My mother died of breast cancer twelve years ago, and I was due for my baseline mammogram about three years ago, but circumstances and laziness conspired against me, and it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that I finally dusted off the old referral card and made the appointment. Based on the results of that mammogram, I had to go in for a follow-up ultrasound on Tuesday, which happened to be my mother’s birthday, which I would call ironic if I didn’t have such a firm grasp on the actual definition of irony, so instead I’ll just call it a coincidence ripe with literary possibility.
Somewhere in those images the radiologist discovered some tissue that looked different from all the surrounding tissue, so she ordered a biopsy of my left breast. I was fortunate enough to get an appointment for the following day, yesterday. (Are you following me?) I was not nervous. All of the health care professionals involved in this affair were very good at conveying to me the unextraordinary and not-at-all-frightening nature of these procedures, which are not at all uncommon with first mammograms, as first mammograms don’t have the advantage of previous mammograms to compare to and see that this here thingy has always been here and it don’t appear to be changin’ none, so never mind the biopsy and we’ll see y’all next year. (Radiologists are a lot less threatening as country bumpkins, aren’t they?)
Anyway, as I’ve been telling select people over the last couple days, this biopsy was not a big deal and there was no reason to get excited about it. I myself was not excited–knowing perfectly well that despite my family history, I was no different from thousands of other women getting their first mammograms, and the vast majority of biopsies end up as nothing, so there’s no reason to panic until there’s something to panic over. Not that I intend to panic in any case. As Chekhov said, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” (I told you this was going to be ripe with literary possibility, and I don’t disappoint, do I?)
Still, it seemed the more I insisted that it wasn’t a big deal, the more it sounded like I was trying to convince myself rather than anyone else. It was annoying because I didn’t know how much more convinced I could be, at least intellectually. Yes, that was the problem. Intellectually, I was fully convinced. Emotionally, I was doing my own thing. Stupid emotions. Oh, except I’m a woman and I respect my emotions. Except I don’t. I blame the patriarchy. (Just kidding. Well, I don’t know. Maybe I do. Something to explore in therapy, perhaps, but that’s not what this post is about.)
So I had my biopsy yesterday. The procedure itself was very straightforward. I felt no pain. Apparently my breasts respond very well to local anesthetic, which is cool because breasts have to be good for something. There was a lot of prep work and waiting involved. They were very busy that day, but it was okay, because I was in a room all by myself and it was totally quiet. How often does that happen? Answer: Never–except when you’re having a biopsy. I didn’t sleep, but I closed my eyes and was awfully relaxed. It was pretty awesome. But then they did the biopsy and I had to get another mammogram and they wrapped my breasts with an Ace bandage and sent me on my way, back to my non-quiet, non-alone life with my family.
My husband drove me home and made dinner for the kids while I went upstairs with an ice pack and took a long nap.
I woke up from my nap, and the numbing agent had certainly worn off. My breast felt, oddly enough, like someone had rammed a giant needle into it and sucked out some tissue. Inside, deep inside, I felt like any second I was going to explode into a million pieces if somebody didn’t kick me into next Tuesday, when I will have long since gotten the results of my totally normal biopsy and can go back to my usual angst over poop and laundry and my non-existent writing career. It is a rich and varied life I lead.
I went downstairs and took a Tylenol. I went back upstairs and buried my face in a pillow and started sobbing uncontrollably. I knew there was more going on here than my stupid breast (which was going to be fine, I KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE FINE)–there was also all the emotional and psychological crap about my mother and my depression and frustration and self-loathing, and if I had enough hours to think about it and write it out, I would end up with 30,000 words and a brilliant analysis of my fracked-up brain. My lifestyle doesn’t afford me such luxuries, however; I couldn’t begin to sit down and think this through because I know I would only be interrupted and lose my place and forget what I was thinking and have to start over and never get anywhere. It’s a project that just isn’t worth starting.
And so I cried and got annoyed that I was crying because crying means a stuffy nose and a headache, and who needs that when you’ve already got pain in other areas aforementioned? Also, I don’t like to cry about my problems, which don’t add up to a hill of beans in a world with so much suffering. It’s like when my house caught on fire a couple years ago and we had to move out for a few months while we had it fixed; I could never stop saying how fortunate we were that no one was hurt and we didn’t lose anything of value (except, you know, the roof and the bathroom and stuff) and we had a place to live that was close by and our insurance was awesome. I couldn’t feel upset about being displaced from my home because there was too much to be grateful for. I didn’t realize how stressful it was not being upset about being displaced from my home until we finally moved back in and I wept with joy at the relief. My shrink says that I’m the kind of person who can’t or won’t own her dark feelings–which seems kind of ridiculous, considering how I spent the lion’s share of my adolescence, but she is right; even as I wallow in self-pity, I am mocking and pointing a finger at the crazy lady who can’t stop wanting the world to revolve around her own discomfort.
It’s not a becoming trait. Every time I read that part in 2 Nephi where Nephi exclaims, “O wretched man that I am!” I have to roll my eyes and say, “Oh, give it up, Nephi, no one’s buying your wretchedness, Mr. I’m-the-only-one-in-the-wilderness-who-never-murmurs-and-yet-my-sins-doth-easily-beset-me. ‘I’m Nephi and I’m not perfect, wo is me!'” When I finally cross Tennyson’s fabled bar, Nephi’s probably going to punch me in the face and it’ll be well-deserved.
But back to my story. So there I was failing not to feel sorry for myself because my angst had no meaning, and it began to be time to put all the children to bed, and this was where the blessings of my too-lame-to-suffer trial started revealing themselves.
To begin with, I was relieved of all putting-children-to-bed duties.
I just bought myself several days of guilt-free refusal to play my six-year-old’s favorite game, “Throw The Ball On The Roof So I Can Watch It Roll Back Down–Repeatedly, With No End in Sight,” aka Sisyphusball.
I was reminded that in addition to being handsome, my husband is a very loving and supportive spouse. He’s not the insensitive jerk he tries to make everyone think he is.
I got to just lie there and hear my children tell me all about their days, and I wasn’t distracted or annoyed by the fact that the advent of their bedtime was getting further and further delayed. They talked and I listened.
My eight-year-old son was telling me about all the beads he earned at Cub camp that day. The beads go on this necklace-nametag-thingy that isn’t called a necklace because they’re boys, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Anyway, this necklace-not-necklace thingy is supposed to go to camp with him everyday, and as he was showing me the beads he’d earned, he mentioned that he didn’t have the (not-)necklace thingy with him at camp but it was okay because he just put the beads on at home. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t send it with you this morning.” He said, “No, Mom, it was my fault. I forgot it.”
It was a good thing I was lying down because otherwise I might have fainted. This is a child who I don’t believe has ever taken responsibility for any of his own belongings or misfortunes in life. It was a miracle, kids, and I might never have witnessed it if not for the fact that my boob was killing me so much.
As my husband was putting the other children down, my three-year-old–who has been fighting everything, everyday, for the last week and a half, and who had just pitched a screaming fit over every step of donning pajamas for the evening, for no discernible reason–crawled into bed with me and was trying with little success to put herself to sleep. Something was bothering her–something possibly related to her chronic constipation issues, or maybe something new, I couldn’t tell. I supposed I might need to take her to the doctor again, even though the doctor would probably find nothing unusual and tell me to just keep going with her laxative and once again bless my heart for raising four anal-retentive children.
So there we were, me with my sore left breast and my littlest one with whatever mysterious-or-not ailment was torturing her. Her eyes were closed, but every so often she’d cry (scream) out, “Mommy, help me!” I said, “I want to help you, baby, but I don’t know what to do.” So she wrapped each of her hands around two of my fingers and held on for dear life until at last she started snoring. Then I gently removed myself from her grasp and went downstairs to take another Tylenol and eat some chocolate-covered pretzels. (Poor Nephi never had either of those things. No wonder he was wretched.)
I don’t know why my life is so good, but it is.