When I was 11, I had coke bottle glasses, braces on my teeth and hair that looked as if someone had placed a bowl over my head and then outlined its shape with scissors. If those affronts to my self-confidence weren’t bad enough, my mother insisted I wear heavy cotton shirtwaist dresses that hung midway between my knees and calves. By the time I got to school, the dreaded olive green dress was usually wet under the arms, and for the rest of the day, the edges were ringed with dried sweat and deodorant. While I looked like I’d been hit with an ugly stick, I secretly longed to look like Elizabeth Taylor. The same year she’d begun filming Cleopatra and she was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I was mesmerized. That was the summer I began my Cleopatra scrapbook.
Every move “La Liz” made, set magazine editors and paparazzi buzzing like overly ambitious mosquitoes. At the time, she made more headlines than the Cuban missile crisis. The press feasted in swarms over every detail of her life, loves and near death experiences, and every week movie star magazines like Photoplay, Screen Album and Modern Screen, along with Life and Look, featured Liz on the cover with more photos and articles inside. Carefully I cut out photos of Liz in her elaborate Cleopatra costumes, on the arms of famous men, basking on yachts and private beaches, then pasted them into an oversized book of wallpaper samples. Because the neighbor ladies gave me all of their magazines, I had duplicates that allowed me to use photos on both the front and back of any given page, and I used them all. Even then, I knew Elizabeth Taylor was more than just a physical beauty. She was a survivor.
As the years passed I’ve made mental notes about things other than her eight marriages to seven husbands, her fierce loyalty to friends, or pioneering a global campaign that raised awareness for AIDS. I’ve watched as she’s been transported on stretchers, airplanes and boats to more than 30 surgeries. She broke her back five times, had two hip replacements, survived a benign brain tumor, skin cancer, two life-threatening bouts of pneumonia, an emergency tracheotomy, osteoporosis, scoliosis, depression, addiction and a leaky valve in her heart. Ultimately, congestive heart failure was more than even Dame Elizabeth could conquer. To say she’s made an impression on me is an understatement.
When I was a young girl, Elizabeth Taylor showed me what it was like to weather storms, be they marriages or surgeries. She openly wore her tracheotomy scar in the middle of her throat as though it was another exalted jewel in her collection of legendary stones. Photographs of her in the magazines gave me a view into a world larger than the end of my street. Her story made me realize there were women, unlike my mother, who didn’t play the “poor pitiful me” card, but who kept charging at life again and again. In some ways, Elizabeth Taylor may have given me the courage, at 13, to become the mother, while my mother retreated further into mental illness and became the daughter.
As movie stars lose their luster, many of the world’s great beauties have deliberately faded from the limelight, but Elizabeth Taylor has never been afraid to let us see her bald, overweight, white haired, walking with a cane, or in a wheelchair. She showed us that surviving life’s storms is more important than the storms themselves. As breast cancer survivors, we know about storms, surgeries and scars, and the tolls they take on marriages and families. Like Elizabeth Taylor, we keep finding the strength to come back from the ravages of life’s adversities again and again.
For many of us, our surgeries have negatively impacted the way we view ourselves, which in turn, teaches others how to view us as well. I’ve always considered my chemo port scar as my badge of courage, the crown jewel of my scar collection. Even now, when I look at my naked self in the mirror, it’s not my 10 breast cancer surgeries or the scars I see, but the fact I’m still standing. Regardless of whether we have mastectomies and reconstruction, or C-sections and appendectomies, our bodies shift and change as we age. We are a work in progress, although sometimes I think the sculptor is a bit demented, but it’s not the outside that’s the work of art, but the person on the inside that’s the true beauty.
I love strong women like my friend June, who lost a child, has Parkinson’s and now uses a cane; my friend Joan who survived a plane crash; Ruth who lost her voice box to cancer and now speaks with the aid of an electronic device; Kathy who’s husband left her while she was battling breast cancer; Mary Jane and Sue have each lost a child, plus Mary Jane also lost a husband. My Internet friends, Chez and Alli are battling recurrence; Marie had breast cancer and has lost three unborn children; Jody is a breast cancer survivor and her husband has once again had surgery for melanoma, and Cindy’s husband died two days before James did. Part of what I liked about Elizabeth Taylor was her ability to persevere while living a life that was authentic. That’s what each of us, in our own way, is doing, so here’s to strong women, the men who love us, the children we raise and the bonds of friendship we forge. May we continue to empower one another and the world around us.
PS: When I left home after high school, my mother threw away all of my things before I had a chance to come back and get them. After all these years, the only thing I want is my Cleopatra scrapbook.