The Mark of the Beast

brees I have a birthmark. To be clear, I am not talking about a smooth, crescent-shaped, sexy smudge – like the one that graces the high, chiseled cheekbone of New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees. Nor am I referring to a slightly discolored smattering – like the swarthy, come-hither swirl around the bulging pectoral muscle of Italian born actor Antonio Sabato Jr. No, I am talking about a good, old-fashioned, cover that sucker up, ugly-ass birthmark. (Not on my ass, btw.)antonio-sabato-jr-5

Please forgive me. I realize that I just shamelessly homo-eroticized the above two examples of hunky celebrity birthmarks. #hunkmarks. I freely confess a weakness for hot Italians and talented quarterbacks. In fairness to Brees and Sabato Jr, however, I don’t want my lascivious proclivities to negate the potential seriousness of the subject matter. For example, I know that Drew Brees has talked openly on a number of occasions about the bullying that he endured as a child because of the very visible mark on his face. Comparatively, I suppose, in that sense I was very fortunate. As a kid, the covert placement of my birthmark – under the hair on the top of my head – meant that it was mostly hidden from the cruel gaze of mean-spirited playground tyrants.

Before I continue, I should further clarify the exact nature of my birthmark. I do so because its particular type has critical bearing on why the topic comes up at this point in my narrative – specifically at the time when the mamas and I are about to go in for our five-month ultrasound.

Earlier, I referred to my birthmark as ugly. How ugly? So, imagine if one of those big orange and brownish water bugs crawled up into your hair and someone smashed it with a shoe. And that mess just stayed there. Yeah. Forever. Like that. And, as it went in my home, I never remember any explanation from my parents beyond, “It’s just a birthmark.” In fact, not until much later in life did I actually take the time to research the little bugger more closely myself.

My relatively uncommon type of birthmark is called a sebaceous naevus. According to DermNet NZ (apparently the go to website for curious people who might want to know what died on their head) “Present at birth, it is most often found on the scalp, but sebaceous naevi may also arise on the face, neck or forehead. It consists of overgrown epidermis (upper layers of the skin), sebaceous glands, hair follicles, apocrine glands and connective tissue. It is a type of epidermal naevus and is classified as a benign hair follicle tumor. A sebaceous naevus is also called an organoid naevus because it may include components of the entire skin.”

The enlightening online article goes on to describe the manifestation’s appearance; “In an infant or young child, sebaceous naevus presents as a solitary, smooth, yellow-orange hairless patch, often oval or linear in shape. Sebaceous naevi become more pronounced around adolescence, often appearing bumpy, warty or scaly.” Not quite as vivid as my crushed bug analogy, but just as accurate. My birthmark exhibits all of that furrowed loveliness – in tones of red, pink, and burnt umber – and is spread over some cranial real estate about the size of a quarter.

“Sebaceous naevi are thought to be due to a mosaic genetic abnormality, i.e. a line of cells with a genetic error.” In addition, because a small percentage of these types of lesions can develop cancerous tumors, the website suggests that a sebaceous naevus should be monitored by a dermatologist. Good to know.

JRL_HeadshotOK, now back to what really matters – aesthetics. As I say, fortunately for me, for the greater part of my growing up years, the gnarled insect carcass on my scalp stayed mostly invisible under my thick mop of feathered locks. And like all of the things I didn’t like about myself back then, I did everything I could to be sure that it was kept hidden. Oh sure, every now and then, if I brushed my hair the wrong way, or coyly cocked my head just so, the scary little roach would make a surprise appearance.

“Oh my God, dude, your head is bleeding,” I once heard from a guy who was unlucky enough to be seated behind me in class.

“No, that’s just a birthmark,” I assured him.

“Oh,” he said. “Gross.”

As a young man, I got in the habit of checking my hair regularly with a sweep of my hand to be sure that the rough-edged, oddly-colored, scary-looking bald patch was concealed. Sitting in a theatre, standing in line, riding a crowded downward escalator, these were just a few of the places where I’d become highly mindful of who might be staring at the back of my head. I learned eventually that it was best to forewarn hairdressers or potential lovers, rather than allow them to make the gruesome discovery on their own. As an adult, I’ve long since established a calm and resigned peace with my rutted birthmark; even to the point where simply the awareness of its existence is rarely on my mind. Ironic, I suppose, considering that it is actually forever stuck – quite literally – on my mind.

So, now, flash to May of 2011. The mamas and I are at an ultrasound appointment looking at some grainy, black and white pictures of our beautiful boy. All looks great. And then the technician prints out and hands the mamas a 3D, color image of our developing baby. Some cooing and “oohs and ahhs,” and then the mamas pass the image to me.

Orange-Hud_03I looked. Immediately, my stomach did that light kind of flip thing that happens when you feel yourself begin to fall from the peak of a very high roller coaster. My heart raced. It was a close-up photograph of my son’s face, and it looked as if his entire head had been dipped in molten steel. He was bright orange and from the neck up he looked like one, huge, horrifying sebaceous naevus. In a panic-stricken flash it occurred to me that somehow the years of highly potent and chemically complex cocktails that I had been taking – to manage my HIV – had somehow altered and intensified the genetic error that had caused my birthmark. Oh. My. God. What have I done, I thought? My son’s little noggin looks like a gnarled Halloween pumpkin. In that split second I was sure that I had – with the help of a myriad of drug companies – unwittingly created some type of heretofore unseen, hybrid, humanoid creature. We would soon be giving birth to Sebaceous Boy!

I remembered the conversation with my doctor regarding the possible effects that years of drug therapy might have on my genetic heredity. His summation then was that he didn’t think that there was any real danger; however he clarified that his opinion was wholly anecdotal. There just hadn’t been any studies done on long-term HIV survivors and reproduction. I thought about the very first reproductive clinic that we tried, where White Coat and the Dark Angel had such a low opinion of my test results. Frankensperm! Yes, part of me knew that the mamas and I were in many ways flying blind in this area. Were. Until now, that is, because now I seemed to be holding in my hands the frightening, three-dimensional, concrete, photographic proof of some futile, immunodeficiency-laced, fertility experiment gone horribly wrong.

I was was being quickly sucked into a silent, scary, guilt-laden, shame cycle, when I heard a voice from somewhere in the room – asking me what I thought about the image in my hand.

“It’s…orange,” I said.

It was quickly explained to me that the odd coloration was merely a result of the 3D imaging. Slowly I felt my anxiety begin to subside.

For the time being my seemingly irrational fears had been alleviated. And although I knew in the immediate aftermath of that ultrasound shocker that my flash of terror had been a little Rosemary’s Baby ridiculous, still I was left wondering. As my doctor had warned, I was venturing into mostly unfamiliar territory and there was much that remained unknown. I knew that there was only one way to assuage my fears completely. I would need to hold him in my arms. I would need to see him – whole, and sound, and healthy. And yes, not orange.

That precious gift of reassurance, however, was still a few months off. And for the time being, all I could do was wait.

In Drew Brees’ autobiography, Coming Back Stronger, the Saints quarterback speaks about his very visible imperfection. “Instead of seeing it as a bad thing, I chose to see it as something that made me unique and special. It set me apart from everyone else.” A very wise analysis indeed. Brees also shares that his parents had a very nice explanation for the birthmark on his cheek. They told their young boy that it was where he had been kissed by an angel. I have to say I like that. I do. I think if my son ever has an occasion to inquire about the weird abrasion on the top of my head, I will say something similar. Kind of.

“That, my boy,” I will say, “is where your daddy was bit by the devil.”