I’m picturing Carrie on Sex and the City cross-legged on her bed in sexy boy-cut undies and a cleavage-revealing push-up bra, her hair professionally disheveled, seductively sucking on a melting Popsicle, writing her column as I write my first column. She made column writing look like a must-have accessory, the quirky detail that set her apart from the other women. All the years I watched that show, I thought, I could do that, I should have done that. I lived in New York City. I had sex. I had girlfriends who called me frantic in the middle of the night complaining about their Mr. Bigs not being so big. I could write witty sentences verging on the annoying, I could work a Popsicle with the best of them. But as much as I see Carrie out of the corner of my eye as I type, I’m not Carrie. Not by a long shot. I’m married. I’m the mother of three. I live in Wisconsin. I don’t own boy-cut undies (although I might buy a pair now that I think about it) and instead of writing a column baring my relationship with men and shoes, I’m baring my relationship with breast cancer. Welcome to Bare-breasted Mama.
I’ll start in the middle. Winter 2006:
I’m sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day. Cancer is a bitch. It doesn’t give a shit about holidays. Doesn’t give a shit when the oncologist gently presses his thick hairy fingers near the wound above my nipple, tears well, burn the raw edges of my puffy eyes, dribble down my cheeks and roll past blood-caked stitches, landing in a puddle in the space between the oncologist’s cold wedding band and my warm flesh. “Still swollen,” he says and I hate him, hate that I’m swollen, hate that I’m here on Valentine’s Day instead of at Victoria’s Secret buying the cleavage-enhancing Miracle Bra that Redbook recommended for guaranteed flawless shape. I’ve never followed that or any magazine’s insipid “Sizzle for your Sweetie,” advice, but now I think, if I had, I would be slipping into a red dress, on my way to a romantic dinner, wouldn’t hear the oncologist saying, “even though the surgeon got clean margins, your risk of invasive cancer is four to five times greater than the average woman.” Wouldn’t be afraid to look at my flawed breast under the harsh fluorescent light.
It all began the morning of my annual mammogram a few weeks earlier. Over breakfast my nine-year-old son and I discussed the puppy he’d been begging for ever since the death of our dog that past Thanksgiving. Now that I’d finished my novel (about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life), I was ready to consider a new pet at the close of what had been a stressful, busy year. The dog dying, my husband’s slow-healing knee surgery, our oldest daughter’s college application process. A nearly straight A student with SAT scores comparable to my Ivy League radiologist husband’s, a singer and a dancer and a cross country runner, and she’d been rejected early decision by his alma matter. Our middle daughter — also in high school and panicked by her sister’s panic — had signed up for more clubs, SAT prep, and dance team, and our son was playing soccer and basketball, both on the opposite side of town. And if that wasn’t enough, all year I’d felt pressure from my agent to send her my second novel since the first hadn’t sold yet. But that morning, I dropped my son off at school, brought the newspaper with me to my mammogram, and as I waited in the cubicle for the technician to tell me to get dressed and go home, I circled healthy, lovable, mixed breed pups free to good home, and thought about how much more time I would have now that the college applications were in the mail and the novel was complete. I’d start back at yoga and cook more elaborate dinners and do something about the war in Iraq and global warming and match all the unmatched socks instead of stuffing them into that old bureau at the top of the stairs. . .when the technician peeked in and said, “We need to get a few more films.”
“Not to worry,” she said, as she whisked me down the hall smiling, blabbing on about her grandson or granddaughter or grandsomething. “Doctors’ wives make everybody nervous,” she said and rolled her eyes and gestured for me to slip my arm out of my gown.
After seven films and more cubicle waiting, I folded up the want ads, picked up a magazine featuring a young woman with lung cancer, put down the magazine, stood and counted to a hundred forwards and backwards. I’d had a couple of breast scares before, a core biopsy and a wide excision, both benign. I worried about my breasts, but still, I felt impatient with all this wasted time when I had more important things to do.
“Dr. Evans wants to talk to you,” the technician said. No smile as she led me into the viewing room.
I stood next to Henry, one of my husband’s partners (a friend of ours for years, I knew his wife, I knew his children, we’d shared numerous dinners), as he pointed to an illuminated x-ray of my breast, all swirly white clouds and dissipating smoke plumes, a thin red arrow marking a teeny tiny cluster of white specks. “See, that’s what I’m concerned about,” he said. “Those calcifications are new and just to be safe I think we should biopsy . . . ”
He choked and winced, looking so pained to have to tell me this news that I said, “This must be awkward for you.”
He nodded and said, “Okay?”
And I wondered, was he asking me my opinion? Was there a choice? Was this a trick question? Was there an answer that would make this go away?
He swallowed so loudly, I felt it in my throat.
“Okay,” I said, wanting to make him feel better.
Murmuring, okay okay okay okay, all the way down the hall, in the elevator, into the parking lot, where I stood, lost, unable to find my car, the ink from the crumpled newspaper bleeding into my hand.
I’m sprawled on the floor trying not to weep into my tangled hair as I write this first column. No Popsicle, no fancy shoes, no Mr. Big. Just me and my breast and my biopsy.