“the look”

[This is a creative nonfiction essay that I wrote for my AP Composition class, and I decided I wanted to post it as my first official blog post.]

“I could feel everybody watching us, wondering what was wrong with us, and whether it would kill us, and how heroic my mom must be, and everything else. That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. We were irreconcilably other, and never was it more obvious than when the three of us walked through the empty plane, the stewardess nodding sympathetically and gesturing us toward our row in the distant back.”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

I most clearly remember the feeling. There are not a lot of things that I clearly remember about the past year of my life, but this is definitely something I could never forget. I could feel it radiating off of them: the feeling of pity, of sorrow, of relentless sympathy, with their heads slightly tilted and a concerned, but interested pout plastered across their face, saying “I’m so sorry you are going through this”. But all the while having the knowledge that he or she is thanking God in that exact moment that it is not them or their child or grandchild or friend who is bearing the burden I had to bear. I could feel the acid of animosity rise up through my insides and burn holes through my skull, trying so hard to force the reaction I most want to give out of me; but, as always, I swallow back the vile temptation and smile. A shocked expression flashes across their face for a fraction of a second, surprised by my reaction, quickly followed by a sympathetic smile. At this point, my smile softens and I slowly look away, averting my eyes to something that will seem more interesting. Be sure to take the term ‘smile’ very lightly in this case, because for half the year my smile was (and still is) recovering. For a few months after my surgery, the left side of my face hardly moved at all. This was just one of the things about me that stood out, aside from the fact I was completely hairless (and still one quarter bald), way too skinny, don’t eat normally (for now), very pale, swollen for some time, covered in scars, and now temporarily cheekless. Why wouldn’t they stare? They arguably have good reason to. It’s almost like I am a circus clown, walking around in my costume 24/7.  

Why don’t I retaliate? Why don’t I just stare back, give them a taste of their own medicine? A “how does that feel, huh?” moment. Why do I feel so bad about being rude when they are indirectly being rude and hurting my not-so-delicate anymore feelings? I’m just a worn out punching bag, taking every hit as they come, never striking back.  

My immediate reaction to this is not one of kindness. It is not one of understanding. It is not one of compassion, though it may seem this way. My reaction is one of disgust. It is one of distaste. It is one of repulsion. Now, you have to understand, I am very non confrontational person. Conflict makes me uncomfortable and awkward, and I tend to stay away from it. I always told myself, ‘next time this happens, you have to stand up for yourself. You are a person, too.’ But did I ever do that? No. Why? I already told you, I don’t like confrontation.

I also do not like to show the side of me that is not strong because I prefer to keep my emotions to myself. I used to be more forward, more open with my emotions, but after being so secluded for the past year, I have found myself  to be more private about things. I don’t really like to cry in front of people because I feel it makes those around me feel awkward. Just like how I never went out in public without a hat; I always told myself it was because I didn’t want to make those around me uncomfortable, and I said it so much I began to believe it. But really it was because I was self conscious of my very pale, very bald head, it showed my disease more outwardly and gave those around me yet another reason to stare. Crying in public used to be something that didn’t bother me that much, like in a movie theater or with friends, but now I just feel embarrassed. I am quick to recover if I slip because I don’t want people to see me as weak when I am anything but that. If you ever have seen or do see me cry in public, just know something really bad or something really good has happened, and I just couldn’t control myself.

This is just one of many types of “looks” I get. The other more popular type is more menacing, more threatening. More of a looming threat of attack than anything else, at least to me. I find myself in a predator-prey situation, and I can hear my brain scream “Get out before they pounce!!”. The fiery question residing in their eyes strangles me with a mixture of anxiety and shock until I can feel my lungs screaming for air. How could a human look at another human in such a way? Just because I look different than you do, does not give you the right to stare me down to the point where I feel emotionally, and sometimes physically, threatened. I can almost hear the question: “What’s wrong with her?” or “Why does her face look like that?” echoing from their thoughts all the way to mine. This look, among others, irks me because I know I am not the only one who experiences this. Kids are resilient, and they’re spirit is remarkable and they are able to hold a strong face in when faced with adversity. They light up our lives, and when they are diagnosed with cancer, none of that changes. The looks they receive do not have any effect on their unbreakable spirit, but this does not justify unnecessary actions. The self conscious feeling you get when you receive this stare is like no other. The disease I had does not make me less of an individual, less of a human being, and most of all less of an equal. At this point in my life, I am immune to all of the “looks” I have record of, although my mom is not. Every time we are out in public, I get at least one look from someone. “God, I’m so sick of the stares. You know, Gabriella, one day you need to just stare back just like that and show them how it feels.” I just nod, and carry on. The looks I receive just don’t bother me in the way they used to. I don’t even notice them anymore because right now, I’m just happy that I’m not holed up in my house, basically shielded from normal human contact and interaction in fear of getting sick and dying, even from just the common cold, because I had no immune system. I am just happy to be alive and healthy because some are not given the opportunity to savor all of the great things life has to offer. I am one of the luckier ones, and I will not take that for granted not even for one second, and I will always try to do that with a smile on my face.

One thought on ““the look”

  1. Hi Gabriella,

    One thing I know for sure is that there exists a massive difference between envy and pity, although they look very much outwardly similar. People stare at you because they envy you. They wish they could have 1/4 the strength you have. They envy the fact that at 16 you have more strength and integrity in your pinky finger than they have accumulated their entire lives. Heck, I envy you. All the schooling in the world couldn’t prepare me for what you have fought through and won. Graceful beautiful and dignified is what I think when I see you, when I hear about your adventure, and when I read your thoughts on paper. Don’t ever think these people pity you. Smile back at them with the knowledge that you have something they will never have, a heart of gold. Keep writing, you are really really good at it. Keep taking photos, amazing at that as well. I know those of us who know you for the wonderful woman you are couldn’t be more proud.

    Andy and Manda and Teddy

    Liked by 1 person

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