What’s Underneath the Surface

Mbot: Blast off!

What’s underneath the surface?

One morning in May, I entered the bathroom to find both Gbot and Mbot standing together on the footstool. Gbot held a tube of some overexpensive, undereffective face cream and was nanoseconds away from squeezing. “Gbot,” I warned, “If you squirt that out, then I’ll look like an ugly old hag.”

Mbot looked up from the nail clippers he was attempting to use. “Why will you look like an ugly old hag?” he asked. “Because that’s what you really are?”

I think the babysitter had been reading them old-fashioned fairytales, in whose archetypal plots lurked witches disguised as beautiful maidens.

No, I told them. I’m gorgeous inside, but my skin is getting wrinkly, so the contents of the tube will keep me as lovely on the outside as I am on the inside.

That was at the end of May. The next week, I received a letter in the mail. I was being called back for a follow-up mammogram. “Heterogeneous tissue in the left breast,” read the letter. Do not be alarmed. Only four out of every thousand mammograms detect something bad. Two days later, I was staring at a black-and-white image of my left breast, magnified by four hundred percent, and Dr. Green, a radiologist, was pointing out a cluster of white specks that she called “calcifications.”

The next day, I was lying face-down on a biopsy table while twelve miniscule tissue samples were suctioned out for further study. Beyond the translucent shades of the corner room, the sun glanced off car roofs two stories down as they navigated the parking lot. Inside my own story, it was very quiet. I felt within those beige walls like part of an elaborate pop-up book, a parallel universe whose covers were these walls. Afterward, I smiled at the staff, because it was polite, but no one smiled back.

The next day, a woman’s brisk voice on the phone announced that she would put Dr. Green on the line to explain the biopsy results.

She used words I had never heard before, and other words I had heard before but not in the context of my life. “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, Grade 3.” “Abnormal cells in the lining of the milk duct.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Hormone therapy.” “Tamoxifen.” And these, which I clung to: “Early detection.” “Not life-threatening.”

The rational part of my mind was not worried. I was grateful. During daylight hours, I packed lunches for summer day camp, swam with bots, made dinner, read Harry Potter, went to the Children’s Museum, oversaw time-outs.

The other parts of my mind were not so cooperative, especially at night. I began writing my dreams down in Haiku. Pressing the labyrinthine plots into the three brief lines of a poetic form I’d learned in childhood allowed me to, literally, synthesize my fears, understand them, and begin to assimilate them.

Dream #1

Hung over, wine glass

shards glinting, last night’s chicken

still out, breast sliced white.

Three days later, I celebrated my forty-sixth birthday by meeting with my OB/GYN. This sort of thing–early detection–probably noninvasive Stage 0 calcifications–is what gives breast cancer a good name, she told me. You’ll be fine. The chances of your dying from this are less than getting hit by a bus.

I drove home looking sideways at buses.

Quite unexpectedly, I found I had acquired a team: a breast surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist. Every time I succeeded in forgetting about the disease I had, but could not see or feel, someone would call wanting me to make an appointment or register or preregister: for appointments. For a chest X-ray. For a radioactive seed localization implant. In spite of good medical insurance, everyone wants my credit card. I am earning air miles. I have a complimentary tote bag, heavy with literature and complimentary DVDs for cancer survivors. I have a new label.

Dream #2

I’ve promised to bring

the Angry Bird costumes but

they’ve all been rented.

Less than three weeks after the initial diagnosis, I was in surgery.

That was Wednesday.

The next day, we went to the circus. My mom’s in town–she’d planned the visit months ago, and bought the tickets in April as birthday presents for the bots. We’d planned to drive up to Idaho for the month of July. We will leave a week later than planned.

Dream #3

My son, three, standing,

neatly gutted. I wasn’t

there when it happened.

Both the lumpectomy incision and the incision close to my armpit, where two lymph nodes were removed for further study, are small, and in a few weeks will hardly be noticeable. Yesterday in the shower, I shaved my armpit and I might as well have been pulling the blade across the pork shoulder I’d cooked for dinner: nerves damaged during surgery had yet to repair themselves. Today, there is tingling.

Close Shave

We are not entitled

to feeling good. Or, to

feeling anything.

Results from the pathology lab will arrive Monday, and at this point the prognosis is very good. I’m lucky.

Dream #4

Gwyneth Paltrow is

having swimming lessons. What

an unflattering view.

I choose to interpret this last one like this: even though she doesn’t look great having swimming lessons, Gwyneth Paltrow is still the most beautiful woman in the world (according to People magazine). Ergo, although parts of me may look ugly as seen on a mammography film, I’m still not an ugly old hag.

What Would Mrs. Hole Do?

I am lying here waiting for inspiration to come and may as well be waiting for Ed McMahon, who ended up needing his million dollar check as much as any of us.

Has my inspiration been foreclosed on?

In the sixth grade, we were assigned by the most magnificent teacher ever, Mrs. Hole, to keep a journal. We had to make an entry every day. I was a seasoned procrastinator even then (see Mountain Day, Here I Come), and managed to write most of the entries in the day or two before they were due.

By the fifth or sixth entry, which sounded suspiciously like the previous pages, Mrs. Hole made a note, something to the effect of, “Variety adds interest.” I saw her point. But I still didn’t get what the assignment was really about.

Sure, it was about discipline and the fact that the events and angst of any given day would provide a subject or at the very least lend texture and interest. But more, it was about process: writing as a process, in which practice might actually result in strengthening voice and skill. It was about evolution–not the catastrophic evolution caused by meterorites or cranking out twenty journal entries in one terrible evening, but mutation over time. Like all those guys in the Book of Genesis who beget and beget and beget until the fellow at the end of the five-inch long paragraph about begetting is no longer a woolly mammoth but a modern day elephant. (I prefer a loose, metaphorical reading of the Bible.)

And so, even though my inspiration is now owned by the bank, I am begetting a blog post. Somewhere out there, Mrs. Hole would be proud.

What did you beget today?