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Tami Mohamed Brown

The Shape of Things Unseen

In a clinical setting, every part of the body that is hidden away, invisible to the eye, can be compared to that which we can see.
The heart is the size of a fist.
The liver is the shape of a football.
“The bladder is the size of a grapefruit.”

My father revealed this fact to me upon learning he had bladder cancer, the blemished organ compared to a piece of fruit by his physician, associated with something known.

I’ve always had an aversion to grapefruit for their bitterness. In the grocery store that night, I find myself next to the display of grapefruit, piled high. I hold one up to where I believe my bladder would be. Approximately. It would take up a lot of space in there, I decide, and quickly replace it.

I don’t like to think too much about how the body works.

I’ve always been a hypochondriac, teased by my family and friends when my shortness of breath one day became a sure sign of asthma, the spasms down an arm the onset of a heart attack, the pain in my side an alarm to rush to the hospital to remove the appendix.
And while my late-night Emergency Room visits were nearly always unnecessary, upon leaving the hospital, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my being. I always felt great comfort in being diagnosed as healthy, relief in being reassured.

During college I once played the role of a nurse in a production of a play that dealt with the topic of AIDS. After weeks of emoting through a hospital-room scene on stage, I began to think—“Maybe I should be a nurse”. I already had the uniform, the stethoscope, the necessary props that would give me access to understanding the science of the body. And not only could I play compassion—I actually felt compassionate in my daily life, for the most part.

I was accepted into a nursing program where I enrolled in basic chemistry, in medical terminology, in human anatomy. And while the other students in my cohort scribbled frantic lecture notes, I sat in my desk, lightheaded, my breathing shallow, the pulse points at my wrist banging away so fast and furious I could see them. I could barely watch the demos on drawing blood, giving shots, or even taking a patient’s blood pressure without becoming ill. Ineffective. When rounds were assigned in an actual hospital, I left the program. My days as a nurse were quickly reduced to recollections that I had once played one, on stage.

While I reasoned that I was one of those people who just didn’t have the stomach for medicine, the reality of my decision went deeper.

I couldn’t bring myself to think of my life simplified to the functions of cells. I couldn’t stand the idea that a split-second pause of breath affected the lungs, the heart, the oxygen to the brain. It frightened me to consider the frailness just under the skin, the body’s delicate balance of veins and tissue and nerves. It terrified me that while I went about my business every day, making decisions and shaping my future, beneath the surface I had absolutely no control.

My dad believes you can control life. He lives by the words: “Get in there and play the game,” no matter what the situation. In other words, follow the given set of rules within a given set of circumstances and everything should come out all right. That’s how life works. My dad reassures me, reassures himself, that his cancer, the cancer of the bladder, can be controlled. He begins to describe the bladder not by size, but by compared functionality.

“The bladder is like a glass jar,” he repeats, over and over again. “The cancer has no way out, except through the urethra, and mine’s clean. Hey—if the cancer doesn’t head that way, I’m in the clear.”

In the clear glass jar of the bladder, his doctor reassures him, the cancer is usually containable. My father finds articles that confirm bladder cancer as the most treatable of cancers, the cancer whose patients hold not the highest odds of beating it, but the highest success rate in living with it. He lays out a plan of action, mapping out the direction in which he can try to control his contained cancer: diet modification, an exercise regimen, a treatment program, all supplied by an expert. He finds quotes and statistics in books, on websites. He makes up three-ring binders filled with information, writes notes in dry-erase marker on the whiteboard that hangs in his study, his cancer spilling onto post-it notes that he carries in his wallet, on the dashboard of his car, in his cubicle at work.
His sense of control levels my shock, and I, too, begin to believe that the body can be controlled, that it allows for choices and options as simple as choosing the route to drive to work, of declining the offer of a second cup of coffee, of opting for a walk instead of an evening in front of the TV.

“The kidney is the size of a thumb.”

My dad called me at work with this information upon learning that his cancer had traveled due northeast, to the region of the kidney.

“But just one kidney,” my dad assures me. “Just one direction. Lots of people live normally with just one kidney, but they say only seven percent of bladder cancer travels outside the bladder this way. Who knew I’d be in the unlucky seven?” finishes my dad. “I’ve done everything right.”

“You have, Dad,” I tell him. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry…?” he laughs. “Hell—tell me about it; I’m gonna need to get a whole new game plan.”

In a clinical setting, every part of the body that is hidden away can be compared to that which we can see.

The kidney is the size of a thumb.

The bladder is the size of a grapefruit.

My heart is the size of a fist, small and tight and beating hard and fast. But there is nothing against which I can measure the remarkable size or shape of what lies inside, those things outside the clinical realm, hidden away, invisible to the eye.


Tami Mohamed Brown holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. She is the recipient of a 2011-12 Loft Mentor Series Award and a Blacklock Nature Sanctuary Emerging Artist Fellowship. Her recent writing has appeared in Mizna, Sweet, Literary Mama, and in the anthology, Open to Interpretation:  Intimate Landscape. She lives in Bloomington with her Egyptian husband and teenage daughter, and finds inspiration on her daily bus commute to her 9-5 office job in downtown Minneapolis. She writes about all of these things.