Appeared in The Broadkill Review, vol. 5, no.5, September/October 2011, p24
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in December 2011 by the editor of The Broadkill Review.
“Lose the breast?” My lips go numb with disbelief. As if I could lose my breast and suffer only the mild regret of leaving my breast, like my favorite pen, at the bank. I am in Dr. X’s office, getting good news and bad news, but right now I don’t know which words are intended to be good news. Words like mastectomy, malignancy, and metastasized wash over me. Words surging, in and out of my head, like ocean tides. I imagine myself rowing frantically against stormy seas. Salty spray runs down my face. The word recovery, repeated, has an odd echo effect that leaves me dizzy.
An overhead speaker softly plays a song I once liked, connecting it forever with this moment. I watch Dr. X’s lips moving, out of sync with his words, as he shows me x-rays. He will refer me to a female surgeon, as I have requested.
He says that Dr. Y is a fine surgeon. She specializes in a range of reconstructive procedures to make the whole experience less traumatic. I listen to his hollow good cheer and wonder how often he gives this wretched news each day. I imagine he does not let himself know what women feel when they’re told they will lose part, or all, of themselves. He’s unlikely to lose parts of his body. I wonder if he has a wife or daughter.
As if reading my thoughts, he reaches out and touches my shoulder lightly. “Helen, may I call you Helen? If my wife needed this surgery, I would want Dr. Y to do it.” He tells me his office will contact Dr. Y’s office with test results and set up a consult as soon as possible. “The trick,” he says, “is to live, to defy this terrible disease.”
I leave his office and walk with unreliable knees past the receptionist as the office background music shifts abruptly to tinsel-type tunes played like carnival music, an artifact used in amusement park carousels, but here it is played softly to drown out reality. I recognize strains of a tune from my childhood and I remember as if I am ten again. I am longing for a pony, but the bay on the carousel in the park is the only one I ever get to ride.
I had gotten the phone call a week ago to come in to discuss my recent mammogram. My heart thumped wildly as I lowered myself into a chair and wrapped my sweaty hands around the phone. As if I’d never feared this moment. “Yes. I could come in to see the doctor and schedule more tests on Friday. I will need to cancel meetings.”
I have so much to do right now. I’m much too busy for this. I think of the stack of unfinished book reviews I am editing for the magazine where I work. And who will do my department’s quarterly reports due in two weeks?
I hang up the phone, having agreed to additional tests, a course of action sure to alter my life. I know this even as I run my hands over my offending breast. I feel betrayed by a close friend. Stung.
I regret my lifetime of uncharitable complaints about my body, harsh words used to describe my breasts as I stared at myself in clothing store dressing room mirrors.
Perhaps now I will pay the price with my pound of flesh. I am tempted to ask my body for forgiveness, but I hardly know where to begin. I resurrect a prayer from childhood and chant it like a mantra against the inevitable, a tuneless song of hope.
I arrive early at Dr. Y’s office. I fill out insurance forms and my hands smudge the ink. I agree to pay whatever my insurance won’t cover. Spare no expense. As if I could refuse to pay the hospital after losing my breast. But what if I did not have the insurance that permits Dr. Y and her team to cut, stitch, and restore me?
I regret that I never got around to taking out a disability policy and must dip into my savings until I can work again. I wonder if I should call my ex-husband about all this, but I remember how busy he is now with his new wife and children.
Perhaps I should have confided in someone at work, but I hesitate to share my troubles at work. I tell my co-workers that I am taking a few days off to deal with a personal matter. Maybe I should call my sister in California.
I return the forms to the receptionist and settle into a hungry leather chair to wait.
I scan magazines on the tables. Stacked neatly next to Time magazines are specialty magazines with headlines touting clothing geared for women with special needs and marketing prosthetic devices and underwear for those of us whom surgery has rendered hard to fit. Some magazines show sexy underwear, promising that passion is possible post-surgery.
Of late, I have considered the idea of passion rarely. Until now. But before the bad times in my failed marriage, I once lived on tender slices of joy rendered by a touch. I have taken my pleasures too lightly. Gazing now into what appears to me to be a cataclysm, I hope that the best of what has been before, will be again. I vow to live.
Here in the waiting room, almost everyone whispers. Quiet murmurs blend with soft background music and the solicitous flutter of soft voices, then footsteps, as a nurse leads one of the women waiting with me into a hallway to an examining room. As they walk through the doorway, light from the hallway forms a shimmering aura of soft pink and purple around them, as if their bodies ride waves of fear and hope.
Compassion is mixed with custom, but these nurses are subdued, for they know how little separates us at this moment. It’s a matter of dots on a screen, an unwelcome density. For we know we are women, all of us, likely to be spirited away through time’s portal for a test of our endurance.
A slender young woman in faded jeans, leather jacket, purple socks, and Birkenstock sandals checks in with the receptionist. “Oh, Olive,” the receptionist says. “You look wonderful.” A nurse in her early thirties comes out to greet the young woman and they hug. Olive slips out of her jacket and slings it over her shoulder with careless ease. She smiles and her short curly hair looks like new growth on a hillside after a forest fire. Her eyes burn defiantly. She wears a purple shirt with the words Proud to Be in large white letters across the front, and on the back of her shirt are the words Of the Clan of One-Breasted Women. The lines are credited to a writer, Terry Tempest Williams. Olive wears no bra and no prosthesis. Her shirt lies flat against her left chest; her shoulder slopes forward slightly, as if resisting a weight. I think of the empty sleeve of a war veteran.
Our eyes connect and she smiles. She is like a particle at the point of open awareness, as if a magnifying glass has focused light and heat through her. Energy from her body touches me and I am warmed.
I look down at my breast, lying quietly under my blouse. I try to imagine my body without the weight, the warmth of blood, the substance of tissue, but I cannot. I wish for an elixir, a potion stronger than anything produced by medical arts.
The nurse puts her hand on Olive’s right shoulder and leads her to a nearby examining room. They stand outlined for a moment in the soft light. The door to the hallway and room is ajar, slightly, for only a moment, but long enough for me to overhear the nurse say, “So you’ve finished the chemo and the tests look great. That’s good news.”
The nurse returns and nods to a frail young woman who is probably in her early twenties, calls her Betty, but she looks too young to be a patient. Surely her breasts are still prepubescent buds. She sits alone in a corner near a fake potted palm tree, as though relishing shade at an oasis. Her body seems transparent, faded by the struggles of the flesh. Her fragile features and baldness remind me of a doll, Miss Fritters, from my childhood, who lost her hair as a result of an accidental overnight soak in the bathtub.
As the nurse leads Betty away, she turns to me. “Helen, you’re next,” she says.
Ceiling music swirls above my head. The smell of my fear is thick, sweet, and leathery, like pony sweat on a summer afternoon. I am ten again and filled with fear for my first pony ride. I soothe my fear tenderly until I am calm enough to stand and follow the nurse into the hallway. I ask for a glass of water and the nurse leads me to a water fountain. She hands me a paper cup that I must hold with both hands. I sip but cannot swallow. I glance at the swaying floor as the nurse’s sturdy white clogs move toward me. She guides me to Dr. Y’s office. My brain feels unavailable, as if it’s left the office. I am surprised to be so frightened still.
Dr. Y greets me in her office, her face sincere and concerned as she shakes my hand. She shows me pictures of varying shades of gray. The invading white masses are circled and she points to charts with my breast outlined in red Magic Marker. She speaks softly of possibilities and probabilities. She gives me hope, as she talks about survival rates, but she includes the grim realities as she hands me pamphlets that explain what I’ve just heard and forgotten. I had written questions to ask Dr. Y, questions that shrivel in the back of my throat, while my notes lie curled and forgotten at the bottom of my purse. My arms are clasped to my sides. I try desperately to keep my body from bursting apart before Dr. Y can cut and patch me to a new fragmented wholeness.
Dr. Y hands me a card with her home and office numbers. “Later,” she says, “you will think of questions. Call and I’ll try to answer them before your surgery next Tuesday morning. Also, when you check into the hospital on Monday afternoon . . .” She stops in midsentence and studies my face as if measuring my need.
She pulls her chair closer and leans toward me. She takes my hand and says, “Believe me, I know what this is like.” She places my hand against her right breast and says, “I had surgery three years ago next month.”
I am stunned by her confession. I nod, unable to speak in the face of such humanity. I gather my breath in slow waves and take in her words. I whisper the story of Dr. Y’s compassion as consolation to myself in the car driving home.
I lie on a gurney outside the operating room on Tuesday morning.
“Tell you my name?” Panic rises from me like a bird. Don’t they know my name? As if I could forget my name. I am unable to speak it. I am embarrassed. I cannot remember my name. My body and brain are disconnected from each other.
My thoughts hover over me like a worried parent.
I worry that the hospital could make an error. The surgeon might remove the wrong breast—it’s happened before—leaving me with the rogue breast with its offending densities. Then I relax. Congratulate myself for having the foresight to use a marker to leave an arrow and the words This One on my rogue breast this morning. And as a nurse prepares me for surgery, she smiles at my note and writes, Not This One on my good breast before they give me injections that permit me to float above the soft green lights of the operating table. In the distance, music is piped into overhead speakers. I breathe in time to the music and pray. Masked faces bend over me. Dr. Y and her colleagues have found my carefully labeled breasts. They pull the sheet away; I feel cool air on my abdomen and the room is quiet for a moment. They have found the note I taped to my belly early this morning. The note with questions I could not ask before. I think of questions to add, but it is too late to ask: Will I feel the weight of a phantom breast? Will my grief be bearable?
I said good-bye to a part of me this morning that I realize only now that I love. I long to touch my breast one last time. My arms will not be moved. I feel my breath gather into a cold, unwieldy point. I watch the clock on the wall behind the nurse, but I cannot make sense of time anymore. Is the large hand more important? The clock is faulty. It does not indicate days or years.
A masked face leans over and pats my stomach gently. She injects yellow fluids into the IV in my arm. “Here’s your cocktail,” says the nurse who holds my hand.
Turning my eyes ever so slightly toward her face, I drift away into music and lights. A broad bay pony canters around a carousel. A handsome woman rides this pony. She’s wearing a splendid beaded iridescent cape. This amazing woman performs remarkable feats. She is brave. She looks up into the crowd that has gathered and smiles at me. Balancing high above the pony’s flashing hooves, she stands on one foot at a full gallop on the pony’s back as the music plays and the carousel spins.
I believe I’ve known her all of my life.