Because I weighed two pounds, three ounces, at birth, I spent my first six weeks in an incubator at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Hospital. Seventy-two years ago, neonatal care was not what it is today, and survival for preemies like me was touch and go. But my doctor thought I’d make it.
“She’s a fighter,” he said as he held me up in just one hand to show my family.
So began a challenging relationship with my body.
At age 2, I awoke crying, stood up in my crib, and saw another baby standing in a crib right next to mine, also crying. She was my fraternal twin. That earliest memory began an echoing of my twin that exists to this day. I can always see in my mind’s eye that other face, that other body as someone to separate from, yet merge with. Did her face register in the womb where twins are known to see each other and touch each other’s faces as early as 28 weeks?
Despite the myth that twins always grow to be the closest of friends, my own twin and I never bonded outside of the womb. When you lose a twin, regardless of how, it is common to feel a hole in your psyche. I have felt that absence my entire life.
In my thirties, I removed my long aquamarine chenille robe and presented my nude body to a room of artists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had decided to leave teaching, and this was a quick way to earn money. Dance movements and yoga postures came easily to me, as did holding a pose for 20 minutes at a time.
I did not feel I was exhibiting a body: I was expressing freedom. It was no different from looking deeply into any of the artists’ eyes or sharing a genuine smile. My nude body was no more an expression than my open face. Each contained life’s etchings, visible to any artist’s eye.
It was a hard-won confidence. A few years earlier, my free spirit humbled by not being able to rip off my bikini on a nude beach in San Francisco, I had vowed that someday I would feel the ease that enabled people to bare it all in public.
At 36 I had a hysterectomy, which left me childless. “Take out the baby carriage but leave in the play pen,” my mother said to console me. Yes, I had wanted to be able to have a child, but she was totally right about having an enhanced sex life without the worries of an unwanted pregnancy!
“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” James Joyce said in Dubliners.
By the time I was 50, I knew I was not like Mr. Duffy. I had done a lot of thinking about my body — incubator, cribs, nude modeling, baby carriage, playpen. I inhabited mine fully — its physical and emotional wounds, and its wonders. I took good care of it. While I couldn’t pass on any part of me genetically through childbirth, I knew that stories contained in my body would live on in my writing. (And I have a professional mission of helping others to get in touch with and tell their own stories through writing).
I wanted to find a way for some aspect of me to live on biologically, so at 50, I arranged for my organs to be donated after I died.
At 70 I realized that my organs may no longer be viable by the time I died. I knew I didn’t want to be buried. Why not donate my entire body for medical education! I signed up with The Humanity Gifts Registry, an organization, which receives donated bodies and distributes them to medical and dental schools to be used for educational purposes.
I knew I could let the registry determine where my body was most needed. But I wanted the choice to have personal significance. That meant choosing among the Center City Philadelphia hospitals that had been significant throughout my life.
Hahnemann Hospital gave me excellent care during a medical crisis in my thirties, and later hired me to work in their special school for exceptional children. The hospital of the University of Pennsylvania successfully treated me for cancer. They and Graduate Hospital enabled me to develop a second career in health care public relations.
It was Jefferson, though, that brought joy to my heart and a smile to my face when I decided that my body would go to them. It speaks to my poetic soul — the hospital that birthed me and saved my life with that first incubator home would allow me to go full circle by welcoming me in death.
Following her careers in teaching and in public relations, Joan Leof created a business, Write to Heal, to help others transform and empower themselves through journaling. Combining the raw material from years of her own journaling, she has publshed a memoir, “Fatal If Swallowed: Reclaiming Creativity and Hope Along the Uncharted Path.”