In June 1945, when I was 20 months old, my mother found a lump on my neck below my right ear. From ages 2 to 7, I had several operations to remove recurring tumors. The last operations were at Roswell Park Memorial Hospital.
The surgeries left me with scars on my neck and cheek and a black and blue mark under my chin. Although no one ever called me “scar face” or made fun of me, I knew those scars were there and they made me self-conscious and quite shy.
Because of my health, I didn’t take gym at School 65, or swimming and regular gym classes at Riverside High. My senior year I participated in gym classes which weren’t too strenuous. I wasn’t supposed to run, skip, jump rope, roller skate or play “tag.” I also wasn’t supposed to yell or strain my voice. As an outsider, who was shy and quiet, I found it difficult to communicate with others.
For the next 20 years, I was an outpatient at Roswell in Head and Neck Clinic A. My father took me to my childhood clinic appointments. While I, the only child there, waited for my turn to see the doctor, I read the books I brought with me from home.
I strongly believe my physical limitations, my shyness and my love of books and reading contributed to becoming a writer. My mother was a writer, although she never had any of her stories published. She sent her stories to women’s magazines. Later I did, too, because I wanted to be published and read.
The few responses I received were rejections. One kind editor suggested I write about what I knew. I didn’t do that then. Instead I wrote fairy tales and mysteries, since these were what I read.
In my senior honors English class at Riverside High School, we read “Miss Julie” by Swedish playwright, August Strindberg. Miss Julie is the daughter of a count. She has just broken up with her fiancée. Jean is her father’s valet. She flirts with him and they have sex, but then she regrets having sex with a servant. She goes off stage to kill herself.
Our class assignment was to write a newspaper account of the suicide. I did that. Then I also wrote a play in which the cook, a jealous woman, tells the police that Jean murdered Miss Julie. I expected my teacher to give the play back to me with comments. I didn’t expect what happened next.
“Andrea has done a clever thing,” she said.
She had me read my play to the class. As a blush crept from my neck over my face, as my hands trembled and my stomach churned, I read.
No one clapped. When one girl began to criticize the play, I feebly attempted to defend myself. I was afraid I might start to cry. But I did it. I had taken the chance of writing the play. I had gathered up my courage and, in spite of the terror I felt, had read it. And I had acknowledged to myself and to my classmates that I was a writer.
Since then I have written fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Some of my work has been published in church-related magazines, local newspapers, anthologies, and literary journals. Along the way I have received numerous rejection slips.
My illness has helped me deal with those rejections, to not give up.
The doctors and nurses, my parents and other family members did not give up on me during my childhood illness. That’s why I will not give up on myself.