The phone call heralding my old age came shortly before my 56th birthday. My husband Bob was out running errands with the kids when the surgeon called. She’d want to tell me about my biopsy report, but I already knew what she was going to say: Everything is all right. That lump they found on the mammogram — the one they biopsied with a thick needle thrust deep into my flesh, turning my breast three shades of bruised — that lump was nothing. I just knew it.
So I was not prepared for her actual words: “I’m afraid we’ve uncovered a malignancy.”
“Oh, no.” Was that the right response? Dr. Cortesi’s meaning was clear enough, but my mind struggled to shift gears from “perfectly well” to “fatally ill.” My hand, though, was already moving, printing “malignant” in neat block letters on the notepad we keep by the phone. Someone would need to know that information some day, I felt certain, but I didn’t trust myself to remember it.
I heard Bob’s key in the lock. Good, he could handle this. He’d find me in the kitchen and I’d hand him the phone, and he could do whatever he wanted about it. It wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I would walk right out of there and get busy with the kids. Our 22-year-old daughter Dara was upbeat and flexible. She pitched in with housework, even did a lot of the cooking for the four of us. But her cognitive skills did not extend beyond the painstaking memorization of math flashcards, which never applied to anything concrete — say, counting out change, or calculating the insulin dosage for her ungovernable diabetes. Tony, a year younger than his sister, had been born prematurely, with a complex neural disorder that left him with limited communication skills and social awareness, and a restricted range of interests — a fascination with plumbing, for one. He required constant supervision to keep him from dismantling the bathroom sink in an effort to unstop an imagined clog. My kids needed me. They would always need me. I didn’t have time to contend with surgeons purveying doom.
I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it. My knuckles were white from the fierceness of my grip. Sadness engulfed me as I realized I’d never be able to let go. I was going to have to deal with this myself after all.
In a moment Bob was beside me, reading disaster on my face. “What?” he mouthed.
“Cancer,” I mouthed back, marveling that my mind had worked its way around that concept.
Bob, though, didn’t get it. He scowled, baffled. I turned back to the notepad and wrote CANCER, all in caps.
“Cancer?” His voice was a pesky buzz. Instead of answering, I underlined the word with three perfectly parallel lines.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cortesi hammered on. I took in bits of what she was saying. “It’s already late in the afternoon, and tomorrow I won’t be in my office; I’ll be in surgery all day. But I don’t want to leave you hanging.”
Doesn’t want to leave me.
“So if you could be outside my office early, say 7:00 A.M., I’ll come myself and let you in. We can talk before I start my day.”
She’ll come herself.
“Will that work for you?” she asked into my muteness.
Work for me? Tomorrow morning? Will I sleep tonight? Will I ever sleep again?
“Yes,” I blurted. “Yes, thank you. That’s really generous.” I wanted to congratulate myself for the graciousness of my response, or just for responding at all.
“Seven o’clock, then” she said. I expected her to hang up, but the connection continued while I listened to every silent mile of the distance between us. Dr. Cortesi was young and competent; she was going to take care of me because I was not — I was ancient and dying. After a long moment she spoke again. “Is there anyone at home with you?”
Home with me.
“Yes,” I managed. “I’m fine. Really.” I’d never been one to lie before, so maybe I was telling her the truth. “Tomorrow. Seven o’clock.”
I managed to loosen my grip on the phone and hang up. Nothing was the same. Before that call, mortality had never been an issue. I would live forever, because I was a mother: I had children who still needed me and would never outgrow that need. But with that single conversation my life had skipped forward by decades to doddery old age, the very brink of that vast mystery of life’s end.
Tony and Dara are not our only kids, just our youngest two. There were seven others, already on their own, who had to be told. The thought of announcing it to them made my mouth go dry, and I resorted to email. Unkind, perhaps, but under the circumstances any approach was bound to be met with dismay. At least when they opened their email it would be at a time of their own choosing, not like a phone call that could catch them on their way out the door to an appointment, in the midst of dinner preparations, or wrangling a toddler into pajamas.
That was my justification, anyway. I typed “Not Such Good News” in the subject line, then spelled out the details as objectively as I could.
Tim, our oldest son, was the first to call, from Alaska where he lived with his wife, Terry, and their three kids. “But how are you really?” he said. “You sound like you’re doing okay with this.”
I was, I assured him. We all were. Dazed, but okay. There were treatment decisions to make, plans to finalize, enough to keep our minds away from the more harrowing contemplation of imminent death.
“Terry and I talked about this,” he said. “We’re both really sorry. But we want you to know if you need us, we’ll be there.” I considered their circumstances, and the offer took on heroic proportions. Tim was a high school industrial arts teacher, Terry the stay-at-home mom to three of our grandchildren. They were awaiting the homecoming of their fourth child, an adopted son, from his native Cambodia. I was supposed to be there to help them when their newest arrived, but it was plain that plan would have to be scuttled while we dealt with my marauding cancer cells.
“Thanks, Tim. We’ll keep it in mind,” I said. But of course I could never ask them to come.
There was a pause, then Tim plunged ahead. “Terry and I are agreed on this, Mom, and we want you to know it: this couldn’t have happened to a better person.”
Breast cancer? Had I heard him right?
“I hope you take my meaning,” he said into my startled silence. “A diagnosis like this would do in a lot of people. But you and Dad, you’ll do fine. We know you will. It’s better you than somebody else.”
And I laughed. I even agreed with him. I was a woman rich in resources, partner in a marriage that had survived 36 years of deliberate, no-holds-barred personal adventure, including taking on nine kids, most of them adopted at various ages and in various states of disrepair. We shared the on-going responsibility for our two youngest, who actually needed us — a luxury empty-nesters of our generation couldn’t claim.
Adam, an unmarried aircraft mechanic living in Indianapolis, found the news more difficult to digest. He was full of questions about the immediate future, which we’d only begun to sort out ourselves. And he was interested in the esoterica of medical detail, the exact wording of pathology reports and the correct spelling of “lobular” and “carcinoma.” When his questions petered out, I waited out an uneasy silence.
“Mom?” he finally ventured. “This ‘invasive lobular carcinoma,’ you know?”
“It’s not the dangerous kind, is it?”
I was more aware than ever that my reason for emailing instead of calling was to avoid this pain of confrontation. Stupid of me. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “But, yeah. It’s the dangerous kind.”
Shanna’s reaction was the most direct. “When’s the surgery?” she blurted without preamble. Without even a “hello” to soften the thrust.
“It hasn’t been scheduled yet.”
“Well, as soon as it is, let me know, because I’m coming.”
I couldn’t allow it. Shanna was a mom too, and her three kids were still young; both she and her husband held down full-time jobs. Besides, children don’t step in and take over your life until you’re old as granite, and I hadn’t yet accepted that I fit that description.
“It wasn’t an offer,” she said. “I’m coming. Let me know when.”
Unexpectedly, I felt relief. Shanna knew enough about Dara’s diabetes to take over her care. She was unruffled by Tony’s needs and his sometimes bizarre manner of expressing them. Her coming would free Bob up to concentrate — on me.
Putting my own concerns ahead of my kids. This was all new territory for me, this needing instead of being needed. Surrendering my responsibilities, even temporarily, to younger hands. True, it had echoes of decrepitude, but the euphoria of it took me by surprise. Could I do this? Could I grow old gracefully, and in record time? I let out a long breath I hadn’t even known I was holding. “Thanks,” I told her. “Yes. I’ll let you know.”