I wrote this essay just before my 38th birthday. I read it at a friend's reading series. It was right around that time that people started telling me to start this blog. Maybe this was the reason.
How do you measure a life? This is the thought running through my head as I sit, waiting for my mammogram. How many people will attend my funeral? What will they say? Is there a point to funerals? I mean, what are we marking? Time? Our capacity for love? Our need to be seen feeling something? I’m meta-morbid. Nothing feels real. I’m just rummaging through emotions trying them on for size. Tears drift out of the corners of my eyes. I don’t even know when I started to cry. The kid with a broken arm looks at me, confused. I don’t look hurt. I wish I had a cast to sign. That would make a really nice keepsake. I start to laugh at the idea of a breast cast and then realize that my breasts will be gone if I have a double mastectomy and the cast will be flat, if there is such a thing. This makes me laugh harder until I’m choking back hot tears and spit and biting my lip to stop the flow. You can’t just have one mastectomy, you have to have a double. Like whisky. It’s weird to have one breast. At least I’ve decided one thing. That feels good. A real decision.
“Julie Gordon?” A nurse casually floats my name into the waiting room, seeing who responds. I glance at my friend who drove me here to this reckoning with a God I don’t believe in and stand up, making eye contact with the nurse. I try to send her a telepathic message, sharing all the fears I’ve had since I was 15 years old. Something blocks the signal and it’s bounced back to me. She smiles.
She takes me to a dressing room and hands me a cloth gown. I rejoice in it not being made of paper. That flimsy blue one-size-fits-no-one bullshit that masquerades as a cover up. Cloth is good. I can work with this.
I remove my shirt and bra and look down at my traitorous appendages. They look exactly the same as they always have. Well, since they arrived too early and caused such a ruckus. I wonder what life will be like without the ruckus. I am a woman. I am made of curves. And curves make noise. I don’t know what sound gone makes but I’m sure it’s quieter than I can imagine and I am scared of what that will sound like.
The nurse comes back to get me and leads me into a dark room with large machines. I find out she is not a nurse but a mammogram technician. She is kind. Tall, with short dark hair, dark black skin, and a gentle manner. I need her with all my might, and she obliges. I ask questions. I fight back more tears. I tell her just enough for her to know that this is the most important health thing that’s ever happened directly to me up until now. She handles my palpable fear with aplomb. This is a marker. This will hurt. This will be cold. She lets me look at my films, and although she is not a doctor and cannot tell me the results, she lets me ask.
She does not have the answers.
I am not yet 38 years old, but I am close. My mother was diagnosed at 38, and I can see that age taunting me from the future, like a finger pointing at me, relentlessly. This is the day, it says, that you will find out if you are actually your mother’s daughter. And then it happens. One morning in the shower I discover that my lymph node in my left armpit is swollen. Quite swollen. Unable-to-ignore-it swollen. I am told by a friend that I am being silly by worrying so much but I must have it examined just to reassure me that everything is going to be okay. I do. Doc feels me up and down and can’t find anything. “Sometimes this happens,” he says. “It’s no big deal.” If he can ignore it, so can I. Away I go.
Months pass. Nothing changes. The lump has not listened to my doctor nor obeyed his heed. I make a follow up appointment. This time, he is not so blasé. Because this time he finds a lump. In my breast. My inner 15 year old, frozen in time at the age my mother died, stops the Morrissey song long enough to scream “I told you so!!!” and collapses in a pile on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, sobbing. I call to make the mammogram appointment he assures me can be made for the next day, and the wait is two weeks. Two. Weeks. A fortnight of torture. I plead my case to the receptionist who graciously listens and then repeats my option two weeks out. I take it. I have no choice. I wait.
I cry in the shower every day. I am in the middle of shampooing my hair, or scrubbing my body and the warm wash of fear ladders up my gut into my heart and explodes out my eyes. What if I am a ticking time bomb? What if all those years of fear and anticipation have caused this? The beauty of crying in the shower is that you can really let yourself go. Tears blend with water. Soap still cleans even when you’re just going through the motions. You can’t get any more naked and raw, so you just give into it and bawl. I never sit down and go fetal with sadness. I’m strangely proud of that. It doesn’t crush me. It just soaks my sails in the storm.
The doctor’s office calls. “We need you to come back in for another mammogram and an ultrasound.” “But, but…,” I sputter into the phone. They admirably stand their ground, immune to my protests, and schedule back-to-back appointments. Two more goddamn weeks I have to wait. Sensing my fear, the woman kindly offers to call me in case of a cancelation. Amazingly, she does call, but it’s on the one day I fly up to Northern California to attend the memorial for a dear friend’s mother who has just passed away from cancer over the course of mere weeks. “Seriously, life? Fuck you.” I hang up the phone.
One day I realize that part of me wants the diagnosis to be cancer. It will be liberating. Finally, the fear from anticipation can subside and I can get down to the business of dying. There is a huge difference between waiting to have cancer and actually having it. One makes sense. The other is crazy. I can choose how to handle my cancer and enjoy it when I shock people with my new reality. Hot pink wig? Yes, please. Jokes about death? Laugh, goddammit, because that shit is hilarious. People will look worried. They’ll ask all the same questions. And they’ll claim me, in that way people do when they say, “My friend has cancer.” The subtext being, “Look at ME world! This is huge, and I deserve your undying attention and endless sympathy for all of the pain that I am experiencing vicariously through this person.” It’s like they’ve trapped a tiny version of you in the palm of their hand and they bring you out to tap dance at parties to ensure they go home with the lover of their choice.
It’s more than that, though. I want to understand my mother’s experience better. I’ll finally be able to say, me too, mom. I know what this feels like. I know what you went through and fought so hard against to stay with us. There is such an emptiness there, that I am grasping at straws to be like her. It’s not enough to look the same, because I don’t remember what she looks like. It’s not enough to sound the same, because I cannot replay the timbre of her voice. It surprises me when I’m told that I’m like her because I can’t recall her personality. She is shut away forever in this silent world of fading photographs that simply stop one day and she is gone. So even though cancer is the short end of this stick, my brain is willing to take what it can get.
I return to the office where I had my first mammogram. The play starts the same, but they have substituted an understudy for the role of “kind mammogram technician” and this one is horrible at playing her part. I’m manhandled and emotionally neglected, and then cast off into the hallway to wait for my ultrasound.
A tiny blonde assistant sweeps me up and walks me to the room where a heavily accented Russian woman awaits to scan me with sound waves. Her accent is soothing. There is something about Eastern Europe and Russia that feel like home to me. It’s like my genes know something my brain can’t process but my heart understands. Babushka cares for me. She listens. She goes silent and nods during the ultrasound as I babble to her. I am more fearful than ever. I know silence now in a way I haven’t before.
The doctor enters. I have a tumor. It is between the size of a pea and a garbanzo bean. We must do a biopsy to know for sure what kind of tumor it is. In an effort to redeem himself and appear real, God grants me a wish and they agree to do the biopsy then and there instead of waiting another few weeks while cancer, in its silence, grows inside my breast.
Biopsy sounds gentle. Put a needle into the tumor and take a tiny core sample so we can test it in the lab. I should listen better and focus on the words, “core sample” more than “tiny” or “needle.” They wheel a cart over to my bed, flip me onto my side, and turn on the machine. The motor spins up and they begin to drill into me like I am the motherless earth. It is so much more violent than I expect. The doctor holds me down as the machine pierces my chest in search of the tumor. Once. Twice. Three times. I am bruised and battered. I am shaking. I am more scared than I ever have been in my life. Babushka grabs my arm and squeezes. Her warm hand says, “I am doing all that I can do.” “I know,” I think to myself. “So am I.”
Finally, they finish. The doctor says reassuring things and tells me that no matter what the results from the biopsy are, they’ve pretty much taken the entire tumor out so at least that’s good news. In my head I’m already bald from chemotherapy and he sounds like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
The next few days are a blur. I confide in a friend at work about my fears. I have to. All of my colleagues think I’m interviewing, when in reality I’m trying my damndest not to shatter before their eyes.
Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
The phone rings when I am standing outside my office bathing in sunshine talking to a friend. Unknown caller. Ain’t that the truth. I answer. The nurse begins with, “You’re okay, Julie. He said to tell you it’s benign.” “Benign?” I repeat. “Benign,” she says, emphatically, “It says so right here.” “So I’m okay?” “Yes, dear, you are okay.”
I am holding onto a balloon—a big, sparkling, beautiful balloon, and its string has just slipped through my fingers. I watch the balloon float away silently into the sky. It shrinks smaller and smaller until it’s too small to see but I keep looking up hoping to spot it, floating in the wind, free. In the darkness of the night I will continue to look, but I will only see stars.
I go out to dinner with a friend that night. She asks me how I'm doing and I tell her the good news. She says that another friend of ours has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn't tell me because she didn't think I'd want to know. For the first time in my life, I am grateful in that exact moment that someone has kept something important from me. We discuss the incredible odds that two women in the same group of friends have just gone through the same thing at the exact same time with two different results. We realize this isn't very incredible at all. She tells me she’s glad that I'm okay. As if they have wings, these words escape my lips and fly upwards to ears that can no longer hear them: Me too.