of being human.   Jess Walter—the author of Beautiful Ruins—an incredible book– is able to write about the potential pain of living with all of the above, but without losing hope.  He writes without cynicism.  He writes with humor and an extraordinary ability to weave together past and present.  Plus the story is phenomenal.  As they say, plot is everything, and when it comes right down to it, Walter can really tell a story—with characters from plastic fantastic movie producers to alcoholic fading musicians to beautiful, mysterious ingénues and Greek hoteliers spending life in a cloud of unrequited love.

The novel is a meditation on fate…an exploration of daydreams versus reality, and knowing that beauty of every kind must eventually fade.  Walter references Kundera before the final chapter—in which he magically ties up all the loose ends of the story—an extraordinary feat in and of itself because the novel is as complicated and involved as life itself.

“Nothing is more obvious, more tangible than the present moment.  And yet it eludes us completely.  All of the sadness of life lies in that fact.”

-Milan Kundera



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