Three weeks ago tomorrow, I was snapping pre-surgery selfies with my family, a photo which demonstrates that the seven pounds I’d gained for the surgery in two weeks ended up in jowls, which was of no help at all. You might recall my surgery was a mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction in which stomach tissues are moved north, all in one go. An eight hour surgery. I don’t remember much of the immediate pre or post op, but I do know that Rutger Hauer was there doodling ancient Sanskrit on a cocktail napkin with a dribbling coffee straw.
I do know I was eventually wheeled into a private, enormous hospital room with an adjacent lounge for guests that the nurse at the helm referred to as the “VIP suite.”
“You got it by chance,” she marveled.
“No! You’re supposed to say I got it because I’m a VIP,” I corrected.
I awoke accordioned, the foot of the bed raised high, the back erect, my arms resting on pillows, and it wouldn’t be long before I figured out why. The plastic surgeon had transplanted every single centimeter of skin and tissue from my abdomen that he possibly could and stitched the resulting gap together, half-joking with my family that I’d need a walker to hunch over when I got home. Every time I inhaled I could feel the searing stretch of skin test the integrity of each little stitch. I was terrified to move from the hugging-the-knees position.
And every hour, a nurse would arrive with a Doppler wand, slide each hook free from an eye on a kind of granny bodice they’d put me in, and search across my patchwork breasts for the static thudding of a pulse, proof the transplanted tissue had not been rejected. No one had ever told me that was a possibility until the nurse explained, so I listened intently for the thrumming every time.
“Does this remind you of finding your girls’ heartbeats before they were born?” one nurse asked as she rolled the wand across a line of tiny stitches.
And when the shifts changed, the day nurse briskly approached to adjust the bed flat before I could protest. She thumbed the controls. The foot of the bed dropped in an instant. My body made a straight line, and I tapped the button on my pain-med drip as if it were the detonator that would make the day nurse explode.
When I told my sister Shelly about it, I said, “One day I’m going to think that was hilarious.”
“I’m not going to call your doctor, because he’s going to ask me what your vitals are and what your symptoms are and I’m going to tell him and he’s going to say everything’s normal,” she said.
“Did she make you feel better?” Shelly asked after the nurse had left.
“I guess so.”
Later, when I was home again, my nurse navigator, Laura, told me over the phone after I’d cracked a few jokes, “You just have such an amazing spirit, even after all you’ve gone through.”
“Well,” I said, “there was one day I got really whiny at the hospital and demanded to speak to my doctor.”
She laughed. “And did they let you?”
“No. They gave me a Valium.”
I told her how I spent three days underneath the wraps wondering if I had a belly button. For some reason, that upset me more than the Frankenboobs, as I’d taken to calling them.
The Frankenboobs were impressive products of modern science. That belly, button, though, it had the cutest freckle. It had character.
“Well do you have a belly button?” the nurse had asked.
“Oh yeah. It’s been newly forged. Joey says they took my 40-year old belly button and moved it up to a 19-year-old belly button.”
And I didn’t get to tell her how Joe and I plan to start a punk band called Phantom Nipple Pain because our conversation turned to the epic bemoaning of the drains.
By far, the worst aspect of my recovery had been the drains, two long tubes extending from each side of the abdominal incision that tracks from nearly behind me on each side of my waist and two tubes extending from the sides of each breast, tubes that fed into plastic drain bulbs that looked like clear grenades. And I had to keep them pinned to the granny bodice in a clattering grenade belt so gravity didn’t yank them free. Added bonus: because I’m apparently freakishly thin you could see where the ends of the drains curled to rest about six inches in under the skin. The drains had to be squeezed empty three times a day, the output measured precisely on a drain chart. That was all Joe’s job — clipping them onto a lanyard around my neck and ushering me naked into the shower, hunched and stepping, with the loops of drains swaying, like some kind of alien creature slow-lurching to the shower.
“Sexy!” I’d say. “Rawr!”
And Joe would Eartha Kitt growl back.
This is how I know Joe really, really loves me.
The first year I lived in Binghamton, New York, under snow from October to May, the sun absent, I was driving along Riverside in early June with my window down to the warm air. The Susquehanna River burbled behind the nineteenth-century houses, and kids came out to chase each other across verdant lawns. The warm air, the sun on my cheeks, the burbling twined with laughter, I sat there at the four-way so overjoyed with this emergence from the depravity of winter that I sat too long. That’s what it’s like having those drains pulled free after two weeks, getting to shed the bodice and binder and wear regular clothes, getting to shower all by myself, walking upright because I’d spent every minute since taking deep, yoga inhales and raising my shoulders by the smallest of increments each time.
As soon as all the drains were out, I went for a half-mile walk through the neighborhood with my dad. We reached the end of one block, and I said, “Let’s go one more over,” because stubbornness runs in our family.
And because stubbornness runs in our family, I took the stairs to the oncologist’s office one week after the surgery and then sat in her office, fanning myself with health magazines.
“Are you going to pass out? Your face just went white,” Joe noted.
” I feel funny,” I said, and it was almost like the whiny day in the hospital. Something was wrong. Or was it?
I also had a terrible bladder infection courtesy of the catheter the week before, and we were hoping the oncologist would prescribe me antibiotics. This is the state I was in, anyway, when she sat down to explain the pathology. The nodes were clear. The new mass hadn’t gotten any bigger. There were small signs in the duct that more cancer was likely to erupt down the road. The left breast was fine.
“And this means there were cells that chemo and radiation had been ineffective against, so I’d like to try another round with a different kind.”
“But we got rid of everything,” I said, still slumping then against the stretch of my stomach, the Frankenboobs making a new shape in my oversized gray sweater, the drain bulbs clustered at my rib cage.
“Just in case any cells escaped into the bloodstream,” she said.
You know how I recently wrote that I surprised myself by accepting the next new set-back and powering through it? And then the next and then the next? None of that fight was settling in. Perhaps because this fight would waged against a “maybe” with no way to judge the efficacy of the results. It seemed like toxic overload, After a long pause, I asked, “Can I just get medicine for the bladder infection?”
“Of course!” she said, “We have time to think about this, Just go enjoy your holidays.”
Which is a lot like someone saying, “Here’s a delicious apple pie for you! Enjoy it. Because as soon as you’re done, I’m going to cut your tongue out.”
We’re leaning towards “no.” We’re leaning towards nutrition and exercise and alternative medicine. All of that is so far outside the machine of the cancer industry (my doctor was completely unfamiliar with the study exploring the promise of melatonin supplements in breast cancer research, for example) that it’s a scary prospect. I’m not sure what we’ll do.
Maybe I should tell you a joke right here. Maybe I should tell you how my friend Margaret came to see me, chauffeuring me around, lifting things I couldn’t lift, taking me to the movies, sitting through a table reading for a web series in production I’m co-writing.
Maybe I should tell you that when I hugged Margaret goodbye, I joked, “I didn’t even get to show you my boobs,” while Hannah stood by, looking comically aghast.
Maybe I should tell you about the wonderful, supportive women at the church group I joined or the numerous friends who brought or delivered food or the mother-in-law who spent two weeks taking care of the girls or my sisters curled up in that hospital guest suite with one ear on the cracked-open door between us or Raquel who sent a book about the history of film, Liz who made sure I had fresh Star Trek AND Star Wars gear as well as goodies for the girls, Renée who mailed delectable grapefruit body wash just in time for my drain-free solo showers in which I stretch my arms up in the steam, pressing palms against marble, willing myself back to normal, the students who each wrote down their well-wishes and delivered them the day before I left for surgery, the texts and messages of support across social media, the students who stopped by the hospital, or George who came to play his guitar.
In the words of Mr. Rogers, when the world brims with troubles, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And I’m thinking of your all-powerful, collective goodness each time I stretch a half an inch taller or reach a bit further or walk a few steps more under the oak limbs filtering the sun in a constellation across the asphalt.