My Dad moved out of our home when I was 12. I remember the day he left like it was yesterday: the red cap on his head, a recent Christmas gift from my sister Maria; the sound of the heavy front door closing on the last day he would live with us; the loss I felt immediately; the awareness that my life, our lives, were never going to be the same after the door closed. I can still hear the door and feel the pain today. Life, as I had known it, was gone for good. I ran into the middle bedroom, buried my head, face down into the covers, and cried. I remember saying over and over in my head, “How could he do this to me?”
Life would imitate life many years later, when my then-fiancée left me. He was supposed to meet me after work, but instead parked my car in the parking lot of the mall where I was working, with a note and my car key under the seat. It was a really badly written note, where he likened himself “to a cockroach…how they scurry away when the light goes on.”I was in shock that he would do such a thing. I drove back to my apartment to find all of his belongings gone. To this day, I can’t figure out what is worse: the way my ex-fiancée left me, or the fact that I was in love with such a bad writer. My life came full circle that weekend. I called my Dad after I got back to my apartment and he immediately got into his car and drove 60 miles to be there for me. He and I spent all night at a local Denny’s where my emotions swung from laughing to crying and back to laughing again. It was a night that I’ll never forget, thanks to my Dad.
I say the Serenity Prayer every day. It is mostly a result of having to say it aloud every morning, prior to Father Bernard’s chemistry class at Saint Bede Academy in 1974. And, that is a long time ago! This prayer became especially powerful to me a little under four years ago when I went to have a bone density test at a local MRI clinic, and the woman behind the counter looked at me with an uncomfortable expression and said, “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you.” I had no idea at that moment what she was talking about, but said, “OK?” This is a moment that will be forever etched in my mind. It was the first moment in what would become a three year journey with breast cancer and breast reconstruction.
Needless to say, I had a second mammogram that day, in addition to my bone density test, and the results were conclusive: there were tiny dots on the lower half of my right breast. They looked like granules of sand in the image. For the first time in my history of having mammograms, the radiologist came back and spoke to me while I was still in my gown about the small dots in the image, and why he was concerned. I’m quite sure I looked like a deer in headlights, because the X-ray technician kept patting me on the arm and telling me, “It’s probably nothing.” and “It’s going to be fine.” I dressed, went out to my car, and began to sob. Why me? Why now? What if it really was breast cancer? My father had been diagnosed with it in 1974, and my uncle had been recently diagnosed. My great Aunt Mary had died from it. Was I next?
You already know the answer to this question. Yes, after speaking with two surgeons, one who told me “not to worry about it, come back in six months, and get a colonoscopy first.”, and then having 18 needle biopsies, I was indeed diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ-stage zero breast cancer.
Although, I did have the colonoscopy, I also went for a second opinion with a breast cancer surgeon. He said that I should not wait to have a biopsy and scheduled it on the spot for late January.
The biopsy experience was the first in a number of harrowing experiences in my breast cancer saga. In order to biopsy your breast, they lie you face down on a table that has an opening for your breast to hang below it. This is how they are able to access the breast in order to find the places where they saw the granules. They numb the breast and then begin a series of, what sounds like a loud staple gun, needle aspirations in my breast: 18 in total. They have rock music playing in the background as a distraction, but I can’t say that it helps much. It is a stunning experience to be lying on this table, with the aspiration needle being shot into your breast, and the doctor calling out numbers that correspond to a grid that she is looking at in order to find the placement of the granules. When it is over, they tell me to put on my clothes and they will call me with the results. Again, a moment in time, I will never forget.
I received the call a few days later. This time it was the breast surgeon who told me the news. I did in fact have stage zero breast cancer. He said that I would be getting a call from the hospital to schedule a lumpectomy in the near future. A woman from the hospital called and told me that the first available surgery date was February 14th. I said incredulously, “Valentine’s Day? Are you kidding me?”, but she assured me that this was not a joke, and that February 14th was indeed going to be the day of my lumpectomy. My heart sank a little bit more, but I mustered up the courage to say, “Ok.”
From this moment forward, I would be identified as a person with cancer. Once I got over the initial shock, I had an epiphany: I realized that my life, my family, my disease, was a gift. It is the gift that keeps on giving, because all we ever have, all I ever have is right here, right now: today. Valentine’s Day is just another day, like all the rest. It is up to me to make the most of every day, to treat every day like it is Valentine’s Day. So, Happy Valentine’s Day to you today and every day. It’s really all we have in the end anyway. To life.
man falls face
forward into traffic
twenty floors below
my face pressed against the cold
my friends asks
if I want another drink
I am standing at the checkout line at my local Harris Teeter and I sneeze into my arm so that I don’t spread germs all over the woman ringing up my groceries.
I hear “Bless you.” from behind me and say “Thank you.” without turning my head.
The woman asks if I would like my bag of oranges put into another bag, which makes me pause for a second, and I say “No, thank you.”
A few minutes later, a middle aged man in a Harris Teeter uniform comes over to help put the rest of my groceries into bags.
I like Harris Teeter because when I check out I basically hand over the full cart to the check out people and they do the rest. And, this store in particular, is pretty much empty on Monday mornings. Not to mention, their rest room is immaculate, and I always need to use a rest room. Thanks to the birth of my son for that. Mothers will understand what I am talking about.
The bag man asks me if I am the person he said “Bless you.” to and I say “Yes, thank you.”
Then he says, “I don’t know if you know this about me but I was hit by a car, in a coma for a year, and I have no memory.”
“No short term or long term memory?” I ask.
“No short term.” he says.
I tell him that I understand because I, too, know someone with no short term memory.
He shows me his elbow as proof of his accident and says he has no recollection of the event. He tells me he was in a coma for a year, but can’t remember any of it.
“I could have killed a person.” he says says with a smile “because I wouldn’t remember if I did.”
I smile back and say “I don’t think so.”
My bags are ready and so I swipe my card, sign the receipt, and say “Thanks so much.” and “Have a great day.”
I move past him on my way out.
As I do, he turns to me and says “See you for the first time again, next time.”
And I say, “Yes, you will.”
I drive into the local Tractor Supply parking lot, windows down, McDonald’s large nonfat latte in hand, and am one of a few cars and supply trucks here on this early morning. I pick my usual spot with the sun rising in the east, car heading north, and the perfect amount of sun shining on my right arm and leg. The warmth of the sun’s rays soothe me. They let me know that everything is going to be ok. A chorus of melodious birds sing in the background. The sound of carts being wheeled to trucks, doors slamming, and revving engines interrupt their songs. Someone is building something in the distance. The tap, tap, tap of the hammer and noisy planes overhead comfort me. They are the sounds of everyday life. They are the sounds of my childhood in the small Central Illinois town of Spring Valley.
Here I sit, in the middle of this small town, in the middle of my life, waiting. I have spent most of the last four years waiting: waiting for test results from my doctors, waiting for surgery, for my next surgery, for the drains to release the fluids from my swollen, stitched up breasts so that I may have them removed, waiting for my son at this place or that place, for my husband to come home from work so that I am able to take another pain pill because I need to be able to drive until he can take over. And now, some how, some way, it is all coming to an end. The finish line is so close I can see it, feel it, taste it. But then, what? What’s next for me?
I have come to believe that I am experiencing a kind of survivor’s guilt. I can’t remember much of the last four years because so many days were filled with pain, as well as pain medications. I took every pain pill that was prescribed to me. No more, no less. I couldn’t have done it without the meds. They were a huge part of the healing process. Now, I am continuing to work on the healing process on my own and it is lonely. I didn’t abuse the pain meds, but they did become a kind of friend. I knew that I could count on them for relief. They worked. Today, I have to work through the pain, loneliness, loss and accompanying sadness, without them. Some days are easier than others, but, I made it. I finished the marathon. The only thing is there was no celebration at the finish line. No last chapter, no “The end.” The breast cancer doctor stopped calling when I was turned over to the ovarian doctor, who stopped calling after I met with the radiation oncologist, who never called after I met with the genetics social worker. The plastics surgeon doctor and her nurses became like a kind of family to me. Appointment after appointment, year after year. Reconstruction can be a very lengthy and tumultuous experience. No one knows what they will find until they cut you open to see what’s inside, to see how the foundation that they have built is responding to the actual tissues. And, the right breast’s response to reconstruction can be entirely different than the left. Of course, symmetry is the goal. The residual numbing from the surgeries can be very bothersome at times. It is impossible to wear a bra most days because the pressure on my scars becomes intolerable. I have permanently erect nipples and the left one is slightly off center. My breasts are nonfunctioning, but they look good in clothes. They are the breasts of an athletic 18 year old. Sometimes, I forget that I have fake boobs and wonder what these things are on my chest.
And, then I remember: cancer. Oh, yeah, that.