I was watching Oprah, waiting for the results from my core biopsy and the final From Frumpy to Fabulous unveiling of the housewife from Kalamazoo after the commercial break, when cancer barged into my family room saying Sorry sorry sorry sorry you have ductal carcinoma in situ.
“Are you sure are you sure are you sure are you sure?” I blabbered as if that string of words said emphatically enough would overpower the other words. But words were not words. Words were fish and the air a murky cesspool spewing lies. Damn lies!
Like sorry? Cancer didn’t mean sorry. It meant, fuck you and your comfort, your complacency, your petty concerns, your smug belief that you deserve to be lucky, to live unscathed. Fuck you and your naïve delusion that you have any, any control over the fate of your body.
“It’s intermediate grade and we don’t know how much is in there,” my husband the doctor said in a voice too high, too loud, too soft, too strained, too stricken, too I’m going to be really nice to you now because I’m afraid you’re going to die.
How could I yearn for his impatient tone?
“The sooner we get it out the better,” he said, rubbing his hands on his pants so vigorously I thought he thought I thought he could rub it away.
I shook my head. “Alex has a basketball tournament and Maddy starts driver’s ed tomorrow and Anna has a term paper due and, and… we’re out of milk… and, and, and… ” I pointed to the TV, a commercial for Botox, the words, IT’S YOUR TURN NOW, illuminating the screen. “… and Oprah is over and now I’ve missed the housewife from Kalamazoo,” I said and burst into tears.
But cancer didn’t hear me, didn’t see me cry. It was busy moving in, crushing my sternum, throttling my throat, sucker-punching my gut, bullying me into submission.
How had I not appreciated my health all those years that I didn’t have a diagnosis following me everywhere like an annoying sibling, mimicking my every move, mirroring the parts of me that make me feel awkward, ashamed? My diagnosis, a brat, demanding center stage, forcing me to fill my calendar with appointment after appointment where I’m weighed and blood-pressured and poked and probed, felt up and down and warned about my risk. I want to be brave. I want to be big. I want to be gracious and cool. I want to be the Audrey Hepburn of cancer. I want to be like that girl who went to my high school, Heather Arnold. Tall and lithe and wide-eyed and she had leukemia and when her long diaphanous white blond hair fell out, she tied the most gorgeous silk scarves around her delicate head, sloped bell bottom pants off her jutting hips, wrapped her bony wrists in loose sheaves of silver bangles. She wore it well. She made cancer look sexy. As if the very fact that she wouldn’t be here forever made her mysterious and irresistible, more valuable than the rest of us.
But I’m not like Heather. For one thing, I’m not tall. Or bony. And cancer doesn’t feel sexy on me. It feels ugly, cankerous, mean and old. It reminds me I’ll never be twenty again, that time has moved more quickly and less kindly than I expected. And I’m not wearing it well. I can’t figure out how to hold my face anymore, what to do with these weary eyes afraid to stare back at me, this mouth that doesn’t know how to smile anymore when smiling feels so foreign, so strange, why do how do people how did I ever smile when all I can think is cancer cancer cancer cancer.
As I sit on the examining table in the internist’s office for my pre-op physical, I think about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, how it was praised for its lack of self-pity as I silently chant, poor me poor me poor me. It takes all of my energy to contain my tears. But I don’t know my internist very well, have seen her only twice in five years (two other breasts scares that turned out benign). Otherwise, I am almost never sick. No colds, no flus, no aches or pains. I run with my teenaged daughters, shoot hoops with my son, practice yoga, eat organic food. I am an armchair nutritionist, a person others consult for health and anti-aging tips, a life-long subscriber to Prevention. I feel that me slipping away as I wonder how I could suffer a condition more serious than my chain-smoking nitrate-loving fruit-phobic non-exercising mother-in-law ever experienced. Fuck you, Joan Didion. It wasn’t you who keeled over before dinner. Why me why me why me?
“I looked around my son’s kindergarten classroom of twenty-four,” the internist says, slicing into my less than stoic thoughts, pressing the cool stethoscope on my back, motioning for me to take a deep breath. “And I thought three of these mothers… ” Her sentence trails. She looks at me as if I’m supposed to finish her thought.
“Three?” I say.
“One in eight.” She shakes her head and works her finger up my neck to feel for lymph nodes. “Any of your friends?”
“No,” I say. She runs her fingers up and down my throat and oddly, I remember that when I read Emerson in graduate school — “I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear” — it reminded me of how I felt when I was a child and I played duck, duck, goose and I was tagged.
Before I dress, she presses a prescription for Valium into my hand, her eyes more apprehensive than I want them to be. I want her to take it all back, say it isn’t true, say, we were wrong, you are fine, no need for surgery, go home, eat a lot of red dye #2 and fritter away the rest of your ridiculously long life. Instead she says, “Don’t worry,” patting my wrist, tripping over the second syllable in “worry.” Making me worried that she can’t even say the word and I feel her pity metamorphosize me. I’m “It.” I’m goose. I’m giddy. I’m trapped. I’m trembling.
After I fill my prescription, the whole way home I hum the Rolling Stones song, “Things are different today, I hear every mother say. Mother needs something today to calm her down… She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper… ” rattling the pill bottle against my thigh like a tambourine.