Miss Elly, breast cancer patient in Dallas.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Miss Ellies Scars

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years, and while recent events may have prompted me to actually write it, they have nothing to do with the thoughts, which have been percolating for a while.

Those of you who were fans of Dallas when it was first on, or who have seen it in syndication or on DVD may remember that Miss Ellie had breast cancer. At the time, unless I’m mistaken, the most common surgery for breast cancer was a mastectomy, which involved removing the whole breast and the underlying muscle, or in the partial mastectomy, simply the breast. Nowadays small tumors can be excised in a simple procedure called a lumpectomy. Miss Ellie had a mastectomy. She worried that her husband Jock would be shocked and reject her because she was less than whole. After Jock died and she became involved with Clayton Farlow she worried that the scars and the missing breasts would affect his love and his desire for her.

In both cases she was wrong.

I’m afraid that I’m one of those people who believe, rightly or wrongly, with the Shakespeare of Sonnet 116 that “love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds.” In the case of Miss Ellie and Jock they share a history of some 40 years together. In that time they go through the Depression, WW II, and the births of J. R., Bobby, and Gary.

When you have lived with someone for forty years or more you get to know their body very well. The firmness of youth and the flabbiness of age are both there in your mind. The scars of every minor cut and every major incision are there. The body that bore your children. How can you look upon the body of your beloved and not see her in her former glory and in her present and hold both of these in your mind simultaneously?

William Blake wrote a poem about double vision. He encounters a thistle but sees it as an old man who blocks his way. In the context of the poem he sees the thistle in its inner reality. Blake goes on to mention three-fold vision, which is sexual and erotic, and fourfold vision, which is the vision of the artist. Single vision, which he associates with Newton, is the vision of the purely mechanical.

Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Line makes a similar point. Jubal is showing Ben a collection of Rodin sculptures that Mike has accumulated, and he points out She Who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmiere, the statue over on the left. “Anyone can see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart . . . no matter what the merciless hours have done. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me—but it does to them. Look at her!”

When you have grown old with someone over the years you are familiar with every crease of her skin, and remember the beautiful girl that you met and courted, and still see her in the woman that you’ve grown old with, who had your children, whom you’ve fought with, and who is still with you as you both get ready for that good night that comes to us all.

The scars, and the damage to the body, the bodies of both lover and beloved, is simply part of the process, and we hold them both simultaneously in our mind.