Nothing Has Changed
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.
17 replies on “Nothing Has Changed”
Everyone reading this weeps with you. Everyone reading this cares that the protagonist has breast cancer.
Brava, Gail, each column is better, more wrenching than the last.
Oh boy, you break my heart and build it back up again. This bit made my throat close up with recognition: “to be free of my rabid, insatiable desire for more.”
I hope neither of us is ever free from that desire (though I suppose it would be a relief)–but I think that desire is life, pure and simple.
Thank you for another inspiring column.
Gail, you write so beautifully about such sad things. I’m so drawn in by the analogies – I definitely care that the protagonist has breast cancer. Beautiful. No matter what the next column tells us, I can’t wait to read it!
Gail, I know I’ve told you before that your columns make me want to swear, long strings of potty-mouth words, because your writing is so RIGHT ON that I am inarticulate with admiration and just downright down in your story. I agree with Amy: “…each column is better, more wrenching than the last.” And the first column was fantastic. So there your are . . .
Your writing is remarkably enveloping by bringing your readers into the immediacy and intimacy of your very rich and intricately detailed emotional life. The level of precisely honed self-awareness and brutal honesty of your writing is extremely compelling. I’m fascinated by your powerful descriptions of exquisitely accurate feelings and perceptions that most of experience in only the most transitory of ways. Your writing definely needs to shared with a wider audience.
Your writing, well, it leaves me a bit speechless. Being a writer myself I’m used to being able to easily articulate my thoughts and feelings, but your writing touches me in such a profound way, on such a deep level, that I find it difficult to put into words.
I had to take a moment to compose myself before attempting to comment. Reading each post, but especially the last, gave me chills, brought tears to my eyes and ellicited an array of emotions I still can’t fully describe.
I care very much that you have breast cancer, Gail, and sharing your story through your writing is an incredible gift, to yourself, and to all of us who are blessed to be reading it.
My mother in law died of breast cancer. My sister has had a double mastectomy at age 39. I read your posts and realise that I had no idea what they went through. I feel very humbled by that.
Thank you for sharing your experience.
Your every post breaks my heart. The content is heartwrenching enough, but the beauty of the writing gives it an extra depth that makes the entire piece just resonate.
I quite simply wish you peace in your heart.
Another profound, heartbreaking, moving entry. Your writing captures emotional truth, humor and hope. A gift for all of us.
Yes, brave is the word. And bravo, for your honesty and letting us know in such wonderful detail, your innermost fears.
Gail, finishing up radiation this week, then ill be “on my own”-husband mentioned he missed our romance as i fall asleep yet again at 8 PM…after i romanced him all day with rest, food, daycare…and yet i give him every right to feel this..after his exhaustive constant support…so, as i so very much feel your aching hands from scrubbing up mindless mess…i will be deciding to stick with my aloe vera for my crusty skin or opt for the methyl and propylparaben laden lotion i have been prescribed by my doctor, no doubt pushed by the OrthoNeutrogena, OrthoMcNeil Pharmaceutical Company in LA Cali (Made in France) :-) Thanx for not being alone!
As I read this column, I almost felt like I was watching a movie. The richness and realness of your words had me visualizing every last detail and emotion. And your final paragraph hit me like a wall. As I read the last word, my eyes welled up and I bit my lip. Keep writing. You’re amazing.
Once again Gail compresses into a relatively few words the wide range of emotions that makes her writing so edgy, hilarious, gut-wrenching and true. I am reminded of Pascal’s observation that “we know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.” In Gail’s capable hands, both struggle for supremacy, both are accurate, and it’s a see-saw battle, the reader transported with Gail on the up-and-down of a life better lived, and more richly experienced, than the author wants to acknowledge–which makes her writing that much better. Gail manages to allow us into her interior without being self-conscious about it. She’s not looking at a mirror while she’s writing—she is doing it flat-out, sans seat belt, and there’s no ejector seat or parachute.
I’m speechless… Can’t wait for the next installment.
It’s Friday….my catch-up day! I wanted to share some of my reaction to your latest article….I think I loved this article even more than the others if that’s possible…..there’s something that moved this one beyond the realm of your breast cancer into the suppressed fears of every mother (scarring or leaving our children), the insecurities of every woman (about about bodies and our competence as wives and mothers) and the intimate talking of our minds. It’s probably because not every woman has had those experiences with the medical procedures that the earlier articles dealt more with — but many have had some sort of crisis that flattens us, and tempts those fears and insecurites to come storming out. However, your story has so many complexities because of the life and death race you were forced to enter and the dilemma of the breasts — with their nurturing, life-sustaining and sexual interplay — so crazy. And, your strong survivor instincts and your fight — it comes across. Your gift in writing about these normal life moments that take on such drama by extension is so powerful and engaging. So, you’ve taken your fight with cancer and broken it down so that it feels like we’re living it — amazing! It’s so strong and intimate — again, with the life-saving humor. I was so moved by your writing of the conversation with your husband, loved your best friend’s story, melt with the last paragraph about leaving Alex and the killer line that your agent didn’t really care if the protagonist had breast cancer or not just leapt out and kicked me.
Thank you for sharing these stories….keep writing!!!