Under The Covers

by Michelle Poirier Brown

First published online in The Sun, 1996

My father was cursed with a grim skin disease that infected his sweat glands one by one. The only treatment was to remove each gland surgically.

At first, the operations were performed in a rural hospital two and a half hours from home. My father would be away a week to ten days, and come home with a fresh scar on his face or neck, to a meal of steak and mushrooms — a rare treat. My parents hardly ever hugged or kissed, so a special meal was how my mother showed affection. Even today, the smell of mushrooms frying means to me a loved one is home.

My father seemed untroubled by his scars. He used to say they were good for business, because people never forgot his face. But in time the surgeries became more drastic. The major glands under his arms became infected, and he was referred to a plastic surgeon in Winnipeg, who deeply excavated the problem area and repaired the damage with skin grafts from my father’s thighs. The underarms were done one at a time, three months apart. After each, the affected arm was strapped to a bar above my father’s bed for six weeks, until the graft had taken. Later, physical therapy was required to rebuild the arm muscles that had withered from lack of use.

His case was a medical novelty. He made appearances at the med school where my sister studied. When she married a physician’s son, my father was the center of attention at the wedding. He thought nothing of stripping to the waist so the enormous scars under his arms could be poked and admired by doctors in tuxedos and chiffon.

Over the years, my father had additional surgery on his back and chest. Then, when I was in college, infection erupted in the sweat glands of his groin. I went to visit him a few days after his surgery. His lower body was covered by a cage to keep his blankets from touching him there. As I rested my hands on his bedrails, my mother offered to go get coffee.

“Wait,” he said to her in a soft voice. “I looked when they changed the dressings today; I’ll understand if you never want me again.”

My mother blinked back tears and pressed her lips together. “Never mind that,” she said, and left the room.