A flashback to the summer of 2005.
When I arrive at the hospital, everything bodes well. I locate and enter the parking lot that I worried I wouldn't know how to enter or pay for, then I successfully navigate my way to the right elevator, then through the maze of hallways, and finally to the correct suite of imaging rooms. Although I have lived for more than 25 years in San Francisco, which is not really all that big of a city, I am still a small town mid-western girl at heart, still not at ease with the plethora of urban options even when they are confined solely to one large hospital.
My waiting room experience also goes surprisingly well. According to Cosmopolitan magazine, Christie Brinkley attributes her trim physique to vegetarianism, Jennifers Lopez and Aniston both pump iron, and Halle Berry does power yoga. The mammogram goes well too.
But the TV-like screen of the ultrasound machine presents a view of my left breast that reveals a distinct black mass. The mass quivers, shifts, disappears and reappears as the radiologist moves a rectangular metal sensing device back and forth over the quadrant in question. When, after a minute or two, the doctor doesn't turn to me and cheerfully announce, "All right, all done!" — when, instead, he silently and intently proceeds to push numerous buttons and switches, in order to further scrutinize the lump, I feel my first jolt of unease.
I inwardly answer this question in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: Possibly. And why not? You aren't immune. It could happen to you as well as anyone. But my wet armpits and racing heart are arguing with Ms. Matter-of-Fact.
As the clicking of the ultrasound grows louder, something odd happens. Although I am lying down, I feel as if I am standing...and forcing myself to stand up even straighter, then to square my shoulders. As soon as I do this, a veil of cobwebs falls away from me, and everything that is truly important in my life flashes before my eyes. Unmade decisions and unanswered questions that have been eating at me for weeks, months or even years suddenly seem simple to decide, to answer.
Should I spend the money sooner rather than later to visit my son who lives thousands of miles away in another country, even though I fear I can't afford it? Yes.
Should I continue to fret about my lopsided haircut? No.
Should I continue planning for my first-ever trip to Paris next summer? Yes.
Should I go on stressing because I'm afraid the car won't pass smog inspection? No.
Should I spend more quality time with my dear Jack? Yes.
Should I continue to procrastinate and make myself miserable over the dread of doing my business taxes? No.
And so on down the list. Yes, no, no, yes, no no yes no yes. There. All done. Now I can move on to the next order of business, which will be . . . what? Chemotherapy? Radiation? Mutilation?
Everything is clear. Do I want to live? Yes.
Do I have a lot to live for? More than ever.
Can I handle whatever comes next? Sure.
Can I, really? Maybe I'm just on some kind of surreal automatic pilot function that kicks in when fear addles your illusion of reality.
The ultrasound reveals that the lump in question is not fluid-filled. Huh? "Fluid would be good," the radiologist explains. "But this mass is palpable, and that's worrisome. We need to send you over to the biopsy clinic for a needle aspiration. "
I return to the dressing room, take off the hospital gown with its blue and white symmetrical design that reminds me of my father's boxer shorts long ago, put my sweater back on, and feel a hint of dizziness. I look in the mirror to make sure I am really there, smooth a stray strand of hair, and note that most of my lipstick is still on my lips and that it matches my red pants. I'm glad I dressed in such a nice mammogram outfit today. I wouldn't have wanted to look like crap for this momentous occasion. I'm holding a sheet of paper that shows a sketchy drawing of my breasts. In the upper left-hand quadrant of the left breast, a black dot screams out.
Another maze of hallways awaits me. Right, left, left, right and down a long corridor to another waiting room, where I flip through People magazine. Richard Gere has married his longtime love, with whom he has been happily raising two children for the last seven years. He also really likes dogs.
Soon I am lost inside another Size Super Extra Large-Enough-for-Any-Terrified Woman gown. I am perched on the end of another examining table, feeling amazed at how quickly I've been whisked through the system. Are they giving me the VIP treatment because they know more than I do? Have they already surmised the real scoop?
The next doc to appear at my side is grandfatherly – short, tubby and bald. Gramps won't let anything bad happen to this 52-year-old girl, will he? Especially not if I tell him that I am a mother with a 19-year-old son, right? But of course one 19-year-old son isn't as moving as, say, three little ones all under the age of five. Shit.
I try to picture my son at the faraway school he left home to attend, a circus school. I picture him trudging through Canadian snow, on his way to another crazy day of daring pole-climbing, wacky juggling and elegant hoop diving. I try to imagine the place he and his close-knit group of circus friends have just moved into. He has described it to me, but it's hard to visualize a kooky apartment located inside in an old nunnery, complete with courtyard, chapel and, still on the walls, numerous pictures of Jesus Christ. He is beginning a whole new adventure, an exciting new phase of his life. I'd love to see this place for myself. I would love to see Montreal.
How will I tell him if the news isn't good? I don't want him to worry. But neither do I want to hide the truth, leave him out of life's precious loop. He has a right to know, doesn't he? And he'd want to know, right? Hell no! Of course he wouldn't want to know. I should hide it from him, shield him, let him be free from this fucked up burden. I mean, if it comes to that. If if if. Sheesh. I am getting way too far ahead of myself.
As Dr. Gramps prepares the scary looking needles, I can't stop wiggling my right big toe. But the aspirations turn out to be less painful than I imagined. Once, four years ago, after a particularly bad, incredibly erotic romance and inevitable soul-crushing break-up, I raced out to get collagen injections in my unhappy brow and anorexic lips. Those injections hurt far more than these aspirations. I wonder if chemotherapy might also be less painful, less horrible, than I imagine. I wonder if my hair would grow back curlier than before. Maybe I would like that amusing transformation.
When he is done, Dr. Gramps goes to the counter where several microscope slides – silver bells and cockle shells! – are all lined up in a row.
"Are you going to tell me the results right now?" I say.
Dr. Gramps is, to my chagrin, all business. "We won't know the final results until tomorrow after 3 p.m. This is just the preliminary finding."
"I understand. But can't you tell me what percentage of women end up with negative results?"
"At this hospital, I'd say about 85 percent."
"How many women do you see in a week?"
"In a week? I don't know. Maybe about a thousand a year."
"Okay. I know you can't give me a final answer, but can you at least make an educated guess?"
Doctor Gramps hesitates but finally speaks. "There's a very good chance it's benign."
My breath whooshes out. I didn't realize I'd been holding it in.
"What if you didn't think it was benign? Would you tell me?"
He pauses again, then looks me in the eye. "It depends on the woman. Some women don't want to hear it this soon, this way. Others would prefer to know right away. I'm telling you the truth. I've been doing this a long time, since 1979, and I'm 99 percent sure that I'm right in your case. But you should still check back tomorrow after three. In the meantime, if your breast starts to ache, take some Ibuprofen. No aspirin."
I walk back to my car in a drizzle of rain, past a row of intensely red tulips. As the inhospitable hospital vibes loosen their grip, I do the math. Eighty-five percent negative means fifteen percent positive. That's 150 women a year, which works out to roughly three freaked out women a week. It's January 23rd. So far this month, two real women have been given the news. Who are these women? What are their names? The names of their children? Their husbands? What are they doing right this minute, as I move past this real life painting of stunningly, brilliantly, strawberry-raspberry-cherry red, rose red, blood red tulips?
My punctured and bruised breast aches and burns. It's an ache that contains my dear sweet Jack, and the promise of April in Paris, and the universe that is my son's face. It's an ache that holds a sparkling glass of champagne, the pitter-patter of rain, that moment at dawn when even my stove looks so soft.
I drive along Divisadero Street, my foot pressed to the gas, moving down the road with the radio on. I turn up the volume, LOUD, and sing along.
I remember Dr. Gramp's instructions to take Ibuprofen if I feel an ache. But I decide against this. I do feel an ache, but I don't want it to go away. It's the ache of fifty-two years hoping to become fifty-three and, greedily, far beyond. It's the ache of every breath I'm lucky enough to take. It's the ache of reality, mortality, humanity. I am grateful for this ache, this unwelcome, unwanted, indelible reminder. I could live with it forever.