It feels different to laugh, to swallow, to run. My lung transplant saved me, but it didn't free me from that feeling of not having enough air; the trach takes me back. And yet, that's not my biggest obstacle. I want to talk about beauty here, and how having a t-tube has been a lesson in self-acceptance and comfortable self-awareness.
On my wedding day, I felt more beautiful than I'd felt in a long time. Maybe it was the fact that I had a jeweler design a special necklace to hide the t-tube. I also had the privilege of wearing that dress. And I was marrying someone I love deeply, and who loves me. Perhaps this latter fact is what makes me able to feel beautiful in the day to day, when I no longer have these frills and sparkles to mask reality. I believe his love is what carried me through the changes that I couldn't control: all the scars that have become a part of me, the seven-inch line where surgeons cracked opened my sternum twice. That not-so-glamorous trach that was placed three years ago. The heavy breathing. The fear of losing that breath.
What 20-something does not want to feel attractive? I have a trach but I still want to wear cute dresses and tank tops without the stares and commentary: is that permanent? Oh, poor thing. Why don't you just cover it? And I do; even on hot, humid days, even when it hurts, even when it keeps ruining my scarves, I try to hide this part of me on days where I'm not emotionally equipped to deal with rudeness.
Because pretty girls do pretty things, my 11th-grade Spanish teacher said more than once when I coughed too much in her class.
Pretty girls are healthy, vibrant, unmarked, unscarred. I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do. I'm no damsel in distress. I don't need to be rescued. (I clung to that Ani DiFranco song in high school). But what if I were bold and just wore what I wanted? I tried that for a while; the not-hiding. People then made it their business to dole out advice, they were callous, or they would inadvertantly make me feel as though I were intruding on their space.
He always called me beautiful, even when I weighed 70 pounds after my transplant. Even when I had to have this invasive piece of plastic inserted into my neck. He says he doesn't notice it. He says, wear those pretty summer dresses; you make them look good; who cares if people look at it, comment. I worry that these words are rehearsed, insincere. But he does not give me any reasons to reinforce those worries.
Every few months, I go through a procedure to change the t- tube, and sometimes I can't talk for days or weeks. The voice box is blocked. These are times I can't hide it with a scarf. He tries to read my lips, my impromptu sign language. To speak is not to be heard; you need listeners for that, someone who will take time to understand who you are and what your words mean, at heart. These are the days after a procedure, something we call "routine." He playfully calls the humidifier machine that I hook up to the trach my "scuba." He watches me more, just to be sure I'm okay, but not in a way that makes me feel weak, incapable. Sometimes, I wake up and see ghosts next to my bed, staring at me, and I jump and he pulls me to him, half asleep, without even realizing; we laugh it off in the morning. My crazy dreams.
Normal is how we adapt. How we come to look at challenges - not as challenges but as pieces of our lives that can be held or disposed from our memories, if we try. We can choose what we see. There are people who define me by this, who call me "strong," whose first question when they see me is, "How is your health?" The outside world often forces my self-awareness. "You don't sound so good," strangers say to my cough; in line, at the store. "I'm not sick," I mutter. He is my haven of myself; he allows me to talk of my differences only when I want to. He does not bring attention to them. He trusts that I can care for me.
I've reminded myself that to be attractive is not the same as being valued, and it would be redundant to elaborate on the opposite messages society pounds into our minds on a daily basis. Beauty and value are not equals, and what we define for ourselves will always be different than what the outsider defines us as -- and we must let that be. He and I share a perfect space; when we look at each other, we feel who we are, without criticism, without self-loathing, without fearing what we lack. To be beautiful, one must be seen. To be seen, one must simply allow it.