Talismans and Tall Tales
I am sick and starving. It’s been twenty-six hours since my last meal, a sorry bowl of bran cereal with a splash of contraband milk. Dairy isn’t allowed two days before my procedure. Food of any kind is banned for a full day before the test. I have eight more hours until they put me under. Things could be worse. Three years ago, after having my first colonoscopy at the age of thirty-three, I worried that I’d be delivered a death sentence. I wasn’t though. And my mother swears it’s all thanks to a good luck charm she’d bought in Turkey. I told the story for a spoken word event called The Gnat several years back. The Gnat is like The Moth, a famous non-fiction storytelling event that brings thousands of people to each performance–only smaller. In honor of colonoscopy day, I thought I’d share it: I was raised to believe in bad omens. My mother is Jamaican. Most people know Jamaica as the birthplace of Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and a robbed Ms. Universe contestant. But it’s also the home of Obeah. Like voodoo, Obeah has its roots in African religions. But, in Jamaica, the religious practices were pulverized from centuries of criminalization until what was once a religion became a culture of superstition. Obeah literally means bad omen and that’s how most Jamaicans preach it, by sharing news of bad signs. Growing up, my mother was always pointing out ill warnings. A crow lands on a roof, someone in that house gonna die. Dog digs a hole in a yard, someone nearby is gonna die to fill it. Stick breaks by you, better run because a friendly ghost is warning that the area is rife with death. If I ever expressed doubt in what my mother said, she’d break out some unverifiable story supporting the omen. “Cousin Pauline didn’t run when the stick break and a snake sunk its teeth straight into her ankle.” And, I have no doubt that there are incidents when her superstitions proved true. After all, what really is a superstition except a statistic taken out of context? As I grew up, I stopped believing in a lot of things my parents told me: Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, girls get pregnant from boys touching their boobies, and Bad Juju. My mom remained devout, even adopting new superstitions. A little over a year ago, she and my dad went to Turkey. My mother carts back a fistful of jewelry made of glass beads with dark pupils at the center. The evil eye. The woman who sold them swore that if the jewels break, they had protected the wearer from a great misfortune. I told my mom she’d been duped by a clever marketing scheme. If the beads shatter, it’s not shoddy construction, it’s evidence of their power. My mom insists I just wear it. After about a month of wearing hers religiously, my mom’s bracelet breaks. Now she swears that the day of, she reminded my father to get his colon checked. My dad does get a colonoscopy and he’s diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, it’s caught early. Months later, my father is short one foot of intestine and fine, and my mom is telling everyone about the proven power of the evil eye. About a year later, I’m still wearing my bracelet, and I visit my local gastroenterologist. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the crappy (heh heh) details that sent me there. The doc recommends a colonoscopy. He tells me it’s out of an abundance of caution as I see him faxing my insurance company a form labeling me “high risk.” I tell myself that the prep will be just like a cleanse without swallowing two liters of cold-pressed kale. It’s nothing like that. It’s more like the time I had swine flu and was nearly hospitalized for dehydration. The colonoscopy is much better than the “prep” because there’s an anesthesiologist. When I wake up, I’m still wearing my evil eye bracelet and I see that my doctor is wearing this tight expression, like he’s just seen a crow fly onto my hospital bed. He shows me pictures of an angry tubular thing that he’s gouged out of my colon. I should be concerned about this. But, everything’s still Irie from the laughing gas, so I’m more impressed that my colon is utterly empty of any embarrassing debris. A week later, the doctor tells me that I had a precancerous adenoma—very rare, apparently, for a thirty-three year-old woman. Left unchecked, I would have likely died a decade before my regularly scheduled colonoscopy at 50. He also says there’s a high likelihood I have something called Lynch Syndrome. I need genetic testing. As soon as I get off the phone with the doctor, I do what everyone does now-a-days. I seek a second opinion from Google. And it’s not good. Here are some statistics, in context: People with Lynch have an 80% risk of developing colon cancer before age 50, as opposed to a 5% risk in the general population. Women have a 60% risk of getting endometrial cancer before 50. It also hikes the cancer risk for your breast, stomach, lymph nodes, ovaries and brain. Lynch patients have a little less than a 50% shot of seeing their 50th birthday. And my kids are three and four. I’m not good at math but I know I need to pass fifty to see their college graduation. So, my doctor called me last week with the results. And, strangest thing, as he’s talking the string holding all those glass evil eyes tight to my wrist just breaks. And the beads fall to the ground, plopping like unwanted change in a water fountain. And he says, you don’t have lynch. I went on Amazon and bought up all ‘dem beads. And I apologized to my mother. I still don’t know about bad omens, but I’m betting on good ones.