Monday, February 13, 2023

This Side of a Terminal Diagnosis

 When I turned 26, the modeling agency told me I was too old to model. “We kept you a year longer than normal. No one wants someone over the age of 25–not unless they’re a big name.”

I hadn’t liked modeling solely for the shoots. Some of them felt trashy, especially the one calendar project where executives dressed me and eleven other girls to look muddy in a swamp that held about a million mosquitos. They’d do up your hair and makeup, then put you in clothes you’d never wear in real life. And sometimes upper management would try hitting on you….

Still, when the agency ended my contract, it stung. I had enjoyed going out for music gigs. Sometimes the agency would call and send me to music auditions: singing, fiddling, or playing the piano. I’d get to fiddle with various bands at different venues. Sometimes companies needed a model who actually knew how to play a certain instrument for photos or even films. And that felt…nice, thinking I had a sought-after skill and someone thought I was pretty. Plus, minimum wage for music gigs started at $94 an hour—a small fortune to me at the time.

But it does a number on your self esteem when someone says you’re “too old” at 26. (I did land two more jobs after this, at 29 and 30, but that was the end of it. Ha!)

Anyway, I thought about all of that this weekend when I went swimming with Indy. Everyone else in our family had plans, so Indy and I headed to Lava Hot Springs to the mineral pools that many claim have healing powers. 

Sometimes I can walk quite straight, without a hunch in my back, but when I get tired, something pulls my back tighter and tighter until I look haggard and old. Unfortunately, that’s what happened as we stood in the changing rooms and prepared to go into the hot pools. As I waited for Indy to get ready, I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I have a 9-inch scar on my back, a disfigured thumb, several scars on my stomach, a 5-inch scar on my hip, a 5-inch scar on my arm, and severe muscle atrophy in my right leg. I scoffed. If the modeling agency could see me now.

“You okay?” Indy asked. I hadn’t realized she’d come out already. 

“Yeah. I’m good,” I said. I did not want her to know the internal struggle I faced, just going out to the pools. I felt so ridiculously weak-minded.

So, we walked out, and I saw a few people eying the scars on my body. “Mama, what’s wrong with her?” a little girl asked.

“Trinity! I’ve told you. It’s not nice to point at strangers.”

Indy and I walked away from “Trinity” and her vigilant mother and found a spot in a hot pool near the end, one that boasted a lower temperature than the other pools, about 102 degrees F. 

Indy laughed and smiled, having no idea how bad I’d felt about people’s prying eyes and Trinity’s words. And I wished I could stay submerged in the concealing water forever—or at least until everyone else left. 

“Ready to go?” Indy finally asked a while later. But I felt terrified. I couldn’t stand limping back into that changing room and feeling like some defective version of my former self.

“Five more minutes?” I asked and right after I said it, an older gentleman headed toward our part of the pool. He seemed malnourished and exhausted. He dragged an oxygen machine behind him and barely made it—with the help of a woman—down a step and just a foot away from me.

“No one else who’s sick comes here!” he mumbled, looking around. “I’m mortified, Cindy! Everyone’s staring at me. I’m the only one who’s sick here!”

“You ready to go now?” Indy whispered, and I nodded. I couldn’t wait to stand up. I just hoped the man would see my scars, atrophied leg, and how I walk … and that he’d feel somehow better—like he wasn’t alone.

I stood then, and when I looked back, I noticed so many eyes falling across my back and leg. But I didn’t care about them; I just cared about the man with the oxygen tank. I smiled at him, and he gave me the saddest, most understanding nod. Then Indy held my hand, and I lumbered toward the changing room, feeling a strange sort of peace.

“Mama. Mama! It’s that patchwork lady again,” Trinity said as we walked near her.

Her mother paled, appearing horrified. “I am…so sorry,” she said to me instead of addressing Trinity first.

“It’s all right,” I said. Then I turned to Trinity and her mother and what felt like dozens of bystanders in that pool. I stood up as straight as I could and uncrossed my arms that had been over my stomach—so they could get the full view. “I have melanoma,” I said, a bit shakily at first. “This is what happens when you get burned in the sun, use tanning beds, don’t use sun screen…and don’t see your dermatologist!”

You could tell everyone thought hard about my words; one man even glanced down at a mole on his arm.

“Doctors originally only gave me two years to live, and now I’ve lived longer than they expected. But it’s been a battle.”

When Indy and I returned to the dressing room, I saw myself in a different light. It doesn’t matter that I’m not society’s kind of beautiful any more, that I have more scars than a Viking, or that one of my legs looks like skin and bone. I’ve grown as a person, and if even one life is saved by the speech I gave at the hot pools, then something wonderful happened that is far more important than looking pretty in the pages of a inconsequential magazine.

So, this is what life looks like on the other side of a terminal diagnosis. It sure has a lot more depth and meaning. I think I’d pick the knowledge I’ve gained over youth and beauty—that’s a pretty neat realization. 

P.S. (1) This motorcycle picture was not a modeling picture, but it was taken to get my last gig when I was 30. (2) This second picture is a partial shot of my back scar (I didn’t show the whole thing because I’m not THAT brave 😅). (3) Lastly, snow lined the ground everywhere in Lava Hot Spring. People even go there for the Fire and Ice festival in the winter—we aren’t the only ones who love going there when it’s cold, and I think it’s one of America’s best kept secrets! The rest of these pictures are from my weekend with Indy; we had so much fun.


  1. Your beauty continues with Indy, what a gorgeous photo of her. And your own inner beauty will always be more important than how you look as you walk by strangers. BTW, you always look beautiful in the present day photos you post here. I'm more than twice as old as you and it's taken me a lifetime to gain the insights you share with us here.