Everything changes. Though it’s hardly an original concept it tends to take on a sense of immediacy once the tipping point loosely called middle age is reached, at which time it stirs in the ashes of personal history to rise phoenix-like into the light. Sometimes its appearance is welcome and at others intrusive, depending upon factors barely within our understanding. And while the pace of change is usually too subtle to have any direct impression in the short term, occasionally we’re witness to its incremental advancement in precise, if not disquieting, detail. My face, for example.
I’m not talking about the accumulation of lines and crevices graven by time and circumstances, but something more pressing, something recent enough to affix a firm date—Sept. 1, early morning—with each day between signaling transformation or, as I sometimes prefer to describe it, degeneration. For each morning and each night I’m applying a topical cream to areas on my face ravaged by the sun, and each morning and each night the cream eats away another layer of skin. My dermatologist ordered treatment for three weeks or until the pain grew too severe, whichever came first.
It’s not the first time I’ve done it but after the last experiment several years ago I swore I’d never do it again. Vows, however, have a tendency to ambush our deepest convictions with contradictions and inconsistencies, and this was no exception. That I’d told my family in no uncertain terms I would never, ever subject myself to the treatment again only hours before going back on my word at least lends a comedic flair to my about-face. Never say never, we’re told, a lesson I’ve been slow to learn.
I knew what would transpire, how the skin would turn red and blotchy before shredding into the consistency of raw hamburger, how people would stare, how it would take months to heal. But what surprised me as I contemplated the drastic changes that would take place on the map of my face was how it seemed a metaphor for what I’d experienced the previous few days in New Mexico, surrounded by my past and places once familiar and now estranged.
Only the past is unchangeable, I’d once thought, and now I realized I had it all wrong. Nothing about the past is fixed. It shifts and distorts and pulls disappearing acts like a magician’s sleight of hand, much as the layers of skin on my face would disappear in the weeks to come. Whatever the past was, or whatever recollections of our past had survived more or less intact, were never exact or pristine. At the end of the treatment my face wouldn’t be as it was when I started, it wouldn’t be better, or younger, or less ravaged, it would just be different, minus some of the cancerous cells and the crusties and the potential for melanoma but otherwise altered by the the effects of time and death-dealing medication. So, too, the past.
My family and I had spent an afternoon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Cochiti, but nothing about it was the same as I remembered. What was once a favorite picnic and hiking area was modernized, if such is the word for paved parking lots, fee stations and tight regulations on visiting hours. As we hiked into a narrow slot canyon I recalled a night when my wife, then a girlfriend, kicked me in the shin with heavy boots, dropping me as if poleaxed. Her response to what I’d considered harmless fun seemed an over-reaction though in retrospect it was probably deserved. At the time the canyon was split by a single narrow dirt road and the night dark and velvety, sprinkled with stars undimmed by the lights of nearby Albuquerque.
Nothing remained of that place. And when I looked at my parents I saw shadows forming; what I had felt immutable now faded before my eyes. There was frailty where before there had been none. My older brother limped from a knee replacement and my younger brother, always baby-faced, was ruddy and weathered, his red hair frosted in gray. Nor was I who I was or considered myself to be in the split second before looking in the mirror to find a stranger staring back, older and heavier, less sure of himself. My hometown had spread like an oil stain, cancerous to the fragile desert, its once clear skies hazy and choked with smog. If not for the towering Sandia Mountains and the triple dormant volcanos on the western horizon, it could have been anywhere, or nowhere. My familiar landmarks were missing.
And now, looking in that selfsame mirror, parts of my face disappear even as remnants of my past vanished without a trace. It’s not change that we rail against, I thought, but the ceaseless disappearing acts that whittle us away until there is nothing left to do but shrug off this mask and take flight, following the birds into a sky of endless potential.