I wrote a rougher version of the following personal essay, around six years ago (in 2005), just prior to my bc diagnosis. Today I dug it out, smoothed a few of the rough edges, and felt some satisfaction in doing that, especially after having spent all day yesterday leading a workshop called "I Want to Write BUT...A Kick in the 'But' Class for...You?"
I felt like I should give myself a good kick in the 'but,' too.
Here's what I ended up with:
I woke up this morning thinking, as I once again swung my feet over the edge of the bed, about all the people I've known who have died in the last decade. My brother, my mother, my father. Tina's sister, Gabrielle's lover. That 14-year-old girl, can't remember her name, in my son's acrobatics class, whose safety buckle malfunctioned during a routine trapeze trick. Just go, I say to myself. The appointment does not require high drama, requires nothing more than two hands that can grip a steering wheel, two legs that can carry you into the doctor's office.
All I can say is that the salt was everywhere, rampant, washing up onto beach after beach, sloshing crazily against the sides of my tub, running down the kitchen drain along with the dirty water, flimsy suds and bits of leftover rice. It was in the sky and under the ground. It was in my tears, on my tongue, in my bones and genes. It flowed through pipes of copper and steel, filled toilet bowls and sewers and leaf-jammed gutters. In one rustic, rural town, it filled a river, and boats of strangers rode on the river's back. Right before I woke up, the river, which if you recall was also me, turned into a cloud and rained its salty self down upon the world.
When I walk into the kitchen, my other self, who I have given the name of Lenore, is sitting at the table painting her nails. I never paint my nails.
"I don't want to be buried in a coffin in a grave," she announces to me without looking up, and without any detectable segue from her hot "Flamingo Pink!" fingertips to the topic of death.
"I plan to do death the sensible way" she says. "Cremation is the only option. No memorial service unless it's in the form of a great big dance party and funny, interesting speeches about how great I was, from everyone I've ever known. Did you know that green tea fights wrinkles as well as cancer? It's full of antioxidants."
I reach down to stroke my cat Greta's head. I do agree with Lenore's take on coffin stuff. Take a deep breath, I say to myself. Your breasts have always been full of lumps. It'll turn out to be nothing. Just another stupid, benign cyst.
Lenore, who has zero interest in my lump or impending appointment, rattles on. "You know, sometimes I make a mental list of all my ex-lovers, and it's enough just to say their names, although these days I'm hard pressed to remember all of them. I'm sure there was a time when I thought it would be impossible for me forget a single one."
"Nothing is impossible," I say, swirling the cream into my coffee. "The most awful things are not impossible. Dementia is not impossible. Senseless war, not impossible. Reality TV, not impossible. Excruciatingly painful diseases, death, caskets, coffins, unfulfilled dreams. . . . none are impossible."
"You're in a real bummer of a mood," says Lenore. "Well, neither is buying a house of your own someday ... impossible, that is -- or finding true love, though I know you'd beg to differ. Or finding a great haircutter; hideously difficult, yes, but not utterly impossible. Or losing twenty pounds. Or writing that book you keep saying you've got inside you. Or living to hold the grandchild you claim to want to cuddle and read your favorite storybooks to, the ones you've been saving all these years."
I try to remember the book titles. Goodnight Moon, Brer Rabbit . . . that tiny one about a carrot seed. Another tiny one, what was it? oh right: A Hole is to Dig. Jesus, they're probably all mildewed by now, or falling apart, bugs crawling between the pages, turning to gross dust down in that box in the garage.
I dump the filter full of wet, dark french roast coffee grounds into the trash, then stare at Lenore's purple feather boa, which is wrapped around her neck even though she is still in her robe (a flowery silk kimono, in contrast to my thick but comfy lump of polyester), and I wish I could absorb more of that feathery, speakeasy outlook of hers. Look how fortunate you are, I say to myself, giving it my best shot. You had a good radiologist, didn't you? She did her job and sent you a note saying: "There is an abnormality. Get thee to a hospital for follow-up tests."
I try to imagine what receiving a bad diagnosis would be like, and decide that my head would probably feel as if it had been chopped off and tossed into another universe. What if the word "metastasis" is included, and, if so, what will remain of me after I disappear from this particular reality? Two unread books on the bedside table? An unidentifiable vegetable -- cabbage? broccoli? -- lying in the unwashed wok? Another available single man, my relatively new boyfriend Jack, for all of San Francisco's desperate women to descend upon? A motherless son?
I force myself to stop trying to envision the unenvisionable, and to concentrate instead on listening to the small but distinct sound, like a tiny faraway siren, that has become a continuous background noise inside the depths of my right ear. Do I have tinnitus? Should I look it up online? Wouldn’t that be a better way to spend my time than obsessing on the topic of my possible imminent demise?
Yesterday, at Lenore's instigation and insistence, I ordered three pairs of high heels over the Internet — in turquoise and purple and chartreuse. I've never done such a thing before and can see the folly in it. But maybe I need to make more room for folly in my life. Lenore says I am being gobbled up by my dependence upon the habitual, my fear-based, worst-case scenario temperament.
So. Tomorrow I will drive to the hospital and pick up my mammogram film and its accompanying report, then head on over to the surgeon's office for more tests. On my way back I will stop at Radio Shack to buy a telephone battery. Why can’t they sell those things at Walgreen's, along with the regular AA and AAAs?
I hold on to Jack's hand in my mind's eye. Jack, who threw me a party for my 50th birthday. Jack, who took me on a trip to Abiqui, New Mexico because I said I wanted to see what Georgia O'Keefe had seen, and because he knew how much I love a wide open sky. After only one year with this man, I already know he's a keeper. If surgery -- a lumpectomy? a mastectomy? -- ends up on my to-do list, he'll get me to the hospital and back. He'll be there for me. He's just that kind of a guy. But still, I feel like last week's tulip, my head wobbling on a failing stem, about to flop over the edge of the vase.
I fill a glass with water and swallow my mouthful of vitamins and other assorted supplements as Lenore looks on with one eyebrow raised and a questioning tilt of her head. Lenore spurns the mega-supplements routine, preferring to start each new day with whatever her taste buds fancy and without regard for minimum daily requirements. She fuels her body with a secret formula that I long to know but also fear. It almost certainly includes lots of cheesecake on a regular basis.
After Radio Shack I will head north into the wind, smelling the smell of my own salty sweat, which suddenly makes me remember the scent of my son's hair, years ago when he was three instead of eighteen, and would come running into the house from the back yard, his whole body warm and moist and excited by life. I would press my nose against the top of his silky-haired head and smell the heavenly, scruffy scent of little boy -- of dirt and grass, dandelions and pine needles and sunshine and who knew what else?
The smell of life in general is bold today, full of zing. It includes even the strange odor of a few thousand maverick cells in my left breast, cells that have gone wild with the thrill of springtime and blossoming. And who can blame them, really?