What Do You See?
By: Emily Burke, JD ’18, Wake Forest University
The cold surface pricked my fingers as I stretched my palms flat against the motorized table beneath me. The coolness sent a chill up my spine, stretching up from the very tips of my toes. It was when the chill spread a dull numbness in my ears that I realized how naked, how vulnerable, and how exposed I was.
I was wearing a hospital gown, laying inside a tunnel beneath a thin, white bedsheet. Away from his gaze. And yet, just as I felt the narrow x-ray beams dance across the sheet, I felt his eyes on me. As the beams skipped across my skin, my heart began to race. I closed my eyes. My brow furrowed as my fingertips pushed into the table. I was trying to escape the whiteness, the brightness of the tunnel. Just as I lifted my fingers, the blood rushed and pulsed its way back into my fingertips. I swallowed and realized my jaw was clenched. I knew I couldn’t move my hands, or any part of my body, for that matter. I desperately wanted to massage my jaw, my furrowed brow, my pulsing fingers. Instead, all I could do was lay there. Silently.
I opened my eyes. The tunnel was white. A very bright, porcelain-like white. Unblemished and chilling. The amount of bodies this tunnel has probably seen; the number of eyes that must have stared into its whiteness. Were the women who came before me as naked? Were they as sick? Were they as frightened? The whiteness did not counsel me or provide any sort of solace in response to my questions. It just stared back at me. The whiteness was unapologetically suffocating.
Angelically, she untucked my corners, letting me relax and fall onto her shoulders. My grip around her forehead and her chin loosened. I rested, loosely stretching in all directions.
She had already changed into her hospital gown – gingerly shedding every other piece of clothing – hiding from the gazes of the people frozen in the frames decorating the walls. Pictures of women – survivors – covered the white walls of the exam room. Their smiles were so sincere. She stared back at them and hesitantly, her hands found me, gently tugging, finally allowing me to slip off her head. The florescent beams found the top of her head. The whiteness of the light caressed her dark hair – enjoying an untouched and flawless canvas. Exploring and flooding a terrain that is normally cloaked and secret. The whiteness was not aware of this novelty – this privilege.
She had again asked him whether she could wear me during her scan. And again, he hesitated before saying no. His pause lingering just long enough for her to dream up a sliver of hope. His hesitation was laced with awkwardness – perhaps, wonder. And as it lingered, the separation between them grew. The “no” came across his lips without a hint of empathy. So instead, she now stared at the white faces decorating the walls of the exam room and as she blankly stared at the bodies before her, she folded me and placed me onto a chair. Her hand hovered above me before it reached for the door. She looked back – not at the women on the wall, but at me. As if she was holding my gaze, seeking refuge and comfort before leaving me behind.
This morning I began reviewing the next set of charts and scans. At this point, I’ve started to group all my stage 3 patients into the same category. Their tumors all somewhat resembled one another; morphing into faceless, bodiless blobs. Their treatments were all very similar. All very doable. All very routine.
She was my fifth patient of the morning and as I glanced at her file, I could tell that the caffeine surge from my second cup of coffee was quickly wearing off. I glanced at the scans, then at my watch. I shuffled around two residents in a heated discussion over God knows what. I glanced again at the first scan long enough to casually look at the margins of the lump they had found in her breast. I began to flip through three months of scans illustrating the progression of her tumor.
Three months. Her tumor had grown rather quickly. I flipped back to the original scan to study it, briefly. Still, I thought, routine enough to group this tumor – this patient – alongside the others.
I looked up for a moment to double-check the room number and glanced at the clock perched at the end of the hallway. My eyes again found her chart and I opened the door.
The white walls had a unique way of reflecting the fluorescent light. The tubes of light hummed above as the bright whiteness stretched into every crevice of the sterilized exam room. She tucked my corners into the neckline of her hospital gown and as she did, her hand moved from inside her gown to resting across her collar bone. Holding onto me a little longer, a little tighter than normal. My twisted pattern of colors held back, protected, and guarded, her endlessly long flocks of hair.
The door to the exam room flung open as the fluorescent light escaped and whooshed into the hallway as if it were devouring any hint of darkness it came across. His head was down, and his glasses were perched on the tip of his nose as he flung the folded stack of white papers to lay flat against his clip board. Before lifting his gaze, his hand thrust forward introducing himself as his white lab coat brushed against her right leg. She shivered at his whiteness lurching forward. Her pride clinging to me. Her grip tightening as she shrunk into her hospital gown – attempting to escape the man standing in front of her.
His eyes finally found me and as they did, his expression hardened. It was as if the second his eyes found me, his routine was shattered. His body stiffened and it was then I could tell he was just as uncomfortable as she was. His eyes pierced my pattern, exploring it, looking for a reason, wondering where her husband was, wondering what he was supposed to do next. His outstretched hand simply lingered as the white florescent light danced across it – projecting a shadow that stood between them. Creating this divide on the cold floor beneath them. He broke the silence and quietly, almost nervously muttered, “you know, you’ll have to take that off for the CAT scan.”
She smiled shyly, the corners of her mouth stretching only as far as her parsed lips would allow. She avoided my gaze. Her hospital gown swallowed her thin, frail frame. Although she stood a mere foot away, she appeared to be somewhere entirely different. She sunk backwards and sharply avoided my accidental stare.
Just as I caught myself staring, I realized that my hand was floating between us. Awkwardly, I pulled it back towards me and pretended to search for a pen in my pocket. I immediately felt like I had done something wrong. Truthfully, I was caught off guard – I was unsure how to approach the situation. Instantly I thought this patient was going to be different – very different. I felt this pit of nervousness grow in my stomach.
It was then that I felt myself staring again. It wasn’t that I was purposefully staring at her or her headscarf, I was more so evaluating the situation – attempting to craft a solution. However, before I could rationalize my way through the lingering awkwardness, I blurted, “you know, you’ll have to take that off for the CAT scan.” The moment the words left my lips, the pit of nervousness that had settled into the bottom of my stomach quickly morphed into a pit of guilt.
I think back to the waiting room. Trying to escape the humming of the machine. A woman, who had appeared younger than me, bounced a small child on the ends of her knees. I watched as her knees bounced the toddler – she would lopsidedly raise one knee and then the other – pushing off the ground with her big toe to initiate each pulse. The child smiled. Smiled at me. The mother followed her toddler’s stare. Her eyes found mine. They searched me. I told myself to be patient, to hold her gaze – just long enough for her to feel as though she should offer a courtesy smile. She did. A toothless, nervous, parsed smile. And so, I took this as a kindness. A rarity, I thought. With softness and slowness, I could tell she did too.
As I lay here, I feel a similar coolness. I wonder if her hesitation came from another place. Is she sick too? Is she waiting for her second CAT scan? Her third? And then reality sets in just as the blood begins to pulse back into my fingertips and I come to terms with the fact that her hesitation is not new, although I wish it were. Rather, it is a recognizable discomfort. A discomfort birthed from anything but reason – often birthed from difference. She must think how different her life must be from my own.
When they see me, I know where their minds go. I know why their feet shuffle a bit faster – why their hands reach for the instant distraction buried in their pocket, brought to life with the push of a button – instantly allowing them to be in a world far away from the woman in front of them. They think it’s only natural to react the way they do. And I think, it is only natural. I see their blatant hesitation, their misunderstanding, their vain curiosity. The media calls on our country to unify: that seems to be the popular, politically correct sendoff with each nightly broadcast. Each segment attempting to leave the world on an uplifting and inspiring note. Paradoxically, it is this same media that distorts, spins, and echoes stories of hatred as it typecasts my people, my religion, and me – further perpetuating the hatred and misunderstanding. Further instilling fear.
And quickly, their fear sprouts like a weed. Its roots diving deeper into the ground. Into the foundation we all share. The roots push aside dirt as they crawl further beneath us. Separating, dividing, devouring, until there is no room below. And they think, “you can’t blame us for those things.” But I am simply a scribe. I describe things so that I am sure they happened. Much like the interaction with the woman and the toddler in the waiting room…
The whiteness of the tunnel is still staring back at me. Blankly.
Unresponsive to the restlessness stirring inside of my body, churning inside my mind. My body is wrapped in white noise beneath this thin white sheet – the air around me swarms with beams of light and my muddled thoughts. My unanswered questions warp together – wet with fear, birthed from nervousness colliding with my perspiration.
I wonder if the x-ray beams notice any differences in the bodies they skirt across. Surely my black and white scans resemble the scans of others. And then I remember that he is the one who makes sense of the scans – he is the one on the other end of the machine. Scrutinizing, staring, and beaming into my body. My differences. Does he choose to see beyond my flesh?
The beams of light continue to dance across the white sheet. And the roots seep deeper, they grow, and break the dirt between us. Creating two, severed islands. Again, I flatten my palms against the table. Exploring, reaching, hoping to find some sort of comfort. I find nothing. The machine hums and the whiteness appears brighter than it had at the beginning. As if it was illuminating the differences – the two islands – worlds apart. Broken apart. How quickly the world forgets its plea to unify.
The whispers tend to collide together and grow, often shouting in unison.
Terrorist, Jihad, Oppressed. These names your whispers have pinned to her – have pinned to me. Do not whisper your malice, for she is louder. Her eyes speak and her mouth is her own. She answers back and I stand, ready for the onslaught of whispers to come.
I tend to bear the brunt of their venomous prejudice. I shield her from their gazes. I double as her shield as I arm her from their stares. However, I am also her biggest vulnerability. They stare at her because of me. They chastise her because I am here.
I have been with her for what seems like a lifetime. Often, as she walks, their heads turn. Worried looks accompany hateful utterances and the wind drags them close to her ears. Their insults collapse into a cloud of hatred and misunderstanding, the very fibers that turn me from kaleidoscope to an impenetrable barrier. I am her shield. I absorb and defend against the insults thrown at her. I absorb their stares, and I stare back. Resolutely. All the while, her gaze stretches beyond her.
Without moving, I imagine pulling the thin white sheet over my face, over my hair. I close my eyes and imagine darkness takes over my entire body. Shielding it. I yearn for the darkness. The protection and comfort I find from the darkness provided by the backs of my eyelids lasts only moments. And then, I am again reminded of how naked, how vulnerable, and how exposed I am. I almost lift both of my hands from the motorized table. I think about reaching up and covering my hair with my hands, lacing my fingers together, creating a braid of flesh to act as my armor.
Instead, I accept my momentary paralysis as the beams of light continue to pierce my flesh. And as the white noise consumes me, I wordlessly succumb to its deftness, all the while longing for the refuge of my Hijab…
I made the decision to wear the Hijab when I was fifteen. I was sixteen when my guidance counselor pulled me aside and asked if my father forced me to wear it. My older sister was braiding my hair in her college dorm room when the towers fell. I was twenty-one. Everything changed.
Shortly after, I received my first death threat. It was then the world began to label me. To name me. They began calling me a terrorist. A towel-head. An extremist. I am now thirty-five years old, a mother of two, a wife, a daughter, a Muslim, and most recently, a breast cancer patient.
My Hijab has been a part of me for longer than most things in my life. It has grown with me and over the past twenty years I have grown into my veil, my armor. It is no longer separate; it is an extension of me. Here, without it, I am naked, vulnerable, and exposed. Motionlessly laying on a table, on display. His eyes pouring over me without interruption. They pierce me. They don’t know my story – they don’t even know my name.
I remember. Her hands wrung my fabric – they created this concentrated band of heat that was quenched by the tears pooling first in her eyes, traveling down her cheeks, and falling onto my woven fibers. Her sister sat behind her braiding her hair. The fan overhead circled and whisked the echoes of their laughter and happiness into the walls of the dorm room. When suddenly, her sister’s rhythmic weaving stopped. Their chatter vanished. Their laughter gone. The fan continued to churn, returning only bleak silence.
Their eyes watched the TV screen as thick greyness billowed from the city ground. Where these giant buildings once stood so tall – the sky had come down. Taking people, papers, innocence, and peace with it. It all fell. The towers reflecting sunlight against an unblemished clear blue sky were replaced with a smoldering cloud of black and grey dust. Fiery, black soot cloaked the city streets for miles.
Their eyes watched. Their eyes saw the soot – knowing that the blackness was not the smoky aftermath of an innocent fire. Rather, the soot was the scattered remains of everything the hatred tore down. The soot was lives ripped and taken – the soot was violent and evil. It was their world falling apart. It was ugly and their eyes watched as it covered everything. It seeped into every crevice, every corner, and it churned, working its way deeper into the bowels of the city and the minds of everyone watching, just as they were. Their silence was so loud.
I remember, for weeks and months after, her routine drastically changed. We stopped visiting her favorite coffee house on University Ave. We stopped taking the long way to her English class on the north side of campus. We began to pick the seat closest to the door, the seat facing the exit, the seat away from everyone else. She attempted to become invisible.
I remember. The more she tried to vanish, the more their eyes found her, they found me. She would stare at the ground, but I would stare back at them. She would witness their shadows sharply turn from her, but I would watch as their eyes focused on me. Their stares climbing towards us like vines – clawing and grasping for something to devour. The creases at the corners of their eyes crippling, straining, and personifying such crookedness and such hatred.
I remember. I witnessed their stares, their threats, their spit, and their hatred.
Before she lifted her head, I watched. Taking the dayshift, the nightshift – fiercely shielding and arming her for deliberately wandering eyes among a world that now saw her as an enemy.
I remember each day we spent hustling back to the solace of her dorm room. A place where she no longer felt the need to hide or arm herself against chauvinistic tongues and piercing stares. Where the fan overhead continued to circle, but now, instead of whisking her laughter into every crevice of the room, the pulses of the fan swirled, cloaking her room in horror, sadness, and fear.
As she lays motionlessly in the room opposite me, separated by walls, and windows, and machines, I think there is even more that distances us.
And yet, her heart pulses. Rhythmically. A familiar rhythm because it does not only belong to her, but many. Her blood travels – explores the walls of the veins it lives within. And this too, this is not new or uncommon. It is familiar. Her bones, her ligaments, her muscles, they come together and form a familiar frame. Even the most subtle combination of these black and white images projected onto the screen before me would create any number of human beings. Any number of women. She becomes familiar.
Quickly, I find the papers before me. My clipboard no longer clenches onto the charts and scans of the patients before her. I look down and continue to read. I’ve quickly thrown together every piece of literature I could find discussing how a physician should treat a Muslim patient – a female, a Muslim, a Hijab. I’m desperate to understand how to appropriately approach this patient and as I read, the pit of guilt returns.
My eyes pour over the literature and as they do, my guilt swarms in my gut. The guilt billows from my gut and reaches up between my rib cage. It stretches into the cavity of my chest until it settles around my heart. It feels heavy – creating an almost nauseous feeling that cripples my body and continues to weigh and tug on my heart.
I realize that I asked her to remove something so sacred. In fact, my presence, my very presence in the same room must have offended her. It was also my touch – my hand that shut the door behind me. Barricading her into a room of discomfort and panic. My words and actions were soaked in disrespect and arrogance. I cringe.
Paralyzed. I stare. I stare at the scans before me as I realize that the light illuminates these unifying commonalities – unveiled, illuminated, raw, they all share things deeper than re-fleshed bones. Surely these commonalities run with the blood that pulses through her veins. Surely, the same pace runs through so many others.
Here, without the re-fleshed canvas painted by a tainted brush drenched in stereotypes and borrowed misconceptions, she is raw and familiar, and simply human. In the black and white scans stereotypes lack any traction. There are no vulnerabilities in a broken or cracked canvas.
Here, the twisted, contorted, and malicious undertones have no cracks to seep into. There is no water to feed the cryptic, kudzu-like weeds spreading prejudice and fear. The stereotypes have nothing to burrow into and sprout. They lack traction in a body this pure.
Here, the vulnerabilities of a human canvas are peeled back. Beyond the flesh and the headscarf draped across it, underneath there is simply a human.
Finally. I walk into the exam room and my hands pour over the fabric of my headscarf as I fascine, tuck, and cloak myself in my Hijab. Instantly, I feel warm again. I feel myself flash my teeth to the faces on the white wall, I am returning their smiles.
With my Hijab, I have learned to look up to the world – I stand up to the world and the faces around me. I am no longer stilled or silenced by their deliberate stares. I am cognizant of the prejudice swirling around me. I am aware of their misplaced fear. But in response, I reflect a pillar of strength and modesty. I return their stares with an image of color and of hope.
For the courageously curious, my name is Amal. It means “hope” in Arabic. What you see is my Hijab. In Arabic, it means “a barrier” or “a divide.” In another fashion, Hijab means “barred,” “separated out,” or “screened off.” And while you hear the words and believe I am oppressed, tortured, and brainwashed – I hear these words, I hear the word Hijab, and I am reminded of my modesty, my pride, and my faith.
I rest my hand across my collarbone, holding my Hijab – reanimating my body as I climb back into my armor and my identity. I look up and catch a glimpse of my reflection – my Hijab, and I am hopeful you see it too.