I remember the morning my first Literary Mama column went live. I woke early and before I even put the water on for coffee, I grabbed my computer and logged on to the site, excited, until BARE-BREASTED MAMA popped out from the screen like a Times Square Broadway Show marquee, and as I read the column it felt as if I were stripping naked, beyond naked, peeling back too many layers, exposing the scars on my skin and my psyche. What had I been thinking?
A little more than a year ago, a few weeks after surgery, I kissed and waved my children off to school and thought I should go to my desk and either revise my novel or send out some queries or start a new novel, but instead I sat by the window and stared at the split rail fence and counted knots.
My body was knitting itself back together and I was thankful my cancer was caught early, was non-invasive, that the surgeon got clean margins, that I was regaining my energy, doing all the mother things I always did, but inside, I felt numb, paralyzed, utterly confused about who I was. I didn’t recognize the skin that covered the flesh that harbored my tainted cells. I didn’t know how to be me.
I felt as if the diagnosis revealed the mortal flaw I had managed to hide all these years. As if I had no right to be a part of the healthy world that I had crossed over from, to the unlucky side. I had no means, no memory of how to throw my head back and laugh, really laugh again. I thought about the future, the one I’d imagined with me launching my children and myself, my world widening after years of driving the carpool, living a life that revolved around other people’s lives. Waiting for my turn. And I saw myself at the mercy of the medical world, me and my medication with all its worrisome side effects, me and my fear of recurrence, of letting my children down, of burdening those around me, of forever being The Woman Who Had Breast Cancer and the pity it inspired. I’d lost my voice. I had nothing left to say.
So I stared out the window while the kids were at school and watched the late winter wind rattle the trees and picked up my pen and snapped it on and off and on and scribbled in my journal, my hand shaking as the words poured out about my mammogram and core biopsy and lumpectomy and sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day and worrying that at best I’d live a terrified existence from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment, in six-month increments, and at the worst I’d die and abandon my children when that was the one thing I had always been determined not to do, and I wept and curled into a fetal ball and fell asleep and dreamt about my old black lab and my old self and woke up startled that this cancer thing wasn’t just a nightmare.
Those words, culled from my journal, were what I was staring at that morning my first column went live, the words that made me blush and wonder what kind of crazed woman would lay bare her breast, her fears, her morbid obsessions, her regrets and her shortcomings, plaster a great big neon C on her chest for all the world to see . . .
But I got over it by the afternoon and sat down at my desk and wrote the next one and the one after that . . . and the thing is, the more I revealed, the more readers responded, and this in turn inspired me to dig deeper. Say more. Be more honest and open than I’d ever been, pulling me outside of myself and at the same time pushing me back into my life.
Ironically, now that I have so much to say, I must stop writing Bare-breasted Mama. The tremendous response to this column includes an offer from Da Capo Press to publish my memoir: a href=”http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/ 0738211621 /literarymama-20″> Cancer Is A Bitch: Reflections on Midlife, Mortality, Motherhood and Marriage . And while I am thrilled with that news, I never would have imagined that weeping into my journal would launch my writing career as The Woman Who Had Breast Cancer. But now instead of feeling pitiful about it, I feel lucky that somewhere in the meld between my call and your response I found my voice and my strength.
So I want to thank you. All of you: Marjorie Osterhout, my Literary Mama editor who took a chance on my raw, untamed words; my fellow Literary Mama columnists for their encouragement and support; my readers and my friends who made me feel braver than I am. All of you who cared enough to enter my world and who responded to my openness with your own. Sharing my words with you has healed me in so many ways, and for that I will always be profoundly grateful.