Used vehicle, one owner. 50K miles. Needs body work. Some rust. Runs good. All scheduled maintenance performed. Above base model trim level but not fully loaded. Good fuel economy. Some original factory parts missing, others replaced/repaired/upgraded. Fabric worn and faded. Entertainment package has AM/FM stereo cassette, CD/DVD. Has airbags, alarms and automatic warning system. Non-smoker. One accident. Garage kept. Good GPS. Big trunk. Spoiler. Solid and reliable. Great for a busy family. As is. No warranty.
My daughter is at an age where she talks a lot of nonsense. Her stories lack focus. Not to be too critical but they generally lack a beginning, middle and end. But hey, she’s not even potty trained so there’s still hope her skills can improve.
She uttered some such nonsense the other night while I was cutting potatoes for roasting. She stood next to me and said, “My diffwent mom teached me to do dat.”
Wait, what? Your different mom? And she let you use a knife? I had so many questions.
“She cut potatoes too,” my baby said.
I had to ask, “You had a different mom? From me?” She nodded. “What did she look like?”
“She have yellow hair. Yike me,” she said. I have brown hair.
“What’s her name?”
“Mom.” And then things got weird. “My baby sistahs ahr cute. Dem Beanie and Dot.”
I’ve heard of kids who sometimes talk about a past life and I wondered if this is what was happening. I actually believe in reincarnation — or I hope in reincarnation. When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my older son’s grave and begged him to come back to me as the new baby. After she was born I looked for signs of him in her eyes and mannerisms. I never found any.
Something similar happened to me in my childhood. When I was about seven I told my mom she wasn’t my real mom. I said I was from outer space and I was going to wait outside for my space mom until she arrived in her spaceship to get me. I stood on the driveway that evening and looked at the stars. My mother stood at the dining room window and looked at me. It wasn’t until years later did I learn how much this freaked her out.
Now it was my turn to freak out. I looked at my daughter’s stunning green eyes. Mine are brown. “Beanie and Dot,” I said. “Are they twins?”
“Yeth,” she answered. “Dem twins.”
“When did you live with them?”
“Me unknow,” she said. Wow, I thought. She unknows. That’s deep.
The subject of her different mom and baby twin sisters came up again when I packed away some clothes she outgrew. “Don’t give dose away!” She protested. “Save dem for my baby sistahs!”
“Will I ever meet them?” I asked. “Me unknow,” she said.
“What was your different mom like?” I asked. “She never say no to me or yell,” she said. Whoever this different mom is I’m beginning to think she might be a lot better at this motherhood stuff than I am.
I only know a few details about “different mom,” like we have the same kind of slipper-socks, we both watch the news, and we both like hugs. I’m curious why she talks about her. Maybe there are things that feel familiar to us and we don’t understand why, so we make up a story to explain it to ourselves, even at a young age. Or maybe my daughter did have a different mom before she came to me, and is young and pure enough to remember bits and pieces of her previous incarnation.
I also wonder what I felt as a child that led me to tell my own mother that I wasn’t her real daughter, but a child from space abandoned on earth with a strange human family. I vaguely remember the feeling of going outside and waiting. Maybe we all feel like aliens in our own homes, different from the people closest to us and have no explanation for what we’re doing with them while we wait to finally find our home.
And maybe beyond the different hair and eye color, my daughter and I have much more in common. After all, what goes around comes around. Like an orbit.
It’s been a week.
Here’s what I remember — Everyone is very calm in pre-op. The nurses have wonderfully sweet voices. Anesthesia has the biggest team, and I was visited by no less than three anesthesiologists who told me they would “take care of me” in the operating room. My surgeon is a rock star, a notion that is reinforced by her using a Sharpie to sign her name on the boob she would remove from my body. I remember scootching from the gurney to the table. Then that’s it.
There’s an empty space where my breast used to be. I refused to look at it for two days. When I finally did I thought, “So that’s what it looks like to get mauled by a tiger.”
Except there was no tiger. There was a scalpel.
I accidentally looked at it on the second day. It’s ugly. I’m not going to lie. It’s purple and scarred and folded/caved inward. There are sutures and lines and bumps and dents. And it hurts. It fucking hurts all up in my armpit. I’m on Norco for the pain.
My husband looked at it on the first day. He said, “Baby, remember it’s a start. When this is over you’ll have healthy and beautiful bionic boobs.”
I read about a phenomenon that occurs, mostly in veterans and amputees, who don’t fully realize a part of their own body is missing called Phantom Limb syndrome. This is how I feel walking around the house. I’m sure it sounds strange but I don’t feel like I’m missing a breast. I feel like normal — until I accidentally brush my hand along my chest and I don’t find a breast there. It’s like I need a neutral third party — my hand — to tell my brain something is missing. My brain can’t seem to figure it out on it’s own.
A good friend said if I want to spread the tiger story around town she would back me up. So next time you see me ask about the safari. Ask me what it’s like to fight a tiger and win.
I got to kill the fucking tiger. And I have the scars to prove it.
So I knew this day would come. I was told two months ago it would happen. That’s a long time to prepare. Or, if you’re me, it’s a long time to ignore reality.
The reality is I have DCIS breast cancer. Just one boob. The one on the right. So the next time you see me you can stare. It’s okay. I’d stare at your boobs too if you told me where your cancer was.
DCIS is the kind of breast cancer you want if you ever get breast cancer. At least this is what my doctor told me. It’s non-invasive, which means it’s confined to the breast and doesn’t metastasize in the body. They call it stage 0. It is 99% curable.
The cure is a mastectomy.
Whoa, right? Seems drastic for something some doctors call “pre-cancer.” I think so too. But the alternative is watching and waiting for it to become invasive cancer and this seems even more stressful. I’m not a cross-my-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best kind of patient. I’m a do-my-research-and-find-the-best-experts kind of patient. Which is why I’m having everything done at a major teaching hospital instead of a cornfield.
So here’s the plan. This Saturday is my birthday. I plan to get drunk and eat ice cream. I bought Malibu Rum and Sangria so I can pretend I’m on vacation, and a tub of organic mochaccino ice cream. In my drunken and dairy-bloated state I’ll probably convince a photographer friend of mine to take classy photos of my cleavage. (Is there any other kind?) Sunday I will detox and then it’s onward to Mastectomy Monday. I bought new pink satin button front pajamas and something called a Brobe, so I’m set. After I come home stoned on opiates I will lay in bed and watch Oscar screeners and possibly binge watch Game of Thrones. I hear I’m among the three people left on earth who never saw an episode.
I’m not happy about being out of commission for a week. Pretty sure chaos will ensue. But that’s minor and temporary. What I can’t shake is the feeling I’m running out of time. I’m not talking about mortality. I’m talking about my wholeness. The clock is ticking on the amount of time I have left to feel like “me.” After Monday, I don’t know what I’ll look like or how I’ll feel. After Monday everything will be different.
But until then, it’s booze and ice cream.
Most of us are lucky enough to be born without flaw or blemish. We come into this world about as perfect as we’re ever going to be. Our bodies grow and develop, we reach our peak, then we age and decline. It happens to all of us. Along the way we acquire scars, bruises and fractures. Every one of these is a story unto itself.
When I was two I broke my collar bone after falling off a kitchen chair. My family was within arms reach but they were too busy applauding me for sitting by myself “like a big girl.” I then went a long time without any major body damage until I turned thirty-two and had my gallbladder removed. The operation left two tiny slit-like scars on my abdomen and one inside my belly-button. Coincidentally, my paternal grandmother also had her gallbladder removed at the same age, but she died days later from a post-surgical infection.
At thirty-three I became pregnant and experience the body altering process all pregnant women go through, until the end, when I had an emergency cesarean after my water broke and my body had no idea how to coordinate labor. I developed sepsis and, I swear, I never saw people move so fast in a hospital before as my son was cut from my body within minutes of me spiking a fever. I was left with a beautiful baby and a not-so-beautiful gash extending from hip to hip across my lower abdomen. I would go on to have two more cesareans, both over the same scar, when I gave birth to my next son and daughter.
Sometimes our scars tell a dramatic story of how we skirted what would have been a catastrophic outcome had the event occurred a hundred years ago. Sometimes our broken bones and scars are minor, the result of accidents, and heal nicely on their own. Either way, they mark us up like a map representing the moments when our body altering experiences become life altering.
I have one such body and life altering moment coming up very soon, and I have yet to make a decision about the full extent of how it will leave its mark on me.
While the medical community debates whether Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ is really breast cancer, pre-cancer, or should be downgraded to dysplasia — the treatment remains the same — cut it out, slice it off, remove those bad cells from the body. DCIS is viewed as a potential threat that could someday become invasive cancer. The treatment is nip it before it has a chance to become threatening.
In other words, I have to have surgery and the date is coming up fast. The great news is I won’t need chemo or radiation. FYI, there is nothing medically to suggest I was at risk for bc. You have to go up two generations to a distant aunt before you find anyone in my family with it; I tested for all nine known genetic mutations that contribute to bc and I have none of them. In fact, my medical profile would suggest I have a low risk.
Yet here I am.
The decision I face is what to do about the other breast. Many women opt to have both removed so they never have to worry about breast cancer again. I’m not sure I have the courage to do this. It’s wrenching enough to part with one. (Is it courage? I’m in the thick of wrestling with this decision and I can’t tell if I’m approaching it from bravery or fear).
I’m an extremely adaptable person, but I also have difficulty letting go of things. Even things that are better off gone from my life, I tend keep them longer than I should. I also have a hard time making decisions because I’m overwhelmed by seeing all the possible consequences, and I wind up frozen. I would love if/when a difficult decision arises that the right path be self-evident. I prefer no-brainers. (Who doesn’t). I guess this is wishful thinking — life rarely smacks me with no-brainers.
Thankfully, no matter what I choose I will come through this looking pretty much normal again. I’m lucky the advancements in plastic surgery can create a new silhouette that resembles my natural one. I’m lucky I don’t live a hundred years ago.
So the cartography of my body will be drastically redrawn. There will be new scars, both physically and emotionally. The landscape will change and be replaced with something artificial.
All this is swimming around in my head where I’m drowning in my own thoughts, and meanwhile my surgeon’s office wants an answer from me today. I still don’t know what I’m going to tell them.
I definitely like one of my boobs more than the other one. I think I always have. The left one, whom I’ll call Lady Lefty, gave me more trouble over the years. She’s about a cup size larger than Lady Righty so she’s heavier and gets in the way more often. She itches and has these long random hairs that need to be plucked every once in a while.
She has more stretch marks and a red dot that marks her North Pole, like a compass. And every time I get my period Lady Lefty complains for days. I always thought she was a troublemaker but it turns out I’m wrong.
Lady Righty, the comfortably-sized non-complaining boob was just diagnosed with two sites of DCIS. The whole thing cam
e as asurprise. I had a clinical exam in November and my Doc said everything felt fine. I had a routine yearly mammogram right after the New Year. They called me back for more views and magnifications, citing calcifications. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. They called me back for a stereotactic biopsy. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. Today they called with the diagnosis. Don’t worry, they said, it’s non-invasive stage 0 grade 2 breast cancer with an excellent prognosis — just a coupla months of utter shit first.
I’ve been through utter shit before but as a caretaker, not a patient. My son’s cancer was hopeless from diagnosis. Mine’s not. He was a child. I’m not. He suffered greatly. I won’t. His fate broke my heart and my spirit. Mine won’t.
I’m really good at keeping things in perspective. My life experience has taught me how to do this at an expert level. My thoughts are with a friend who is a decade younger than me with four young children, who is a vegan and a pilates instructor, fighting stage 2 invasive breast cancer and faces six months of chemo, then surgery, then another six months of chemo. I know so many women who went through breast cancer — different stages, different treatments, different ages, both recently and years ago — and ALL are still here. I understand mine was caught incredibly early. I’m so amazed by the technology that could find something sinister when it’s only millimeters. I keep reminding myself I’m actually lucky. (Well, lucky would be not getting cancer in the first place but like I said I’m trying to keep things in perspective.)
So…I’m sorry Lady Righty, you were my favorite but we will likely part ways. Me and Lady Lefty will miss you but persevere. (Or, Lady Lefty may join you in that great hospital dustbin in the sky — TBD). My husband will also miss you, but he loves me more than the sum of my parts.
(In case you were wondering — no family history.)
We all sat crosslegged on the floor in the playroom of the local library and held our drooly, wobbly babies on our laps. Miss Mary led us in animated baby songs. I looked at this group and was relieved to see several other mommies my age. When we got up to do the hokey-pokey I wasn’t the only one whose joints creaked. A few other mommies looked like they had just recently exited adolescence, which isn’t unusual in the town where we live now. However, it didn’t take long to figure out my contemporaries in this circle were actually grandparents carving out some special time with their grand babies.
I went to mommy-and-me for only one reason, and it wasn’t to enrich my baby’s social and emotional development. I didn’t need to learn another silly song or have my daughter make another sloppy gluey art project with things she’d rather put in her mouth. I came to mommy-and-me for me — I came to find friends.
I had great luck before when I had my first son and joined a mommy-and-me group at a local temple. I clicked with some smart, funny and wonderful women who are still in my heart as I am in theirs, after years and miles apart, and the loss of my son who was the reason I found them in the first place. Those mommies became very close to me. We shared birthdays, playdates, holidays, food, clothes, swimming pools, babysitters, laughs, secrets, advice, tears, you name it. They anchored me in a sprawling city of millions and became my village.
I found that again on a smaller scale with my second son, and I hoped to find it with my daughter in my new, tiny town. Making friends at any age is hard, but making friends after moving across the country and experiencing the loss of a child is extremely difficult. Other mommies who know my story hang back politely, or once they learn my story they don’t know what to say and they hang back politely. I get it — I am the walking embodiment of their worst nightmare. Before I became a bereaved mother I wondered how someone like me even survived.
I don’t know what made me decide I needed new mommy friends. Maybe nostalgia. Maybe self-preservation. All I know is it’s a slow and shaky process to rejoin the world after a tremendous loss and this seemed like a good baby step. I made an effort. I wore actual pants instead of sweats. I even showered before the weekly class. I had high hopes but after a couple of ring-around-the-rosies I realized I wasn’t going to find my tribe in a sunny playroom at the library.
It’s difficult to relate to me. Not many people have a baby in their late forties. I personally don’t know anyone, maybe a few celebrities, but nobody in real life except me. Despite the odds and risks and the tests and the constant doctors appointments (they called it a geriatric pregnancy of all things), I had a baby when other people have grand babies. I don’t know what I have in common with the millennial moms at circle time, I figure they look at me while we sing twinkle twinkle for the millionth time and think that old showered and dressed lady seems pretty cool but I’m not sure we can hang out and eat goldfish crackers together.
I want to clarify — I have met some terrific mommies since moving here. My second son is great at making friends and I hang out with their parents who are only about one decade younger than me instead of two. These moms are awesome — an artist and a therapist — whom I adore and we love to drink canned wine from Trader Joe’s together, even if we have to drive forty-five minutes to get it.
But middle-aged ladies getting drunk on long-distance canned wine is a story for another day.