I almost stole it: the tape measure with the purple finger prints.
After all, my surgeon had left it in my room by accident. After he had marked me with his purple pen and left my room on his way to get ready for my surgery, he left it sitting on the counter by the sink. In my nervousness and tranquilized haze I didn’t see it until after he’d left. I figured I shouldn’t hold onto it as I was wheeled in (“Who knows what germs lurk in tape measures!” I thought), and that if I gave it to a nurse it might get misplaced. So I shoved it in my bag of personal belongings knowing I’d be in for an office visit shortly after surgery.
I actually forgot about it during the days I was home after my two-day hospital stay. The drugs, the pain, the shock of my breasts gone and numb chest filled with temporary tissue expanders were all I could think about.
I forgot all about it as I was shuttled around for weeks unable to drive. I wasn’t living my normal life, my normal routine. I wasn’t carrying my purse and keys daily. I was living in pajamas and constantly trying to adjust to a new body once the drains were removed.
Then while I was looking for my keys a few weeks after my operation I saw it: the tape measure.
The yellow fabric one with the purple fingerprints up and down its sides.
The one that had measured and determined where my body was to be cut.
It was there in my bag.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about its practicality; it was just a tape measure.
Just like the ones I have sitting around with all of the odds and ends that inhabit kitchen drawers.
But that doesn’t capture the social meaning of it.
It wasn’t just any tape measure. It was mine.
But it wasn’t just mine, I argued with myself—it wasn’t a personal momento for me.
For a moment or two I wanted it.
I needed it,
as if to remind myself what had been,
of what I had been.
It wasn’t mine, I thought– it was his.
But more than that, it was theirs; it was ours… the other women who had needed it.
Now I was one of them. It was a shared history we had: strangers who had endured the same surgery, whose faces and names I would not know.
We were bound together by this object which had literally touched all of us.
And then I realized it was my responsibility to give it back.
Not for the obvious reason that it didn’t belong to me.
But as usual, I thought of the other women: the ones who didn’t even know they had cancer,
the ones who were going about their normal lives that day, and in the days ahead, only days or weeks or months from learning the life-altering news that would change their lives.
I felt giving back the tape measure would be my way of being bound to them, of saying “I know what you have ahead of you. I’ve come from there, and we are in it together.”
And so when I went to one of my office visits, I took it out of my bag and casually handed it to my surgeon. “You forgot this in my room when I had my surgery,” I said. He thanked me and said “I wondered where it had gone to.”
Little did he know the journey it had taken.