Salchow and Seminoma
by Logan Davis
I was treated for cancer at the age of 23. Not the kind of cancer that could kill you, but the kind that takes a while to heal from, and destroys any semblance of trust in your body. The thing I was principally grieving at that time was any possibility of living the first half of my twenties being bad at dancing, getting a little too drunk with friends, and knowing my body would recover by the time I went to sleep the next day. I innately trusted my body, and I knew after this that I couldn’t.
My father talked to me some time between my second surgery and my first session of chemo and said he couldn’t understate how unfair it all was to have cancer, especially so young. I think I tried to joke it off by saying it was a blessing in disguise; I don’t have to contemplate a profane illness in tandem with aging at a later point in my life. I get to do one and then the other.
He responded by calling me graceful. My dad called me a “graceful patient.” I remember doing the thing I do with every compliment I don’t totally understand or feel deserving of and say placidly “oh, thanks” in a tone that tries to denote surprise. Honestly I didn’t know why he said this. Maybe it was me asking my nurses how they were when they checked in on me? Or was it working through chemo and not taking any time off? I think, in retrospect, it was because I knew to “go through the motions.” Not to wait and see if a half measure worked. Or sluggishly adopt a new habit to aid in the healing. Not resting in a state of sickness, but moving away from it as quickly as I could.
When I was going through chemotherapy I would hide in a bed in the back room of my grandmother’s cottage and pluck tufts of hair from my head while watching videos of Jason Brown’s 2014 figure skating championship routine. I don’t know why that video in particular, and I really wish I did because I have not felt compelled to watch it since. I think the video was making the rounds because Jason was a first-alternate for the 2018 Winter Olympics men’s figuring skating team.
Jason Brown’s routine is a “river dance on ice.” He is known for his footwork, not his jumps. But he does jump early in the routine, he pulls off a double axel, which the commentator calls easy. Moments later, before the steps, he lands a triple axel which the exact same commentator claims is the best he has ever seen Jason land. And Jason glides across the ice, forwards, backwards; so effortlessly that you can only imagine the amount of effort expended to appear that way. As he approaches the far side of the rink, the music turns from a flowy, directionless flute into a fiddle-and-stomp. Then his footwork begins.
Left over right, front around back. From one second to the next he is sliding backwards, tip toeing on the ice, then sailing across in an arch that makes the 197 foot olympic sized rink look no larger than a small pond. He ends in the middle of the arena right to the rhythm of the crowd clapping to the song, which itself quickly loses form and becomes an uproarious applause. He got top marks. First place.
I would pluck my hair throughout the video, rubbing my fingers periodically to coax out off the little hairs that stuck under my nails. The only time I would stop this process was either when I needed to leave the room or queue up the Jason Brown video again.
After about a week of hair plucking, I decided to shave my scalp down to a smooth surface. There are only so many times I could watch my family watch me lose a little more every day. I opted for feeling like I ripped off a bandaid instead of witnessing a favorite shirt slowly give up the ghost. Having never shaved my head before I missed the very end, the nape of my neck. I just plucked the rest of that out afterwards.
My head was left smooth. Impossibly smooth. If I wet my hands and slid them across my scalp, it sounded like sneakers on linoleum. Cartoonish and comical. So I laughed about it. My parents asked me to stop, but they laughed too.
The hair plucking was replaced with this finger-based squeegeeing of my head. I’d move my fingers around till they pressed wrinkles into the surface of my skin, making me a little older looking. I needed something to do with the left hand given that — once my folks left the cottage — I’d being watching the skating video with my right hand again.
At the end of Jason’s routine, as he gets off the ice, he puts guards on the blades of his skates. Probably to protect both the edges and any errant toes of shoes that might find their way under his step. When he puts them on he pauses, holds the side of the gate he entered, and snaps the bright blue plastic shells on the bottom of his feet. It’s a moment that peels back the veil and reminds you that, despite watching him hurl his body through the air over ice and spin with a left foot over his head, Jason Brown cannot balance on one foot while standing still. At least not while there is a skate on said foot.
That reminder begs the question: how did he work up to a salchow or a lutz? How many distances did he misjudge? Does he know a good way to fall on ice? Does he wear long sleeves to cover marks from the thousands of days of practice behind him? How many times did he second guess raising his foot, worried that he might cut someone, or himself, while practicing?
The best way I have to describe grace is when you watch someone do something and you know they’ve done it before. That they’ve done it so much you can’t even feign to guess how many times that might be. That they can do it with an assuredness and calm that convinces you if you were to flip a coin they could tell which side would land face up every single time.
Having cancer, maybe dying from cancer, is not like this. Nor is any act of grieving.
You only lose a person, that particular person, once.
You only get cancer the first time once.
If I ever get that sick again, it will be different. I’ll be older. The bed I will be in will be different. The dice I am rolling will have changed. There is no training for that; no practice. A graceful patient isn’t someone who does something so well to you imagine the thousands of other times they’ve done it before; a graceful patient is someone who handles their sickness in such a way that its easy to forget they are sick at all.
Grace is performative.
Jason worked toward his and I worked away from mine. The difference is the word “grace” for those who earn it is a stamp of validation for all the ungraceful moments they’ve gone through to get there. The other is given to someone who has had something terrible happen to them and doesn’t recapitulate that misfortune in response.
The only commonality about the word grace as it applies to those with gravitas and those with grief is: their exceptionality for existing in that moment.
The summer I was sitting there watching a video of him from 2014, he was competing in the 2018 championships. I found some reviews of the routine while recovering from my last session of chemo. There weren’t any videos of it, which suggested things went poorly. He struggled, and he fell. But the Chicago Tribune still called his footwork “graceful.”
Logan Davis is a practicing artist in Austin, Texas. While primarily writing and taking photographs these days, he graduated with from Marlboro College with a focus in computer science. His work has been featured in Drury Gallery and published in Lose The Film. Find Logan at Twitter or Instagram.
Image original: Terry Matthews/Unsplash