In the days between pre-op and surgery, I wake in the cold raw dawn, stand naked before the full length mirror, memorizing the contours I spent decades criticizing. Shower, shampoo, condition, blow-dry my hair section by section, button myself into a suit I bought in ’87 for a job I forgot to pursue, put on heels and more make-up than I know how to apply and tiptoe downstairs to make a nice big breakfast before anyone awakens because nothing has changed. I’m the mother. I’m dressed. I’m coiffed. I’m cooking. I remove a dozen eggs from the refrigerator, open the carton, study the smooth brown mounds tucked into cardboard nests and can’t remember what to do with eggs.
By the time the children come down, the air is gauzy with singed fumes from the entire loaf of bread I’ve toasted piece by piece, each one more burnt than the next, and I’m frantically hiding the crispy edges with sloppy globs of mixed berry jam.
“A suit?” Fifteen-year-old Maddy says.
“Why do you look like that?” Anna, my seventeen-year-old asks, eyeing me up and down, her gaze landing on my hair.
I am about to share my hour-long hair drying method, when out of the corner of my eye, I see jam clinging to my frazzled ends.
“This toast is sick,” nine-year-old Alex says, spitting out a mouthful into his hand. “This isn’t your toast, Mom.”
“Be nice to your mother,” my husband says, as he enters the kitchen, his bottom lip quivering every time he looks at me.
“No, no, no!” I scream. “Do not be nice to your mother. I will not tolerate — niceness — now!” My hand slamming into the carton of eggs, flipping them off the counter, the cracked shells and mucoussy innards pooling at my feet.
While the children are at school, I send my novel about the woman who finds a lump in her breast to my agent, telling myself, at least I have my finished novel. I don’t mention my health scare to her because she’s only twenty-five and I worry this news will make her think I’m too old, too risky to handle. I Google breast cancer obsessively, ductal carcinoma in situ, grades and staging, recurrence rates, hormone therapy. I learn that although DCIS is non-invasive it is often found next to invasive sites, that it can be a precursor to invasive cancer, and that some women with the combination of my history of biopsies and this diagnosis choose prophylactic mastectomy because it’s too stressful to live with the constant threat. I log on to mastectomy sites where breasts are displayed row after row, headless and bottomless, removed and rebuilt like used headlights from an auto body repair shop. I glance down at my still full chest puckering my suit lapels and think, I’ll go smaller and perkier, more like Anna, and give my good bras to Maddy, and burn the rest, and I’m feeling more hopeful, until I Google carcinogens and find so many toxins that I’m paranoid to eat (pesticides and PCPs and hormones), to breathe (automobile and industrial emissions), to watch TV, touch my computer or cell phone (spewing electromagnetic waves), to use my age-defying lotions, overnight miracle creams, my anti-frizz shampoo and conditioner, all riddled with parabens: methylparabens, polyparabens, ethylparabens. I curse the manufacturers for infusing their products with parabens, the farmers for spraying their crops, the automobile industry for polluting the air and water, and the government for promoting profit at the expense of public health.
I think about the poisons in my hair and run upstairs, strip off my suit, lean over the side of the tub, turn on the water full blast, the faux herbal blast of hair products stinging my nostrils, mutating more cells . . . when one of my best friends taps me on the shoulder, startling me.
“I let myself in,” she says, looking all sporty and fit. “You wanna run a half-marathon in New York City this summer?”
I’m thrown by her question. I’ve told her about the surgery but not how the concept of future baffles me. New York? Summer? Run? What do those words have to do with this me? “I’m thinking of getting rid of the time bombs,” I say and cup my breasts as I flip my sopping head up, foundation running off my face and staining the fluffy white rug.
She doesn’t say anything and I think about all the things I admire about her: She rides an old motorcycle to the grocery store; ski jumps with her daughters; changes her own oil and pushes me to run harder and longer and faster than I ever imagine I am capable of. She’s way cooler and more daring than I am, and up until this moment I didn’t think it mattered that much, but now I worry she won’t like this damaged me, and, honestly, I don’t blame her.
“Then we’ll throw a Goodbye Breasts party,” she says, wiping a clump of mascara from my cheek. “And if you lose your hair, I’m shaving my head in solidarity,” she says and hugs me and I’m ashamed and relieved that I underestimated the depth of our friendship.
I troll the streets, looking into the eyes of old people who don’t look particularly healthy, who don’t look as if they’ve worried about TOXINS and wonder what they did differently than me. Were they better people? Did they pray? I pray. I picture Mrs. Campbell, my old neighbor who died at 99, her warm, pie-shaped face, her sturdy gait, the way her face lit up at the crocuses, the strength of her grip on my forearm, her lovely worn accordion neck. I try her sweet expression on my face. I pray to be Mrs. Campbell. I pray to live long enough to see my children grown, to see my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, my great-great-great-grandchildren, to be free of my rabid, insatiable desire for more.
I ride the stationary bike and think, I am Lance Armstrong, I am strong. I am a fighter. When “I Will Survive,” comes on the radio, I belt out the chorus and burst into hysterical tears. Why do I have to fight? Why can’t I just be? And sob like a baby.
When Alex is in bed and the girls are in their rooms, I tell my husband I want to move to Utah and live off the land and he reminds me that I can’t even keep a small bed of impatiens alive.
“That’s not the right answer,” I say.
“What do you want me to say?” His voice so shaky I shudder at the thought of leaving him to grieve without me.
“That I’m going to be okay?” I say, offering him words to try on like the ill-fitting suit I left puddled in the bathroom.
“You’re going to be okay,” he says, lip quivering.
“Do you really think so?”
“I don’t know,” he says, his doubt dangling precariously in the taut, uncharted air between us.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” I say, knowing there is nothing he can say that will make me feel better, that I’m creating an impossible bind by asking him and hating myself but unable to control myself from torturing both of us.
I dream of the abyss, of me in the abyss, wake at 2 a.m., call my other best friend, the one who maintains the most direct line to God and ask her, “Is it dark? Cause I picture it dark.” She gulps and sighs, says she’ll ask the rabbi and get back to me. I try to surrender to sleep, am afraid to sleep, fixate on the one point of light from the neighbors’ laundry room and when that goes out, I stumble downstairs, log on to e-mail and find my agent’s reply: The problem I’m having with the novel is I just don’t really care whether the protagonist has breast cancer or not. I stare at the screen trying not to feel the words stab me, drag myself back upstairs, crawl under the comforter, press my damp face into my husband’s back, longing to absorb the measure of his breath and make it my own . . . wake up muttering, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” roll out of bed, peel my rumpled suit off the floor, pull it on and start all over again.
And with every ounce of good mothering common sense I can muster, I scrub non-existent gook off the kitchen sink with S.O.S pads until my arm cramps, my knuckles bleed, and my warped reflection glares back at me, because I’m the mother, I’m doing what needs to be done, nothing has changed, and when Alex says he’d like a bowling party for his birthday in April, I smile and nod, smile and nod, smileandnodsmileandnodsmileandnod, picture him with a bald mother, a breastless mother, without a mother, and fall to the floor and weep.