Back home after the diagnosis, I make dinner, noting that the salmon smells fishy. I cut the ends of the string beans and wash the romaine for a salad. I hear my husband's key in the door. He comes into the kitchen, says hi and gives me a kiss. His face feels scratchy. "It's cancer," I say, smiling. (Smiling!) I feel my absurd grin, pleased to be crazy.
But over the next days my brain begins to let in a little news at a time, like a gate that opens and closes at mysterious intervals, as if it knows how much my mind can handle without imploding. The gate swings open when I'm alone and I find myself crying at a traffic light; or on the freeway (risk cheating cancer by getting killed by the pickup truck tailgating me); or standing in the shower with a tight heart. The gate closes when I run errands, have dinner with friends, sit in the radiation waiting room. As the hours and days go by the gate stays open longer and longer until I begin to get it. I get it. This thing on my breast can kill me! Reading and writing become lost to me. The now wide-open gate has me imagining the unthinkable. Imagining my own death, my absence from my own life. In a crazy, perverse way it is secretly thrilling. I have cancer! I'm still alive! I check out my will and talk to my husband about his options when he's a widower.
When you show up for your doctor's appointment you are handed a clipboard on which lies a questionnaire with a laundry list of every disease, malady and symptom known to man. You are supposed to check those that you have or had, or think you have or had. You are also asked to check whether you have it sometimes, often, never or frequently. You obediently ponder the clipboard and make your checks.
And wait. And wait. Finally a woman fetches you and your clipboard. She leads you into a small room. There is an examining table, a desk, a computer, a chair. There is an illustration of the human body on the wall with its map of organs and blood vessels and arteries, but no genitalia. It is as sexless as I have felt since I found the lump.
The assistant invites me to sit in the chair. She is young and pudgy with pretty blond hair. She is wearing a tiny diamond engagement ring. She settles in front of the computer, and looks at the clipboard. Then she says, "When was your last mammogram?"
"Didn't I fill that out? I thought I filled it out."
She looks at me. "No, you didn't."
"My last mammogram? It was a year ago, I think. Well, actually, a little over a year," I lie.
Actually it is almost two years but I'll be damned if I'll admit it to this sullen kid.
"Are your parents alive?" she asks, turning back to the screen.
"What did they die of?"
"My mother died of polycythemia --well actually it was leukemia, but the polycythemia started it," I say.
"And?" she says, waiting, fingers poised on the keyboard.
I am silent. I hear voices in one of the examining rooms.
I clear my throat. "He died young. No medical history there -- he died too young to get anything."
I look at my watch. I want to get out of this barren room with the sexless person on the wall.
She turns to me and I smell her perfume. It smells of lilac. "What did he die of?"
I am feeling a familiar rush of shame. It has rendered me speechless.
"So what did he die of?" she asks again.
I sigh. "Murder. He died of murder."
She looks at me.
"He was a bootlegger," I explain. I smile.
She turns to the computer and types something.
"It wasn't my fault, I was two years old," I want to say.
She sticks a thermometer in my mouth, puts a blood pressure sleeve on my arm and starts pumping. She doesn't make eye contact. I decide I don't like her.
She hands me a paper robe. "Take everything off above the waist. The doctor will see you shortly," she says, as she leaves the room.
I do as I am told. And wait, wishing I had brought something to read because "shortly" turns out to be a long time.
Why didn't I say "accident," to this stone-faced girl? Why didn't I say he died in an automobile accident. Or that he died in the war -- I could have said he was a war hero! Or simply repeated my mother's lie: "He died of pneumonia," she told me when I was old enough to ask.
I believed her. My father wasn't a murdered bootlegger, he died innocently in bed of pneumonia. So I don't have cancer cells multiplying mysteriously in my breast, and therefore will live to be an old, old lady with great grandchildren, no matter what the doctor says if he ever turns up.
My mother never uttered a word about my father's violent death. Even 40 years after his murder she was still unable to speak the truth. But denial was too late for me. Cancer doesn't lie. Cancer, unlike murder, doesn't kill in seconds. It's always there, on standby. And as I sat waiting for the doctor, my bare breasts covered in a paper jacket, I envied my mother's lifelong delusion.