Months ago, still on chemo, I’d stopped at a gas station, wearing a head scarf and the free breast-cancer-awareness t-shirt my oncologist had given me the first day we’d met. I’d grown tired of the wig already. It felt like hiding. The girls, for whom the wig was intended, had gotten used to the sight of my head capped with something a little less disguising. They waited on me as I angled the gas pump, the sun low over the pecan trees and palms, Hannah in the front seat, the Firecracker covering her knees in grocery store stickers in the back. Then a woman in a fitted pant suit and kitten heels stepped over the sagging line of her own gas pump to cross over to me.
“I want you to know I love your shirt,” she said, “and you’re going to be fine. I was there fifteen years ago, and I assure you. I assure you. It doesn’t feel like it now, but life is going to be back to normal soon. This is just going to be something in the past. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Thanks,” I said in the southern drawl that irons out my syllables whenever I’m pushing myself to be particularly sociable. “It’s always good to hear those stories!”
“Don’t forget,” she said before clattering delicately on her kitten heels back to her car.
Hannah wanted to know what she’d said. I told her.
“That was nice of her!” Hannah said.
I agreed. It was very nice of her. Hope so elegantly demonstrated is always nice. But there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying, this lady doesn’t know — she only knows how it worked out so far for her. I returned to the driver’s seat and looked over my shoulder to back out, looking past the tangles of cords hanging from the ceiling of the car where the DVD player used to be. That day I had my mammogram and sonogram films to take to the surgeon, that day I picked up the Firecracker and wadded up her drawing and strapped her into her booster seat, she was so mad she kicked the DVD player until it fell off. That’s one thing I didn’t describe in that first blog post about the Day One Monster, but that was a monstrous day indeed. Ever since, the cords snake out in every direction, a snarling reminder, waiting for something to snag.
* * *
When I was just a little older than the Firecracker, we used to park the station wagon where San Pedro Avenue met the edge of the airport’s chain-link perimeter fence and wait. Over the rooftops across the street, a dot on the pink horizon, commercial jets slowly descended, stirring our hair and shirt collars as they roared overhead and angled for the runway. I never looked right at an airplane, because if I looked right at an airplane it would crash. So there I was on the hood of the car, giving the 6:20 from San Francisco the side-eye. It’s kind of why I looked away from the magazine stands that stocked Joan Lunden’s recent People cover.
It’s why, two days ago, Hannah and I searched for the remote in the sofa cushions while on the nightly news women in pink shirts of their own lined up on barstools to talk about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“I think I’m aware,” Hannah said, switching it off.
Even now, as a fairly rational grown person, I’m burdened with my own superstition that if I stare too long at the precarious, the precarious unravels into tragedy. What I’m really afraid of, of course, is that this tragedy will be my own.
Yet when the surgeon called with the results of my first biopsy since being declared cancer free in April, it didn’t feel, as it had the first time, that things were quickly coming undone. The first time, I’d canceled class and sat at home until I could hug the girls right off the bus. This time, Joe actually talked to Dr. Fischer because my evening class was already under way. During the break, I stepped into the hallway to check my phone. Joe had me on speaker in his car, driving back with the girls from dinner.
“Did you talk to him?” I asked, cryptically.
“Yeah, he called,” Joe said. And there’s this little thing Joe’s voice does when he’s preparing his words to hold the weight of bad news. He speaks a little higher. So I knew.
“Did he tell you?”
“Yeah. I have the girls with me,” he reminded, “on speaker. We’re headed home from dinner.”
Now I really knew.
“Well … is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
“Yes,” he said with feigned weightlessness.
And then I walked back in and taught the second half of class.
* * *
Life is going to be back to normal soon. Driving home from workshop, I steer past the gas station, dimly lit, empty of cars. Mine is a quiet neighborhood. Silence sprawls out across lawns as my headlights glide past pumpkins on porch stoops. These are the streets I’d been walking with the intention of readying myself for a half-marathon in December. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to walk it now. I hope I still can. Last week, I’d sat with a colleague who’d told me about the Rome Prize.
“If you’re selected, they pay you to take your whole family and live in Rome and write for a year,” she said.
“That sounds perfect,” I said. “I’d love that.”
But even then I was thinking I can’t really plan too far ahead. I can’t go that far away.
Like most breast cancer survivors, I always had the possibility of recurrence at the back of my mind. I’d just read an article about a woman who wasn’t even a year out from her first round of chemo treatment, and there she was shaving her head again, in tears, her whole family around her in tears. As I read it, I thought, “I’d lose it if that were me. There’s no way I could take that again.”
That’s kind of been me every step of the way. There’s no way I can have surgery. There’s no way I can have a mediport installed. There’s no way I can undergo chemo. There’s no way. I don’t have it in me. The first time, my surgeon told me I’d surely need chemo, and Joe and I both thought “nope.” We thought we’d meet the oncologist and come up with a genius alternative plan, but the oncologist didn’t see me as a candidate for any alternative plan.
“Will I lose my hair?” I asked her.
“And eyebrows and eyelashes, most likely. But they’ll grow back.”
And in a second’s time, something strange happened. I could suddenly see myself being this person, then being well again on the other side. I could see that I had to do it, and it became perfectly plausible.
“Where do I get a wig?” I asked.
“You can use the Nikki Sixx wig at the Halloween store,” Joe helpfully suggested.
As I drive home now, on another cool Monday evening almost a year to the date, a new ¾ centimeter mass nested under my seatbelt strap, I’m not upset. My mind has made that turn toward action. When I walk in, Joe and I start researching the list of breast-reconstruction surgeons Dr. Fischer gave him, all of us ready to attack the second wave with a full mastectomy. We don’t mess around.
And if you’re feeling like attacking something as well, maybe consider donating to the Thrivewell Cancer Foundation that funds cancer research and runs the terrific, free DIVA program in San Antonio designed specifically for breast cancer survivors. Take that, cancer!