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New memoir in its entirety. Still looking for right agent. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Hallelujah! The New York Times has OK'd women getting pissed off. "Women Writers Give Voice to Their Rage." A raft of books, both fiction and nonfiction, examined women's anger from personal and political angles--and suggested that the fire is just getting started.The fire has been burning forever, you stupid New York Times, try as you have to throw blankets of scorn over us when we got as mad as men. Mad Women Matter. 

 

And so, very dear readers, I hope First You Get Pissed strikes a chord the way Girls of Tender Age did. (Please note the Sally Fields epigram I chose for this book.)

 

 

DEDICATION

 

For Leroy Hommerding, Director of Beach Library, Fort Myers Beach, FL, who took me under his wing, recommended my first memoir Girls of Tender Age to the library book club, and then invited me to lead a discussion when the book was scheduled. He came to the discussion, took a chair with the book clubbers and blended in. (This was not unlike Caesar  blending in at the Forum.) Dr. Hommerding showed me a desk in the library where I could work, with a window to the horizon, no distractions, nothing but  the Gulf of Mexico. With that, I knew I was home. Thanks Dr. Hommerding.

 

Leroy C. Hommerding

October 20, 1949--February 20, 2019

Rest in peace, precious friend.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

Amanda, Joey, Emmie, and Chris Borst, Jene Maria Smith, Jere Paul Smith, Kim Gonzaga, Duane Trevail, Tadhg Hoey, Marnie Mueller, Karen E. Olsen, Betty Rollin, Joan Schmitz, Barbara Tirone, Marion Morra, Eve Potts, Laraine Olinatz, Heather Styckiewicz, the staff at Beach Library, Fort Myers Beach, Florida, and in memory of Mollie Donovan and Shirley Temple Black.

 

 

 

How long would it have taken me to feel that I had a right to be out outraged?— Sally Field, In Pieces

 

 

 Chapter 1.

 

THIS YEAR, this summer, the first week of August, I get a phone call. Caller ID reads: Yale-New Haven Hospital. I figure it's my daughter Jene, who probably has to use a company phone since there's no cell service in her neck of the hospital, Infectious Disease Medicine, where she's a nurse. A woman's voice, not my daughter's, answers. "Hello, I'm Dr. Somebody." Her name doesn't sink in because I'm experiencing an immediate loss of breathing ability, thinking that something's happened to Jene. Then the voice says, "I'm a radiologist at Yale."

      "Fuck," I say, but in a whisper, and I hold my cell up away from my mouth. I'm figuring Jene broke her arm, as if she's seven years old when she did break her arm. When upset, I ordinarily say to myself, shit. But this is a far higher grade of upset. There are times when dropping the F-bomb is therapeutic.

      Before I can ask the radiologist what happened to Jene, she says, "We've seen an anomaly in one of your images. It almost always means nothing, but we still want to do a second mammogram. My nurse will make an appointment. I'll connect you."

      She said something else, maybe including goodbye, I wouldn't know. What's important is Jene doesn't have a broken arm, even though some doctor has just pushed me off a cliff. I hear the phone beeping, making its connection, while the radiologist's words that I did grasp, begin  bouncing off the sides of my brain: It almost always means nothing. That would be bullshit. The giveaway, meant to soften the blow but of course having the opposite effect, are the two words, almost always. Almost always is not nothing.

      I'm switched over to the nurse. I don't remember the appointment conversation with her, but I know I made one because I put the date in my cell, August 22nd, though I don't remember doing that either. What I have is a flash of a different memory altogether: Once, after a previous mammogram, while I was getting dressed, the technician reappeared. The johnny-coat, size C (colossal), had fallen around my ankles and I'm trying to step out of it. She gave me a big smile.

      "I'm so sorry, Mary-Ann, I need another picture. Something seems awry with your left breast. I'm sure it's because you moved."

      I moved? Does one dare to move when one's breast is in a vise?

      I get a second round of torture. The verdict: "My error. There was nothing there."

      I say, "Thank you."

      I already thanked her for torturing me the first time, but if you have my mother for a mother and you have to say please and thank you every other minute or you're a sociopath.

      But skipping to today, this beautiful summer day in August, I've got an unknown radiologist on the phone, telling me something is awry. This is not a technician; it's a doctor. It's something, not nothing, for sure. But all I know is I have to talk to Charlie. Charlie is my husband. Before he was my husband he was a widower. His late wife died of breast cancer.

      Fuck.

      I will wait for the right moment to bring this up with him, but as any shrink will advise—say you have to inform the kids you're getting divorced—there is no right moment, even if you follow up with, "Look! I've got Southwest tickets for April vacation. We'll go to Disney!" (Though that only works if you're Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.) I know I am just going to have to spit it out.

      I pour myself an afternoon glass of pink wine from Provence and take it out on the deck. I live on Long Island sound, compliments of An American Killing, my fifth novel. Charlie is out on his boat with a friend from the marina fishing. I think about my breasts. They're beautiful. They make me feel good about being a woman; they please Charlie while he's pleasing me; and they allowed me to luxuriate in that unique intimacy between two humans—me and my newborn—she chugging down breast milk like it's a Sam Adams. 

      When Charlie comes home I can't face up to spitting it out yet. He's all excited about the fish he's got in a bag of ice. He says to me, "We're having the greatest piece of flounder for dinner. So big, I gave half the filet to Mike. Want to see it?"

      No, but I say, "Yes." Then I say, "He's a beauty."

      "So how about your mother's favorite drink?
      "Sounds good." Nothing sounds good.

      He stashes the fish and makes us two sidecars. He carries a tray out from the kitchen—two sidecars and beer chasers, speaking of Same Adams, just the way my mother used to drink them. He asks, "How'd it go? Hurt a lot?"

      "Yes."

      He puts the tray down, "Sorry, honey." He takes me in his arms. A very delicate hug. Then he looks down at me. "Let's go outside. Sit on the beach."

      He hands me the tray and grabs two chairs. I have always aspired to be a beach bum. And here I am. Sipping my sidecar, I'm acting cheerful as if it's just any old day, because I need to enjoy a little denial, a gift from the gods, don't you think? At least when it doesn't put you in jeopardy, like putting off a root canal till you're having a horrific, throbbing toothache and it's a Sunday.

      Here is the main difference between gazing out at an ocean and gazing out at Long Island Sound. The ocean has crashing waves and the occasional freighter. On the Sound all is serene: vessels of every every sort, from decrepit dinghies to flying cigarette boats, make trails across the surface; lobster markers bobbing; kayakers paddle; kids in a rowboats reel their rods in and cast, over and over; there's a glimpse of Long Island cliffs on the horizon; and birds, birds, birds. (I once had a stringer from The New York Times come to do an interview for the Connecticut section. It was a good article except for her mentioning how I could watch pelicans from my office window. They were osprey. And yes, you heard me right—The New York Times.)

      So we head back inside and Charlie grills his fish. The man cooks. He is a good cook. We start with the mussels picked up at the fish market; they're lolling in front of me in white wine and garlic and butter. Also, French bread he had to go five miles out of his way for. He's poured Sauvignon Blanc. I'm tipsy from the sidecars. I've given over almost entirely to denial. The radiologist was reading someone else's images, not mine.

      I still have to tell him. First, we watch the Sox game. A win. Nice. But then I'm brushing my teeth, chanting silently to myself: There is no right moment, there is no right moment,there is no right moment. Can you brush your teeth all night? I press the button on my electric toothbrush, put it back into its stand, screw the top onto the toothpaste, and look at myself in the mirror. (I paused between each of those steps.) Then I say to my face, "Get it over with." My usual flossing and the rinse of Listerine will have to wait.

      As soon as I come into the bedroom, our dog Salty departs his first choice as to where he prefers to sleep—in my spot with his head on my pillow—and scoots to the foot of the bed. He performs this ritual every night. It's great in winter since his 58-pound self leaves me a big warm spot. Salty will remain at the foot of the bed until he's sure we're asleep. Then, ever so cautiously, he'll make his way back up the edge of my side of the bed, where he will stretch out next to me and plant his head on my pillow once again, which is why I need a king size pillow: Presto—blissfully unconscious. I sleep between man and beast.

      Tonight, though, I stand there gazing at Salty before I climb in; he doesn't know why. He raises his shaggy Labradoodle head, and I scratch him behind his ears. I get in, making my way around him, and nestle into Charlie's chest; a magnificent chest, I have to say—he's got broad, hard muscles, his chest is gently hairy, and he has especially sexy nipples. Neither of us has put on a pair of pajamas since the first time we co-mingled. We are diehard cuddlers what with being naked every night. We entwine our naked selves together like two kittens and pretty much make love without thinking twice. But tonight….

      "Sweetheart?"

      "What, baby?"

      "I have to have another mammogram. They saw what they called an anomaly, but the doctor said it almost always means nothing. I'm sorry." Somehow, I think of Nancy Reagan, who told the president she was going to have a mastectomy and that she was sorry. At the time, I thought she was apologizing because he would have a wife with only one breast, but now I realize she was saying she was sorry because they had to face something unbearable, mainly to her.

      Charlie's breathing stops just like mine had when I heard the almost always thing. He knows from almost always. I wait. When he can speak, he calmly asks, "Have you felt a lump?"

      "No."

      "Me neither." Considering the way his first marriage ended, he's obviously been on guard.

      Charlie passes into a mode of being there for me. He props himself up on his elbow. "You're going to be all right. Even if there is something, it's very soon. I mean, we still can't feel anything."

      We.

      He pulls me into his strong arms and says, "I love you."

      Charlie has a fabulously deep voice. When he says, I love you, it's as if the words are coming from a sound chamber in his soul. When I met Charlie, I said to my friend, the writer Sarah Clayton, "He has this really deep voice," and she said, "A deep voice goes a long way."

      So then we're nuzzling, we're kissing, we're touching each other all over. Making love. It's our best way to communicate; Charlie has had a fairly serious hearing loss from the time he was a kid. He didn't get medical attention for chronic ear infections until they became mastoid infections. The mastoid is the bone behind your ear. Can you imagine that getting infected? His widowed mother was "on the dole." That's what welfare was called back in the day. When my friend the writer Katharine Weber was five, she told her parents she couldn't see out of one eye. She didn't get medical attention either, even though they had a ton of money. They just wouldn't believe her. She was born blind in one eye and no one noticed. Talk about denial.

     But meanwhile, re Charlie, let me tell you this: I would rather have a man who can't hear me than one who won't listen to me. I know from both.

 

Chapter 2.

 

WHEN AUGUST 22nd arrives, I'm back where I don't want to be—back at the imaging center at Yale-New Haven Hospital. I'd rather be in an opthamologist's office having glass shards picked out of my eyeballs. Charlie has been ushered into a special waiting room for family and friends of women having advanced placement mammograms. Salty is enjoying the action at doggie day care.

      I wait and wait. The night of that first mammogram, I woke up at two in the morning, tossing and turning, which woke Charlie up. He rubs my back. He asks, "Did the radiologist say if it's Starlight or Starbright?"

      "If she did, I wasn't paying attention."

      Once, when looking at my breasts after bestowing them with his sweet caresses and warm kisses, Charlie said, "I love you, Starlight, and you too, Starbright. You're gorgeous." Charlie gave my breasts names. And unlike the usual names for body parts, they're pretty names, terms of endearment, unlike "tits" and "hooters" and "boobs"—or with the opposite gender, "prick" and "dick" and "nuts." If I hear cunt, I emotionally gag. John Updike once described nipples as doorbells. That made a lot of people laugh—men who actually hate women, and women so used to denigration they hate themselves.

      (An aside to cheer you up after that last: My friend, the writer Liz Livingston, had a dog named Willy. Her husband got transferred to London and Willy got to go, otherwise the children would have chained themselves to the back porch. The wives of her husband's new colleagues invited her to tea. One of them said, voice hushed, "I have to tell you something a tad embarrassing. The name Willy— in the patois, shall we say?— means penis." And Liz said, "That's all right. My husband's name is Dick.")

     By the way, the wives didn't get it.

     After the little back rub, I turn to Charlie and he starts making out with my breasts. He says, "Your breasts give me peace, Mary-Ann. Make me feel calm, ya know? You'll be okay, I know it." Then he gets a little weepy. He such a tender guy, him and his deep voice.

      I said, "All I know is, you are really making my toes tingle."

      He stopped being weepy and gets turned on instead.

      Not so long afterwards, wrapped up in one another, Charlie and I both pretend to fall asleep, until we finally and blessedly, somehow, do. Only then does Salty move up the bed and into position on the other side of me, snuggling up more closely than usual. He knows all is not well.

     This reverie carries me through waiting for my second mammogram, until my name is called. I meet up with my technician in the room with the mammogram machine, all revved up and ready to go. But this time, the two steel plates are a quarter the size of the usual ones, about like two slices of Pepperidge Farm bread. Incredibly, the technician says to me, "The plates are geared to sandwich only your breast anomaly."

      She arranges Starbright on the bottom plate. In my denial state, I never called the radiologist to find out which breast had the anomaly; now I know. She has me hold the bar alongside the machinery. She dashes over to a console, presses a button, and the upper plate descends. When Starbright is hurting, she returns to my side and lowers the upper plate manually with a twist of a short rod sticking out of the side of the machine. I am gripping the bar with all my might, tears springing to my eyes.

      "Can you take another turn?" she asks me.

      "NO," I shout. "I MEAN IT!" Did you read A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving? Irving has Owen speak in caps, he's so LOUD! Italics—even with an exclamation point—won't cut it. I think the operatic velocity value fff—meaning triple fortissimo—would not do Owen's voice justice either, that's how effective Irving's talent is for characterization. He took advantage of poetic license because he decided he would find a way to out-do himself. All readers loved it excluding reviewers, naturally.

      Owen Meany's voice was necessary for me to demonstrate my determination to be taken with utmost seriousness since the last time I got that question: Can you take another turn? No didn't mean NO! I took a page from Owen. It worked. Instead of another turn, the technician dashes around to her control panel, calling out to me, "I'll be really fast." I grip the bar even more tightly, bearing the singular pain of a breast crushed between steel plates. She calls out, "Three seconds, two seconds, one second, done!"

      Starbright is released.

      She rushes over to me. "You okay?"

      "I'm not."

      "I'm really sorry."  

      I can tell she is. "I appreciate your running."

      She's not finished, naturally. I forget all about the dreaded side view, but it doesn't hurt any worse than the usual side-view mammogram, don't ask me why. It doesn't take as long, either, thank God for something. I only know it's over. The technician tells me I can get dressed.

      Have you noticed how no one asks you your pain level when you have a mammogram? My average is 8. With this ultra-mammogram, it's a 10. I once complained to someone about dreading mammograms, and she said, "It doesn't hurt that much," meaning, Oh don't be such a baby. What is wrong with this picture? Answer: Everything. There's nothing whatsoever right about being treated like an asshole when you need TLC, as with, for example, I'm sorry. It's so unfair, I know. But at least it's once a year, not once a week. Notice in the example I just gave I didn't precede once a year with only since, again, I'm talking TLC here.

      So after getting dressed, as I'm about to grab my bag to leave, the technician has one more thing to say and it's not, "Bye." She says, "The doctor will be out shortly."

      I ask, "What doctor?"

      "The radiologist. The one who called you. She's looking at the images now."

      "How come?"

      "She's comparing them to last year's. She's in her office." She points to a door. It's next to another door that is my now-elusive escape hatch. "She'll be right out. Have a seat."

      My stomach turns over. I sit down on a little bench for one set against the wall. I feel like I've committed a crime and the jury is out. I don't care if I have to wait a really long time—all day—so what? Because when the jury walks out and is back before you have time to blow your nose, forget it, you're guilty. Five seconds later, the jury door opens.

      A tall, slim, very pretty girl in a lab coat who looks to be in the neighborhood of twelve years old comes right over to me, smiles and puts out her hand. So do I. I'm trying to smile, but doubt if I'm successful. We shake.

      "I'm glad to meet you, Mrs. Smith."

      Mrs. Smith is my late mother-in-law's name.

      She next says, "I'm Doctor…"  She tells me her name, and it goes in one ear and out the other just like before on the phone. My brain has made an executive decision: If you don't know her name you'll think you're dreaming this whole damn thing. 

      But this is no dream, you stupid brain. This is the opposite.

      Dr. Whatever steps over to a chair and pulls it up to where she can sit down and face me on my bench. She's Asian. But this is Yale. You might as well be in Beijing. She looks deep into my eyes, and asks, "Do you mind if I call you Mary-Ann?" 

      I say, "I'd rather you do." I do not ask, Do you mind if I have no idea what your first name is, or your last name, because I don't want to know?

      She says, "I'm the doctor who spoke to you on the phone."

      We are not even a foot apart; I can feel her breath on my face. I also feel my saliva drying up so I try to brace myself. I don't want to faint, fall off the chair and have a concussion, although I surely would rather have a concussion than listen to whatever the thing is she's going to tell me.

      She leans another half inch closer. She looks even younger up close, like she must be one of those brilliant kids with a tiger mother who sees to it that she graduates from high school at nine.

      She becomes chummy. "Ya know, Mary-Ann…see…. Well, like, here's the thing." She sighs. It is a sigh of sympathy. That's nice. Carefully, as she has chosen words that will not sound doctorly but rather sympathetic, she says, "We have, like, loads and loads and loads of ducts." I think she said "ducks." Maybe she is nine…maybe she skipped elementary school altogether and still got into Yale. She continues."I mean, like, we have…" then, her voice goes up a couple of decibels though nowhere near Owen Meany's "…a zillion ducts!"

      Ducts. This is not good.

      "We have bile ducts! We have lymph ducts! We have intrahepatic ducts…" She gives me several more examples of ducts I've never heard of, finishing with one I have, "…and we have mammary ducts!"

      My brain starts playing my favorite comfort song, the first song I remember, "My Blue Heaven." My father used to sing it to me at bedtime. In preparing for my father's funeral, I included the song in my music list. Paul, the organist, calls to tell me the priest won't allow it. I call the priest. He says, "Secular songs are inappropriate. That one is not about Heaven."

      The church is in the Irish neighborhood in Hartford, CT, where I was born. I say to the priest, "I know it's a secular song." (I don't say, And I know it's not about Heaven, you nitwit.) Instead, I say, "'Danny Boy' is a secular song." Paul plays it all the time. The priest says, "People will think your father has a mistress named Molly." A line of "My Blue Heaven" goes, "Just Molly and me, and baby makes three…"

      As with all Catholic hierarchy, the man is obsessed with avoiding scandal, a far greater sin than, say, a raping a child. Can you tell I'm pissed? Can you tell I was really close to my dad? His version of "My Blue Heaven": "…and Mickey makes three…" My nickname is Mickey. I didn't call the priest a hypocrite, though. I'm too civilized. And for sure, my father wouldn't have approved of me calling him a name, though he would have said to me, "Don't worry about it, little Mickey. The guy's a nitwit."

      The radiologist has been interrupting this recovered memory throughout. I pick up, "Are you okay?"

      "Sorry, excuse me. I'm having a hard time paying attention."

      "Of course you are. Please try to concentrate. I want to tell you about the problem with ducts."

      I come back to her. "Okay."

      "Ducts are full of …JUNK!"

      Good God, I thought she was going to say they were full of shit. The word JUNK, as you must know, did Owen proud.

      Rather than respond to her with, Get to the point, since I don't want to know the point, I say, "My mother never let a day go by without telling me to get rid of all my junk."

      "OMG!" (And to remind you the timbre is also known as fff.) "My mother too!"

      What does one say to that, to this person, at this time, in this place where I'm trapped? Nothing. Besides, she's on a roll, doesn't leave me a second to respond to what our mothers have in common. "So…here's why our ducts are full of junk." (Good. She's toned things down and is still not getting to the point.) "Because when our cells die, they're replaced with new cells. But the old cells leave deposits behind... DEPOSITS!"

      Oh dear, right? Turns out our ducts are full of shit.

      She says, "And one such deposit is called…" (drum roll) "…a calcification!" She takes a big breath and keeps going. "But! We have calcifications throughout our bodies, not just in our ducts." (She's still emphasizing ducts but not so significantly.) "So! you can have calcifications anywhere, like…like…in your larynx. But calcifications in hard tissue, such as the larynx, are not a worry. They just sit there."

       Here it comes, because who doesn't know breast tissue is soft? She's now speaking to the point, dropping the use of like as an adverb. I have no problem with the like since it's the equivalent of um. I think um is worse.

       "So…" (No like, but she will still start off sentences with the conjunction so, sometimes more stongly than other times, which I do all the time, even though language purists will rant) "…last year, Mary-Ann, I saw a few teeny-tiny calcifications in one of your mammary ducts in the left breast. Calcifications found in mammary ducts can sometimes be the deposits of mutated cells. And sometimes the deposits—the calcifications—will form a pattern. I saw no pattern last year, and neither did my colleagues."

       Is that good or bad? "However, when the next year rolls around, when the patient—you—has another mammogram, most of the time the calcifications are gone. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes they have even increased in number."

       She pauses, waiting to see if I can take what's coming. Oh, but I can't. I already know it will be bad, what with the introductory conjunctive adverb, However. Do I have a choice though? No. I say, "My calcifications have increased, haven't they?"

       "Yes." She reaches over and touches my wrist. "When you were here last week, I immediately took a look at that particular duct where I'd seen those few calcifications a year ago. Not only have their numbers increased, they've increased significantly, and the calcifications have formed a pattern."

       Even though I knew she was going to say something terrible like that, at least her voice is growing softer. She is calmer, and no longer in need of like. 

I ask, "A pattern? A pattern like a china pattern?"

       "Uh…no.  More like a cluster actually. The calcifications have formed a cluster, a little independent galaxy of their own."

       I tune her out, though not deliberately. My brain, needing a rest, is stuck at galaxies. I love galaxies, along with constellations and meteor showers, and human-made satellites, and everything else in the sky. Once, my children and me, and their cousin Melanie, lay on our backs in a field behind the neighborhood elementary school, watching the Perseid meteors showering across the Milky Way. We tried counting the number of meteors in each shower. We didn't get far because Melanie threw up. Lying on your back and watching meteors zipping overhead can actually make you carsick if you are so disposed. Besides the Melanie episode, another time, at four o'clock in the morning, my son patted my shoulder. I woke up and he whispered in my ear, "Mom! The aurora borealis. Hurry."

       I crept out of bed and followed him to the deck without falling down the stairs; God forbid we should wake up his dad by putting on a light, as with, "I have to go to work in the morning!"

      Above the deck and the trees, the Connecticut sky was bursting with Technicolor striations. My son, whose name is Jere, would grow up to ask his beloved girlfriend to marry him, and how might she feel about having the ceremony during the upcoming Delta Aquarids? These are lesser known meteor showers, radiating from the constellation, Aquarius, in case you don't know. His girlfriend thought it was a capital idea. (I am profoundly grateful he found his Kim, who becomes our Kim during last year's Delta Aquarids.)

       The radiologist notices how I'm drifting to a better place and lets me have my moment of peace. Then she has to interrupt again. I'm not her only patient, after all.

       "Mary-Ann?"

       I say, "Go ahead."

       She tells me what I need to hear about the galaxy in my mammary duct, and I have to pay attention so I can tell Charlie the exact words. Right now he is waiting and waiting out in that higher-level waiting room, wishing for a shot of Macallan 12. I am wishing the same.

       "This anomaly requires we check it out with a biopsy. But the good news—the way good news—is that the higher-resolution, limited-angle mammogram shows that no cells have made their way through the duct wall. I could see that none have become invasive."

       I now feel my first emotion after a week of my nerves being shot. A ping of anger. I am picturing a bunch of scrawny-assed cancer cells joining forces to batter their way through the wall of my mammary duct so they can chow down on Starbright. I am as pissed as my brain.

       I say to the radiologist, "The fucking little bastards."

       The radiologist says, "Yeah. But remember, I didn't see any outside the duct."

       Then, her elbow on her knee, her chin resting on her hand, she says, "A biopsy is the final word as to whether or not what I'm seeing is a lesion."

       I do not skip a beat. I'm sick of it. "A lesion is cancer."

       "Yes."

       She really cannot stand saying the word "cancer." I'm thinking that when this poor woman must tell a patient cancerous cells have burst through her mammary duct—that she is seeing an invasive cancer—it breaks her heart. All I know is I can't stand saying the word cancer either. And now I have to prepare myself for accepting that the word applies to me.

       She takes my hand and holds it very gently in both of hers. She says, "Let me describe the biopsy procedure for you."

       Now, if you've never had a breast biopsy described to you, hang on to your hat. Better yet, smoke a joint. It's medicinal in this case because, like me, I'm sure you figure that a biopsy simply means someone sticks a needle into your breast and sucks out a couple of cells of junk from your duct to be sent out and examined by the boys in the lab. When I was a kid, I loved "Hawaii Five-O," who didn't? In every episode I remember, Jack Lord can be counted on to say two things to James MacArthur: "Book 'em, Danno," and "Send this to the boys in the lab," the latter when he's holding up a possibly blood-stained screwdriver.

       But if you don't have a joint immediately available, go pour yourself a shot of Macallan 12, or if you don't drink, then have a mug of coffee unless you're a tea-drinker, in which case, brew the superb lapsang souchong. If you've never heard of it, alas, go with Lipton's or whatever, because you're sure as hell going to need something. I'll wait for you.

 

*I think recovered memory is a perfect term for a memory that hasn't crossed your brain since the event happened, until one day, it just does, triggered by something that is not necessarily traumatic. (To me, "traumatic" would infer a repressed memory; what I'm talking about here is a memory inadvertently deleted, but still hanging around in the trash bin.) I recover memories all the time, sometimes stirred up, for example, by the process of falling in love.

 

Capisce? Good. Because this book happens to be a memoir. Memoir is French for memory. I've been recovering a lot of them of late. Otherwise, I wouldn't have this book; I'd be doing the other thing I do—making stuff up. That would be fiction.

 

 

Chapter 3.

 

THIS IS WHAT a breast biopsy actually entails, as promised. Ready?

      The radiologist starts with, "You'll be on your stomach on a table with a hole in it. Then—"

      I interrupt. "I'm getting a massage first? That'll help."

      "Uh…no. The hole is where your breast will hang through so we can do a much more intense mammogram, previous to—"

      "Starbright will hang through a hole?"

      "Who?"

      I explain about Charlie's names for my breasts. She says, "That's so sweet." Then I repeat my question: "You're saying my breast will hang through a hole?"'

      "Yes. Because if you were lying on your back, your breast would flatten over your chest and the challenge to the procedure would then require—"

      "Never mind. I'll take your word for it. And where are you? Underneath the table? On one of those things your mechanic rolls around on under your car?"

      "Not exactly…" she gets a rather huffy expression on her face, but right away reverts to her previous kindly demeanor. She has trained herself not to take offense with her patients. She says, "It's a stool. But it won't be me who's rolling around. Another radiologist will be on the stool, and a nurse and technician will scoot under the table as need be."

      "They'll each have their own stool?"

      "Yes."

      What did I think? They'd be down on their hands and knees? Something suddenly occurs to me: "Are you saying you won't be doing the biopsy?"

      "That's right."

      "Why not?"

      "What I do is analyze images."

      "Oh."

      I visualize three strangers crammed under a table with Starbright in the middle. I wonder how they get at the breast of a woman with perky little ones. At Branford Harbor, where we have our boat, there is a captain whose named her boat, Sea Cup, which is the size of her bra. I'm a Sea Cup, myself. When I told the captain that, she gives me a knuckle-bump. Charlie bought his boat before he met me. His daughter insisted he name it her own choice, the Already There, instead of his, Comfortably Numb. I guess she didn't want her dad to be associated with weed. Charlie always loved the Eagles. We went to their last concert before Glenn Fry died. One time, we passed a boat with a bunch of drunks on it, and someone yelled to us, "I'm glad you're already there because I'm nowhere." 

     Alas, I must force myself to concentrate on the business at hand, but I want very badly to blink like I Dream of Jeannie and vaporize, but can't. I have to listen as the radiologist continues along.

      "First, the doctor will numb the breast... he'll numb Starbright, actually." She smiles at me. "Starbright won't feel anything at all."

      We are very glad to hear that. I like this woman. I think upon hearing my breasts' names, she somehow feels sympathetic toward them as well as me.

      "And next, he'll make a quarter-inch incision—"

      "INCISION?" She pulls back, her ears probably ringing. I take a breath. "I'm sorry, but did you say incision?"

      "Yes."  

      "Why would a needle require an incision? How the hell big is it?"

      "It's not a needle."

      "It's not? What is it?"

      "It's a spring-loaded, large-core transducer. Essentially, a—"

      "Excuse me?"

      She clears her throat so that she can talk fast, preventing me from interrupting her again. "A transducer is essentially a metal tube filled with very fine needles with barbed ends…" I'm thinking, but do not say aloud, Jesus Christ Almighty "…and these barbs will hook several strands of tissue within the duct. Then the transducer will draw them out of the duct and into its tube. After that, the transducer is taken out. Then we send the specimens to the lab to see if the cells in the duct are cancer cells."

      I feel tears coming to my eyes. I try to speak so I won't actually cry. I have questions that need answering. I swallow. "How will the other doctor get it out?"

      "The transducer?"

      "Yes."

      "He'll pull it out."

      "How many specimens will be in it?"

      "Four or five."

      Whew. I'm thinking she'd say eight hundred. "Will the incision require stitches?" Naturally, I know it will. I'm hoping for the same number of stitches as the specimens, or fewer. Imagine the number of stitches you need if you're breast is riddled with cancer.

      She says, "Two…maybe three. Then we'll leave a marker behind—a tiny wire—so that if you do need to have surgery to remove the duct, the breast surgeon will know exactly where to go."

      "There are surgeons who only do breasts?"

      "Yes, but if you choose, you may have any surgeon you like, including one who doesn't specialize in breasts."

      I feel a ping of anger again, this one immediately spreading out through my entire body. "What do I look like, doc, some kind of idiot?"

      Her voice takes on a lecturely tone, "No, Mary-Ann. You don't. What I mean is, if you've had a surgeon in the past, you can talk to him or her about all this. You might decide that surgeon would be more appropriate." She puts her hand on my knee and smiles. "But if not, you will have the best breast surgeon in the country. We are so fortunate she is right here at Yale. Diane Quigley. I will see to it that your surgeon will be Diane Quigley."

      I will never forget Diane Quigley's name. But I'm not ready yet for that particular discussion. I need to finish this one. "About the marker. You said it's a wire, right? How big is it?"

      "It's the size of an eyelash. It will serve to guide the surgeon."

       I try not to picture a doctor with a scalpel in each hand rummaging around inside my breast looking for an eyelash. The radiologist seems to know what I'm thinking. She says, "The end of the marker will stick out of your skin and there'll be a Band-Aid over it."

      Can you believe this? I can't, but it's all true. Right at that moment, I do not want to know anything else about a wire eyelash sticking out of Starbright. I'm finding myself overwhelmed. I need to backpedal. I have to ask an extremely specific question centered on statistics. Statistics is truth. I don't like surprises. So here is my pressing question for the radiologist: "What are the odds that the calcifications are cancer?"

      She doesn't skip a beat. "Twenty-five percent."

      "Is that based on your own experience?"

      "No. That's based on statistics."

      I know exactly what she means by No: In her experience, the odds that the calcifications are cancer, based on what she is seeing in my mammographic images of Starbright, are 100 percent. She coughs. The cough reflects the fact that she's not comfortable lying. She asks, "Would you like a Kleenex?"

      She's ready if I cry. Forty years ago, the New York Channel 4 newscaster Betty Rollin titled a book she wrote, First, You Cry. I read it when I was a kid because my father watches Channel 4 news, and he got it out of the library. He hid it, but I found it, no surprise there. Betty's book starts with her learning she has breast cancer and she cries. Then the reader goes on to find out the book is about how the diagnosis screwed up her life; a life that was already screwed up because her husband was a philanderer; but it was especially about how no one wants to talk about such an embarrassing subject as breasts (which is why my father hid the book).

      In perfect timing, the book has been re-issued, a new edition. I will shortly read it again and come to realize it was a best seller because it was so good. It's not a book about cancer. It's no more about cancer than The Martian was about Mars. I tell you that because recently, publishers have decided people are sick of cancer books. They're not. They're sick of self-help books, especially the ones meant to help people with cancer. The help is pathetic and usually along the lines of advice such as: Dance like no one is watching you, or worse, Everything happens for a reason. What Betty's book is about is getting hit with one accurately hurled monkey wrench, dislodging her in a way that she finds herself in the middle of a crap shoot.

      Life is full of flying monkey wrenches, isn't it? Like finding out your husband is a piece of shit the way Betty did. Like finding out you have breast cancer. First, You Cry is a story of dealing with the monkey wrench, and how your family and your friends deal with it, and how you deal with managing looking in the mirror, what with that big bump on your forehead staring back at you. (Metaphorically speaking.)

      Betty's book, like all good memoir, is tragic but also exhilarating. It's why everyone reads them. (Nowadays, people use the word "redemptive" a lot instead of "exhilarating." Sorry but "redemptive" is too pop-religious. People are sick of redemptive books, along with self-help books, but they'll never be sick of memoirs.)

      Warning: I'm hearing publishers are now saying people are sick of "domestic" books. Don't get me started.

     Meanwhile, you remember my radiologist is waving Kleenex at me, right? So here's what I say to her, "No, thank you. I don't need a Kleenex." First, I don't cry. I say to her, "Listen, I am really pissed off. I need you to tell me what to expect." 

      She puts the Kleenex down and takes my hands in both of hers. "Please, please understand that if there are cancerous cells in your mammary duct, we have caught the cancer early enough to cure it."

      I am apparently hallucinating. The doctor is telling me the cancer that is more than likely inside Starbright is curable.

      She says, "Did you hear me?"

      I say, "Yes. What do you mean by cure it? There is no cure for cancer. You die from cancer."

      "Again, if you do have a cancer, it is at a stage where it is entirely curable."

      I am trying to believe her.Here's how my mother describes her golf partner's stomach cancer: "They took him into the operating room and opened him up…loaded with cancer! Loaded! Sewed him right back together again. Left the damn cancer where it was. They'd've needed a shovel to get it out. Dead in a month."

      Most ironically, my mother is diagnosed with stomach cancer shortly thereafter. They open her up—loaded with cancer. I picture a load of cancer looking like oatmeal. They take out ninety percent of my mother's stomach; treat her with a short course of chemotherapy; and she's back on the links in no time; but dead in a year. That's all the time chemotherapy can give her. Right up until her last month, she has a good year of doing what she loves—playing golf; replacing golf with cut-throat card games when there's snow on the fairways; getting her hair done once a week, hanging out with her sister, my Auntie Margaret; doing crossword puzzles; knitting sweaters; and watching Pat Sajak and Vanna White every day, no matter what. The last month? There can be no dignity in death, same way it is with childbirth.

     Now I hold a short, silent one-sided conversation with my mom. I say: I tried my best, but I want you to know you were dignified in the way that you never referred to chemotherapy as chemo. Sometimes a nickname is not appropriate, I agree with you there. Don't let me need it, though, okay Mom?

      The radiologist is speaking, still holding my hands, yet more warmly. It's hard to pay attention when you're pissed one minute and desolate the next. I still cannot buy "curable cancer." I think back; did she cough? I can't remember. I only know that of all the people in my extended family, anyone I know who had cancer was never cured.

      Now she says, "If the cluster of cells is a lesion—something we won't know till we have the pathology report—then we have found a cancer before it can be felt, or even seen by the human eye. If there are cancer cells in the duct, your surgeon will excise the duct, and the cancer will never come back. Never. It can't come back. The duct will be gone, and the cancer along with it. There is no evidence of cancer cells outside the duct."

      Even though I probably have a duct full of cancer, at least it's not a stomachful. I say to the radiologist what I'm next thinking. "Calcifications might show up in another duct next year, right?"

      "No. After the lesion is disappeared by Dr. Quigley, your post-operative treatment will prevent any new cancer cells from developing in…the left breast."

      I let that soak in. "Post-operative treatment is chemotherapy, right?"

      "Not likely in your case since the lesion is minuscule. Dr. Quigley, and your oncologist, and your radiologist will discuss radiation with you. Also, any drug treatment to follow."

      "You're my radiologist."

      "I do not give radiation treatment. I—"

      "Sorry, I forgot." I pause to drum up some courage. "But what are the chances that what I have is a more advanced cancer than what you…" How should I say this? "…than what the images are telling you? What are the chances you missed something?"

      Now she pauses. Then, "I don't miss anything." Another pause. "But I have to tell you that sometimes, a protuberance—a tiny bit of a cell—will penetrate the duct wall. So tiny it will not be visible on the mammogram image. The pathologist will see it, though—once the duct is excised. Then you'll be scheduled for a second surgery but through the same incision. Dr. Quigley will take out a margin that incorporates any tiny bits of a cancer cell that might have worked their way through the duct wall."

      Is this a horror film, or what?

      I ask her, "What are the chances of that?"

      "Twenty-five percent."

      Another twenty-five percent. I might believe the statistic if she'd said twenty-two and seven-eighths percent.

      She officially has no more time for me; she leans back out of my face, and says, "Let's go ahead and make that appointment for a biopsy, shall we?"

      I'm suddenly exhausted. I can't ask her if there is anything else she should tell me because I've shut down. But not to worry. There are other people I will be able to question: this Dr. Quigley person; the oncologist; and a radiologist—one who actually does the radiating.

      But my image-reading radiologist has one last thing to tell me: "During the biopsy, in addition to the little marker, they'll leave a chip in your breast so that in future mammograms we'll be able to zero in on the exact area of the excised duct if we have to."

      Believe it or not, I say, "The vet put a chip in my dog's ear so they can find him if he ever gets lost or stolen."

      She is glad to smile again. Broad grin. "Same idea, sort of. What's your dog's name?"

      I tell her his real name in case she's a baseball fan. "Saltalamacchia." (Jarrod Saltalamacchia started his too-few years catching for the Red Sox the summer Salty was born. They both have curly hair as well as extraordinary catching prowess. My cousins, Patty and Meggan, called me from Fenway Park: "We snagged two seats in the loge box behind home plate. The curls are exactly the same!")

     The radiologist, what with the expression she makes, is clearly not into baseball. So I say, "But we call him Salty."     

      She's a dog-person though; she remains curious. "What is he?"

      "A labradoodle."

      "Cool. He doesn't shed. How great is that? I have a beagle. We had to buy a really powerful vacuum cleaner a week after we got him. He's two."

      I say, "Salty is two! What's your beagle's name?"

      "His name is Greensleeves. Guess what we call him?"

      "Greenie."

      "Sleeves!"

      Now we both laugh. I can't believe I laughed, but I did. She says, "I'll have Dr. Quigley's assistant call you. Her name is Beth. She'll make the appointment for the biopsy and another with Dr. Quigley, once they have the pathology report. At that appointment, Dr. Quigley will discuss the pathology with you, and take it from there."

      I wish she'd left out the take it from there part. Laughing or otherwise, I'm in no condition to think about crossing a further bridge. She stands. So do I. She hugs me. I hug her back.

     The hug softens the trepidation of what I am now thinking: I have to tell Charlie.

Once in my car, I take my ideas notebook out of the glove compartment and jot down what just happened in a nutshell. In 2006 I wrote a memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Maybe I'll write another one. If I pivot from taking notes to tackling a second memoir, I'll not only be writing a monkey wrench book like Betty's, it will be a love story too. And a dog story. And it will be in the immediate now, rather than the usual memoir configuration—the relating of a past event. Can you tell I'm dying to start?

 

Chapter 4.

 

I GO INTO THE waiting room where Charlie is sitting on a sofa all alone, looking into a magazine he's not reading. He doesn't hear me come in because he basically can't hear anything as soft as sneakered footsteps, even with the industrial-strength hearing aids he wears. Then he senses me. He's up and his arms are around me. After a moment or two, we sit down together.

      I tell him everything except the one-hundred percent odds part that I detected in the radiologist's expression. I start with, "The doctor says that the mammogram found these strange cells in a mammary duct." I skip the junk moniker, too. "So, I have to have a biopsy to see if they're cancer cells. She told me they found them early enough so that if they do turn out to be cancer cells, the duct will be removed and I will be cured."

      (Did you note the euphemism removed, instead of cut out? An example of why God created euphemisms.)

      Charlie responds the same way I did. "Did you say cured?"

      "Yes. A breast surgeon will take out the duct. But the radiologist says she's not seeing any cells outside the duct. Either way, when the duct is gone, the cancer cells will be,too."

      I am unable to mention the possibility of cancer cell protuberances having successfully penetrated the duct wall before wiggling the rest of their sorry-ass selves out of there and onto a path of destruction. Nor am I in the mood to get into the margin thing. What comes into my head to rescue me from such dread? The movie we watched not long ago from Netflix.

      When the new "The Blob" came out, we wanted to see the original. It was a 50s horror film about a small, round, half-solid/half-liquid ball that just happens to be in a meteorite, a meteorite  that just happens to collide with earth; it's too small a crash for anyone to notice except by your basic town drunk, who just happens to be wandering the woods in the dark. He sees a flash ahead of him. (This is in rural Pennsylvania, a place James Carville once described thusly: Pennsylvania is two cities, Philadelphia on one end and Pittsburgh on the other. Everything in-between is Alabama.) The town drunk gets a stick and pokes the meteor. I won't tell you what happens to him before the little ball goes rolling out of the woods. Soon, it reaches a street, catches up to and devours one hapless soul after another, none of whom can outrun it.

      Do I need to explain that the little ball gets bigger and bigger as it digests half the people in town? Are you seeing metaphor here?

      The above flashback appeared and disappeared in moments because Charlie's intense gaze brought me back. I know he knows there's more to it than what I've said so far. I have no choice but to describe the possible cancer pieces escaping, but I also stress the radiologist's strong feeling that the chances are slim since she didn't see any, making the margin-removal possibility also slim, which I now bring myself to tell him about.

      I'm glad I told him. He now has the radiologist's optimism going for him; God only knows what he was imagining.The relief on his face makes me see that even though I'm facing the possibility of bad news, he is also facing losing another wife to breast cancer.

      When you feel love and affection for someone, even if it is mixed in with devastation, the desire to spit nails can be temporarily nudged off to the side of your brain. I touch my lips to his ear. "Kiss me."

      He kisses me and then he says, "I'm sorry for all this. You don't deserve it."

      We lean on each other for a bit, and then I have to say, "I'll be getting a call from someone today to make an appointment for a biopsy. So we have to get going."

      "Okay."

      I take his hand. Then we stand up.

      During the ride home, I do what moms and dads do in crisis; we think about our children. I lean back and close my eyes. I think about our four.

      Charlie's son Jay is getting married in three weeks. When Jay and I met, when we made eye contact for the first time, we liked each other instantly. Maybe because we're both artists and know the same struggles. He's a musician. His band is "The Pop Rocks." They play 80's hits. Did you like the 80's sound? Did you hate the 80's sound? Did you know there even was an 80's sound? Doesn't matter. If you see them, you find yourself singing along—blessing African rains, building cities on rock and roll, and celebratinggirls who just want to have fun. Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," recorded in 1980, just makes the cut. Good thing—it always gets the crowd to dancing like one big whirling dervish. The band is—in the vernacular—awesome.

      I had been excited about the approaching role—stepmom-of-the-groom—so determined to do Jay's real mother proud. But now this happens. I'm going to have to tell Jay and his bride-to-be about my mammogram. First I think I should wait till after the wedding to tell them, but no, I shouldn't. I can't use up all the stamina that would be required for me to lead a double life. A biopsy alone will take most of it, I can tell.

      Jay's girl's name is Melissa. The first written mention of the word melissa is in an ancient piece of Greek writing. Melissa, in Greek, means honeybee. The name so fits her: lighter than air, and she pollinates everyone who knows her with her kindly grace. From the minute Jay and Melissa are engaged, it's pretty clear a fairy tale wedding is on the horizon.

      My son Jere's wedding took place on an island a few months ago, just he and his Kim. They hopped on the ferry from Narragansett in Rhode Island where they live, and had their private and personal ceremony on the most beautiful spot on earth, Block Island. I didn't get to be mother-of-the-groom who walks down an aisle, but as it turns out, Jay will be my back-up.

      Jere and Kim's wedding was another version of a fairy tale. After the ceremony, they had a reception for two—them. Instead of people, their guests were the millions of stars of the Delta Aquarids, falling all around them. But, unexpectedly, they did end up with one human guest actually: a witness was recruited, who turned out to be a star in his own right. The merry couple was no sooner off the ferry when they saw the comedian Steven Wright walking down the street. They are huge fans. (We all are.)

      They stopped in their tracks, and Kim nudged Jere, who thought, This is it, and without giving himself time to chicken out, went right up to Steven, telling him how he and his girlfriend are crazy about him, giving him significant details as to that craziness, and that they are getting married in a few hours, and will he be their witness? Steven Wright had spotted Kim kind of hanging back while Jere was saying everything all at once. He smiled at her. She smiled back. I don't know which is more dazzling about Kim—her so-genuine smile; her huge, green Bette Davis eyes; her one-day-burgundy/one-day-chartreuse hair; or the 2004 Red Sox World Series Championship logo tattooed at the base of her spine just above the bikini line. (Steven is wearing his 1980's-era Red Sox hat when they spot him. Jere's own Red Sox hat is of the same era.)     

      Dazzling, too, her soap company, named after her two grandmothers: "The Stella Marie Soap Company"—every bar, divine.

      So Steven Wright looked to Jere again and said, "Sometimes I have to think about things." All the same, he put Jere's number into his cell, didn't say, Don't call me, I'll call you, and Jere gave him the time and location of the wedding—eight o'clock that night on the sand at the foot of Mohegan Bluffs.

      Back at their hotel, right when they're watching him on YouTube, a text message from Steven appears on the screen: I'll be there. A Block Island hotel is the kind of place where you can jump up and down on your bed, screaming with joy, and no one bats an eyelash.

      Five minutes before the ceremony was to start, Jere and Kim watched their witness climb down the treacherous wood stairway zigzagging the face of Mohegan Bluffs to the beach 206 feet below, where they're standing with a game acquaintance who has a certificate to marry people in the state of Rhode Island, and his wife, a photographer. Steven Wright has to juggle his wedding gift while he makes his descent. It's a kite. This is what he says to Jere and Kim: "It's not meant to be flown. It's a symbol of your love taking off." I don't know if they got teary, but when they told me that, I did.

      Then he witnesses them take their vows and signs their marriage certificate.

      Jere and Kim will stay on the beach long after Steven, the officiate and his wife have made their way back up the bluffs. They await the blessings of the Delta Aquarids.

      At approximately the same time, Charlie, me, and the rest of our family, are standing on a bluff above Long Island Sound, flutes of champagne raised in the direction of Block Island, and we toast our newlyweds. As my astrological sign is Aquarius, the constellation from whence the Delta Aquarids emerge. I felt free to beam the water-bearer a message, asking him if he wouldn't mind issuing more meteors than usual. He did not disappoint. I didn't get to go to the wedding, but the same meteors that the bride and groom saw streaking over their heads were the same ones streaking that came streaking over mine.

      So lucky me: two daughters-in-law, Melissa, honey-golden, and Kim as Technicolor as the aurora borealis.

      With all this wonderful dual wedding stuff, I really have a lot to be happy about, even though I know my anger will rise again. For now, wanting to believe I'll be cured if I have cancer, though doubting it if I do, I am still a thrilled mom/stepmom. So in case you've ever wondered if a thrill can be experienced, even when a person is devastated and in terror besides, the answer is yes.

      Back home, Charlie holds a conversation with Starlight. While he gives Starbright's soon-not-to-be identical twin a massage, he tells Starlight that we will work together to get Starbright through this. To have someone conversing with your right breast is very funny. Then we make love and when we are melting into sleep, Salty sneaks up beside me. On this night though, he tucks his head into my left armpit and snuggles up to Starbright. All those stories about how a dog can sense a lot of stuff with his baseball-size brain are true. I do what I normally do—pat Salty's head, turn from him and snuggle closer to Charlie's back. But tonight, I first have to extricate my arm from under Salty's head. I whisper to him when I pat his head, "You're a good boy. I love you." And he is content to sleep against my back.

      Not long afterward, Charlie stirs with the assurance that I'm asleep. I am, but I wake up when he creeps out from under the blanket because even with a king size TempurPedic, you can feel the other person get out of bed. He circles our giant bed that we are still paying for and gets in on the other side of our dog, who is doing his best to protect me from whatever it is he senses. Or maybe Salty knows exactly what's going on. Just because a dog doesn't speak your language doesn't mean he doesn't understand it.

      Like me, Charlie realizes we now have a fourth partner, in addition to Starlight, who will help Starbright survive—our Salty dog. He puts his arm around both of us, and we fall asleep on a three-foot edge of a thousand-square-foot bed.

      This is what makes me cry. Dog-love.

  

Chapter 5.

 

I  AWAKE TO the smell of potatoes frying in onions and paprika. Smoked paprika. Have you ever tried it? Try it.

      I awake perturbed, too, that I didn't get the biopsy call. I open my eyes. Charlie is not in bed. Neither is Salty. Charlie is in the kitchen and Salty with him having no doubt woken to the sweet sound of a package of bacon being unwrapped. Now I can smell the bacon frying too.

      A couple of times a week, Charlie will wake up and say, "I need eggs." That's after he has one of those climaxes where he makes the noise of a herd of wild boar. I keep telling him we're going to get a knock on the door from the town's animal protection lady asking if we're harboring wildlife.

     On this morning, he figures both of us need eggs; this has nothing to do with replenishing his sperm supply, but rather to replenish our spirits that are so crappily diminished. So here he comes into the bedroom with two Greyhounds. I sit up. In case you don't know, a Greyhound is grapefruit juice and vodka, preferably fresh grapefruit juice and preferably Grey Goose. We had our first Greyhound at Pepe's, the oldest restaurant in Key West, where the grill guy—a descendent of Pepe—makes a highly noted breakfast. I have to say, though, after a Pepe's Greyhound, you don't know what the hell you're eating. Or care. You only know it's really good. At first, I'd said to Charlie that I didn't know about drinking at ten AM, bhe guy next to me said, "If there's no vodka in my orange juice, I'll need an ambulance." So when in Rome…    Charlie told me that after three sips of the Greyhound, I was blathering on to everyone within earshot that Pepe's oatmeal was better than even the oatmeal you get at the Dorchester Hotel across the street from Hyde Park. Charlie had to whisper to me, "I think this is Cream of Wheat. They must have run out of oatmeal."

      Pepe's waitress overheard him. She said to us, "It's grits." I laugh instead of feeling like an idiot, what with the Greyhound.

      Now, Charlie sits down on the bed, hands me my glass, and we clink. No toast, just the clink. What are we supposed to say? Here's to Starbright having a long life? We have a sip, and I realize that Charlie managed to run out to Stop & Shop and bought actual grapefruits to squeeze, a whole bag I'm sure, since he doesn't know how to buy fewer than six of anything.

      I say, "Mahalo, Charlie." We learned to say mahalo instead of thank you in Hawaii. I always say mahalo after those aforementioned orgasms. Charlie says, "Aloha," which in addition to hello, also means you're welcome, and it means, I love you, depending on the circumstances.

      At our second sip of Greyhounds, Salty appears in the doorway with a look on his face that says, "I'm getting really tired of waiting for my bacon." Then he trots back to the kitchen where he will return to his post, guarding the bacon until Charlie can attend to breakfast again, instead of to me.

      Charlie gives me a smooch. "Five minutes, okay?"

      "Okay."

      I roll over for my five minutes. I'm depressed. I try to think about the beautiful dress for the wedding, hanging in the shop in Branford, waiting for me to model it for Melissa. But I'm unable to concentrate on a happy thought.

      I sit up when I hear Charlie dishing everything out, telling Salty, "Go get the Mommy." (We refer to ourselves as The Mommy and The Daddy when speaking to Salty.) Salty gallops into the bedroom, jumps on the bed, and barks at me—Get up, get up! The bacon's done!

      I throw off the covers, and he runs back to the kitchen in case the bacon is escaping. That cheers me a tiny bit. He's a handsome dog, our doodle. He's apricot. That's his color according to his breeder. She also says, "This puppy is happy in his own skin." We don't know what that means. It's my first dog and Charlie's second. He only had his first dog for a few weeks before it fell off the third floor porch in the tenement in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he lived. Charlie is convinced the landlord threw the dog down the stairs because the guy was a son of a bitch, always threatening to evict Charlie and his mother and brother. This is the kind of thought that takes over when you're depressed.

      I put on Charlie's white terrycloth bathrobe instead of mine. I need a great big soft and cozy one. It doesn't warm me up. I drag myself out to the kitchen.

      As we sit down to our breakfast, I am overtaken by the grief I feel for myself. Suddenly, I might as well be a banana peel tossed out a car window onto the side of the road. How will I eat Charlie's bountiful breakfast spread out before me? I have zero appetite. I'm getting more depressed with each second. Then I notice the little bowl of blueberries to the side of the butter dish, even though we aren't having cereal. The blueberries hit a nerve, one made really sensitive by my depression. I don't feel a ping of anger. Instead, this blast of fury fills me to the brimand is about to blow out the top of my head.

      Charlie feels it. "What's the matter, honey?"

      I'm staring at the bowl of blueberries. I look up at him and bash my fist on the table. Dishes rattle and glasses wobble. Salty jumps.

      "HOW THE FUCK CAN I HAVE FUCKING BREAST CANCER? ME? ME! I DON'T SMOKE. I'M NOT AN ALCOHOLIC. I EAT RIGHT. I EXERCISE. MY MOTHER DIDN'T HAVE BREAST CANCER, SHE HAD STOMACH CANCER. I BREAST-FED TWO BABIES FOR TWENTY YEARS EACH, AND EVERY GODDAMN FUCKING MORNING I COVER MY GODDAMN FUCKING CEREAL WITH GODDAMN FUCKING BLUEBERRIES! THEY DIDN'T FUCKING WORK!"

      I'm crying just the way Betty Rollin did when she got hit with a monkey wrench. I'm getting hit with mine yet again, but this crying isn't despair, it's fury.   

      Charlie is stricken, frozen in place, coffee mug raised, knowing what a terrible mistake he made putting out the blueberries.

      When I was a child, my mother never complained. She'd say, "I blame the government!" 

      This was long before it was de rigueur to blame the government. I need Charlie to know right this minute that I'm pissed at the calcifications in Starbright's duct, and absolutely in no way am I angry with him for the blueberries. I raise my head from my arms folded on the table in front of me, sit back up, and say, "I blame the government."

      His eyes close for a moment. I reach out and brush his cheek. Then he opens his eyes again. Damp eyes. I have managed to smile, don't ask me how. He breaks into a smile, too, a little one. Did I mention he has dimples? He knows I forgive him for trying to cure the cancer we both know I have with a bowl of blueberries. I don't need a phone call about the biopsy. I don't need a biopsy to tell me I have cancer. Neither does Charlie.

      He puts his mug down. It's a souvenir from the duck boat tour we took in Boston. Our goofy picture is on the goofy mug. We are standing in front of the goofy duck boat. We were different people then. From now on, I'll be categorizing every event as "before monkey wrench" or "after monkey wrench": Duck boat tour, before; Jay and Melissa's wedding, after.

      Salty barks. When he's distressed, he has this loud, sharp bark that sends piercing notes into Charlie's hearing aids. Charlie winces. Salty is distressed about my shouting, but he's also distressed since neither of us is passing him pieces of bacon anymore. He's been waiting at least two minutes, or ten years, he doesn't know the difference.

      Charlie gives him an entire strip of bacon. Salty is so happy, he runs off to eat it in his favorite snacking spot—the middle of our Turkish rug that cost a shitload of  money and is already spotted with the remains of Salty's favorite treats. I'd bring the carpet to be cleaned, but the last time I did that the expert in the cleaning of such rugs scolded me because there were cat hairs in the rug. (I had two cats at the time.) "You should never let a cat into a room with this quality a carpet." I really have to find a new guy.

      Charlie says to me, "I love you, Wonder Woman." He calls me that sometimes.

      I tell him I love him too, but new tears spill on down my cheeks. I say, "I really blame the luck of the draw."

      "I'm sorry."

      I don't let up. "It's a crap shoot, isn't it?"

      "Yes, it is. C'mere." He pushes his chair back and puts out his hand. I take it and am drawn into his lap. He enfolds me. Incredibly, he says, "There's always a monkey wrench in the machinery."

      I say into his chest, "Cancer is the worst monkey wrench."

 

 

Chapter 6.

 

BEFORE I MET CHARLIE, before I met anyone, my daughter encouraged me to get out there. She pointed out there were very few single men wandering about the condominium complex where I live. There are three, actually, and none appeal, though I do like a fellow named John quite a lot, who is half my age. He is cute and polite and kindly, and an Olympian besides. That would be a Special Olympian. He wears his several medals with pride, but he can't really say which competitions he won. John is afflicted with Down syndrome. He is also a baseball fan and we talk baseball. Our conversations are usually along the following lines based on my wearing a Red Sox hat and John wearing a cap of another color:

       John: "I don't like the Red Sox."

       Me: "Yankees Suck."

       John starts singing "New York, New York," so I sing "Sweet Caroline," at the same time.

      One day, John is wearing a new medal. I gush and then I ask John for his autograph, but he can't write. So I give him a stick and we walk down to the edge of the sound and he writes something with the stick. I take a picture of what John writes, which are not words of any known origin.

      My relationship with John is not really going anywhere but he's a good friend.

      Meanwhile, once it was four years since Charlie lost his wife, his own daughter told him what my daughter had recently told me—he had to get out there and meet people. At this time in his life, Charlie preferred being with his camping friends, Bruce, Gary and Jim, who he met through Cub Scouts when they were young men with small children. The four of them signed up to go the first camp-out. They were required to attend a meeting to learn how to deal with seven-year-olds, likely away from home alone for the first time. They figured they already had a handle on that so they didn't pay too much attention. That night, within an hour of lights-out, several boys were crying. The loudest was Charlie's son, Jay. The four dads didn't remember what they were supposed to do if a bunch of kids were all crying at the same time. The conversation they had went something like:

      Gary: "Did anybody bring any weed?'

      Bruce: "I got a bottle of Seagram's."

      Jim: "Shouldn't we first see why those kids are crying?"

      Charlie: "They'll probably fall asleep."

      They didn't.

      Charlie and his friends decided to juggle the sleeping arrangements and put the weepers all in one tent. Charlie volunteered to sleep with them since his own son was making the most noise. He spent the night squished amongst seven-year-olds who wanted to go home. Charlie told them, as soon as morning comes, we'll go fishing, how's that? The only thing is, first you have to stop crying so we can get some sleep. You can't catch fish if you're tired."

      They settled down. Charlie snuck out, and played cards with the three other dads, drank, ate brownies that one of the wives sent in case the boys couldn't sleep—they forgot about the brownies till the kids were asleep. Jay told me his dad was the best dad for getting stuck sleeping bag zippers unstuck and for untangling fishing lines. Charlie told me that the first year camping with the boys it was all he did.

       The boys lost interest in scouting about when they entered middle school. They'd come to prefer events where girls were part of the proceedings. But the dads continued the tradition of a yearly, week-long camp-out—fishing most of the day, then grilling their fish in the fire after having released all but what they'd eat. Do you know there's a release fishing hook with no barb so that the fish can just release him or herself without help? The foursome would bring a lot of food from home since they couldn't live on fish, and Charlie volunteered to cook. Bruce brought Seagram's, Jim, his guitar and harmonica, and Gary, a stash of weed. They continue to honor this tradition.

      Anyway, Charlie's daughter Kristin, and my daughter Jene, push eHarmony. Jene gets me the form online and I fill it out, what the hell? Charlie felt he still wasn't ready. Kristin said to him, "You're ready, Dad," and took the bull by the horns. She filled out his form. We had to send along two photographs. I chose to send a black and white by the famous photographer, Marion Ettlinger, who does author portraits. (Her first published portrait was Truman Capote.) I'd written seven novels by then. When my memoir went to Simon & Schuster, I didn't pick a snapshot by a friend for the back cover; I spent six hours in Marion's studio. She contorted my body into many positions, seeing to my being sprawled across pieces of furniture draped with heavy fabric, while she fed me things like chocolate-covered strawberries and espresso candies; passed me glasses of wine; and played a variety of music—classical to hip-hop. At the end of the session, I had to take a taxi to Grand Central because I was having trouble walking. My back hurt, my neck hurt, my elbows and knees hurt. In the taxi, I glommed down Advil.

      My Marion Ettlinger portrait has been my most prized possession ever since.

      In contrast with the brilliant Ettlinger, my second e-Harmony picture was taken at Fenway Park after my son and I were in line for a long time in order to have a picture of us posed in front of the 2004 Red Sox World Series trophy at Fenway Park. It was 95 degrees and I was wearing shorts, a loose tank top with no bra, and my Sox hat. The guy behind us in line took the picture. I asked Jere when we picked up our pictures if it looked like I wasn't wearing a bra. "No," he lied.

      The first four men I met through eHarmony were about the biggest assholes I've ever come across, the last an economist, who bragged that he was responsible for pharmaceutical ads being allowed to air on TV. I said, "Wow…because of you I get to see two people sitting in separate bathtubs out in a field, no plumbing in sight, holding up wine glasses, and obviously about to have ravenous sex after the guy's Viagra kicks in."

      The economist was not amused. Also, he'd positioned himself at a table where he could stare at any and all woman who come through the door. I was not amused, which is why I told him I was in labor and had to leave. He didn't hear me since he was concentrating on some teenager's butt. I got up and put my coat on. He noticed. He said, "Where ya goin'?" I said, "My water just broke," and escaped.

      I went home and wrote. I'm fortunate to have such a refuge. I called Jene when I got home and told her I was closing my eHarmony account. She sympathized and apologized for pushing me and I told her I could have said no, that it was hardly her fault. Before I went to bed, I checked my email, and while I was reading one, a new one popped up. From eHarmony. A picture of a guy on a boat: Meet Charlie! Nice boat. Hydra Sport: two Evinrude 250 engines. Couldn't really make out the guy too well. Didn't matter. I live on Long Island Sound. I'm a water person.

      The clever Kristin had seen to a second picture—her father holding a baby. He's wearing a suit. I guessed the picture was taken at the baby's christening. They are nuzzling each other. His little essay was direct. I have been a widower for four years. It has been a sad time. But we've got a new baby in our family. Then there's a third picture, again on the boat, with the baby asleep in Kristin's lap, her husband, Mike, and her brother, Jay. Charlie is flipping hamburgers on a little grill attached to the back of the boat; they are already eating the first round. This Charlie has a spatula in one hand and a burger of his own in the other.

      So, okay, I'll try one more of these guys. He doesn't look like a jerk. The other ones did, I have to say. And so, they were. I'll get a boat ride out of it. Also, Charlie's an engineer. If the boat engine conks out in the middle of Long Island Sound, presumably he'll be able to fix it.

      First though, I had to go through the eHarmony drill. I have to send the guy on the boat a response. A guy who is mourning his late wife; has a baby in his life who appears to have made him happy; and a son and son-in-law who don't look like jerks either. I have to pick three questions chosen from eHarmony's "Getting to know you" instructions: questions like, What kind of music do you listen to? You have the option of asking something original. Before I list my choices I write, I'm sorry for your loss. You must miss your wife. Then I got on with it. I picked one of their questions; I was tired. What is your idea of a great Saturday night date? After the first four flops, maybe this boat-owning engineer would choose something other than, Go to a movie. I don't want to see movies with strangers. How do you get to know someone when you can't talk? I was thinking more along the lines of: Go for a walk along the Sound and then get an ice cream cone, though that probably sounds like a metaphor for Cinderella singing that someday her prince would come.

      I read his answer the next morning while I was drinking my coffee. I put Gail Collins's column aside. All I can say is that it was quite the variation on what I was looking for. He starts with: Thank you for your sympathy. Then he gets on with it:

      My idea of a great Saturday night date would like to have the person come to my house so I can cook her a great dinner. Maybe lamb chops on my grill, or tequila chicken. I'll make her favorite drink so that, while I cook, she can lounge on my deck. Then when everything is getting close to done, I can go out and chat with her. After dinner, I'll put on some music and we can dance. Slow dance. Then we have great sex, and in the morning we'll go out for a big breakfast, hopefully after more great sex.

      I am so impressed with his blatant honesty. Impressed with the implication, too, that he has been moving on since his wife died.

      I respond with: That would be my idea of a great Saturday night too, but only after I come to like the guy really a lot, and mostly, feel I can trust him.

      Does that sound like a resounding, Sayonara?

      Charlie doesn't interpret it that way. He writes, Can we skip emailing and just go get a cup of coffee?

      I write back, That's where my four other eHarmony get-togethers ended. I couldn't get past the coffee. Just so you know.

      He writes back, I wish that's where my eHarmony get-togethers ended.

      But yet, we keep writing back and forth. By the time we get around to finding a date to have coffee, he writes, "Maybe we can get breakfast? You can choose where."

      I love going out for breakfast, especially to diners. I choose a diner between him and me. We decide a week from Sunday.

      With more email exchanges, independent of prescribed eHarmony questions, I learn that besides being a widower and having a new baby in his family, he's an engineer at Sikorsky.

      I ask, What sort of engineering do you do at Sikorsky?

      I've just finished a project going over safety issues on Marine One, the President's helicopter.

      I ask, Is the President now safe?

      Yes. The only thing that needed to be improved was the one-inch step down from the ramp-door to the door-ladder.

      Me: The President has to climb down a ladder?

      Him: It's called a ladder, but it's a stairway.

      Me: Did that get done?

      Him: Yes. Now where the two meet, it's level.

      Me: How did you do it?

      Him: We redesigned the fuselage so that the door opening is an inch higher.

      Wow. I have to say that would seem rather a round-about way to fix the door problem. I don't question him further, though I'd like to because I'm a curious person. At the same time, I'm able to call up my sensitivity when I'm about to be a pain in the ass.

      In the Times the next morning I read an article about how marriages work best wherein the two partners teach each other things all the time. I surely liked learning how to level the stair from a helicopter with the fuselage.

      A few days before the breakfast, I realize that Sunday is Valentine's Day. I email. I write that if it's too sentimental a holiday for him, I won't mind postponing. He writes back: I don't want to postpone breakfast with someone whose picture on eHarmony is with her son posing in front of the World Series trophy at Fenway Park. Up to you, ok?

      OK.

      Valentine's Day: There is a foot of snow on the ground. An exchange of emails—do we keep the plan? Are the roads are plowed? Yes. I tell him I'll be wearing tall brown boots and a big jacket with fur around the hood. He'll have on a Nike hat. When I'm zipping up my sleek, skinny boots, the zipper on one of them splits open. I am stuck in the boot for around ten minutes before I rip the top of the zipper open with a pair of pliers. Then I look in my closet, knowing there won't be any footwear available that I'd want to wear. I'm a sneakers person. Beyond that I have shoes one would wear to lunch with a literary agent in New York; animal-print ballet slippers. And I have hiking boots. Since I work at home, that leaves fluffy soft-sox, though a bin full of flip-flops awaits spring. I have on black leggings. I rationalize that with the roads plowed, the sidewalk in front of my condo shoveled, and figuring the diner parking lot has been taken care of since it's Valentine's Day, I go with the ballet slippers.

      I don't look at the time on my dashboard because I don't like being late. I'm one of those people who's pathologically on time. There's a lot of traffic; everyone and their brother is taking his wife or mother or girlfriend to the very diner where I'm to meet Charlie. The parking lot is packed. I drive up and down the rows of cars, but there are no spaces. I drive to the Burger King next door; no spaces there, either. I drive to the next lot behind a bank and get a spot since banks are closed on Sunday. I have to climb over three of the other kind of banks—plowed snow— to get to the diner. I do not have to tell you the ensuing condition of my ballet slippers and how frozen my toes are by the time I get inside the warm, bacon-smelling diner.

      The little lobby area is filled with wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, merry people. I stand on my frozen tip-toes and see lots of hats, but no Nike swoosh. I'm sure Charlie has left because I'm really late now. I need coffee. I hope I can find a seat at the counter. At least I no longer feel any need to get to the ladies' room mirror, take down my hood and fix my hat hair.

      I go squishing through people in the direction of the counter, when I spot the Nike hat. I make my way to it and I say to the guy under the hat who's looking, basically, depressed. "Are you Charlie?" I'm not sure because he has a beard, neat and trimmed; the guy on the boat didn't have one.

      He turns to me and he smiles. Despite my being late, it's a good-natured smile. Maybe it's the dimples. He says, "Hi, Mary-Ann. I'm glad you made it." I throw my arms around him and give him a giant hug. Then I step back and the look on his face is, I'd say, astonishment. But he composes himself and steers me toward an empty booth that he has paid a waiter to hold for us. I can tell because the waiter immediately comes over and asks if the booth is acceptable. I am impressed some more. Impressed especially by the gentleness of his palm against my back when he did the steering. We sit down. I take off my hood and pat down my hair, ha-ha. The waitress comes right over with her coffee pot. I say to Charlie while she's pouring, "Do you know what you want? I'm starving."

      He says, "Yes, I do."

      I order two fried eggs over easy, bacon, home fries, white toast and a side of cream of wheat. Charlie is staring at me during my litany. He orders oatmeal raisin pancakes. Hmmm….that would have to be the last thing I'd order for breakfast in a diner. I don't hold it against him; it's not like he ordered a box of bran sticks.

      We start chatting. We chat the whole time we wait for our food, and then we eat and chat at the same time.

      I ask, "What do you do now that the President is not going to fall down Marine One's stairs."

      He looks up from his pancakes. First, he laughs. Then he says, "Working on the Black Hawk fleet. Making them as effective as they can be from every aspect."

      I say, "You do important work."

      "So do you. The pen is mightier than the sword."

      He's done some homework. Nice.

      We have our coffee cops refilled maybe five times what with the non-stop chatter. At one point, he asks me, "How long have you been divorced?"

      I ask him, "What's today?"

      He'd just taken a sip of coffee. He gulps it down. Then he looks into my eyes and cracks up. I explain that even though I officially got divorced three days ago, my ex-husband and I haven't lived under the same roof for over a year. I say, "He wanted to stay married another year so we could file joint tax returns one more time to save money. You pick your battles."

      He says, "Yeah, you do. But you didn't have to explain. I was just surprised." He leans back against the cushy booth. "I'm glad you got divorced. I'm sorry, though, about what you must have gone through."

      I lean back too. "Thanks."

      We drink the last of our coffee. We don't say much. Maybe there's nothing else to say. Or maybe he's comfortable just relaxing. I know I am.

      When we do get up to leave, he asks me if he can walk me to my car. eHarmony frowns on that, suggests you not let the person see your car until your third date. I guess this is based on the assumption that by the third date, you will be able to tell if the guy is an axe murderer or not; someone who will memorize your license plate, find your address and kill you.

      I say, "That's fine with me. You'll have to climb over snow banks. I couldn't find a parking spot till I got to the bank."

      "No problem." Dimples-flash. "Got my boots."

      Now he's looking at my feet. I tell him about how I broke my boot zipper while I was getting dressed. "I don't have a lot of shoes. I work at home. I could have worn hiking boots but decided against. "

      "It would have been an excuse to cancel. Thanks for coming anyway."

      At the first bank of snow, he pretty much lifts me over. I have to laugh, he's so earnest. Then he points to a Tahoe down a row of cars.

      "That's my car. I have to get something."

      Uh…okay. eHarmony doesn't have bells that go off—you're on your own. We walk to the car, he opens the back door, and doesn't throw me inside. Instead, he reaches into the back seat and takes out an armful of red roses. He says, "I can't imagine being with a woman on Valentine's Day and not give her red roses."

      (A confession to you: On my way to the diner, I stop at a grocery store. I'm thinking I'll just run in and out and only be late by another two minutes. I can grab a little box of candy in case the diner has one of those vases of red roses that they sell for two dollars apiece on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. What if this guy I'm meeting buys me one? I grab a heart-shaped box of four chocolates. On the cover of the box is Snoopy and his buddy, the little yellow bird with the spiked hair. I don't have time to be choosy.)

      With my arms full of roses, and a peck-on-the-cheek thank you, I scrounge around in my bag and come up with the little box. I hand it to him. "Happy Valentine's Day, Charlie."

      We will have a second get-together since the first one got an A+.

Here is eHarmony's suggestion for meeting #2: Lunch. We don't do that. That's because I noticed in my local paper that there's an eagle-spotting trip on the Connecticut River with the Audubon Society. When Charlie emails me to ask how I feel about going to dinner rather than lunch, I send a response, asking if I can call him since I might need the opportunity to lobby for the Connecticut River if he hesitates. A conversation is necessary. He doesn't respond right away, but I get an email that night: Don't feel you have to call me if you don't want to get together again. I'll understand. But here's my number.

      Oh, dear.

      I immediately call the number. He picks up. "Hi, Mary-Ann."

      "Hi, Charlie. I would really like to see you again. It's just that an email would have taken me too long to explain how I feel about dinner."

      There's a pause. Then he says, "Take your time."

      "Okay. Would you consider cruising down the Connecticut River with the Audubon Society to spot eagles? I mean, I know it's February and we'll freeze to death, but supposedly the eagles are really calm right now because they're about to lay their eggs." Dead silence. "I mean, I'd like to go to dinner, but we could go to dinner after the boat trip. But if you just want to…."

      "Stop," he says. I stop. "I cannot think of anything better than looking for eagles on the Connecticut River."

      We talk for an hour. We will meet up at the I-95 rest stop near where I live.

      A few days later, on the Audubon boat, we do freeze to death just like everyone else on the boat. We don't care and neither do they, all of us out on the deck, not wanting to go back into the cabin because there are eagles everywhere. They buzz the boat, flying all around in various formations, circling, and up and over and around us, again and again. The Audubon guy, on his mike, explains that they're happy. The older ones and last year's eagles are playing together.

      We're all taking a million pictures. Then we head to the riverbank, and slowly chug along parallel to the coastline, just feet away. We've got our binoculars and we scan the trees looking for nests, all built and ready and waiting for an eagle to produce and egg.

      Then we hear from the speakers, the Audubon guy again: "Omigod, Omigod, Omigod."

      Charlie says, "I'd say he's seen a nest."

      The boat turns slightly and stops. "Two o'clock," calls out the Audubon guy and not only do we see a nest, sticking up from it is an egg! Big egg. There is no time to take a picture because a very beautiful eagle, close enough almost to touch, glides past us and hovers over the nest. Then she settles down, down and onto the egg. Charlie says, "Just like a helicopter."

      Everyone on the boat is delirious with joy, and our guide breaks out his one bottle of champagne—he thought he'd be with just one other Audubon person when the first egg got spotted the first egg—but we all raise our paper cups with a taste of champagne in each, and we toast the egg. The guide keeps going on and on about how early this egg is and for all of us to email him and he'll keep us posted on when the baby hatches.

      We see many more nests, but no other eggs.

      Just before sundown, we disembark, all of us managing the slight skids we take down the ramp. We walk to the parking lot. There's a little crafts store along the way, staying open so the eagle-spotters can come in. Charlie asks me, "Want to check it out?"

      I ask, "Do you?"

      "Yes."

      I am so grateful, not because we're going into the craft store, but that Charlie wants to. I can even tell that Charlie would go into the shop even if he didn't want to just to be nice.

      I buy Christmas cookie cutters on sale. Charlie buys a bottle of olive oil with a branch of rosemary in it. He insists on buying another bottle of olive oil for me since I'm so excited about his bottle. I pick one with a layer of garlic cloves and anise seeds lying on the bottom.

      I say to Charlie, "I have an uncle who pickles boiled eggs in garlic and anise. My mother's side of the family is French, lucky me. Before my uncle screws on the jar cover, he drops in a little red pepper. I'm going to do the same."

      He says, "That sounds good. I remember this bar in Bridgeport. The owner had jars of pickled eggs out for the customers. You could have one, no charge. I loved those pickled eggs."

      I have a jar of my Uncle Norbert's pickled eggs in my fridge. He brings me a jar whenever he comes to visit me with my aunt. They have a cottage in a town not far from where I live. But even though there's that jar in my refrigerator, I'm not quite ready to ask him if he'd like to stop in on his way home.

      Charlie and I get back in our cars and I follow him to a restaurant in Clinton across Rte. 1 from a marina where he stores his boat. Clinton is east of New Haven, about twenty miles. We park and cross the road. Charlie shows me his boat. It's shrink-wrapped with white vinyl sheeting as are all the other boats. I tell him it has a nice shape and that I like being in a yard of ghost ships. He does his dimpled smile and then he pats his boat.

      He says, "It's a cruiser and a fishing boat."

      I say, "That's cool," to be nice, not sure what he means, and then we go back across the street. The restaurant used to be a house. It has a fireplace and a fire is spreading its charm.  The bar is serving hot toddies. Canadian Hot Toddies.

Charlie is curious. The waiter explains the bartender is from Toronto and makes the drink with Royal Crown Whiskey and a spoonful of maple syrup instead of honey.

We toast. Charlie says, "To the health of the first eagle."

      I say, "This is the first time I've toasted an egg."

I get a tolerant smirk. Then Charlie says, "This is the first time I've toasted with Canadian whiskey. First time I ever drank Canadian whiskey. " The drink is excellent. The food is good. I am incredibly relaxed rather than tired, my usual state of being over the past year. I don't know if chronic fatigue is a result of depression , or vice versa, or both.

      I ask him, "So how is a cruiser also a fishing boat?" He requires fifteen minutes to explain the difference followed by the unique advantages of having both at once. If you're interested, google it. It's actually interesting.

      He asks me, "How long does it take you to write a book?"

      "Depends on the book. Depends on what's going on in my life. But I see to writing every day."

      "Every day?"

      "Yes."

      "How long did it take you to write the memoir?"

      "Have you read it?"

      "Not yet. It came from Amazon yesterday. I hope this isn't the wrong thing to say, but I looked at the pictures."

      "Then you could see it took all my life to write it."

      Charlie has a great gaze. His eyes are color of the Sound when it's choppy. He is taking me in. He doesn't know what I mean by that, so he thinks about it. He refills my wine glass. Then he smiles. "Because it covers your whole life."

      "Sort of."

      I get dessert and Charlie orders a shot of Crown Royal instead. He wants to see what it tastes like unencumbered by maple syrup. When he picks up the glass, he holds it out. "Want a taste?"

      I do. I'd need three sips to really feel how it tastes. I say, "The first sip is pretty good." He offers another. I don't want to get overly tipsy and decline.

      Somewhere in our conversation, when his shot glass is empty, he says, "I think I'll have to buy a bottle of that Canadian whiskey."

      When we leave the restaurant and say goodbye, him leaning on his car parked next to mine, he says, "I started a cold yesterday."

      Hmmmm….  Avoiding a kiss. I say, "You should have told me. We could have gone on the next Audobon egg-spotting trip. I hope you don't wake up with pneumonia."

      "I'll be okay. It's only a cold. Worth seeing the first egg." He smiles. "I really enjoyed myself today."

      "Me too." We have a hug.

      The next morning he calls me. I'm already working. I've seen to not being able to hear phones or doorbells in my office. I get his message when I go out to the kitchen and have some lunch. He says he'll call tonight, when he's home from work. He also says, "I think the Canadian whiskey killed my cold."

      That night, my phone rings, and the first thing he says after hello is, "Did you notice the billboard for 'Riverdance' on the highway?"

      "I did."

      "I've always wanted to see it."

      "Me too."

      The next day, Charlie has two tickets for "Riverdance." And so, a week later, our third time together, just like the second time, will be of our own design, not eHarmony's.

      Instead of wearing the sort of thing you put on to be noticed in a crowd of strangers at a diner, or the jeans and heavy winter jackets you need for standing on the deck of an eagle-spotting vessel in the dead of winter, I get to dress up.

      First I go to Macy's to look for a dressy-ish winter coat. As soon as I'm in the coat area, there is the perfect coat on a mannequin standing right in front of me. It's short and it has that cute nipped-in-at-the waist cut. I'm so happy knowing this is not the occasion to look for something on the sale rack, something I normally do. I say to myself, Please let there be a size 6. There is. I try it on. It's a little too big; you lose weight maneuvering through a divorce. I try begging the gods of Macy's, Please let there be a size 4 and don't let it be too small. There is and it's not too small. My mother would advise: Be sure you're not going to be wearing an Irish fisherman's sweater under it. I'm all right there, Mom. I face the mirror. The coat just skims my knees. I look good, and I buy it. I love laser-strike shopping.

      I meet Charlie for dinner near the Oakdale Theatre. We're going to have something on the light side, and then return for dessert after the show. We haven't left a lot of time to eat. He had a meeting after work. He's standing by the hostess's podium. He looks stricken. He must have told the person who seats you what his problem was, because she's looking stricken too. He spots me.

      I say, "What's the matter?"          

      "I feel like a jackass."

      "You forgot the tickets?"

      "No. I just had a look at them. I got the time wrong. It's seven-thirty, not eight. I'm so sorry."

      I say, "I can rock dashboard food." 

      He just stands there staring at me, so the woman interrupts: "I do the take-outs. What'll it be?"

      We order two grab-and-go sandwiches and two cans of soda. She's gets those sandwiches made and wrapped up in about two minutes. Charlie pays the bill. She stares down at a twenty, plus a ten. The bill was seventeen dollars.

      He says to her, "It's yours. Thanks." She gives him a gigantic smile and her own thank-you, and off we go. She calls out to us, "Enjoy the show!"

      I'm glad to know Charlie understands when a big tip is in order. He takes my hand since we're pretty much sprinting to his car. It is now seeming silly, to say nothing of impractical, to take both cars what with the dashboard food plan. We get in the Tahoe.

I hand him a sandwich. He doesn't drive too much past the speed limit.

      At one point he says, "Listen, I owe you really nice dinner. You're a good sport, Mary-Ann."

      "Yeah, I am. But I'm looking forward to that dinner."

      He laughes. "Me too."

      In the theatre lobby, I tell him I have to go to the rest room. He says, "We've got a good five minutes."

      I come out in four, cute coat over my arm. I'm wearing a soft black cashmere sweater that envelops my Sea Cups fairly snugly. Also a gray flannel miniskirt. I've got on black tights and way-high heels I borrowed from my daughter. Charlie's eyes accomplish a one-second scan from the top of my head to the toes of my new boots. He says, "You look great, Wonder Woman."

      I smile at him. "I know it."

      He is taken aback, and then he smiles back. A deep voice and dimples. Be still, my beating heart. I say, "Thanks, Charlie. You look great too." He does, what with his big wide shoulders. He looks great in everything he wears.

      We totally enjoy "Riverdance." Beyond my expectations, always important. It's a terrific production. There are even dances from West Africa. The drummers are good. I would know, having served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. I don't tell Charlie that—talk about a conversation-stopper. In the car, Charlie asks, "Still want that dessert?"

      "Yes."And besides, I pretty much don't want the night to end. He tells me about a dairy nearby; they make their own ice cream. "It's open till ten. We're all right."

      "Then it's a good thing the show was half an hour early." 

      Inside, across a little table from each other, spooning up hot fudge sundaes, he says, of all things, "My father emigrated from Germany in 1935."

      I look up at him, wondering where this could be going. "He got a job at the German Club in Bridgeport. The club is still there. It's great—they celebrate every holiday there is. They have a St. Patrick's Day dinner dance. The corned beef and cabbage is as good as the bratwurst and the wienerschnitzel. Want to go?"

      Interestingly, he pronounces bratwurst, bratwurscht, and wienerschnitzel with a v not a w (some people don't know to do that). St. Patrick's Day is three weeks away. Truth to tell, I find myself wishing it was the next night.

      He says, "Time for us to do some dancing on our own, no? They always have a great band."

      The man dances. How much better can this get? But I guess I should know that from his eHarmony perfect Saturday night description. I say, "It is time."

       "We'll have fun." 

       I know we will. "I like to dance. I took tap, ballet and acro when I was a kid. And I like having corned beef and cabbage once a year."

      He kind of doesn't say anything. He has something pressing on his mind: "Is it all right if I pick you up? I don't want you to have to drive to Bridgeport."

      Besides his being a gentleman, he is alluding to the eHarmony warning: The woman is not to let the man pick her up at her home for at least six dates. But Charlie is no axe-murderer. Besides, not having to drive to Bridgeport is appealing. It's half an hour past New Haven. I say, yes. Then, very carefully, he asks me something else. "A couple of my friends will be there…at the dinner dance. Is that okay?"

      This Charlie is so sweet. I assure him I look forward to meeting his friends. I do. I get a major dimpled smile for that. We chat some more. I ask him, "Did your dad work there a long time?"

      "No. He died when I was fifteen months old. My mother told me he had an injury from the war. He never recovered from it."

      I reach over and take his hand. "I'm so sorry."

      "Thanks. I never knew him."

      The sadness in his voice overwhelms me. I say, "Yes, you did. He held you in his arms and talked to you. I know that because you pronounced wienerschnitzel and bratwurst the way Germans do."

      He brings my hand to his lips. Then he says, "That was a nice thing to say. Thanks."

      "It's true."

      He looks away, but I feel tears coming to my eyes even though he could stop his.

      We leave the restaurant, walk to my car, and kiss each other under his big umbrella. I've got both arms around him and I lay my head on his chest. Now he kisses the top of my head. We say goodbye, and then we drive off in opposite directions. I am way infatuated with him.

      When I get back home, I go to the boxes on the top shelf of my closet. I find the one with a blouse, one I bought in New York a little more than a year ago. I've never worn it. It is perfect for dancing with Charlie at the German Club. I google it. The official name of the club is the Germania Schwaben Society. It was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1849. To this day, the German Club celebrates every holiday there is in keeping with the German-American tradition:  Any excuse for a party. We will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day. The blouse is not green. I'll have to paint a shamrock on my cheek.

 

 

Chapter 7.

 

IT WAS CHRISTMAS time when I bought the blouse, not this past Christmas, but the year before. My husband had just moved out. I could not bear to put up a tree or take my beautiful crèche down from the attic. I spend Christmas Day at my daughter's house. I remember sipping on egg nog. That night, I walked the beach, Orion with me. He's the constellation that stretches out over the entire southern sky in winter.

      The next morning, I walked the same route; the vista is fifty shades of grey. Pretty big waves for Long Island Sound. They crash, one after the other. I ruminate. A person's life is divided into three parts: the personal, the professional and the geographic. All my life I fantasized about  geography, my dream to live on the water, close enough to New York to be there in an hour. Okay, an hour-and-a-half. I fantasized all my life, too, that one day I'd walk into a library, any library, and the books I'd written would be on the shelves. So two out of three ain't bad, the personal needing a lot of work.

      I follow the lone tracks in the sand back home. I call the Hilton in midtown Manhattan and make a reservation for three nights. The train station is fifteen minutes away, in New Haven. I take down a suitcase from a closet and swaddle my laptop in sweaters and flannel pajama bottoms. Baby Jesus in my crèche was not swaddled. My children covered him with doll blankets.

      My daughter said once, "Mom, everyone puts baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning since he wasn't born till then. We're the only ones who put him up right away."

      I tell her, "Everyone puts the three wise men and their camels around the stable, and they don't even get there till the Epiphany."

      My daughter: ""I'm glad we put everyone in the manger at the same time."

      My son: "What's the Epiphany?"

      When I broke the news to them that I was leaving their Dad—they're grown and living their own complicated lives—my daughter says, "Let's go to Rio and you can get the divorce there." My son says, "It's not like you're dying, Mom." Each has her/his way to make me feel better. I love them. You can't thrive without love. It doesn't matter where it comes from.

      I drive to the station and read till we get to Grand Central, and then get a taxi to the Hilton Club on West 57th Street. The city and it's spectacularly dazzling decorations is what I'd hoped for. I'd hoped I'd take it all in and feel better and I do. I love New York. As soon as I check into the Hilton and hand my bag to the concierge—room not ready yet—the doorman holds the door for me, wishes me a wonderful day, and off I go to become part of the holiday extravaganza that is Christmas in this city.

I will pass, or visit, my favorite places, along with a couple of others spots I've always wanted to see, just like I used to do with my father.

      My dad took me to New York on my birthday every year, along with one of my all-time favorite people, my cousin Paul, whose own birthday was three days earlier. We took the train from Hartford. Over the course of ten years, Paul, me, and my father went to every tourist attraction in New York we could think of, our top ten: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Natural History, Hayden Planetarium, Grant's Tomb, the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island (do you know the parachute drop was open in February?), a personal tour of Grand Central Terminal upon bribing an off-duty conductor with a "ten-spot", St. Patrick's Cathedral with a walk-by of the Rockefeller Center rink. Number one was an entire afternoon in Times Square, at a creepy movie theatre, watching old black and white comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello. The three of us laugh our asses off, and having memorized "Who's on First?" We say Bud and Lou's lines, our lips in synch with theirs. Actually, so does the entire audience.

      There is a scene in my first novel that takes place in the viewing rotunda atop Grant's Tomb. It isn't open to the public. It was open to Paul and me on my tenth birthday because my father gave the guard a Montecristo, a cigar from a box someone smuggled him from Cuba. He gave me the box for my collection of cigar bands. The guard gave me the band, but I gave it to Paul because I already have three Montecristo's.

      Newly separated and in New York at Christmas, I will spend the next few days at the Modern, the Guggenheim, the Neue Gallery, the Met, and the reading room at the New York Public Library. I'll see a play and attend a symphony. Carnegie Hall is just down the block from the Hilton Club.

      I go to the library first, fill out little slips of paper, and give them to the librarian. She brings me the first six of my books that had been published by then. My father got to buy copies of the first four before he died.

      Of all the places I go, I spend the longest time in the Neue Gallery, where I've never been. I  I am rooted in front of Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. It is an oil painting with every bit of the surface covered with geometric shapes, but Adele's gown, and the wall behind her is of cut of gold and silver leaf, in different patterns to distinguish the gown from the background. This fabulousness does not overshadow, in any way, the erotic beauty of Adele's face, her onyx hair and eyes, and her red, red lips. The passion between artist and model is so alive that when you look at it, you feel a passion for her, too. I do not have the background necessary to describe this painting to you beyond that, but I wish you the privilege of standing in front of Klimt's Adele, to slowly find your way past the gold and silver, gold and silver, gold and silver, and then fall into her black eyes as did Klimt. As I did. Before I leave the gallery, the artist's adoration of her draws me back. I worship the painting for a few more minutes. You have the feeling you should be kneeling.

      In Manhattan restaurants, my appetite starts to come back, how could it not? On restaurant row in the theatre district I have the best dinner at Becco's, Lidia Bastianich's restaurant. Her Italian cooking show is on PBS, if you didn't know that.      The staff is determined to see that I enjoy myself. They clearly hold a certain compassion for a woman dining along; it's as if the application to be a waiter at Becco's requires a certain Sir Galahad mien. The maître d' holds my chair for me and slides it under my butt with great acumen, so that I'm in exactly the right position at the table.

I open the menu, scan it, and immediately know I've come to the right place; my favorite dish is on the menu, osso bucco.

      It is easy to choose the first course because the couple at the next table is making their way though plates of ravioli. Each ravioli is the size of a saucer and misshapen as a homemade ravioli can't help but be. Ravioli is not on the list of the prix fixe first course items. When I tell the waiter I'll have ravioli for a first course anyway, he says, "Perfecto."

      The ravioli are tender and smooth, the sauce pink and delicate. It looks like a lot of food, but it isn't.

      And then, I get to experience the fragrance of the osso bucco wafting up to me as the waiter places gently on the table. Divine. The ravioli couple ask me what it is.

      "Veal shank. It's braised until the meat is more tender than filet mignon."

      They look at it; they've never seen any sort of shank is my guess. I say, "I'll give you a taste."

      Naturally, they protest, but I cut two pieces and put them on my bread plate. I spoon some juice over the meat. I put two spoonsful of risotto alongside, and pass the plate over to them. "If you don't like it, don't worry about it."

      The woman says, "Thank you. New Yorkers are so friendly."

      That's what I've always found.

      I don't know if they liked my osso bucco, but the husband said, "I've never tasted anything like that before." The wife agrees. She gives me the bread plate back and thanks me again.

      The maître d' comes by after I tell my waiter I have no room for dessert, which I don't. He says, "Ah, Signora, you choose to miss the main course?"

      I say, "I ate my main course."

      "I noticed. You did my osso bucco justice!" (I'd cleaned my plate and cleaned out the veal shank bone too, with the little sterling marrow fork.)

      "It was perfecto."

      He sighs. "But you see, I think of dessert as the main course. It is, as the French say, the denouement. I will get you something wonderful, but light. Promesso!"

      I'm a writer. The climax give you a chill, but the denouement cracks your heart. The waiter brings a sleek, footed, crystal glass of zabaglione with a scatter of berries and a few mint leaves on top. Promise kept, and also promesso. the first time I had zabaglione is when my Auntie Palma brought it to me when her godchild, my daughter, was born. "To build up your milk," she said. If there had been a famine the following week, I could have fed the city of Cleveland, easy.

      Finally, I lean back in that sated posture of I-ate-too-much-but-I-don't-care. The maître d' brings me an espresso.

     "Graci," I say.

     "Prego."

      The last thing I ask the waiter is, "Why was that espresso so perfecto?"

      "Just a few drops of grappa instead of a twist. Something Lidia enjoys."

      That was something my father and my Uncle Guido enjoyed. Now I know why.

      I leave to a magnificent gesture of having my coat put on without a hint of fumbling for a sleeve.

      I cross the street and buy a ticket for Carrie Fisher's one-woman Broadway show, "Wishful Drinking." I will see it on my last night, a night that puts on a show of its own, the sky laden with heavily pregnant, charcoal clouds that form a single mass and start letting loose swaths of blowing snow an hour before curtain. The predicted blizzard now makes a hero out of every meteorologist on the New York local stations and offers a big bonus for all Broadway audiences since the show goes on no matter what.

      My last night, and I'm walking down Broadway all bundled up, snow swirling around my boots and across the asphalt in waves. It's too windy for any snow accumulation. But it's coming. We're talking blizzard.

      Inside, after we've all brushed snow off our shoulders, we're sitting when the lights come up and illuminate the stage. There is no curtain, just Carrie sitting in an overstuffed, comfy chair, stage center, gazing at us. Instead of saying her starting lines, she says, "Thanks for braving the storm." Three-quarters of the seats are empty. A few people call out, "You're welcome." She stands up and says, "Come on down!" and waves her arm across the orchestra section where she's inviting us to sit. How cool is that? We all grab our coats and stumble down the steps. Carrie shouts, "House lights!" which come on, and none of us kill ourselves.

      Carrie is absolutely rip-roaringly hilarious, half her lines ad-libbed as she goes. The back-drop is ever-changing up visuals. For example, a screen drops down behind her and there she is in a photograph with the rest of the cast of the original "Star Wars," only just their heads, each head atop a Pez dispenser! Honestly, if I were an actor, I'd rather be honored with the head of a character I played atop a Pez dispenser than getting an Oscar any day. Carrie points at her Pez and says, "I will still never understand why they thought a Danish pastry on each side of Princess Leia's head would look like the future."

      I love her show, the perfecto main course to my days in New York. (You can see that perfecto became my favorite word.)

      I don't need to say that we give Carrie a standing-O, all of us intent on making more noise than a full house would have, we so need to show her how terrific she was. She just keeps walking back and forth across the stage, taking some bows, blowing kisses, and doesn't leave till the lights begin to dim, and then come back when she reappears. She does this several times. The equivalent of a zillion curtain calls. I feel connected with her because, based on all she revealed in her autobiographical show, she has nowhere to go after the show either.  

      I so mourn the loss of Carrie Fisher. And her mom.

      I walk out of the theatre into whirls of fat snowflakes blowing horizontally, the streets and avenues empty of traffic, covered with a six-inch deep, shimmering, blue-white, down comforter. And oh, the lights! Dazzling with the absence of headlights. The walls of neon are what give the snow that other-worldly sheen of blue.

      While everyone else is waiting for taxis that will never come, I meander along through the deepening snow. When I'm almost to Fifth Avenue, I meet up with some German tourists. One of them asks me, "May you please direct us to Rockefeller Center?"

      Yes, I may. "Follow me."

      I wish I could say it in German to be polite, but I took French in high school instead of German. I can't speak French either. The Germans understand English just like all Europeans, since they take English starting in infant-care school and every school forever after. I do understand danke schön. 

      I lead the way, first stop the vender on the next corner, standing alongside a couple of garbage bags full of boots, and to the other side of him, a little hibachi glowing red. The Germans confer, and their leader who asked me might I please direct them to Rockefeller Center asks the boot-vendor, "Please excuse, but…. They are not leaking?"

The vendor looks at him as if he's the dumbest-ass person he's ever met, waves his arms over his head, and says, "This be snow, man!"

      All the way to Rockefeller Center in their new green boots, the Germans keep saying, "This be snow, man!" They laugh and laugh just like Carrie Fisher's audience.

      The massive plate-glass windows fronting the stores that line the world's most famous shopping avenue are especially spectacular because there is no one to stand in front of you while you gape at one extravaganza after another, decorated by people who must have used magic wands. The falling snow all around makes me feel like I'm in the windows. The Germans point and exclaim with some words I can understand, and most that I can't: Wunderbar! Fantastisch! Super! But also: Es-wahr! Einfack! Ausgezzicknet! Ach du meine Güte!

      In a little shop on a side street just before Fifth, I see a blouse in the window, on a mannequin smiling at a male mannequin as they hang ornaments on their tree. I would get sad again except that the blouse is black and diaphanous, a little ruched in front with just a smattering of colorless sequins giving off a subdued holiday sparkle. I love it. Even though I know that if I buy the blouse, it won't change my life, you never know. What I do know is that I want it, the first item of clothing I've wanted to buy in a year. I'm coming back tomorrow.

      Onto Rockefeller Center, first jay-walking across Fifth, not that there are any cars, to St. Patrick's to see the crèche. Just as we did as we progressed along the avenue in front of the breath-taking windows, we stop every twenty feet along the cathedral aisle, often turning in place 360 degrees because there's a lot to see in a cathedral, never mind the crèche, which is just so baroque Italian. The Germans light candles, say prayers, put money in the collections box.  One of them kisses his fingertips and gestures to the statue of Mary: "Ca bella senora!" See? Europeans are taught every romance language.

      Outside, back into the snow, we jaywalk back again, and then we go down the wide allee  between the two rows of lighted angels, leading to the sight of the giant tree, eighty feet tall, a Norway Spruce, as always, this one from Connecticut. I do my best to brag about that to the Germans. They understand, and consequently, I must be photographed alone in front of it many times. The Germans make such a fuss it's as if it came from my yard. Maybe I said something they think means that it did.

      We lean against the waist-high wall skirting the rink's perimeter, and watch the half-dozen New Yorkers, sailing and whizzing across the ice after having scaled that same wall. The rink is closed because of the storm but the music is still going. There is no security there to stop them. There's nobody around. It's me, and the Germans, and the handful of hearty skaters.

      Next, the Germans want Bier. "Deutsches Bier," the leader says to me. "It is possible?"

      "Yes, it is," I say.

      I'm getting to be a greater hero by the minute. I bring them back out to 5th Avenue. I can't wait to see the Berdorf-Goodman window. No Christmas display comes close to theirs, same with the clothes they sell. The Germans are still saying Bier amongst themselves, so I make a circular gesture with my mitten, and they understand it's coming around the next corner.

      In front of the Bergdorf, we all come to a stop and the Germans exclaim in a chorus, "Ach du lieber!" Colloquially, "OH, MY GOD!!!"

      The window is filled with the celestial night sky. Half the zodiac has come to life, the constellations giving you the feel you're sitting in the middle of the Pleiades. On a plane inches in front of this blue-black vista of stars and planets and comets and shooting stars that are, believe it or not, shooting, are navigational instruments of yore: sextants, compasses, calipers, Galileo's refracting telescope, and so many others I don't know the name of.

      When you can take your eyes off this spectacle, you notice the floor below, crawling with sea creatures out of H.G. Welles, except that the octopi, crabs and turtles are made of glitter and sequins and diamonds, all of them in motion—actually crawling—amidst the waving coral. No fashions in sight, no mannequins, just the sky and the populated sea as only this store could have designed.

      We skim past the other windows on our trek, and I can understand why. The scenes have  become too rich for our blood. Straight on to the Plaza then, around the corner as promised. At the doors, I attempt to say goodbye to my tourist friends but they'll have none of it. "I really have to get going," falls on deaf ears, not that they understand or care what I'm saying; they demand I join them. But what else do I want to do, after all? When they see I'm softening, they all cheer their German cheers.

      We go to the Oak Room Bar, off the actual Oak Room, the restaurant, which is empty. By now, anyone trapped by the blizzard has taken a room. I knew the Germans would love the Oak Bar, not only because it's the most beautiful bar in the United States, but also because of the frescoes of Bavarian castles and a chandelier loaded with clusters of grapes with a barmaid on top, hefting a stein. The Germans laugh and laugh, pointing here and there, and the leader says, "Ah, Amerika, Amerika."

      The bartender is polishing glasses like all bartenders do while he takes us in. He spots me and smiles. He calls out to all, "Wilkomen!"

      We belly up.

      I ask, "Have you got German beer?"

      First he raises an eyebrow. Then he says, "We have any beer you want." He goes to the back wall, takes down six steins, hits a tap, and fills them with Hefeweizen. Grasping three in each hand, he raises them: "On the house." Did I say that I love New York? Yes.

      One of the German asks something like, "Vas is this?"

      The leader answers his friend in German, and guides his attention to me. The friend asks, "Could be a gift?"

      "It be."

     They raise their steins to the bartender and begin singing away. I'm the only one sitting. The beer is wunderbar. They polish off three steins while I manage one. Three more for them, one more for me. I have to head back to my hotel while I can still walk a straight line. The Germans don't notice me sliding off my bar stool because they're smashed. The bartender does, as I first gave him a nice tip. He says, "Be careful out there. Don't fall into a snow bank."

      I say, "Auf Wiedersehen," to my Germans, and then to their fallen faces, I add, "I have to go." But they protest while I'm trying to make my way to the door— "Come back, come back,"they call out, only in German; just the leader in English. Waterfalls of beer are splashing forth as they gesture, trying to wave me back. But they see I mean to go, and I'd say are probably too drunk to care. I'm wrong. I can still hear the chorus of danke schöns even when I'm outside the big doors. The leader shouts, "I be loving you forever, Miss America."

      The snow is almost over my boots. When I get to my hotel at around three in the morning, the doorman holds the door for me, and says, "We were worried about you." Nice.

      This is a time in my life when I appreciate someone worrying about me, as well as having a bunch of merry Germans to share a blizzard with, and Carrie Fisher inviting me to take an orchestra seat at her show. Poor Carrie Fisher. The Oak Room bar is gone too. In a couple of years, after having been bought out and run by a bunch of criminals, some of them actually serving time, it's gotten rid of by the new owners. Imagine.

      Anyway, even though I had a terrific night, I end up in my divorce sadness as I try to fall asleep. I feel this way every night. I take a half a Benadryl. When I wake up next morning and sense a silence beyond the walls of the hotel, I get out of bed and open the draperies. The sight is far and above the fabulously artificial beauty of the Fifth Avenue windows. The blazing sun has created a whiteness that glittera with the sequins and diamonds of Bergdorf's. 

      I get dressed, grab a coffee and a muffin in the empty hotel lobby, everyone still asleep, not counting the bleary-eyed staff. The doorman asks me what I'll vw doing tonight. I have to tell him I'm going home, thought tempted to ask, "Whatcha have in mind?" Just not ready, ya know?

      Outside, oh, the sense of silence. The roads still aren't plowed, the parked cars mounded over with snow. Instead of all kinds of high end cars, there are only big cars and little cars. The sidewalks are shoveled though--a sign that you're in New York.

      I head for the little side street where I spotted my blouse. I'd made a map in my brain. I follow my map. I realize that I'm so happy, and I did it all by myself by just opening myself up to New York, just like my dad, and my cousin Paul, and I did instead of having a birthday party.

      The shop girl says, "It comes in waif sizes. It's meant for you."

      She hands me the one-ounce blouse. I ask, "What's it made of?"

      "Silk gauze."

      Wow.

      Though the blouse is every bit as beautiful as the one in the window when I first laid eyes on it, while I'm trying it on and seeing myself from all directions in the mirrors surrounding me, I look awful despite the fabulous. My mother would have said, "You look like the wreck of the Hesperus." ("The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about a sea captain who can't admit that he needs to bring his boat to a safe harbor what with an approaching gale. But he wants to impress his daughter, who is aboard, so he carries on until he crashes into rocks. From there it gets gory. Wiki offers an added line of interest—what turns out to be my favorite piece of trivia ever: The poem first appeared in a magazine called "Weirdos and Creeps." Yeah, I know--it's wiki, but never mind.)    

      My point being: "The storm is over; you are not frozen to a mast. Your hair needs a great cut, and you need all new make-up from a counter at Saks. Time to start your engines."

      When I'm home again I go to my mirror and look at my new Saks face. I look like someone alive. It's a start. Then I take the blouse out of the shopping bag. It's in a box. I don't even open it. I decide I'll do that when I'm ready to wear it. A few days later, it's New Year's Eve, but I'm surely not ready for that yet. I go to bed with my book du jour and fall asleep before midnight. I didnt even watch whoever the new Dick Clark is. But I feel good, not sad. When I wake up in the new year, I do what I always do—make coffee, get The New York Times from inside my front door, read it, and then with all my brain's cobwebs cleared, write till I drop. This year I will be back to keeping to that drill with what has no longer been—for some time—inherent enthusiasm and the ecstasy of cozying up with a blank page.

      I'm going to be all right.

 

Chapter 8.

 

ONE YEAR AND two-and-a-half  months ago, when Charlie came along and invited me to the German Club for a Saint Patrick's Day, I take the box down from the closet, put it on my bed and open it.

      The blouse is precisely folded in Christmas tissue. I lift it out. It still feels like it weighs maybe an ounce. It's just so damn pretty.

      I put it on. The invisible sequins twinkle in the mirror. I look a helluva lot better than I did the day I bought it, no longer saturated with misery. Sequins are meant for feeling happy and dancing. I think of the German tourists. This is all meant to be, wouldn't you say? And also, wouldn't you say, I am so ready for feeling sentimental.

      Have you read Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman? The very book that the late, and sorely-missed Nora Ephron turned into an off-Broadway play in collaboration with her sister Delia. The play is as heartbreaking and exhilarating as the book. If you haven't read it, do it—paperback, seven bucks—because maybe you'll remember the new blouse you didn't wear when you were going through loss. Maybe it's still on a shelf in your closet.

      It's pouring down rain on St. Patrick's Day, just like the night of Riverdance. Charlie squeezes through my door, me helping him with the golf umbrella because his arms are loaded with four bottles of olive oil. Also, a bottle of pinot grigio and an especially long loaf of French bread. Once we set it all down on the kitchen table, I help him get his jacket off, dripping water all over the floor. Stuffed inside the jacket is a large plastic bag holding three of the books I wrote.

      He asks me, "You'll sign them for me, right?"

      Right. I told you he's a good man. Also, a shrewd one.

      We put the jacket and his shoes in front of my roaring fire, and I can't help but notice that in the firelight has set the sequins on my Bergdorf blouse aglow. Charlie is dazzled by the sequins just like me. He's struggling valiantly to keep his eyes away from my hint of cleavage. He says, "You look beautiful, Mary-Ann."

      I tell him, thank you. Might I say I'm also wearing black, velvet, skinny jeans. Oh, and a new black bra since you can see through blouse in certain light. I decided against a shamrock on my cheek. Charlie makes up for me. He has on an emerald green v-neck sweater over a white shirt. There's a sort of decorative pin attached to the breast of the sweater. He reaches up and touches it. It flashes a message, Kiss Me, I'm Irish, what else? I do. Then he takes the pin off and puts it in his pocket, thank God.

      Then we set up a dipping-oil tasting station on the coffee table.

      Settled into the sofa, the bottles of oil now in front of us; the French bread on a board; plates, wine, and wine glasses in position. Charlie uncorks the wine, pours, and we clink glasses. Then I dash back to the kitchen for a bread knife and a lot of napkins. I drip neither oil nor wine on my blouse while savoring the four flavors of infused olive oil. The French bread turns out to have a seriously crunchy crust and ultra-chewy insides. It clearly came from a bakery, not Stop & Shop. Nice. (I later learn that the bakery was a dozen miles out of Charlie's way.)

      A unanimous vote will give the lemon-garlic-rosemary oil top honors. We somehow decide against another glass of wine because St. Patrick awaits. We both know we should go and not be lazy and sit there all night, etc. It's too soon.

      We get into our rain gear and step out the door and under the golf umbrella, I take his arm. He says, "I don't know what makes a man happier than when a woman takes his arm."

      I am enjoying this old-world quality of Charlie's.

      The German-Americans cooking at the club know how to make a great corned beef and cabbage feast, including vegetables, seasoned with something, I can't discern what, but it's all damned good. Soda bread needs a lot of butter as it should. And then, oh, the encore: apple strudel and black forest cake, naturally, but with sides of creampuffs called Windbeutel, hazelnut macaroons, and rum balls. There are rum balls, and then there are German rum balls.

      Our table of Charlie's friends exhibits the same hearty appetites as Charlie and me and we all hit it off. Then Charlie and I groove a few hours away, getting down, or slow-dancing, me with my arms around his neck, what with the Guinness Stout on tap, and my utter enjoyment of his body crushed to mine. The dance will go till midnight, but then there we are, saying our goodbyes to his friends an hour before that. Charlie tries to make an excuse about the rain and the long drive, but one of his friend's wives says, "Yada-yada-yada," and she hugs me goodbye. They are all clearly happy that Charlie is with someone.

      He drives me home, thunder booming and lightning bolts hitting the sound. When he pulls into my driveway, he stops the car, turns off the ignition, and says, "You forgot to sign my books."

      He has such an innocent look on his face. I smirk. He laughs, and he's out of the car, dashing around to open my door.

      Inside, we sit on my sofa once again, the tall narrow bottles of olive oil stoppered and still lined up in front of us. They're beautiful. I start signing books. Charlie says, "I think I'll get your fire going again, okay?"

      I look up. "Okay."

      He stirs up the burning embers and starts another fire. I get the bottle of wine, two glasses, and an afghan. My Auntie Mary made the afghan, the aunt with the stars.

      We sip wine and cuddle till our lips seem to meet up, and things soon become…uh…intense, the afghan fallen to the floor. I pull away from him.

      "Listen, Charlie, I don't know you well enough to have sex with you."

      He kind of sits back, puts his hands in his lap, and casts his eyes downward. I think, Shit, did I misjudge this guy or what? He's sulking!

      I haven't misjudged him. In a very quiet voice, instead of his big, sexy, deep one, he says, "Dear eHarmony, how do you get to know someone really fast?"

      I laugh. I can't stop laughing, and I'm falling in love with him because he's laughing too, good sport that he is. That's it. I unbutton the top button of the New York blouse. I can't do the second one; the buttons are about an eighth of an inch in diameter and I'm looped. Charlie does the rest of. He is kissing me while getting my new bra off, and then I take his hand, pull him up from the sofa, and head to the bedroom.

      Here is what I'm thinking, I have to admit: Recently, my daughter's good friend is on her second date with a match.com guy, who she's beginning to like a lot. She's enjoying their conversation and their dinner together, and then he gets all serious and confides in her that oral sex is not his cup of tea.

      Her response: "Deal-breaker."

      That would certainly be a deal-breaker for me. Hmmmm….

      I sit on the edge of the bed, figuring now he'll take off his clothes, but instead he rests his hands on my shoulders and most gently pushes my naked upper half down onto the bed. Then he takes his time pulling off my boots, my black velvet jeans, whispers that my knee sox really rock, which means I'm giggling while he slides down my underpants that I hope aren't too frayed at the edges, since I didn't expect they'd be removed after the corned beef and cabbage. So…guess what he does first?

      That's right.

      I am impressed on many levels. And he is impressed because I am coming in about seven seconds. That's because when you're lying on a bed topless, and a man you really like a lot—even if you don't know him as well as you wish you did—unzips one of your boots and pulls it off, and then unzips the other one and pulls that one off, all of this very slowly and very deliberately, you are already nine-tenths of the way to an orgasm. If there really is a heaven and you get there, you'll be having oral sex 90% of the time, at least.

      Here is what happens on earth: My sequined black blouse and bra are in the sofa cushions; I've just experienced some serious pleasure; Charlie's clothes are now off; we're both in bed; my hand is stroking his chest. I move my hand downward a little, and then some more, and he stops me. He takes my wrist, pulls my hand away, and says, "I have to tell you about my one and only."

      I feel an instant nausea. My hand goes into cardiac arrest. I draw back. Here I am, crazy about this guy, and I no sooner fall in love with him, when suddenly he's going to tell me he really likes me a lot but…See, I have this girlfriend....

      Charlie puts my hand back where it was headed. He says, "I had testicular cancer when I was forty-two. Fortunately, I only lost one."

      I don't know what to say, but I think: You didn't put this in your eHarmony bio, Buster.

      Then we make love pretty much all night long.        

  

Chapter 9.

 

So I'M MARRIED to a man with one testicle, and soon I might have one breast. I will try not to think about it. Remember the blueberries? I dumped them into the sink, turned on the water, flipped the garbage disposal switch, and listened to the sound of blueberries being squashed.

      And remember the eagle's egg? It hatched, mother and baby both fine. The dad too, according to Audubon guy's email. At dinner that night, we toast the infant eagle with our Canadian whiskey.

      Next day, Dr. Quigley's assistant, Beth, calls and asks me how I'm doing. I don't mention the blueberry meltdown. I say, "It hasn't quite sunk in that I might have breast cancer rather than just random calcifications that have formed a constellation."

      She says, "There's a good chance that you don't." (Of course, she didn't see the radiologist's expression.) "So how are these dates? Can you see Dr. Quigley on September 8th for an examination? Then your biopsy will be on the 11th."

      "The 11th of September?"

      "Yes."

      I don't say, Nine-eleven? Neither does she.

      Of all the scary days in the year, that one is, of course, the worst. I put it out of my head, go to my cell and look at the calendar.

      I say to her, "That's two weeks!"

      "I know."

      "Can't something happen in two weeks?" Meaning: Won't that give the cancer cells time to break out?

      She knows what I mean. She says, "No." Her voice is strong and confident, and besides, No is what I want to hear.

      I have absolutely no memory of how Charlie and I get through those two weeks. I imagine we act as if everything were normal, what else? We do what we always do. Me, I read my paper; I check my email. Then I write the zillionth draft of a short story I've been do it, but because I have so much less strength than normal in my right hand since I broke my thumb not too long ago. (Getting better every day, happy to report.) I tend to drop things, particularly live bait. It is not helpful to have live bait flipping, crawling, or scurrying around your boat's cockpit when a certain dog is either chasing it or hiding behind a bucket while barking loudly. Even though I feel sorry for the bait, let alone the fish, I rationalize that we're all part of the food chain. If the sand worm, clam, shiner, mummy chug, or crab (there's now an invasive species of crab that fish love, which helps the rationalization) aren't used for bait there's a good chance they'll get scooped up by gulls, who fly up to a height of twenty-five feet, drop the bait item onto rocks to smash it's shell if it has a shell, and then eat them alive. As for eating the caught fish, it's either us, or the newly thriving osprey population what with the elimination of DDT. The ospreys catch fish in their talons and bring them to the nest for the baby birds to eat. Alive.

      My friend, the science writer Suzie Allport, tells me that 90 % of mammals die by being eaten alive—not that a crab or a fish is a mammal, just sayin'. Once, my dad and I wereat the South Street Seaport, and I ordered sushi. He stressed out that I was eating uncooked seafood and would end up with ptomaine poisoning.    Meanwhile, he was sliding down oysters on the half-shell that were still alive. (If you don't believe me, squirt lemon juice onto your oyster on the half-shell and it will recoil. Aargh.)

      I am only recently coached on how to catch a blackfish, also called a tautaug. Charlie baits my line with an Asian crab, the aforementioned invasive species that's killing half of Long Island Sound. He has me drop the line over the side of the boat with the wriggling crab and a light sinker, casting not required for tautaug. Then I must slowly drag the crab and sinker across the floor of the sound. If I feel it drop a foot, my bait is now sitting at the base of a ledge, not going anywhere because of the sinker. Tautaugs hang out at the base of ledges waiting for food to crawl by. I swear there must be a tautaug at the base of every ledge in the sound because, within seconds, I get a bite. Here is the secret to actually catching tautaug. You feel it nibble at the crab. Charlie says a tautaug first nibbles off the crab's legs, an appetizer as it were, eating them one by one. You stay perfectly still during the nibbling. Then the fish will glom down on the crab's body—a distinctly different feel than the nibbling—and that's exactly when you yank. The hook will go through the blackfish's upper or lower lip, making it easy to release him, which we do after he flops around on the deck as Salty goes ape-shit.

      On this day, we catch and release lots of fish and keep one to grill for dinner on Charlie's little grilling contraption right on the boat. Charlie is a man of infinite accoutrements plus a back-up for each. He knows how to grill a fish aboard ship in a way that raises the culinary art of grilling fish to heights I never knew about. Of course, we're talking especially fresh fish, here. Salty doesn't beg for some because he's out cold, exhausted from chasing or running away from flopping fish before Charlie can grab then and drop them overboard.

      When we get back home, I do something else altogether. Since I'm the sort of person who makes lists for her lists, I go to one of my many sub-lists under the category of,"Things to do within twenty four hours." I add to that list: Make an appointment with an oncologist. Then I put an asterisk at the end of the line, which means: Do this first.

      Then I add a spiral, meaning there's a sub-list to that one. First calls—Joan Schmitz and Marnie Mueller, my two friends who live in New York. Maybe they'll know of a great oncologist at Sloan Kettering. Joan and Marnie are two of my all-time favorite people I have ever known. Joan is in advertising but retired at, like, age thirty, after she'd produced the first television ad for a new company called FedEx. After seeing her ad, everyone in the entire universe started calling FedEx to come pick up a package which will be delivered, guaranteed, the next day. (There would be no FedEx today if the U.S. Post Office in its infinite brilliance hadn't determined that no one in his or her right mind would pay an exorbitant amount of money to get an overnight delivery. That's in addition to their deciding the internet will be a wash.)

      The FedEx ad starred a comedian famous for fast-talking. He sat behind a desk throwing papers from one pile to another about as fast as he's talking. Get it? That's how fast FedEx will deliver your package. Joan won a Clio, the Oscar of advertising. According to Wikipedia, a Clio is a statuette, not unlike Oscar, but a representation of the Greek goddess Clio, the mythological muse known as the proclaimer, glorifier and celebrator of history, great deeds and accomplishments. (The Oscar is representative of someone's uncle.)

      Now Joan sympathizes mightily with me, while we both cry. She gives me the name of someone she says is a top-flight oncologist at another hospital in New York, Weill Cornell, which "everyone knows is better than Sloan Kettering."

      Marnie is a writer whose novels win well-deserved book awards. She was also a Peace Corps volunteer at the same time I was, she in Equador, me in Cameroon. Here's how Marnie and I meet: Whenever there's a Peace Corps event where the media needs to interview one or more former Peace Corps volunteers, who are now writers, Marnie and I often get invited. When we both can fit it into our schedules, we always have a good time. I just alluded to the fact that I'm a writer; I usually don't tell people that because it's an even greater conversation-stopper than when I say I was in the Peace Corps. But I won't say a lot about it because writing is a really a boring topic, though there's one possible detail you might not find boring—the questions I get at book talks/readings, whether at Gateway Community College in New Haven, or down the street at Yale. My favorite, "Can I use the Jokerman font? I write funny stuff. (Here is that particular font: Jokerman.) Or the worst: "How do you get an agent?" This particular question rings terror in a writer's heart; it means the smiling questioner is about to ask you to read his single-spaced 1200-page manuscript called The History of the Tribal Indians of America, which is in the trunk of his car, and "… if you like it, could you send it to your agent?"

       Having been in aspiring writers' shoes means I will sympathetically read and comment politely on the first fifty pages and give him the news that my agent is taking a long vacation because she's selling her house. The house is, "Compliments of Frank McCourt..." she'll tell you "...with an indoor lap pool, compliments of Terry McMillan." When I'm scanning through his manuscript's front matter, I pretty much convulse reading the Table of Contents: Chapter 496—THE MONGOLIANS CROSS THE ALASKA LAND BRIDGE AND BECOME ESKIMOS.

     Anyway, I call Marnie. First, she sympathizes—sympathy helps a lot, by the way, as opposed to, I'm sure you'll be fine—just keep a good attitude. Second, we cry, and then she gives me the name of her friend's doctor at Sloan Kettering, telling me she often goes with the friend to her appointments. The doctor she recommends has been her friend's oncologist for thirty years. I respect Joan's opinion, but will start with the guy who's kept Marnie's friend cancer-free for thirty years, Larry Norton. I google him to find he is head of the Sloan Kettering Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center. (Evelyn was the daughter-in-law of Estée.)

      I dial his office and tell whoever answers that I am a good friend of Marnie Mueller, who often accompanies a friend to appointments with Dr. Norton. I give the name of Marnie's friend. I am routed to Dr. Norton's PA. I have no idea what training PAs, NPs, and MAs have, but that's who you get when you think you're seeing actual doctors and nurses, especially true in emergency rooms, one of the innumerable reasons you risk your life when you go to one, a death toll significantly reduced, fortunately, because of Obamacare. People against the Affordable Care Act don't have a daughter-in-law who is a soap-maker, and a son who takes care of the home-bound elderly. Unlike doctors, lawyers, teachers, IBMers, members of Unions, the butcher, the baker, the mailman, the fireman, the neighborhood cop, etc. they don't have health care benefits till Barrack. Neither do writers. I'm fortunate I can afford a health insurance policy.

     So I tell this person, Dr. Norton's associate, about the appointment I want to make and she asks me my diagnosis. I say, "DCIS."

     "Confirmed by the biopsy?"

      "I haven't had my biopsy yet so I don't know. There was something in my mammogram."

      Dead silence. Then she says snootily, "You don't see an oncologist until after the pathology report is available, and that, of course, is after you've had your biopsy. Then your surgeon will discuss your options with you, and then you see an oncologist."

      I say, "I thought the oncologist was in charge of your treatment."

      She sighs, finds her way to becoming at least somewhat compassionate, and explains the role of the oncologist, which I learn is basically the same as Captain Kirk's job on the USS Enterprise: "An oncologist will advise you and your team."

      An advisor. Okay. But presumably I already have a team.

      I say, "My team is at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven."

     She says, "If you can't move temporarily to New York for your treatment, you'll do very well to choose an oncologist at Yale. Cancer patients sometimes can't handle the commute since it includes getting here from Grand Central—making your way to the subway, finding a taxi, whatever. In addition, I have to tell you that Dr. Norton is not taking on new patients, but I'll be glad to give you a recommendation so you can see another of our oncologists."

      I have three words for her: "No thank you."

      Bottom line, if you don't live in New York, but you want to be treated at the most famous cancer hospital in the world—not necessarily the best, mind—you have to be rich so you can temporarily move. There is no sense in calling my friend Joan's guy, even though Joan will say, "You can stay in my apartment with me!"

      I need to stay with Charlie, who said to me when he heard the advice I got, "I'll sell my boat if we have to live in New York."

      Jene gets me the name of the doctor at Yale that everyone says is the best oncologist anywhere. But he is heavily involved in a research program and is not taking on new patients, just like Dr. Norton, no matter that a patient has a daughter in Infectious Disease Medicine.

      Next, Jene suggests I have Dr. Quigley recommend someone. I speak to Beth, Dr. Quigley's secretary. I mean assistant, or PA, or MA, or nurse, or intern, or whatever she is. Ergo, I have to listen to someone tell me again that I don't see an oncologist until there's a pathology report. I say, "Okay, but I need a name because I'm going to have to google him and might not want him. Or her."

      She says, "Let me see what we can do." She calls me back. "Mary-Ann. Great news! You can see Dr. Ionescu! He is absolutely the —"

      "Excuse me? Who?"

      "Dr. Ionescu. He's….

      "Can you spell that?"

      "Uh…no."

      "Do you know his first name?"

      "Dumitru."

       Good. He's not the dead playwright. I am losing my mind, something you're entitled to when one minute you don't have cancer, and the next minute you do.

      She  says, "You can make an appointment once we have your pathology report."

      I don't respond.  She continues, "Dr. Ionescu is the new head of oncology here! And...get ready for this…we stole him from MD Anderson!"  

      Wow. She doesn't need to say another thing. I know all about MD Anderson. It's a cancer hospital in Houston, Texas. It is where my friend's uncle brought his little girl when she was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. The uncle researched the treatment, and where the highest success rate for the treatment was: MD Anderson. The family moved to Houston and he got a job there. That was fifteen years ago. The little girl is a student at Rice University.

      I'm way good with this Dr. Ionescu.

      I tell her that I prefer to make the appointment myself.

      She says, "Sure," and gives me the number. Beth, come to find out, is trained to give a breast cancer patient anything she wants. She also says, "Don't forget to mention Dr. Quigley's name."

      I make the appointment, and mention my surgeon's name. What I don't say is that I haven't had my biopsy yet. Presumably she assumes I did. Good. I don't have to lie to her.

      Say, have you bought Love, Loss, and What I Wore yet? You didn't? Call Roxanne Coady at the R.J. Julia Bookstore. It's in Madison, Connecticut, and it's the best bookstore there is, anywhere. You can buy it on the phone if you live in Oshkosh: 203-245-3959. She'll mail it to you tout suit. It's where I bought Betty Rollin's new edition.

 

Chapter 10.

 

A HUGE PLOT TURN occurs in this memoir the day after my phone chat with Beth.

      Back story: When my fourth novel was published, I gave a reading at the Westport Library. Westport is a wealthy town in Fairfield County, a wealthy county in Connecticut, the wealthiest state in the Union. It's where Martha Stewart lived before she ended up in the Big House. I still can't believe how Martha gets sent up, while the head honchos at GM, who commit mass murder with their lethal ignition switches they know will kill people, are out on the street—Easy Street—free as birds, but hopefully living lives of debilitating guilt. Why do I doubt that last?

      The readings at the Westport Library are bag lunches. People bring food and eat while the author reads. If you surmise this is disconcerting to the writer, what with the crinkling of the paper bags and Twinkie wrappers, you are correct. The lunches are usually take-out from all the too-wonderful Westport restaurants, so the library smells like Japanese-French fusion. No alcohol allowed in the library, which is too bad for the poor writer promoting her work, because if the librarian would come through with a drinks wagon, they'd get a hundred people at their author readings instead of the usual dozen or so and sell some books! Mary Higgins Clark had far more than a hundred people when she came to the Westport library. They caused such a traffic jam out on Main Street that no one could get to the library including Mary.

      My own reading is notable for two reasons; I have a half-dozen more people in the audience than the usual dozen. Reason #1: An EMS team of three is there in full regalia. Their ambulance is parked in a handicapped spot outside the library door. The leader of the team comes up to me before I start reading.

      She says, "My book discussion group is reading your book, so I dragged my first responder guys to the library so I can hear what you have to say about it."

      I thank her. She should be thanking me because she's figuring she won't have to read the book now. I also ask her to thank her book group for choosing mine.

      Another member of the team joins her; he has a heads-up for me. "Our alarms might go off during your reading and if they do, we'll have to get up and run out the door."

      I say, "I hope you at least get to finish your lunch."

      He looks at his watch. He doesn't say, Then why don't you get cracking? Instead: "Me too, ma'am."  

      I have people leave my readings all the time, who are not first responders, who don't run for the door, but rather sneak out when my head is down. This is not to say I write crummy books, but a number of people are easily offended. An American Airlines pilot once raised his hand and asked me why I swear so much. I said, "Whoops. Did I say a bad word?" 

      He said, "No, but you swear in your book all the time."

      I told him it's my characters who swear so much in my books, not me.

      He said, "Then why don't you write about characters who don't swear?"

      I refrain from saying, "What are you, nuts?" since he obviously is. I just point to another person whose hand is up. Would you believe I had a reading at a library with a section called, "Gentle Fiction?" That would be novels where the characters don't swear. Can you believe the shit librarians have to put up with?

      But, now, in Westport, I get a lovely, though fairly long intro from the librarian. She's lucky the EMS alarms don't go off during her kindly words. They do go off in the middle of my reading, but at least the fleeing first responders have finished glomming down their bag lunches, not purchased at the great Westport restaurants, I'd say, considering the smell of Skippy that goes out the door with them.

      Reason #2 as to my reading being notable: There are three women sitting together off in one corner, who are especially enthusiastic—they clap louder and longer than anyone else when I'm introduced, and they keep giving me a thumbs-up or a fist-pump, on and off, during my entire book talk. When I finish, the three stand up. I figure they have to dash out just like the EMS team. But no, they are giving me a standing ovation. This encourages everyone else to stand and join in. Like a fool, I stand up too.

      Then the entire audience, including the librarian, forms a line to have me sign their books. It really is quite wonderful to talk to people willing to fork over 20-plus bucks for a book with my name on it instead of John Grisham's. The librarian stands in line too, as she is buying a copy for the library.

      The three quite lovely women who led the standing-O, are now in front of me with such dazzling happiness in their faces they remind me of the Supremes about to break into Ain't No Mountain High Enough….

      The Diana Ross of the group says, "We're your cousins!"

      I say, "You are? Have we met?"

      "We haven't," the ersatz Diana says, "but we're the Morra girls. I'm Marion, this is Mollie, and here's Eve." I remain clueless.

      All three stick their hands out, and we shake.

      Mollie—not the leader but the oldest of the three—says, "Our mother was your grandfather's first cousin. She was a Tirone! Our father was a Morra, but two of us are married, so Eve is a Potts, and I'm a Donovan."

      Marion says, "I'm the one who's still a Morra."

      It is Marion who most resembles my father's sisters, my Auntie Palma and Auntie Alice. The other two do, but just a little bit.

      Eve says, "We called your grandfather Viscu."

      I figure that's the nickname for Francisco, my grandfather's actual name. When he comes to this country, Americans call him "Frank," but his family and Italian friends called him "Chick." My father's nickname is "Yutchie." There was once a comic strip in the Daily News called "Yutchie," so presumably that's a common nickname among first generation Italian-Americans. Italian nicknames are often quite far removed from the actual names, as anyone who has read the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante will attest. Every single character in the Neapolitan quartet has several nicknames, and not only can you not stand these obnoxious people, you don't know who the hell is who, even though there's a guide in the front of the book listing the characters along with all their nicknames and their relationship to their relationship with each other, as in so-and-so's uncle.

      Elena Ferrante's narrator/protagonist's name is also Elena but is called Lenuccia, or Lenừ, or by her last name, Greco. Her co-protagonist is Raffaela, who is never called Raffaela, but instead Lina (not to be confused with Lenú), or Lila. (Tip: the nickname guide is several pages long but  skip it because it won't help.)

      The most wonderful irony here is that the name, Elena Ferrante, is a pseudonym! Only recently, we've learned who the author is either. By the time I turn the last page of the fourth and final book, I don't give a shit who she is, because as I said, one gets tired of spending valuable reading time trying to keep track of which character is which. I immediately have to follow up by reading The Martian to calm myself down.

      Mollie goes on to explain, "Viscu means Viscount in Italian."

      Oh.

      She next launches into a story of how my grandfather got his nickname. This holds up the book-signing line considerably, but no one cares because these are all people who love stories. Besides, it's Westport, where no one really works except ambulance staff. 

      "Your grandfather," Mollie says, "our beloved Viscu, was a houseboy for the Archbishop of Turin, who was also a viscount. Only he preferred to be called 'Viscu' rather than 'Your Eminence.'"

      A woman just behind the Morra girls asks, "What exactly is a viscount?"

      Eve says, "It's nothing. An honorary member of the nobility. The King just names someone he likes a viscount."

      Mollie elaborates. "So, Mary-Ann, when your grandfather would go to Saturday night dances, he'd help himself to the Viscount's closet. Everyone knew it, so that's how he got the nickname. Then he got caught, then fired."

      There is more, but it would take another ten pages to describe, what with my grandfather being an anti-fascista and being secreted into the U.S. like Michael Corleone only in reverse, but I'm already trying your patience.

      The Morra girls invite me to lunch once I finish signing. "We tend to refrain from eating out of bags when there are better opportunities available," Eve says. I accept since my publicist had neglected to tell me about the bag lunch part of the reading and I'm starving. We go to a Japanese-French fusion restaurant.       

      I am certainly stymied as to why I never heard of my Morra cousins, so when I got home, I called my dad.  

      "They're the rich branch of the Tirones.  They won't have anything to do with us because we're the poor Hartford relatives."

      Then I call my Auntie Palma (born on Palm Sunday, or did you guess?). She told me that what my father said isn't true. "I bet some of them slighted your father. The Morra girls are lovely, just like their mother. She was very good to me." She pronounced their name, Moodah, which is the kind of pronunciation you get in the Piedmontese dialect spoken in the Piedmont region of Italy, where you will find the city of Milan. My grandfather's family have a townhouse town, but they live mainly live mainly in Turin. The family farm is in Asti. There are no poor Tirones in Italy.

      Auntie Palma also said that she never met the Morra girls adulthood because when she and my father were children in Elmwood, Connecticut, pronounced Elmvoot in Piedmontese, and the Italian neighborhood of West Hartford, Westport may well have been Timbuktu. "We couldn't visit them, Mickey." (I told you that being Italian we all have nicknames like the Ferrante characters, right? In addition to "Mickey," when my father is feeling a pronounced affection for me—something he can't express for cultural reasons—he calls me "Pinky." My favorite nickname of all time is my brother Tyler's—"Totsie.")  

      Auntie Palma goes on to explain, "Who could afford cars? Well…the Westport Tirones had cars, but they weren't so rich that they could afford gas. This was the Depression!"

      My lunch with the Morra girls was terrific. Since they travel back and forth to Italy all the time, they tell me things like uncovering a painting of our family tree under many other coats of paint on the side of one of barns in Asti. They hand me a copy of a picture of the barn with the tree, and sitting in front are my great-grandparents holding the newest Tirone baby, my grandfather, Francisco. They gave me the picture. I am overjoyed to have this priceless gift.   

      I google the Morra girls. Marion and Eve are medical writers. I bought their most famous book, Choices, meant for everyone out there who is diagnosed with cancer and wants to find out the choices available to them, besides the ones their doctors tell them, or most often, don't tell them. It was fascinating, and written in such a fine narrative style that it's as entertaining as it is informative. It's over a thousand pages; that gives you an idea of how many choices there are. Fortunately there's a comprehensive index. Now I've read it a second time.

      Meanwhile—here is the promised huge plot turn:

      The Morra girls and I see each other a few more times, and then we don't keep in touch with beyond a couple of exchanges of Christmas cards. But one weekend, a few years ago, my daughter volunteered to fill in at the short-staffed med/surg unit Yale-New Haven. A woman was admitted on a Saturday morning. The woman's name was Mollie Donovan (the oldest Morra girl in case you've lost track). Jene found a VIP listing on her chart because only VIPs get to check into the hospital for the weekend as had Mollie. Also, a VIP's doctor will come see the patient on the weekend, while the rest of us can wait till Monday, thank you.   

      Jene is a hands-on nurse. When she meets each patient, she sits on the edge of their beds and introduces herself. She will also bring them coffee—or whatever they are needing—and then gets the information she's required to put into their charts while chit-chatting the whole time. Jene and this particular VIP patient end up having quite a significant chit-chat.

      Mollie told Jene she looked familiar, and asked where she lived. Jene said, "Branford." Branford is the town next to mine, East Haven.

      Mollie said, "I have a cousin who lives in East Haven. Do you know people in East Haven?"

      Jene said, "My mom and dad live in East Haven."

      "Do they know any writers there?"

      "My mom's a writer. I think she's the only writer in East Haven."

      Mollie just stared at her. Then she said, "No wonder you look familiar! You could be Maura's twin. Maura is my daughter. You and I are cousins! Your great-grandfather was my mother's first cousin!"

      Jene and Mollie so hit it off—how could they not?

      That night, when Jene called me to tell me how her day went and asked why she didn't know about Mollie's family, I told her that Mollie Morra Donovan was one of the rich Westport Tirones.  Jene asked, "What's a rich Westport Tirone?" I told her. Then she said, "All I know is, I'm related to a VIP!"

      And so, you ask, how is any of that a HUGE PLOT TURN?

      It's not. I still haven't gotten to the plot turn yet. It needs a new chapter of its own, clearly. Ergo, Chapter 10 will be the only chapter in this memoir with a title.

      Note: The final edition of Choices came out a few years ago because, according to the publisher, you can now see what your choices are online at WebMD. You won't get any style and joie de vivre though, something you need when you'rer making cancer choices.

      Bummer.

 

 Chapter 11. THE HUGE PLOT TURN

 

THE PLOT TURN is set into motion by an article I read in The New York Times. I learn that Marion Morra is president of the American Cancer Society. Obviously, there's a lot I don't know about the Rich-Westport-Tirones. I can't believe there will be no new editions of Choices. You might as well stop publishing the Encyclopædia Britannica and just rely on "Wikipedia."(By the way, an a and an e stuck ass to ass is called an "ash," as close to ass as you can get, and it is acceptable not to use it any longer, but this might have been my only chance to use one.)

     But never mind:  I have a cousin who is president of the American Cancer Society. Holy shit! Who needs an oncologist to answer your questions when your cousin is the freaking president of the American Cancer Society?!?!  What good fortune for me. Too bad it comes on the heels of serious misfortune.

     I can't find Marion's phone number, but I come up with Eve's. As soon as the how-are-you's are taken care of, Eve tells me that Mollie passed away six months ago. I immediately feel terrible. I tell her how Mollie was Jene's VIP and she says, "Mollie told us all about it."

     She says too, that she and Marion miss their sister so much.

     We go on to chat for a while, catching up on happier moments, and then I tell her that it looks like I have breast cancer.

     First, a silence. Then Eve says, or rather commands, "Mary-Ann! Listen to me."

     I'm listening.

     "You will meet Marion and me for lunch. You will tell us everything. Then we'll tell you what you have to do. When's the biopsy?"

     I say very casually, "Next Thursday," still unable to say September 11th.

     She says again "Listen to me, in case I forget this part: During the biopsy, the minute you feel anything, give the doctor a shout so he'll stop what he's doing and give you more lidocaine."

     I say, "Rest assured."

     "Can you meet us before then?"

     "I can meet you in ten minutes."

     "How's tomorrow? That will give me time to get in touch with Marion. We'll have lunch."

     I say, "Breakfast will be more convenient for me, if that's okay." (I write seven days a week, including Christmas, from six after breakfast. till my brain freezes over, except during Christmas mornings of yore, when my kids tumbled down the stairs before sunrise and headed for the tree. I can hear them now: "SANTA CAME!" They would shout that long after they stopped believing in him, even when they're teenagers and sleep till noon.)

     "Breakfast is perfect," Eve says. "We'll meet at some diner midway between the three of us. I'll get back to you."

     There is a perfect diner on I-95 halfway between Eve's house in Essex and Marion's house in Milford, and I'm smack between the two. We all three love road food at diners hard by interstates, as it turns out.

     When I get there, they're already in a booth and get up while I walk in. We hug. We are so glad to see each other again, even though it is not the same without Mollie.  

     We sit down and Eve signals the waiter. The three of us order two fried eggs over easy, home fries, white toast, and coffee.

     "Juice?"

     We answer in a chorus: "No thank you."

     We laugh about wanting identical breakfasts, and then I'm prompted to tell them exactly what's going on. I sail right into the name of the oncologist at Sloan Kettering that Marnie Mueller recommended to me, Larry Norton.

     Marion sails right back at me. "If you had to choose the top ten oncologists world-wide, Larry Norton would head the list. He's—"

     But I have to interrupt. "I can't see him because he's not taking on new patients."

     She says, "I'll talk to him."

     Eve says to her sister, "He's up to his ears in research."

     I say, "I have another recommendation at Yale-New Haven from my daughter. I think his name is Devlin, but—"

     Eve again. "He would have been our recommendation if you'd decided to be treated at Yale. He's great. He—"

     This is a conversation rife with interruptions. "His dance card is full too," I say. Anything having to do with getting cancer has a million unforeseen pieces of unexpected news, usually all bad. But my cousins say they can talk to him too, and Larry Norton, no matter how busy he is.

     I say, "Long story, short. I'm going to see the head of oncology at Yale. His name is Dr. Ionescu, but not the playwright. He's Romanian. He's from MD Anderson."

     Eve puts her fork down. "I don't know him, but that says a lot. Leading the oncology department at Yale? And from MD Anderson? A lot!"

     "But here's another thing. I was told by Dr. Norton's secretary, or whatever she was, that I don't see an oncologist until after the biopsy, so he can see the pathology report first. Does this make sense to you?"

     Marion says, "No. However, that's the protocol."

     "But isn't the oncologist the big cancer expert?"

     "Yes."

     "And what about my ten million questions?"

     "Your surgeon and radiologist will answer those."

     "But I have questions now. And will the surgeon or radiologist talk to me about whether or not I really need radiation?"

     "They will push for what they think is best."

     "Won't they be biased?"

     "Yes."

      "How can I be sure my oncologist is a member of royalty, rather than just a viscount?"

     Eve smiles. Marion does too, and shrugs at the same time. Eve says, "When you're the chief, you're royalty."

     I say, "Guess what?"

     "What?"

     "I made an appointment with him anyway."

     "Who?"

     "The head of oncology at Yale. The Ionescu guy. Unless he checks my file out, he won't know I haven't had the biopsy till I get there. You think he'll check out my file?"

     Marion says, "Yes, but not till thirty seconds before the appointment. Too late."

     Eve says, "Good for you. Take charge!"

     Marion says, "He will not be happy."

     I say, "That'll make two of us."

     Then we get into a fifteen-minute discussion about the politics of cancer treatment—none of it making sense, just like all things political.

     Eve says, "Meanwhile, and most important thing is that the best breast surgeon you could ever hope to find is at Yale. Diane Quigley."

     Boy, does that make me happy. "The radiologist who diagnosed me told me she would get me Diane Quigley! The best is what she said too. I figure that's because I'd mentioned Sloan Kettering, and she wants to keep me at Yale. I have an appointment with Dr. Quigley!"

     This thrills them and, of course, makes me feel really optimistic. Marion says, "What's the oncologist's name again? Ibsen?"

     "No, Marion. Ionescu."

     She says, "I'm going to check him out, but just know that Diane is brilliant and experienced. And she will care about you."

     This should be true of every doctor, but we've all met the ones who don't give a flying fuck about us. Experience is the most important thing according to my friend, the writer Jessica Auerbach, whose father and daughter are doctors. Our first novels are published the same year when we don't know each other, even though we live three blocks apart. Thank you, Jere's best friend's mother, Maureen Gorman, for introducing us. Jessica and I become fast friends, a friendship that lasts forever. Her father feels that if you need a surgeon, make sure you find out how many surgeries he's done. If it's anything fewer than five hundred, pack your tack and get out.

     I ask my cousins, "How many breast surgeries do you think Dr. Quigley has done?"

     Marion says, "A zillion."

     The main cancer topic we discuss after that are my qualms about whether I'll have to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, or chemotherapy, or radiation, or what. I think how fortunate I am to have such a giant extended family, wherein the odds increase that there are relatives who can help you, to say nothing of living three miles from Yale.

     Eve says, "Diane and the guy from MD Anderson will give you statistics. They will take into consideration how they feel about you in particular. They will not treat you like a breast cancer; they will treat you as a specific individual who has a breast cancer that must be destroyed. Diane's goal will be to save your life, and save it with the least amount of disfigurement. She—"

     I put my hand up. "I'll have disfigurement options?'

     They both smile. Eve says, "Yes."

     And Marion, "But as far as Diane is concerned, the options don't depend on statistics; they depend on you specifically—what shape you're in, your medical history, if you have some other illness, if you smoke.… You don't, right?"

     "I don't. But I did."

     "When?"

     "In my late twenties. But just for a few years. It was a social thing. In all my wedding pictures there are a couple of packs of Marlboros on every table. But I didn't inhale—just like Bill Clinton. If I inhaled, I'd faint."

     Eve says, "Good." Good means it doesn't really matter if you're lying about inhaling. Well maybe Bill did, but not me. She continues, "So all that stuff is important. At the same time, it's your breast. Get as much information as possible, because even with what we've said, no one cares more about you and your breast than you do."

     I say, "Charlie does."

     Then we spend a long time talking about who Charlie is, and when did I get divorced, and all our personal stuff. Marion and Eve have cut back on their writing and spend a lot of time traveling all over the place. I agree with them that travel is the most perfect of distractions from deciding what you should do with yourself when you don't know. Also, they've put their houses on the market, buried statues of Saint Joseph upside down in their front yards, and intend to rent and be footloose and fancy-free from here on in. If you don't know why Italian-Americans bury statues of Joseph when they are selling their houses, don't google it because there are so many variations as to why, it's a waste of time. Click on https://www.simplemost.com/the-story-behind-using-a-st-joseph-statue-to-sell-your-house/, instead. It's the Morra version. But in any version, it won't work if poor Joseph is right-side up.

     Cool.

     Our breakfast ends with them making me promise that I'll call them with any and all questions, something I most certainly plan to do.

     So thank you, Marion and Eve, and I'm sorry you lost your VIP sister, Mollie. I don't ask what she died of because I cannot handle hearing if it was breast cancer.

 

 Chapter 12.

 

SOMETIMES I ENJOY a misadventure, but not when it comes to an appointment with the woman who will be treating me for cancer, if I have cancer. There is no need to tell you it's  misery to have to wait for so much time to elapse to find out the news that, perhaps, you're about to die.

      Date of misadventure: August 24th, sixteen days since the constellation is noted by the radiologist with no name. Charlie and I drive into the "Air Rights Garage" at Yale-New Haven Hospital toward the 4th floor, as instructed, where the Smilow Cancer Hospital is situated. If you ever have to go to the Smilow Cancer Hospital, and I hope you don't, I promise you that you will experience the exact same misadventure I do. At least you'll be prepared, unlike me. But isn't the name of the garage outrageous? Also outrageous is that the hospital has to rent the garage from the city of New Haven so staff and patients and visitors have a place to park. New Haven, with either a bickering city council or without a shred of imagination, could have named theAir Rights Garage after the first famous Yalie, i.e."The Nathan Hale Garage." At least the gent named Smilow, who foots most of the rental bill, wasn't the owner of Chef Boyardee, and named his cancer hospital as with baseball fields—"Minute Maid Park" or "Tropicana Field," for example. (Does that tell you how smart it might be to start an orange juice company?)

      We follow the Smilow signs, driving round and round, until we see a pair of huge glass doors emblazoned with the word: SMILOW. What's with people, anyway, who want to have buildings named after them with signage the size of the Hollywood one? Do they say things like, "You want my money to build a mini-hospital inside a famous one to treat people with cancer? Fine. I'll send you a check. But I want my name on the front door, and the letters had better be at least twelve feet high." Do they think they're now eligible to be the President? Yes.

      Charlie takes a parking ticket from a machine that has SMILOW splashed across its front. The machine then speaks: "Welcome to Smilow." Good God. We park, get out, and walk to the glass doors which spread open before we reach the threshold so that the letters SMI are on your left, LOW on your right. We enter, though I am wishing I were anywhere else on the planet.

      Inside, we are immediately confronted with a vast bright space. We are enclosed in glass walls, sun streaming in from all sides and above—a glass ceiling too. Perhaps the design is meant to cheer people up who have cancer, or who might have cancer. 

      Wrong. Nothing cheers us up.

      Also, there is an open stairway in the middle, the widest indoor stairway I've ever seen, plus elevator doors in the one small piece of wall not made of glass. The only object in this entire…uh…foyer? Lobby? Lanai? Whatever? Just a giant desk with a smartly uniformed security guard sitting behind it.

      We approach him. He seems nervous. He asks, "May I help you?"

      I actually have to say these words: "Can you tell me how to get to the Breast Center?"

      I have no idea that it is the guard's first day on the job and, as we all know, when a man hears the word breast, he cannot think straight. The fellow looks at me, and I do believe he wants to say, "I wish I knew, baby," but another fellow is heading toward us from out of somewhere, not unlike when the people who return to Earth in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," parade out of a flying saucer bathed in so much light, you can't see them at first.

      He says to me, "Sorry, ma'am, Beaumont is new. May I help you?"

      I take a deep breath because I'm feeling faint. "I have to go to the Breast Center."

      "No problem. Go behind you to the elevator bank. Press 1. When the doors open—" 

     He is interrupted by the appearance of a woman with a tag hanging around her neck that reads, GUIDE. She very gently places her hand on my shoulder, smiles, and asks me, "You haven't been here before?"

      "No."

      "You're seeing a doctor then?"

      In addition to my feeling faint, my stomach is turning over. "Yes. Dr. Quigley."

      The guide smiles some more. "I'll take you right to her office. You won't have to sit and wait at the Breast Center waiting room."

      The guides know from experience that if they don't head patients off at the pass, patients already in major stress-out will have to listen to Beaumont's boss go through a 25-step list of directions and halfway through they'll start crying, or in my case, quite possibly ask, "Have you got a fucking print-out?"

      Charlie hears just bits and pieces of the above because we are in a place where sound dissipates into the endless vastness of space instead of heading straight up through his phone via Bluetooth, and into his hearing aids. He is even more grateful for the guide than I am.

      She leads us into one of the elevators, and we head down four floors in reverse of the direction our car took. We come out and walk—I'd say a mile—past a large fountain with granite bench seating all around where no one is sitting since whose ass wants to sit on granite? (Am I getting crankier by the minute, or what? Am I entitled? Yes.) The fountain is surrounded by a food court, and there are two gift shops. The tables and chairs and the gift shops are full of people. Since I'm pathologically curious, I wonder why there are two gift shops. Alas, I will find out but not now.

      So then we arrive at another bank of elevators hiding in an alcove. We go back up again, this time to some other floor, not the 4th where we'd started. We take some twists and turns past a large crowd gathered at a cell hot spot. The guide leans in to us and says conspiratorially, "I'm going to suggest they put lights in the floor like on an airplane, pink obviously, to direct people to the breast center."

      Obviously. I say, "I've yet to see a hospital designed with a patient in mind."

      She says, "This one wasn't."

      We arrive at Dr. Quigley's office, where the guide immediately leaves us, calling out, "Good luck, dear," as she races back to her designated position. Who knows what Beaumont might be up to?

      Dr. Quigley's PA, Justine, greets Charlie and me with a wonderful smile and sweet handshake. She puts us in a tiny cubicle stuffed with three hard chairs, a small table, a stand with a computer on it, plus a rolling chair in front of the computer. She tells us to sit down on two of the three hard chairs, and then the doc comes in. We stand up again. Diane Quigley.

      Yet another great smile, plus a very strong handshake. I introduce Charlie, she shakes his hand too, and I tell her my daughter is an infectious disease nurse and will be running over here from her area of the hospital any minute.

      She says, "Good."

      Diane Quigley has shiny, black, curly hair, wears big, black glasses and dangling earrings that are maps of the African continent in bronze. She has style, the kind of style that is not only cool, but also says: This is my style and if you don't like it, who cares? 

      She gestures for us to sit down again.

      A young woman in a white lab coat comes in. We are introduced: Marina, an RN. She smiles, shakes our hands, and then takes the chair in front of the computer. Her back is to us. She will not turn around until we get up to leave. I will learn that whenever and wherever I have any sort of appointment at Smilow—doesn't matter with who—Marina will be there. Smilow Breast Center doctors do not look at computer screens and take notes on the keyboard while talking to me or asking me questions; it's all left to the Marina's. Nowadays, doctors today, excluding my beloved Dr. Slattery and Dr. Montessi who are still paper-people, never so much as look into your eyes. They stare into a computer screen instead. They have no idea, as had doctors of yore, that if a patient's eyes are bloodshot, yellowed, crossed, rolled back into her head, etc. that it just might tell them something about the patient's condition. They are no longer steered toward obvious diagnoses by the sight of you because they're trying to figure out how to navigate their pain-in-the-ass computers to order blood work.

      The doctors at Smilow each have a Marina of their own, who taps away at the keyboard getting down all the stuff the doctor and patient say; all the stuff the doctor needs, in order to remember who the hell the you are and what your problem is.

      Dr. Quigley sits down and opens a folder while Marina places her hand on the mouse, ready to rumble.

      "Let's look at your medical records here," she says. She flips through the pages within, stops, and looks up at me. Marina, scrolling through my medical records online, also stops, but doesn't look at me. She says to Dr. Quigley, "Number 17." Marina has pre-screened what she'll need to read Dr. Quigley's mind.

      Dr. Quigley says, "Thanks." Then she says to me, "Tell me about this…you had a fibrous tumor removed from your underarm…uh…ten years ago?"

      I say, "That long?" Wow.

      "Yes."

      She waits. Here is what I tell her, only in a nutshell: When I got pregnant, I got swellings in my armpits. My obstetrician told me it was errant breast tissue, that in a pregnant woman, that tissue will swell along with her breasts in preparation for producing milk. (Can you stand it?)

      My obstetrician also tells me not to worry; the swellings will most likely go away. What he doesn't say is that I have only a fifty-fifty chance of that happening. In my left armpit, the swelling does go away, but not in my right. I have to have surgery to disappear a lemon-sized benign mass of hardened breast tissue.

      Now, Dr. Quigley peruses the file for maybe thirty seconds more, finds nothing else interesting, and says, "I'll meet you in the examining room and I'll include a good look at both underarms. Justine will take you."

      I say, "Don't you just look at mammograms?"

      She raises an eyebrow. Silly me.

      Justine appears on cue, and right with her, here comes my daughter, out of breath, having arrived in her blue scrubs on a run from Yale-New Haven's community health clinics quite a ways away, requiring that she dodge heavy traffic, mostly trucks and ambulances. It's her lunch break— not that nurses have lunch, or any breaks at all. While she hugs me and then Charlie, Dr. Quigley looks her up and down. I introduce them to each other. I cannot help but note that Dr. Quigley and my daughter are two beautiful women. Dr. Quigley says to Jene, "I'm so pleased to meet you. You do good work. Have a seat. I'm about to examine your mom, and we'll be back shortly. Dad will be able to fill you in on anything you need to know, but you didn't miss much."

      Jene says, "Thanks," and collapses into a chair. She doesn't say, Charlie's my stepdad; she's too wiped out from the run. Dr. Quigley turns to the door, and Justine and I follow her. I don't want to follow her. I want to go have coffee somewhere with Charlie and Jene. When Salty doesn't want to go where he's being led, he stops. He won't move despite pleas, threats, treats, and me pulling impotently on his leash. Oh, to have that luxury.

      In the examining room, Justine gives me the usual directions: undress and put on a johnny coat. She puts some stuff into her computer while she asks me questions, never looking up once. Nurses don't get other nurses like Marina to help them. Then Dr. Quigley comes, Marina trailing behind, arms full of the folders with my medical records and I don't know what else. Justine leaves, and Marina sits down at the computer, while I learn what "a good look at both underarms" means.

      Dr. Quigley pokes her fingers so far into my right armpit in order to feel around that I actually shout out a yelp.

      She says, "Sorry," and continues without letting up. I try not to make noise and just bear the pain. She does the other armpit and then says, "There are no lumps in the breast tissue under your arms. Good."

      Yeah. Way good. I don't ask what a mastectomy of the armpit requires. I try not to imagine it.

      She has me lie down on the examining table and basically treats my breasts like bread dough. She kneads them for some time.

      She says, "Not feeling a thing. Good."

      Yeah. Way good again.

      "I'll see you in my office."

      She's gone, so is Marina, and I get dressed. Justine returns to lead me back to the office, where another chair has been squished in for Jene. Dr. Quigley is already there; Marina, her back to us,is at the computer. She says to Charlie, Jene, and me, "If the suspicious cells in your duct do turn out to be cancerous, they likely have not infiltrated the surrounding tissue. But we won't know for sure until we have the pathology report after your biopsy."

      I ask, "What are the odds that they've infiltrated?"

      "Twenty percent. If, in fact, they are cancer cells."

      "What are the odds that they are?"

      "Based on my experience, the odds are very high."

      Dr. Quigley's demeanor does not say to me in any way that she's lying. Her saying very high instead of "100%" gives me hope. And so does her saying if they are cancer cells.

      So I say, "Thanks, doc."

      She says to me, "You're welcome. Beth made your appointment for the biopsy, correct?"

      "Yes."

      She says to Marina's back, "What's the date?"

      She asks Marina instead of me because she knows that a newly diagnosed cancer patient—even a possible cancer patient—can't be trusted to remember anything. But if there's one date everyone remembers it's 9/11. I'm glad I don't have to say it. Marina gets around having to say it. She says what I said to the Morra girls, "Wednesday."

      Dr. Quigley flashes me her lovely smile again. There is compassion all over her face. She says, "Marina will give you your pre-op instructions—they are simple and straightforward."

      She stands up. She takes Jene, Charlie, and me into her gaze, all of us together. (The ability to do this is the sign of a good teacher. An elementary school teacher, to preserve containment, must be able to hold the collective gaze of twenty-five little rascals. Imagine! So I'm hoping Dr. Quigley is also a professor at Yale. I later learn, she is. Good.) She says, "I'll see you again when we have a pathology report. Hang in there."

      Handshakes all around, and she is gone. Marina hands me a sheet of paper and is kind enough to watch where I put it. Then she says, "Remember, the paper is in that little side pocket right there." She points to the side of my tote bag.

      I wonder how many millions of phone calls she's taken with requests for another copy of pre-op instructions because the patient can't find the original.

      Jene, of course, has to run. Literally. She hugs Charlie and me and says, "Call ya tonight, Mom."

      To her back, I say, "Okay, sweetie."

      I read the pre-op instructions aloud to Charlie on the way home after he clicks the Bluetooth setting with a direct connections to his hearing aids that reduces road noise. The only instruction of note, besides that I should get to my appointment fifteen minutes early, is not to take aspirin, Advil, or anything else but Tylenol from here on in. That won't be difficult. I take aspirin if I have a headache (rare), Advil if I have an achy muscle (rarer), but I never take Tylenol because it doesn't do anything for the above.

      Charlie says, "Good thing vodka isn't on the list." He's talking about our Sunday morning Greyhounds.

 

Chapter 13.

 

THERE WILL BE a new man in my life, Dumitru Ionescu. My appointment with him doesn't go well but I've been warned—thank you, Cousin Marion. He comes into the examining room, where I'm sitting on the end of a table in the johnny coat. He is pissed, though not as pissed as I am since, presumably, he hasn't been diagnosed with the likelihood that he has breast cancer. He is followed by Marina, who offers me a quick little wave. 

      Just as she is about to slip behind the computer, while I'm wondering if Dr. Quigley has assigned Marina to me or if she has to share her with Dr. Ionescu, he says to her, "Thank you, Marina. I won't be needing your assistance today."

      He says that with a Romanian accent. He sounds like I'd imagine Johnny Depp would if he played Count Dracula, which he should.

      Marina is taken aback, but turning to me she shrugs, and off she goes. The Count, still not taking a seat, says, "I am unable to answer any questions you might have—or even examine you—until I have a pathology report."

      I realize he's neglected to tell his nurse about not examining me, so I'm sitting there in a position of whatever the opposite of power is, when one is forced to wear a johnny coat. Actually, it's more gruesome than powerless, since what chance has a johnny coat got against Dr. Ionescu's blazing white lab coat starched to the level of military-grade steel?

      Since he had no intention of examining me, the least he could have done was to sit down. He made a decision to be rude. I'm really pissed now. I say to him, "I understand that's the protocol you follow, but I should think you'd want to meet a patient before you have to tell her she has Stage 4 cancer, and will be dead in time for Christmas."

      He starts to speak, but I don't let him. "There's a clinical trial study that was just concluded. I've put the synopsis on your desk." I point. "It says women over a certain age, an age that happens to be my age last year, should not be radiated after breast surgery. That they will have the same life expectancy, with or without it. I need to know if your conclusion is the same after a consideration of the study. I need it before I speak with my surgeon and radiologist."

      He raises his finely sculpted chin and says, "When I have the pathology report on your biopsy, I will see you."

      He folds his arms across his chest. We stare each other down. I figure, let him fill in his own silence. An immoral silence. He does. "Do you believe you have cancer?"

      "Yes."

      "Why is that, if I might ask?"

      "I saw it in the radiologist's eyes."

      He raises an eyebrow the way Johnny Depp playing Dracula would. Then he gives me the smallest of smiles.    He says, "I can appreciate that."

       He looks down at the chart in his hand. Then he says, "Ms. Tirone Smith, the consulting appointment you would like to have before news of pathology is the way it should be. I agree with you utterly in that determination. The hospital's insurance policies, however, do not."

       Then he takes a step to his desk, puts down the chart, and picks up the study. He sits down in his leather office chair, not hospital-issue. He looks up. "I don't know this study."

       "Maybe you do. That's a Google-generated synopsis."

       "I can see that. May I keep it so I can look at the actual trial documents?"

       I smile because I'm impressed with that, and am not the sort of person who holds a grudge if the grudgee shows some iota of repentance. I say, "Sure, Doc."

       He's no longer pissed. He is instead, I'd say, curious.

       "I will look into this study beyond the synopsis. I will need to know how many women were studied, how long the study lasted, the medical conditions of the women in the study, their ages, and many more such details. However, it is my opinion that your radiologist is the best person to advise you once he has examined you, once he sees mammogram images, and…when he has the pathology report."

       He has to look up from his chair to me on the table. Oh, such a sweet, crooked Count Dracula smile, the one Dracula himself reveals just before he sinks his canines into your jugular. I will no longer go on about Johnny Depp, since you already know he's part of my thinking. Then he says, "I will write in my notes to the effect that your insurance company will pay for this visit."

       I'm no longer pissed. Dr. Ionescu is the kind of guy, I decide, who you meet at some party, and instead of asking you, Would you like to go have a cup of coffee? Or as some crumb might ask, cutting to the charge, Wanna fuck? Instead he'd say, Would you like to go over to the Omni tonight at midnight and sneak up on the roof and have a swim in their pool? The kind of guy who wants to know exactly what makes you tick. When I asked Charlie about going on the eagle-spotting trip, I learned all I needed to know about him when he enthusiastically agreed, instead of, "Excuse me? What kind of trip?"

       I thank him for his intention to manage a reimbursement for my non-protocol appointment. Then I say, "I don't have a radiologist yet. Have you got a recommendation?"

       "I don't. I'm not here long enough. But your surgeon will recommend a radiologist when he examines you. Have you a surgeon?"

       I decide not to tell him I've been examined already. I can't expect him to know everything. "Her. Diane Quigley."

       "Oh. Very good. And so, once you have considered the opinions of Dr. Quigley and your radiologist, we will meet again, and I will tell you what I have learned, and you can make the decision yourself."

       He has just elicited another question in ever curious me. "Have you found that your patients will generally just do what you say to do?"

       The eyebrow. Then, "Yes."

       "You don't like that, do you?"

       "I do not judge. But then there are those women who hear the words breast cancer and decide to immediately have their breast, or both breasts, removed before I can advise them. I find that difficult."

       I feel sympathy for him on that front, but not as much as I feel for women who experience such terror they want their breasts chopped off, period. All the same, I say, "I'm sorry." I am.

       He gazes at me. He believes me that I feel badly for him because the situation he describes is part of what he has to accept, like it or not. Finally, I smile at him. A smile of, maybe, camaraderie. Then I change the subject.

"Listen, Doc, I'm really into statistics."

       He says, "Good," yet again, just like Dr. Quigley did. Then: "If your pathology report shows the cluster in your breast is made up of cancer cells, I will give you the statistics as to survival rate based on the likely development of those cells, and the size of the cluster. And if the cells have infiltrated tissue outside the mammary duct, I will give you the pertinent statistics as to that. Have you considered the ramifications of hearing those statistics? In terms of how it will affect you psychologically?"

      "Uh…knowledge is power, even if the knowledge itself sucks. I care how I will be affected psychologically. If I have psychological problems, it's why God made shrinks. Like, if I'm going to die, I'll want to know if it's next week, next month, or if I've got a few years. I'll need to adjust my life so that I don't waste any time that's left. As opposed to, Off with their heads!"

      I see a lot in his gaze. He's in a Catch-22. He can't have someone ask his potential patients if they want to know the statistics behind the choices available to them. If that happens, he might not get to see those patients who don't want to know anything it all. He won't have a chance to try to convince them otherwise, even if it's a waste of their time and his. Then he can just see people like Jenny Cavalleri and me, who the need the truth. I sigh to myself.

      He's still gazing at me rather than speaking.

      I say, "What about drugs? If I have cancer, I don't know yet if I'll need radiation or even chemotherapy. But according to Google, I'll need to take drugs, right? Will that be your job? To determine what drugs I'll need, and how long I should take them?"

      "Yes—"

      "Yes, but you won't know what drugs to recommend until after the pathology report."

      His accent becomes more pronounced as he becomes the pedant I'm looking for. "That is not actually correct. There are only two options: one drug is meant for patients who have not attained menopause, and an entire family of drugs for women who have. But yet, there are exceptions. For example, if a woman has attained menopause but has the constitution of a much younger woman, I recommend the drugs normally given to a woman who has not attained menopause."

      I pull the johnny coat back up over my shoulder, and it falls off the other side, as it is programmed to do. I don't care. The Count and I understand each other.

      I say, "Thank you for all the information you've given me."

      He stands and puts his hand out to me. I take it and he helps me off the table. His hand is as smooth as the living dead.

      I will later note the charge for my twelve minutes with him: $8472.00. Happy to report, whatever notes he made to my insurance company took care of it. As Yale's Chief of Oncology, the Count is of course entitled to get paid a lot more than the minions, though seven hundred smackers a minute seems a tad high. I would guess that, unquestionably, Captain Kirk, commander of the Enterprise, is paid a lot more than Scotty, Bones, Sulu, Lieutenant Uhura, Spock, and of course the nameless blond who is clearly Kirk's mistress, together. Never mind that all Kirk does is stand there and order everyone around as if they can't figure out what to do without his telling them. They tend to look at him blankly when he does that to them.

      And does Dr. Diane Quigley, presently in charge of my breasts until the pathology report becomes available, need any oncologist telling her what's what? I would think not. But anyway, I will not entirely judge whether the Count is worth all that money until he weighs in on both my pathology report and the clinical study I told him about.

p.s. The only members of a profession that deserve that kind of money are public school teachers, something I alluded to in the previous chapter.

 

Chapter 14.

 

CHARLIE AND I return to Smilow on the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the deliberate crashing of a commercial flight into the Pennsylvania countryside. It is 9/11, and I'm about to have my biopsy.

      When we approach the lobby desk at Smilow, Beaumont is now looking fairly confident. He looks up, smiles. "Breast Center, right?"

      "Yes."   

      "You were my first customer.  I'm sorry I was no help."

      I smile back at him. (I never dreamed I would be able to crack a genuine smile at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. I'm liking the thought that I've gotten past my blueberry-killing time.) I say, "The first day on a job is in the top ten of everyone's worst nightmare."

      And he, "That's right."

      He signals to a guide just stepping out of the elevator, a different guide from last time. This one heads over, and Beaumont says to her, "These people would like to go to the Breast Center."

      She gives us an especially big smile and says quite merrily, "Well then…. Just follow me."

      Up, down, in and out we go until the guide confides, "We're almost there, dear. Just around the corner."

      I whisper to Charlie, "This is nuts."

      He puts his arm around my shoulders. "What did you say, honey?"

      I speak in my just-above-normal usual voice with him and repeat, "This is nuts." 

      What do I care if the guide hears me? She's heard worse. She says, "It certainly is. It's why I volunteered."

      I say, "Thank you."

      She leads us around the corner past that giant fountain and food court. Then she takes us down a new corridor past the two gift shops and I get a better look than the last time. The first one appears typical, but in the other, a woman in front of a display case has just burst into tears. The guide whispers, "That's the shop for breast cancer patients who have had mastectomies."

      Opposite the weeping woman, a shop girl is still holding up the bathing suit she was showing her before she started crying her eyes out. It has two imitation breasts sewn into the cups.

      May I say that nothing prepares a woman for such horrors even with all this awareness shit going on. My heart breaks. We walk on. Charlie whispers to me, "What was that?"

      "I'll tell you later," I lie.

      The Breast Center turns out to be a big room packed with ugly upholstered sofas and chairs, and a myriad of coffee tables strewn with magazines like WebMD and Women's Health. Pathetic choices.

      Dear Smilow, Get fifty subscriptions to People so all the women with breast cancer can read about William and Kate and Harry and Meghan, and their latest baby news that will keep needy people at a safe distance from reality.

      In the moments before one of the receptionists sitting behind a long counter can ask me what she can do to help me, I continue my scan of the room. There are so many people in this place, all of them wanting to blow their brains out, including the patients' spouses, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and boyfriends. Their kids are raising typical Cain, thank God.

      Now the receptionist says, "Can I help you?"

      I ask her, "Are you Denise?"

      "Yes." 

      "My daughter Jene rides the van with you from the commuter lot. She said to say hello."

       Denise smiles. "It's nice to meet you."

        She is all business. She doesn't say something like, "Jene is such a sweet girl." Maybe she doesn't even like Jene. She just puts my name band on my wrist, and asks me my birthday, and if I've been to West Africa in the last week. Though I really want to say, Yeah, my friend and I went to Ouagadougou for lunch, but not to worry—no one threw up on us. I used to be verbally caustic like my mother but have come to try to keep such comments to myself. I write them down instead though as you have found out. Denise, after all, is the messenger, not the creator of Yale-New Haven Hospital nonsense protocol.

      My birthday matches the numbers on my bracelet. Denise tells Charlie and me to have a seat till someone comes to get us.

      We sit together on the only remaining sofa that has two empty spaces. We nod to the man in the third space, next to mine. He's weeping. I pull a Kleenex out of my little packet, an item I carry around these days, the way my mother always did. I hand it to him. He takes it, but he doesn't look at me or say thank you. If he did that, the weeping would become all-out crying, for sure.

      One wall of the room is glass, and our immediate view is the main entrance to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where there are uniformed valets parking people's cars. At that moment, I officially begin to learn the ropes at Smilow.   

      The first rope is this: You don't park in the parking garage for four bucks. That amount happens to be five dollars less than valet parking, which is so worth it unless you're coming every day, like chemotherapy patients—how awful is that? But if you lose your parking ticket, which patients tend to do since we're all in altered states, forget it. As if we have the wherewithal to read the fine print on the little ticket that states. To take advantage of the discounted parking fee, you have to have your voucher validated. Even if you do read the fine print, the prospect of asking Beaumont tell you where to have your parking ticket validated is so depressing, you just think, The hell with it, I'll pay the full Monty.

      I now know not to go to the parking garage. Just drive up to the main entrance, get out, watch the valet zip off in your car, and then, in my case, take the seven-second walk to the Smilow Cancer Hospital, first and only stop, Breast Center.

      My feeling on the parking fee, of course, is that patients shouldn't have to pay a goddamn penny. Now that I think about it, neither should visitors. How to discourage people from visiting friends and family in the hospital: charge them to park.

      I hear my name called out. It's Justine here to take Charlie and me to a mini-waiting room, where I can change in an adjacent. Justine smiles the whole time. I am learning more ropes at Smilow: Absolutely everyone smiles at you the same as when you fly Southwest. No jokes, though. (Last time I flew Southwest we had a rousing landing. There were at least five bashing bounces of the wheels. When the plane slowed down, the attendant announced, deadpan: "You may have noticed we've landed.")

      I change into something that isn't a johnny coat. The only difference is that it's long, and it ties in the front, meaning you don't walk around with your ass hanging out. It's almost to my ankles. I would imagine really short people must trip over the hem all the time. Then there is this robe. It's seersucker. Seersucker, as you may recall, is crinkly white cotton with very thin blue stripes. For a while, men went around in suits made of that stuff from Memorial Day to Labor Day—just those three months, thank God. At least the men were cooler even if it meant they were dressed in dishtowel fabric.

      Justine returns. With her is a young, handsome, African-American guy pushing a wheel chair.

      He smiles and says to me, "The train is leaving the depot, ma'am. I'm Hank."

      I say, "Nice to meet you." I look at his name tag. Hank A. Copes. I can't help myself. "Is the A for Aaron?"

      First he gapes at me, and then the Yale-New Haven smile turns into the kind of grin that makes the world truly a bright place, something I'm needing right now.

      He says, "I can't wait to tell my mother you said that to me. She's been hoping someday a lady would say that. Took twenty-six years. She loved Hank Aaron."

      "Everyone loved Hank Aaron. I'm glad I got to be the first, but I hope you get a second lady before too long. I'm Mary-Ann."

      I reach out to shake his hand. We shake. Since I'm in an altered state, I say, "My mother named me after Jesus's mother and grandmother." I do not explain that there is no "e" at the end of Ann—something Catholics eliminate to differentiate themselves from Protestants.

      Hank Aaron says, "She'll will like that too. Jesus had a grandmother?"

      "Yes, two, just like the rest of us. St. Anne was Mary's mother. I don't think anyone knows anything about Joseph's mother."

      He says, "Can I help you into the chair?"

      I could have carried on the preposterous conversation forever, enabling my not wanting to go anywhere in a wheel chair. And not wanting Charlie to leave, besides. Now, Charlie helps Hank, who is seeing to my hems that are trying to get caught in the wheels.

      Hank says to Charlie, "Come along with us. The family waiting room is on the way."

      It isn't. Hank is supposed to have someone else take care of Charlie. But my Hank Aaron guy just happens to be a compassionate person. Nice. He takes us on a detour that we don't know is a detour, and we drop Charlie off. I get another smooch and then a little wave goodbye as Hank turns me away from him. I can't help but look back. I already told you about Charlie's broad shoulders, so much so it's difficult to get my arms all the way around them. There's a tremor in those shoulders right now. He calls out, "I love you, Wonder Woman."

      Then Hank passes me a Kleenex; my own little pack is in the locker. He rolls me through a zillion corridors and into an elevator. We go up, get off, go down, get off, and then travel along a few more corridors, but I don't care. I ask him, "Do you ever get lost?" 

      He says, "No, ma'am. But everyone asks me that. Used to it. Got it down now." 

      I sniffle, "I was been hoping we were lost."

      "I bet you were, ma'am. But all this will be behind you before you know it, and you'll be out there boogying in no time." He pats my shoulder.

      After another quarter mile, we stop at a door where a nurse (or a PA, or an MA, whatever) is waiting. She says, "Hi, Hank," thanks him, and to me: "Hi, Mary-Ann, I'm Jackie, your nurse."  

      Oh, good, a real nurse. We shake hands. "I'll be with you during your biopsy."

      I will remember Jackie's name.

      She and Hank Aaron get me out of the wheelchair. He waves goodbye to us—"Good luck, ma'am,"—and pushes the chair back to where his next passenger awaits. He turns, though, just like I did with Charlie, and calls out, "Maybe I'll see you for the return." One extra smile for me. Hank does Hank Aaron, as well as his mother, proud. Then Jackie has me through the door.

      I tell her, "Back in the day, wheelchair attendants would bang the wheelchairs into the walls, particularly if your arm was broken."

      She says, "I hope you never had that experience."

      "No, but I broke my collarbone when I was seven, and the nurse in the emergency room yanked my T-shirt off over my head."

      "Oh, God. I'm so sorry. We really do our best to see to your comfort."

      I say, "But there's always a bad apple."

      "Yes, that true. I report bad apples, believe me."

      "I'm glad to hear that."

      "We've come a long way."

      Right in front of us is an open door. She shows me in. It's a dim, creepy room with a table with a hole in it, as described. Also, we are crammed in amongst many pieces of shiny steel equipment. Two other women who—needless to say—are standing there, smiling at me. The older of the two, with short grey hair, says, "I'm Dr. So-and-So, and I'll perform the biopsy." The first time my friend Jessica went to visit her daughter who moved to Seattle, she said to me, "Women in Seattle have two hairstyles. Short grey hair and long grey hair."

      The doctor holds out her hand and I shake it. A lot of people don't do that anymore because of germs. But when you're talking cancer, skin-to-skin contact with others is very important. That would be my theory. 

      Dr. So-and-So will be wielding the transducer. Yesterday, I checked various kinds of transducers online, and decided I'd call mine a derringer, even if it does shoot barbs rather than bullets. That's because I recovered a memory: Nancy Reagan once announced, during an interview in defense of gun-lovers' loony-tune interpretations of the Second Amendment, "I own a gun." Then she smirked and says, "But it's just a little gun. A derringer." 

      A little gun? What does it do, kill people a little? Now I know why I think of my transducer as a derringer. That Nancy Reagan story comes to the front of my brain just before I'm biopsied. Nancy Reagan—no surprise here—will eventually become a supporter of background checks on gun buyers. When your husband takes a bullet to the chest and his friend and press secretary takes another to the head and eventually dies from his horrific injuries, and the shooter is clearly insane, you see things from a new perspective. Charlie says an unbalanced person should be denied access to a gun, but besides that, every member of the household should be denied access too. Like Adam Lanza's mother, for example.

 

Chapter 15. 

 

HERE IS THE tale of my biopsy. Besides the doctor and nurse Jackie, I will also have a technician—the third woman in the room. She smiles too, shakes my hand, but doesn't tell me her name. She will be running the Star Wars apparatus, a stereotactic guidance machine allowing the surgeon to see through my breast in order to level her derringer into the galaxy, fire the barbs, and bag some strands of cells that I hope are all tucked inside the duct and not on their way out. Or already out.

      The trio of women helps me climb onto the table. I sit there trying not to look at the hole, while they help me out of my seersucker robe and into the top half of a surgical gown. 

      The doctor says to me, "Is it the left breast or right breast that we will be biopsying today?"

      Am I surprised at this question? Do I say, What? You don't know? Are you some kind of moron? I would, but her question is in the same category as the one Charlie gets from his surgeon regarding which knee he'll be replacing. Charlie says to him, "Left," and his doctor doesn't say, "Right," so as not to confuse the issue. He says, "That's correct," and draws a happy face on Charlie's left knee. His name is Dr. Komninakas. First "n" is silent—I was able to pronounce his name once his nurse showed me a card with the word solemn on it. She says, 'Solemn. See how the n is silent?" I tell her I do. She bends in toward me, "You can't believe how many people can't read the word, so I say it first so no one is embarrassed."

      Dr. Komninakas is a man of few words, but every word he does say is pertinent, and he is incredibly kindly. I would half to say he's trained his staff to be the same.

      So I say to my surgeon, "Left."

      She says, "Correct," but doesn't draw anything on Starbright. She makes a dot with a blue Sharpie. Because of such seemingly insignificant exchanges between surgeons and their patients, we don't get headlines in the tabloids any more about doctors amputating the wrong body part, thank God.

      I also say, "It's actually Starbright who is having the biopsy."

      Then I tell them about Charlie naming my breasts. My three attendants share a chuckle.

      The technician asks, "What's the other one's name?"

      The doctor and the nurse chime in together, "Starlight."

      Based on the look on the technician's face, no one ever recited the wish-upon-a-star nursery rhyme to her when she was a child. So I recited it to her. She becomes very still and then says…uh…reverentially, "That is so beautiful."

      I am reminded of Joe Namath when he was interviewed by Dick Schaap, and instead of reminiscing about football they were talking about movies. Joe said,          "I liked the movie, 'Romeo and Juliet,' but I hated the ending."

      Dick Schaap:"Joe, you didn't know the ending before you saw it, did you?" 

      Joe: "Did you?"

      But what with thoughts to Juliet, I am now thinking of my attendants as heroic. They get me onto my stomach, shift me around a bit, and then guide Starbright through the hole, apologizing for their cold hands .

      Then the doctor disappears under the table. The table rises, I guess to the height she likes. I can hear her creeping around on her stool. The thing your mechanic rolls around on when he's under your car is called a creeper. Charlie tells me this after I explain to him about the biopsy procedure. I ask Charlie if he rolls around under the helicopters on those carts on wheels, like car mechanics do, same thing I wondered about the biopsy radiologist.

      He says to me, "We don't need creepers, Mary-Ann. We do the designing on computers."

      He also laughs at me for being so cute. But I laugh at me too. Do you remember Mallory-isms on "Family Ties?" Does your grandmother remember Gracie Allen? Alas, I'm in that category of those two, and my daughter too, who is actually a champion. Fortunately, she also laughs at herself. Once her boyfriend was telling her he went to Berlin to see the rubble that was the Berlin Wall. Jene asked him, "How tall was it?"

      My son will come out with a lulu himself, once in a while: He was in 9th grade when I say to him,"Honey, I know you can't stand earth science, but this next section in your book is really good. Because there are people involved: The Dust Bowl." 

      Jere perked right up: "Who played?"

      The biopsy technician leaves me to study a couple of computers. Three screens suddenly light up all at once. I can hear her tapping away. Jackie asks me, "You okay?"

      I say, "Why, has something happened?"

      She says, "No. I meant, are you comfortable?"

      Is she kidding? Starbright is hanging out of a hole and I need a pillow. "No, I'm not. Can I have a pillow?"

      "Sorry, sweetie. You have to be flat."

      The right side of my face is placed flat to the table. I do not need to say that besides a breast hole, there needs be a massage hole too. The doctor says something I can't understand, and the nurse says to the technician, "All set?"

      "Yes."

      Then to me, "Excuse us for a minute."

      She and the technician together duck under the table for a whispered consultation with the doctor, and then come back up again.  This is really too bizarre. I shut my eyes and stop looking at the computer screens.

      The doctor calls up to me, "We're set to go here, Mary-Ann. First I'm going to numb your breast with lidocaine. You'll feel a burn."

      I already know it will burn. A few years ago, I got a cortisone shot into my frozen shoulder, which was first numbed with lidocaine. It burned, and but didn't numb anything. I didn't think I could ask for another shot. Now, not only do I intend to ask for another one if I need it, I'll demand one.

      The doctor underneath the table first wipes something across Starbright to make the burn more tolerable. It is. Then she says, "I'm making the incision." I grit my teeth, but I don't feel a thing.

      Twice, I answer the nurse's call-out, "Everything okay up there?" with, "Yes."

      I hear the technician tapping at keys. I wonder if the doctor has a screen under the table or whether she pops up and looks out at the technician's screens every once in a while. Happily, the tech isn't saying things like, "Holy shit, doc, you're way, way off."  

      I feel movement under the table. Jackie emerges and stands very close to me. She places her hand gently on my shoulder.

      I say, "I'm okay," before she can ask me again.

      The doctor calls up to me, "I'm now drawing the first tissue sample out from your breast."

      She didn't even tell me she'd stuck in the transducer, and I never figured she'd take them out one at a time. Would you?

      While she continues her fishing trip, Jackie is rubbing my shoulders and back. Then she asks, "How's Starbright doing?"

       I say, "There are places Starbright would rather be than here."

      "I'll bet. Is she feeling any pain?"

      "She's not feeling anything and neither am I."

      "Good."

      I think Jackie is basically trying to keep me from falling asleep so she can continue her pain checks rather than dealing with me waking up, and shouting in pain.  She can tell I'm appreciating the mini-massage she's giving me. I'm not, but I'm appreciating the gesture.

      Then the doctor says, "I am putting in the marker." Pause: "All done."

      I now have an eyelash in my breast.

      I think of my friend Sarah Clayton, who might well have corrected her with: "All finished." Or maybe Sarah wouldn't have done that if she were in my situation, knowing she was trapped in a really vulnerable position and the doctor might turn out to be someone who can't tolerate being corrected.

     The technician gets under the table again with the doctor. I can sense their moving about when, all of a sudden, my breast hurts like hell. I make the mistake of waiting a few seconds to see if it will stop hurting. It doesn't. It gets worse. I shout, "THAT HURTS!"

     Jackie grips my shoulders, and the technician calls up, "Oops, sorry. I'm just pushing your breast back through the hole. I'll be more careful."

     It stops hurting. I am beginning to think Starbright is in some kind of vise they don't tell me about, and by mistake, the technician tightens the vise instead of loosening it a là my worst-ever mammogram experience. 

     Jene would later say, "Squeezing your breast through a tight hole hurts because the breast had just been…uh…."

     "Stabbed."

     "Yes. And the anesthetic wasn't broad enough to handle that manipulation. So sorry, Mom." She thinks further and says, "Or more likely, they were pulling the transducer out. They didn't tell you because they didn't want you to jump."

     I say, "They should have warned me and prepared themselves for the jump. Why didn't they give me more lidocaine?"

     "I wasn't making excuses for them."

     "I know. Still, why?"

     She says in sort of a mumble, "Protocol."

     I think, sarcastically, but don't say, The Yale Way.

     When Jackie tells me nurses do their best to see to their patients' comfort, "best" obviously doesn't mean going out on strike till the patients having breast biopsies are assured of getting sufficient lidocaine.

     Meanwhile, the technician's head now rises out from under the table to face me. "There's a Band-Aid over the incision." 

     I say, "I hope it's latex-free."

     "We have a note that you have a reaction to Band-Aid adhesive. It's latex-free, but it's also got a gentle adhesive. A strong adhesive is usually the problem."

     "Oh." You learn something new every day, right?

     The technician and Jackie ease me into a sitting position, get me back into the top half of the surgical gown, and put on my seersucker robe. Did I say the robe is not meant to make you warm? It isn't.

     Jackie gives me a very careful hug, taking care to only hug my Starlight side. She says, "Good job!" (Now I know how children feel, when they're told they've done a good job, knowing they haven't done a goddamn thing, good or otherwise.)

     The hug demonstrates to Jackie that I'm freezing. She says, "You're like ice!"  She goes over to a cupboard, brings me a warmed blanket, wraps it around me, and I am profoundly grateful. That's why I remember her name. She treats me in a loving and kindly way throughout the procedure, except for the part where she knows I will have a moment of really awful pain and does not prepare me. She betrays me instead. I don't know how people in the medical profession can stand themselves, knowing they are about to give patients pain that can be prevented, never mind that they don't warn you at least warn that it's coming. 

     I give one of Charlie's nurses a name when his knee is replaced: Rached, as in that lunatic asylum movie with Jack Nicholson. In the middle of the night, twelve hours after his surgery, he begins feeling pain. We will follow the instructions he gets from Dr. Komninakas in the pre-op room: "Stay ahead of the pain. I've prescribed on-demand pain relief. The minute you feel anything, call your nurse."

     In our case, that would be Nurse Rached. So I pull the cord over Charlie's head, unreachable for him in his present condition, and call her to bring him a painkiller. She doesn't come dashing in as I imagine she will. She simply says over the loudspeaker, "He's not due for his painkiller for another hour."

      I say, "What?"

     She repeats herself.

     I tell her, "He's in pain. According to his doctor, he's supposed to stay ahead of the pain. Bring his pain medication now."

     She says, "Do you have any Tylenol? Give him a couple until it's time for his Vicodin. Eighty minutes, actually."

     Did this woman not see Terms of Endearment? Charlie makes a terrible noise. I shout in the direction of the speaker, "If you don't bring my husband something for his pain right now, I'm calling the police."

     There's a guy in the round area outside the door. He's at a desk. I don't know who he is or what he's doing there. He calls out, "She just took her cell phone out, Marilyn."

     Charlie gets an early dose of his pain medication. His eyes close. From then on, Marilyn is all over us. I don't think it's guilt; she's afraid we'll rat her out to Dr. Komninakas. I don't get around to it—but I do make sure to go to a hospital review site, and write her one of those reviews that start with: If I could give no stars instead of one, I would.

     Once I'm sitting up on the biopsy table, wrapped and ready to be handed back over to Hank Aaron, the doctor finally rolls out from under the table, stands up, and says to me, "Good job." Can you stand it?  

     There is a knock on the door and Jackie opens it to a guy with a wheelchair, a new guy, not Hank Aaron. My hand-maidens say goodbye and wish me well, telling me not to remove the Band-Aid.

      "It'll fall off by itself after a few showers. Just let water run over her."

     I will remember that. If they'd given me more instructions, I wouldn't have.

     I do not say, Thank you. I'm pissed that they let me be hurt. Too bad, Mom.

     The new wheelchair guy goes a little faster than Hank Aaron, but doesn't bang me into a wall.

     Charlie is there in the waiting room, actually standing in the doorway. He leans down and kisses me. He steps over to my wheelchair, and asks me, "You okay?"

     "Starbright's got a Band-Aid."

      "Mary-Ann?"

      "What?"

      "Does anything hurt?"

       "No."

     He basically picks me up out of the wheelchair with his strong arms and hugs me to his beautifully muscled pecs as gently as you hold your newborn baby to your breast when the obstetrician passes him or her to you from between your legs and on past your belly.

     Charlie helps me get dressed. The Band-Aid brings happy tears to his eyes because it's only a Band-Aid, not a dressing covering a flat place where Starbright used to be. Do you know that until Betty Rollin wrote First, You Cry, the protocol was to send the biopsied tissue directly to the lab; keep the patient anæthetized during the wait for the results; and if there are cancerous cells, a mastectomy is performed without the patient knowing it? Back in the day the medical profession didn't want anyone to know a damn thing. Not in any condition to fight City Hall, here is what Betty did about that: Before she has the breast surgery, she asks her doctor how long the operation will take.

     He says, quote, unquote, Betty's book: "You're scheduled for nine. If it's benign, you'll be in your room by eleven. Otherwise," he says, lingering on the comma, "it will take longer, probably till sometime in the afternoon."

     Great line of writing, Betty.

     When Betty is brought to her room after surgery, she asks the nurse what time it is.

     "Three-thirty."

     And so, she knows her breast is gone.

     That astoundingly cruel protocol is done away with thanks to people like Betty, who demonstrates perfectly in her book what a horrible way it is to find out your breast has been amputated. Next, there's Shirley Temple Black. She enters the fray after her breast cancer diagnosis, when she is informed of the protocol. She stands up to her surgeon, tells him that even if she has cancer, she will need time to prepare herself for a mastectomy. She will keep her breast till that time, thank you very much. Her doctor respects that demand because, after all, she was the most popular child movie actor of all time, and her friend Ronald Reagan appointed her Ambassador to Ghana, and in his second term, to Czechoslovakia.

      Maybe there wouldn't be a thousand-page book called Choices, if my cousins hadn't been inspired by people like these two women. Now, who can we get to keep certain doctors from thinking they're deities?

      For Example: Me to the primary care guy I had before Dr. Slattery: "I volunteered for a research program at NYU. I need to take some cognition tests regularly to see if I might be getting Alzheimer's like my father. Maybe—" 

      Doctor talking over me: "Why would you want to do  that? If the findings show you've got signs of Alzheimer's, you'll have to live with that knowledge." I don't say, but I think: If I want to see the pyramids before I die, better I pack my suitcase before the time comes when I'm peeing in closets instead of the bathroom, you jerk. I do say, "Knowledge is power," but I'm talking to the top of his head. He's trying to type notes into his computer, hunting impotently, and pecking with his right hand.

      Charlie helps me get dressed. First he takes the robe off and says, "Starbright is beautiful even with a Band-Aid."

      I look down. Big Band-Aid.

      After he finds a cami in my bag—the list of pre-op instructions tells me not to wear a bra after the biopsy, but rather a snuggish cami—he drifts it down over my head (none of  my camis are actually "snuggish," as if that wouldn't hurt), and then he says, "Let's go get some soup."

      I say, "I think I need the shirt."

      He smiles. "Yeah."

      He digs out the plaid flannel shirt—his—and gets my arms in and buttons it. Then he rolls up the sleeves. It takes about five rolls. I choose this shirt because it's especially soft and will also hide the fact that I don't have on a bra.

      A candy-striper escorts us to the food court by the fountain right after she smiles and tells us, "I'm your patient ambassador." Is that adorable or what? When she leaves us, I say, "Bye, Madame Ambassador."

      She beams.

      The soup is delicious, but I can't eat much of it because I start to feel really, really tired.

      We go home and I go to bed wrapped up in Charlie's arms, which are not only strong, but covered with fine hair. I am known to fall asleep with my face against one of his forearms because the hair is pillowy and such a beautiful golden color.

      Salty is at doggie day care so he won't jump on me like he did Charlie when he got his new knee, even though I built a barricade around the bed. Charlie's in bed, Jene—knowing about the barricade—brings Salty in, but he's so deliriously happy to see Charlie again, he becomes a bolt of lightning, vaulting over the barricade, knocking chairs and pillows hither and yon, and does a four-point landing directly on Charlie's new knee.

       I became immediately hysterical, crying and grabbing at Salty, while Charlie is shouting, "Shit!" over and over. Jene, no Nurse Rached, gets Salty out of the bedroom by saying, "Come, Salty. Bacon!" and is back in two seconds with an extra Vicodin for Charlie, Salty right with her, but she's hanging onto his collar. She drags him back out with her, and I hear her say from the kitchen, "No bacon, Salty. Here, have a piece of salami," and calling to me, "Mom. I'm bringing him back to my house."

      I tell Charlie I'm sorry about ten thousand times, and of course, he ends up comforting me what with the comfort of the Vicodin.

      Later, Dr. Komninakas says to Charlie when he hears about Salty, "It's okay. Dog broke the new scar tissue forming. Saves you some physical therapy pain."

      Next time I talk to my son, I tell him about my wheelchair guy whose mother named him after Hank Aaron.

      Jere says, "Hammerin' Hank. The best. He's the real home run king. No steroids."

      Forgive us, if you have no interest in games requiring an association with a ball. (Or if you have no interest injustice.)

 

Chapter 15. 

 

HERE IS THE tale of my biopsy. Besides the doctor and nurse Jackie, I will also have a technician—the third woman in the room. She smiles too, shakes my hand, but doesn't tell me her name. She will be running the Star Wars apparatus, a stereotactic guidance machine allowing the surgeon to see through my breast in order to level her derringer into the galaxy, fire the barbs, and bag some strands of cells that I hope are all tucked inside the duct and not on their way out. Or already out.

     The trio of women helps me climb onto the table. I sit there trying not to look at the hole, while they help me out of my seersucker robe and into the top half of a surgical gown. 

     The doctor says to me, "Is it the left breast or right breast that we will be biopsying today?"

     Am I surprised at this question? Do I say, What? You don't know? Are you some kind of moron? I would, but her question is in the same category as the one Charlie gets from his surgeon regarding which knee he'll be replacing. Charlie says to him, "Left," and his doctor doesn't say, "Right," so as not to confuse the issue. He says, "That's correct," and draws a happy face on Charlie's left knee. His name is Dr. Komninakas. First "n" is silent—I was able to pronounce his name once his nurse showed me a card with the word solemn on it. She says, 'Solemn. See how the n is silent?" I tell her I do. She bends in toward me, "You can't believe how many people can't read the word, so I say it first so no one is embarrassed."

       Dr. Komninakas is a man of few words, but every word he does say is pertinent, and he is incredibly kindly. I would half to say he's trained his staff to be the same.

     So I say to my surgeon, "Left."

     She says, "Correct," but doesn't draw anything on Starbright. She makes a dot with a blue Sharpie. Because of such seemingly insignificant exchanges between surgeons and their patients, we don't get headlines in the tabloids any more about doctors amputating the wrong body part, thank God.

     I also say, "It's actually Starbright who is having the biopsy."

     Then I tell them about Charlie naming my breasts. My three attendants share a chuckle.

     The technician asks, "What's the other one's name?"

     The doctor and the nurse chime in together, "Starlight."

Based on the look on the technician's face, no one ever recited the wish-upon-a-star nursery rhyme to her when she was a child. So I recited it to her. She becomes very still and then says…uh…reverentially, "That is so beautiful."

     I am reminded of Joe Namath when he was interviewed by Dick Schaap, and instead of reminiscing about football they were talking about movies. Joe said, "I liked the movie, 'Romeo and Juliet,' but I hated the ending."

      Dick Schaap: "Joe, you didn't know the ending before you saw it, did you?" 

      Joe: "Did you?"

     But what with thoughts to Juliet, I am now thinking of my attendants as heroic. They get me onto my stomach, shift me around a bit, and then guide Starbright through the hole, apologizing for their cold hands.

     Then the doctor disappears under the table. The table rises, I guess to the height she likes. I can hear her creeping around on her stool. The thing your mechanic rolls around on when he's under your car is called a creeper. Charlie tells me this after I explain to him about the biopsy procedure. I ask Charlie if he rolls around under the helicopters on those carts on wheels, like car mechanics do, same thing I wondered about the biopsy radiologist.

     He says to me, "We don't need creepers, Mary-Ann. We do the designing on computers."

     He also laughs at me for being so cute. But I laugh at me too. Do you remember Mallory-isms on "Family Ties?" Does your grandmother remember Gracie Allen? Alas, I'm in that category of those two, and my daughter too, who is actually a champion. Fortunately, she also laughs at herself. Once her boyfriend was telling her he went to Berlin to see the rubble that was the Berlin Wall. Jene asked him, "How tall was it?"

      My son will come out with a lulu himself, once in a while: He was in 9th grade when I say to him,"Honey, I know you can't stand earth science, but this next section in your book is really good. Because there are people involved: The Dust Bowl." 

      Jere perked right up: "Who played?"

     The biopsy technician leaves me to study a couple of computers. Three screens suddenly light up all at once. I can hear her tapping away. Jackie asks me, "You okay?"

     I say, "Why, has something happened?"

     She says, "No. I meant, are you comfortable?"

     Is she kidding? Starbright is hanging out of a hole and I need a pillow. "No, I'm not. Can I have a pillow?"

     "Sorry, sweetie. You have to be flat."

     The right side of my face is placed flat to the table. I do not need to say that besides a breast hole, there needs be a massage hole too. The doctor says something I can't understand, and the nurse says to the technician, "All set?"

     "Yes."

     Then to me, "Excuse us for a minute."

     She and the technician together duck under the table for a whispered consultation with the doctor, and then come back up again.  This is really too bizarre. I shut my eyes and stop looking at the computer screens.

     The doctor calls up to me, "We're set to go here, Mary-Ann. First I'm going to numb your breast with lidocaine. You'll feel a burn."

     I already know it will burn. A few years ago, I got a cortisone shot into my frozen shoulder, which was first numbed with lidocaine. It burned, and but didn't numb anything. I didn't think I could ask for another shot. Now, not only do I intend to ask for another one if I need it, I'll demand one.

      The doctor underneath the table first wipes something across Starbright to make the burn more tolerable. It is. Then she says, "I'm making the incision." I grit my teeth, but I don't feel a thing.

     Twice, I answer the nurse's call-out, "Everything okay up there?" with, "Yes."

     I hear the technician tapping at keys. I wonder if the doctor has a screen under the table or whether she pops up and looks out at the technician's screens every once in a while. Happily, the tech isn't saying things like, "Holy shit, doc, you're way, way off."  

     I feel movement under the table. Jackie emerges and stands very close to me. She places her hand gently on my shoulder.

     I say, "I'm okay," before she can ask me again.

     The doctor calls up to me, "I'm now drawing the first tissue sample out from your breast."

     She didn't even tell me she'd stuck in the transducer, and I never figured she'd take them out one at a time. Would you?

     While she continues her fishing trip, Jackie is rubbing my shoulders and back. Then she asks, "How's Starbright doing?"

     I say, "There are places Starbright would rather be than here."

     "I'll bet. Is she feeling any pain?"

     "She's not feeling anything and neither am I."

     "Good."

     I think Jackie is basically trying to keep me from falling asleep so she can continue her pain checks rather than dealing with me waking up, and shouting in pain.  She can tell I'm appreciating the mini-massage she's giving me. I'm not, but I'm appreciating the gesture.

     Then the doctor says, "I am putting in the marker." Pause: "All done."

     I now have an eyelash in my breast.

     I think of my friend Sarah Clayton, who might well have corrected her with: "All finished." Or maybe Sarah wouldn't have done that if she were in my situation, knowing she was trapped in a really vulnerable position and the doctor might turn out to be someone who can't tolerate being corrected.

     The technician gets under the table again with the doctor. I can sense their moving about when, all of a sudden, my breast hurts like hell. I make the mistake of waiting a few seconds to see if it will stop hurting. It doesn't. It gets worse. I shout, "THAT HURTS!"

     Jackie grips my shoulders, and the technician calls up, "Oops, sorry. I'm just pushing your breast back through the hole. I'll be more careful."

     It stops hurting. I am beginning to think Starbright is in some kind of vise they don't tell me about, and by mistake, the technician tightens the vise instead of loosening it a là my worst-ever mammogram experience. 

     Jene would later say, "Squeezing your breast through a tight hole hurts because the breast had just been…uh…."

     "Stabbed."

     "Yes. And the anesthetic wasn't broad enough to handle that manipulation. So sorry, Mom." She thinks further and says, "Or more likely, they were pulling the transducer out. They didn't tell you because they didn't want you to jump."

     I say, "They should have warned me and prepared themselves for the jump. Why didn't they give me more lidocaine?"

     "I wasn't making excuses for them."

     "I know. Still, why?"

     She says in sort of a mumble, "Protocol."

     I think, sarcastically, but don't say, The Yale Way.

     When Jackie tells me nurses do their best to see to their patients' comfort, "best" obviously doesn't mean going out on strike till the patients having breast biopsies are assured of getting sufficient lidocaine.

     Meanwhile, the technician's head now rises out from under the table to face me. "There's a Band-Aid over the incision." 

     I say, "I hope it's latex-free."

     "We have a note that you have a reaction to Band-Aid adhesive. It's latex-free, but it's also got a gentle adhesive. A strong adhesive is usually the problem."

     "Oh." You learn something new every day, right?

     The technician and Jackie ease me into a sitting position, get me back into the top half of the surgical gown, and put on my seersucker robe. Did I say the robe is not meant to make you warm? It isn't.

     Jackie gives me a very careful hug, taking care to only hug my Starlight side. She says, "Good job!" (Now I know how children feel, when they're told they've done a good job, knowing they haven't done a goddamn thing, good or otherwise.)

     The hug demonstrates to Jackie that I'm freezing. She says, "You're like ice!"  She goes over to a cupboard, brings me a warmed blanket, wraps it around me, and I am profoundly grateful. That's why I remember her name. She treats me in a loving and kindly way throughout the procedure, except for the part where she knows I will have a moment of really awful pain and does not prepare me. She betrays me instead. I don't know how people in the medical profession can stand themselves, knowing they are about to give patients pain that can be prevented, never mind that they don't warn you at least warn that it's coming. 

     I give one of Charlie's nurses a name when his knee is replaced: Rached as in that lunatic asylum movie with Jack Nicholson. In the middle of the night, twelve hours after his surgery, he begins feeling pain. We will follow the instructions he gets from Dr. Komninakas in the pre-op room: "Stay ahead of the pain. I've prescribed on-demand pain relief. The minute you feel anything, call your nurse."

     In our case, that would be Nurse Rached. So I pull the cord over Charlie's head, unreachable for him in his present condition, and call her to bring him a painkiller. She doesn't come dashing in as I imagine she will. She simply says over the loudspeaker, "He's not due for his painkiller for another hour."

      I say, "What?"

     She repeats herself.

     I tell her, "He's in pain. According to his doctor, he's supposed to stay ahead of the pain. Bring his pain medication now."

     She says, "Do you have any Tylenol? Give him a couple until it's time for his Vicodin. Eighty minutes, actually."

     Did this woman not see Terms of Endearment? Charlie makes a terrible noise. I shout in the direction of the speaker, "If you don't bring my husband something for his pain right now, I'm calling the police."

     There's a guy in the round area outside the door. He's at a desk. I don't know who he is or what he's doing there. He calls out, "She just took her cell phone out, Marilyn."

     Charlie gets an early dose of his pain medication. His eyes close. From then on, Marilyn is all over us. I don't think it's guilt; she's afraid we'll rat her out to Dr. Komninakas. I don't get around to it—but I do make sure to go to a hospital review site, and write her one of those reviews that start with: If I could give no stars instead of one, I would.

     Once I'm sitting up on the biopsy table, wrapped and ready to be handed back over to Hank Aaron, the doctor finally rolls out from under the table, stands up, and says to me, "Good job." Can you stand it?  

     There is a knock on the door and Jackie opens it to a guy with a wheelchair, a new guy, not Hank Aaron. My hand-maidens say goodbye and wish me well, telling me not to remove the Band-Aid.           

     "It'll fall off by itself after a few showers. Just let water run over her."

     I will remember that. If they'd given me more instructions, I wouldn't have.

     I do not say, Thank you. I'm pissed that they let me be hurt. Too bad, Mom.

     The new wheelchair guy goes a little faster than Hank Aaron, but doesn't bang me into a wall.

     Charlie is there in the waiting room, actually standing in the doorway. He leans down and kisses me. He steps over to my wheelchair, and asks me, "You okay?"

     "Starbright's got a Band-Aid."

      "Mary-Ann?"

      "What?"

      "Does anything hurt?"

       "No."

     He basically picks me up out of the wheelchair with his strong arms and hugs me to his beautifully muscled pecs as gently as you hold your newborn baby to your breast when the obstetrician passes him or her to you from between your legs and on past your belly.

     Charlie helps me get dressed. The Band-Aid brings happy tears to his eyes because it's only a Band-Aid, not a dressing covering a flat place where Starbright used to be. Do you know that until Betty Rollin writes First, You Cry, the protocol was to send the biopsied tissue directly to the lab; keep the patient anæthetized during the wait for the results; and if there are cancerous cells, a mastectomy is performed without the patient knowing it? Back in the day the medical profession didn't want anyone to know a damn thing. Not in any condition to fight City Hall, here is what Betty did about that: Before she has the breast surgery, she asks her doctor how long the operation will take.

     He says, quote, unquote, Betty's book: "You're scheduled for nine. If it's benign, you'll be in your room by eleven. Otherwise," he says, lingering on the comma, "it will take longer, probably till sometime in the afternoon."

     Great line of writing, Betty.

     When Betty is brought to her room after surgery, she asks the nurse what time it is.

     "Three-thirty."

     And so, she knows her breast is gone.

     That astoundingly cruel protocol is done away with thanks to people like Betty, who demonstrates perfectly in her book what a horrible way it is to find out your breast has been amputated. Next, there's Shirley Temple Black. She enters the fray after her breast cancer diagnosis, when she is informed of the protocol. She stands up to her surgeon, tells him that even if she has cancer, she will need time to prepare herself for a mastectomy. She will keep her breast till that time, thank you very much. Her doctor respects that demand because, after all, she was the most popular child movie actor of all time, and her friend Ronald Reagan appointed her Ambassador to Ghana, and in his second term, to Czechoslovakia.

      Maybe there wouldn't be a thousand-page book called Choices, if my cousins hadn't been inspired by people like these two women. Now, who can we get to keep certain doctors from thinking they're deities?

       For Example: Me to the primary care guy I had before Dr. Slattery: "I volunteered for a research program at NYU. I need to take some cognition tests regularly to see if I might be getting Alzheimer's like my father. Maybe—" 

     Doctor talking over me: "Why would you want to do that? If the findings show you've got signs of Alzheimer's, you'll have to live with that knowledge." I don't say, but I think: If I want to see the pyramids before I die, better I pack my suitcase before the time comes when I'm peeing in closets instead of the bathroom, you jerk. I do say, "Knowledge is power," but I'm talking to the top of his head. He's trying to type notes into his computer, hunting impotently, and pecking with his right hand.

     Charlie helps me get dressed. First he takes the robe off and says, "Starbright is beautiful even with a Band-Aid."

      I look down. Big Band-Aid.

     After he finds a cami in my bag—the list of pre-op instructions tells me not to wear a bra after the biopsy, but rather a snuggish cami—he drifts it down over my head (none of  my camis are actually "snuggish," as if that wouldn't hurt), and then he says, "Let's go get some soup."

     I say, "I think I need the shirt."

     He smiles. "Yeah."

     He digs out the plaid flannel shirt—his—and gets my arms in and buttons it. Then he rolls up the sleeves. It takes about five rolls. I choose this shirt because it's especially soft and will also hide the fact that I don't have on a bra.

     A candy-striper escorts us to the food court by the fountain right after she smiles and tells us, "I'm your patient ambassador." Is that adorable or what? When she leaves us, I say, "Bye, Madame Ambassador."

     She beams.

     The soup is delicious, but I can't eat much of it because I start to feel really, really tired.

     We go home and I go to bed wrapped up in Charlie's arms, which are not only strong, but covered with fine hair. I am known to fall asleep with my face against one of his forearms because the hair is pillowy and such a beautiful golden color.

     Salty is at doggie day care so he won't jump on me like he did Charlie when he got his new knee, even though I built a barricade around the bed. Charlie's in bed, Jene—knowing about the barricade—brings Salty in, but he's so deliriously happy to see Charlie again, he becomes a bolt of lightning, vaulting over the barricade, knocking chairs and pillows hither and yon, and does a four-point landing directly on Charlie's new knee.

     I became immediately hysterical, crying and grabbing at Salty, while Charlie is shouting, "Shit!" over and over. Jene, no Nurse Rached, gets Salty out of the bedroom by saying, "Come, Salty. Bacon!" and is back in two seconds with an extra Vicodin for Charlie, Salty right with her, but she's hanging onto his collar. She drags him back out with her, and I hear her say from the kitchen, "No bacon, Salty. Here, have a piece of salami," and calling to me, "Mom. I'm bringing him back to my house."

       I tell Charlie I'm sorry about ten thousand times, and of course, he ends up comforting me what with the comfort of the Vicodin.

     Later, Dr. Komninakas says to Charlie when he hears about Salty, "It's okay. Dog broke the new scar tissue forming. Saves you some physical therapy pain."

     Next time I talk to my son, I tell him about my wheelchair guy whose mother named him after Hank Aaron.

     Jere says, "Hammerin' Hank. The best. He's the real home run king. No steroids."

     Forgive us, if you have no interest in games requiring an association with a ball. (Or if you have no interest in justice.)

 

Chapter 16.

 

A WEEK AFTER I'm back home after my biopsy, and I get a call. I have a glass of pink wine from Provence in my hand, a late afternoon wine of choice when I have an afternoon when I'm resting—can't really remember the last time that was.

     "Hello, Mary-Ann. This is Justine, Dr. Quigley's PA."

     I try, but I can't choke out a hello.

     She doesn't pause. "Congratulations. We've got the pathology report! You have DCIS!"

     Hot damn! I don't have cancer after all! I have some minor thing called by its initials. I assume minor since, after all, I've just been congratulated. I ask what the letters stand for. Upon realizing I don't know what DCIS is, she says in an entirely different tone of voice "Ductal carcinoma in situ."

     I surely recognize the word carcinoma. A lesion is a tumor, carcinoma one step beyond: cancer. I lose the ability to breathe and my heart its ability to beat. I sit down on the floor so I won't fall down. I am known to faint. But I can hear Justine continuing along, so I know I'm managing to keep the phone in my hand against my ear.

     "The lesion you have is restricted to your mammary duct. None of the cancer cells have invaded surrounding tissue. They're in situ. The cancer hasn't spread."

     I first heard the term, in situ, when I made friends with some archeology students. I'm in Hawaii studying the literature of the Pacific, the dances of Polynesia, and photography, the last with five other students chosen by a famous photographer who picks us based on the photographs we submit. I took my pictures with my mother's really old Brownie. Apparently, a Brownie has a top quality lens because back in my mother's day, we didn't really have poor quality anything. The archeology students dream of finding an artifact in situ, meaning they would find it in the original, natural, existing place and position. The cancer cells in my duct are in the original, natural, existing place and position where they were found. They have freaking morphed from junk to cancer; not unlike when people found miniature Etruscan statues and would say, What's this pile of junk? and then throw most of it away before the statues morphed into valuable artifacts.

     Somehow, my brain is processing what Justine is saying despite my drifting off to Etruscan statues. I may have cancer, but not only is it still in the mammary duct where it evolved, it hasn't moved! This is, of course, what the radiologist told me, but she never says anything about such a phenomenon having a name.

     I ask Justine, "It's not anywhere else?"

     "It's nowhere else!"

     When I was twenty-one years old, traveling around a sharp bend on a motorcycle, suddenly there's a man directly in my path. I have a choice of three things I can do: Hit him; take a right into a ditch; or sail into a forest of ebony trees. (This happened when I was in the Peace Corps.) I go with the ditch, become airborne, and fly off and over the motorcycle, landing just on the other side of the ditch. (The motorcycle is in the ditch.) From my prone position, the first thing that registers is that I'm still alive. I bend my right leg, then my left, then my right arm, then my left. My limbs are intact and I assume my neck or back isn't broken either, otherwise, how could my limbs work? I'm bleeding all over the place but I am okay. In case you want to know, a bunch of Cameroonians go get the Honda 125 out of the ditch, along with all my stuff, also in the ditch, get me onto it, and I go to the nearby home of a volunteer with the German Peace Corps who pours liquid green soap into my scraped forearms and knees. It makes me cry. He says, "You are kindergarten." His way of saying I'm a big baby. Incredibly, I remain smitten. I think back. The German volunteer looked like Mark Ruffalo, one of my favorite actors.

     Now, on the phone with Justine, sitting on the floor, I am saying to myself: I have cancer, but it's not in my lungs, brain, colon, bones, pancreas, liver, ovaries, or stomach. I have a cancer that is walled-off by my tough little mammary duct struggling with all the strength and power she can muster to maintain the ramparts. After that great effort, my duct must sacrifice her life for me so that I can be cured.

     Shooting out that panicked personified information is my brain's way of telling me I won't die within a year like my mother does after I'd received the news that she had stomach cancer. An oncologist tells me, not my mother.

     "It's metastasized, Mary-Ann. Stage 4. Your mother gave me instructions not to tell her anything, to just do what I had to do. She didn't tell me not to tell you. Can you please speak with her and get back to me?"

     Poor guy. I tell him I will ask her primary care doctor to talk to her. She loves him. I will be there when he gives her the details. She's watching TV. She turns off the sound when the doctor makes his presence felt. After he tells her, she doesn't say a word and right then, my Auntie Margaret arrives. She appears there in the doorway, gaping at the tableau in front of her.  My mother says to her, "They told me I have cancer. Look!" She waves her hand at the TV. "Right in the middle of Oprah."

     She releases the mute. Auntie Margaret sits down on the bed and they watch the rest of the show.

     I cannot help but note that my mother said they, not he.

     I sit down on the bed too and watch Oprah, while the doctor slinks out the door. Auntie Margaret says to us, "I left home ten minutes ago. You didn't miss anything."

     The oncologist has positioned himself at the side of the doorway, and he signals me with a crooking finger to come out. I slink out same as he did. He says to me, "I'll talk to her doctor right away. You go home to your family. Let your mom's sister have her visit."

     All those recovered memories fighting for attention in one instantaneous moment, allows me to somehow deal with what's going on. Here is what I say to Justine: "Can you tell me everything you just said again? I think I blacked out there for a minute. I want to be sure I didn't miss anything."

     Here I am,  not wanting to miss a thing, and I had a mother who didn't want to miss Oprah.

     Turns out, I missed quite a bit: "Even though the radiologist is sure the cancer cells are non-invasive, we want to be positive. Because, Mary-Ann, if they are invasive, when Dr. Quigley removes the duct, she will also remove a margin of tissue all the way around in case microscopic protuberances of the cells are just starting to stick out through the duct wall."

     My duct will be sacrificed, after all. The Navajos would thank the spirit of the buffalo they just killed before eating it. Silently, I thank the little duct for trying to save me.

     I don't get to say to Justine, My no-name radiologist already told me that part, because Justine's not finished.

     "The lay term for your surgery is lumpectomy."

     Lumpectomy isn't a medical term? Of course it isn't.

     I say, "But there is no lump, right?"

     "Right."

     "Then why are we calling it a lumpectomy?"

     She takes a moment to answer. Then she says, "Due to the incredible speed of the development of technology, no one's had time to come up with a new lay term."

     "But I bet there's a new medical term, right?"

     "Uh…no. We use the original one."

     "Which is?"       

     "Partial mastectomy."

I have no reaction since Justine's sledgehammer does its job. My head is instantly pounding and I almost never get headaches as I believe I have said.

I just barely hear her ask, "You okay?" amidst the pounding. No automatic okay from me. I am not okay. In fact, anger is rising up from my stomach into my throat, which makes the pounding stop. Not anger at Justine; she's the messenger. When fury is justified you feel strong. You get pissed. Let nature take its course rather than biting your lip or sucking it up, which I feel will lead to a heart attack. (When you go to a shrink and he tells you that you have anger issues, leave. It's like when you have a partner who says things like, "Calm down," when he's the one who caused you to lose your calm in the first place. You are absolutely entitled to fire an air-to-ground missile at the shrink. The partner you just get rid of.)

     I say to Justine, "Listen, in the real world, a mastectomy is when you have your breast guillotined. I'm just having a little tiny junk-filled duct out, and it's so small that no one—not me, not my husband, not my OB/GYN, not my radiologist, not my breast surgeon—no one can feel it. So the surgery I'm having is…. It's an invisiblectomy."

     Initial silence. Then, "Yes! Yes, it is! That's exactly what it is. Why not?!?!? I love it! That's what we're calling it. An invisiblectomy! But again, the main thing is if you have to have breast cancer, Mary-Ann, this is the one you want!"

     I need to ask her something. "If I hadn't been getting mammograms, I would eventually have felt a lump, right?"

     "Yes."

     "How long before that would have happened?"

     "Hard to say."

     "Give me a ballpark."

     "Uh…three years. More or less."

     Holy shit! Do you hear that? No, you don't, but you just read it. I can't believe it either. I say, "I would have had breast cancer for three years before I felt a lump?"

     "Give or take."

     "Give or take what?"

     "A few months."

     Holy shit again. I ask as quietly as I can since speaking quietly can be calming, "And at that point, would the cancer cells have broken through the duct?"

     "Oh, yes."

     "What stage would that put me in?"

     "At least 2."

     "What happened to 1?"

     "If you can feel a tumor, it's always a 2. Stage 1 is when the mammogram shows cells have penetrated the duct wall."

     Something occurs to me. "I have no stage?"

     "You do. You are staged at zero."

     Is she mad? Has anybody ever heard of Stage Zero cancer? I'm shocked, can't respond, so she jumps in."It cannot be palpated. That makes it Stage Zero."

      Wow. Then I ask, "And as to the lesion. May I verify that it's a tumor?"

      "It is, but as I just explained, it's too small to palpate. Mary-Ann, that's not the point. The point is we can't know if the cancer cells in the tumor within your mammary duct are the invasive type."

     "There are two types?"

     "We don't really know how many types of cancer cells there are in a lesion."

     We don't? I say, "Excuse me. Won't the pathologist do a test to find out if the cells are the invasive kind or not? Because if they're not, I won't have to have an invisiblectomy, right?"

     "There isn't such a test."

     "You're kidding."

     "A test hasn't been developed yet."

     "Why not?"

     "I don't know."

     Does the above show without me telling you that I'm no longer speaking quietly, but at least not as loud as Owen Meany? Do you hear this, Susan Komen people? And what about you, Dr. Love? Time to move on from breast cancer awareness. We are so already aware, for crissake. We couldn't be more aware if we tried. We don't need a Breast Cancer Awareness Parade down Fifth Avenue! Please put all your donations into a test for invasiveness instead of the pink ribbons! I mean, you want me to watch Mookie Betts swing a pink bat? When no one knows if cancer cells in a breast are invasive until it's too late?

     Is there a baseball statistician reading this? Please see if the batting averages, slugging percentages, RBIs, etc. are higher for players when they use pink bats as opposed to the usual natural color of wood. If higher, I'll revisit this particular peeve at another time. Meanwhile, I'm sending both the Komen and Love organizations a check for a hundred bucks, asking them to put it toward developing a test to see if cancer cells in mammary ducts are invasive or not.

     Justine segues into her game plan. She says, "How about we make an appointment for you to see Dr. Quigley so she can tell you all the details concerning the surgery?"

     I think, Fuck. I remain pissed.

 

Chapter 17.

 

I TAKE SALTY OUT for a surprise walk. I bring him to a no-leash trail at the Branford Supply Ponds. At least one of us is happy. He chases a million squirrels, but I don't have to worry about Salty running off and getting lost. My vet says he's a forty-foot dog rather than a bloodhound, a breed that will track a scent till he drops, or until he makes it the few miles to I-95, etc. Salty will never allow himself to be more than forty feet from me. I'm always getting such praise for training my dog to come back after the squirrel has run up a tree. I just tell people, "He came that way."

      On our walk I get to think, all the while gazing upon the fluffy, dancing-in-the-breeze tree tops of the Connecticut woods. Our fall is so exotic because there we have so many species of trees that we get a zillion colors at once. I listen to the gurgling sounds of the brooks and streams leading to the ponds, and to the birds chirping their brains out. I am thinking of Justine; what horror does she experience when she picks up the phone and doesn't get to say, Congratulations? When she knows the woman she is speaking to will die from a cancer staged at 4, and will need a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation to get maybe another year? A year of being grateful to be alive even while being tortured in hope that someone will find a magic bullet?

     That sort of thinking vanquishes fury. I sit down on some soft moss and cry.

     Second, you cry.

     Salty comes trotting back and looks at me with his concerned eyes, which are the most magnificent topaz. When he is worried, not only do his eyes have a piercing quality, his doodle ears rise to half-mast like angel wings sticking out the sides of his head. I pet him a few times and get up, but he still walks alongside me, loyal and protective, at least till the next squirrel crosses our path. I mean, he's a dog. All I know is I'm no longer crying. Thanks, Salty.

     Justine calls me the next day. Dr. Quigley can't fit me in for two weeks. I instantly picture the scrawny-assed, bastard cancer cells, already more than two weeks further advanced than when I saw them with the radiologist. They have, without a doubt, depleted whatever junk they'd been feeding on in my valiant duct, but having failed at a battering ram-style sortie, are now preparing to rip the poor duct open with their pointy little microscopic teeth. I say to Justine, "What if the cancer cells are becoming invasive and they invade during the next two weeks?"

     "They won't."

     "How do you know that?"

     "Remember, it takes years to go from less than a centimeter to a size you can feel."

     "In other words, it could happen, but the chances are infinitesimal."

     She sighs. "Exactly right. And if a protuberance does breach the duct wall, Dr. Quigley will take care of it because it'll be within the surrounding margin she's also going to remove."

     So I'm thinking sorties while Justine is talking breaching a wall. "Breach the duct wall?" I ask."Were you in the Army?"

     She laughs. "My father."

     I don't get into how much I love military terms. They remind me of my brother, who I miss so much. He was autistic when no one ever heard of autism, obsessed with World War II. He often called me Lieutenant, pronounced Leftenant, when he is, say, in the role of Montgomery, as opposed to Patton, whereupon I get the American pronunciation. Consequently, it's either, "Mind the antiquities, Leftenant," or "Knock off your belly-aching, Lieutenant, or I'll give you a good crack." Tyler died from complications of diabetes. I don't get to tell him when I'm thinking about writing a Civil War novel, that Major Robert Anderson, as with all the upper echelon graduating from the Military Academy at West Point, studied Napoleonic strategy and engineering in Paris. His French was so good, he was asked to translate the French book of army regulations into English and it's still in effect to this day. Some French words he lets be, like sortie, no English word available to do it justice.

     Justine makes the new appointment with Dr. Quigley. Then, in addition to goodbye, she says once more, "Congratulations!"

     Because I like Justine and am calmer because of my thoughts of Tyler, I say, "Thank you." After all, she means well.

     Charlie is home after my walk. I tell him about the Stage Zero cancer I have, taking care to verify what Stage Zero means. If it is actually possible, I think he is maybe even more relieved than I am, both of us putting out of our minds the part about microscopic protuberances possibly sticking out of my duct wall, or any actual cancer cells that might just have pierced the margin and are swimming around inside Starbright . (I don't know if Charlie thinks that last thing, but I do.)

     Consequently, it turns out that, unlike the Mommy and the Daddy, this is Salty's lucky day; we decide to immediately have an outing in our boat. I love the boat, love wandering aimlessly in and out of the wonderful nooks and crannies that make up the Connecticut shoreline, but I do register my disproval of tear-assing across the water when Charlie morphs into a cowboy, "Honey, if you flip over there are four kids I know who'll be orphans."

     Charlie: "Your kids have a father."

     Me: "I hate it when you're picky."

     He slows it down, but not enough.

     We head out to the marina. When we get there, we follow Salty down the dock. He jumps in and out of everyone's boat to say hello. All our dock mates are jovial and more often than not, half smashed. We accept an invitation from Tony and Diane aboard The Little Annie Fannie for a drink. They love our Salty, and he, them. Their boat is named after the family dog, who is afraid to jump from dock to boat. She has to stay home. They'll take Salty instead. Imagine having a perfectly normal conversation, laughing normally, when you've just found out you have cancer, though an…uh…mild case. While I drink my beer, I have a fleeting moment of thinking I will google DCIS and ask if "mild" might not always be the case. But I won't. Not yet, anyway.

 Salty enjoys a few Triscuits and we head to our own boat where we get him into his doggie life jacket and start our engines. The sky is at its upmost brilliant blue, the water deep purple, and the temperature warm enough where you really look forward to leaping in. We drop anchor at Kelsey's Island, climb down a step to the swim platform and jump in. (Did I tell you my bandage fell off in the shower and I'm okay to swim?) Salty barks for us to get the hell back in the boat. When he's sure we won't, he sails up and over the rail, doing a magnificent belly flop and will save us. He herds us toward the island. On the beach, he will have another leash-free romp.

While we stroll along the shore, me looking for sea glass, Charlie debating whether to go back for his surf rod, Salty trotting ahead, I am feeling happy—so perfect a day, both weather-wise and company-wise. We take our towels out of their waterproof bag, spread them out and plop down side by side. And what do Charlie and I end up talking about? Getting a second opinion. The loveliness of Kelsey's Island doesn't make cancer go away. Rational thinking, presently required, butts in. On our backs, I tell Charlie my plan wherein I will call my OB/GYN and ask her who's a good second opinion doctor re breast cancer. Then we hold hands and fail at falling into our usual semi-snooze. We don't talk anymore, either. We just listen to the sounds of Salty running up and down the beach, nose to the ground, hoping to hustle back to us with a treasure, usually a horseshoe crab shell.

     Anyway, I get antsy. I want to start making a second opinion happen. I say to Charlie, "Sweetheart?"

     "What, baby?"

     "There's stuff to do. I'm sorry."

     He rolls onto his side and says, "You don't have to be sorry. Let's go."

     And here comes Salty, something hanging out of his mouth that looks like a gull, but turns out to be a discarded Pamper. We thank Salty and leave Kelsey's Island.

     I call Dr. Montessi. First I must listen to the recording which beings with, "If you are in labor, press 1." Every time I hear that line, I get a contraction. Instead of listening to the rest of the options, I go directly to 4 since you get a person right away as with: "If this is a billing question, press 4."

     As always, I admit my ruse to the billing person, apologize, and she says, "No problem, I'm transferring you to Dr. Montessi's nurse." She probably uses the same ruse when she calls her doctor.   

     The nurse says, "Hey, Mary-Ann! We got the news. I have to tell you…if you're going to get breast cancer, you can only pray it's DCIS. Congratulations!"

     I think, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Saying the Holy Family's name to myself—sometimes aloud, as a matter of fact—is as close as I get to praying, even though it's basically a form of rolling your eyes. "Thanks," I say. Then, "I have a breast surgeon at Yale, but I need Dr. Montessi to recommend another one for a second opinion."

 "No problem." (When I'm complaining to my son about the overuse of no problem, he recommends I listen to Pleaseeasaur, a singer-comedian, who has a song which is essentially a parody—an ad for a limousine service called, "No Prob Limo." Check it out on YouTube. It's a riot.) The nurse goes right on to say, "I'll have Dr. Montessi call you as soon as she's between patients."

What happened was, when I had the first baby—that would be Jene—my breasts were so engorged—can you stand that word?—I thought they'd explode along with my armpits, by the way, which kept getting rounder. The La Leché leader's advice: "Just keep feeding that baby till your body adjusts to what she needs. The engorgement will go away." Pediatrician's advice: "Oh, forget about breast-feeding and buy a crate of Enfamil. I'll give you some coupons." To me, that's like saying to someone who's hungry, "Forget eating. Just stick a tube into your stomach and pour the food in through a funnel. I'll give you some coupons for liquid pepperoni pizza." Idiot. The guy's my pediatrician for one visit and then I get another one.

     I turn to Benjamin Spock, who knew more about babies than anyone in history and consequently discusses the phenomenon I'm experiencing in my Bible of the moment, Baby and Child Care. In his advice to pregnant women with engorged armpits, he says what LaLeché says but adds what to do about it in the meantime: Get in a hot shower and massage the swelling downward to where any milk being produced belongs. This works. Of course it works. It's Dr. Spock!

     But jump ahead ten years. The armpit swelling returns, swells up, but only this time it starts getting hard. And noticeable too, but really—not that noticeable. (Chorus: "Denial." I'm only in denial until that summer when I'm sitting on the beach with my mother and she asks, "What's that thing hanging down from your armpit?"

     I call Dr. Montessi, who checks it out and says, "The mass has become fibrous—"

     "The mass?"

     "Mass doesn't always mean a tumor."

     "Well that's good."

     She adds what I'd interrupted her from saying. "And unsightly." My mother's opinion is confirmed.

     She asks if I'd like a surgeon who treats breast issues to remove it, or a plastic surgeon, as there will be a scar under my arm. I go with the former. Who cares if there's a scar in your armpit? The only one who'll notice is your mother.

     The scar turns out to be a fine three-inch line and my swollen armpit becomes flat again. FYI: Here is what I found out about the Errant Breast Tissue. Some people, not only women but sometimes men have superfluous breast tissue in areas near to where it's not supposed to be. And get this—men might have vestigial nipples too! Francisco Scaramanga in Ian Fleming's, "The Man with the Golden Gun," has just such an extra nipple. According to Ian, a vestigial nipple is a sign of virility, a detail that comes from Ian's imagination. (You can always tell good fiction writers—they don't do research, they  make everything up. Why wouldn't they as long as they have an imagination like Ian's.) The virility part would be in a man, not in a woman, naturally. Also, Scaramanga's vestigial nipple didn't make it into the movie. Hollywood won't put in a detail like that, particularly in a James Bond movie, needless to say. Where was I? Oh. A vestigial nipple in a woman is usually so tiny she assumes it's a freckle. But at the end of pregnancy, when the woman's breasts become engorged (God, that word again), all the breast tissue becomes engorged no matter where the hell it is. And then when milk comes out of the real nipples, it also comes out any vestigial nipples. How shocking is that? I don't even want to think about it. Neither did Ian Fleming. I mean, how virile would Francisco Scaramanga be if he's having sex with some actress and she says, "Eee-u! What's this stuff all over me?" And he says, "Milk, baby." (I have to say, though, if it were up to Quentin Tarantino, in the scene where James Bond and Scaramanga have their duel wearing those early 70s casual shirts, where the first button starts eight inches below the collar, Quentin would have seen to Scaramanga getting shot in nipple #3 rather than the general chest area, and instead of blood, milk spurts out.)

     But getting back to the business at hand, I try to remember the name of that surgeon who disappeared the fibrous mass in my armpit. I think as hard as I can. I remember she had the same name as a comedian from the 50s that my father liked a lot. I have his autograph. My father went on a business trip when I was nine and gets taken to a nightclub by the guy who runs the Mexican heat treating shop owned by Wade Abbott who also owns the Abbott Ball Company in West Hartford. The company makes ball bearings; starting the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Abbott takes the bull by the horns and quadruples his output, having studied which kinds of ball bearing the military will need right away if we get into the war. A tank won't move without ball bearings. Ten years later, Wade Abbot will come to outsources the factory's work when the city of West Hartford won't let him expand his shop. (No one calls it outsourcing then.) When people ask my mother why my father is going to Mexico, she says, "The Mexicans are having trouble with their balls."   

     Anyway, my father's Mexican contemporary, who runs the plant in Mexico City like my father runs the mother ship in West Hartford, begs off the nightclub my father would like to go to. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé are playing the night club. The Mexican guy never heard of them. He warns my father he will be missing the best strippers in Mexico. He tells the guy he'd rather miss the strippers than Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. The lead-in to their act is my father's favorite comic, not that he doesn't like Steve and Eydie. The comic is…let me think…Ernie Kovacs.

     The surgeon I'm talking about here was Dr. Kovacs!

     In addition to Ernie Kovacs's autograph, my father gets me Steve and Eydie's too.

     I had my first ever surgery via Dr. Kovacs. After she removed what she referred to as the golf ball from my armpit, she says to me, "There are lymph nodes in our armpits. They have lines that transport the lymphatic fluid. The lines are as fine as hairs. When I'm in my patient's underarm, I use a magnifying glass to look for them to make sure I don't cut them. If one is cut, the fluid in it will leak out, fill the area, and the patient has to have it drained."

     So I'm thinking, how interesting, wondering what her point is.

     She says, "I'm sorry, Mary-Ann. I accidentally cut one. If your underarm becomes swollen again—which will most likely happen—it's not the breast tissue it's lymph fluid. You will have to come to my office and have the fluid drained out, or if it's a weekend, you'll have to go to the emergency room and they'll do it there. It'll just take a few minutes, though it might refill and you'll have to have it drained again."

     I had to have it drained three times, actually. It wasn't so bad a deal. And besides, I lived fifteen minutes from her office, and one block more from Danbury Hospital at the time.

     But it's why I liked Dr. Kovacs. She told me what she did and apologized! She acted on a moral imperative, not only apologizing, but telling me exactly what to expect, and what I'll have to do further, risking me suing her.

     I get my call-back from Dr. Montessi, and she gives me the sorry news that Dr. Kovacs recently retired. Actually, she gives me that news after she says, "Congratulations! If you have to have cancer, DCIS is the one you want."

     I picture God saying to one of his bored angels, "What the hell…this Mary-Ann person? Let's not give her stomach cancer. We'll give her DCIS instead. I like that she's a successful author after she practically flunks out of high school because she can't add or subtract."

     The angel erases the check mark next to Stomach Cancer, and checks off DCIS instead. And I like to think the angel says to God, "I've read all her books and I liked them a lot." But if she does, God says, like all narcissists, "I wish I had time to read."

     What he actually says is, "Were you the one who neglected to tell me that when I rolled the dice and came up with stomach cancer for her mother, it was a woman who named her daughter after my mom and my Grandma? I mean, what the fuck?"

     The angel is demoted and has to play her harp twelve hours a day for 750,000 years. (You're willing to suspend your disbelief that all the above is true, right? Fiction writers are professional liars. I can't help it.)

     Dr. Montessi says to me, "We all miss Dr. Kovacs, Mary-Ann, but there is an incredibly intelligent and competent young breast surgeon here at Danbury, who I would go to if I had DCIS. Her name is Jane Starliper."

     "Jane who?" (Is there to be yet another Star in the company of Starlight and Starbright?)

     "Starliper. I'll call her right now and her nurse will get back to you to make an appointment for a second opinion, okay?"

     I agree and ten minutes later the nurse calls me on my cell. "She can see you day after tomorrow."

     "She can?"

     "Yes."

     "But that means my second opinion will come before my first opinion."

     "Insurance companies haven't red-flagged that one. Not yet. Don't worry about it."

     I say, "Damn insurance companies."

     She says, "I'll drink to that."

     The last two things the nurse says are, "It is really crucial to be on time for Dr. Starliper. She's squeezing you in because it was Dr. Montessi who asked for the appointment." And, "Congratulations!"

 

Chapter 18.

 

I NOW LIVE an hour and fifteen minutes from Danbury as opposed to ten minutes from Yale-New Haven Hospital. I'm thinking this is all a little silly, but second opinions allow you to think more logically about choices that you wish you didn't have to consider, but you have to. I will leave at seven in the morning to get to my nine o'clock appointment in Danbury because of rush hour traffic—19 million vehicles, most of them tandem-trailer trucks racing over the Q Bridge into New Haven. If you look into your rearview mirror while traversing the bridge, you will see an ever-expanding chrome bulldog staring at you from the hood of a Mack truck climbing up your ass.

       The Q Bridge, the longest bridge in Connecticut, is basically a parking lot on Interstate-95. When I-95 was built along the entire shoreline of Connecticut on Long Island Sound, it cut the residents of Connecticut off from the Sound. The placement of the interstate was intended to keep poor people, re black, and arriving Puerto Ricans (who sold their little farms to American factories that made foundation garments and who would no longer pay taxes)from getting to the beach. They didn't have cars and couldn't possibly walk across an interstate, especially I-95. (If you are interested in this particular shit-stain on Connecticut's history, get Free the Beaches, by Andrew W Kahrl. I'm in two of the footnotes. Just call R. J. Julia's.)

       The Danbury appointment is on a Wednesday, Jene's day off. She will take Salty the night before and then drop him off at doggie day care in the morning on her way to our house. She wants to get a handle on Starliper, and I want to hear what her handle will be. Actually, it is recommended you bring a second set of ears to all important doctors' appointments to make sure nothing gets missed. Charlie's ears, our third set, are not terribly reliable. But he will get an incredible handle of his own on Starliper, what with his ability to make up for what he can't hear with extra-sensory perception, i.e. If I'm wronged and feeling bad about de-friending someone, he'll say, "As far as I can tell that person was never a friend; or when he knows I feel bad for doing something especially unforgiveable: "Listen, sweetheart, we all have fender-benders."He's talking his car there, not mine. I hadn't bent the fender; I'd scraped it against a concrete pillar. A pillar painted yellow so people would see it and not crash into it. Charlie then said, arms around me, "It's not like you crashed into the pillar. I can blah-blah, and blah-blah, and then buff the yellow paint right off."

       The fender is as good as new.

       Charlie, Jene, and I give a lot of extra rush-hour related time to get to Danbury, but we don't give any extra time for trying to find where I'm supposed to go once I get there. So it hardly matters that we are stopped on the Q Bridge for half an hour after a crane fell over the side and into New Haven Harbor—I kid you not—because getting lost at Danbury Hospital is not like getting lost at Yale. For starters, Danbury has no breast center.

       We arrive outside a parking garage, whereupon I call the phone number I have and tell the person who answers that I am just arriving at the garage. "I'm five minutes late for my appointment already."

       The person is totally laid back because I have breast cancer. "Okey-doke," she says.

       Once parked, we cannot find our way out of the parking garage. We follow the exit signs walking down ramps, trying not to get swiped by exiting cars. There is no pedestrian egress. I know this is true because neither Charlie, Jene, nor I is an imbecile.

 A sympathetic guy whizzing by stops, slams on his breaks, and yells to us to get in, meaning scramble or we'll all be killed. When he's gets us outside, he drops us at the emergency entrance, the only entrance in sight.

 Everyone in the emergency waiting room of Danbury Hospital hasn't any idea where we should go from there because they don't have a breast center. In addition, no one has ever heard of a Dr. Starliper, including the guy with the directory of doctors forced to deal with the word breast since I ask for the breast center not knowing they don't have one. But he pulls himself together enough to direct me to a desk with a harried woman behind it.

        "I don't have time to look up the doctors' names," she says. "What does he do?"

       Jene answers without being sarcastic as she suspects her mother would be. "He's a she. She's going to give my mom a second opinion on her breast cancer diagnosis."

       "Oh. Then she's probably at the Arts Center."

        Jene is fast. "Excuse me? You said the Arts Center?"

        "Yeah. Walk down the street past the garage, curve toward the left, go down the hill and that's the Arts Center."

        I call the number again and explain that I'll be at least another five minutes because I couldn't get out of the parking garage. I then explain where I am, and ask for directions. She tells us what the harried woman told us, followed by, "We're at the Arts Center desk right when you come in the door. We'll be waiting for you."

       The street is long and downhill, all right. Steeply downhill. Charlie says, "I'm going to get the car. My new knee will not make it back up this fucking hill." Then he makes eye contact with me. He says, "You'll be all right, baby."

       I say, "I know. That's because when we're done you'll be giving us a ride up this fucking hill."

       He smiles. "You're my Wonder Woman." He appreciates my effort to keep him calm even though I'm the one with breast cancer.

       As Jene and I head down the hill, she keeps expressing my own disbelief that we are going to an Arts Center. "This is not the Yale way," she says in the same tone of voice that Charlie used when he said he wouldn't make it up the fucking hill.

       At the bottom of the fucking hill, the road indeed curves left, and we see a big sign much like a movie marquee that reads, The Danbury Hospital Medical Arts Center. 

        I say to Jene, "I always thought medicine was a science."

       She says, "It is," and gives me a look that says, This is not the Yale way.

       I say, "Maybe there's great art on the walls to distract you."

      "Yale has great art on the walls, but we don't call ourselves an arts center."

      This Starliper doc better be good.

      We go in and vent to the people at the desk about getting lost. They sympathize while one of them puts a hospital bracelet around my wrist and then rushes us to the elevator, not bothering to ask if I'm just off a plane from West Africa. Jene is directed to a waiting room very close to the examining room while the nurse rushes me off. Jene calls out, "I'll find Charlie, Mom."

       The nurse hands me a johnny coat to be left open in the front. I do and hold it closed, get up onto the end of the examining table, and sit and wait while the johnny coat does its thing.

      Dr. Starliper comes in. She's smiling a pained smile since I am so late for my appointment. We introduce ourselves and then she says, "I'm sorry. I can only give you about ten minutes. You're really late." She doesn't look sorry; she's still looking pained.

       I say, "When I made the appointment, I should have asked for directions from the parking garage to here." I put a pained expression on my face too.

       She says, "Yeah." 

      While she does a quickie massage/exam, I'm thinking, love-15, Yale. Then she tells me to get dressed again, that a nurse will be right in, and leaves. Then a nurse leads me to Dr. Starliper's office, stopping at the waiting room to grab Jene and Charlie, who has completed the parking space shift.

       Dr. Starliper is behind a desk. She is staring at a computer screen. She has no Marina to handle that end for her. She brings up my mammogram. It's no Sea Cup. Quadruple-D would be my guess. Dr. Starliper immediately realizes this, so I don't have to tell her that it's not my mammogram image. She looks down at a list. She says, "There are no dates of birth here." I feel Jene sit up straighter next to me.  

       Love-30, Yale.

       Charlie adjusts his hearing aids because he cannot believe he is hearing right.

       Dr. Starliper says, "Never mind. I've seen the right one." She means the correct one, not Starlight. She clicks off the computer and swings her chair around in our direction. "But meanwhile…" she smiles "…congratulations. You have the one breast cancer you'd want to have if you're diagnosed with breast cancer, DCIS. But in that regard, I have to tell you, we do things a little differently than at Yale."

       Jene's eyes shift to mine. She's thinking the civilized version of, No shit. 

      "We don't use a wire marker in the breast. Our marker is a radioactive seed and we essentially use a metal detector to find it if surgery is necessary."

       (I'm sure, people, they must have pocket-size metal detectors rather than the kind treasure-hunters use on the beach, but I don't ask.)

       She next says, "Our method is far more dependable than the piece of wire Yale uses. Yours, in fact, has moved."

        It's moved!?!?!? Yale 30-Danbury-15.

       "A seed is more efficient and reliable. I will put one in during the surgery so that if we have to go back in again, we'll know exactly where to go."

       I ask, "Why would you have to go back in?"

       "I'm about to get to that."

       This is so much to take in that none of us interrupts her with questions like, Where the hell did the wire move to? Or, Will your method make me radioactive? We forget about the moved wire, called a marker at Yale, probably, because we don't want to hear such a thing.

       But she's moving right along because I was so late for my appointment.

       "I will take out the duct and a rectangular amount of tissue surrounding the duct about this thick." She holds up thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Sort of like a book-shaped piece of tissue." 

       I write books I now learn I'm having something the shape of a book taken out of my breast. Sometimes irony is not all that scintillating. I ask, "Would that be paperback-sized rather than a hardcover?"

       She laughs. "A paperback. A really small paperback. With just enough margin to see if any bits and pieces of a cancer cell are in that tissue. In which case, we'll have to go back and take out a little more. But through the same incision."

       Two surgeries through the same incision? I wonder what that scar will look like. I put that question on hold and ask the more pressing one, "What are the odds I'll have to have more tissue removed?"

       "Twenty-five percent. But what I want you to know before I forget to tell you is that we will put the seed in the day before the surgery, so you'll have to make the drive to Danbury two days in a row, or stay at a hotel. However, when it's time for radiation, you can have the radiation treatment closer to home—it's up to you. Radiation doesn't vary from one place to the other."

       Jene's eyebrow shoots up. My guess, she knows a few radiologists who might disagree.

       Yale 40-Danbury 15. Match point.

       Charlie sneaks his phone out, taps it a couple of times, meaning he's changed the setting on his hearing aid. (Did I mention that his hearing aids bring him sound via Bluetooth?) He can't believe what he's hearing so he's making sure the settings are okay.  

       Up until this point, I am determined that convenience will not be a concern. Sloan Kettering remains in the back of my head before I commit to anything in Connecticut, whether Yale or Danbury.

       I say, "How long will the radiation treatment take?" (I don't add, If I choose to have it at all? since she's pressed for time.)

       She says, "Three to six weeks."

       "Once a week?"

       First she kind of gapes at me. Then she says, "Five days a week."

       As much as I would adore spending that much time going to plays and museums and galleries and concerts and restaurants in New York, I know right then that there would be no Sloan Kettering for me. Not even considering the cost of the train commute, we'd have to find a hotel that will take dogs, and if I do that, we'd have to listen to other dogs barking all night, particularly at 5 a.m. if their owners want to get an early start. In your basic no-tell motel, everyone wants to get an early start—as opposed to being a guest at the Four Seasons, where you loll around all night having sex and eating the fruit out of the fruit basket, and then sleep past noon, and stay another night, what the hell?

       Dr. Starliper says, "I'm sorry, but I have patients waiting. Dorothy can give you more information, and she'll be happy to answer your questions. It was nice to meet you, good luck, and again, congratulations."

       On cue, in walks a nurse, Dorothy, while Dr. Starliper dashes out.

       Dorothy looks like a sitcom mom who loves making and eating macaroni and cheese, vacuuming at least once a day, and whose only conversation with her children is telling them to do their homework or go clean their rooms. She takes us to a little lounge and we sit opposite her on three chairs, which she has arranged in a straight line. The whole time she is talking to us about breast cancer surgical procedures, she touches various places on her breasts. Example: "Judging from the mammogram pictures, the seed will go here," and she pats a spot that on me would be two inches due north of Starbright's nipple. Charlie is fidgeting.

       Without my having to ask, she answers the first question I would have asked Dr. Starliper but couldn't. "Now then, Mary-Ann, after you're out of the OR with your seed, you will not be radioactive."

       "That's good."

       "But just to be on the safe side, you should not hold children, babies or pets to your breast."

       She pats herself all over her entire left breast.

       Game, set, match—Yale.

       I'm doing everything the Yale way even if they can't get an eyelash-sized piece of wire to stay where it's supposed to stay.

       Then Dorothy asks if there is breast cancer in my family. 

       "Yes."

       She breaks out a pen and notebook. Here we go. I say, "There are all kinds of cancers running rampant in my mother's family. Twelve brothers and sisters. All of them died of cancer except three." I relate the history in a nutshell: The first of the three was my Uncle Oscar, who died of natural causes in Florida in the loving arms of the two sisters who adopted him when he was in his eighties to avoid a tax or a fee, or something you have to pay when you get married; the second, Eddie, was hit by a train when he crossed the tracks after taking a short cut home from his favorite bar. Actually, I don't tell her that last part, or about Uncle Oscar's adoption. I go to the third: "My Uncle Norbert had cancer when he was in his twenties, but he's still alive. He's ninety-six. We don't know what the cancer was but best guess is that it was melanoma because he had commando surgery that removed the left front quarter of his entire neck. His doctor saved his tongue and larynx. We think that's why he never stops eating or talking."

       She is now scribbling furiously while asking me, "What surgery did you say?" Jene asks at the same time, "Mom, Uncle Norbert had what surgery?"

       Apparently, commando surgery is a term no longer in use in the medical field. After all, my Uncle Norbert had the surgery more than seventy years ago. Charlie isn't hearing any of this since the battery in his better ear died and started beeping. He is now fiddling with his shrink-wrapped little cardboard wheel of batteries, glad to have something to distract him from this particular conversation, I can tell.

       Dorothy says, "Let's focus on breast cancer. Did your mother die from breast cancer?"

       "No. My mother, and three aunts, and one uncle had gastric cancer. But two aunts, one at a very young age, died with breast cancer." 

       That would be my Auntie Verna who had her sisters jump up and down on her because the pain distracts her from the hideous pain of her breast cancer once it's metastasized to her bones.

       Here is how to get more women to get their mammograms. Metastasize Awareness Week.

       I try not to think about that. I say, "I have a lot of cousins…" (Forty-one, at last count. When my father was still with us he used to brag to people—I've got thirty-eight nieces and nephews, and not a one of them is doing time.) "…but none were diagnosed with breast cancer before she turned forty except one, two years after she felt a lump, which her doctor insisted was a bump on her rib. Did I say that one of my two aunts with breast cancer actually died of lung cancer?"

       Dorothy says, "No, you didn't. This is all on your mother's side?"

       "Yes."

       "You're finished?"

       "Yes."

       "And your father's side?"

       "Three brothers and two sisters. Only one had cancer, my youngest aunt. She had cancer of the larynx. Has. She's alive and well. She's ninety-two. She didn't smoke."

       When she finishes jotting away, she asks, "And your grandmothers?"

       "My two grandmothers died before I was born. All I ever heard was that their cause of death was identical—hemorrhage. They hemorrhaged, and got taken to the hospital and never came back. They were in their fifties. I believe the hemorrhaging was related to the result of giving birth way too many times. My grandmother on my mother's side had a baby every other year for twenty-four years." I don't get into the two-year gap when my grandfather was drafted and served in the Boer War.

       Dorothy says, "I want you to see a genetic counselor. I'll have their secretary call you to set up an appointment."

       Then she pats her left breast one last time and says, kind of out of the blue, "I want you to know the scar won't be bad."

       I'm not yet ready to hear about what Starbright's scar will be like. Neither are Charlie and Jene.

       Then, Dorothy hands me a giant binder the size of a telephone book if you can remember such an item (bigger than a bread box with pages made from toilet paper). She says, "Read this. It tells you everything about your cancer and what you should expect as to treatment and recovery. You can skip stuff that doesn't pertain to you, like chemotherapy."

       Wow. I'm afraid to even ask about chemotherapy. I say, "I won't need chemotherapy?"

       "You won't if your margins are clear. They likely will be clear since your cancer is so small. But if the tumor in your mammary duct turns out to be more than five centimeters, then we'll go and ahead reduce the size of it with chemotherapy so you can have a simpler surgery."

       I have just gotten some non-congratulatory news. I feel my stomach turn over.

       Dorothy stands up, tells me to call her any time, and she'll check in with me when I come for my genetic counseling. We say goodbye to her and to Danbury Hospital, with a plan never to return. Ah, the best laid plans. I don't go to Yale for genetic counseling as I'd have to wait months for the appointment, I go to Danbury. New match already begun: Love-15, Danbury.

 

Chapter 19.

 

SO NOW IT'S BACK to Dr. Quigley at Yale-New Haven, enjoying nothing but valet parking. What's this? I'm feeling happy about going back to the Breast Center? It's all relative, baby—Albert Einstein

       Once again, Charlie and I leave time for the Q Bridge as we head for Yale. Jene will meet us there, per usual. But we will be late because the moving of cement mixers from one side of the Q Bridge to the other seems to be the order of the day. Our exit into New Haven is walled off. The Q Bridge is undergoing construction; the estimated to replace it—fourteen years. Time-consuming to get those cement mixers into the correct position.

       We are forced to stay on I-95 until we're on the other side of New Haven. Then we backtrack through an unfamiliar neighborhood, but Charlie is brilliant at threading his way through alien territory to find secondary routes. He can sense exactly which one-way streets you can drive on in the opposite direction and survive, without killing anyone else either. I don't believe such a thing possible, but that is before I meet Charlie. Again, with each emergence of his cowboy side, I protest. He apologizes; fat lot of good that does. I know I can't change him. So far, there's nothing else I would like to change.

       We are greeted at the hospital by a troop of valets, all trying to outdo one another on the helpfulness scale. They all but lift us out of the car, and Charlie is replaced behind the wheel by their leader, who presses the accelerator to the floor as he drives the car out into a wall of traffic. I raise an eyebrow to Charlie.

       Within seven seconds, we're in the door and directed to a corridor, bypassing the fountain and food court and into the Breast Center. Jene isn't there yet. The receptionist remembers me, the one who takes the same shuttle bus my daughter does. If you live east of the hospital, you don't drive to work unless you're a masochist and love having your passage blocked by cement mixers.

       Jene's shuttle buddy sees to Charlie and me escorted immediately into Dr. Quigley's office. Marina is at the computer, ready to rumble. She gives a little wave. Dr. Quigley walks in on cue and welcomes us with her mighty handshake, a sign of a serious surgeon. The seriousness of her grip makes clear she doesn't give a rat's ass if you're late since all her patients are late re the Q Bridge. And after all, you have breast cancer.

       She has us sit down, and right then, Jene, in her Yale-blue scrubs, comes flying in, having run the mad dash one more time from Community Health. She's out of breath, and Dr. Quigley steers her into a chair next to me. She asks her, "Which clinic are you with?"

       Jene says, "Infectious disease."

       Dr. Quigley says, "Good for you," and then places herself squarely in a chair in front of me, her knees all but bumped up against mine. Rather than having a nurse give me a big binder as with Nurse Dorothy at Danbury, Dr. Quigley grabs a similar, though smaller one off her desk and places it in her lap. It is facing me, upside down to her.

       She says, while waving two pieces of paper stapled together, "This is your pathology report. We are now going to talk about what it has shown me." Then she opens the binder and sticks the report into a clear page holder and flips past it. While she proceeds to tell me what the pathology report says, she simultaneously customizes the contents of the binder with a Sharpie.

       "We'll start here, Mary-Ann." She flips a few more pages out of her way. We jump to a page with the letters DCIS at the top. With the Sharpie poised, she says, "Forget all the pages before this one. You don't have time for them. They're a bunch of psycho-babble intended to make you feel secure. According to my patients, they don't."

She looks up. I give her a glance that says, Thank you, please carry on.

       Looking deep into my eyes, she underlines the heading, DCIS, with a swift black slash.

       Next she underlines the words, Stage Zero, at the top of a list of stages while saying, "To confirm what Justine told you, this is where you are." (She has retained the conversation with Justine, who passed it along to her. Impressive.)

       "Your cancer cannot be seen with the naked eye, and it can't be felt. That stages you at zero. You can read about the rest of the stages if you're inclined, but they don't pertain to you."

       She flips more pages. I am now looking at diagrams—cross-sections of breasts. She circles the first one and says, "Here is the normal breast. I am glad to tell you that you have three major things going for you in your own breast…." She begins writing in the margin while she speaks:"One, the cancer cells are contained in a single mammary duct, as opposed to several mammary ducts. With the latter, a mastectomy would be appropriate."

       There is no chance to ask why that is; better to dig out six ducts than chop off the entire breast I would think, no? But she's still talking.

       "The cells that your mammogram found look like what you see here, as opposed to the normal cells that line a duct." She points the Sharpie at the normal diagram, then goes to the cross section next to it, mine.

       In the cross section of the normal breast, the duct is a slightly elongated, oval thing with identical cells lined up along its interior wall, row upon row, filling up the breast. All neat and regular Army. They remind me, actually, of the Rockettes.

       Dr. Quigley then says, "Again, yours is Stage Zero cancer."

       The cross section representing my own breast shows that most of the Rockettes lining the duct are identical little soldiers too, but Dr. Quigley draws an arrow pointing to a line being pushed aside by several heftier Rockettes. Consequently, those pushed-aside Rockettes are anorexic just like the real Rockettes, but also deformed since it's clear the bigger ones have not only been hogging the breast tissue but cannibalizing their fellows, as well. This duct is partly empty.

       The pushed-aside, deformed Rockettes are exactly the scrawny-assed bastards of my imagination, who will follow their leaders until they all breach the duct wall to get at the...uh…fresh meat beyond. I'm sorry to be so disgusting. That's the mood I'm in.

       The drawing is so simple, so primitive, I cannot help but notice the diagram next to mine labeled Stage 1. That duct has a lot more of the seriously deformed cells. Three of them, along with the leaders, have squirmed through the duct wall, and a fourth is halfway out.

       Then the Stage 2 diagram has words in bold print: THE TUMOR CAN BE FELT. In the drawing, the duct is swollen with nothing but deformed cells, and a slew of them—more than are left inside the duct—are barreling out in all directions.

        I refrain from looking further down the page at any more stages. Dr. Quigley is already flipping that page anyway. "Let's move on to the second thing that is a plus for you: The mass of cancerous cells in the duct is less than two centimeters."

       She circles a circle that is two centimeters in diameter. Whoever put the binder together is aware that we patients don't know or can't remember what a centimeter is. Without the picture, I, for one, would be thinking, Let's see…one centimeter is one one-hundredth of a meter…a meter is slightly bigger than a yard…that means one centimeter is three or four feet across…therefore, how long will it take a train to travel a million centimeters if the engine's top speed is whatever.

       "The third advantage you have based on your pathology: your cells are estrogen-receptive. This is huge."

       Before she can explain the significance of advantage number three, I say to Charlie, Jene and Marina, "Will you look at what this woman is doing? She's writing upside down."

       Dr. Quigley says, "I've been writing upside-down for 33 years."

       This is a memoir, not a documentary. I remember her saying thirty-three years. Jene and Charlie each swear she said some other number of years. Rest assured whatever the number, it's high enough to meet my friend Jessica's father's standard: At least 500 surgeries or bail.

       Just to be sure, though, I say, "How many times have you performed breast surgery?"

       "I've lost count." 

       No prob limo. I never got to ask Starliper that question because of the very little time she could give me, but now that's moot.

       "So to get back to the final configuration you have going for you, since the cancer cells are estrogen-receptive, after surgery you will take tamoxifen or another drug, depending on what Dr. Ionescu determines is best for you. I know he will agree that it should be tamoxifen, even though the other family of drugs—aromatase inhibitors—is more appropriate to women who are close to, or into menopause. But with your physical make-up and good health, tamoxifen is the wisest choice."

       Again, why do we need the oncologist? Never mind.

       I ask, "What makes the two options different from each other?"

       "The aromatase inhibitors prevent your body from producing estrogen."

       Wow. That's scary.

       "Tamoxifen takes on the characteristics of estrogen. Therefore it attracts estrogen-receptive cancer cells. When those cancer cells attach to the tamoxifen, the tamoxifen kills them."

       There certainly is an animated video here, isn't there? I want to say, Sign me up for the estrogen annihilators! But instead, I ask, "How long will I take it?"

       She says, "Five years."

       Me: "Years?"

       "Yes. And maybe another five years if you've tolerated the drug well. Otherwise, you'll move on to five years of the aromatase inhibitors. That regimen is the present thinking. Dr. Ionescu will discuss the treatment in more detail."

       "Will he talk about the drugs' side effects?"

       She raises her chin, better to level her gaze directly into my brain. "I don't know. But listen. There are side effects with every drug. Just don't read what the side effects of tamoxifen are and then you won't have them."

       Uh-oh. I do not want to get into how insulting that is. There is no arguing with self-appointed gods. Instead, I will grouse about it to all my friends. They sympathize with me except my friend, the writer Becky Rice, who says, "For someone like me, it's exactly what I would need to hear. If I read the side effects of some medication, I have them all within minutes."

       Maybe Dr. Quigley has found that most of her patients are a bit on the neurotic side, like Becky. I will stick to talking drugs with the Count. My respect for Dr. Quigley, though, has dropped a couple of notches, even with the upside-down writing ability.

       Now Charlie has something to ask, something he desperately wants to be assured of. "Will Mary-Ann need chemotherapy?"

       I realize he never heard Nurse Dorothy in Danbury give me the answer to that question. Charlie has had many extra days of worry. I feel terrible for him.

       Dr. Quigley flips ahead many pages to one labeled, CHEMOTHERAPY.  She draws a giant slash diagonally across the page, a straight, true line corner to corner, like she's using a ruler, which she's not. My feeling is that you want this particular skill in your surgeon in addition to a serious handshake. Maybe she's not playing God. Maybe she is God, who knows? 

       She says to Charlie, speaking as clearly and succinctly as possible, "No, she will not need chemotherapy. Mary-Ann just needs the duct to be taken out of her breast. If the tumor in the duct were more than five centimeters, we would first use chemotherapy to shrink it so that Mary-Ann's breast wouldn't be deformed by the extent of tissue loss to remove a tumor of that size. So chemotherapy is not necessary for her because, one, the tumor is so small, and two, there will be no cancer left in her breast after I have removed the duct."

       Charlie reaches over, grips her forearm for just a moment, and say, "Thank you."

She says, "You're welcome," and when he doesn't release her arm, she doesn't pull it away.

       I look up at her. I've got tears in my eyes, but I carry on. "You'll disappear my entire lesion."

       "Exactly."

       And then Dr. Quigley, looking into Charlie's desperate eyes, says, "There will be nothing left in Mary-Ann's breast to poison with chemotherapy. Do not concern yourself further."

       Dr. Quigley recognizes Charlie's terror, and gives him time to understand the reassurance he needed so badly. He finally lets go of her arm, but starts to shake. I reach my own arm around his gorgeous shoulders and I tell him, "Starbright won't get poisoned." He controls himself. He says, "I love you, Mary-Ann." Jene says, "I love you, Mom." I tell them both I love them too.

       Then I say to Dr. Quigley, "What I hate is the word tumor. Thanks for not using it."

       She says, "I hate that word too."

       I'm not done. "I can't believe just a few shitty cancer cells that are only now just forming a freaking battering ram is still called a tumor. Like a lumpectomy is still a mastectomy, even if it's only a partial one."

        Inspired by Charlie's and Jene's love, I do not get further pissed than that. Besides, what can Dr. Quigley say? She's just nodding at me. I ask one of those questions that thus far I have not been able to force out of my mouth. That's because I really need the answer to this particular question to come from this particular woman.

       "So can it come back?"

        She flips back to the Stage Zero page. "Understand that these cells have not penetrated the walls of the duct. After your surgery, there is no duct. No cancer cells to speak of anywhere. Gone. Disappeared, as you put it. There will be nothing there to come back. That said, down the road, you will soon be discussing radiation with your radiologist, and drugs with your oncologist. We want to make sure that if some microscopic bit of a cancer cell did escape the surgery, it will be rendered impotent through radiation and drugs.

       "However, your risk of another breast cancer in the other breast is increased now that you've had the DCIS."

       Now, in that authoritarian tone she used with Charlie, she says, "But cross further bridges when you get to them. You will have little chance of encountering the bridge you're talking about. Actually, no chance as has been my experience. Do not go there."

       God-speak.

       I say, "Okay."

       Now she makes a perfect oval with her Sharpie around the line she'd written about my cancer size, and with a flourish, she adds an exclamation point. "The cells receptivity to estrogen is good news, but it does show us that your having taken birth control pills, and then Premarin, and then using estrogen suppositories, that it's likely, but not definite, all three have contributed to the creation of the cancer cells in your mammary duct. But the great news, as I've said, is that we now have a drug to destroy any cells that might mutate via the estrogen produced by your body."

       She gives me no chance to say, All of the above estrogen products were prescribed to me by doctors of the OB/GYN persuasion. She knows that.

       "And, oh yes. Did I tell you, Mary-Ann, the final incision will be around two inches?"

        First I answer her question, "No."

       She says, "But I'll keep the incision as far to the outside of your breast as possible, so the scar will not be near your cleavage. You'll be able to wear low-cut tops and bikinis without the scar showing. Don't forget the sunblock."

       Truth to tell, I'm now depressed about the size of the scar I'll have, even if I don't need chemotherapy,  and even if Dr. Quigley keeps it from showing above a bikini top. I remember when Jene was three, she was crying inconsolably for no apparent reason. I asked her, "Why are you crying, honey?" She said, unable to pronounce the letter w, "Because I yant to cry!"

     Well, I yant to be depressed.

 

Chapter 20.

 

DR. QUIGLEY'S VOICE penetrates my darkened mood, also known as non-clinical depression. "You okay, Mary-Ann?"

       I look to her. I'd been gazing past her. "I guess."

       "Then let me tell you the rest. You'll feel better. As to your surgery. I will take out a rectangle of tissue from your breast which will contain the cancerous duct, as well as a half-inch-wide margin of extra tissue from all around."

       The only thing I can think of to say is what Dr. Starliper in Danbury said:  "Like the shape of a book?"

       "Uh…yes, except a book is a lot bigger than a mammary duct. Think postage stamp, okay?"

       "Okay."

       "If we do find any cancerous tissue in the margin, I'll go back through the same incision and take out another margin of breast tissue."

       "My other opinion surgeon said that my chances of that are twenty-five percent."

       "Twenty percent."

       I am surely liking her better than Dr. Starliper. Then she says, "And I'm happy to tell you, I will carefully follow the curvature of your breast with the incision. The scar will not hold prominence."

       The curvature of my breast. I am now un-depressed, overwhelmed with the emotion of having a total stranger, even if she's my doctor, care so much about me. It is what my Morra cousins told me.

       "Also," she says, "the scar will be a very fine line. There may be an indentation but one of my goals in terms of cosmetics is to try to keep that from happening."

       I feel like I should say something. Anything, or I might cry. "How will you do that?"

       She could say she's had a lot of practice, but she won't because she cares about her patients. She says, "Well, one of the ways is that I won't put a drain in."

       "You won't?"

       "I won't." Her voice is stern as if she's arguing with someone who is pro-drain. "There will be no drain. We'll just stand by and let nature take its course. The area of your breast where I have removed tissue will fill with lymphatic fluid. Instead of being drained out, the fluid will slowly be absorbed by the surrounding tissue, where it will stay and then become firm."

       I ask, "You determined that would happen and it did."

       I get a smile and a modest, "Yes." Then, "But know that I told my theory to several women and every one of them said, 'Try it with me.'"

       "Are we sure I won't need a mastectomy?"

       She reaches over and brushes my arm with the back of her hand. "I am one-hundred percent sure."

       "Because if I do, I want an Angelina Jolie. I want a plastic surgeon right there to give me another breast."

       "You won't need to be Angelina Jolie. DCIS does not require a mastectomy. But I will tell you…many women choose to have a mastectomy anyway. Some will insist on having both breasts amputated, they're so in terror of another tumor appearing in the other breast. But if the duct is removed, the cancer is gone. There is nothing to return. But I have to leave that decision to my patients. Angelina Jolie's decision was based on her genetic makeup and the likelihood that she would develop breast cancer. My understanding is that she chose not to be monitored." She sighs. "But she was absolutely correct to have her ovaries removed. There is no way to detect ovarian cancer until, usually, it's too late for the patient to respond to treatment."

        She changes the subject by flipping a page. I am soon to meet up with a woman like the hypothetical one that Dr. Quigley describes—my manicure-pedicure lady. When I told her about having DCIS, before I could say—Don't forget your yearly mammogram—she said she had DCIS too. That Dr. Quigley was her breast surgeon, too. She says, "I never let Dr. Quigley go through her notebook. I just told her to cut them off. It's something I don't regret doing, and I'd rather talk about something else."

       I ask her if she's seen any good movies lately. 

       When I come to tell Dr. Quigley about the manicure-pedicure lady, she says, really very sadly, "Even if I attempt to explain that some breast tissue is left behind after a mastectomy…."She doesn't finish. I say, "Horrible how minds get made up based on terror rather than reason."

       She nods. It's like she's suddenly destitute.

Later, I tell my friend the writer Christine Lehner this. She says, "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as fear. Your Dr. Quigley should send such a patient a little note recommending psychological counseling."

      "Maybe she did."

      Christine backpedals, and points out that Edmund Burke said that line about fear, not her. Rather than ask who the hell Edmund Burke is, I google him when I get home. He was a writer, orator, political theorist, philosopher, and a member of parliament who died in 1797. I am familiar with another of his many assertions: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Christine tells me, "A lot of people claim that one. No one really knows if he's the one who said it first."I swear every conversation I have with Christine ends with me thinking, No kidding?)

       Dr. Quigley is now flipping over several more pages in the binder, and arrives at RADIATION. The Sharpie swirls around the word.

       She says, "Once you have breast cancer, your odds will be higher that you will get a second breast cancer, higher than the odds of the rest of the population getting a first one. So we want to reduce those odds while leaving the breast in place."

       I send a communication to Starbright: Do you hear that? Dr. Quigley does not want to lose you. I don't want to lose you. You're staying. I'm so happy for us both.

       Dr. Quigley says, "That's why you will consider radiation, particularly since we already know you have breast tissue under your arms."

       I say, "Shouldn't we radiate Starlight too, then?"

       "No."     

       "Why not?"

       She says, "Sometimes, very, very rarely, radiation can create a new cancer. It appears years down the road. Statistically, though, better to have the radiation. But prophylactically? No. This is the sort of thing you'll want to discuss with your radiologist and your oncologist."

       Is there nothing simple about cancer? But I must move on.

       I say, "There is some question as to whether women benefit from radiation."

       She tells me what the Count told me, with a little additional information. "We won't treat you according to your chronological age. We're treating you according to your specific body as it compares with the typical woman's body as she ages. You have the body of a woman twenty, twenty-five years younger. You're in terrific physical shape. Good for you. Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."

        I say, "I love all food but I don't like to stuff myself. I love to walk. My dad and I went out for a walk every night after dinner, no matter what. Three miles, sometimes more."

        "That's so nice," she says. "But here's the thing—if you had the body and the typical physical conditions of the average woman of your chronological age—which I'm sorry to say means excessive weight among other things—or if you had some debilitating illness, we likely would not radiate.

       "Yes, there are risks, as with everything, but risks that I feel you and your body can tolerate. You will handle the radiation well, and it will serve to keep your breast free of a future cancer."

       "How long will the radiation last?"

       "Three weeks."

       "My second opinion doctor said four."

       Doesn't skip a beat. "Three."

       "I have an idea."

       "What?"

       "How about we wait to see if I develop another cancer in my breast, take care of that one, and then have radiation?"

       "No."

       "But wouldn't you think that—"

       "No. Your radiologist will be the one to discuss that further, if you feel the need."

       Dr. Quigley is an especially authoritarian breast surgeon.

       "Finally," she says, "you'll have a drug regimen."

       She closes the binder and hands it to me. "Read what I've circled. Do not read anything else." Then to Marina, "We ready?"

       Marina answers, "All set." And to me, "On the screen is one of the mammogram images of your…of Starbright."

       Dr. Quigley points her Sharpie at the computer screen. Good God, I'm thinking, is she going to write on it? No. She says, "Here are the calcifications." I see faint galaxies all over the place.

       "The things that look like galaxies?" I ask.

       She says, "Galaxies?" Then she explains that the galaxies I'm talking about are not the calcifications of the duct. She doesn't say what they are. Instead, she points the Sharpie at a long slim oblong. "Here in the duct." I gaze at it. The duct will be annihilated. "Can you see the density of small white dots within?"

       I squint. "No."

       "Well, consider that a good thing. We're getting rid of your cancer at the earliest possible time, before the untrained eye can see the calcifications."

       Then she smiles at me and stands up. So do I. I hug her. I can't help it. She hugs me back. 

       I look into her eyes. I get the same feeling I did the first time I look into Charlie's eyes, a feeling of trust. I am right about Charlie, and I'm hoping I'm right about Diane Quigley.

       Then she tells Marina to schedule an appointment for my surgery in two weeks.

       I say, "Uh-oh."

       Dr. Quigley: "What?"

       "Charlie's son is getting married in two weeks. October 6th." Then I can't help myself, the words just come out. "My stepson is as sweet as his dad."

       She smiles again. "Hey. Stepmom-of-the-groom. Cool."She kind of cocks her head a little and takes a wide-angle look at me. She says, "You'll do a great job of it."

       "Thanks."

       "You're welcome." She looks toward the computer. "Marina, what's the next available date after Mary-Ann's wedding?"

       Marina is on the ball. "Two days later. October 8th."

       My surgeon turns to me and says, "I will see you the morning of October 8th. You'll get all the instructions you need beforehand. Have you got your dress?"

       "No, but I saw one I love."

       "You're waiting for the bride to approve, right?"

       "Yes. She and I are—"

        "Get it anyway." Ah, to be as authoritarian as Dr. Quigley. She says, "Have a wonderful wedding."

        I thank her. Then I say, "Charlie and I are having a honeymoon too, even though we already had one when we got married. We're going to the Costa Rica in November."

       TMI because she says, "No, you're not."

       "Not what?"

       "With the radiation, you can't go anywhere where your skin will be further burned during treatment."

       "I can cover up."

       "No. Put the trip off for a year."

       "But—"

       "No."

       Then she smiles again, stands up, and Charlie thanks her, since he doesn't hear her nix Costa Rica.

       I smile at her too, and she gives me a look. I believe she can tell I'm taking my vacation anyway. Will I need a break, or what? I mean, really, don't women on the Pacific Rim get radiation? Don't women in Florida get radiation? Don't women in Connecticut get it in August? I'm going. Authoritarian me. I still trust her, though, even with the boilerplate rules.

       Dr. Quigley knows there is nothing she can do if I don't obey orders. But I do, only not that one. Then she is off and Marina prints out my instructions. Before we leave, I say to Marina, "I think it offends Dr. Quigley that my breasts have names."

       Marina says, "I think I'll talk to her about that. I mean, Starbright and Starlight…she doesn't bat an eyelash when women talk to her about their boobs."

       You already know that, to me, calling breasts boobs is derogatory and also insulting since it means that women have boobs because they're boobs. Sheesh.

 

 Chapter 21.

 

BUT DR. QUIGLEY returns just when we're organized to leave, Marina reminding me where I put the instructions. The doc thought of something she wants to tell me; it's detailed, but she says it all in one breath:

       "Mary-Ann, one more thing. I want to recommend a radiologist, the most wonderful Joan Frye. She has an office here, but another one at the Yale satellite hospital in Guilford, where there is a large radiation department. You won't have to cross the Q Bridge every day. It's on your side. Parking in Guilford is easy, and it's free. Far more important, not only is Joan a first-rate radiologist, her team is first-rate too. She's a born leader. I'll have Beth make an appointment for you before your surgery so you can meet her. She can examine you and answer your questions. She'll have seen the mammogram images and will have read the pathology report."

       "Great!" Knowing I won't have to drive back and forth across the Q Bridge every day for a month and pay $180 to park—or more, if I lose the discount vouchers, Dr. Quigley could have said Joan Frye and her team are a pack of werewolves, and I'd still say, "Great!" Of course, if Joan Frye rubs me the wrong way, I'll find another radiologist. 

       Have you noted that I have not allowed myself to absorb the fact that the surgery is scheduled for two days after the wedding? Again, denial can be a life-saver.

       Back home, I google, The most dangerous side effect of radiation for breast cancer. (Denial is not in order for this particular piece of knowledge, knowledge being…? Yes. Power!) Here's what I find out: I will have this minuscule chance of my radiation treatment causing some atrocious other cancer, something that Dr. Quigley mentioned, but told me to ignore so I won't instantly have that cancer's imagined symptoms. This cancer will rear its head many, many years down the line. If that happens, it will either kill me, or if it doesn't, I'll wish it had. The cancer leaves your heart so badly injured you won't even be able to…. Never mind. You don't need knowledge because there'll be no choices involved unless you live in, or move to a state, that has assisted suicide.

       Google does not tell me the exact statistical risk of the radiation killing me or injuring my heart via the bizarre-o cancer-with-no-name, only that the risk is "miniscule." I will have to ask Dr. Frye about it, but first I'll have a discussion with my three favorite people: Charlie, who was radiated after his own cancer surgery; my daughter, who is a nurse, after all; and my son, who has the ability to put an innovative yet logical spin on every topic under the sun.

       I start with Jere whose brand of advice will be centered on comfort, which I need more than anything right now. I call and tell him about what I found out on re my radiation treatment. Does he even pause? No. He says, "Mom, it's not like they're going to send you to Hiroshima and drop another atomic bomb on your head." Does he pause before coming up with a second analogy? No. "And they're not going to make you sit all night under a gigantic transformer!"

       In his own inimitable way, Jere is basically telling me everything is relative. I find his inimitable ways to be fairly hilarious. I mean, why would he use the image of me sitting under a gigantic transformer all night rather than all day? Because he is always ready with a follow-up.  I'm guessing it's because no one will see me there at night and I won't get arrested on a possible trespassing charge.

       He says, "At night, no one will see you and call the cops and report a terrorist sighting."

       See what I mean?

         Next I call Jene, who says, "Mom. Learn everything you can. Just like you're doing. Go to WebMD and the Mayo Clinic website when you've got time. And yeah, ask the radiologist about the statistical information available. I'll ask around here too." Then…. "Wait! Mom! Ask our cousins! Call the Morra girls!"

        Why didn't I think of that? I will first break out Choices; then maybe I won't have to bother them. I will do that as soon as I talk to Charlie.

       Here's what Charlie says: "Having radiation was no fucking fun, I'll tell ya, but thirty-five years later, here I am. And lookin' good, if I say so myself." Pause. "Considering."

       Considering. The long-lasting effect the radiation has on Charlie is that the hair on the left side of his belly fell out, as well as some on the left side of his groin. Do not let anyone know this because all those men who are having their hair ripped out of their entire bodies because they think they look good hairless, ergo younger, will head to the nearest radiologist and insist on full-body radiation. My friend, Debbie Jones Yetter, who doesn't write but reads a good five books a week, has a close friend who's an esthetician. Her most provocative job is taping men's bodies and then ripping the tape off along with their hair. They especially scream when she does their balls. What are we coming to? Or have we already come to it?

       Charlie also has this to say: "After thirty-five years, doctors must know a lot more than they did then. So hopefully, radiation won't turn you into a sleep-walker. I was always so tired. Sometimes I just couldn't wake up. My body forgot how to wake up. That part was the worst. I mean, I had two little kids."

       "I'm sorry, honey."

       He nods. Sometimes Charlie just breaks my heart. He adds, "It gave me a hernia. I still have it, but it doesn't bother me."

       As things turn out, I will also speak to my dermatologist, Dr. Kaplan, who I happen to have a long-scheduled appointment with the next day. Man, am I sick of going to doctors or what? But I like Dr. Kaplan a lot. She is assured, beautiful, maybe five feet tall, at most. What with the latter, she wears fabulous shoes with heels higher than if you stack up all the shoes on "Sex and the City." When she walks into the examining room, the first thing you do is check out her shoes and go ga-ga.

       At this appointment, the shoes are a metallic dark gray, and the six-inch heels are the shape of pipes with some sort of silver faux embroidery along each side.

       I say, as I point, "They're Italian, right?"

       "Giuseppe Zanotti."

       Speaking of ga-ga, that is a shoe Lady Gaga wears. I read that in People. The shoes cost more than my car. I say, "Holy crap."

       She laughs. "I got them in Milan on sale."

       We shake hands. I don't get into how my grandfather is from Milan. Instead, I tell her I have DCIS.

       She says, "Oh, Mary-Ann. I'm so sorry to hear that. How're you doing?"

       "I'm having surgery October 8th."

       "But you already know that you're in a good position, right?"

       "Yes." My second medical person who doesn't congratulate me, hallelujah.

       "And speaking of Milan," she says, "in Europe, they don't even treat DCIS."

       "They don't?"

       "No. They wait till the cancer cells break through the duct. Only then do they reason that there is a cancer because—according to them—if cells are in situ, how can the lesion be considered cancerous? Meanwhile, when bad stuff happens and the cells invade the surrounding tissue and the tumor is palpable, the patients will be biopsied and diagnosed again in terms of the extent of the metastasis. Then the patient is treated based on that."

       I can't believe it. "Are they crazy?"

       "Apparently. Want to hear something crazier?"

       "No."

       "I'll tell you anyway. Some breast surgeons in this country are starting to lean in that direction. There's a report on a clinical trial coming out that's turning heads—it's based on the thinking that cancer isn't cancer unless it proves to be invasive. But the trial is flawed; all of the women in the study were treated for breast cancer. There wasn't anyone in the study playing Russian roulette, sitting with the DCIS, waiting to see if the cancer cells in their breast would become invasive."

       "I guess you can't really find many women who do nothing about it."

       "Right. In fact, you can't even know about them until they show up in a doctor's office, dying. That's if they show up. And even if someone volunteers for a study who doesn't want to be treated for her breast cancer, it would be unethical not to move mountains trying to convince her otherwise. If nothing changed her mind, the doctors would be unfairly forced to stand by as her breast became necrotic. I'm not even going to talk about the odor of rotting flesh."

       Dear God.

       She sighs. Then she says, "So, Mary-Ann. How about we look at the outside of you?"

       She does her full-body check and gives me a clean bill of dermatological health.

       I'll see her in six months. My insurance pays for a bi-yearly check-up because I once had a squamous cell cancer on my calf, where I now have a purple scar. But it's fading, glad to say.

       Now, get ready for this: I go home, sit down with a mug of coffee, and read The New York Times. I am brought up short by the following article: "A Breast Cancer Surgeon Who Keeps Challenging the Status Quo."

       Dr. Kaplan just told me the gist of the article. The breast surgeon of the headline, a certain Dr. Esserman, is quoted in the article saying stuff that defies all that is rational:"Ductal carcinoma in situ should not be treated but rather watched."

       This opinion is based entirely on common sense, which is the most unreliable, untrustworthy, narcissistic, non-scientific reason for concluding anything about anything. And presumably, by "watching," does she mean having an extra mammogram here and there? And during the watch, when she spots the cancer cells throwing a victory party after breaking through the duct, does she arrange for an emergency mastectomy? She doesn't say.

       Instead, she says, "For over a decade, I have seen the incidence of invasive breast cancer increase—in spite of the removal of some 60,000 DCIS lesions each year." She has seen this phenomenon? Who is she, God? And guess what euphemism Dr. Esserman comes up with for DCIS tumors? The Times quotes her: "Indolent lesions of epithelial origin, or IDLES."

       Yes, IDLEs!!!

       What will doctors say to their patients? "Congratulations! You have and IDLE. A lesion. But not to worry—it's indolent!" As a medical term, indolent means slow to develop. Therefore, just don't worry about your IDLE. Maybe it'll take fifty years. Yeah well, then again, maybe it won't.

       So listen, Esserman, the incidence of invasive breast cancers might increase another 60,000 cases—give or take—if they aren't removed before an invasion. And, guess which expert in the field is quoted by The Times, responding to the IDLES-doctor? Remember Larry Norton, my friend Marnie Mueller's friend's oncologist, who the Morra girls told me is one of the top ten oncologists in the world? He weighs in with an analogy as to whether or not an IDLE should be removed: "If you're strolling in a park, a bunch of kids nearby are throwing Frisbees, and one of them yells, 'Heads up!' Do you duck or not?"

       Here's mine: "What do you do if you hear the crack of a bat, and you're sitting in a loge box seat, and a hundred-mile-an-hour line drive is coming right at you—duck or not?"  

       Here would be my mother's analogy: "What do you do if you and your friends are playing golf, and there's a totally shit-faced, all-male foursome behind you, climbing up your asses, and they reach the tee, the first one tees up, and a few seconds later the other three yell, 'Fore!' Do you duck or not?"

       (Re the second example—mine: Jere would try to catch the baseball. One day he bare-hands a ball heading directly at him. Not only did he catch it, he got to show all the fans around him the stitch-marks embossed into his palm, matching almost exactly the color of the stitches in the ball—red.)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22.

 

THE SATELLITE YALE hospital in Guilford is generally referred to by its previous title, the Shoreline Clinic. It's half an hour from East Haven where I live. If I'm going every day for a month, that's twenty hours' commuting time and treatment time lost to me. Can anything be done about that? Maybe. I am still not utterly sold on radiation treatment.

       As you can tell, I remain in an altered state. I'm thinking of radiation as time lost, rather than saving my life.

       My appointment with Dr. Frye is in place, and I head for Guilford, an especially pretty eastern Connecticut shoreline piece of New England. The town green is bordered not only by stately old houses and beautiful churches of the sort where George Washington might have worshipped when passing through, but also by little boutique shops—lingerie, chocolate, books, etc. Alas, I'm not going into town to have a nice walk along the green. I'm going to a medical facility a hundred yards from the interstate.

       I easily park, and in the lobby of the Shoreline Clinic I learn that the radiation department is downstairs. The security guard waves me toward the wide stairway steps away. It stands to reason a radiation department is in a basement. I go down the stairs and come out into a place with no windows. The Shoreline Clinic does its best to guard against random radiation beams escaping the premises and zapping people parking their cars.

       I check in at the desk, swear I haven't been to West Africa, and then I meet Pam, my personal nurse. She greets me cordially. Soon, I can't help but think that she would make a great first-grade teacher. She is patient and kind, and she takes me calmly through nine million questions up until the moment her computer crashes, losing my answers, naturally. Charlie is with me. He steps right up to the plate, as always, "Can I get anyone a cup of coffee?" He's looking more closely at Pam than me.    

       I say yes, and Pam says, "Thank you. I just had one." Then she bashes at a few keys and looks up at him again. "Maybe I'll have another. Black, please."

       Now Pam has to ask me the questions again, recording my answers on paper with a pen. But I am sitting in a leather La-Z-Boy sort of chair meant for the comfort of cancer patients. It's all I can do to keep from falling asleep it's so embracing.

       Pam is supposed to be finished with me before the doctor arrives, but she isn't. She will have to finish another time. Therefore, Dr. Frye will not know quite a lot about me yet. My radiologist is a sprite right out of Shakespeare except she's tall. She would make a perfect Puck even though Puck is a male and pint-sized; if she can't get that role, she's got Peter Pan sewn up. As my late mother-in-law might have said, She's a slip of a thing. Dr. Frye willowy, ethereal. Rather than walk, she appears to float. With all of that, based on her handshake, she is strong as an ox, something else my mother-in-law might have said. In our initial seconds of meeting, I'm thinking, if she plays volleyball she's the one you never expect will leap up and spike the ball, giving herself an extra-tenth of a second in mid-air to be sure it will slam into your face.I made my college volleyball team only because I could be depended upon to serve the ball to the exact spot where the coach coached me to put it. I left spiking to killer-competitors like Dr. Frye.

       Dry Frye's hair is blond and short in a gelled, somewhat spikey style, yet soft. She is wearing a skinny, pinstriped shirt and skinny pants. If something from another planet were ever to see Dr. Quigley and Dr. Frye having coffee, it would assume they were two different species.

       She says to me, in light of the crashed computer, "I'll ask questions as I go." She says that happily, as she has now gotten out of having to read the nine million answers Pam and I will have to come up with at another time.

        I actually feel instantly bonded with this woman, though she has crushed all the fingers on my right hand. Ensconced in the La-Z-Boy, unable to get to my feet and be polite, I make an excuse: "I'd stand up but I'm trapped in this wonderful chair."

       "That's okay. I'll sit here, right next to you." She pulls up a chair.

       I introduce her to Charlie, who is just returning. She can't shake his hand because he's juggling three cups of coffee, which he passes around.

       A rather beautiful nurse walks in. Dr. Frye says to me, "This is Chelsea, my PA."

       Speaking of separate species, Dr. Frye wears no makeup and Chelsea's eyelashes are coated with three pounds of mascara. She wears blush that must have taken an hour to perfect because her face is lit up seemingly from the inside. She has a perfect tiny beauty mark on her left cheek not of her design. Really quite stunning. (Chelsea, alas, will shortly become my lightning rod and then will never forgive me for my…uh…over-reaction to something she says. More on that in a minute.) For now, she kind of leans on Pam's desk and wait for any instruction.

       Dr. Frye asks me, "Any questions before I tell you what we'll do here? And before my examination?"

       I say, "Yes. I don't really know if I should even have radiation."  

       Her expression doesn't change. She says, "Tell me about that," like she's Carl Jung.

       I say to her what I said to Dr. Quigley.

       She says, "Here's what we know about very early breast cancer. Before mammograms, a woman, or her doctor…" she looks at Charlie "…or her partner, might feel a lump at its tiniest stage, Stage One. Partners are often the first to feel it even before the woman does. Then, after a lumpectomy the patient would be radiated. It's what we did when we learned that the chances of the cancer returning—whether after a mastectomy or a lumpectomy—are the same. But we needed something other than the immediate jump to surgery—chemotherapy and radiation. We've been following that procedure for forty years. And you know what?"

       "What?"

       "It works. And now—hallelujah—we no longer need chemotherapy if the lesion is under five centimeters, and even then, at most just a few sessions to shrink it enough so as not to deform the breast with the surgery."

       Exactly what Dr. Quigley told Charlie. Back when Betty Rollin's book was published, she must have just missed this treatment. I'm sorry, Betty.

       I return to listening to Dr. Frye.  

       "Recently, there has been one addition to the mix, recognizing a cancer still in situ. DCIS. Consequently, more lives—many, many more lives—have been saved. Statistics show us that. But there are some who question the need to do the surgery for DCIS since the mammogram hasn't shown any cancer cells that have broken through the duct. But, of course, the mammogram won't pick up the infinitesimal pieces of a cancer cell that might have managed that. There are no long term studies or statistics yet of women who wait, who do not have a DCIS removed followed by breast radiation.

       "The reason I recommend radiation for you and others in your situation is because it works."

       Clearly, she knows about Esserman, who doesn't mention statistics in The Times article. Who needs statistics when you've got common sense? Egad

       My question: "What about a fatal cancer I could get down the road caused by radiation?"

       Her eyes widen. She says, "Chance in a million. But there is a far, far greater chance of your having another cancer in the same breast if we don't radiate it."

       I will ask the Count for the actual statistic rather than question her "chance in a million," since I need to get on with Part II of my question.

       "I heard an ad on CBS radio where you can have your breast radiated at the same time as the surgery. The radiation goes right into the incision. You only need the radiation that one time. What's your opinion on that option?"

       She says, "It does sound good, doesn't it? That's called intraoperative radiation. It's done in conjunction with clinical trials. We had just such a clinical trial at Yale. But the treatment so often caused serious deformity of the breast that most women were sorry they made that choice. Also, when we began to make succinctly clear what they should expect—showed them photos—they almost always declined. Even photos after plastic surgery. We canceled the trial. So again, there are no long-term studies comparing the tried-and-true and the intraoperative. Actually, I don't know of any trials taking place in the United States. I think you have to go to Milan to have intraoperative radiation. I know they're still doing trials in Italy.

       "But if you would like more information, or if that's the route you'd like to take, I'll let you know where you can get information about that ongoing study or any others."

       Milan again. Tempting. Especially after getting a load of Dr. Kaplan's shoes.

        Then Dr. Frye changes the subject. "I have to tell you—when I looked at your mammography images, I couldn't see a damn thing."

       "Me neither."

       "That's because we aren't trained to read mammograms with authority. And what that means is that the cancer in your mammary duct is so small, you'll only need three weeks of radiation."

       "Really?"

       "Yes."

       "Dr. Quigley told me four. My second opinion doctor told me five."

       She says, "Three," with a tone encompassing how she feels—Screw them. I'm the radiologist, even if she doesn't know how to read mammograms with authority.

       Then she says, "One more thing. If you need a drain after breast surgery, we might have to postpone the radiation."

       I say, "Dr. Quigley told me she doesn't do drains."

       "She doesn't? Since when?"

       The no-drain decision must have been a recent one for Dr. Quigley. "I don't know. She told me lymphatic fluid left in the breast will firm up, meaning less…uh…disfigurement, and so we should let nature take its course."

       "Then that's brilliant, isn't it? After all, a drain can introduce infection into the breast."

       "Dr. Quigley didn't even bother to tell me that part. She's rather authoritarian. As in, NO DRAIN," me basically bowling my radiologist over with the last two words.

       Next, she says, "So, Mary-Ann, your first appointment will be for an ultrasound. We will see where your heart and lungs are in relation to your chest wall."

       The word "heart" rings a bell. When I googled side effects of breast radiation, I got, Possible injury to the heart. Now, maybe lungs too. I don't ask about that at this time because I'm suddenly entering panic mode. I have problems with anything looming above my head. "Will I have to be in a tube for the ultrasound?"

       "No. It's an open scanner. Are you claustrophobic?"

       "I never was, but I had a recent incident that left me pretty much unable to be under any piece of machinery, including within it. Long story."

       "Can you give me the drift?"

       "Yes. Last year, I was waiting for the traffic light to change in that intersection in Branford on Route 1, where they're widening the road under the Amtrak bridge. They were moving the poles where the traffic signal lights are attached by those long cables. So I'm waiting for the light to turn green, and all of a sudden six signal lights all fall down and one of them misses my windshield by about an inch. It lands in the road next to my driver's side door. I was trapped in my car." I don't add, Then things got worse. She only asked for the drift.

       Dr. Frye says what everyone says, "Oh, no! But I never heard about that."

       "DOT covered it up.  The Branford police helped them. They wouldn't have been able to do that if it had been a school bus full of kindergarteners. I told you it was a long story."

       She can only stare at me just like everyone else who hears about it. I say, "But I had EMDR therapy, and I'm getting over it. I still panic when there's a heavy piece of equipment over my head, though, like a crane. I do my EMDR mental exercises on the spot to get past it."  

       "I'm so sorry. I'd panic too." Pause. She's dying to ask me what the hell EMDR therapy is, but she hasn't the time. In a nutshell, with EMDR the therapist has one goal—to inhibit conditioned fear responses when memory of a trauma is triggered. It works. Instead, Dr. Frye offers solace. "We'll do our best by you, Mary-Ann, I promise." She smiles. "You'll get past the crane thing."

       I say, "Thanks." I like her. I will try to believe her.

       Then she asks, "May I examine your breasts now?"

       She helps me out of the chair. Actually, she pulls me out of the chair like I'm a feather. She checks out Starbright. She says, "Can't feel anything. This is so fortunate for you."

       She pulls me up; I get a handshake. "I'll leave you here with Chelsea, who will give you further information, instructions, and an opportunity for more questions. Then Pam will continue…uh…transcribing the answers to her questions."

       Pam says, "My computer's up again."

       Dr. Frye says, "Good," and she's off to her next patient.

       First I get out of the johnny coat and put my bra and T-shirt back on. Also, I get back in the phenomenally comfortable chair, though honestly, I think it's a little excessive. Everyone's been climbing and stumbling around it because an examining room is not intended to have a super-sized La-Z-Boy in it.

       Chelsea's accent is Southern belle; ergo, her voice is warm and hospitable. We have a nice chat. She has survived breast cancer. She is filled with sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Then she says, "In regard to whether or not to have radiation, it's really just a matter of common sense."

       Uh-oh. Sirens go off, bells ring, and for the first time since the morning of the blueberries, I freak. I should have known right then to ask Charlie to get me more coffee or even have a couple of sips of water, but I don't. Now is precisely when Chelsea becomes the lightning rod.

       Without even getting into Esserman, I say, "There is no such thing as common sense. There is only data, statistics, and proof."

       She stares at me.

       I keep going. "What makes sense to you might not make sense to me and vice versa. Common sense is simply a comfort, like macaroni and cheese. I need professional care here. I need to make all my decisions rationally, despite the stuff being thrown at me left and right, and I need to make them based on science, not macaroni and cheese."

       She is stricken.

       So am I. Then I say, "I'm sorry." But do I stop there? Alas, no. "Platitudes insult my intelligence." Holy shit. I've become my mother.

       She manages to speak. "I was just trying to…." She stops. She knows that anything she says will probably annoy me even more. I realize that part of my attack on her innocent comment was due to the images left over from my conversation with Dr. Frye about the traffic light sliding off its cable and coming right at my face.

       Chelsea, obviously a great nurse before she graduated to PA, composes herself rather magnificently. She says, "I respect how you feel."

       I say, "Thanks." Then: "Anyway, I think Dr. Frye has covered everything."

       She stands up. I manage to push myself out of the chair. I am now really sick of this place. Before Chelsea escapes, she makes sure to hug me without any part of her body except her arms touching me. The protocol with cancer patients includes hugging, sometimes insincere, whether you want it or not.

       I will apologize more genuinely to her at a future visit; tell her that it was not me being rude but rather the cancer I have. I won't add, Plus my traffic incident. Don't want to grovel that extensively. Actually, someone in the middle of treatment for breast cancer shouldn't have to be groveling at all. Chelsea will come to tell me she has no memory of what I'm talking about, even though I use the term common sense in my apology. She bolsters this by saying she's an Army brat and was exposed to so many hundreds of people in her life that her memory for who's who just isn't there. This is bullshit, right, all you Army brats? It's just that she will not accept an apology.

       And then there's a scenario that will come in a couple of weeks that is nowhere near as bad as a traffic signal falling on you, but it's bad, and Chelsea will become my lightning rod again.

       ps. I decide to go along with the radiation plan.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 23.

 

FAR MORE CONSEQUENTIALfor me than Chelsea not accepting my apology, and my son's Hiroshima/All Night Under a Transformer analogies, and the Costa Rica boogie-woogie, is that I have yet to tell Jay and Melissa what is going on. But I have it all planned. Although I cannot keep the breast cancer diagnosis from them since the burden of secrecy will be too demanding of me, I will couch the news with the fact that being stepmom-of-the-groom at a wedding with 180 guests will distract me from thinking about this miserable, unexpected disruption to my life—to say nothing of the even greater distraction of seeing to a happy, successful post-rehearsal dinner, Lord preserve me. (Actually, I won't bring up that last with them.)

       I have to call Melissa anyway. She and I are meeting at a bridal shop in Branford at the end of the week; the shop where my stepmom-of-the-groom dress quest ended. After looking at around 4,000,000 of them in big stores and small shops from New York to Boston, and trying on 4,000 of those, I don't like a single one. How I discipline myself not to settle and end up with something I can't stand and that doesn't fit, I don't know. Desperate, I ask my friend Debbie if I can borrow the dress she wore at her own second wedding a year ago, which will be perfect since it's beautiful and we're the same size. Debbie is all for it. But when she texts me pictures so I'll be sure, I realize her dress is the same color as Melissa's mom's dress, and therefore, a no-go. Debbie is almost as disappointed as I am.

       How is it I do not go to the Branford shop first before going anywhere else, or to Debbie? It's just like the people who live in New York their entire lives but have never been to the Statue of Liberty. Why? Because it's there. Another reason I don't go to the Branford shop that makes no sense whatsoever is that I bought my own dress there when I was about to marry Charlie. Hello? Getting ready for any wedding makes one cuckoo. At the time, since Charlie and I decided to get married in Bermuda, just us, no guests, I figured to get a fun, red, floozy-like dress to surprise him. So why did we get married in Bermuda? Because Charlie and I had been through the who-sits-where debacle, and the guest-who-asks-if-she-can-bring-this-great-guy-she-just-met fiasco. Our two original weddings were plenty. Then, one day, Charlie says in passing, "Mary-Ann, you're going to be my bride." Tears well up in his eyes, then mine.

       I can see in his glistening-with-love eyes he's not seeing red floozy, he's seeing white virgin. I get a little bummed, what with him not thinking once was enough in that department, but the next thing I know, he's buying a designer tuxedo and he's all excited about having it tailored.

       So Jene and I are having breakfast on Main Street in Branford, and I'm whining that I don't know what to wear when Charlie and I get married, how I haven't even started looking, because I'm having a hard time letting go of the red floozy idea. She suggests we go across the street after we finish eating to the local bridal shop and check out what they've got. I look across the street through the window. Not in ten million years did I ever dream I'd go into that particular store.

       I say, "Jene, they won't have what I want."

       She says, "You don't know what you want, remember? Maybe you'll get an idea."

       "I don't think so."

       She says, "Mom!" the closest Jene will ever get to bullying me.

       I say, "Okay."

       After we turn down yet another cup of coffee and pay up, we jaywalk to the other side of the street and walk into the store amidst the billows of tulle, lace, chiffon, silk, taffeta, all floating above gentle white carpeting and hanging splendidly against the white walls decorated with tree branches sprayed white, covered with diamond dust which is a fine clear glitter. (Don't ask me how I know that last except to say I do have a little Martha Stewart in me, you can ask my friend Debbie. We made Christmas wreaths once. We denuded the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, of pine cones. Do you know that when you melt the glue required to stick your pine cones together you use empty cat food cans? Why? Because Martha Stewart says so. I do not write her a letter that the wreaths smell of that cut of tuna not meant for human consumption though fine for cats. Does anyone know how something a human shouldn't consume is fine for a cat? Email me if you do.)

       Anyway, I explain to the shop girl that I need a second-wedding dress. Jene rolls her eyes.

       "What specifically might you have in mind?" she asks.

        I say, "I guess I'm hoping there's a rack of second-wedding dresses tucked in the back."

        "Afraid not. But you'll easily find something in the bridesmaid dresses."

        On that note, extraordinarily and fortuitously, my mind harkens back to William and Kate's wedding extravaganza, and without any further hesitation I say, "I'd like a dress along the lines of the one Pippa Middleton wore."

        The shop girl says, also without hesitation. Actually—with gusto. "I have it!"

       Apparently, brides are still asking for that dress, though none ask for Kate's. With a dress like Kate's, you really require a tiara to go with it, and who has a tiara? She disappears into the torrent of white and immediately returns with Pippa's dress on a silver hanger.

       It's a fairly good copy of the original and hasn't been copied in polyester. We head for the dressing rooms, I put it on, and Jene and I swoon, it looks so good on me. The shop girl says, "When's the wedding?"

       "Three weeks."

       "Hey, no problem. It's the sample, but we've got two more since everyone wants to try it on. I'll give you this one, half price."

       She's scrutinizing my expression as she makes the offer, worrying that I won't buy it since samples are a size 12, and I'll have to spend a ton to get it reformatted. I don't care. Time is money. I buy the dress and Jene and I go back across the street to Lucy, who is next door to where we had breakfast. If you want to be a tailor, get started by setting up shop across the street from a wedding dress store. I put it on and Lucy says in heavily accented Italian, "'He look better on you than he look on Pippa." She manages to say this with a dozen pins wedged between her lips. Then she says: "You gotta the boobies. She got nuthin'." (Rule for writers: Never write a dialect phonetically. It will sound offensive. But this is a memoir, and since I've heard the dialect all my life, I don't think I'm offending you, right? I fired these lines by a few of my writer friends and nobody was offended. I'm going with it.)

       Here is the conclusion of my second-wedding dress story: On the day of my Bermuda wedding, tropical storm Rafael becomes a hurricane twenty minutes before the hotel's shuttle van is scheduled to bring us to the Marriage Registry in Hamilton for the ceremony. The storm's eye is forty miles south of Bermuda. It's a Category 1, so the driver will take us even though driving is now only allowed if it's an emergency. (There is no Category Zero for hurricanes, the way there's a Stage Zero for DCIS.)

       When Charlie meets me in the hotel spa's lounge, I walk out of the dressing room in my Pippa dress, accompanied, bridesmaid-like, by the two beaming spa employees—one of them holding my bouquet—who insisted on layering my really nice hair style with about two straight minutes of  hurricane-proof spray. Charlie gets up from his chair and just stares at me. I spin around what with Pippa's dress having that little flare at the bottom. Then he basically swoons—his shoulders start to shake and I have to hurry up over to him and hug him. I get lots of teardrops on my Pippa dress as well as my half-exposed boobies, as Lucy the Tailor calls cleavage. He tries to speak, no doubt to pay me a compliment, but one of the spa attendants is starting to sniffle. I can't hug everybody! So I say, "Let's rock and roll."

       It is a perfect wedding even though there is no such thing as hurricane-proof hair spray. The Marriage Registrar General, General Aubrey Pennyman, on Her Majesty's Service, officiates. The General could play James Bond, he's so gorgeous, even though he is African-Bermudian. My wedding ring was once Charlie's mother's ring. It's a cameo in a gold oval. It's all he has of her. She died when he was fifteen. I do not have to describe the emotion when he slides it on my finger, do I?

       Our witness, Kimberly Majors, General Pennyman's secretary, catches my bouquet. Then we make a run for the van, and the General and Kimberly for their cars, in case the hurricane jumps up to a 2. We have a reservation for cream tea at a hotel more England-oriented than the rest. When I initially suggest that, Charlie says, "Sure, baby," though his expression says, What the hell? Did she say tea? He doesn't know from cream tea. I'm happy to report he's blown away by ours. So am I. The beautiful waiter includes two dark and stormies alongside the towered trays of goodies. (We order two since there's a vegetarian tray on the menu as well as the usual.)The dark and stormy Rafael is creating one-foot waves in the koi pond outside the hotel's windowed wall.

       When we get back to the hotel, the manager takes us in a golf cart to a moon gate on a cliff above the sea and takes our picture, something you do if you get married in Bermuda. Charlie manages to keep the golf umbrella from turning inside out and still, we get drenched.

We go to our room and make love under the ceiling fan, where Charlie has hung Pippa's dress from one of the blades, drying while it goes round and round. (I'm planning to wear it to dinner no matter what, so Charlie takes care of that bridal lack of reason.) A few hours later, when we join the stranded cruise passengers in the hotel's very lovely restaurant, they give us a standing-O.

       More in love than ever, our wedding day ends, with us standing on our balcony just like William and Kate in London, but instead of waving at the hordes, we hang onto each other for dear life while we watch Rafael's crashing, smashing waves, the tops of the whitecaps blowing off and away into the night.

       I say to Charlie, "I guess we'll name our first-born either Rafael of Rafaela." We go inside and toast such a baby who will never be.

       So now, here I am, back again to that same wedding shop in Branford, waiting for Melissa, even though I'm sure I will have to dig something out of the back of my closet to wear for her wedding. But miraculously, the store has so many bridesmaid dresses that look like normal dresses, I am utterly relieved. Also, there's the shop girl who sold me my Pippa dress and she remembers me. She asks, "Was your Bermuda wedding wonderful?"

       I tell her all about it. Then, so very intuitive, she knows exactly what dresses I will like based on my selection of the Pippa dress, and therefore I immediately go ga-ga with the first one she snags out of the row of a zillion dresses. It's got a low V-neck and a low V-back, so I look six inches taller than I am. Plus there are two more dresses she insists I try on—To be sure—and I like them a lot too, and then one that I sort of like because the color looks so great on me—a deep rich…uh…claret, I have to say. I can only hope that when I meet up with Melissa, we will be on the same wavelength re Dr. Quigley's advice to just buy the one I want and not worry about the bride.

       Getting back to the bride, I am saved by circumstances from having to tell her my sorry-ass breast cancer news. That is because Charlie asks me if he can tell Kristin, his daughter, about the biopsy.

       When Kristin was a college student, learned that her mom had breast cancer. Anna Quindlen's mother died of breast cancer when Anna was in college—she wrote a book about it. Many years later when Anna's sister-in-law died leaving two teenage daughters behind, Anna tried to imagine the answer she and her brother would have to give the girls if they ever ask, "When does it stop hurting?"

       The girls did come to ask that question. The answer: "If it ever does, we will let you know."

       I tell Charlie, yes, of course he can talk to Kristin. But he doesn't think to inform her that I'm not telling anyone else but my kids, so Kristin ends up telling Melissa. But it's okay. I don't want that job, anyway.

       And doesn't Melissa call me just when I'm about to call her about meeting in Branford? She says, "Omigod, this is awful. Are you all right? Omigod!"

       I tell her everything, emphasizing that the cancer was detected so early that I will be cured. I say, "That's what everyone at Yale told me, Melissa, and I believe them."

       She says, "I believe them too," but she remains upset. I distract her by reminding her that we are going to meet up at the bridal shop in Branford on Friday.

       She says exactly what I know she will say."We are? Omigod! I forgot. I'm sorry. What time did we say?"

       "Two. But I'm flexible." I am, even though I'm a basket case, something she doesn't need to know.

       "Uh…hold on," she says. I wait while she checks her cell. "I can see you at two. I might be a little bit late."

       She has to cross the Q Bridge to get to Branford. "No problem, sweetie. If you're late, I'll be in the coffee shop across the street. I'm really okay, Melissa."

       The next day, she is not late, and on the sidewalk we hug a more special hug than any of the previous ones. Then, arms around each other, we head inside. The shop girl suggests I model all four of the dresses:"We'll see if the bride picks the dress you did." She gives Melissa a friendly smile. "It'll be fun!"

       Melissa gives me a look. It will not be fun. We're talking a wedding here. Who has time to have fun? But what a clever shop girl. The onus is now on Melissa to okay a stepmom-of-the-groom dress on this very day, meaning right now.

       Naturally, I say without thinking, "What if she doesn't like any of them?" which is exactly what Melissa is thinking.

       The clever shop girl says, "She's got enough to worry about without worrying about your dress."

       The handwriting is on the wall, like it or not. Poor Melissa. But she rises to the occasion and says to her, "You got that right," and white-lies to me, "If you like it, I'll like it."

       In the dressing room, one-by-one the dresses are ready for me, hung across the wall, while Melissa sits out in the showroom in a white lounge chair, not daring to look up at the millions of wedding dresses in case she spots one she likes better than the one she bought.

       The shop girl says to me, "Now, we'll put on your second-favorite dress first. Then the third-favorite. Then the one you want, and then the one in plum." (This is the one I thought of as "claret" rather than "plum".) Again, she says, "It'll be fun!"

       Here's what might be fun: I could sneak out and grab the ugliest dress in the shop, and parade out in that. I would do that to my friend Debbie and we would laugh all over ourselves, but I won't do it to Melissa because she doesn't know me well enough.

        First dress: I actually like this dress almost as much as I like the claret/plum because it's a great and flattering style, but it is a vivid emerald green and I realize it's too bright and I'll stand out too much. There is no time to order it in another color, naturally. But I sashay out past the chair where Melissa sits like one of the judges at "America's Got Talent," while I do my best to look like a model on the runway. The shop girl takes my hand to guide me up the step to a pedestal. I turn around.

       Melissa says, "That is so beautiful. It's kind of really green though." The one thing I'm sure I can count on is that Melissa will not say, "I was thinking more in the beige department." She wouldn't do that to me.

       I look good in any color except gray, which drains the color out of me. My face becomes the color of a sink. (Stainless steel.) 

       I come back out again in #2. It's a kind of gold. Melissa says, "I like that, but the style is too similar to my bridesmaids' dresses."

       I haven't seen the bridesmaids' dresses; I only know they're black. I'm so happy to hear her say that about the gold dress because I like this dress quite a bit less than when I first saw it. I mean, it's gold! What was I thinking?

       I put on #3, THE dress. I look in the mirror and I love it even more. It's midnight blue silk with a filmy layer of chiffon. The lines are so slim and long, I look even taller than what the V-neck and V-back are doing for me. I take a deep breath, turn and look over my shoulder. Hallelujah! It doesn't make my ass look too big! (My daughter-in-law, Kim, has a refrigerator magnet that says, Does my fat ass make my ass look too fat?) I turn around again, 360 degrees. The dress also has a certain elegance, something you need when you're stepmom-of-the-groom, I think.

       I come out, and the bride comes to attention. I am guided onto the little pedestal once again. Melissa looks up at me for several moments. Her eyes become moist. She says, "It's… gorgeous. Oh, Mary-Ann, you look beautiful! I love it."

       Before I can mist up too, the shop girl is at the ready with a fabulous necklace which she fastens around my neck. I glimpse the price tag. It costs more than the dress. Another white lie, my turn; I say, "I'll think about it."

       Then she says, "We'll forget about the fourth dress, then?"

       "Yes!" Melissa and I say together.

       The minute we're out the door, Melissa says, "Tell me the price of the necklace."

       "You don't want to know."

       She smiles with empathy, "Too bad."

       "Yeah."

       We laugh, we hug, and she's happily on her way because she's now checked off another detail on her list of ten zillion details. I'm on my way across the street to Lucy.

       First Lucy says, "Ma-don! You got another sample?"

       I confess I did because the wedding is around the corner and I finally saw something I like. She pats me on the shoulder, empathetic, I would have to say, just like Melissa.

       Lucy pins and re-shapes while she says, "The color made for you. The line make you skinnier even. Is nice."

       When I go for my final fitting, she wishes me well and sends me to a store with inexpensive jewelry that "…look like a million bucks. Say Lucy send you. They knock off ten percent."

       I round up Jene's two daughters, and they help me pick fake diamond and sapphire earrings. They match them up with a necklace and then scurry around the store coming up with three slim fake diamond bracelets. They all complement each other perfectly.

        I buy the girls earrings for themselves for a job well done. We're all so happy. I don't have to say they love Charlie, do I? Here is the oldest's letter to Charlie on his birthday, two years after we met. (He framed it and arranged it between a picture of his mother, and him and me in Hawaii on the beach):

     Dear Charlie. I just wanted to thank you so much for making my Mooey happy. She is the best person in the whole wide world and deserves the BEST. I know you make her feel like a queen, and it makes all of us so happy to have somebody like you in our lives. Plus, you have the world's best model train sets. You mean so much to me and my family and I am so grateful that you care about my Mooey. We all love you! Thank you, Charlie. I love you. Sincerely, Amanda.

 ps. This letter was written a year ago when we found out you got engaged.

       Another verklempt moment, right? And I'm impressed that the astute Amanda thought to hold off for a year before giving him the letter in case the engagement didn't work out.

       Melissa called me a few days later. "I have so got to tell you this, you will love it! I just got off the phone with Charlie. He said he didn't want to see your dress till the wedding—no surprise there, right? But he, like, really really needed to know if the dress had a low back. I told him, Yeah, it did. So he says to me, 'Mary-Ann has such a beautiful back.' Is that awesome, or what?'"

       Yes.

       I take my silver-sparkle wedding sandals from out of the back of my closet; they still have a little Bermuda sand on the bottoms.

       I am ready to boogie.

 

Chapter 24.

 

IN A BLUR OF HAPPINESS and music and dancing and the sun just before it settles into Long Island Sound, on cue, Jay and Melissa's wedding is perfect except when Charlie's two little granddaughters--a second, since the boat picture--have to go to the bathroom. Our flower girls extraordinaire announce this need just as the procession is getting itself into the correct line-up before launch. Melissa's daughter, Lexi, our twelve-year-old junior bridesmaid, looks at me, and I say, "Take them. Go. Tell them they have to be fast." A trooper like her mother, Lexi steers the little girls out of the line, and is gone and back in less than two minutes. How? She told them they could wash their hands right after the wedding. Every wedding has one glitch. Lexi took control of ours. And she did it in five-inch heels, the likes of which she'd never worn before.

       Then we proceed carefully down a hill on a wooden stairway. The Sound is shimmering beyond the rows of white seats, the guests beaming the way wedding guests can't help but do. At the end of the grassy aisle, we watch Melissa leave her father's side, to take Jay's hand. In front of the Justice of the Peace, they hold hands for the last time as two single people.

       My most verklempt moment of so many moments that evening is when, around midnight, the couple sets off into the night. Melissa looks over her shoulder at me and says, "Bye, Mom."

       When they are on Day Two of their honeymoon at the Costa Rican resort, where I'm going with Charlie by hook or crook in the middle of Starbright's regimen of radiation, Melissa texts us: I didn't know there were places like this. Thank you. (The honeymoon trip is our wedding gift.)

       Also on Day Two, Charlie and I are back to Smilow. From now on, Smilow is how we refer to the cancer hospital at Yale. You can only take saying "cancer" over and over for so long.

       Charlie makes the perfect hand-off when he passes the car keys to the Yale-New Haven valet. We now know that those valets are under a lot of pressure. Inside the hospital doors, "Admitting" is the first turn to the right. It is 7 a.m.; we are exactly on time because we gave ourselves an extra hour. 

       "Admitting" is a large dark room that looks like a bus depot, only worse. Or maybe the lobby of a nondescript motel along the interstate with its row of free Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes, and Froot Loops, Econo Lodge coming to mind. They are mostly full, as are the extra chairs lining the wall. I take in the woebegone creatures all jammed together on these uncomfortable chairs and I am back to thinking bus depot—a Depression-era bus depot like you see in old black-and-white movies. We find the only two chairs side-by-side that are empty.

       Last night, Charlie and I watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," a50s movie shot in Technicolor at a time when most movies were still black and white."Rear Window" was a big deal; not only was Hitchcock the most popular director out there, the two stars were the hottest: Grace Kelly and James Stewart. It was the next film in our Netflix cue so what the hell. We only know we can't sleep.

      Charlie remembers bits and pieces of "Rear Window", but I remember all of it since I had a college professor with a black market copy of the original. The "Rear Window" we watch is the DVD, which means the original negative was…uh…restored. The movie actually looked like it had been re-colorized! The grim backs of the apartment buildings facing James Stewart and Grace Kelly spying on their neighbor, who may or may not have murdered his wife, are now glowing red like newly sandblasted brick, and the decrepit garden where the dog digs up the flowers where the wife may or may not have been buried, looks like the garden from Oz when Judy Garland first sees it in Technicolor, upon being blown out of Black and White Kansas. The flowers looked like dried-up weeds in the original version, which was far more effective to the spirit of the film. Wouldn't you rather have some things not be restored? The movie would be so much better if the reel of film still had jagged tears, and holes, and coffee stains the way whoever found it found it. But that's me.

       In Yale-New Haven's "Admitting," my mind leaves "Rear Window," and I see that the hospital could take a lesson from the city of New Haven. When you serve on jury duty, you get to wait in a lovely, soothing room right after you walk across fabulous terrazzo floors, admiring the pillars and high marble ceilings that inspire you to stop bitching to yourself and feel glad about performing your civic duty. Yale's hospital, on the other hand, takes its cue from the DMV, where you sit for hours like a stupefied idiot waiting for your number to be called so you can go to the back of the first of 10,000 lines.

       At the front of "Admitting," three people sit at a long table, a computer in front of each. One by one, patients are called up to the desk. At 8 a.m., an hour after I'm told to report, and two hours after my alarm goes off this morning, I'm still not called, so I approach one of the three people and ask if someone might have accidentally skipped my name. 

       I get a tight smile unlike the nurse smiles. The person says, "We don't call you until we hear the OR is ready for you."

       "The surgery was scheduled for nine. Will they have me ready in time?"

She doesn't believe me, I can tell. "Let's give it a few more minutes," and then calls out a name that's not mine.

       I insist Charlie go and get some coffee so at least one of us isn't going through caffeine withdrawal. I wasn't supposed to have anything after seven last night— thirteen hours ago—and I'm now starting to obsess; visions of Uncle Sam cereal, which I love and have every morning,  pass before me. I mix no-fat Fage Greek yogurt (pronounced Fa-Yeh! as is unhelpfully stated on the packaging—how in the world do you pronounce Fa-Yeh?)with no-fat milk until it's of a consistency where it will sink into the Uncle Sam but remain yogurt-like. Then I sprinkle on top Planters Nuts and Seeds trail mix I have already combined in a large jar with almonds and crushed walnuts. Scattered over all are, as you know, a handful of the traitorous blueberries. I'm over my fury with blueberries, even though I eat the world's healthiest breakfast and still get breast cancer, giving me the right to remain furious forever. But lately, forever takes on new meaning—it's not as long as it used to be.

       Charlie doesn't go for coffee. At 9 a.m., he takes a turn asking one of the computer people, again, what's happening with me because the cavernous, depressed room is now empty except for us and them. Turns out, there's an error. I never got a late-night voice mail; Dr. Quigley had to take care of an emergency situation and my surgery was rescheduled for eleven. I stay calm because shit happens. I stay calm for one more hour and then, stomach wildly growling, I approach the long table and ask a computer person if Dr. Quigley is out of her emergency surgery yet, and if so could I be removed to whatever pre-op place I'm supposed to go to so I can get my mind off food, and so Charlie can go get a bagel at the food court. He is refusing to leave me until we both know what's what.

       I say, "I'm starving, but if my husband faints from hunger, he'll hit his head on the floor, and you will have to get a neurosurgeon down here, but they're all in surgery, which means you will have to take care of him."

       The woman takes pity. She should. I would be willing to eat Froot Loops if I had to. She makes a phone call. Then she says, "You can go to pre-op now. Someone will come for you in a few minutes."

       Someone does. I have no recollection of the walk through the web of corridors, and doors, and elevators, or the wheelchair driver, except that it isn't Hank Aaron. But I do remember the feel of Charlie's hand in mine the whole time. He has warm, strong hands, lucky me. (Oh, his massages!) He will not let me go until forced.

        I do remember where we end up; I remember precisely. We're in a hallway lined on both sides with cubicles, bright and white like a hospital is supposed to be. I don't know how many cubicles because I can't see all the way to the end of the hallway. Suffice it to say, a lot of them. In each cubicle is a patient along with one to six hangers-on, plus a hospital bed. (Imagine, if you're a Catholic, six people in the confessional along with a bed.) You can tell which of the people are the patients because they are into their surgical gowns and flimsy robes and are nervous wrecks, which describes me.

       I experience camaraderie with the other patients, because we are a collective that we didn't join of our own free will. A collective of misery trapped in nightmares, mine not so bad, I'm told again and again, as you know. Forgive me, for repeating myself.

       The nurse has me out of the wheelchair, tells Charlie and me to have a seat, smiles, wishes me well, and then another nurse arrives with a clipboard. She smiles, pulls my cubicle's curtain closed, introduces herself, and I introduce her to Charlie as she already knows my name from the chart.

       She says to me, "Everything off and put these on—gown, robe, and slippers." She holds out a cellophane package. I take it. "The doctor will be in to examine you shortly."   

       "Dr. Quigley?"    

       "No. A resident who will be with you during surgery."

       Then she says to me while looking at Charlie, "Would you like your husband to remain with you while you change?"

       I say to Charlie, "You don't mind staying, right honey?"

       He says, "Does a bear shit in the woods?"

       He's getting a little punchy but who isn't?

       The nurse leaves. When Charlie had his knee replacement surgery a year earlier, after he took a flyer over a line (that would be a rope to you land-lubbers), the pre-op room at the hospital was more like what you see on Grey's Anatomy—big room, a lot of commotion, patients separated by curtains, several of them blood-stained, both the curtains and the patients. Charlie, looking at the splash stain on his curtain, says, "Maybe someone dropped a chocolate milkshake."

       He grins at me. I love him.

       We are left alone, him prone on a narrow bed. He is so brave. I get on the bed with him and we wrap our arms around each other and make out a little. A nurse pops her head in, and says, "Oops!" She pulls the curtain closed, making sure it covers the entire opening. She says to us from the other side of the curtain, "I promise next time I'll announce myself. You doin' okay, Mr. Bimmler?"

       He still has his hearing aids in and says, "Yes," instead of my having to say it.

       "Dr. Komninakas will be here in a few minutes."      

       "Okay."

       Then we laugh just the way we did when we were in the quiet car on Amtrak from Boston after a ballgame and don't know it's a quiet car. A conductor interrupts us making out, giggling, etc. and tells us the quiet car should have noise no higher than the noise level of a library. He says, "That means none." We apologize. I say, "We usually drive. We wanted to experience the Acela," as if he cares. (The Acela travels at its greatest velocity on the eastern seaboard starting at the Connecticut/Rhode Island border for maybe twenty miles northeast after it makes its northern bend toward Kingston, where the University of Rhode Island is. If you take the Acela to Boston, make sure to never be in the bathroom during this leg of the trip or you will fly into the wall, etc. when the train decelerates at Kingston.)

       Charlie and I snuggle up again and I'm almost asleep when we hear his nurse say, "Knock, knock."

       Charlie says, "Yes?" as we disentangle.

       "I'm back. With Dr. Komninakas."

       Charlie says, "C'mon in, doc."

       The nurse…uh…gingerly, I'd have to say, parts the curtain. The two of them sport expressions I would interpret as: Please don't let these two be screwing themselves silly.

       Then, Dr. Komninakas took over, eventually chain-sawing Charlie's kneecap out, and somehow, some way, fitting a stainless steel one into the blank space. It works!

       Today, here at Yale, in another pre-op room, Charlie helps me get into the "gown" and "robe," and then up onto the end of the examining table. He hangs the slippers on my feet. These slippers would be a perfect if I had fallen arches and wore a size 12, triple E. Then Charlie tells Starbright she will be fine. But he is looking into my eyes. 

       He takes a chair. I ask him to open the curtain because I'm feeling a little close, in addition to starving and freezing. He hops up and swirls the curtain to one side, reminding me of a matador. I'm in the direct line of vision of the patient across the way and her six guests, but they are not seeing me. They are seeing what is in their heads and wishing they were seeing something else—anything else.

       And then, zoom, here's Jene in her blue scrubs. She puts her arms around me, then turns to Charlie and goes and hugs him too. While he's off to find another chair, I find I am thinking about Jene in a new light. She is now one of those women who goes to the doctor and has to answer the question, Is there breast cancer in your family? with, Yes, my mother. I scrunch back my tears. There's a lot of things now that make me cry rather than getting pissed. 

       She says, "Are you crying, Mom?"

       "No."

       She knows I'm lying and will cheer me up. "When I left Salty he was playing with Ninjie, Mom."

       Ninjie is one of Salty's two girlfriends at doggie day care. Ninjie is a rescued greyhound. She wears faux leopard jackets and jeweled collars when she makes her entrances. Salty, that little rapscallion, has a second girlfriend, Tia, a black lab who is so old she can't keep up with him and Ninjie. She's content to sit under a shady tree and watch their Greco-Roman wrestling. 

       How I wish I could be there right now—with a gang of dogs expecting humans to throw balls across the lawn at us to retrieve, and doing this over and over till we drop. I'm often tempted to ask Dr. Cieplik and Dr. Beres, our vets at East Shore Veterinary Hospital in Branford, if they might consider allowing people who need assisted living to go to their doggie day care instead, and play with all the happy dogs, or sit with Tia and just enjoy the shenanigans.

       Charlie's back with an extra chair, and Jene sits down. We three chat, trying to act like we're at Twin Pines Diner having coffee and bagels, even though an MA arrives to take my vitals. (MA is not someone with a master's; it is a Medical Assistant, someone who now does the stuff nurses used to do. Scary, isn't it? PAs and MAs instead of doctors and nurses.)

       Jene then says, "We're really short-staffed today, but my supervisor took over for me. She said to tell you that the clinic staff wishes you well. So does the patient I need to get back to. He told the supervisor he didn't want her; he wanted me. I told him about you. He said to tell you to give the doctors hell." 

       She smiles, but she's got tears in her eyes. "Then he told me to get my bad ass back as fast as I could." She quotes him: "I don't trust nobody but you, sugar."   

       Now we can laugh. She's a good daughter and she's a good nurse too. She knows I've got Charlie, and her patient in Infectious Diseases at Community Health is probably homeless, or drug-addicted, or an alcoholic with hepatitis. Who knows? And what advocate does he have? She says to Charlie, "Call me the minute Mom is back from surgery."

       He says, "I will," and then they hug each other for a long time. When she hugs me, she is trembling. I say, "I'll be fine…sugar."

       Big Jene smile. "I know you will."

       "And I'll give the doctors hell."

       Charlie says, "She'll do that even if your guy didn't say so."

       The original nurse is back. She says to Charlie, "Time for you to be off too, sir. You can go to the family waiting room. There's coffee and muffins—stuff like that."

       Then she says to Jene, "Go there with your dad if you like. Grab something while you've got the chance."

       Nurses watch out for their own. They'd better. But Jene is disconcerted for a second. Charlie recognizes her feelings and says to the nurse, "Jene's my stepdaughter."

       "Oh. I—"

       Jene says, "It's okay," and to her stepfather, "C'mon, Charlie, I'll walk you to the food court instead. You can have serious food. Lunch."

       She knows the family waiting room will not be a party scene.

       Then I am buried in Charlie's arms, and a moment later he and my daughter are waving to me over their shoulders, stiff upper lips all around.

       I say to the nurse, "I don't want to be alone."

       My nurse, as it turns out, can be authoritative when need be. She says to me, "You're not alone. I'm here, and I'll take care of you." She kind of looks past me. "And here comes one of your doctors, I think. It's hard to tell—these residents all look like teenagers."

 

 

Chapter 25.

 

IT IS INDEED one of my doctors. She greets the nurse and then says to me, "We so apologize for the long wait. Sometimes communication isn't what it should be. I'm Doctor Kim. I'm a resident."

       I say, "When you're through with your residency, I know you will fix things like that."

       She produces two great dimples, just like Charlie's. She says, "I'll certainly try, I can promise you that…" she glimpses down at the chart the nurse has handed her"…Mrs. Smith."

       If my late, former mother-in-law, Mrs. Smith, were alive, she'd be with me even though her son and I are divorced. I adored her. My own mother, if she were alive, wouldn't be with me; she'd be out on the links. I adored her too, but I was raised with a low priority rating.

       The resident examines me, and tells me my vitals are great. Then she looks me up and down, a more typical examination of non-doctors, and says, "Keep doing what you're doing. You're lookin' good." Then, "See you in surgery, Mrs.—"

       "You can call me Mary-Ann." 

       "Mary-Ann."

       I ask before she can get away, "You'll be there along with Dr. Quigley?"

       "Oh, yes."

       Thank God.

       She closes the curtain when she leaves.

       The nurse who says she'll be with me isn't. It is time to take refuge into my second largest activity after writing—reading. I get off the table, get my book out of my bag, sit down in Charlie's chair, and put my feet up on Jene's. The book is the latest from the guy who wrote Corelli's Mandolin and a dozen more books that come before. I love them all, but nothing will ever top Corelli. I feel like it would be disloyal to Corelli and his mandolin to read his new book that has Birds in the title, and I don't want to get behind. It's waiting for me in my Nook. However, let me Google here before I continue on this subject so I can tell you the author's name.

       Louis de Bernières. Like, who the hell can remember that? (Shout out to Matt Tannenbaum, owner of "The Book Store" that houses, as well as books, the "Get Lit Wine Bar" in Lenox, Massachusetts. Matt recommended Corelli's Mandolin when I had a reading there. It was my first novel, The Book of Phoebe. My editor at Doubleday called to say Matt called Doubleday out of the blue, told everyone along the line that he loved the book, and wanted me to come and read. My editor--that would be my hero, Anne Huykill--said, "Go, Mary-Ann, even if you have to hitchhike." Anne Hukill found my manuscript I'd mailed to Doubleday in a manila envelope under one leg of an uneven chair. Matt still has Phoebe for sale on his shelves. Anne and Matt…those were the days.)

       Anyway, one of the ten million reasons I love Corelli is the rich and colorful titles Louis de Bernièresgives his many, many chapters. In his new book there are 67 of them, twice as many as in Corelli. Clearly, I'm not the only one who loves his chapter names or he wouldn't have doubled the number. Inspired by Louis, I was going to give names to the chapters of this memoir. But I couldn't think of any near to the je ne sais quois of Louis', so I scotched that plan.

       I did peek at the names of Louis' Birds chapters,and they totally live up to rich and colorful. My three favorites: "Ibrahim Gives Philotheix a Goldfinch"; "The Telltale Shoes"; "The Humiliation of Levon the Armenian." Okay, a fourth: "A Cure for Toothache."

       A half-hour has gone by, when a disheveled fellow with a major beer belly throws the curtain aside. He's got both old and fresh food stains down his shirt, a shirt that gapes open where a couple of buttons once functioned. How did this guy get past Beaumont?

       I am about to reach for the emergency cord when slob-ola speaks to me. He says, "Dr. Crenshaw. I'm your anaesthesiologist."

       God, give me strength. I am going to have an anesthesiologist who sleeps in his clothes—clothes that he spills food on—and who probably lives on Bud Light to lose the beer belly when, as everyone knows, Bud Light will give you a beer belly bigger than the one you get with straight Budweiser.

       My wheels are spinning, trying to figure out how to get another anesthesiologist at the last minute. But my stomach growls and interrupts my train of thought.

       "It's nice to meet you," I say to Dr. Bud Light, "Have you got any food on you?"

       He just stares at me. I start to explain why I haven't had anything to eat in such a long time, but he interrupts me, becoming all doctorly since he doesn't have a sense of humor. He says, "Even if I did, I wouldn't let you have it."

       No kidding, you slob, I don't say. Nor do I say, More for you, shitheel. He's supposed to keep things light so that I can remain calm, I should think saying something to me like: For a hundred bucks, I'll give you a piece of gum, is beyond his ken. I love that phrase, "…beyond his ken." Here is when I first heard it. From "The Sound of Music" (sung to the oldest von Trapp, Liesl, by the Nazi, Rolf):

You are sixteen going on seventeen
Fellows will fall in line.
Eager young lads and roues and cads
Will offer you food and wine.
Totally unprepared are you
To face a world of men.
Timid and shy and scared are you
Of things beyond your ken…

       Ken means, One's range of knowledge and sight. If you check out stupid YouTube lyrics, contributors think it's kin, although kin certainly fits my anesthesiologist's profile, I'll give them that. And truth to tell, Rolf actually sings kin. But of course that's the Hollywood philosophy: Dumb it down; the dumber the better.

       So, slob-ola doesn't say good luck, or goodbye, or anything else. He just leaves, swinging the curtain shut. The nurse is back right then, carrying a tray with a syringe and a little glass bottle on it.

       I say to her, "Listen, I have to get another anaesthesiologist ASAP."

       "Crenshaw's good."

       "Yeah? How long does he last in an operating room before he has to send out for a pizza?"

       "Hah!" She puts the tray down. "Don't worry, he fills his tank first. Really, he knows what he's doing. People request him all the time, and besides, your surgeon is Dr. Quigley who will be in complete charge," meaning that he probably won't dare send out for a pizza, or Dr. Quigley will feed him to Hannibal Lechter, or worse, to the ludicrously masked guy in "Pulp Fiction," whose job is to keep an eye on Bruce Willis while Uma Thurman's husband is getting raped. "Pulp Fiction" is my all-time favorite movie since "Casablanca." (I'm sure Quentin Tarantino created the rape scene to give the audience a realistic taste of the horror a woman suffers, and her awful vulnerability, when she is raped. Who could know that Quentin's real-life girlfriend almost didn't escape getting raped by Harvey Weinstein, but Quentin was unable to take the threat to her seriously. Even with his rape scene in "Pulp Fiction," he chose not to get it. Now, he does. So when are you going to take a metal bat to Weinstein, Quentin? Maybe Mira's dad, Sorvino senior, will hold him down for you.)

       The above stuff is what my brain does when I'm feeling depressed and depleted—I fall right into a noteworthy movie. I have to trust the nurse is right—that Dr. Bud Light may be a slob with zero personality, but he knows anaesthetics.

       The nurse bends down to me and brushes my hair off my forehead. She says, "If it's any consolation, it's time for your pre-op tranquilizer."

       Previous to this moment, I took a tranquilizer once. I was in my 30s and I went to get out of bed but couldn't because my neck was in some kind of spasm. I was unable to turn my head in either direction. Somehow reached my phone, the reach making my neck really hurt, and soon, Kay Yomazzo, my neighbor, was at my house, calling for an ambulance. The last thing she says to me before I'm speeding off to Danbury Hospital is, sarcastically, "Thanks a lot." That's because she now has two toddlers to chase after instead of just hers and both of them are crying.

       At the Danbury ER, I see a doctor who determined that my neck probably isn't broken. He orders an X-ray, plus a couple of Valium to see to my laying still during the X-ray since I can't stop contorting myself in an attempt to get into some sort of pain-free position. After I take the pills, my muscles turn to mush while the room tilts.

       I'm wheeled off to X-ray, something I don't remember.

       The doctor comes back again, bends over me and shouts directly into my face, needing me to pay attention. "MRS. SMITH!" That could be me. I pay attention. "You have a tiny spur on a vertebrae in your neck and my guess is that it somehow made the slightest contact with your spinal cord when you went to get out of bed, causing a muscle spasm. This is the body's way of protecting itself. It's a fluke. It'll probably never happen again. When you get home, take a hot shower—hot as you can stand it, just aim the nozzle right at your neck where it hurts—then take two aspirin and go to bed. Meanwhile, we'll put you in a neck brace. Wear as needed." 

       He's got the neck brace in his hands. Before he has to move me to get the brace around my neck, he asks, "Are you in pain right now?"

       I say happily, "Yes, but I don't give a shit."

      "Perfect."

       Then he's gone. I don't thank him because I don't give a shit about being polite, either.

       I really can't say enough for Valium if you ever have a neck spasm, and then two aspirin and a really hot shower. It works. I don't believe the ER doctor saw a vertebrae spur; he had to say something. He only knew a Valium would take care of my symptoms.

       At that point, the monkeys in my brain finally stopped doing the Irish Jig, because the room I'm in at Yale is actually tilting, same as the Danbury emergency room did.

       The nurse takes my book out of my lap where it had fallen, and someone is helping me into a wheelchair. I hope it's Hank Aaron, but I'm not conscious enough to check. I am vaguely aware of wheeling past the patients still in their cubicles waiting their turn, and the empty cubicles where other patients have already departed. None of those are back yet, but I think I must have waved at the gang across the way since they are slightly smiling and waving at me. The central figure, a really caring person, I'd have to say, calls out to me, "Good luck, lady." I give her a garbled, "You too." The gentleman next to her starts crying.

       Bang, I'm unconscious. I don't slip into it. One second, there's a gentleman crying, and the next, I'm aware of some small discomfort, like I'm lying on my back on a hard floor, plus I've gone blind.

       I realize my eyes are closed, and I try hard to open them, but nothing happens. Maybe I fell out of the wheelchair since the driver wasn't Hank Aaron, and I have a concussion. But I try again; succeed; and am immediately blinded by white light brighter even than Times Square, where they now use LED bulbs. Am I going down a tunnel with God at the end? I sure as hell hope not.

       I pinpoint the discomfort I feel to my left arm. I have a moment of lucidity. I look away from the light and down at my arm. I make something out. A tube from the vicinity of my inner left elbow is leading I don't know where. I try to follow it, can't, and instead notice that I am encircled by a ring of people. Since they are all shrouded in white, it must be the Ku Klux Klan. Or I'm dead and have been reborn as Mia Farrow right in the middle of Rosemary's Baby, when she gives birth. Just like the white-shrouded people surrounding her, mine are not wearing those nitwit hoods, but rather wearing shower caps. Also, masks doctors wear over their mouths when they operate on you.

       I am on an operating table, aren't I? And I'm FUCKING CONSCIOUS!

       I hear a voice. Male. "Zhang Wei Chan, intern."

       Another voice: "Shelley Halloran, surgical nurse."

       "Marina Gonzales, RN." I try to find her but my eyeballs won't move.

       "Franklin Crenshaw, anaesthesiologist." With that, I know I must speak! The ring of doctors includes the Budweiser Light-swilling slob, who has not given me enough juice. I try to yell, Help! But nothing comes out.

       Next voice, not mine: "Monica Kim, resident," she who will make things more efficient when she's an actual doctor.

       Next: A doctor whose voice-box hasn't matured: "Charles Newton-Finch, the 4th, Yale medical student."

       And then, "Diane Quigley, surgeon."

       I absolute have to manage words so Dr. Quigley can save me. I say a mish-mosh of syllables, none of them words. I hear what I say. Please let that mean that they can hear me too.

       The circle of people in white suddenly goes from statue-like to all looking around, eyes wide above the masks. They don't know where the voice is coming from. And so, with all the effort I can muster, "Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, patient."

       A circular row of eyes shifts to my face. Dr. Quigley—I can tell it's her by her awesome black glasses—looms more closely over me, and says, "Go to sleep, sweetie."

       I wake up because time stood still. I'm in the very cubicle I was before surgery. The curtain is closed. Charlie and my nurse are on either side of me, each holding a hand. Charlie takes note of my eyes opening. He is waiting for that moment, I can tell. I smile at him. To keep from collapsing with relief, he bends over and buries his face into my stomach. He says something muffled. He lifts his head and takes out his cell phone. What was muffled was probably him reminding himself of his promise to call Jene when I wake up. He taps her number. Staring into my eyes, he says into the phone the sort of gobbledygook we all say, when crying while we try to speak.

       I'm sure Jene understands him, since she's an experienced nurse and hears crying language all the time. But the nurse takes the cell from him. After she asks who she's speaking with, she says to Jene, "Your mom is out of surgery, and she's doing very, very well. She'll be going home in a few hours at most. Your dad is doing well too." Pause. "Your stepdad, I mean." Another pause. She smiles into the phone and says, "You're welcome, sweetie," and hands it back to Charlie. She called Jene sweetie just like Dr. Quigley did when I announced my presence in the operating room. Once, a waitress called my father sweetie. He became a regular at that restaurant.

       Then Charlie says to me, now more sniffling than crying, "I love you, Wonder Woman."

       I say, "I love you too, Eagle Man."

       My nickname for him refers to our eagle-spotting trip with the Audubon Society.

       In the post-op cubicle, formerly the pre-op cubicle, I begin to drift in and out of the anesthetic. The nurse told Charlie he could help me get dressed before she went off to do something. I am aware of Charlie trying to pull my socks on. How he got jeans up, I'll never know. Then the only other thing I have on is bandages covering Starbright.

       I think I will try to speak. I say, "Hi, Eagle Man."  He looks up. He has a really tear-stained face. He's got a sneaker in one hand.

       I put my arms out. I say, "I think I'm falling."

       "You're lying down. You can't fall. But let's try to sit up, okay?"

       "Okay."

        He says, "You sure?" I'm not but say I am.

        He lifts me into a sitting position, and steadies me. He picks up the cami he has thought to put on the side of the bed while I'm unconscious. He brings the cami down, oh so tenderly, over my head and stops. Then he very carefully gets my left arm through the arm hole, and then not quite as gently, my right, figuring Starlight doesn't need that much attention. Then he covers Starbright and her bandages, and Starlight too.

       He picks up the plaid flannel shirt that I'd grabbed from his cache of thousands. A too-large shirt is recommended. I know I'll need something warm since we're talking hospital here, where doctors don't want you to see them sweat.

       Charlie gets his shirt on me, rolling up a foot of sleeve on each of my arms.

I say, "Thank you, Charlie. I love you."

       The nurse gets back in time tell Charlie, "Let me do her sneakers," so she can get us the hell out of there. Following that, she holds up papers while telling me what they say—instructions on how to take care of myself. I don't hear a word. But it's okay since it's all in the paperwork.

       On cue, she says, "Look. I'm putting these papers in the bag with your shirt, bra, and underpants. You have your pain meds?"

       "Yes."

       "Where?"

       What a cool nurse.

       "I don't know."

       Charlie takes a prescription bottle of ten hydrocodone tablets—brand name, Vicodin—out of his shirt pocket and waves them at her. "Don't worry, I got 'em."

       I say, "I'm so damn hungry."

       The nurse says, "You must be. We're almost all set to go. Ten minutes most." She leaves and is back in five with a wheelchair. "You two go get something to eat and Mary-Ann, take one of your pills with the food."

       Exactly what I'd planned to do.

       I say to the wheelchair guy, "How's Hank?"     

       "He's good, ma'am."

       "Tell him thanks for me."

       "I will."

       The nurse says, "All the best to you, honey."

       "Thank you."

       Charlie says, "We'll start with soup."

       I say, "Okay." He is telling me what I should eat before I can have a chance to say, I'm getting a hot fudge sundae, but I agree. I'm just out of anaesthesia. Probably better I throw up a bowl of soup rather than a hot fudge sundae.

       Yale-New Haven has Scotch Broth. Charlie has never heard of Scotch Broth, something I was raised on—my favorite of the thousand varieties of Campbell's soup my mother gave my brother and me every day for lunch every day. When it's home-made, it doesn't have a tenth of the salt as Campbell's, although hopefully by now they've mended their ways. Tyler and I consumed 1200 grams of sodium every day at lunch, this after the soup was diluted with one can of water as directed. There were a lot of people who would actually eat the undiluted soup out of the can with a spoon. The hospital Scotch Broth is definitely home-made. Delicious. I offer Charlie a taste. He'll taste anything.

       "Boy, is that good. What're the white things?"

       "Barley."

       He gets a bowl for himself.

       Once I finish my Scotch Broth, I take my pill and even though I decide against the sundae, I need sugar, a quick shot of energy. Maybe a Milky Way, since the Scotch Broth clearly makes me a kid again. When you feel like a kid, you have energy. I request the Milky Way. Charlie comes back with one as well as his favorite candy bar from childhood that is hard to come by: a Payday. He waves it at me, sticks it in his pocket and unwraps the Milky Way. I first gnaw off all the chocolate, then eat the layer of caramel from the top. Then I stop.

       He's previously seen my Milky Way performance. He says, "What's the matter?" I look up at him.

       "You can't eat anymore, right?"

       Charlie eats the rest after he dunks his napkin in his glass of water and wipes down my chin.

       When I come to tell Dr. Quigley that after I took that day's prescribed hydrocodone (Vicodin) I didn't need any more of them. Four Advil at a time did the trick. She said, "Show-off."

       Not quite the affirmation I expected. That's okay—the important thing is that having a mammary duct and its surrounding tissue surgically excised is nothing like having two ends of a broken bone screwed back together—for that you need all the Vicodin you can get your hands on. However, some sadist recently came up with new rules, meaning your doctor will tell you he can't refill the Vicodin because you'll become addicted to opiates.

        Before that happens to you, here is my advice based on my friend Charlene's discovery as to the only substance that will deter the pain associated with anal cancer, wherein it hurts to stand, sit, walk, lie down or move at all: two perfect martinis. Vicodin didn't help, and then Percocet only served to render her pretty much comatose. (The only other person I have ever heard of who had anal cancer—who died because of its advanced state when discovered—was the remarkably beautiful and talented, Farrah Fawcett. That she could go from the a Charlie's Angel, to her brilliant performance in the TV movie "The Burning Bed," as seamlessly as she did, inspired a lot of people in the movie business to give pop-actresses a chance at serious drama. This followed a five-year dearth post-Norma Rae—that would be Sally Field who morphed from a flying nun to a raunchy union activist. (Academy Award for best actress.)They took a chance with Farrah Fawcett because TV audiences loved her, and advertisers would jump at the chance to pay a network a ton of money to shill their products if she were to star in the movie. She won Golden Globe awards for best actress in both endeavors; an Emmy for best actress in "The Burning Bed;" and TV Critics Awards in separate categories for "The Burning Bed."

       Here is Charlene's recipe for the perfect martini.(Charlene is presently cancer-free, can walk without crying, hallelujah!)

 

PRELUDE

See to making fresh ice unless your fridge has an ice-maker. (A hint of freezer burn does not make for a perfect martini.)Then line up on your kitchen counter the items you need to make a perfect martini. 

 

SAID ITEMS

martini glass (immediately place the glass in the freezer at the most level area, where it won't fall over and break when you bang your freezer door closed.)

metalshaker

drink strainer, preferably a really clean one. Since there is no such thing as a really clean strainer, you need to buy a brand new one. (Are you beginning to see why Julia Child insisted you must always read a recipe before you get started to avoid finding out you have only two eggs left and the Nora Ephron key lime pie you're about to make requires six?)

 

INGREDIENTS

Vermouth. (Keep Vermouth in fridge after opening—it's perishable, according to my dad, advice he gave me when I was seven while I watched him make the perfect martini.) Note: if you use only one drop of vermouth, you have an extra dry martini. I don't know why anyone would want that, seeing how the usual dry martini is heaven on earth, but who am I?

Your favorite gin (my favorite is Blue Sapphire).Charlie says Plymouth is the best gin, and he recommends it highly (insistently) if you're in pain. Charlene would agree, so go with the latter if you're hurting, but feel free to drink it for any other reason. Mind, Charlie is quick to point out that Blue Sapphire is outstanding; it's a matter of taste buds, though you will get a buzz sooner with Plymouth.

Half dozen large ice cubes, fresh.

 

FOR THE GARNISH:

A big green olive, one without a pimento sticking out, or worse, an almond, or more worse, a chip of garlic. If you use one of those, instead of a perfect martini you'll have a shitty one. (Since you haven't read the recipe before you started, even though I referenced Julia Child, you may think you can dig the pimentos out of the olives you already have in the back of your fridge—likely moldy or smelling of Play-Doh if you have small children who put their works of art in the fridge to harden and then forget them.) Anyway, the flavor of the pimentos, or any other cute olive filling, will be laden with olive brine. Yuck. Can you tell I can't abide a dirty martini? I would rather drink a martini with Play-Doh in it than olive brine. I don't know why it is, but a big, green, unadulterated olive holds its own against the brine.

 A toothpick. One made of wood, by the way.

 Note: a vodka martini can never be a perfect martini. That's because it's not a martini. It's something Ian Fleming made up.

 

DIRECTIONS:

Take the metal shaker out of the freezer and put in the ice.

Drop in two drops of vermouth.

Take the gin out of the freezer. (Oops, I forgot to tell you to keep your gin in the freezer too.) Put three ounces of gin into the shaker. If you haven't followed Julia's advice via me—that would be 90% of you—not only are you using room temperature gin, you don't have anything that measures ounces. With the former, the gin will soon be attacked by ice, and as to the number ounces—guess. If you guess you will have an imperfect martini, but at this point, fuck it.

Pick up the shaker but don't shake it, and don't stir it either: SWIRL IT. That would be a half-dozen swirls. Swirling eliminates the chemical chain reaction that's required to create a perfect martini. (If you're curious about chemical chain reactions and desire to know exactly what you're preventing by swirling, google.) If you're making this martini for someone who has post-surgical pain, do not waste any time googling anything.

Take your martini glass and strainer out of the freezer and pour the martini from the shaker, which you didn't shake, but rather swirled, through the strainer and into the glass.

 Skewer your olive with the toothpick and put it in.

 Sit down in the most comfortable place where you live. In my case, it's Charlie's lap. If your most comfortable place is someone's lap, double the recipe because by now you are following Julia's read-ahead advice and have already doubled the recipe, meaning you won't have to share your martini, so never mind.

       Sip.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhh………

       Charlene would have a third martini at bedtime. Don't listen to anyone who says alcohol will keep you awake. We're talking a perfect martini here, not a six-pack of Bud Lite, which brings on gross belching that keeps waking you up. Just as you won't become addicted to Vicodin if you take the amount of Vicodin you require, you will not become an alcoholic if you only double-up on the martinis when pain is intolerable. With the former, there's nothing you can do.

       Since Starbright's surgery does not lead to anything beyond discomfort for the next few days I have just the one martini to celebrate the surgery being over, since I feel a martini is the celebratory drink of choice when it's not utilized as a painkiller.

I sleep on and off for hours and hours during the days after my surgery. Hunger can always be counted upon, though, to wake me up. For our next three dinners, Charlie and I eat our version of comfort food: The first night, lobster rolls from the Sandpiper down the street; second night, rigatoni with meatballs following my Auntie Palma's recipe. (Per two pounds of ground chuck, beat one egg in a large bowl, mix in a quarter cup of homemade bread crumbs—grate two slices of stale bread—and add some finely chopped basil, and a little salt and pepper. "That's all," warns Auntie Palma, waving her wooden spoon in the air, "you're not making meat loaf!" Form into balls, and fry them in a film of rendered salt pork and chopped garlic till brown, on medium heat so as not to scald the garlic, and then put them into a previously made pot of sauce—you're on your own there, everybody,along with all the stuff you scrape out of the frying pan. Simmer for fifteen minutes, give or take, while you boil the pasta.

  Done. Eat. Jump up and get the parm you forgot to put on the table.

  Hint. All will taste better if you put the pot in the fridge for a day and have your pasta and meatballs dinner the next night. Freeze any possible leftovers—will taste better yet.)

  On the third night, three-inch-high lamb chops from Costco—there are no lamb chops tastier or more tender than the ones you can get at Costco direct from New Zealand—in Charlie's marinade (olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and a ton each of garlic and fresh rosemary branches) grilled rare. Julia Child once noted to her American viewers that the longer you cook lamb, the gamier it becomes. She, in fact, shouts an exhortation into the camera, a là Auntie Palma and Owen Meany: "Lamb is not PORK! Lamb has never given anyone trichinosis. If the lamb is not a lovely rich, deep, red inside you might as well eat an old SHOE!" She pronounces SHOE, SHEEEEWWWW, for unnecessary emphasis. Julia frees us to try rare lamb and swoon with culinary joy.  

       The morning after the lamb chop dinner, I get into the shower by myself, turn it on, and stand there for five minutes until the bandages are saturated. Since Charlie installed a hand-held shower nozzle—meant mostly for Salty since bathing a dog in a bathtub while trying to get him to stand under the showerhead is a debacle—I use the hand-held to saturate the bandages further. Then, staring into the wall, I peel them off with my free hand, per my instructions. I let the water run all over me for a while until, finally, I muster the courage to look down.

       In the pouring water, about an inch above my nipple, there is a very thin line, the same pinky-beige as the nipple itself, though I don't think Dr. Quigley has anything to do with matching up the color of her scars to her patients' nipples. The scar is not two inches; it's an inch-and-a-half. As promised, it has a slight curve to it not unlike the delicacy of the Mona Lisa smile. Starbright is the same size and shape she was before surgery, what with the already firming lymphatic fluid left behind by my doctor, who has everything to do with taking advantage of that phenomenon, and no one else. Diane Quigley is the best, isn't she? Even if she doesn't commend you for not needing Vicodin. Even if she orders you not to go to Costa Rica.

       I call Charlie, who is just outside the bathroom door in case I need him. He comes in, Salty trotting right behind. They both get into the shower. Charlie is naked and wearing flip-flops. He's always prepared. He says, "You have such beautiful breasts." He runs his finger across the scar.

       I start to say, Thank you, but instead, I say, "All breasts are beautiful."

       He says, "That is so true. But yours are perfect." I laugh. Perfect? Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And even if they had been perfect, they ain't now. Salty plops down onto the tiles, all four paws and belly up. We both squat down and take advantage of the opportunity to squirt Johnson's Baby all over him and give him a shampoo, starting with his fat tummy. (Later, Charlie, not me, will have to blow-dry him.) We kiss each other above our stretched-out dog who's hoping his shower never ends. I am now officially past one high hurdle, aren't I? Too bad there are more and too bad they get higher.

 

Chapter 26.  

 

MY SECOND APPOINTMENT with the Count is soon upon me. I go myself. Charlie and his old camping friends have planned to meet for breakfast. It didn't get written on the kitchen calendar, something Charlie insists isn't necessary because he puts it in his phone with his other reminders. But then he doesn't check his reminders. Though I'm a grassroots feminist, there are a couple of gender things that come with being an American male that I have not found to be true of American women, for example, the above. Also, if a man says he's going to do something that he really doesn't want to do, he'll say, "I have to clean out the garage," and in his head, it's done. It will never actually get done unless nagged. Better to live with a garage full of empty paint cans then nag someone. I went to a 50th wedding anniversary once, and the husband got up and said that within three days of returning from the honeymoon, his wife starting to nag him about dropping his dirty clothes on the floor instead of putting them in the hamper.

       He said, "Then she put a laundry basket dead center in the middle of the bedroom floor and I was still dropping dirty clothes all around it. Honest to God, I didn't see the laundry basket."

       Serious booing ensued. He waited. When it stopped, he said, "But I did begin to notice my dirty clothes all over the floor, and I said to myself, "I'll get those in a minute." He looked down to his wife seated beside him, rolling her eyes. "I forgot." More booing.

 Then he said, "Now, let me finish. Finally, when there were probably three days of dirty laundry all over the place, and no clean underwear in my drawer, I went to pick it all up." His wife is now grinning. "Ready?" he asks?

 Shouts of, "Yes!"

      "She'd nailed them to the god-damn floor!"

 Howling laughter.

 Then he said, "That's when I knew why I loved her so much. She wouldn't take my shit."

 And so, I assure Charlie, I'm fine going to my appointment myself, and, "Have fun with your camping buddies." Then I head out to meet up with Dracula. I'm not going to stick around and embarrass Charlie further than that.

       In the examining room, I sit at the end of the examining table waiting for him while editing a short story. I'm no good at writing short stories, but I keep trying. What happens is, they take off, me unable to control them, while they try to become novels. I have two short stories in collections but neither of them are actually short stories, they're essays. If the editors of the collections see them as short stories, fine, as long as they still write the checks.

       When the Count comes in, he has someone with him besides Marina. He introduces his resident, Khalid. I notice that all doctors refer to the residents, who by the way, are also MDs, by their first names. I will take any odds that Khalid doesn't call Dr. Ionescu, Dumitru. I am noticing that Khalid's face is a mask of mortification. Rather than saying, "Lovely to meet you," or "Enchanté," Khalid just stares past my left ear avoiding eye contact.

       I put out my hand; he takes it and drops it as fast as he can. Have you ever shaken hands with a moth? He also emits a little mumble. I hear a sigh, not from him, but from Marina, already in position at the computer. I assume with the name, Khalid is a Muslim who, even though he's been through medical school, is still not comfortable touching a woman who isn't his wife. I would like to be respectful of that, but the question is, how, when I'm up on a table naked but for my new, though modest, underpants beneath my falling-off johnny coat.

       The Count asks me, "How are you feeling?"

       I tell him I'm good.

       "Your pathology report is all we could hope for."

       "So I've been told."

       Then, rather than, Congratulations, he says, "The regimen I would suggest for you is radiation and Tamoxifen. I think of this combination as a mastectomy/chemotherapy preventer."

       I say something inane like, "That's good." Whenever someone says something that has an epiphany-like ring to it, I am too flabbergasted to respond appropriately. With a smile to Khalid, hopefully to show him how sympathetic I am to his religious and cultural idiosyncrasies. Then I ask the Count something pressing, "Dr. Quigley has told me what you just did. I have read the side effects of Tamoxifen. I agree that I should take Tamoxifen, but I have a very happy sex life. A side effect of Tamoxifen is my vagina atrophying. What are the chances of that happening?"

       He doesn't bat an eyelash so it must be true. I do not look at Khalid, who must be dying. The Count says, "I don't know the statistic, but the chances are low. It is one of the least common side effects. However, if you do have indications of such, we will switch to an aromatase inhibitor. There are three." (This last has nothing to do with aroma therapy you get for an extra twenty bucks when you have a massage.)      "However, the not unusual side effect of the aromatase inhibitors is a decrease in bone density. You would be monitored, though, with regular bone scans. You are very small-boned."

       I get a Dracula sweet smile.

       I ask the Count, "If I have radiation, what are my odds of getting a serious radiation-created cancer down the road?"

       "Point-zero-two percent." No chance-in-a-million prognostications for the Count.

Naturally, I cannot compute what point-zero-two percent means off the top of my head. I will ask Jere.

       My johnny coat slips off my left shoulder, and perhaps coincidentally, Dr. Ionescu asks, "May I examine your breasts?"

       I say, "Yes." What else?

       He examines Starbright. Khalid's eyes are fixed on the toes of his Air Jordans. I have a thought. I ask the Count as he's doing his thing, "Will tamoxifen affect my libido, the one I just mentioned?"

       "Your libido with remain what it is," says the Count.

       "It won't if my vagina atrophies."

        He stops examining me. "Again, if there is a problem with your vagina, you will stop taking Tamoxifen and we will likely switch you to another drug, altogether, Femara is—"

       "Femara?"

       "Yes."

       "Who thinks up these names?"

       "Marketing people. But according to trials, Femara is the most effective of the aromatase inhibitors when it comes to the threat of vaginal dryness. There aren't enough studies to show Femara's effect on bone density though."

       "We'd roll the dice then?"

       "Let us wait till we get to that point."

       The Count finishes up with Starbright and then does Starlight. With them out of the way, he says, "Now…I want you to know about the option available to you regarding your oncological care."

       Oh. Just when I was going to ask him what happens when men are recommended a cancer drug that prevents the production of testosterone, he pulls his sleeve is up, his watch now staring at me. Never mind. I already know the answer all such men will give? Fuck that, Doc. So instead I ask, "What option would that be?"

       "Once you finish your radiation treatment, you may choose to become a client of the Survivorship Clinic."

       "I may? What's that?" I ask, swearing to myself right then that I will never think of myself as a survivor. How are you a survivor if something you might survive can come back? I'll think of myself as a rescue, like ninety percent of dogs these days.

       "You'll have a team consisting of an oncologist, clinical social worker, nutritionist, and physical therapist. You will begin by seeing all four, and then revisit the clinic each year afterward. You can see all four again, or whichever of the four you like, singly, whenever you like. By appointment. At each yearly visit, you will be examined, receive advice, and have the opportunity to ask any questions you might have of the team."

       I start to say something like, Wow, but he's still talking.

       "If you choose the Survivorship Clinic, you will be seeing Dr. Hale, who is an oncologist much admired by all of us. You will see her rather than me."

       He is so sick of me, I can tell. I cannot help but consider that so many of his patients are dying, and I'm not. Purportedly, at least. I say, "When do I have to let you know?"

       "When you know."

       "And until then I continue to see you?"

       "Yes."

       "Why can't I see you and the team?"

       "I believe I would agree with the insurance companies that you don't need two oncologists." The smile. "What will aid in your decision is when you actually meet with the Survivorship team for a consultation, which I strongly encourage. You may feel more secure about a decision after that visit.

       "Finally, I have looked into the clinical trials with women who do not have radiation after breast cancer surgery. None of the trials yet meet the criteria for serious consideration, as they haven't been followed long enough. But if I hear of anything else, another trial perhaps, I will let you know what I find."

       He puts out his hand. I put out mine, while I hold up the johnny coat with the other. He says, "I wish you well."

       Dr. Ionescu never uses my name once. I say, "Thank you," as you already know I will. He's turning on his heel. Khalid is just about to make his escape, too, but I say to him, "Good luck to you, Doctor…" I read his last name on his lab coat "…Sharif." Maybe he's related to Omar.

       He pauses. Maybe I'm the first one to address him as Dr. Sharif. He says what sounds like, "Thank you," really just a guess on my part. The Count is out the door, Khalid on his heels.

       Marina stands up from her chair. She smiles at me and shrugs. I shrug back.

       That night, I call Jere. "What are your chances of having something when the risk is point-zero-two percent?"

       "One in 5,000. Why?"

       I tell him. He says, "Pretty low odds, Mom. Probably better than the odds of dying if you don't have radiation. Hold on." He's now tapping away at his laptop. Then he says, "Way better."

       Why doesn't that make me feel way better? But I still thank him.

       I go to my own laptop and google: What events have a 1 in 5,000 chance of happening?

       Answer: From the time your dad is 18 until he's 43, he will meet 10,000 women. The odds that your mom will be in this group are one in 20,000. So what is the probability that dad asks mom out, they fall in love, they get married and have you? One in 5,000.

       Well, that's a relief. It doesn't compute as far as I can tell, but then my brain is programmed to prefer to do things other than compute. Based on that little case study, it ain't gonna happen; I decide that one in 5,000 suddenly sounds just as far out of the realm of possibility as Dr. Frye's one in a million.

       Before I'm even dressed, I know I'm going with the Survivorship team rather than Dracula since a team of four, including an oncologist, has to be better than just him and his latest medical resident.

 

Chapter 27.

 

A FEW DAYS LATER, I insist that Charlie stay home again while I head to Guilford for the ultrasound. After all, an ultrasound is an everyday thing and I want to go to the Clinton Mall afterwards. I need a little something to throw over my shoulders for the wedding, if necessary. It's going to be outside on Long Island Sound, and I'll have nothing covering my back, arms, shoulders, and a yet-unscarred cleavage. I confer with Kristin. She says to me, "I'm not getting anything. There won't be a Mass. It'll probably last three minutes."

       She's right, but I'm going to the Clinton Mall anyway to browse aimlessly.

       I say to Charlie, "Go to the boat, honey. Catch a great fish and grill it for dinner. Okay?"

       I have to promise him I'll tell him every detail of my entire ultrasound appointment. Also, the prospect of finding a couple of fishermen at the marina to go out with him is his favorite thing to do. I kiss him goodbye, but when he hugs me, he holds my head against his chest for a few moments. When I'm heading through the door, I hear him call to Salty, "Let's go fishing, Salty-Dog." Nice.

       First thing in Guilford, after I get my wristband and respond to the West Africa imperative, I sit with Pam, my personal nurse, just like last time. Pam's title is not "Personal Nurse," by the way.  

       She jumps right into the business end of the pool, talking about the side effects of radiation. "The most worrisome thing right now is how it will affect your skin."

       More worrisome things to come, apparently.

       An image of my late cousin, Marietta Kelley, comes to me. She died from breast cancer two years after her diagnosis at 38. I say to Pam, "I had a cousin who had breast cancer. She had to have a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Her coloring was almost the same as mine—dark hair, dark brown eyes, and fair skin. Her skin was actually porcelain; mine's just fair. She told the radiologist that even though she had dark hair and eyes, she needed him and the radiology nurses to know that if she's in the sun for just five minutes, she gets a bad sunburn. She didn't tan either." I make sure Pam is looking at me, and not the computer. She is. I tell her, "They didn't make an accommodation."  

       Pam's face falls. "I'm sorry."

       "Two weeks after radiation started, she had second degree burns on her chest."

       "Oh, no."

       "So can you put in bold print that my skin is fair?"

       She says, "Yes," and she does.

       Marietta was way more than a cousin. Neither of us had sisters. We were each other's maids of honor.

       I start to cry.

       Pam gets me tissues and a cup of coffee. Then she has no choice but to continue. "Please understand, Mary-Ann, that sometimes even people with very dark skin become blistered, and we don't know why. It's painful and takes a long time to treat and heal. Your three radiation nurses will check you very carefully every day before they treat you, and Dr. Frye will examine you every Thursday. If you have any problem at all, call us. Or tell us about it when you get here, if you feel it can wait.

       "Although we will do everything possible to protect your skin, the skin will turn pink and then tan, a tan that might be permanent. And in certain places where your skin has a wrinkle—near your underarms, for example—your skin will burn more. You might swell up in those areas."

       Before I can say, Excuse me? she hurries on.

       "Then again, like some women, you might not be affected at all. The women who have the greatest difficulty, of course, are women with large breasts—more area is affected, obviously.

       "I also have to tell you that with the breast tissue in your underarm, your underarm will be radiated and you'll receive a boost or two there. The hair follicles under your arm will probably not produce hair anymore after that."

       I say, "Just like the left side of my husband's belly."

       I tell her about Charlie's testicular cancer, how he was radiated from belly button to mid-thigh.

       Pam says, "Yes, just like that. We'll give you a lotion that will help your skin. Put it on every time you shower, but don't use it before you come here for treatment. Put it on after treatments, though, right in the dressing room."

       "What's the lotion?"

       I am expecting a prescription drug, but Pam says, "Lubriderm."

       I say, "Lubriderm is over-the-counter."

       "Yes." She reaches into her pocket and takes out some little samples and hands them to me.  "We have a ton of these."

       I read the ingredients. I say, "This stuff is useless."

       "It's soothing."

       "You have just described pain to me—sunburn, blisters, swelling. So I have to wait for those things to happen before I can get anything serious? What about staying ahead of the pain?"

       "If you have some itching, you can use a little cortisone."

       "Prescription strength?"

       "No."

       "Do you have a dermatologist here involved with radiation treatment since the skin on my breast is about to corrode?"

       "No."

       That's it. I'm getting angrier by the minute. "Why the hell not?"

       "I don't know. I'm sorry."

       "I'm going to call my dermatologist. I hope she knows something you guys don't."

       "I hope she does too."

       When I get home, I will google what I should be putting on my skin. Also, I'll call my old Peace Corps buddy, Peggy Pennington, who used to live in the Village you might recall. She's since moved to Canada and changed her name to Maggie. She's passed the five-year mark since she had a lumpectomy.

       Pam walks me to the nurses' station, where she introduces me to another nurse, Dana. She says, "If I'm not here, Dana will take care of you."

       Dana has a cute and heart-warming face. She smiles. She has a gap between her two front teeth. I find that gap, which one doesn't see much anymore, absolutely precious. She says, "It's nice to meet you."

       I say, "And you," although I'm really getting sick of meeting people.

       Dana leads me to a room where a shiny steel piece of equipment is hovering above the foot of the table.

       I say, "So that will go over my body and stop at my chest?"

       "It will go higher than that."

       "Will it cover my face?"

       "Yes, but just for an instant before it comes back down."

       Speaking of my face, she notes that it has lost all color. "You're claustrophobic? Not to worry. We have lots of patients who are claustrophobic. We'll give you a soft, fuzzy eye mask, and we'll be talking to you the whole time. Or we'll play music if you—"

       "How close to my face will it get?"

       "Close, but again, for maybe two seconds."

       Then I say, "I'm not claustrophobic. I've had two ultrasounds before. I was fine. But last year I had a really bad experience." Then I tell her what I told Dr. Frye about my "traffic incident" with a couple of extra details. "My entire car was hit with falling cables and live wires. They scraped half the paint off the car. They ended up draped all over like spaghetti. The workers who somehow caused the cables to separate were all screaming at me not to move."

       First she stares at me.  Then she says, "Omigod. How horrible. Where did it happen?" I tell her. She says, "I never heard about that!"

       I go back to what I said to Dr. Frye, but instead of the school bus scenario, I say, "If I'd have been killed, you'd have heard about it."

       Dana refines her earlier comment. "It wasn't on the news."

       "One way to cover up something like that is to call it an 'incident.' The news doesn't cover incidents. I'm suing everyone."

       "Good."

       I don't add that a traffic incident, as opposed to a traffic accident, means that no investigation is required. I got a one-page report from the Branford Police Department along with a diagram of a traffic light laying in the middle of Rte. 1, up against the driver's side door of my car—a primitive birds-eye drawing. I am not included in the drawing. The car appears to be driverless. The live wires and fat cables lying all over the car, trapping me inside, do not make the drawing either. That missing detail, I decide, is part of the cover-up.

       Dr. Frye has to get back to business. She asks me to sit on the middle of the table with my legs hanging over the side. She helps me up, and next opens a drawer in the cupboard behind her and dangles the warm, fuzzy mask on her finger. It's black, so your brain will think it's night and you'll cork right off. If you believe that, you believe in the Tooth Fairy.

       Dana says, "We're going to take care of you, Mary-Ann. That's why we're here." She looks toward a large window where three nurses are waving at me. Dana says, "Meet Lori, Sue, and Pat. They're your radiation nurses."

       One of them gives me a thumbs-up.

       "Can they hear us?"

       "They sure can."

       So I wave to them, and say, "Hi."

       Dana puts her hand on my shoulder, "We don't do much talking in there. But the very second you want us to stop the scan, we'll stop it. That very second, I promise. But don't move—just say, Stop, and it will stop." She smiles down at me. "I'm in charge of the stop button."

       I say, "Okay."

       I have said okay abut a zillion times since that first post-mammogram phone call. She passes me the mask. I ask, "Is it cashmere?"

       "I don't know, but I think it must be."

       "So do I."

       "Go ahead. Try it."

       I do. All is dark, and my eyes are swathed in tenderness. She says, "Let's lie down," and she guides me downward into position. "If you manage the scan, then Dr. Frye will look at the images. Once she's done that, she'll come in for a chat."

       If I manage it. How wonderful that this Dana doesn't say something like, Don't worry, you'll be fine. She's a good nurse. She knows what honesty means to people. Then she says, "While Dr. Frye looks at the images, so will we, and then I'll be back out. I'll mark a few spots on the left side of your upper torso, and around to your side. That's where we'll aim the beams when you have your treatment. Then Dr. Frye will discuss the images with you."

       I say, "Okay." I'm committed.

       I've said okay about a zillion times since that first post-mammogram phone call.

       "You know the machine will make a lot of noise, right? Since you've had two?"

       "Yes." Who cares about noise if you're worried about the entire contraption falling onto your face, or chest, crushing your nose, heart, breasts, and lungs and killing you?

       "Maybe it will help if you know exactly what happens and when."

       It won't, but I say, "Okay," for the one zillionth and first time.

       I pull up the mask and try to pay attention to Dana as she describes the movement of the machine and the amount of time into the treatment when it will begin moving up and down. Two minutes.

       "I'm being honest when I say that with the mask, you will not know where the scanner is. You'll just hear the motor that's moving it. I hope that helps."

       It won't. "I'll try my best."

       "We'll be rooting for you, okay?"

       "Okay."

       "I have to join the other nurses."

       "Okay."

       "Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. It will relax you." 

       "I'm already doing that."

       "Good."

       I will do my Lamaze/EMDR breathing, even though the only thing that could relax me is if Charlie walked in with a martini…Blue Sapphire…Plymouth…something from the well…whatever.

       I ask, "How long will the machine-moving last?"

       "The actual radiation will last ninety seconds."

       Dana smiles at me, and this smile is meant to show me how happy she is to give me that last bit of good news. I immediately think positively: If a labor contraction lasts two minutes, I can do this.

       She helps me get the mask snugly into place.

       She leaves—quiet footsteps and the soft opening and closing of a door. The pounding of my heart, on the other hand, is loud. I feel sweat leaping out of every pore there is, including in my scalp. I am distracted, realizing I will need to take another shower and shampoo my hair again. This distraction allows me to note that I have stopped breathing, a common occurrence when you panic, leading you to faint, or vomit besides, like that pervert George Bush, the father, did at the Japanese state dinner. This was before the #MeToo movement came along when he got outed for grabbing women's asses, including a fourteen-year-old's, during photo ops. He seemed such a nice fellow, the bastard. Lucky for him, he was old and in a wheel chair so everyone felt more sorry for him than the teenager. Well…not everyone. So now he's gone. What a reversal.

       I know from EMDR, and I especially know from Lamaze, that it's all about breathing. My Lamaze coach explained that the crazy breathing cycles she was teaching our class were meant to keep our diaphragms up and away from the uterus during a contraction. Otherwise, during the contraction, when it rises while you're doing the more usual, uninformed, freaked-out gasping, crying or screaming, it will bang into your diaphragm.

       "That is what hurts," she tells us, "the collision, not the contraction. You can prevent the collision."

I could actually visualize what she's described, so I believe her. It works. I know that for a fact, because I experimented and let one contraction happen without the Lamaze breathing. I could feel my uterus as it rose upward, but I just breathed normally. When it collided with my diaphragm, the pain was so shocking I made this horrible half-scream, half-wretching noise. The labor room nurse by my side basically jumped out of her skin. Then I started breathing my brains out just in case the next contraction was coming right away. When it did, I kept it from hitting my diaphragm.

       The ultrasound starts. I'm doing my Lamaze/EMDR in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth, slow and steady breathing. I get through it.

       Dana comes running into the room applauding. "Done! Good work!"

I get the mask off. The scanning machine is way down by my feet. Through the window, I see the radiation nurses all busy looking at screens.

Dana says, "You just rest now."

       I do.

       When she's back, she's got a Sharpie in her hand bigger than the one Dr. Quigley wields. I feel it touch me in six places: the middle of my chest; then Starbright gets twice; two more under my arm; and finally, around to my side.

       She says, "Don't wash off the marks in the shower."

       Then she helps me sit up.

       I say to her, "Is the radiation machine like this one?"

       "Somewhat. It will be below your face and go back and forth, side to side, twice. It will be very close to your face, though. Focus on the amount of time, ninety seconds. That's all it will last. Back and forth, then back and forth. Ninety seconds."

       I ask, "How close to my face?"

       "Inches."

       "Shit."

       She smiles. "We'll have your mask ready for you."

       "Can I see the machine?"

       "I'm sorry. There's either a patient being radiated, or it's being prepared for the next patient. You can see it online, though. I'm sure the treatment is on YouTube. You can probably watch dozens of people get radiated on YouTube."

       Actually, thousands. And the radiation machine has a name—a linear accelerator. I'm going to keep calling it the radiation machine, which is less aggressive, since "accelerator" connotes speed. I'm thinking of the speed of a linear accelerator as it falls on my head.

       Dr. Frye walks in. She looks anxious. My cancer must have spread to my lungs. But no, that's not what she has to say. Instead, "Mary-Ann, the cancer we will radiate, as you know, is in your left breast."

       Some people rely on an introductory comment before they give you bad news.  When a nurse called me from St. Mary's home where my brother was in order to tell me he'd just died, she started with, Tyler wanted to go to the library tonight….

       Now I know to brace myself for something that's going to come that I probably won't want to.

       "When I looked at the ultrasound images, I saw the close proximity of the larger chamber of your heart to your rib cage, and the small amount of fatty tissue between. Therefore, you should have a lower dose of radiation than I'd originally thought. But it means you'll need five weeks of treatment instead of three."

       I unbrace. Am I upset? Only slightly. A lower dose trumps five weeks over three, I would think. And she's talking about the damage to my heart a là Google.

       I say, "So that means the risk of the dangerous cancer that will damage my heart will be significantly reduced, right?"

       First she gapes at me, and then she says, "It will all but eliminate any chance of damage to your heart." Then she says, before I can comment on all but, "Still, if you have the need to get it finished within three weeks, then you can be treated at Yale, where you'll first go to breathing classes to learn how to keep your lungs from expanding, something that brings your heart even closer to your chest wall."

       I do not get into the similarity of your uterus banging into your diaphragm with your lungs side-swiping your heart. I just say, "Ain't doin' that, doc."

       "Good," she says with relief.

        I have a problem, but I don't talk about it now. My trip to Costa Rica that Dr. Quigley said I can't take will now happen in the middle of my radiation treatment, not at the end of it, as I'd figured. I will consider that snag at a later date.

       Dr. Frye says, "Anything wrong?"

       I smile. I lie. "Nope."

       "Then I'll see you next Thursday."

       A firm handshake, and off she goes.

       I say goodbye to Pam at the nurses' station—Anna is off being someone else's personal nurse. Pam dips into a vast tub of Lubriderm samples, scoops out about a hundred of them, puts them in a quart-size baggie and hands it to me. If Pfizer is giving hospitals a million kilos of Lubriderm, I guess the hospitals will be sure to recommend it over, say, medication that might do some good.

       In the lobby, the security guard asks, "Will you be heading east, ma'am? On 95?"

East is to the Clinton Mall."

       "Yeah."

       "Accident. You're going to have to take Route 1, just so you know."

       That's the same as saying, You're going to have to take a slow boat to China.

       But it's a nice day. I will drive to the Guilford shoreline and sit on a bench and read instead of going to the mall. October on the Connecticut shore is fabulous because Long Island Sound is still warm; ergo, the air is ten degrees higher than what it is inland. If you want to get married on the Connecticut shoreline in October, though, book your wedding on your fifth birthday. Melissa has made it clear she is determined to be married in October.

       The thing is, the venue she has fallen in love with is booked for every Saturday in October for as long as the hostess's reservation book will take her. Moved by Melissa's reaction attesting to her firm belief that she will never be happy if she doesn't get married in this perfect place, this perfect setting, this perfect vibe, this perfect sampling of the dishes they serve, etc. etc., the woman has a suggestion. "Although we normally don't do this…well, once in a while we'll make an exception….how would you feel about a Sunday wedding?"

        Melissa immediately whipped out her checkbook. If the venue-owner asked if she'd be willing to get married on a Wednesday at 4 a.m., Melissa, a young woman who understands priorities, would have whipped the checkbook out just as swiftly.

        I don't say this to Melissa, but getting married just before sundown, means October warmth can become can be dissipated at the end of the day by northern breezes. There is no need for me to say that because it's a glitch October brides won't think about. I hope they all have a Kristin in their lives to tell them their wedding ceremony will be over in too short a time to worry about it.

       At a beach in Guilford—a private beach, but since it's not summer no one cares—I put on sunblock, and then I go sit on a bench. I put my face to the sun. I'm alive and I will stay alive till I'm a hundred. I text Charlie on his boat that the ultrasound went fine.

       I look at my phone. Maggie, formerly Peggy. She has texted me back: I never had a problem with my skin. I had radiation for a month. Every day—before and after they zapped me—I slathered on aloe vera.

       I text a thanks.

       I decide to call my dermatologist's office. I tell her PA the story. Dr. Kaplan calls me back five minutes later.

       She says, "We only use Vaseline here for burns less than first degree. You have to follow the radiology treatment protocol."

       I ask her, "Isn't blistered, oozing skin a degree beyond first?"

       She doesn't answer.

       "Dr. Kapan. We're talking Lubriderm to take care of the blistering and oozing. Never mind pain. It's Vaseline in disguise. What kind of protocol is that?"

       "I'm afraid there's nothing I can suggest."

       "I promise not to sue you if you do."

       "Mary-Ann, I know nothing of the effect of various creams or lotions on skin that is being radiated or has been radiated."

       "Do you know a pill?"

       "I'm really sorry."

       She's sorry because she'd probably love to recommend something, knows exactly what to recommend, but can't. There's a reason, and that reason—whatever it might be—is unethical.

To all dermatologists everywhere: FORGET THE FUCKING BOTOX. DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE JOKE OF A PROTOCOL THAT CAUSES CANCER PATIENTS TO HAVE THEIR SKIN BLISTERED AND BURNED AND DOCTORS WILL NOT DO A FUCKING THING TO PREVENT IT, TREAT IT, HEAL IT.

       This is a perfect time to call Laura, my EMDR therapist, before I have a nervous breakdown. She once offered me an extra session if ever I fell back into the inability to drive under a traffic signal. "Just call me." Now I do.  She says, "I'm waiting for a patient. Can you be here in an hour? I'll have some time."

       It's eleven o'clock. She will skip lunch for me. She is a woman dedicated to seeing that people can live normal lives instead of apoplectic ones. I'll bring her a bagel.

       I say, "Thanks. I'll be there."

      "Good."

       She's in Clinton, where the mall is. Also, where Charlie stores his boat off-season, if you recall. Once I see her, I can go to the mall, after all, assuming the accident on 95 is cleared.  

       I open my book. It is the most recent mystery by my friend Karen Olson. Hidden. It's published by a UK publisher, meaning it will be called a crime novel instead of a mystery, a euphemism. She also has a previous series on hold with a sleuth who is a tattoo artist in Las Vegas. (Always set a mystery in a fun place to visit. Karen goes to Vegas several times—"research." Her books get Vegas down perfectly. Anyway, Karen became so totally familiar with being a tattoo artist, she could be one. Which is the main reason I'm calling her now.)

       I ask her, "What do you put on tattoos to soothe the person's skin while it's healing?"

       "Aquaphor."

       "What about Lubriderm?"

       "Nope. It stings. Well, maybe it doesn't sting anymore. It's been watered down."

       "What?" Is it any wonder Pfizer is stocking hospitals with all those Lubriderm samples? They need people to buy it before social media starts warning the world about the water

ing-down.

       Karen says, "But if the tattoo ends up hurting a lot, I have the client call a doctor friend of mine and she'll get an appointment right away, and he'll give her a prescription for cortisone. You getting a tattoo? Come to Vegas, I'll show you some very cool ones."

       I have to tell Karen what I'm getting instead. She immediately comforts me with encouragement via honesty. It is easy to be as fond of Karen as I have been since the day I met her."Newly tattooed skin and burned skin are not the same. You'll really hurting be. Go right to cortisone. I'm sure they'll prescribe it."

       I say, "Radiated skin was described to me as a sunburn."

       "They told you that? Ya know, I'd start cortisone the day of your first treatment. Don't wait. Don't wait to see if it's only the same as a sunburn."

       I thank her. Yet again, quote-unquote, my mother: "Knowledge is power.

 

Chapter 28.

 

HERE IS WHAT I learned from Laura when we met for our very first session: When the troops came home from first, Iraq, and then, Afghanistan, a large number of those soldiers survived the explosions of roadside bombs, also known as IEDs, without physical injury. However, they still couldn't drive their cars waiting for them at home in garages and driveways without having panic attacks. Untreated panic attacks, naturally, lead to misery, depression, and worse. A lot worse.

     Laura tells me how this is relevant to me: "At first the soldiers who witnessed the IED explosions, often just a few feet away, were just glad they were alive. That was your experience, wasn't it?"

     "Yes."

     "Even when you were sitting in a car covered with cables and live wires, even knowing you couldn't open your door to escape."

     "Yes. I saw the traffic signal lying on its side up against the door, and I was so relieved that I was still—"

     "Hold up."

     "What?"

     "Close your eyes. Think back. Put yourself back in the car. Think. Listen to the beeping in your ears moving right to left. Feel the buzzing in your palms moving right to left. The second I say stop, open your eyes."

     I don't want to do this, but too bad. I trust Laura. I close my eyes and listen and feel, and I hear Laura. "You're in your car and you're approaching the intersection, and you're waiting at the light for the green arrow so you can make your left, you can see the traffic signal suddenly falling at you, STOP!" I open my eyes.

     "Tell me what you're thinking right now."

     I double over and start wailing.

     She waits a moment, then very gently and softly, she says, "What was in your head?"  

     "That poor Salty will get crushed."

     "Can you sit up?"

     I do. "Can you stop crying?"

     It takes a while.

     Then she starts again, telling me to feel the buzzers, listen to the beeps, and then I am and she says, "The traffic light is coming down, it misses you, you watch it land on the road next to the door, you…STOP!"

      I do not double over. I do not wail. I just open my eyes and stare at her.

     "What?"

     I say, "I should be dead."

     "Mary-Ann. That is exactly what the soldiers say. You weren't relieved at all, were you?"

     "No."

     "Go back."

     I close my eyes. Beeping, buzzing, Laura talking. "STOP!"

     I don't open my eyes. "The construction guys are running to my window. They're screaming at me not to move. I don't move. The start pulling all the wires and cables off the car. One comes to the window. He tells me to put the window down. I did. He said…he said…he said…"

     I wretched.

     Laura had a pail at the ready. I opened my eyes, but I didn't throw up. She said, "We will keep going."

     But I didn't wait. I just closed my eyes again and went back. Then I opened them, "The guy said, 'We thought you'd be incinerated.'"

     I opened my eyes. I said, "Laura."

     "What?"

     "That guy thought I should be dead too."

     Laura says, "The troops that were nearly killed by IEDs came home, and they cannot get behind the wheel of their cars because their brains expect a bomb to go off right there on the shoulder of the road—and when it does, this time they will be killed. They become recluses. I'm not saying it will happen to you, but I'll bet you can benefit from the process of the treatment they eventually had available to them."

  EMDR therapy involves two physical things—the buzzers and the headphones beeping. And somehow, the therapist helps you move all the trauma from the right side of your brain to the left. The memory, the details, never go away, but it's all moved into your distance until when something triggers the memory, you do mental exercises to push the memory back to where it belongs. You learn to live with it, but now you can manage it. Took me six weeks. The memory didn't go away; it just got pushed out of my way so I could function. Function started with getting back my sense of safety until I am able to stop driving in circles to avoid going under traffic signals, stop turning five-minute trips into half an hour.

     At the end of each session, Laura had me breathe slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth for about five minutes. It's a good thing or I would have left and then fallen off the first curb I came to.

     Now, at our last-minute session, right after I got Dr. Frye's radiation schedule, just the sight of Laura is soothing. I review what's going on in a nutshell, I have to be under a giant piece of equipment. She asks, "What do you think you need to do to get through the radiation?"

     Because Laura has taught me that I don't know is not a helpful answer, I think for several minutes. She knows and I know that this isn't time to blurt out an answer like you do during the actual therapy. Finally, I have half an answer. "At least I'll need something in my hands."

     "Well that's a good idea."

     "Can you give me a spare pair of buzzers?"

     "I could but I don't think you'll have a place to plug them in."

     "Oh."

     "What else could you put in your hands that would give you the feeling of calm that you experienced with the buzzers?"

     I think some more but just for a moment. I say, "Stones."

     "What kind of stones?"

     "Round ones. Smooth stones. Pretty ones."

     "Perfect. Where will you get them?"

     "At the beach."

     "When will you do that?"

     "Now."

     She laughs. "Isn't EMDR a miracle?"

     I say, "Yes, and so are you."

     She leans forward a little, her eyes sparkling. She says, "After my last appointment today, I'm going down to the beach and I'm going to find some round, smooth, pretty stones too, and I'll hold them when I need to calm myself. If we meet again, we'll compare stones."

      If we meet again. She is saying we probably won't, but if I need her, we will. I don't need five minutes of EMDR breathing now because I don't come apart at the seams. We hug, say goodbye, and I go to the beach. I do that aimless-looking walking that beachcombers do. I find one stone right away. It's a little round cobble, charcoal gray granite, coated with multi-colored speckles. I nestle it into my palm and close my eyes. The stone fits perfectly into my right hand. It's cool and then it warms.

     The hunt for a stone for my left hand takes much longer. Is it any wonder? We're talking my Starbright side here—that's the side that needs the most attention. My left hand, as it turns out, seems to require an oval. I swear I look at more oval stones than I did stepmom-of-the-groom dresses. Then I see a yellow one (my favorite color), a translucent quartz. As soon as I pick it up, I know it's the one.

     This stone is a little bigger than the cobble, but then Starbright is a little bigger than Starlight. Both stones are made perfectly smooth over many years by the movement of the Long Island Sound tides washing them across the sand. In and out rather than right to left like my buzzers and beepers. I love the stones. I put them in the compartment of my bag meant for my phone charger. I throw the charger into the main part, and hope I don't lose it.

     Late that afternoon, Charlie comes home with Salty and shows me the fish we're going to eat for dinner. He puts it in the fridge, and then pours me a glass of afternoon pink wine. I tell him how happy I am that I made it through the ultrasound, and then about my session with Laura. I show him my two stones. "I'm going to hold on to these during my radiation treatment."

     A little pause before he says, "Good." Then he says, in as melancholy a voice as I've ever heard from him, "I remember when I had two testicles."

     I say, "Power Puff is great at doing the work of two, Charlie."I'm sorry, but I told you we have nicknames for all intimate body parts, right? If you're rolling your eyes, I understand.

     He says, "Sometimes the one that's gone still hurts."

     Dear God.

     While he grills his fish out on the deck, I make him one of his favorite appetizers—mussels in garlic and white wine broth with whatever herbs I feel like throwing in. I get a loaf of the high-end French bread out of the freezer that Charlie bought from the same bakery where he once got a loaf for me—the night he took me to the German club, the first night we made love. The bread that bears the ultimate combination of the three C's: crunchy crust on the outside, decadent chewiness on the inside, and creamy butter spread out across each chunk you yank off. My father taught me that you don't cut a great loaf of bread; you tear off a chunk. Why? Because it tastes better. The exception is when you make a sandwich. In a story he used to tell me, "Nanette Visits the Chateau," Nanette's mother made her daughter special sandwiches when the radish tops pop up in her garden in early spring. (This was France, after all.) Sliced radishes rest snugly into the butter on the bread. When my father made the sandwiches for me, he said, "Along with the crunchy, and the creamy, and the chewy, you get the beautiful red ring around each radish and a nice little zing from the juice of the radishes."

     Yes, you do.

     Anyway, it's been a damnably long day, and it's taking me a damnably long time to get to what I'm needing to tell you, isn't it? Here goes:

     At the very end of this long day, we watch a movie. Then I'm about to take the shower where I have to wash around the dabs of the Sharpie. I go in the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror. I get the stones out of my bag and come back, but I can't take off my clothes and hold the stones at the same time, so I put them next to the sink. What I'm thinking I'll see will be barely noticeable little dots across my upper torso. I see something else that makes me gasp. There, staring at me from my chest are big, black, hideous, X's. I see swastikas. It is as if someone wrote obscene graffiti over Starbright and all around her with the biggest, blackest Sharpie that ever was. Each of those terrible X's has a broad, black circle around it.

     I have a meltdown of such massive proportions that I can't stand up. I have to sit down on the tiles. I am crying in unmitigated despair. Salty gets to me first. I'm shaking so hard, I just lean against him and he bears up to my weight. I don't remember Charlie getting there but he's there, yet again, and I'm folded up in those strong arms. He waits till I stop shaking to loosen his grip, and then looks down and sees the X's.

     He says very calmly, so like the same calm of Laura's voice, "When I got radiation, I had little blue dots. I'm sorry, baby. I wish I could have known."

     I pretty much weep until I can speak again. "Charlie, this is a warning."

     He says nothing, just waits.

     "I am not having fucking radiation."

     Still, he doesn't say anything. He just keeps holding me. When he feels my muscles lose their tension, he says. "C'mon. We'll take a shower. I'll wash you around the marks so you won't have to do it."

     I say, "They're not marks, they're swastikas."

     He says, "Yes, they are." This is another reason why I so love him. Does he say, No, they only look that way? He does not.

     I say, "I'm washing them off."

     "Okay."

     He helps me stand. He takes off his clothes too. We get in the shower, and he picks up my lavender-scented Stella Marie soap, tinted by Kim the exact color of lavender in bloom, and he's soon got a washcloth full of creamy lather.

     While he's washing me, he says, "Radiation saved my life."

     If I think about that, it'll be too late. "Okay. Don't wash them off."

     Then there's Salty joining us, nudging us to make room so he can get beneath the showerhead. I say to Charlie, "I will not look at my naked body in a mirror again until I have my treatment, and then even if I have to use Brillo, I'm going to get it all off."

     He says, "Yes, you will. You won't need Brillo."

     Charlie's knee-replacing doctor didn't draw a big X with a circle around it on his kneecap. He drew a happy face. Charlie got little blue dots when he was treated for testicular cancer, and then a happy face from Dr. Komninakas.

     Damn it all to hell.

     I take a Benadryl and sleep for ten hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 29.

 

I STILL MUST check in at the Smilow Breast Center at Yale-New Haven for various things like blood work. Every time I go, an apparition appears—not an angel, but close—Seraphina, the clinical social worker. I am one of the many clients she has as testified to by the stack of folders ever-present in her arms. Seraphina's goal is to see to my mental condition. Never does she act as though I am damn lucky to have DCIS and not Stage Four gastric cancer. She doesn't congratulate me, either, which I hugely appreciate.

  A physical therapist I saw after a dog-leash injury—Salty zeroed in on a grazing flock of Canada geese and just about pulled my fingers out of their sockets—made a confession to me at our final session. I'd sat down across from her at her office desk, away from the madding crowd, bent and pulled and generally tortured. She said, "I have to tell you something."

"Okay."

"When I first started working as a physical therapist, I took care of a motorcycle accident guy. After him, I had difficulty showing a lot of concern for someone with, say, a dog-leash injury. I mean, this guy had broken every bone in his body. Then you come along with your sprained fingers. You said to me, My biggest problem is getting the bottle top off a Perrier. That really upset me. I figured one of the assistants here should take care of you, not me. But after I became so fond of you, I learned you had far worse problems than the inability to unscrew Perrier caps. That had been your sense of humor talking. I mean, the fingers on your right hand didn't work, and you were a writer! But even if that had been your only problem—unscrewing the top of a bottle—I have the same job to do. To have compassion for all my patients, no matter the injury. I'm responsible for fixing injuries, all of them."  

     I told her she'd done exactly that. Isn't it nice to be part of someone's epiphany? I wonder what Seraphina's epiphany had been; she treats me with the same compassion, and gives me the same great help, she offers to everyone. She holds my hand the same way she holds a man's hand when he can't talk because of a lung-cancer coughing fit. I saw her doing that though a door left ajar.

     Seraphina has a voice like a rippling stream just slightly accented. It's a clear brook of soul-cleansing water, her demeanor equally soothing. Yes, you get the caregiver smile, but with it comes a kindly wrinkles at her eyes. Her entire face smiles. She encourages me to tell her how I really feel. You already know how I really feel, especially after the swastika marks. But I don't want to get into it with her yet; I'd rather just listen to her tell me how wonderful I am, just as she's doing now, always there whenever I come to Smilow:

     "You're handling breast cancer in such a sound way. You advocate for yourself; you are not afraid to ask questions; you expect to be assured that you are getting the treatment that is right for you. You understand that knowledge is power."

     Maybe we were separated at birth and my mother put one of us up for adoption—her. If I have questions that I don't think to ask a doctor, I ask Seraphina and she does the asking for me. She doesn't call and press 2, as with, If you are calling from a physician's office…etc. She just walks right into the offices and confronts whoever she needs to with her patients' questions.

     Seraphina's job also includes keeping me informed about any and all services available at Smilow. Never mind that I can see a breast surgeon, a zillion radiologists, a shrink, a nutritionist, a physical therapist—I can even have free regular massages. I can have a Reiki massage! I had Reiki once, maybe fifteen years ago.

     I was taking a yoga class with a neighbor, Swami Janet, and she offered all of us a complimentary Reiki massage—she'd just gotten her certificate. If we liked it, we could continue to have them, only bring your checkbook. Reiki is a massage where the therapist doesn't touch you, but rather runs her hands inches above your body and feels the colors you are emitting, colors that pinpoint for her what it is about you that needs to be relaxed. Huh? you say. That's what I said too. I shy away from things with a fairy-tale quality though I love fairy tales. Sort of, render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to fairies that which is fairy tales. But I gave Reiki a whirl so I wouldn't hurt my Swami's feelings.

     On my back on Swami Janet's massage table, I watch her close her eyes. I'm supposed to do the same, but I'm too curious. She first passes her hands over my face, palms down. She stops. Her eyes spring open. "This is amazing! I'm getting a light show here. We must work on resting your brain!"

     I told her my brain was always chock full of stuff and if ever I try to relax or meditate, all that is going on in my head does not desist.

     "Here is what we will do about that," she says. "Without expressing anger, or even annoyance, I want you to gently tell the voices all speaking at once inside your head that they are preventing you from experiencing calm. Ask them politely to leave. Perhaps they will. If not, ask them again. If they quiet down, know that they'll come back and you will have to pause your meditation to remind them. You are in charge of them, Mary-Ann. Just explain that you are not asking a lot—you just need time to be by yourself."

     When you're raised a Catholic, stuff like that sounds like placing false gods before me.

     I don't tell this to Swami Janet, but the voices in my head are laughing their asses off just hearing this stuff. What I get from her is not to tell the voices to fuck off, or they'll just laugh the harder. But I will do what Swami Janet says, thereby fooling them with my calm-but- authoritative manner to show I won't listen to them.

     It doesn't work.

      Now, meeting with Seraphina before an appointment with Dr. Quigley to see how I'm doing, she tells me I can take an art class with highly considered artists who volunteer their time. An art class. Sheesh. Here I am a writer who can no longer concentrate after a traffic signal sliding down its broken support cable came within inches of killing me, and instead killed my power to create characters and plots and dialogues out of thin air. Over a span of twenty-five years, I've written nine novels, collaborated on another with my son, contributed to collections of short stories and essays. I can do all that, even with a million voices in my head vying for my attention, and the washing machine arguing with the dishwasher as to whose turn it is. The process of creativity not only requires concentration, but also imaginative thought. Hah!

     But I can't read either! I pick up a book and read the first sentence 37 times, but the sentence won't register. I've always read The New York Times every morning to clear out the cobwebs before I start the job of fiction. I can keep hundreds of pages of a working manuscript in my head, and now I can't even absorb The New York Times banner headline. The only column I just barely manage is "The Hunt" in the Sunday real estate section, though the editors recently changed its name, unfortunately, to something like, "Which One Would You Pick?" Who cares which one I'd pick? "The Hunt" had nothing to do with my opinion; what I cared about was the subject's dilemma in finding where he'd want to live, or how some 22-year-old just out of college manages to get something in her budge. Interestingly, I always found myself rooting for these people to find a place, whether their budget was a purchase price of 20 million, or two hundred a month rent, the latter possible for someone willing to build a temporary wall in a friend's living room and live behind it.

      So what do I do about this catastrophe of no longer being able to write a single line of narrative? Same thing I did when I knew my marriage was heading south. I wrote a memoir, not about the divorce as I have no interest in doing that, but instead, about a dreadful crime that took place when I was nine that turned my…uh…outré family—outré rather than dysfunctional—as well as my entire neighborhood and the city of Hartford, too, upside down. You'll have to Google it if interested: Girls of Tender Age.

     Anyway, writing a memoir means I don't have to tackle making people up, making up who they are, and what they do and say. It's already there ready to be transcribed. But this time around, I'm transcribing the events as they happen rather than recalling a long-ago event, as with the typical memoir. I can only hope that when I finish, I'm capable of fiction again. I am so chomping at the bit to write a novel about who killed Lizzie Borden's parents. On a tour of the Borden house, a present from my son and daughter-in-law, I came to know exactly who did it, and it surely wasn't Lizzie. Meanwhile, I've finished some great reading—things I picked up at the Lizzie Borden Museum (a spiffied-up shed behind the house), including acouple of old books, and a magazine published during Lizzie's era: The Reliable Poultry Journal: Devoted to Better Poultry and More of It.

     So, I love my chat sessions with Seraphina. If not for her I don't know how I could go about the process of taking a step forward. Eventually, fifty pages into my new memoir, I get to say to her, "Guess what? I just read the entire New York Times on my laptop!"  Hug, hug, hug. She totally understands what, to me, seems a miracle. "If I couldn't find the strength to turn the pages of the Times, I knew I could tap keys."

     She says, "And you would know!"

     Seraphina reminds me of Charlie. Once, not too long after we started living under the same roof, I ran out into his office and said, "I just got the TV from the DVR setting to real TV one!" I couldn't make that happen before. He looked up, he put his arms out, and said, "Good girl, Mary-Ann!" 

      I may be a feminist, but I never heard those words as a child. I love hearing them now, from him, but no one else, so don't go getting any ideas. Quote Seraphina instead.

       Seraphina also says, "You haven't been able to see to yourself because you've had to come back from the traffic signal and now you have to come back from cancer. You're coming back, Mary-Ann. You're coming back again."

     Not only is Seraphina astute, knowledgeable, and articulate with the demeanor of a handmaiden attending to goddesses, she even pronounces Dr. Ionescu's name the way, presumably, Romanians do. She turns the s into a sh, and the last syllable coo, not like a pool cue. The trace of accent I initially felt I heard is maybe Romanian. I loved my grandfathers' accents. My French Canadian grandfather pronounced dollar, doe-LAR. My Italian grandfather, when somebody asked him how to say refrigerator in Italian, said, "Ice-a-box." As if they had refrigerators in Italy when he was a boy.

     The day after the swastikas, I have an appointment with Justine, Dr. Quigley's PA, to check on the healing of my incision. Seraphina dashes into the examining room while I'm sitting at the end of the table waiting for her. She wants to tell me about a new support group for DCIS patients that starts tomorrow. "It's at noon. You can bring your lunch and there'll be cookies."

       I have shown no interest in the other cancer support groups she has mentioned, but maybe the timing is right for me to try this one out. I will go. Seraphina is so glad.

       Justine is in and out again, time to give me fifteen seconds. "The scar looks good."

       No, it doesn't. Who ever heard of a good-looking scar? 

 

Chapter 30.        

 

I ALMOST MANAGED to get to a support group meeting once in my life before Seraphina's tomorrow. I accompanied a friend to an AA meeting. She thought she had a drinking problem and wanted to nip it in the bud.

We hang outside the door for a while because neither of us appreciates the vibe we're getting from the people heading in, that vibe controlled by the…uh…odor. Our feeling is that people shouldn't go to an AA meeting drunk, and we high-tail it back to her car.

     My friend ends up making an appointment with a psychologist to find out if she has a drinking problem, since she's not sure if she does or not. He tells her, "If you make rules about drinking, meaning, if you say things like, I only have two drinks and then I stop; or I only drink on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; or I don't drink till after seven; or, I only drink Bud Light, then you have a drinking problem. But if you break those rules, you no longer have a drinking problem—you're an alcoholic."

     So this friend is not only in the rules stage as described, but her go-to favorite is: I only drink red wine because it's good for you. She is in denial as to one glass leads to another, until the bottle is empty by the time she goes to bed. So she stops drinking red wine, and all the other alcoholic beverages she'd knock down. Instead, she buys a SodaStream and makes herself flavored seltzer. Green tea-flavored seltzer, for example. It works. She is now addicted to seltzer, but she nipped her alcoholism in the bud, which was the whole point. My feeling is she needed a romantic glass in her hand. Who doesn't like cradling the globe of a red wine glass? She could make such great dramatic points with that wave of her wine glass. At first she drinks the seltzer in wine glasses, but that causes a fall off the wagon. So I buy her six 1930s pilsner glasses with short stems on eBay, the rounded points at the base of the pilsners, just above the stems, are each a different, most beautiful color— like sea glass. The pilsners are more delicate than the wine glasses, wafer-thin like your great-grandmother's tea cups. My friend makes far more profound points when she waves those pilsners.

     I have yet to make a rule about drinking, but I absolutely know that the minute I find myself making one, I'm getting a SodaStream. But I do believe the reason I never have more than two drinks is I know that with the first drink, I'm adorable, and with drink number two, I find myself becoming a bit short with people. I never have drink number three because I'll end up calling someone a….  Never mind. Just know it's a word I won't even write, sparing you, from having to read anything worse than an F-bomb. Actually, I always stop mid-second drink. Who wants to be short with people? Your friends, yet?

       Hmmm…. Is that a rule? Maybe I'll rethink the 1½ drink thing when I finish breast cancer treatment. Hey, is that not a rule too? Oh, the hell with it.

No one had better advice than my father. When I was fifteen, he said, "Okay, so if you go to Judy Morris's party tonight and you drink, you'll feel good. You'll have a really great time because booze takes away your inhibitions. Then you'll throw up on Mrs. Morris's sofa. Do you want to do that?"

     "No Dad."

      Then I do it. I'll never do it again. I loved when my dad would speak in parables. Who wants to go around throwing up on your friends' mothers' sofas? (Mrs. Morris didn't allow smoking cigarettes, even though she figured we'd be all right with beer, so once she goes to bed after we all pretend to be sleeping, we smoke plastic straws. Inhaling the smoke that is sucked up a straw was a larger part of the reason I threw up, never mind the beer.) I snuck out of the house without ever telling Mrs. Morris that I'm the one who threw up on her sofa and set the lamp shade on fire with my "cigarette." Judy doesn't get to have any more parties. I don't have parties. I can't even have friends over, only cousins because Tyler insists on taking everyone's picture with the View Master he got when he was five. (Google it.)  I said, "Why the hell don't we get Tyler an actual camera?" He told me not to swear.

     With all that, I really don't want to go to Seraphina's support group, accepting the inevitability of it being depressing; how can it not be? But I want to be with people who are in my same boat so I'll have empathy for my swastika marks. Maybe I'll be able to give them empathy for something that affects them in an exceptionally bad way.

     My decision is a big—way big—mistake, just so you know. Far be it from me to get your hopes up. I'm writing a memoir here, not a novel.

     After I make my way through the Q Bridge cranes, and dump trucks, and bumper-to-bumper traffic, doing my EMDR breathing the whole time, and then maneuver the corridors, elevators, and cubby holes of Smilow, I have to get past a large group of what appear to be medical students crowding into a room next to the one I'm headed for. The students are boisterous, loud, and happy. They have not been diagnosed with breast cancer, nor are they about to take part in a support group. My guess is they're celebrating something.

     In the support group room, there is a long table. Two facilitators, Seraphina and a nurse, will be hosting an estimated fifteen people. Seraphina gives a little wave to me and I wave back. I am the tenth to arrive. Imagine the opposite mood to a loud, happy party. Grim.

     There is one sorry-ass plate of cookies in the center of the table. After a few more women trickle in and sit down, Seraphina says we will start by going around the room, each of us taking two minutes or so to introduce ourselves and say whatever we'd like—where we are in our treatment, our emotional state, etc. I do the math, an especially simple calculation even for me. If we each speak for two minutes, that's half an hour. It's a one-hour meeting. That would leave two minutes apiece for more serious support. But maybe most people who come only want to listen, or feel safe, or whatever, and will say, "I don't feel like talking."

     We end up with fourteen women. I feel compassion for our drop-out.

     The woman to my right is the only one who looks like she has cancer. The minute I walk in, my eyes are riveted to her half-inch long, grey salt and pepper hair covering her scalp. I know everyone must be feeling badly for her because she's had chemotherapy, but at least now she can be supported.

     When I sit down, I smile at the short-haired woman, but she looks right through me. If I'm her, I probably wouldn't be able to focus either.

     Alas, we cannot start our support group meeting because it is clear the medical students in the next room are most emphatically having a celebration. Seraphina asks the nurse if she can find out if there's another room available for us. The nurse seems bent out of shape that she's been asked to run this errand. She comes right back. A matter of making a phone call.

     "The scheduler told me to forget it," she says to Seraphina. "All the rooms are reserved."

     She thinks to shut the door behind her, and the noise level is reduced considerably.

Seraphina says, "Are you all okay with the chatter next door? It's much better with the door closed, isn't it?"

     And I'm thinking, How come Seraphina doesn't go next door and ask the revelers to tone it down, or suggest they head out for one of the ten million bars in New Haven?

     But we're all right with the noise. What's a bunch of loud grad students having a party compared with having breast cancer?

     Not a single one of has brought a bag lunch. We don't care about food. I figure if the support group is something I'll be interested in, I will volunteer to head up a search committee for a restaurant with a little private room so we can have all our meetings some place more conducive to our forgetting our misery, and we'll have to eat since we'll be in a restaurant.

     It is not to be. It is so not to be.

     Seraphina nods to the woman to the left of the nurse. The woman remains mute. Seraphina says, "Just introduce yourself and describe how you're doing."

     Personally, I think we should start with the reason we choose to attend a support group meeting, but I am not the facilitator and just because it's what I'd like to do, it doesn't mean everyone feels the same.

     The first woman asked to speak doesn't introduce herself but says instead, "I was diagnosed a week ago. I'm in shock. I don't know how long it'll be before I'm not in shock anymore. And I have so much to do!"

     Seraphina and the nurse do not respond. Neither does anyone else because no one knows how to go about supporting her. As with all silences, this one does not appear to be helpful. But again, that's me. Still, I concentrate on willing Seraphina to act supportive: Please, Seraphina, give us something here. She doesn't. She just nods to the woman next to the woman in shock, who doesn't introduce herself either. Our second co-cancer diagnosee says, "Ditto," without looking up from the table. The first woman was at least able to do that. This one is probably relieved that she can give a one-word answer without having to look at anything besides a table top.

     We will all follow suit in that none of us will introduce ourselves, and Seraphina will not ask, "Can you tell us your name?"

     But before the third woman at the table can speak, short-hair says, "Can someone pass the cookies?" (I'm sorry about the name I think of her as—it's difficult when you're trying to remember who's who.)

     No one moves. I look around. Are we a pack of zombies, or what? She stands up out of her chair, leans across the table, and reaches for the plate. She pulls it over to her, takes a half-dozen cookies, and makes a neat pile right on the table. The cookies look like they're made of sawdust. Then she passes the plate to the person to her left. That would be me. I say, "Thank you," and pass it on. So does everyone else. The cookies aren't touched by anyone but her. I wonder what that says about her. That she can eat seriously unappetizing cookies at a time when I know I couldn't eat one if they were Toll House, just out of the oven, made by someone who doesn't need a recipe like my later mother-in-law. Short-hair starts munching the first cookie on her pile while she says, "So what's with this shocked business? I was never in shock. I just dealt."

     Seraphina finally says something. "We're all different."

     Is that it? We're all different? But what do I want instead? For Seraphina to smack her and tell her to try to be a little more sympathetic? I don't, but I want something. Instead, Seraphina just nods to the woman to the right of the two women in shock. This woman is very together-looking—great hair, great clothes, great jewelry, great makeup. (The two women in shock look like they've slept in their clothes for a week and don't have the energy to lift a bottle of shampoo.) Together-woman says her name, Myla, and then turns to shocked-women, and says, "I was in shock for the whole first month." She smiles at them and touches the wrist of the woman still staring at the table.

     Hallelujah! Support!

     Then together-woman says she's having chemotherapy at Sloan Kettering to shrink her DCIS, which is over five centimeters. "It's six. When I had my biopsy and the pathology report showed that the tumor was one centimeter over the line, that's when I went into shock. I needed chemotherapy because of one crummy centimeter. So first I have to wait out my tumor shrinking enough to take it out."

     She sighs. After getting no support, she continues, "So my surgeon told me that with a short course of chemotherapy, the tumor would shrink enough in maybe just two weeks. Then I could have a lumpectomy and my breast wouldn't be disfigured. Of course, I have an option to have a mastectomy, but I won't have a body part amputated except as a last resort, not a first, though I know everyone is entitled to their opinion. Anyway, I'm going to have my lumpectomy here since breast surgeon's reputation is sterling, and besides, I like him. I'm not positive yet where I'll have radiation."

     Who knew you could be treated for cancer à la carte?

     Then she says, "The specific reason I'm here is because even though I have accepted that my hair will fall out, my problem now is that after three chemotherapy sessions, my scalp itches. I mean, it really itches. I just can't go around scratching my head all day. The chemotherapy people recommended Head & Shoulders. Believe me, Head & Shoulders might work for dandruff—I don't have dandruff so I wouldn't know—but there is no shampoo that will work for this particular side effect of chemotherapy." She sighs again. Then: "Does anyone know what I can do?"

     Seraphina says nothing, what else is new? Except for the table-staring shocked-women, we look to the nurse. Nothing from her, either. In fact, the nurse looks entirely put out, as with, How the hell did I get roped into this?

     Short-hair will oblige together-woman. Crunching the last of her stack of cookies, she says, "Who cares if your scalp itches? At least you have hair." She gestures to her nearly bald head.

     We look to Seraphina. Finally, she will speak; she says to together-woman, "Have you asked your doctor what you can do?"

     "Yes. I have no chemotherapy doctor at Sloan Kettering, but I have an oncologist. I asked him and he told me he didn't know, but that I should ask my nurses. They're the ones who recommended Head & Shoulders."

     We look to the nurse again. Maybe she at least has knowledge to share concerning an itchy scalp. The nurse has nuthin', since raising an eyebrow and shrugging isn't helpful.

     I have something because I can no longer tolerate sitting there like a zombie, and since I'm just starting to feel some fury, I'd better say something so I can keep the fury in check. Also, I want to be supportive. That's why I'm there, right? I say to together-woman, "Maybe you should ask your hairdresser. Hairdressers know everything."

     She looks over at me and smiles. Terrific smile, what with her plum lipstick. She says with quite a bit of enthusiasm, "Why didn't I think of that? Of course my hairdresser will know what to do. I'm calling her the minute I'm out of here."

     My need to be supportive is on a roll. "You probably didn't think of it because maybe you're still in shock."

     Now she grins. She laughs. She says, "Thank you for that. But I've graduated from shock, haven't I?"  She turns to the shocked women. "And so will you!"

     They raise their chins a little. Progress.

     I say, "Where would we be without denial?"

     "Yeah!" from together-woman.

     Seraphina gestures to the next woman, who makes several attempts to get any words out of her mouth at all. She is worse than in shock. She is stricken. She is the deer in the headlights. But finally, with extraordinary dignity, she whispers, "I thought I had DCIS. Just DCIS. But my pathology report came back yesterday. It shows that I'm triple negative."

     All I can do is stare into this woman's eyes. I don't know what triple negative means. It must be the opposite of the three things Dr. Quigley told me I had going for me. I wait for Seraphina to say something, for anyone to say something. I look around. The faces of my group are either blank like mine, or crestfallen because they must know what triple negative means. But the die is cast; we are statues, just like Seraphina and the nurse.

     Then the woman pleads, "Is anyone else triple negative?"

     Most of the women shake their head, no. I say, "I'm sorry, I don't know what that means."

     She breathes in very deeply. We wait. She says, "That's when the cancer cells have no estrogen, no progesterone, and no HER2 receptors. So the tumor will not respond to drugs—not to Tamoxifen, or all the other ones that will work for the rest of you. It's aggressive and it's…swift. It could be that it's too late for chemotherapy to do anything at all. I have to have it anyway. If that's so, my doctor is going to enroll me in a clinical trial."

     Then she proceeds to give all of us, including Seraphina and the nurse, a pass. "It's okay if there's nothing you're able to say. I just want to ask you to pray for me. Then maybe the chemotherapy, or the treatment I receive in the trial, will work."

     This woman is such a kindly, sweet-looking person, and she has just found out that her own DCIS cancer is surely not worthy of congratulation. Finally, support arises. One of the women previously in shock, comes out of her inability to function. She says, "I'll pray for you."

     The woman responds, "Thank you." Then everyone promises to pray for her, even me—whose version of praying is to find a really pretty wildflower, and toss it into the creek next to my house, and ask the flower to find a way to reach the heart of whoever it is I'm "praying" for.

     I must ask something I really don't want to ask. "When did you find out your DCIS was triple negative?"

     "When my surgeon removed an extra margin."

     Jesus. What if Dr. Quigley has to remove an extra margin and I'm triple negative too? Why don't I know about this?

     Then there's the sound of crying. Directly across from me is a young African-American woman. She is especially beautiful. She struggles to stop crying, but can't.

     No one says a word. Finally, she wails, "I can't do this." She tries to control herself. She can't, but at least she can now make herself understood through the waterfall of tears. "I have to have chemotherapy because my tumor is more than five centimeters. But I don't have the negative cancer." She glances to the woman next to her with triple-negative DCIS. She says, "I should be grateful. I'm ashamed of myself that I'm not. But I…I can't have chemotherapy! I've got little children. I work! I don't know how I can even keep my doctor's appointments. I don't know how I'm here! My boss is covering for me. I don't know what to do. What will I do? I can't do this…I have to work. I have two babies!" She is waving her arms around and then she just sobs and sobs, and I speak just before the silence starts or before short-hair says anything.

     I say, "I'm sorry."

     She sniffles, she mumbles something, and then she is sobbing too hard to speak again.

     Silence anew. Then I get serious. I say to her, "Listen, you can take a break from dealing with cancer with cancer while you figure out how you will take care of yourself and your family during chemotherapy. You're not on a roller coaster. You can get off. I know you will figure it out."

     She looks up at me. She takes out a Kleenex and blows her nose. I try to find something else to say. "Seraphina will help you with resources. I wish you well. I'll be thinking of you."

     Cue, Seraphina.  Nothing. The beautiful, young, African-American woman nods at me and blows her nose again.

     I find myself staring at the plate of cookies. I don't want my turn to come. Maybe we'll run out of time.

     But it's another patient's turn, another woman who is clearly in shock because she says, "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."

     She puts her head down in her arms.

     The woman between her pats her shoulder. Then this woman, the one patting her neighbor's shoulder, sits up straight and pulls in her chair a little closer to the table. She is of a certain type, maintaining the hippie look of the 70s—long hair in a braid down her back to her waist, and tendrils at the edges of her strong face. She has high cheekbones that I would guess have never sported brushed-on blush. Her hand-made wire earrings dangle down along her neck in geometric shapes, each shape with a little bird hanging within.

     She says, "I have to have chemotherapy too. At first we didn't think so, but my tumor is five centimeters. I'm on the line. My doctor recommends I do it." She takes up her braid and runs her hand down its entire length to the very end. "I want to have my braid forever. But I feel selfish now. I'm not triple-negative. I no longer have babies to take care of. But still…I'm sorry. All I want is to keep my braid."

     And short-hair chimes in. She says, "Listen, I thought I'd have my hair forever too. Nope. It all fell out. But now it's starting to grow back. So what's the problem? Yours will grow back. For now, you can cut off the braid and save it, and then when you've got some hair back you can wind it around your head and pin it on, or something like that."

     The hippie woman is now staring straight ahead like she's in a trance. The braid has to be twenty-five years old. But I have to give short-hair some credit. What she's trying to say makes some sense, even if the words are couched in phrasing and tone that make you want to tell her to just shut up.

     Leaving the hippie to stare into space, Seraphina says to short-hair, "Why don't you go ahead now?"

     She goes ahead all right. For maybe five minutes—but it feels longer. She's talking about missing her favorite daytime TV show for this meeting, and then we get a four-minute plot description of one of her shows. Seraphina and the nurse do not try to…uh…re-direct her. This so-called support group has no direction whatsoever. Then the woman shifts gears. She says, "Listen, my breasts have always given me problems. My whole life. I've always had cysts and all kinds of stuff like that. I'm used to this."

     She goes on with a history of her breasts until it all becomes blah-blah-blah. When she finishes, she has another cookie. Our time has not run out, unfortunately. It's my turn.

     I say the sort of thing I thought everyone else would be saying. I say what I planned to say, which is: "I've been doing pretty well until I had my ultrasound. I'm supposed to start radiation tomorrow. After I got home from the ultrasound, I had a meltdown."

       Half of the women are looking at me, the other half still concentrating on the table."I came home and was going to take a shower and work around the little Sharpie dabs that mark the spot for the radiation beams since I'm not supposed to wash them off." I take a deep breath. Now, everyone is looking at me. "But they aren't little dabs. They're swastikas."

     Short-hair jumps right in. She leans toward me and says into my face, "Look at this!" and pulls up her shirt. "Look! I have black X's all over the place. So what? You can wash them off eventually. What's the big deal?"

     No one says a word. Not anyone. Now the silence is awful. I will surely not tell her that my X's are bigger and blacker than hers. I won't respond. I'm going with the collective silence.

     Seraphina proceeds to turn to the woman sitting between her and me, the last cancer patient of those of us who will consent to speak. The woman twists around in her chair to face me. She says, "I told my doctor to do whatever he needs to do. I don't want to hear about it. I cannot stand thinking about it."

     I decide she wants a response to what she's just said. She doesn't want it from short-hair, and she knows she won't get it from anyone else except me. She's looking directly at me. I say, "You're doing what you need to do. So am I. That's all anyone can do. Nobody's right or wrong."

     I must have managed to smile at her because she's managing one back. I think our exchange is termed "support."

     Now I look at my watch in a dramatic fashion. It's 12:55. I can't anymore, even just the last five minutes. I stand up and say, "I have to be somewhere at one. Gotta go."   

     At least no one is calling out, "I love you, Mary-Ann," like what happens in an AA meeting, I'm told. My friend and I skipped out on the AA meeting, just the way I'm doing now.

     In the hall, I can hear the grad students again, more raucous than before. Party on, guys, I think. I manage not to fall apart. I escape.

     Maybe this is what a support group is. A couple people talk, but mostly don't. Trauma is famous for doing that to you. So maybe a support group is supposed to make you feel like it's all right to be having a nervous breakdown. If someone is obnoxious, insensitive, even downright cruel, then suck it up just like you have to suck up breast cancer. Whatever the purpose of the method, I feel betrayed by Seraphina.

     Later, I call her. I leave a message on her voicemail: I want the phone number of the African-American woman so I can offer to do her grocery shopping, or her laundry, or babysit for her. Or she can call me. 

     Seraphina leaves me a message saying that HIPAA prevents her from giving out any information about her patients. HIPAA is pronounced hippa, and stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, whatever that's supposed to mean, particularly, portability. It is one of the many papers you sign without reading when you see a doctor. But I want to know what it means, so I google it. Here is what it actually means: When you're sitting in a doctor's waiting room, the nurse no longer calls out to you from behind the glass, "Do you have any other symptoms besides the diarrhea and gas?"

     I call Seraphina back and leave her another message to please give the woman my phone number. Seraphina leaves me a message that she will find some help for her.

     The next time I have an appointment at Smilow and Seraphina appears, she apologizes that the support group was turned out to be too large, and assures me that they will break into smaller groups next time. But I have taken a lesson from that support group meeting I attend. Stick with people you know. Stick with your friends and your family even if they can't empathize. And contact me and I'll give you Laura the EMDR therapist's phone number. At least she won't tell you to suck it up. Maybe a support group's message is meant to be, You can't fight city hall, so give up.

     I am crushed that someone I trusted can't be trusted, even though I fully understand that Seraphina isn't a jack-of-all trades even though she's surely a jack-of-most, one shy of all.

     Not good enough. Just like Jackie, the biopsy nurse. Feeling betrayed is crummy.

     Next day, Dr. Quigley calls me. The margin is clear.

 

 Chapter 31.

 

I HAVE TO ASK Dr. Quigley to repeat everything she said to me after giving me the initial news that no cancer cells breached my duct's wall. She does, basically giving me instructions as to my radiation treatment in Guilford. I'm not ready for that yet.

       I ask her, "Are you sure my DCIS isn't triple negative?"

       There's a fairly long silence—for her. Then, "Yes. I couldn't be surer."

       "I just read on some website that there was a clinical study in England with 438 women who were diagnosed with DCIS. Twenty-seven of them had lesions that were triple negative. All twenty-seven had a recurrence of breast cancer. Why don't I know that?"

       She says, "Larger studies will provide more reliable information about whether and how the recurrence risk varies by DCIS subtype. The study is flawed in other ways as well."

      "Which subtype am I?"

      "I already told you. There were three parts, remember?"

      "I do."

      "Good. You were paying attention."

       So in a week, I will start radiation. I so want this all to end. I really, really do. It will.

       Cue Guilford.

       A week later, I'm in the waiting room at the Shoreline Clinic with Charlie, looking around. It's small, and I'm the only one there except for someone's husband who is pretending to read a magazine. One of the radiation nurses comes in to get me. We stand up, introduce each other, and she tells Charlie that I'll be about an hour. He says to me, "I'll see you then. I'm going to find that fish and tackle store on Route 1."

       "Okay."

       In the doorway, I turn and give him a wave. He gives me a thumbs-up.

       The nurse says to me, "He's cute." Yes, he is. We're going to breakfast at Twin Pines Diner as soon as I'm finished. The nurse is not Dana, who is in charge of the ultrasound, but one of the nurses who is about to perform radiation on me, Pat. She's tall and thin and has a long braid just like the woman in the non-support group. First she escorts me into another waiting room down the hall past the nurses' station, where Pam and Anna ask how I'm doing. I say something polite; "Fine, thanks," rather than, Great, how are you guys?"

       In the new waiting room, she introduces me to a young woman sitting in a chair with a book in her hand. She's pretty with a twinkle in her eye and no hair on her head, but along with the johnny coat she is wearing a very cool, floppy, beret-like cap."I love your hat." I do, but of course am instantly and eternally grateful that I won't be going hat shopping, or worse, bathing suit shopping at the second Smilow gift shop. I'm not triple negative. I'm apparently triple positive.

       She says, "Thanks. I have a dozen new hats. I'm Nora. Nice to meet you."

       "Nice to meet you too."

       "Good luck, then."

       I ditto her a thanks and a good.

       She returns to her book. I take out mine and try to read. No matter how many times I read the first sentence on the page I'm on, I don't know what it says. Pat comes in. "Let me show you the dressing rooms, Mary-Ann."

       Since she doesn't include Nora, I realize we're not both first-timers, just me.

       There are three little curtained-off dressing rooms and a cupboard where Pat takes out my johnny coat. "Opening to the front, Mary-Ann. Just take off your shirt and bra."

       She leaves. I change. There is no mirror to reflect the swastikas. When I come back out, the young woman named Nora is gone, but every day, she will be having her treatment just ahead of me. Now, however, there's a man coming out of the dressing room next to mine. The pre-radiation waiting room is unisex. He is wearing the equivalent of a johnny coat only johnny shorts. My top matches his bottoms. Every day, his treatment will follow mine. I don't know what to say to him and he doesn't know what to say to me. Then we both put our hands out at the same time and we shake. Awkward moment. Do we sit next to each other or as far away as possible? No need to decide. Pat is back.   

       To me, "Ready?" I will never be ready.

       She leads me to the…uh…radiation room. It isn't a room; it's the inside of a space station, the surfaces smooth, hard, shiny steel and lit by blue lights. The linear accelerator looks like the space module that was supposed to carry Matt Damon from the mothership to Mars. All three radiation nurses are gathered—Pat, Carol, and Lori, who I am introduced to again, and they chat with me, drawing my attention to them rather than the space station itself. They all know about my traffic incident. Dana the ultrasound nurse, and maybe Dr. Frye too, must have warned them.         I hear a voice. "Did you bring a CD?"

       Pat is the one who asks that. I say, "No," and all three huddle with me, full of assurances that I'll be fine, that at least one of them will be talking to me at all times, that I can call for them to stop the treatment whenever I feel the need, etc. Heard it all before, didn't I?  

       Then they look at me, waiting. I say, "No. I brought these." I open my hands to reveal the hot sweaty stones I happen to be gripping for dear life that I get from my bag after I shake hands with the man in the johnny shorts. "My EMDR therapist and I came up with a plan. I'm going to hold these stones during treatment. They'll remind me of the comfort and relief I felt when I had my therapy after the falling traffic signal just missed me. I had to hold round metal buzzers during the therapy—these will have to do." I don't get into the headset with the beeping.

       They act as though they hear that kind of thing every day of the week, and that my stones are the most wonderful idea anyone's ever had. They examine the stones. Lori, the third nurse, who is the most serious of the three with a very intense gaze, suddenly becomes soft. She says to me, "Gotta love Zen."

       Even though they tell me the stones are really very pretty, I do detect a smidgen of skepticism in their eyes. I know if I were in their position, I'd be damn skeptical—worried too—about a patient clinging to a couple of rocks. And what is Zen, by the way? I've never been too sure, what with having been a yoga dropout.

       "Where did you get them?" Karen asks me.

       "Down the road at the beach."

       "I've never seen stones like that."

       "I rubbed a little oil into them. On the beach, once they're dry, they lose their color so you can't tell one from the other so much." I'm so nervous, which means I keep talking. "I have a writer friend, Barbara Mayer. She wrote an article once; it was called, 'Decorating with Water.' You get out a beautiful crystal bowl, fill it with water, and put it in the light. You put stones in the bowl, and sea glass, and whatever you think will look good under water." The nurses are staring at me, wondering when they can comfortably interrupt. "I tried it once—I got all the stones and glass together and set the bowl on a little table in a corner of the living room. I put a track light over it. Stunning. Later that day, I notice that my daughter has put in her mermaid-Barbie, creating an aquarium-like scene, and my son, several Hot Wheels cars in case Barbie wants to go somewhere, though how a mermaid can drive, who knows? Otis, our cat, is up on the table, having completed a leap that doesn't knock the bowl off, or the table over. He's sitting there, lapping up the water." 

       I finally take a breath, and they all three laugh, just like Barbara and I did at my one and only attempt at decorating with water.

       Then Lori looks into my eyes. "Okay, then…let's go."

       They help me climb under the accelerator and guide me into a prone position on my back. Next, they expose my upper body. Presumably, they check out the swastikas. I don't know, as I'm working so hard not to look up at the machinery. Then Pat says to me, "I'm going into the control area." She points to where they will all be shooting radioactivity into Starbright, and I will learn, six inches all around into my chest and underarm. I channel Tom Hanks and beg him to see that there won't be a problem to tell Houston about.

       Beams appear from the machine overhead, but I still don't look at the machine itself. I look at my two remaining nurses standing to either side of me. Lori says,        "We're lining up the light to the X's. That's all the beams are—lights. The actual rays will enter your body at all the marks, one at a time." I feel a second of being glad. The machine will be firing away at the wretched X's.

       While lining up my beams' routes, Lori and Carol begin a nonstop, positive and enthusiastic narrative:

       "I have got this."

       "Mine is perfect."

       "I am so beautifully lined up!"

       "I love where I am here."   

       "I'm right on the money."

       "Ready to go!"

       "Me too!"

       Except for Lori, they back away from me. She says, "Look."

       I look to where she is pointing at Houston. Pat is waving at me.

       Lori tells me what I have heard before. "We will see you and we will hear you. If you need us to stop, just say stop and we stop, but don't sit up or you'll hit your head on the accelerator."

       Aren't I glad I already know what the radiation machine is called?

       She smiles down at me. "Don't move. Just hold onto those Zen stones."

       I say thank you and get tears in my eyes because I am so hugely grateful to her for reminding me of the stones. I hold them tighter. I take a deep, cleansing, Lamaze breath like a contraction is about to start. I say to her, "Okay."

       The last thing that happens before they leave me is Lori lifting the top edge of my johnny coat to cover Starlight. Then she gives Starlight a soft, gentle pat. It is as if she is telling Starlight to help me out. Starlight will, I know. She is happy to be able to do something for her non-identical twin.

       Lori gives me that same little pat every day, five days a week, for five weeks. The one exception to her routine is on my second day of treatment when she asks me,        "Have we got our stones ready to go?" I show her. Then she doesn't ask anymore. She can tell by my face that I don't intend to have any heavy machinery traveling back and forth over me, even for only 90 seconds, without my EMDR in position.

       The accelerator is set in motion. The sound it makes is like any other really loud engine. As in helicopter. I breathe. I am now sure I know exactly how astronauts feel when the equivalent of nurses puts their helmets on them before squeezing them into their capsule, seeing them off with good cheer just before they get shot into space.

       The image I place in my brain is Charlie and me on our Bermuda honeymoon sitting in two beach chairs. I am seeing us from behind. We are tapping two beers together, all around us pink sand and turquoise water. Between us is a beer bucket that says Corona. We're actually drinking Negra Modelo, which is pretty good, as opposed to Corona, which is no damn good at all. The noise of the accelerator stops.

       It will take me a week to count off the pattern of movement, noise, movement, noise, to the point I where I can say to myself, You are one quarter through; you are half way through; you are three quarters through, until the second it goes quiet: Done. Just like a labor contraction except, thank God, you don't feel a thing.

       That first day, I think it's okay to move once the accelerator and its noise stop. Wrong. All three nurses are racing in at the instant I am starting to sit up.

       "Stop!"

       "You can't move a muscle till we're back!"

       (Sotto voice, Lori, but I still hear her, "Shit.")

       I say, "I'm sorry. I thought it stopped. "

       "It did, but we can't have you falling off the table."

       My daughter being a nurse, I know that nurses really hate it when a patient falls on the floor. They are not allowed to help a fallen, possibly injured, possibly concussed, definitely in pain patient. Instead, one nurse must run for a doctor while a couple others sit on the floor trying to verbally comfort the patient without having to restrain her, as she might be hurt and then be hurt further as restraining is not a gentle concept, all while waiting and waiting for a damn doctor. There are no such terms as, ASAP or move your ass, when you're in a hospital and you need a doctor. (Next for the nurses after their patient is back in bed? Hours of work on a computer! Remember paperwork? At least you didn't have to do it three times because your computer screen kept going blank for no known reason.)

       My three nurses, once they've finished scolding me, help me to sit up the rest of the way, telling me I did beautifully. I swing my legs over the side of the table. Lori says, "Good work with the stones!"

       I don't mention that I've been holding the stones so tightly I'm unable to unclench my fists.

       On my way into the dressing room again, I cross paths with johnny-shorts. He's just so pleasant-looking, so reserved.

      One day soon, he will ask me, "How much longer here for you?"

      "Two more weeks."

      "It's my last day."

       He had three weeks instead of five. 

       He hugged me before he went off for his final dose of radiation. I didn't like knowing I'd be having treatment without him there to check in with me each day, selfish though that may be. He'd been a soulmate. I've never had one of those. I could only hope he never suffered for a single moment for the rest of his life.  

       And so, Charlie is there in the waiting room and we head out for Twin Pines. I have oatmeal with a few raisins and seven grains of brown sugar. I'm following instructions to eat in a nutritious manner, and besides, I don't have an appetite. I don't tell Charlie that very last part.

       I say instead, "You have enough for both of us, till I finish with all this."

       He has two fried eggs up, bacon, rye toast, home fries, half my oatmeal, which I couldn't finish, with the rest of the brown sugar dumped on top.

       I love eating with Charlie. I look forward to a future morning when I'll be matching him forkful by forkful.

 

Chapter 32.

 

ON THE FIRST Thursday after the radiation starts, I see Dr. Frye again. I start by telling her a true story:

       "I had an epiphany during my treatment yesterday."

       "Tell me your epiphany," she says.

       "When I was lying on the table, I felt that the radiation was doing what you told me it would do--keeping me from getting cancer again in my breast. I knew it wasn't going to kill me. I had the epiphany because of the relentlessly positive narrative of your nurses the first day they got me ready for their beams. They are determined to keep me alive."

       Dr. Frye says, "Yes, they are. I'm glad you told me that, Mary-Ann. Thank you."

       She examines Starbright. Dr. Frye says, "Looking good."

       I say, "Great." Then I look her in the eye and start a segué from an entirely different true story to a bold-faced lie. "I'm in a dilemma because I have to go on a business trip to L.A. For a week. A producer at Amazon Studios has optioned one of my books for a film."

       The film option part is true. An option means the writer gets a check from a producer, or director, or actor, or from some steamfitter—a person who loves the movies, and has saved up enough money to get in on the action. All that is required is the check. That check entitles the optioner to hold onto the book for, say, a year, while trying to get a studio to put up the money to make the film. The writer's role ends with the aforementioned check of which, might I add, 30% is removed, half for the literary agent and half for the film agent. And then, come April, a shitload more for the tax man.

       The Amazon part is true too. At the time, I can only think: Amazon produces feature films? Like, who knew? I will not be surprised if any time now, the giant Smilow sign at Yale-New Haven Hospital will be gone and in its stead: AMAZON. Or do they already own hospitals? I don't want to know. The thing is, I did get a call from an Amazon producer. Wow!

       But here's the lie I tell Dr. Frye: I have to go to L.A. for a week to discuss the terms of the option. No one invites a writer to L.A.—not a producer, or director, or an actor, or even the steamfitter. The producer who called me only wanted to know who represented Girls of Tender Age. I told him my agent's name, and he said goodbye as he hung up. L.A. doesn't want to lay eyes on the author of an optioned book. Writers are seen as weaselly, little, annoying gnats—by-products of the film-making process. That is unless you're, say, a writer with the caché of someone like the late Ernest Hemingway. Not that any writer has the caché of Ernest Hemingway, but never mind because when Ernest was alive, the movie magnate with the ability to write the biggest check, the one that leads to the acquisition of, say, "The Old Man and the Sea," invites him to lunch so he can say to all his enemies, Ernie and I are doing lunch at the Brown Derby to discuss who he'd like to play Santiago. But Ernest famously says to an interviewer, "When those people buy the rights to my books, instead of lunch, I make an arrangement to meet up with them on the Nevada border. I drive up, throw the manuscript to California side, and scram before they can get out of their car."

       But anyway, a studio is not impressed with a steamfitter who brags, "Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and I are doing lunch at Mickey D's to discuss who should play her. I'm thinking either Lady Ga-Ga or Emma Stone."

       I cannot believe what Dr. Frye says to me in response to the lie part. "Well, Mary-Ann, it'll be good to take a week off mid-treatment. Gives the tissues damaged by radiation a break so they can heal before the second half of radiation starts."

        Hear that? Take my advice; if you have to have radiation (and I hope you don't), make up a story that you have a business trip in the middle of your five week-treatment that will create a huge financial burden if you skip it. (I'm offering you the "financial burden" option, speaking of options, since you can't dazzle the doc with…uh… red carpet glamour, assuming you're not a famous actress. Maybe penury will do the trick, but don't hold your breath.) So like me, don't you wonder why the hell everyone having radiation gets a week's break in the middle of treatment to heal the zapped tissue? I know! Ask the CEO of United Health Care.

        Bottom line: my agent called me to say she got me $10,000 for the option. "Guy started at $2000." Odds of an optioned book getting made into a film? Gazillion to one.

       With lying out of the way, I call "Deep Dive" in Turtle Bay, Hawaii, on the north shore of the island of Oahu. Two years ago, Charlie and I went to Hawaii, and among other things, arranged for an instructional dive. We are thinking our instructor will be a Jacques Cousteau type with a fabulous boat and that our fellow neophytes will be really neat people all itching to breathe under water and shake hands with an octopus. We will pay close attention to our lessons, memorize our instructions, put on our wet suits and our tanks (wow—tanks!), and then sit on the rail of the boat and flip over backwards into the water with Jacques, just like on TV.

       The day arrived and two guys pick us up at our hotel in a ragtop jeep with ball fringe trim. When I'm a Peace Corps volunteer, I got to graduate from the motorcycle to a ragtop jeep. If you're building a library in Cameroon, you have to carry a lot of books from the post office to a place to keep the books, and then to the library, difficult on a Honda 125. They arrive regularly at the post office, donated by my mother's fellow employees at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, now CIGNA. Box after box of books. But the ragtop is full of holes just like the one the two dive instructors are driving. The rainy season on Mt. Cameroon, where I live in the former German capital, lasts around 40 days, meaning it rains for 40 straight days and nights, non-stop. The Postmaster says he will keep the books there until I get my jeep fixed. He says this after our conversation in pidgin:

       "Ha yu day, Miss Mary?"

       "Na fine."

       "You done bin find you takwé?" (Ta is father; takwé is husband. Bin done connotes the present perfect tense of to find.)

       "E no day." (Nope.)

       He shakes his head. Then he smiles, offering me solace with a typical Cameroonian aphorism: "Jam pas die; mon-kee go chop peppay-o." It means: Being in a jam is better than death. The part about the monkey is for emphasis: A monkey will eat pepper rather than die of starvation.

        My Cameroonian friends and acquaintances demonstrate how I should dry out—I'm always wet. Spend all forty evenings—more if necessary—in mimbo bars where there is a smoky fire going nonstop. (Mimbo is fermented coconut milk. It tastes about like it sounds.)

       So "The Princess Margaret Rose Mimbo Bar" is where I am when I run into the Minister of Justice. His nephew owns the Princess Margaret Rose. Bold as brass, I approach him and tell him I'm going to need some tarps to transport my books. Bold as brass, doesn't he call the State Department in Washington, and asks to speak to Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State appointed by JFK; Rusk remains the Secretary of State long after JFK is assassinated, in case you didn't know. Doesn't Dean send a dozen tarps out on the next plane to Paris and then on to Cameroon? Half of everything that happens in Cameroon overwhelms me. I give eleven of Secretary Rusk's tarps to ladies at the…uh…open-air market, and they make tents for themselves and their limited mounds of veggies—cabbages and taro root, what with the rainy season—and I secure the twelfth one onto the top of my jeep.

       Back to Hawaii—Charlie and I are about to let Cheech and Chong rather than Jacques Cousteau lead us into the shark-infested Pacific. Charlie is semi-freaked, so I hold his hand to keep him from saying, "Who the hell are you guys? Cheech and Chong?" Instead, I steer him into the back seat of the jeep.

        Cheech sticks a disk into their CD player which is attached to the…uh…dashboard rather than built in. Blasting forth is the theme from "Hawaii Five-O." You know I love it. Book 'em, Danno. Off we go, shortly arriving at a store/office/shack, and we climb out of the Jeep. They get us gear out of a large bin. Cheech asks, "Have you guys ever snorkeled?"

       We say, "Yes."

       "Good. That's all you need to know other than if you're in trouble. If you get in trouble, just hold up your finger." He holds up his forefinger. He waits. We hold up ours. He doesn't give us examples of possible trouble.

      He says, "Good."

       Next, he says, "Never surface on your own. Wait till one of us goes with you. We'll be right there the second you put your finger up. Then we press a button on the front of your equipment and you'll rise to the surface slow, with one of us right next to you. Just keep breathing and don't hold us by our necks. We'll hold you."

       I do not ask, The button lets air out of our tank, right? Never ask a question when the answer will be the one you really don't want to hear.

       Then he and Chong pile wetsuits, flippers, snorkels, and masks into the back of the jeep and we get in again. Charlie whispers to me, "I guess the rest of the lesson is on the boat."

       It is now obvious that we are the only ones in Cheech and Chong's dive class.

 They drive to a kind of shelly beach. Strewn within the shells are pieces of dead coral. Cheech empties the jeep and says, "Let's dive!"

       There is no boat in sight. I look at Charlie, who is registering along with me: There will be no rest of the lesson, either. And, that we are expected to walk down the beach and into the water, wearing our tanks, which weigh more than I do. Charlie manages, but Chong has to take the weight of the tank from me with one arm while we walk. He's damned adorable, did I say? They both are. Good thing.

       When we're waist-deep in water, Cheech goes under for a few minutes and then rises. Again, he says, "Let's dive!" I don't know what he's checking for, but I don't ask because I don't want to hear Great Whites.

       We put on our masks and the oxygen things into our mouths. Cheech and Chong think to have us try breathing for a few minutes. We pass that test because, after all, we're not underwater yet. Cheech then says, "Let's dive!"

       We submerge and begin to swim. I keep my breathing in rhythm with waving my flippers the way I do when I snorkel. We come to a reef right away. Do I have to say it's a wondrous sight? But then, without warning, I feel like I'm going to sneeze. I have such a tickle in my nose that I know I'm definitely going to sneeze. How can you sneeze with breathing equipment in your mouth and your nose covered by a mask? You know a sneeze will blow the breathing mechanism out of your mouth and then you drown. I panic and start swimming to the surface forgetting all about holding up my finger.

       When my head is out of the water, I'm ripping the breathing stuff out of my mouth and the mask off my face and here comes Chong one second behind me. He says, "What the fuck?"

       I say, "I was going to sneeze. I was afraid I'd cut off my air supply."

       He says, "Well, what the fuck?" Then: "Listen, wahini, you can sneeze, you can cough, you can yawn, you can puke into your mask—whatever. Just pull it off, swish it around, then stick it back on. Jesus! You gave me a fucking heart attack!"

       I say…uh…dubiously, "Sorry." But do I love being called wahini or what?

       Charlie and Cheech have now surfaced, and I convince Charlie that I'm fine, that I was afraid I was going to sneeze but now I don't have to sneeze anymore.

       Cheech says to me, "Just fucking sneeze!"

       Chong says, "That's what I just told her, man."

       Getting a little testy, I say, "You guys skipped that lesson."

       Chong says, "Let's dive!"

       We head back under the water. Chong swims right next to me. He never leaves my side for an instant, shoulder to shoulder for what I'd have to call the most exhilarating hour of my life. I would never have seen 90% of the stuff in and around the reef without Chong pointing it all out. We follow a giant manta ray, until he looks back at us with his eye that never closes, and Chong puts his hand on my shoulder. I'd stopped swishing my flippers, and Chong was afraid I might do another surface-panic. Actually, I was about to. The giant fish moves along.

       We get in close to the reef and he points to the animals that come out of their coral cones, waving their palm fronds around. Big things and little things. Then I see a person coming at us in the distance. It's a sea turtle. I always knew a sea turtle was big, but not that big. Chong pulls me close to him while the turtle dives, choosing to go under us rather than over or around us. There is a parade of smallish rays—in the distance, thank God—zipping right along. They make me think of an air show. Lot of jellyfish, performing their effortless ballet—ballooning up and out, inflating, deflating all in dreamy slow motion. And oh, such schools of fish! Fish, fish, and more fish, colors brighter under water than when you're looking at tropical fish in an aquarium. Chong takes me within a school of especially playful ones. They zip around my legs and arms, around my body, everywhere at once. I am one with these fish.

       Now, today, here I am, planning my trip to Costa Rica. I call my friends at "Deep Dive." I recognize Chong's voice answering. All I have to say explain, "I'm the one who didn't know it was all right to sneeze when you're diving, so I swam to the surface without giving you the signal. Then you never left me. Thanks for the personal tour of the reef."

       He says, "Man, I can't forget you! You thanked me about ten thousand times already, and you tipped me twice as much as anyone else ever did. My pleasure, wahini. So what's up?"

       I go slightly orgasmic. But I manage to ask his advice as to whether I can go to the swimming in the Costa Rica while I'm having breast cancer radiation based on his diving experience with women.

       He says, "Hey! It's all the Pacific Ocean, man. And, hey, it's like all you girls got breast cancer! What the hell? My mom's got it. She went snorkeling and diving every day while she had radiation. When you dive, your wetsuit will take care of you, but if you're snorkeling or swimming just throw on a black T-shirt and wear a rashguard over it. That's what my mom did. I thought the T-shirt was overkill, but, ya know, it was my mom. So, hey, whatever, but when you're not in the water, don't go out in the sun without a hat. My mom did, and she got, like, instant headache."

       I will remember that. I ask him, "What rashes will a rashguard protect me from?" while thinking I surely can't afford to get a rash when my skin is being burned.

       "You planning to surf?"

       "No."

      "Then you won't need protection from rashes. It protects you from sunburn. Skin getting radiated is burned enough. A rashguard is, like, a stretch shirt made of heavy-duty Saran Wrap, but fifty SPF. Get an O'Neill. RonJon is cheaper but it's crap and it'll stretch, and you want your rashguards skin-tight, especially if you're doing the radiation thing, ask my mom. But hey, listen, if you got no stores with rashguards where you come from, and you have to go online, don't buy one at Land's End—you'll look like a dweeb. The best is Guy Harvey—expensive though, what with the graphics. But you'll look really, really good because I remember you were in great shape for someone your age, just like my mom."

       Hmmmm.… But I thank Chong again, anyway. Then he says, "Good luck, wahini." I mail him another tip. Then I immediately check out Guy Harvey online. Yeah, expensive. I go shopping and find that Dick's Sporting Goods has all the rashguards you could ever want with a preponderance of O'Neill's ON SALE. I get a black one in the T-shirt style, a chartreuse one with sleeves to the elbow, and a shocking pink, long-sleeved zippered one. In the dressing room, I try them on with bikini bottoms; red and white polka-dots; black stripes; and a chartreuse geometric. I have to say there is something really sexy about a skin-tight rashguard. I like being a Sea Cup. Did I tell you I was an A-cup until I breast-fed my children? If you want to try that method of enlarging your breasts, you have to refrain from giving your babies anything but breast milk for six months, and then take another six months to slowly wean them. If you stop on a dime, your breasts kind of collapse. My non-collapse method is actually an invention of Mother Nature, but sad to say, I think you have to have a cooperative employer to manage it. I'm my own boss so no problem.

       Ivana Trump in The New York Times, on raising her children: "I don't believe in breastfeeding."

       Yeah, right. The Donald probably threatened to yank her hair out if she dared consider something so repulsive. (He actually did that on a separate occasion, according to The New York Times. The journalist managed to dig out the original divorce papers, one that Ivana would come to expurgate, including the part about hubby yanking out a huge hank of her hair by the roots, when she didn't sympathize sufficiently during his initial hair loss stage.) 

       Onto Costa Rica. A week before Charlie and I leave, I go online and read all the testimony as to the benefits of salt water on skin being radiated. (On my list of Dr. Frye's radiation treatment's verboten items: swimming of any kind in chlorine pools, lakes and oceans. Everyone on Facebook agrees with the chlorine part, but they insist the ocean will soothe me and help heal my skin. They're fifty-fifty on lakes.)

        The financial bottom line is that you save a hundred bucks on sunblock by utilizing the black tees and rashguards. While I'm packing, Charlie hands me a bag. Inside is a Guy Harvey rashguard and bikini bottoms. It's fabulous—black with turquoise piping, and one savage-looking turquoise shark graphic. The bikini part is turquoise and black print that shows quite a bit more of my butt than I'm used to revealing. I love it. I love Charlie. Charlie loves me and my butt.

       The actual fashion on the Playa is, of course, most of the women are wearing bikinis that cover very little. Still several come up to me and rave about my "diving look." Next day, a few of my admirers have copied the look. Charlie's attention is captured by one of them whose back is to us as she sashays down the beach. Her rashguard is a Day-Glo orange and black geometric print. He says, "Holy shit. I think she's wearing a rashguard and nothing else!"

       Below the back of her rashguard are two uncovered brown coconuts. She is wearing bikini bottoms affectionately known as "ass floss." The style, at least the rear view, is far more erotic than it would be with the usual bikini top. Then the girl spots us and walks our way. A miniscule triangle of orange bikini compliments the rashguard.

       I say, "You think she's celebrating Halloween?"

       He says, mindlessly, "Yeah." Then, not wanting to be rude, he asks me, "Will we be back home in time for Halloween?"

       "Yes. Sorry."

       He smirks, what with recognizing that his mind had been momentarily rendered blotto, and my apology that we won't be able to keep a dog from barking non-stop at the tribe of ghouls ringing the doorbell is empty.

       The girl in the Halloween bikini spots us, gives us a big wave, jogs over, strikes quite the pose, and asks, "What do you think?"

       I say, "You look great!"

       Charlie can only give her a thumbs-up because he's on the verge of choking to death.

       We each get a high-five.

       She sashays off to wherever she's going to the sound of heads swiveling in her direction.

       We have such a terrific time in Costa Rica. I won't even get into food because you've heard me talk about food enough. However, I can't help but tell you about the vendor on the beach who sells coconut shells filled with Miami Vices, five bucks, but only two-fifty after the first one if you promise not to abscond with the coconut. (Try to kid yourself that the guy rinses out the coconuts before refilling them for his next customers. It's not like he has access to fresh water.) 

       The Pacific Rim sun never touches me. Every day, Charlie and I celebrate sunset by strolling across the wide beach to the turquoise-aqua-emerald-blue-purple-indigo sea and swim. On several occasions, once underwater, I take off my bikini bottoms and Charlie his cool surfer shorts and we try to have sex. We fail to consummate such endeavors because we keep getting bowled over by waves, but we have a lot of laughs. How anyone without a sense of humor can possibly enjoy sex, I'll never know. 

      Once, when we were in Hawaii, we swam naked on a deserted Hawaiian beach, and along came six galloping horses—not riderless wild horses might I add. The equestrians see us before we see them. They wave, so we wave back, what the hell. Too late to submerge. But Costa Rica is a Catholic country; you don't want to risk arrest and that's why we kept on my rashguard, his t-shirt.

       My break from radiation does me wonders; I'm thinking positively, like, It's half over, rather than, Halfway still to go. 

 

Chapter 33. 

 

ALL TOO SOON, naturally, we're back home in Connecticut, each of us five pounds heavier, me rejuvenated, Starbright more so. She's spent a week floating weightlessly every evening for a couple of hours, and sometimes at dawn too.

       Dear Breast Cancer Radiation Providers: If you can't get your patients into the sea to soothe their breasts, tell them to fill up the tub, sink down into the water, and let their breasts bob like jellyfish.

       And so, the drill continues, according to Hoyle, as Quentin Tarantino—and long before he is born, my mother—would say. I don't know about Quentin's mom, but my mother is a mean, clean poker player who gives all credit to Hoyle. According to Hoyle is not just an aphorism but an actual book that evolved from a pamphlet written in 1742 by Edmond Hoyle called, A Treatise on the Game of Whist, which he self-published and sold for one guinea to anyone who wanted a copy. If you want to know what a 1742 guinea is worth in today's dollars, you can't. Google to find out why. My mother knows the whole book by heart. During her card games, she whips it out of her bag when someone dares to disagree with her rule-determinations. I try to think of another book I can visualize my mother reading. I get nothing. She's a math person, whereas I will never remember my 6-12 tables. Oh, well. You have to play the hand you're dealt, right, Hoyle?

       I have to readjust my work schedule because the only time the Shoreline Clinic has available is morning, the time when I write first drafts. A first draft is ditch-digging. The revisions, sometimes endless, are about making every word a perfect fit, something I find pleasurable. I can do my revising any old time. With the former, I work until beads of blood come out of my forehead. Revising, I work joyously till I drop. But these days, I must wait till after the treatment to get in my time to create. I was sure I wouldn't be able to adjust. But I did. Because:  Hey! I'm not writing fiction. I'm writing the now as it happens—to me!— not racking my brain as to what the hell my protagonist will do when she can't be in three places at the same time, as the plot requires. I'm the protagonist and there is no plot, there's only remembering, and as you've come to know, all that remembering brings with it, meaning other remembering.

       When I return to Guilford for what is my twelfth day of treatment, it is now December, six months since the Yale-New Haven radiologist tells me I have mammary duct full of junk. I'm sitting in the solitude of the waiting room, changed into my johnny coat, gazing at the rather sad Christmas tree, struggling to look like fake tree at best. It doesn't reach that level of refinement. It looks like refuse from a dumpster. The staff has decorated it with ornaments no one wants.

       Nora, the young woman with her pretty hats is just coming out of treatment. She has a new slouchy hat, blue. We say, Hi. The minute she finishes changing and is about to head for home, right while I'm about to pull on my hospital slippers, suddenly it's as if ten cruise ships are pulling into the building, announcing their arrival. Horns are blaring in so obscenely a deafening racket that I jump up, stare for just a moment at Nora, and we both go flying out of the room. Lights are flashing everywhere and they are bright.

       This is the fire alarm system, in case you haven't guessed. It is a zillion times louder than any fire alarm/smoke alarm I've ever heard. Probably because we're in a pseudo-hospital. Those of us in the radiation unit are in the basement with no windows.

       In a basement with no windows? Jesus God.

       I know of only one door—the one upstairs that's between the parking lot and the lobby that I come in every day. There is a wide stairway, leading from the lobby down to Radiation. I'm running alongside Nora in her new hat that she's holding to her head, toward those very stairs. I'm clinging to the front of my johnny coat to try to keep it closed, though not to the point where my speed will be compromised. My radiation partner is so young, in such good shape despite her illness and   treatment that she is sprinting way ahead of me in no time. She looks over her shoulder. I call out to her not to wait for me, that I'll be right behind her. She can't hear me. I wave one hand away from me and point dead ahead. I let go of the johnny coat with one hand, wave, and then re-grasp it. She waves back and is off.

       So I'm running, thinking there is no fire reaching us down here in the radiation cellar. I can only hope the lobby isn't on fire. There are no exit signs that I can spot. It's the stairway to the lobby, or nothing. 

       Staff is now running all about, but they're not herding their patients to the stairs, or to some stairway they know about that we don't. They are trying to herd us back to where we came from.

       Someone is running next to me. It's Chelsea; I recognize the beauty mark on her cheek. Huffing and puffing, she shouts into my ear, "Go back!" I don't. She grabs my head and holds my ear against her mouth. She screams, "Go back to the waiting room. It's a false alarm."

       I scream into her face, "That's what they told the people in the World Trade Center."

       She keeps shouting: "It's been happening all month. It'll stop."

       Me: "What if today there's a real fire?" I just keep running. She doesn't. I can still hear her. "You won't hear the alarm if you're in the waiting room. I'll close the door."

       Is she mad? At what point does she think I should leave the waiting room—when my hair's on fire? She's using common sense: Just go into a room, shut the door, and you'll be fine. No, Chelsea, you'll be burned alive.

       She's keeping pace with me. She grabs my arm and opens the nearest door, a utility closet. There's a horn in there blaring away, plus extra flashing lights. Within that small space they're blinding. I yank my arm out of her grasp and I'm off and running again. I look over my shoulder. She's running back to try and keep any more patients from escaping.

       Now Lori is running alongside me. She shouts, "It's a false alarm. We can't panic…."

       I shout, "You can't know that."

       She stops; I keep running.

       There, in front of me, the wide stairway. I run up to the top to see a bizarre accordion door closing in front of my face. I make it through before it closes all the way. I'm in the lobby. It's not burning. I say to the Guilford security cop on duty at the desk, "Why aren't you evacuating this building?"

       "Something's wrong with the system. The alarms went off three times this week."

       "But if this is the real thing, you've got all those nurses and patients down there trapped in a basement with one door, which is now closed now for crissake, and no windows! If you don't get them out right now, you're in dereliction of your duty." (Amazing the things you say when you're justifiably shocked at someone's whose stupidity could kill you.)

       He stands up and walks away from me.

       I go outside on the sidewalk where there is a whole bunch of people huddled together. It's damned cold and I'm barefoot. The first floor, which is an urgent care facility with a fully equipped emergency room and an out-patient surgery clinic, has been evacuated. Patients and staff are milling about. The patients are in several stages of undress, many on rolling cots, but each has a blanket.

       Whoever is in charge of urgent care has a brain. Whoever is in charge of the radiation department is an imbecile.

       Next, more sirens are coming at us. The Guilford Fire Department with all hands arrives. They pour out of hook and ladder engines and many other such vehicles. I never dreamed so many firemen could hang off one engine. One fireman, not in full fire-fighting gear like the others, just calmly walks into the building, and in a few minutes the horns and flashing lights peter out. He returns, and begins helping the security cop see to everyone's removal back where they've come from. I go right up to him and tell him that a windowless basement full of patients and medical staff was not evacuated. That I made it through the fire door just before it shut.   

       He is sympathetic. But the best he can do is to show me that the fire door can be opened and closed manually just by pushing a button. He then goes to the side of the door and pushes a button by way of demonstration, and the massive accordion opens.

       He says, "No one would have been trapped in the basement."

       I say, "Before anyone could even get to the stairs, let alone the door, they would have been overcome by smoke. And maybe the ones who do get to the stairs don't know about the goddamn button. You'd have found their bodies piled up against the door. That's how it works, right?" I keep on talking into his face. "So listen to this. The staff downstairs stuffed patients into offices and closets and bathrooms, whatever, and then shut the doors because that's what they were told to do! Find out who the hell told them to do that and then get him and that do-nothing cop wandering around here fired. Or maybe have them arrested."

       Guess what? The guy puts his head down and walks away, just like the do-nothing cop.

       I go back down the stairs. People are emerging from various rooms and closets. No one says a word to me. Then my team radiates me. We don't speak, but Lori still pats Starlight.

       Then I go home. I call Jene, who is appalled. She calls her cousin Brian, a Cambridge, Massachusetts firefighter—a lieutenant in the department—and describes to him what happened. She calls me back. Here is the advice he tells Jene to pass along to me:

       "Have your mom get a poster to hang on the wall of the entrance into the radiation department. Tell her to write on it: IF YOU HEAR A FIRE ALARM GET EVERYBODY THE FUCK OUT!"

       I quote him to my radiation nurses. Lori is the only one to respond. "We did what we were told to do. We followed our directive to ignore the alarms and assure the patients that everything is fine, that the fire alert system is broken but it's being fixed. We all know you're right. I will be bringing it up at our next staff meeting."

       Dear God.

       I say to them, "Listen, you're my girls. You're my team. I feel such affection for you. I admire your work more than you can know."

       There is nothing they can say. Lori rubs my arm. I can still say something, though, and I do: "At the next staff meeting, write a joint letter to the Fire Chief. Tell him to get his ass up to Cambridge, Mass, and ask their fire department to tell him how to do his job. Tell him about the poster my nephew suggested. Tell him you're going to follow the instructions on it."

       I get my make-up radiation treatment. These women will not face up to the fact that they are putting themselves and their patients' lives in jeopardy. Denial when it's dangerous. I'm so astounded by their action that I think it's the reason I recover an unspeakable memory:

       At a college in, I think, Chicago, in the 60s, a barbarian named Richard Speck scopes the student nurses' housing. There are eight girls in each house. They share a living room, and two bedrooms, each with two sets of bunk beds. One night, Richard Speck pushes his way into one of the houses. There are actually nine student nurses there on this night—one is from another residence, visiting her friend. He ties them up, keeping them all in one of the bedrooms. He chooses a girl at random and tells her to come with him. She follows him into the living room where he tapes her mouth, beats, stabs, sexually abuses her, and then strangles her.

       While he is out of the bedroom, the student nurses whisper together, deciding they must keep him calm, give him money from their purses because that's all he wants. He returns and takes a second girl out, then a third girl, then a fourth. Now the remaining five are aware that each time he returns, they first hear the sound of water running in the sink. He is washing the blood off. The oldest of the group, a 23-year-old from the Philippines who manages to free her hands wants to get one of the bunk bed ladders down—it's steel—and hit him with it when he comes back in. The others disagree. He's just a little crazy and not hurting them.

       Before he comes back, the Filipino student nurse crawls under one of the bunk beds and jams herself up against the wall. The others move around to further hide her. Richard Speck returns, his routine continuing until he rapes the last of eight nurses though he chooses to rape her there in the bedroom, on the lower bunk where her roommate from the Philippines is hiding beneath. Then he drags his last victim out of the room, kills her, washes his hands, and leaves.

       He has no idea there are nine student-nurses in the house that night, not eight.

       At the light of dawn, the Filipino girl crawls out from under the bunk bed, runs through the dorm apartment to the closest window, throws it open and screams. She can't stop screaming because the only way she could get out of the apartment was to walk back through the bloodied bodies of her friends. The police have to take her down a ladder from the window because a crime scene can't be disturbed, and because they wouldn't have her go back. First, one of them wipes the bottom of her feet with a towel so she won't slip.

       Based on her description of Richard Speck, he is caught, arrested when the nurse is on her way back to the Philippines with a member of the nursing program's faculty. The Filipino nurse, who has received her RN degree diploma in a ceremony in her home town's mayor's office, will return to Chicago to testify against him. She does not have to do this. She does.

       The witness stand is twelve feet from the table where the mass murderer sits. He never takes his eyes off the nurse. Her testimony condemns him. She would find justice for her friends who saved her life.

       I can still see the faces of the student nurses on the front page of the newspaper. The pictures are their graduation portraits taken a month before they die. They wear their caps and pins for picture day and then give them back until they can wear them officially as registered nurses.

       So now….  Now! Now it seems that a nurse's training still revolves around calming the patient first and foremost. Lull your patient even in the face of danger, even though it means you both might die.

       I cry and I cry.

 

Chapter 34.

 

DURING MY NEXT-TO-LAST week of radiation, a second crisis—though not as awful as the first—occurs at the Yale Shoreline Clinic. For starters, the young woman with the cool hats isn't there. My heart falls into my stomach.

       Lori comes in. I'm shaking. She says, "Are you okay?" I say the girl's name; it's all I can get out: "Nora."

       "Hey. Not to worry. We reached her before she left home." She sits down next to me." Here's the story: The accelerator kept shutting down. We're getting someone here to figure out what's going on. We need you to come back this afternoon…" she looks down in a little book "…at 4:15, if possible."

       One second after my relief that my radiation mate is all right, I say to Lori, "I can't do that."

       "We hate to miss a day."

       "What if it doesn't really get fixed and falls on me?"

       "It isn't falling. It's shutting down because it knows something's not right."

       "It knows?"

       "It's programmed."

       "It could still fall down. Sign me up at Yale-New Haven with a newer machine that has never malfunctioned, though there's always a first time."

       I leave.

       Dr. Frye calls me on my cell. First she asks, "Have you pulled over?"

       I say, "I'm starting to."

       "Call me right back."

       I do. She says, "Mary-Ann, listen to me. The accelerator has a fail-safe. Everything stops when there's a malfunction. The accelerator will always shut down because the sensors are programmed to detect a malfunction. After three tries at re-starting it, the accelerator shuts down for good till we get a crew here. They just left. The malfunction turned out to be in the motor that raises and lowers the table. The table wasn't going up and down to the height the nurses keyed in so it shut down. It's fixed now. Come at your regular time tomorrow. It's too late to radiate any more patients today."

       I say, "But what if the table malfunctions tomorrow and goes up and doesn't stop and smashes me into the accelerator? Or what if the sensors malfunction?"

       "Mary-Ann."

       "What?"

       "You can trust me. If there is any kind of malfunction, the machine stops in its tracks. I promise you that. And in addition to the sensors, there are back-ups: It works."

       She loves that line, It works. Can you tell? I certainly had.

       "This is the first time this has ever happened. Even if it happens again, we have that fail-safe. Please trust me."

       I say, "I'll try."

       Charlie tells me that the machines at Yale-New Haven are the same as the one in Guilford. I go online. The fail-safe always works. There are no fatalities or injuries that I can find—or maybe they got the DOT to cover it up, experts that they are.

       Next day, I tell myself I will roll off the table if I feel it's rising too near to the machine. I will yell, "Stop," though I won't wait for my nurses to run in. Too bad. That means I have to keep my eyes open.

       What with working my EMDR stones overtime, I watch the machine just pass by, and back again, a couple of times.

       I'm good. No IEDs exploding at the side of the room, and the table doesn't smash me into the accelerator. I close my eyes for the last minute and have a little rest.

       The day after that, I change purses and forget to put the stones in the new purse. I realize it when I'm in the dressing room, changing into my johnny coat. I don't even look for them in my purse, just in case. I know they're not there the second I go to get them.

       I have my radiation without my EMDR stones and do my LaMaze breathing. My nurses notice. When we're finished, they all hug me.

       But then, just shy of one week to go, shit happens. I will be radiated for the last time the day after Christmas, a Monday. (It would have been the Friday before Christmas but for the radiation table crapping out.) Starbright's skin across the entire left half of my chest, my left side around to my back, and my armpit is a color best described as prune whip. The radiation treatments slowly, but most surely, first turned my skin pink ("like a sunburn") as warned, and then to pink with white spots, and then, as I was warned early on, "tan." But the pink phase did not look anything like a sunburn, and as we know, there isn't any such thing as a sunburn that suddenly develops white spots. My skin looks scalded.

       As for the tan, my skin is not tan; it's prune whip, something I just told you. An alien force, not the sun, is destroying my skin. And what is especially disappointing is seeing Dr. Quigley's perfect, nearly invisible, beautifully curved incision scar become inflamed. It is now a curved purple-green smudge.

       Pam says, "It will likely return to the way it was."

       Likely. Remember almost always, the term I believe I discussed on the first page of this book? In the medical profession, likely, discomfort, and almost always are euphemisms for that which is bullshit. 

       The pink stage was my discomfort stage, discomfort according to me, not a medical person. At the spotted stage, the discomfort turned to hurting, especially along the lines of the creases just at the edge of my armpit. But wait a minute—did I have two really long, deep creases before the treatment started? I look down again. The answer is, No. I remember faint lines. They deep creases, are the result of swelling flesh all around them.

       I tell Pam. She says it is normal to swell up a bit and feel discomfort. I say, "I'm not talking about discomfort, I'm talking about pain."

       "Are you using the Lubriderm?"

       "Out of desperation, I am. But it doesn't do anything."

       "It keeps your skin from getting dry."

       "But what about the pain I'm feeling 24/7? My skin, dry or damp—who cares? It hurts! No one warned me. No one will give me anything for this pain? How the hell long will it take me to have the right to feel outraged?"

       "Let me get Dana."

       Dana is the ultrasound nurse who I haven't seen ever since the ultrasound. Pam goes out. I wonder if Dana is her superior. I have to wait till a patient is finishing up, and then Dana comes in and sits down in Pam's chair.

       "Hey, Mary-Ann, I'm sorry you're hurting. You are allowed to dab cortisone cream along the creases for relieving the itch. Now I know what you feel is beyond itchy—"

       "Way, way beyond."

       "Yes, I understand. All the same, try it. Then you can talk to Dr. Frye Thursday if you're still having...pain."

       She forgets to give me a prescription. I ask for it. She says, "You're to have over-the-counter cortisone."

       "Why can't you just give me a Vicodin?"

       "I'm sorry, no. You can't be groggy during the treatments. We need you to be alert."

       My friendly pharmacist gives me the most powerful over-the-counter cortisone he's got. He says, "Can I warn you of something?"

       "Yes."

       "This won't do a damn thing for the kind of pain you're experiencing."

       I say, "Yeah, I didn't think so. Why can't I get a prescription medication for skin going through radiation?"

       "Insurance companies require doctors to recommend over-the-counter drugs first. If the patient goes on to experience the equivalent of second degree burns, they give the okay for prescription cortisone. It helps. Sometimes, a lot. You're probably on the verge of entering that phase."

       Can you imagine being hopeful that you start feeling the pain of second degree burns?

       I call Dr. Kaplan. I ask her what I should do. She says, "We can't interfere with your treatment."

       "There is no treatment unless you really want to think of Lubriderm as a treatment. I'm really hurting."

       "I'm sorry."

        I hang up on her. Two heroes, two people I depended upon, feet of clay.       

        I cannot stop crying. I just sit on the sofa with Salty across my lap. He does not go to sleep. Charlie walks in the door, shoos Salty, gets me up, puts an arm around my shoulder, helps me into the kitchen and keeps his arm around me while he makes a perfect martini with one hand.

         I am able to at least tolerate the pain with just that one martini. I recover the second half of a memory. The first half appears in my first memoir, Girls of Tender Age: When I'm maybe five, I leaned back against the kitchen wall and my calf presses against a toaster which is on the floor because we have very little counter space. Alas, it was toasting bread for breakfast. The burn mark had the first three letters of Wear-Ever in it. Now, the second half of that memory: My mother goes to the plant in the window. She squeezes stuff out of a leaf. This plant has leaves that give me nightmares; they're thick, hard spears with little white points/prickers along the entire edge of each leaf. What she squeezes out is a lump of clear jelly. I'll bet you all know the name of the plant. If not, it's aloe vera. It makes a burn tolerable, though I bet all you crêpe-hangers out there will say it's the coolness of the aloe that helps. Lubriderm is cool. Ergo, I'm making a decision here: Crêpe-hanger is synonymous with, uh, jealous bastard, my mother's favorite insult after shit-heel.

       Two days later, Dr. Frye is calmly telling me that the white spots are from the absence of melanin disappeared by the radiation. "They'll probably go away."

       I say, "I don't give a shit about the white spots. When will this pain go away? I'm not talking about white spots. My chest near my armpit is burning."

       "I'm sorry."

       I tell her what the pharmacist said. She says, "You haven't entered the level required for prescription cortisone."

       "What if I enter it tonight at 2 AM? How will you know that?"

       "I will when you come in. This is the protocol, Mary-Ann."

       "At 2 AM?"

       "No, you'll have to wait till 8 AM."

       "Whose protocol?"

       "It's when the office opens. Do not go to the emergency room."

       Listen everyone, please email me at tironesmith@aol.com if you know what the hold is insurance companies have over doctors. I mean, do insurance companies have conferences with doctors and lecture them on the heartless downside of capitalism? Do insurance agents show up at the doctor's home and waterboard her if she breaks their rules?

       I raise my eyes to Dr. Fry's. My look says it all. So does hers. Dr. Frye's gaze re-directs to the floor. If I were a doctor, I'd take the papers away from the poor slob in my office who has to fill out the actual form where there is no code for what someone in my situation needs, and fill it out myself. I'd lie. I'd put in the code for a second degree burn. If I get caught, I'll cause enough commotion to get arrested, and then call The New York Times before I call my lawyer.

       The spots go away in a couple of days. The pain doesn't. And two days after that, I wake up to a shocking sight—in the bathroom mirror Starbright has a dark ring around her nipple. A really dark ring!

       I go show Charlie. He says, "Omigod, Starbright has a black eye."

       That's exactly the thought I have. I'm a goddamn Dalmatian with one spot surrounding his eye.

       I put ice pack wrapped in a dish cloth against my breast. I'm crying. Charlie massages my shoulders. He tells me I shouldn't be humiliated. I shouldn't be five-feet-two either, but I am.

       An hour later, Pam is returning my call after I leave her a message while I'm really crying. She says, "The ring will fade away. I promise it will. It fades away as quickly as it appeared."

       It does—in a couple of days. The next Thursday, I'm in the office. I am at the height of the prune whip stage, and I will demand pain relief for the pain I'm in, or I will go to the emergency room.

       Pam still isn't in, so I see Dana again. 

       She listens to me vent, and when I finish, she asks, "In addition to the pain, does it itch?"

       "No."

       "Because if it itches, you can't scratch it. The Lubriderm diminishes the need to scratch."

       An enormous segment of the medical profession refuses to acknowledge pain. A while back, I have chicken pox. I'm, like, in my forties. I caught it from my children, whereupon my mother tells me I never had chicken pox as a kid, even when my entire second grade class has it. Here is what I find out about chicken pox through personal experience that little kids can't make their parents understand: The pox don't itch, they hurt. They hurt like hell. The reason children want to scratch at the pox is not because they're itchy; it's because they hurt so much they want to rip the pox out with their fingernails.

       I say to Dana, "If I'm still hurting with the cortisone, what do I try instead?"

       I think she says something like baking soda. Whatever she says is not what I want to hear. I whip out a list of products that radiation patients report online they've tried in addition to Lubriderm: A&D Ointment, Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafine, Radiocare, Calendula Cream (a calendula is a marigold used by gardeners to repel the hornworm caterpillars that eat tomatoes, vines and all), Vaniderm, Miaderm, Mepilex, and—get ready—"Kiss My Itch Goodbye." The only product that all the comments suggest as having worked: aloe vera.

       Anna says, "You can't use any of those."

       "Including aloe vera?"

       "That's right."

       I don't say, Why? I don't tell her about my Peace Corps friend, Maggie. What would be the point? Instead, I say, "The creases near my underarm are now into my armpit and really hurt. I'm getting more and more swollen. I'm using ice packs."

       "You can't do that. No ice. You only have today, tomorrow, and then one week left."

       I already use ice packs, as we all know. I ask, "Will this get worse?"

       "It might. It could blister."

       "I'm going to wait for blisters to happen?"

       "Blistering often happens right at the end, when you're getting boosts. It'll only last a few days."

       Perfect. Boosts? What the fuck are boosts? But before I ask that: "Which stage of blistering lasts a few days? At their initial appearance? When the blisters start to hurt? When they break? When they start oozing shit?" Is it obvious I'm getting really, really pissed? I am. Then I go right to, "What the fuck are boosts?"

       And she goes right into a programmed explanation of boosts. "Radiation directly to the place where the duct was removed, rather than the whole breast, is a boost. Near to the scar. We've already boosted your nipple, which caused the brown ring, and we did your underarm in case all of the breast tissue there didn't make it into the mammogram images."

       Jesus. I want to tell her to stuff her boosts unless she gives me a pain medication, but I can't speak. And where the hell is Dr. Frye? She usually appears by now.

       That's when Dana says, as she's escaping out the door, "You won't be seeing Dr. Frye today. She has an emergency in New Haven. You will have Dr. Barth. He's filling in. You can discuss the radiation boosts with him. He's very good." The door closes.

       An emergency? How can that be? Does someone appear in the emergency room with an earache, only to be told he needs immediate radiation? I'll have to wait a week to tell Dr. Frye that if the boost treatments give me more pain than I've got now then I'm not doing it any more. No, I'll tell Dr. Fill-In to tell her. Or maybe drink martinis nonstop.

       (Note: The day after I write the above paragraph, my neighbor, who is crying, tells me her daughter went to the doctor yesterday—two years after she first felt a lump in her breast. Saying that part makes her cry harder. Then she says the doctor got her daughter rushed over to Yale-New Haven, where they brought her right to surgery. Dr. Quigley was waiting and did an emergency mastectomy. Perhaps there's something that can happen requiring emergency radiation too. I can only hug my neighbor for a long time.)

       I sit in the examining room in my johnny coat and wait for my substitute doctor. This is no time for me to be all by myself. I'm shaking. There's a tiny tap at the door. I say, "Come in." It's Nora with yet another new hat.

       She stops in her tracks. "Are you all right?"

       "No."

       She comes to me and takes my hand. "I'm sorry. It's my last day. I wanted to say goodbye. It's almost over for you too. Hang in. Just hang in, okay? Just a little while longer."

       I will be brave for her because we are in the same boat, hers maybe sinking faster than mine. And she can't be more than twenty-five years old. I say, "Okay, I will. You hang in too."

       We kiss each other's cheeks, and she leaves. Every time Nora is at our radiation appointments, she is all by herself. She wants it that way, I can tell. When my daughter was divorced she went to court alone. My mother would have said about her granddaughter, and about Nora too: Tough cookie.

       There's a knock on the door. I can't call out, Come in, because I'm crying. The door opens a crack, then a little more. A gentleman who is a replica of Mr. Rogers peeks in and takes in the scene. He comes right over to me and puts his arm around my shoulder. He says nothing; he knows not to. He will wait for me until I can tell him what's wrong.

       I cry for a long time, while he just pats me. Finally, I can say what I need to tell him. "I'm all swollen in my underarm. I feel like the skin there is ripped. It's probably going to blister because I got a boost there. No one warned me. I don't want any more boosts. I don't want any more radiation."

       He speaks. He sounds like Mr. Rogers. "I'm here to help you. Please let me introduce myself. I'm Dr. Barth." He puts out his hand. I shake it. I don't tell him my name. I don't care if he knows my name or not.

       Then he says, "I'm a retired radiologist. I live a mile down the road. When Dr. Frye has an emergency, I head over." He smiles. Then he says, "You're really hurting, aren't you?"

       "Yes."

       "And every day it hurts more."

       "Yes."

       "May I examine you?"

       How lovely of him to ask, but then we're talking Mr. Rogers here. I slip the johnny coat off my left shoulder. First he just looks at Starbright. Then he asks, "Did the nurses suggest cortisone?"

       "Yes, but only if it itches. It doesn't itch. It skipped any itching stage. It went right to pain. Especially here, where I told you." I touch the creases alongside my swollen armpit. "Besides, my druggist told me that over-the-counter cortisone won't do anything."

       He says, "It's true. I was about to warn you of that if you were about to try it. Listen, I'm not going to touch your radiated skin. This is not the time to examine your breast."

       He helps me put my arm back into my sleeve. Then he says, "It's Mary-Ann, isn't it?"

       "Yes."

       "There are studies showing that smearing cortisone on radiated skin several times a day helps considerably. It is being considered. This would not be an over-the-counter medication. Have you got a dermatologist?"

       "Yes."

       "Ask him if he'll suggest a cortisone with the greatest effect. Ask for a prescription."

       "He's a she. She won't do it. I've asked her to help me, and she can't. Actually, more like she won't. We all make our choices, don't we?"

       He says, "I'll give you a prescription.  Listen…." He pauses.

       I say, "Believe me, doc, I'm listening." I say that fairly forcefully. I want to depend on him.

       He says, "Don't rat me out."

       Then I am so grateful I start to cry again. He hugs me again ever-so-gently. Then he takes out his prescription pad and starts writing. When we say goodbye, I ask, "Do you live on the beach?"

       "Yes."

       I say, "Good for you."

       He smiles a Mr. Rogers smile at me. Maybe he is Fred Rogers and there really is a Twilight Zone.

       I drop the prescription off at the drugstore and get home right when my cell phone rings. A friend of mine is just back from Cancún and she is now on her way to my house from the airport on that very day with a giant tube of cortisone. It has a higher potency rating than over-the-counter cortisone, but not as high as the prescription products that will possibly cause fairly serious side effects. When my friend arrives, I call the drugstore. The Mexican cortisone has the same rating as Mr. Rogers. As it turns out, my friend says her friend, who she traveled to Mexico with, is staying an extra week, and the friend is bringing some more back in case I need it. (I now consider my friend and her friend to be my actual support group.) I go in the bathroom, I take off my shirt and rub the cortisone all over what hurts, especially under my left arm. It will come to pass that hair will never grow under my left arm, is it any wonder? The follicles have been destroyed by radiation.

       It works, though not entirely. But you know how Advil takes the edge off a muscle pull? The Mexican drug takes the edge off the pain of my burned skin. A wide edge. And right away. It's bearable. Charlie comes in. A perfect martini coming up. It's celebratory. I won't require three.

       Just as my skin displays the beginnings of blisters, the swelling starts to go down and the blisters retreat. On the fourth day there is no swelling at all. My pain level goes from 10, to 7, to 3. I go online and rat out Mr. Rogers, not that I tell all of social media his real name—in fact, I refer to him as Mr. Rogers II. I just say how his cortisone advice made a huge difference, not just with the pain, but with the resulting news that you can get some serious cortisone online, no prescription necessary, from Mexico. About a zillion people comment that you can get whatever drug you want from pharmacies all over the world, not only from Mexico, but also from our other neighbor, Canada. The links start pouring in. You know the stuff you hear about how you can't trust pharmacies in foreign countries? What makes us think we can trust ours?

       There are some who would suggest behind my back that the success of my cortisone therapy is a placebo effect. Don't you hate people like that? My mother would say, referring to such nincompoops, "Those are the same people you have to deal with at the lanes. You make a 7-10 split, and they say, 'I'll bet you'll never be able to do that again.' Damn crêpe-hangers."  By the way, if you don't know what an actual crêpe-hanger is, google it, because it's a top-of-the-line metaphor that would require an entire paragraph for me to clarify for you.

       Instead of telling Team Frye the reason my skin seems to be healing overnight, I tweet as to the efficacy of cortisone on radiated skin, and a couple of online sources that will send you  giant tubes of cortisone. I am too tired to fight city hall.

       It's my last day of radiation treatment. There is a bell hanging alongside the door of the waiting room that makes a horrible, loud bong. I never notice the bell; I just wonder what the hell that awful noise is when the strange clang disrupts the waiting room. Apparently, when you have your last radiation treatment, Pam merrily swings the rope hanging from the bell. There is a bell just like it by the exit door at Big Y supermarket. You're supposed to ring it to show the cashiers that you are pleased with their service, never mind that it drives them nuts. I ask Pam if she will please not ring the bell. Pam says, "I won't." I can tell I'm not the first person to make that request. I mean, if a cancer returns, and you have to go through radiation again, how can you stand listening to the freaking bell?

       I will receive a "Certificate of Merit" from my team a week later. It reads:

 

CERTIFICATE OF MERIT

 

Mary Anne has completed the prescribed course of radiation therapy with a high order of proficiency in the science andart of being cheerful, outstanding in high courage, tolerant and determined in all orders given.

 

     The certificate is accompanied by a note from Lori: We couldn't write anything nearly as good as what you said in your note to us because we're not writers but still we tried our best. We'll never forget you. I don't mind that they don't get my name quite right because they are far too intensely busy to proofread stuff. How I wish I wasn't leaving these women on such a sour note, but I am. They can sense the shift in my attitude, but I guess the language of the certificate counts for something; I've determined that the boilerplate line of praise, "determined in all orders given," means my determination not to follow orders when they might prove lethal. I send them four bars of Stella Marie, and a note thanking them for the kindnesses they showed me.

       Jere proofs the final drafts of all my manuscripts. When he comes to proofing this memoir, he will circle my name on the "Certificate of Merit" and write in the margin: I don't know how they could spell your name wrong. He minds, doesn't he? When he proofreads, he takes no prisoners, but what's so important is that he knows never to tamper with style (now known as narrative voice), even, in my case, with all the idiosyncrasies, meaning tangents.

       My veterinarian sends my dog a "Certificate of Bravery" when he's a puppy after he's neutered and has an undescended testicle removed, involving liposuction because the testicle is encased in a large wad of fat. It reads:

 

CERTIFICATE OF BRAVERY

 

This certificate is to recognize Saltalamacchia's courage and strength for his neuter and liposuction procedure. This certificate is presented to you by the staff at East Shore Veterinary Hospital who would like to recognize how proud they are of his bravery.

 

      I find the loving quality of both certificates gratifying. (The vet gets no red marks from Jere.)

      Do I need to tell you how many of my friends ask if Salty's vet could do a little liposuction on them?

       Oh yeah. I send Mr. Rogers a bar of Kim's soap for men called, Dude, Where's My Soap? (First I call my radiation team and ask his name just as I'm about to write Dear Mr. Rogers on the thank-you note.)

       And so, my story has ended, hasn't it? Here is the moment when I am instantly aware that my memoir is complete, not counting a Tamoxifen adventure to follow, but never mind, I got past it. Here's the moment: My Mexican cortisone takes effect on the night I'm at Pain-10 to Pain-3. I will be at discomfort in no time.

       Charlie and I turn off the Christmas tree lights. As always, I gaze at my crèche for a moment, the last plug I pull. Do you know that the crèche at St. Patrick's Cathedral now has a dog sitting beside Mary? This was an executive decision made by the rector after his dog died. He took a lot of criticism, as in, There is nothing in the Bible that says there was a dog in the manger. In a Times interview, he points out that the Three Wise Men's camels are not mentioned in the Bible either. In fact, no animals are mentioned it all. "But it's a stable," he's quoted. "Of course there were animals. The Bible does mention, however, shepherds. They wouldn't leave their sheep out there alone, would they? And where there are sheep, there are sheep dogs!"

       Do you love it? (Actually, I decide it's Mary's dog. And you do know there's now an apricot Labradoodle in my own crèche, right? Even though there were no Labradoodles until 1935. So what? It's not the terms of a statute that count, it's the intended meaning by whoever wrote it.)

       We don't close the bedroom blinds because the moonlight is enchanting, as always, with its shimmering, mirrored image stretched out across Long Island Sound.

       Charlie reaches across me, pats Salty's head one more time, tells me good night, and that he loves me. Then he has a thought. He props himself up on one elbow, places the palm of his free hand against my cheek, and says, "You had a brush with cancer, baby. That's all."

       A brush. I say, "Thank you, Charlie," and then I cry. Last, you cry.

       Charlie says, "I love you, Wonder Woman."

       Get your yearly mammogram, girlfriends. It works.

 

END