One year ago today. It was late, and she was tired. She’d picked me up earlier that day in Boston at the airport. She’d just finished typing up her medical charts. I’d been sitting beside her watching the news, and now it was past midnight, but I asked her if she’d feel a lump I’d discovered in my breast.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” she asked.
“I didn’t think it was anything. And I just thought I’d wait until I was here, so you could check.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m sure it’s nothing. You’re 46. You’re menopausal. You have lumpy breasts! But I’ll take a look.”
I unhooked my bra, lifted my shirt, lay down on the couch, and she “took a look” by copping a feel, pressing her fingers into my flesh, spiraling around and around my breast, working inward, and then she stopped.
“Is this what you mean?” she asked. She moved her fingers along a thickening.
“I think so,” I said. “Don’t press so hard, it kind of aches. What do you think?”
I felt a little throbbing then, like a heart beat beneath my solar plexus, like some tiny mouse trying to scratch its way out, the first hint of fear.
“Well, it’s weird. It’s not what I thought it was going to be. It kind of feels like a ledge.”
If it was a ledge, then we were both falling from it, but we didn’t know yet. Or at least I didn’t. It turns out my ledge had unsettled her, and as I pulled my shirt back down, she fired off an e-mail to her boss, Cormac, the head of her medical practice.
“I think you should see a breast specialist,” she said, typing. “I’m going to ask Cormac if he knows anyone. It’s probably a fibro-adenoma. It’s not uncommon. It’s probably nothing.”
But of course it was something, though it took us days to know what. That night, as I climbed two flights of stairs to sleep in the attic room, I was both climbing and falling at the same time. I don’t remember being aware of the sensation. I’d put myself in my sister’s hands. .I fell asleep to damp spring air and the sound of peepers.
I was not sitting here, a year ago, watching another phenomenon in which opposites occur simultaneously: my mountain, both brightly lit and draped in clouds. I wasn’t watching the rain, the first rain of spring, falling at the same time as the sun brightens the ice-white water to the south. I wasn’t glancing to my left to see an unfinished Scrabble game left mid-play. Did I dream that night, falling that way? The ledge that had been my life receding, the unknown ground below rushing to meet me.
It’s been days since I’ve written in this blog. Perhaps it’s true my body remembers as well as my brain. For three days, what began as a “radiation recall” on my chest has moved up to my face. The recall was triggered by contact with a plant. A few days ago, one warm afternoon, I decided to hang laundry out on our line, which extends from our front deck to a tree, by way of a pulley system. There on the corner of the deck, draped over the railing, as it always is, dead and dry, was the remains of the hops vine, a perennial that grows up each summer to cover part of the southeast wall of our house, then dies back each fall. At some point each year, I clear the old growth away. The brown, crumbling leaves were making a mess on the wet laundry, so before hanging the clothes, I ripped at the plant, pushed, pulled, shoved, yanked, then swept the detritus off the deck. That night, a little red patch on my arm, like cat scratches. Funny, I thought, we don’t have cats. The next morning, the bright red alarm of the same rash I got from radiation burning up my chest to my neck. That’s when I put the dates together. My body’s remembering, I told myself. But as the reaction moved beyond recall, to a full-blown systemic allergy, I realized it was two things at once, the way everything since cancer seems to be: it was biology and it was metaphor. It was memory and physiology. It was something to get through and something to work through. It was climbing and falling.
I have no record of this day last year except one memory. It exemplifies how my sister and I, and her family, and far away in Alaska, Craig, coped with the days of waiting: by living, and often, by laughing. My nephews and niece and I started April 1 by sneaking into Mara and Jon’s bedroom and switching the contents of their underwear drawers.
Cormac e-mailed back with the name of a breast surgeon on the Cape, and we made an appointment for April 2, a Friday. I had 24 hours to live a day as if breast cancer was nowhere on the horizon. Mara’s high-energy kids helped with that. After school, the boys and I spied on the neighbors, jotted “clues” in a notebook. The story got dark pretty fast. We found a depression in the ground: a mass grave. We found an old ax in a woodpile. Cigarette butts: a sure sign of evil-doers. In my mind, I considered my own set of clues: the ache in my breast that had started in December, that I’d attributed to vigorous yoga; the lump I’d felt one January morning; the swelling on my breast a month later. The denial, denial, denial.
An allergic reaction is acute, like fear. Like fear, it comes in waves; a couple times a day something triggers a new histamine release, and the chemical floods the body. I place ice-cold clothes on my red face to stop the itching and pain, but there’s nothing to stop the intense adrenaline rush that rises, and then the tears. I call my sister, and she reminds me that these are normal physiological reactions. There are reasons. My encounter with the hop vine was just bad luck. Craig tries to joke, and I shoot arrows in his direction from my puffed-up eyes. It’s okay if I call myself “moon pie face,” but not okay if he says I look like an Irish drunk with my red hair and fat face. I also look like someone who’s been crying for days. And the medical explanations do help, but at the same time I believe my body is talking. It’s telling its own story, in its own language, and there’s no translation. It’s its own narrator. This story I’m recounting isn’t my body’s story. It’s some kind of approximation. Luck, good or bad, is mine. My body lives in a realm beyond luck. It has its own strange story to tell, and I have mine.
Spring and winter are wrestling. The last two days it’s snowed, but it doesn’t stick to anything, and old snow continues to erode. I opened a computer file this morning to read my grad student’s final thesis manuscript, which was due yesterday. I hadn’t seen the whole memoir in awhile, and was surprised to find this epigraph at the manuscript’s beginning:
“The remembering burns.
Send word to the jasmine
to bring its tiny whiteness.”
–Federico Garcia Lorca
There’s no jasmine here, but the larger whiteness of an orchid blooming in the kitchen. Cream-colored butterfly blooms with maroon splotches. It’s a cooling antidote to the remembering, like the wet washcloth stiff from the freezer I place against my burning face. The remembering: a year ago today, I lay on an examining table while a short, brown-haired 30-something breast surgeon kneaded my right breast for far too long. I think she expected it to be just another routine visit, reassuring a nervous 40-something patient with a lumpy breast. Mara stood near the door watching Dr. Sachs’ face. She said later that she saw it change, from brisk and efficient and confident to surprised then dismayed. I just wanted her to stop the massaging. To me, her face got younger by the minute. By the time I sat up, I wanted to see her high school diploma.
“I don’t like the way this feels,” she said. Mara asked if she had an ultra-sound machine, to rule out a cyst or fibro-adenoma. She told us to come back in an hour. When Dr. Sachs left the room, Mara and I wrapped ourselves tight around each other.
“We’re going to get through this. It still could be a cyst,” she said. I wiped my face and we walked out through the waiting room and into the sun. The world of normal. Where people rushed around from errand to errand, obeying traffic lights. Where the atmosphere was very bright. We drove to the Toyota dealership, so Mara could get something checked on her car. While she talked to the mechanic, I sat in the “waiting area,” which was furnished with recliners, like business class on a jumbo-jet, all facing a large flat-screen TV, broadcasting what seemed to me an inordinate number of ads related to cancer. I flipped through a People magazine. The people on the pages might as well have been Martians. The people in the chairs around me, too, looked foreign, citizens of the land of normal. I was a stranger, suddenly yanked out of their world and thrown off a train in another country, where the language was ugly: fibro-adenoma, benign cyst, vascular ultra-sound, surgeon, lump. It was the limbo between the lands of normal and cancer.
An hour later, I was again lying on my back. This time, the terrible fluorescent light of the examining room was replaced by dimness, the green glow of a screen on which the inside of my breast was projected, white, gray and block splotches, unreadable to me as Braille. Mara stood beside me staring at that screen. She knew the language. The technician stared at the screen too, and slid a wand across the jelly-coated surface of my breast. I felt strangely relaxed in that room, as though it was all happening underwater, or in a dream. Dr. Sachs came in to push the wand around some more, and that’s when they first used the word “mass.” It measured about 1.5 cm, she said, and I watched my sister’s face morph from emotion to emotion: worry to relief to happiness. “Eva,” she said, tightening her grip on my hand. “Even if it is cancer, it’s small. It’s totally treatable. It’s a save.” Dr. Sachs agreed.
“The next step’s a diagnostic ultra-sound, mammogram and a biopsy,” she said.
I read their faces and heard their words but I didn’t know exactly what they were saying or feeling. Someone had turned on the lights in the room, but I was still underwater, like a killer whale in a tank. Mara, Dr. Sachs, the technician, seemed to be speaking to me from behind thick glass. When everyone left, I leaned into Mara’s arms. She stood very straight. I felt her backbone. I felt every muscle, her lean arms tight around me. She was solid, and I was not. In that watery world, I’d lost all my bones. “It’s going to be all right,” she kept repeating, until my bones reformed and I could walk out of that place.
“The remembering burns.”
And I’m choosing to believe that it cleanses and purifies. When this allergy flares, I feel like my face is on fire. Even the tears seem to burn my skin. Yesterday, my friend Jo put her cool hands on each side of my burning face. Today, my sister talked me through my panic, as she did so many times in the last year. But no one, in the end, can stop my fall. No one can reconcile the climbing and falling that’s me coming back to life. No one can tell me the story that makes sense of it all, a story of burning and falling and climbing and swimming, a story of losing my bones and finding them again. In the end, no one can write this story but me. This story can’t be found in my medical chart. This story is the only thing that matters. This story is the only thing that’s real.