FIRST, YOU GET PISSED: Chapters 1 -- 13
FIRST, YOU GET PISSED
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Author of Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir
Author's note: The story presented in this book is true. However, in some cases, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Copyright © 2018 by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Jacket design: Courtney Lopes Jacket photograph: Charles E. Bimmler
To Charles Edward, my king of kings, and Saltalamacchia, prince of the realm, with love.
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
ALSO BY MARY-ANN TIRONE SMITH:
The Honoured Guest
An American Killing
Masters of Illusion: A Novel of the Great Circus Fire
The Port of Missing Men
Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman
The Book of Phoebe
THE POPPY RICE MYSTERIES
She Smiled Sweetly
She's Not There
Love Her Madly
IN COLLABORATION WITH JERE SMITH
Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery
Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir
FIRST YOU GET PISSED
CHAPTERS 1 -- 13
EVERY YEAR, A POST CARD without the picture arrives in my mailbox. Maybe you get one, too. It comes a week after your mammogram, telling you that everything is right as rain. In my case, the card comes from my OB/GYN, who always scribbles a happy face on it. Sweet. But once, around three or four years ago, a detour: no card. Instead, I get a letter from a lab. The key message is: You have dense breasts.
I call my primary care guy and ask him what "dense breasts" means.
He says, "It doesn't mean anything. It's a way for them to cover their tracks in case they missed something."
I do admire Dr. Slattery, my no-holds-barred doc. In the movie, "Love Story," the female lead, Jenny Cavalleri, gets really sick and knows it's bad. She goes to her primary care guy, and after her examination, tells him not to bullshit her. He doesn't, and consequently, we all know how the movie will end, unless you already read the book. Then you know how it ends before it starts. My boyfriend at the time says, "Break out the Kleenex."
It isn't necessary that I tell Dr. Slattery not to bullshit me.
I find it a bit of a relief that the OB/GYN, whose name is Dr. Montessi, doesn't have to go around drawing unhappy faces when things aren't right as rain.
About breasts: You know how glad you are to leave the doctor's office after a mammogram? Delirious with joy because you don't have to live through that again for another 365 days, an entire year before your breasts will, once again, be compressed between two steel plates. I mean, your breasts! They've never done anything to deserve that kind of…uh…"discomfort." Discomfort is a hangnail for crissake, in case anyone in the medical field is reading this. A mammogram hurts.
My own breasts make me feel so good about being a woman; they please my partner while my partner is pleasing me; they allow me to experience a unique intimacy between two humans— me and my apparently starving newborn. We do what we have to do because, even though our breasts don't deserve pain, they surely don't deserve to succumb to cancer.
So now, this year, this summer, the first week of August, August 6th, I get a another detour, but not a letter, a phone call. Caller ID reads: Yale-New Haven Hospital. I figure it's my daughter, who probably has to use a company phone for some reason. She's a nurse at the Yale-New Haven Infectious Diseases Clinic. I tap green. A woman's voice, not my daughter's: "Hello, I'm Dr. Somebody." Her name doesn't sink in because I experience 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 aloud, though quietly, thinking Jene broke her arm. When upset, I ordinarily say to myself, Shit. But this is a far higher grade of upset. There are times when dropping an F-bomb is therapeutic.
Before I can ask, "What happened?" The radiologist 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 for you. I'll connect you."
Maybe she said, goodbye. I wouldn't know because of the panic that takes hold of me. Jene doesn't have a broken arm; I have an anomalous breast. In my ear, I hear phone connecting noises, while the radiologist's words echo: It almost always means nothing. That is called bullshit re Jenny Cavalleri. The give-away is almost, a word meant to soften the blow, but of course, has the opposite effect. It's not nothing.
I'm switched over to the nurse. I don't remember the appointment conversation with her, but I put the date in my cell, August 22nd, even though I don't remember doing that either.
A flash of memory: Once, upon my release after a mammogram, while I'm getting dressed, the technician reappears. The johnny-coat, size C (colossal), is around my ankles. She gives 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 move when one's breast is in a vise?
I get another round of torture . The verdict: "My error. There was nothing there."
I say, "Thank you."
Shit. I already thanked her for torturing me the first time. (If you have my mother for a mother and you don't say please and thank you, you're a sociopath.)
Now, on this day, this beautiful summer day in August, it's a radiologist who's telling me something is awry, not a technician. It's something!
I have to talk to Charlie is all I know. Charlie is my husband. He's an ex-widower. His late wife died of breast cancer.
I will wait for the right moment to tell Charlie the crummy news, but along those lines, as any shrink will advise—say you have to inform the kids you're getting divorced—there is no right moment. Receiving news of a divorce will make them hate the parent giving them the news even if you segue directly into, "But I've got Southwest tickets to Disney World for April vacation!" That's because the first thing the kids will say is: "Dad's coming, right?" The little nincompoops. Did they not hear me say Dad and I are getting divorced? So we all know the answer to their question, which makes them hate you more, unless you're Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.
Come April, they'll be saying, "Dad would have never stood in this long a line and we'd have missed Space Mountain." We'd miss it because Dad would throw his arms up in the air, storm off, meaning we have to get out of the line to find him because there are no cell phones then.
For now, all I know is, I just have to spit it out. I realize that as I'm brushing my teeth that night, spitting out toothpaste. Charlie is in bed. I'm brushing away for a good, long time. Earlier, he welcomes me home from my mammogram with my mothers' favorite cocktail—a Sidecar. Google it. Know that it requires a beer chaser if you're my mother. I'm acting as if it's just any old day, and I need to take advantage of at least a little denial. The refusal of the unconscious to accept the truth is a gift from the gods, wouldn't you say? Charlie and I have a lovely dinner. The man cooks. The man is a good cook. Mussels in white wine and garlic, and bread he had to go ten miles from home to get. Nice sauvignon blanc. All lovely, but I don't taste a damn thing.
So, I'm brushing my teeth, while chanting silently to myself in rhythm with the brushing: There is no right moment, there is no right moment, there is no right moment. Can you brush your teeth all night? Denial only takes you so far. I have to stop. 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. My usual flossing and a rinse of Listerine will have to wait. I tell my face in the mirror, "Get it over with."
As soon as I come into the bedroom, our dog, Salty, gets out of my spot and goes to the foot of the bed. He performs this ritual every night. Great in winter since his 58-pound self leaves me a big warm spot. Salty remains at the foot of the bed until he's sure we're asleep. Then, ever so cautiously, he makes his way back to where he was, plants his head on half my pillow, and is immediately and blissfully unconscious.
Every night, I sleep between man and beast.
Tonight, I stand there looking at Salty at the end of the bed. He doesn't know why. He raises his head. I pat it. I climb into bed and nestle into Charlie's chest, a magnificent chest, I have to say—broad, hard muscles, gently hairy, and especially sexy nipples. Yum. Neither of us has put on a pair of pajamas since we co-mingled. We are diehard cuddlers what with being naked. We very often entwine our naked selves together like two kittens and pretty much make love without even thinking twice. But tonight….
I say, "Sweetheart?"
"I have to have another mammogram. They saw what they call an anomaly but that it almost always means nothing. I'm sorry." I immediately 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, especially her.
Charlie's breathing stops just like mine did when I hear the almost always thing. He knows from almost always. I wait. When he can speak, he calmly asks, "Have you felt a lump?"
"Me, neither." Considering the way his first marriage ended, he's obviously on guard.
Then he says, "Is it Starlight or Starbright?"
Once, when looking at my breasts after bestowing them with his sweet caresses and warm kisses, Charlie says, "I love you, Starlight, and you too, Starbright. You're so gorgeous." Charlie gives my breasts names! Lol. (Lol is exactly what I do at the time. Note: When I first see lol in an email, I think it means little old lady, as in the Beach Boys hit, "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.")
Tonight, laughter of any kind, lol or otherwise, isn't in the cards. I say, "The radiologist didn't tell me which breast. Maybe she did, but I must have blanked it out."
Since Charlie has passed through his initial terror mode and into a mode of being there for me, he props himself up on his elbow and says, "You're going to be all right even if there is something. It's very soon. I mean, we still can't feel anything."
He pulls me into his strong arms, and says, "I love you."
I don't think I told you what a fabulously deep voice Charlie has. It's like, when he says, I love you, the sound comes from the depths of his soul. When I first meet Charlie, I say to my friend the writer, Sarah Clayton, "He has this really deep voice," and she says, "A deep voice goes a long way."
Then we're nuzzling, then kissing, then touching each other all over, making love. It's our best way to communicate as Charlie has a fairly serious hearing loss from the time he's fourteen. He doesn't get medical attention for chronic ear infections until they become mastoid infections. (His widowed mother is "on the dole." That's what welfare is called back in the day.) So let me tell you this: I would rather have a man who can't hear me than one who won't listen to me.
Anyway, Charlie makes love to me in an especially soothing way. While he's loving me, I'm thinking of this one night when Charlie is finished making out with Starlight and Starbright and he says to me, "Your breasts give me peace, Mary-Ann. Serenity." Then he gets a little weepy. He's a very emotional guy, him and his deep voice.
I say at the time, "All I know is that that you are really making my toes tingle, cutie."
He stops being weepy and gets turned on instead.
Now, tonight, I interrupt him, "Charlie?"
"How come you named my breasts?"
Without even trying, I am changing the subject.
He says, "What?"
I forget to put my lips up to his good ear. Well, not good, but better than the other one. I repeat the question.
He says, "It was because of the story you told me about your aunt."
"The one with the jars."
Is changing the subject part of the denial phenomenon? Maybe. Anyway, with the subject changed, Charlie and I go about still enjoying that most wonderful stage in a relationship— autobiographical reverie. All new lovers enter this state until they either find out there's nothing all that interesting about each other (usually right away), or stay lovers forever continually exchanging missed-out pieces of their lives that render them more and more in love.
When I'm little, Auntie Mary says to my mother, "My stars are itchy."
My mother says, "So scratch them."
Auntie Mary reaches into her bodice and follows her sister's instructions. The thing is, I think Auntie Mary is saying jars, not stars. I never heard the word breasts before. It is several years before I learn that human jars are actually called breasts. I just figure breasts are a certain brand of jar, which makes perfect sense because they look somewhat like jars. I tell that to Charlie.
He says to me, "Rather than call your breasts Jar A, and Jar B, I think I'll go with Starlight and Starbright," and proceeds to make wishes on my breasts in keeping with the rest of the nursery rhyme. Among the wishes: I won't leave him, I'll love him forever, I'll marry him, and the Red Sox will win the World Series. All come true.
On this awry night, remaining wrapped up in one another, Charlie and I both pretend to fall asleep, until we finally and blessedly, somehow, do.
And only then does our Salty dog move up the bed.
AUGUST 22nd ARRIVES, and I am where I don't want to be—the imaging center at Yale. Charlie is ushered into a special waiting room for family or friends of women having advanced placement mammograms. Salty is enjoying the action at doggie day care. The breast-crushing machine is revved up, only this time the two steel plates are a quarter the size of the usual ones, appropriately, more the size of a sandwich. These are geared to descend upon the breast anomaly, specifically.
The technician arranges Starbright onto the bottom plate and has me hold the bar that is alongside the machinery. She dashes over to a console, presses a button, and the upper plate descends. When Starbright is flattened and hurting, she returns to my side and lowers the upper plate manually, twisting a short rod with a vinyl cover, sort of like a gearshift. I'm gripping the bar with all my might.
"Can you take another turn?"
Tears are springing to my eyes. She dashes around to her control panel, calling out to me, "I'll be really fast." I'm still hanging onto the bar for dear life, bearing the singular pain, when she calls out again:
"Three seconds, two seconds, one second, done!"
Starbright is released.
She rushes over to me. "You okay?"
"I'm really sorry."
I can tell she is. I say, "I appreciate your running."
She's not finished with Starbright naturally. I forget all about the dreaded side view, but it doesn't hurt worse than the usual side-view mammogram, don't ask me why. It doesn't take as long, either. I only know it's over. The technician tells me I can get dressed.
I do. As I'm grabbing my bag to leave, she says, "The doctor will be out shortly."
I say, "What doctor?"
"The radiologist. The one who called you. She's looking at the images."
I sit down on a little bench for one.
The jury is out, and my brain is churning. Maybe I'll have to wait a really long time, all day, I don't care, because when the jury goes out and is back before you have time to blow your nose, forget it, you're guilty. Five seconds later, the door next to the door that is the escape hatch opens. I am doomed. Again, because of who my mother is, I stand when a person enters a room.
In walks a tall, slim, very pretty girl in lab wear, who looks to be in the neighborhood of twelve years old. She smiles and puts her hand out. So do I. I'm trying to smile but don't know if I'm successful. We shake.
She says, "Please sit down, 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 damned fucking thing.
I sit. This is no dream. This is the opposite.
She steps over to a chair and pulls it over to face my bench. She's Asian. But this is Yale. You might as well be in Beijing. She places the chair directly opposite me, sits down, and 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 last name either, and 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, face to face. I feel my saliva drying up so I try to brace myself. I don't want to faint and fall off the chair and have a concussion, although I'd surely rather have a concussion than whatever the thing is she's going to tell me I have, though I know what it is but can't take it in.
She leans in closer. I see she has what is called back in the day a "lazy eye." Maybe, like Charlie, her mother had no money for medical care. (My friend, the writer Katharine Weber, doesn't get appropriate medical care when she tells her parents she can't see out of one eye, even though her parents have a ton of money. They just won't believe her. They think she wants to wear a certain style of glasses popular at the time.)
I gaze into the radiologist's face. She must be one of those brilliant Asian kids whose tiger mother sees to it that she graduates from high school at nine.
She says in a chummy way, "Ya know, Mary-Ann…see…like, here's the thing." She sighs. "We have loads and loads and loads of ducts." Maybe she is twelve. Did she say, Ducks? Maybe she is nine and skipped elementary school altogether.
Leaning in ever closer, "I mean, like, we have…" then, her voice goes up a couple of decibels. "…a zillion ducts!"
Oh. 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!"
This is getting more ominous by the minute. My brain is playing a comfort song. Julie Andrews is singing to me: The hills are alive with the sound of music, with—
The radiologist interrupts. "Now, Mary-Ann, let me tell you about the problem with ducts" Then she says forcefully, "They are full of…junk!"
Good God, I thought she was going to say they were full of shit.
I don't say, Get to the point, because I don't want to know the point. Instead, I say, "My mother never let a day go by without telling me to get rid of all my junk."
A couple more decibels: "OMG! My mother, too!"
What does one say to that, to that person, at this time, in this place I'm in? 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 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!"
Turns out our ducts are full of shit.
"And one such deposit is called a…" (drum roll) "…calcification!" She takes a big breath, keeps going. "BUT! We have calcifications throughout our bodies, not just in our ducts." (She's still emphasizing ducts but has toned down the volume.) "You can have calcifications anywhere, like…like…in your larynx. Calcifications in hard tissue such as the larynx, however, are not worrisome. They just sit there."
Here it comes, because who doesn't know that 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 likes since it's the equivalent of um. I think um is worse.
"So…" (She still starts off sentences with the conjunction so, 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. 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? She starts her next sentence with, However... Bad.
"However, when the next year rolls around, when the patient—you— has another mammogram, most of the time the calcifications are gone, but sometimes they're not, and sometimes they have even increased in number."
She pauses, waiting to see if I can take what's coming. Oh, but I can't. 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."
I'm not surprised she's going to say something terrible like that, but at least her voice is growing significantly 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 needs a rest. My brain is stuck at galaxy. My children and I so love galaxies, along with constellations and meteor showers, and human-made satellites, and everything else in the sky. Once, the three of us 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 try counting the number of meteors in each shower. We don't get far because Melanie throws up. Lying on your back and watching meteors zipping overhead can actually make you car sick if you are so prone. Besides the Melanie episode, another time it's four o'clock in the morning, when my son pats my shoulder. I wake up and he whispers in my ear, "Mom. The aurora borealis. Hurry."
I creep out of bed and follow him out to the deck. The Connecticut sky is bursting with Technicolor striations. My son, whose name is Jere, will grow up to ask his beloved girlfriend to marry him and how would she feel about having the ceremony during the upcoming Delta Aquarids? These are lesser known meteor showers, in case you don't know. His girlfriend thinks it's a capital idea. (I am so very glad 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. I'm not her only patient after all.
I say, "Go ahead."
She tells me what I need to hear about the galaxy in Starbright's 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.
So, here is what I need to know. She races through it and uses the C-word for the first time. She has to do it at some point, doesn't she? "This anomaly can indicate a cancer but the good…really good…news is that the higher resolution, limited angle mammogram you just had showed that no cells have made their way through the duct wall. If they had, they would definitely be cancer cells. But I could see none."
I now feel my first emotion after a week of my nerves shot. A ping of anger suddenly fills up the very core of my being. I am picturing a bunch of scrawny-assed cancer cells joining forces to smash through the wall of my mammary duct with a battering ram so they can chow down on my dense breast. I am pissed.
I say to the radiologist, "The fucking little bastards."
The radiologist says, "Yeah."
Then, her elbow on her knee, her chin resting on her hand, she says, "A biopsy is kind of the final word as to whether or not what I'm seeing is a lesion."
"A lesion is cancer."
She really cannot stand saying the word cancer. I am thinking that when this poor woman must tell a patient that cancerous cells have burst through her mammary duct, that she sees lesions, it breaks her heart. All I know is, I can't stand saying the word cancer, either. And now I have to prepare for that word applying to me.
I take her hand. She squeezes it and then holds it very gently in both of hers. She says, "Let me describe the biopsy procedure for you."
Very Dear Reader, if you have never had a breast biopsy described to you, hang on to your hat. Smoke a joint. It's medicinal in this case because, like me, I'm sure you just figure that someone sticks a needle into your breast and sucks a couple of cells out of the duct junk to be examined by the boys in the lab. When I'm a kid, I love "Hawaii Five-O," who doesn't? In every episode, 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.
And so, if you don't have a joint immediately available, go pour yourself a shot of Macallan 12, or if you don't drink have a mug of coffee unless you're a tea-drinker, in which case, head for the cupboard and brew the superb Lapsang Souchong. If you don't have that variety—maybe never heard of it—go with Lipton's or whatever, and the next time you go out buy a box of Lapsang Souchong, once recommended to me by Kim, who knows her tea.
THE BREAST biopsy. 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 out so we can do a much more intense mammogram previous to—"
"Starbright will hang through a hole?"
I explain about Charlie's names for my breasts. She stares at me, sort of. The lazy eye is presently leveled toward the wall over my shoulder. Then I repeat my question: "You're saying my breast will hang through a hole?"
"And where are you? Underneath the table on one of those things your mechanic rolls around on when he's 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?"
What did I think? They'd be down on their hands and knees?
I think for a moment. "Are you saying you won't be doing the biopsy?"
"What I do is analyze images."
I visualize three strangers crammed under a table with Starbright in the middle of them. I wonder how they get at the breast of a woman with cute little perky breasts. At Branford Harbor, where we have a boat, there is a captain who names her cruiser, Sea Cup, which is the size of her bra. I'm a Sea Cup, myself. (When I tell the captain that, she gives me a knuckle-bump.)
Alas, I must force myself to concentrate on the business at hand, but I want very badly to blink like I dream of Jeannie does and vaporize. I can't. I listen as the radiologist continues the narrative.
"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.
"And next, he'll make a quarter-inch incision—"
"Incision?" She pulls back from me. I must have shouted the word. I shout it again. "Incision?"
"A needle requires 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—"
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 except they have barbed ends…" I am 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 really do hate the word cancer. If you change the second c to a k, you've got canker. I get canker sores when I'm a kid. Now I have cancer. (I say it. Cancer. If only to myself.) Maybe if you get canker sores as a kid, you're predisposed to cancer. I bet if the radiologist said, "…we send the specimens to the boys in the lab…" I wouldn't be doing that monkey-brain thinking. I'd laugh.
I work around the damn monkeys who have set up a trampoline in my cerebral cortex. I ask her, "How will the other doctor get it out?"
"He'll pull it out."
"How many what?"
"How many specimens will be in it?"
"Oh. Four or five."
Whew. I'm thinking she'll say eight hundred. I ask, "Will the incision require stitches?"
Naturally. 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. I cannot imagine. I ask again, "How many?"
"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."
I say, "The transducer guy won't be doing the surgery?"
"He's not a breast surgeon."
"There are surgeons who only do breasts?"
"Yes, but if you choose, you may have any surgeon you like, including one who does not specialize in breasts."
Ping of anger. "What do I look like, Doc, some kind of idiot?"
She says, "Hah! No, Mary-Ann. You don't. What I mean is, if you have had a surgeon in the past you can talk to him or her about all this. You might decide that surgeon will be more appropriate." She puts her hand on my knee. She 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 am not ready yet for that particular discussion. I need to finish this one. "About the marker? The wire?"
"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 knows what I am 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 an eyelash sticking out of Starbright. I am finding myself overwhelmed with a 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." She gazes into my eyes with one of hers trying to look elsewhere.
I know exactly what she means by No combined with the unbalanced gaze. In her experience, the odds that the calcifications are cancer, based on what she is seeing in my mammographic images of Starbright, are one hundred percent. The gaze reflects the fact that she's not comfortable lying.
She thinks I will cry. Maybe I look like I will break down. She asks, "Would you like a Kleenex?"
Forty years ago, the New York Channel 4 newscaster Betty Rollin titles a book she writes, First, You Cry. It starts with her learning she has breast cancer and how much the diagnosis screws up her life that is already screwed up because her husband is a philanderer, and it's about how no one wants to talk about such an embarrassing subject as breasts. In perfect timing with what is going on with me, the book is re-issued, a new edition. I read the first edition way back when because it gets such good reviews, not so much because breast cancer is the culprit, but because it's about life in general when you meet up with a monkey wrench. Life is full of monkey wrenches, isn't it? Betty Rollins's book is both moving and exhilarating. I remind myself to go to Madison on the way home, a nearby town that has the best bookstore in the country, "R.J. Julia." No one knows what R.J. stands for, or who Julia is. I will buy the new edition even though I still have the original. I want to support Betty and maybe she added new stuff.
Mainly, though, knowledge is power. My mother drills that into my head.
To my radiologist, I say, "No, thank you. I don't need a Kleenex. I need you to tell me what to expect."
She takes my hands in both of hers. "Please, please understand, Mary-Ann, that if there are cancerous cells in your mammary duct, we have caught the cancer early enough to cure it."
I am now 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."
Here is how my mother describes her golf partner's stomach cancer surgery: They opened him up…loaded with cancer! Loaded! Sewed him right back up 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, but right up until her last month, it's a good year of doing what she loves doing—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.
I tried my best, Ma.
The radiologist is speaking, still holding my hands, yet more warmly. I try hard to pay attention. She says, "If the cluster of cells is a lesion—something we won't know till we have a 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. Again, I saw no invasive cells outside the duct."
I believe her the first time she tells me that, and I still believe her. I probably have a duct full of cancer but at least it's not a stomachful. I say what I'm next thinking. "But calcifications might show up in another duct next year, right?"
"No. First, the lesion will be disappeared by Dr. Quigley." She snaps her fingers. "Gone! And your post-operative treatment will prevent any new cancer cells from developing in…Starbright."
I find that impossible to believe. "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 a moment 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?"
Pause. Then, "I don't miss anything." Pause. Then, "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?
Another twenty-five percent. I might believe the statistic if she 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?"
She has other patients, after all. I am suddenly feeling exhausted. I can't ask her if there is anything else she should tell me because I'm shut down. But not to worry. There are other people I will be able to question: this Dr. Quigley person, an oncologist, and a radiologist—one who actually does the radiating.
But it turns out the 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. The chances of that will be as close to zero as you can get."
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 so 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 starts his too few years catching for the Red Sox the summer Salty is born. They both have the exact same curly hair as well as extraordinary catching prowess.)
The radiologist, what with the expression she makes, is clearly not into baseball. So I say, "But we call him Salty."
She asks, "What is he?"
"Cool, he doesn't shed. I have a beagle. We had to buy a new, 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?"
Now we both laugh, believe it or not. I know I can't believe I'm laughing, but I am. She says, "So, 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, she'll 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 pain of what I am now thinking: I have to tell Charlie.
I GO INTO THE waiting room and Charlie is sitting there 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 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 galaxy part too. "So, I have to have a biopsy to see if they're cancer cells. She told me they found them early enough 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?)
Charlie responds the same way I do when I hear that. "Did you say cured?"
"Yes. A breast surgeon will take out the duct. The radiologist says she is not seeing any cells outside the duct. When the duct is gone, the cancer cells will be, too." Then I add, "If there even are cancer cells."
It is not the time to mention the possibility of cancer cell protuberances having successfully penetrated the duct wall, wiggling the rest of their sorry-ass selves out of there and onto a path of destruction, engulfing everything. (Did you see "The Blob?" The original movie, a 50s horror film, about a small, round, half-solid, half-liquid ball that just happens to be in a meteor, a meteor landing on earth, when scientists who note such things are out to lunch. It crashes in a wooded area of rural Pennsylvania and cracks open upon impact, and the little ball rolls out of the woods until it reaches a street, whereupon it 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 the town?
"The Blob" is one of my all-time favorite, super-camp flicks, so I seem to have memorized the theme song, which now comes cha-cha-ing through my head: It creeps and leaps, and glides and slides across the floor, right through the door, etc.… Beware of the blob!
I right now google to see if I got the song right. (Also, right now, I am hating the concept of metaphor, as in, the blob is some kind of tumor.) But you will never guess who composed "The Blob." BURT BACHARACH! I'm only glad he found his way to San José. And I can only hope that he doesn't own the rights to the song, but if so, that he won't charge me a lot to include one-and-a-half lines of his lyrics in this book.
And getting back to Charlie, why would I talk about the possibility of a second surgery now? I can put it off because I might not ever need to have that conversation. But the way Charlie holds my gaze to his, I know he needs more. I change my mind and give him the story of the possible second step with the caveat that the chances are slim. Then I describe the margin-thing and while I do, I am actually visualizing the scene in the "The Blob" as described in the above lyrics segment. It oozes through the space all around doors until its weight alone forces the doors off their hinges, and then the rest of the Blob, now enormous and blood-red after having eaten all the cancer cells—I mean the people out on the street—rolls on through.
If I may, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the movie was filmed, the townsfolk reenact the absolutely unforgettable Colonial Theatre scene once a year during "Blob Fest." I would tell you about that scene but I hate spoiler alerts. (Get the original Blob from NetFlix.) All tourists to "Blob Fest" are invited to take part, to go into the Colonial and have a seat. The participants pack the Colonial and on cue, come flying out, running and screaming while the Blob….
You really have to see the movie. All I know is, if I'm at a point where I should start thinking Bucket List, "Blob Fest" is in the #1 position, where I do believe it will stay, ahead of Graceland even.
Though I'm able to move my mind to other things, yet another form of denial, Charlie interrupts. He starts to cry just like Betty Rollin, but she cried in despair, while he is crying in relief because, like me, he at least has the radiologist's optimism going for him. We hold each other, and I know that even though I'm facing the possibility of bad news, he is also facing maybe losing another wife to breast cancer. I'm feeling such sympathy for Charlie because he is a good man. 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 by a flashback to "The Blob."
I whisper into his hearing aid, "Kiss me."
He does. He sniffs to stop the tears. Then he says, "I'm sorry, baby."
I say, "I'll be getting a call from someone today. To make an appointment for a biopsy. So we better get going."
He repeats himself. "I'm sorry, baby." His eyes fill with tears again.
"I know, sweetie."
Driving home, I do what moms and dads do no matter what else is happening in their lives, even cancer. I think about our children.
Charlie's son Jay is getting married in three weeks. When Jay and I meet, when we make eye contact for the first time, we like each other instantly. Maybe since we're both artists and know the same struggles. He's a musician. His band is "The Pop Rocks." Did you like the 80s sound? Did you hate the 80s sound? Did you know there was an 80s sound? Doesn't matter. It's a smashing band, all of them good, even the girl singer. Google them and see when they're playing in a town near you, and dance, and/or sing along to "Another One Bites the Dust," and "Girls Just Want to Have Fu-un."
So, I have been so excited about my approaching role—Stepmom-of-the-Groom (and determined to do his real mother proud)—and now this has to happen. I'm going to have to tell Jay and Melissa, his bride-to-be, about my mammogram.
The first written mention of the word melissa is in an ancient piece of Greek writing. Melissa, in Greek, means honeybee. This name so fits her: she is 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 takes place on an island a few months ago. Just he and his Kim. They hop on the Narraganset Bay ferry in Rhode Island where they live, and have their private and personal ceremony on the most beautiful spot on earth, or at least, surely, on the Atlantic, Block Island. I don't get to be Mother-of-the-Groom who walks down an aisle, but Jay, as it turns out, becomes back-up.
Jere and Kim's wedding is another version of a fairy tale. After the ceremony, they will have a wedding reception for two—them. Instead of people, their guests will be the millions of stars of the Delta Aquarids, falling all around them. But, totally unexpectedly, they do end up with a witness, who turns out to be a star in his own right. They are no sooner off the ferry when they see the comedian Steven Wright walking down the street. They are huge fans. (So am I.) Kim nudges Jere, who thinks, This is it, and without giving himself time to chicken out, goes right up to Steven, telling him how he and his girlfriend are so 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. They have no witness. Steven Wright spots Kim kind of hanging back. He smiles at her. She smiles 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.)
Melissa is golden like honey, Kim as Technicolor as the aurora borealis.
So, Steven Wright looks to Jere again and says, "Sometimes I have to think about things." All the same, he puts Jere's number into his cell, doesn't say, Don't call me, I'll call you, and Jere gives him the time and location of the wedding: eight o'clock that night on the sand at the foot of the 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 screaming with joy, and no one bats an eyelash.
Five minutes before the ceremony is to start, Jere and Kim watch their witness climb down the treacherous wood stairway, zig-zagging the face of the bluffs to the beach 206 feet below, where they are standing with an acquaintance who has a certificate to marry people in the state of Rhode Island. Steven Wright is juggling his wedding gift. It's a kite. He tells Jere and Kim, "It's not meant to be flown. It's a symbol of your love taking off," and then he witnesses them take their vows and signs their marriage certificate.
Are you verklempt, or what?
So with all this wonderful dual wedding stuff, I really have a lot to be happy about, even though I know my fury will rise again. For now, wanting to believe I'll be cured if I have cancer, though doubting it, I am still a thrilled mom/stepmom. 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.
Circling back, this night of the second mammogram, 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 in a conversation with your right breast is very funny. So then, we all make love and when we are melting into sleep, Salty sneaks into his usual position. 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—turn from Salty and snuggle closer to Charlie's back away from dog-breathing, but tonight, I first have to extricate my arm from under Salty's head. I whisper to him, "You're a good boy. I love you." And he is content to sleep up against my own back.
Then I cry just a little bit. Finally, this is what makes me cry. Dog-love.
Not long afterward, Charlie stirs with the assurance that I am 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. Charlie gets into bed on the other side of Salty, puts his arm around both of us, and we fall asleep on a three-foot-wide edge of a thousand-square-foot TempurPedic.
THAT NIGHT, BEFORE I go to bed, I'm a little perturbed that I didn't get the biopsy appointment call. I take a Benadryl and sleep like a rock. I awake to the smell of potatoes frying in onions and paprika. Smoked paprika. Have you ever tried it? Try it.
I open my eyes. Charlie is not in bed. Neither is Salty. Charlie is in the kitchen and Salty has no doubt woken to the sweet sound of a package of bacon being unwrapped. 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 East Haven animal protection lady asking if we're harboring wildlife.
Now, on this morning, he figures both of us need eggs, 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. Charlie once tells me that one morning at breakfast at Pepe's I'm blathering on to everyone within earshot that Pepe's oatmeal is better than even the oatmeal you get at the Dorchester Hotel across the street from Hyde Park. Charlie whispers to me, "It's Cream of Wheat. They must have run out of oatmeal."
After a Greyhound—oatmeal, Cream of Wheat…whatever—you'll love it.
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 buy actual grapefruits, 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, which also means, I love you, also appropriate.
Charlie says, "Aloha," which in addition to the above, also means you're welcome. We clink again.
At our second sip of our Greyhounds, Salty appears in the doorway with a look on his face that says, "Where the hell's my bacon?" Then he trots back to the kitchen where he will return to his post, guarding the bacon until Charlie attends to it again instead of me.
Charlie gives me a smooch. "Five minutes, Okay?"
I roll over for my five minutes. I'm depressed. So I try to think about the beautiful dress in the shop in Branford waiting for me to model for Melissa. But I am unable to concentrate on a happy thought.
I sit up when I hear Charlie dishing everything out and 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, CT, where Charlie lived. Charlie is convinced the landlord threw the dog down the stairs. 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.
We sit down to our breakfast. I have no appetite. 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'm getting more depressed with each second. Then I notice the little bowl of blueberries to the side of the butter, even though we aren't having cereal. The blueberries hit a nerve made really sensitive by my depression. I don't feel a ping of anger. Oh, no. Instead, this blast of fury fills me to the brim.
Charlie feels it. "What's the matter, honey?"
I'm staring at the bowl of blueberries. I look up at him. I bang my fist on the table. Dishes rattle and glasses wobble. Salty jumps.
I shout: "HOW THE FUCK CAN I HAVE FUCKING BREAST CANCER? ME? ME! I DON'T SMOKE. 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 am crying hysterically just the way Betty Rollin does when she learns she has breast cancer.
Charlie is stricken, frozen in place, coffee mug mid-air, knowing what a terrible mistake he made putting out the blueberries.
When I am a child, my mother never complains. Instead, she says, "I blame the government!"
This is long before it is de rigueur to blame the government. I need Charlie to know right this minute that I'm just pissed at the calcifications in Starbright's duct, and absolutely in no way am I angry with him for the blueberries. So I raise my head from my arms folded on the table in front of me, sit back up, take his hand, look into his eyes, and say, "I blame the government."
His eyes close for a moment. I brush his cheek with my other hand. Then he opens his eyes again. Damp eyes. He breaks into a smile. Did I mention he has dimples? He knows I forgive him for trying to cure the cancer we both know I have with blueberries. We don't need a biopsy to tell us.
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 are different people then than we are now. I am instantly depressed again because I know I am going to categorize every event as "before cancer" and "after cancer" from here on in: 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 poor Charlie's hearing aids. He's distressed about my shouting, but he's also distressed since neither The Mommy nor The Daddy is passing him pieces of bacon. He's been waiting at least ten 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 spot—in the middle of our Turkish rug that cost a shitload of money.
Charlie says to me, "I love you, Wonder Woman." He calls me that sometimes.
I tell him I love him, too, and more tears spill over and down my cheeks. I say, "I blame the luck of the draw."
He says he's sorry again.
"It's a crap shoot, isn't it?"
BEFORE I MEET CHARLIE, before I meet anyone, my daughter encourages me to get out there. There are very few single men wandering about the condominium complex where I live. There are three, 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 the Special Olympics. He wears his several medals proudly, 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 when I walk Salty, who spots John waiting for his bus to take him to his special school. Salty drags me over to him. John works hard at remaining calm and gingerly pats Salty's head.
Our conversations are usually along the following lines.
John: "I don't like the Red Sox."
Me: "Yankees Suck."
John: "I'm afraid of dogs."
Me: "Salty is named after the Red Sox catcher. He won't hurt you even if you are a Yankees fan."
John utterly believes me, and comes to look forward to petting Salty.
One day, I ask John for his autograph, but he can't write. So I gave him a stick and we walk down to the edge of the Sound and he writes something with the stick, while Salty sees to his ongoing condo duty of chasing the Canada geese off the grass. 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.
When it's a few years since Charlie loses his wife, his own daughter tells him he has to get out there and meet people. He prefers being with his camping friends, Bruce, Gary and Jim, so she fills out an eHarmony application for him, right at the same time I fill one out with the help of Jene.
The first four men I meet are about the biggest assholes I've ever come across. One of them is an economist, who brags that he is responsible for pharmaceutical ads now allowed to air on TV. I say, "Wow. Because of you I get to see two people sitting in separate clawfoot bath tubs with no plumbing, out in a field, drinking wine and about to have ravenous sex after the man takes a Viagra."
The economist is not amused. Also, he's positioned himself at a table where he can stare at any woman who comes through the door, which he does. I am not amused, either. I tell Jene I'm closing my eHarmony account. She sympathizes. But then a picture pops up in my eHarmony email of a guy on a boat. Clever Kristin has seen to a second picture—her father holding baby Gianna, his first grandchild. They are nuzzling each other. So, okay, I'll try one more of these jerks. At least I'll get a boat ride out of this.
During our first month of knowing each other, Charlie and I go out three times. The first time, we meet for coffee, something eHarmony strongly suggests. After the coffee, we decide we might as well have breakfast, and we eat and chat for a good hour. The second suggestion is lunch or dinner. We decide on dinner, but before dinner we will spend the day eagle-spotting on the Connecticut River in an Audubon Society boat, the first of many boat rides. It's February and we freeze. We don't care. We see lots of eagles and an egg in a nest, something that makes the Audubon people delirious with joy. The third get-together is of our own design. Whe pass a billboard on a highway on the way home from eagle-watching. It's advertising "Riverdance."
In unison, we say, "I've always wanted to go to 'Riverdance.'"
Then Charlie drops me off at the MacDonald's on I-95, where my car is parked. We say good night, and exchange a peck on the cheek.
By the next morning, Charlie has two tickets for "Riverdance," and within the week, we go. Instead of the sort of thing you wear to go out to breakfast when the point is to be noticed in a crowd of strangers waiting for tables, 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.
I meet Charlie for dinner near the Oakdale Theatre. I take off my new black coat with that cute nipped-in-at-the-waist cut. The hem skims my knees. (Earlier in the day, I'd run out to Macy's to find a dressy-ish winter coat, and as soon as I go into the coat area, there is the perfect coat on a mannequin standing right in front of me. I'm so happy, knowing this is not the occasion to look for something on the sale rack which is what I normally do.)
I'm also wearing a soft black cashmere sweater that envelops my Sea Cups fairly snugly. Also a gray flannel miniskirt. I wear miniskirts in the 60s and never look back. And tights and way high heels. At the theatre lobby, we first go to the restrooms. I come out first, my cute little coat over my arm, and pose. Charlie comes out, his eyes do a tenth of a second scan from the top of my head to my boots, and he says, "You look great, Wonder Woman."
I say, "I know it."
He is taken aback and then smiles at me. He has dimples, be still my beating heart. Then I say, "Thanks, Charlie. You look great, too." He does, what with his big wide shoulders. He looks great in everything he wears.
We love "Riverdance."
Then, throwing eHarmony to the wind, he invites me to dinner at the German Club in Bridgeport, where his father got a job after emigrating from Germany in 1935. Charlie says to me, "The club is great—they celebrate every holiday there is. It's a St. Patrick's Day dinner dance. Time for us to do some dancing on our own, no? They always have a great band."
I say, "Yeah. It's time."
"We'll have fun."
I know we will. I like to dance. I say, "And it's always nice to have corned beef and cabbage once a year."
He looks into my eyes. "Is it all right if I pick you up?"
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. By the sixth meeting, it is apparently safe to assume you can tell the fellow is probably not an axe-murderer.
I consent to the pick-up.
Then, very carefully, he says, "A couple of my friends will be there. At the dinner dance. Is that okay?"
I tell him I look forward to meeting his friends. That's true, I do. He gives me a major smile, accompanied by major dimples.
In preparation for going out dancing with Charlie, I root around my closet for a certain blouse I never wore. I bought it at Bonwit Teller in New York at Christmastime, the first Christmas after I get divorced. I cannot bear to stay home that Christmas. I cannot bear to put up a tree. So, I go to New York for Christmas week. I end up walking all over Manhattan and go to all the places I always wanted to see just like I used to do with my father.
My father takes me to New York every year on my birthday, along with one of my all-time favorite people, my cousin Paul. Having an autistic brother, who can't tolerate the loud noise with which a birthday party is rife, precludes the typical celebration. Over the course of ten years, Paul, me, and my father go to every tourist attraction you can think of: Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Haydn Planetarium, Grant's Tomb, Bronx Zoo, Coney Island, Museum of Natural History, and one birthday where we spend an entire afternoon in Times Square, watching old black and white comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello. My father and Paul and I laugh our asses off, and having memorized, Who's on First? we say Bud and Lou's lines right along with them. The rest of the audience does, too.
Newly divorced in New York, but alone this time, I wil go to MOMA, the Guggenheim, The Niue Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the symphony, the Met, and the reading room at the New York Public Library, where I fill out little pieces of paper, and the librarian brings me the first six of my books that were thus far published. I am glad to say, my father at least got to buy copies of the first four before he dies. 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's open to Paul and me on my tenth birthday because my father gives the guard a Monte Christo, a cigar from a box someone brought him from Cuba.
I love all that I do in New York as an at-a-loss divorcée, even if I am alone. On my last night, I see Carrie Fisher's one-woman Broadway show, "Wishful Drinking." It's absolutely rip-roaringly hilarious, with terrific 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'd played atop a Pez dispenser rather than an Oscar any day. (If you're ever tooling along I-95 across Connecticut, keep your eyes peeled for the Pez museum sign if you want to be an hour late for wherever you're going and experience a flood of childhood memories, while you eat Pez's.)
The big bonus for the "Wishful Drinking" audience is that the seats are three-quarters empty because a predicted blizzard is already seeing to three inches of snow on the ground an hour before the curtain rises. When the curtain does go up, Carrie is sitting in an upholstered, overstuffed, comfy chair, stage center, gazing at us. Instead of saying her lines, she first thanks us for braving the storm, then invites us to come on down and fill up the orchestra seats. How cool is that? We all grab our coats and stumble down the steps and Carrie yells, "House lights!" which come on, and none of us kill ourselves.
Once she proceeds, I'd say half her lines are ad-libbed, each funnier than the last. She is a riot without, seemingly, trying. And, holy hell, am I ever needing a riot at this point in my life.
Need I tell you that the show ends with a standing-O? All of us are doing our best to make more noise than a full house would have. Carrie makes a zillion curtain calls. I feel connected with her—based on her autobiographical show, she has nowhere to go after the show, either.
Thank you, Carrie. I so mourn the loss of Carrie Fisher.
I join the audience in a walk out into whirls of fat snowflakes blowing horizontally, the streets and avenues empty of traffic and covered with a six-inch deep, shimmering, blue-white, down comforter. And oh, the lights! Dazzling with the absence of headlights. The circles of light from the street lamps, and the walls of neon give the snow that other-worldly sheen of blue.
I meet up with some German tourists walking my route through the deepening snow, while everyone else is waiting for taxis that will never come. One German asks me, "May you please direct us to Rockefeller Center?"
Since I'm not concerned about finding a taxi and feeling a need for company, I may.
"Follow me." I wish I could say it in German, but I took French in high school. 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 lead the way, and we stop to buy big boots from a boot-vendor standing on a corner alongside a couple of garbage bags full of boots. The Germans first confer, and one asks the boot-vendor, "Please excuse, but…. They are not leaking?"
The vendor waves his arm over his head and says, "This be snow, man."
All the way to Rockefeller Center in our new green boots, the Germans keep saying, "This be snow, man." They laugh and laugh just like Carrie Fisher's audience.
We stare at the big tree and the half-dozen New Yorkers, who are skating around after climbing the wall long the rink's perimeter, which is closed because of the storm. No one stops them because there are no cops or guards around. Nobody is around. Then I take the Germans to see the big star hanging over 5th Avenue, and then the crèche at Saint Patrick's. When we walk past the windows of what is no longer Bonwit Teller, I see a beautiful blouse. It's black, kind of a sheer gauze with a bit of subdued ruching in the front and a pattern of teeny, tiny, barely visible white rings reminiscent of the cigar smoke rings my dad used to blow into the air for me to put my finger through. The blouse also has a sparse scattering of clear sequins for just the right amount of subtle holiday sparkle. Maybe I'll come back next day and look at it, but I doubt I'll be trying it on because a store on 5th Avenue is beyond expensive.
The Germans then insist on buying me a German beer at the Plaza, which the bartender sees to pouring into steins. He says, "On the house." Do I love New York? Yes. When I decide to head back to my hotel while I can still walk a straight line, the Germans don't notice me leaving because they're singing. The bartender does, though, and calls out for me to be careful and not fall into a snowbank. The Germans turn and wave their arms, shouting in German, to come back, come back. They are holding two steins each, and a great deal of beer is splashing forth. They can see I mean to go, and I hear a chorus of donke shons behind me.
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 so 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 and making me laugh. Poor Carrie Fisher.
I wake up the next day feeling calm for the first time in a long time. I go back to the store that is no longer Bonwit Teller's and buy the blouse. This is a serious splurge, but it's the first item of clothing I buy since the divorce. I don't look at the price tag. I try it on, gaze into the mirror, and it really looks good. I look awful. My mother would have said, "You look like the wreck of the Hesperus." (As an English major in college, I learn that "The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Digging further, I come up with my favorite piece of trivia ever: The poem first appeared in a magazine called "Weirdos and Creeps."
So, maybe I can wear the pretty blouse next week on New Year's Eve. Yeah, right. Once home, I stash it in the back of my closet. That New Year's Eve, I'm watching the ball come down on TV. I am not totally depressed, though, because my son is somewhere in Times Square amidst a zillion people. Jere will report back next day that a Navy ship was in the harbor and there were sailors all over the place including "girl-sailors." Jere and his friends form pee-circles for the girl sailors. Do you know what a pee-circle is, Dear Reader? Since the Porta-Potties are disgusting, the fellows form a circle, turn their backs, and the girls pull off their jeans—or, in this case, the bottom half of their Navy uniforms—and pee in the circle.
I forget all about the New York blouse until Charlie comes along and invites me to the German Club for a Saint Patrick's Day dinner. Sequins are meant for dancing. I buy it because of German tourists, and I'll wear it to Charlie's German Club. Meant to be, wouldn't you say?
I find it still neatly folded in tissue. I try it on. It looks better than I remember, and I look a hell of a lot better than the day I bought it. I'm happy instead of melancholy. I buy black velvet skinny jeans and a pair of smashing boots to wear with it. So listen, Dear Reader, 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 in the back of your closet.
I'm looking forward to St. Patrick's Day, need I say?
ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY, it's pouring-down rain. Charlie squeezes through my door, his arms loaded with four bottles of olive oil, yummy-looking objects suspended in each. 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.
"You'll sign them for me, right?"
I told you he was a good man, didn't I? 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 the sequins on my New York blouse are sparkling. Charlie is struggling to keep his eyes away from my hint of cleavage, so I don't know that he even notices the sequins. Then we set up a dipping-oil tasting on the coffee table.
Settled into the sofa. Bottles of oil, French bread on a board, plates, wine and wine glasses are arrayed in front of us. Is this fun, or what? 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. Also, the French bread turns out to have a seriously crunchy crust and ultra-chewy insides. It came from a bakery, not Stop & Shop. Nice.
Conclusion, a unanimous vote giving the lemon-garlic-rosemary oil top honors. We vote against another glass of wine because St. Patrick awaits and get into our rain gear. We step out the door and under his big golf umbrella, I take his arm. He says, "I don't know what makes a man happier than when a woman takes his arm." Nice, again.
So these Germans know how to make a great corned beef and cabbage feast, including vegetable seasoned with something wonderful, I can't discern what, and then, oh, the encore: apple strudel and black forest cake, of course, with sides of creampuffs called Windbeutel, hazelnut macaroons, and rum balls. There are rum balls, and there are German rum balls.
Our table of Charlie's friends exhibit the same hearty appetites we do. We 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 company. The dance will go till midnight, but there we are, saying our goodbyes to his friends an hour earlier. They hug me goodbye, clearly as happy as can be 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. His face returns to its usual devilish quality, 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 on 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 jars.
We sip wine and cuddle till our lips seem to meet up, and things become…uh…intense. I pull away a little.
"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 little 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. I unbutton the top button of the New York blouse, which by the way, he tells me he loves when we're dancing. I can't do the second button; they're about an eighth of an inch in diameter and I'm looped. Charlie does the rest. He is kissing me while getting my bra off, and then I take his hand, pull him up from the sofa, and head to my bedroom.
Here is what I'm thinking while that last is going on: 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 pulls 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?
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, too, 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; and my hand is fondling his penis. I move my hand a little, 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….
Nope. Charlie puts my hand back where it was headed. He says, "I had testicular cancer. I was forty-two. Fortunately, I only lost one."
I don't know what to say, of course, but I think: You didn't put this in your eHarmony bio, Buster.
Then we make love all night long.
I'M NOW MARRIED to a man with one testicle, and I soon might have one breast. Life is a crap shoot. And remember the blueberries? I dumped them into the sink, turned on the water, flipped the garbage disposal switch, and sent those blueberries into oblivion.
So, have you bought Love, Loss, and What I Wore yet? Yes? You didn't buy it? Call Roxanne Coady at the R.J. Julia Bookstore in Madison, CT, and buy it over the phone at 203-245-3959. She'll mail it to you tout suite.
The assistant to Dr. Quigley, Beth, calls the day following the blueberry melt-down and asks me how I'm doing.
I say, "It hasn't quite sunk in that I might have breast cancer rather than calcifications that have formed a constellation."
She says, "There's a good chance that you don't." (Of course, she never saw 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?"
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!"
"Can't something happen in two weeks?" Meaning: Won't that give the cancer cells in the duct time to break out?
She knows what I mean. She says, "No."
Her voice is strong and confident, and besides, her words are what I want to hear.
I have absolutely no memory of how Charlie and I get through those two weeks. I imagine we do what we do if everything were normal, what else? I check my email, I write the zillionth draft of a short story I've been working on for many years. Charlie does his thing, and then we take advantage of summer. We no doubt walk down the street along the water to the Sandpiper and have ice cream cones or Italian ice. We swim in our condo's pool or in Long Island Sound. We kayak. We cook out with our families. We go to Nellie Green's in Branford, our favorite restaurant and have the cold shellfish platter for two—chunks of lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and great stuff to dip everything in. Mostly, though, we go riding around in Charlie's boat with Salty. We fish and we catch fish as Charlie knows how to fish. For specific species even.
He is also a great coach and since he adores me, meaning when the species we choose requires the use of live bait rather than a lure, he hands me a rod and he hooks the bait, not because I prefer not to 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. 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 always feel sorry for the bait, let alone the fish, I have managed to rationalize that we're all part of the food chain and if the invasive crab isn't used for bait, there's a good chance he'll get scooped up by a gull, who will fly up to a height of twenty-five feet, drop him onto rocks to smash his shell, and then eat him alive. As for eating the fish, it's either us or the newly expanded osprey population, who catches 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 is a mammal. Actually, my dad and I are at the South Street Seaport once, and I order sushi. He stresses out that I am eating uncooked seafood and will end up with ptomaine poisoning. Meanwhile, he's eating oysters on the half shell, animals that are still alive. (If you don't believe me, squirt lemon juice onto your oyster on the half shell and it recoils. Aargh.)
Here is how you 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, and he has me just drop the line over the side of the boat with the wriggling crab and a light sinker. Then you slowly drag the crab and sinker across the ocean floor. If you feel it drop a foot, your bait is now at the base of a ledge. This is where blackfish hang out. I swear there must be a blackfish at the base of every ledge in the Sound because, within seconds, I get a bite. Here is the secret to actually catching the blackfish. You feel it nibble at the crab. Charlie says a blackfish first nibbles off the crab's legs first, 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, and 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.
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.
But there is one thing I do during those summer days that I remember really well. Since I'm the sort of person who makes lists for her lists, I go to my things-to-do list, and add to it: Make an appointment with an oncologist. Then I put an asterisk at the end of the line, which means: If you can't do it this second, do it as soon as possible.
Then I draw a spiral next to that line which references a new list specific to that item and write: First calls—Joan Schmitz and Marnie Mueller, two friends who live in New York and who just might know of a great oncologist at Sloan Kettering, an hour and twenty-minute train ride from where I live. Joan and Marnie are two of my all-time favorite people I have ever known. Joan is in advertising but retires at, like, age thirty, when she produces the first television ad for a new company called FedEx. After seeing her ad, everyone in the entire universe starts calling FedEx to come get a package for delivery the next day. (There would be no FedEx 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 for a one-day mailing service.)
The FedEx ad, in case you don't remember it, stars a comedian famous for fast-talking. He sits behind a desk throwing papers from one pile to another as fast as he's talking. Get it? That's how fast FedEx will deliver your package. Joan wins a Clio, the Oscar of adverstising. According to Wikipedia, a Clio is a statuette, not unlike Oscar, but is a representation of the Greek goddess Clio, the mythological muse known as the proclaimer, glorifier and celebrator of history, great deeds and accomplishements. Oscar is representative of someone's uncle.
First, Joan sympathizes mightily and then gives me the name of someone she says is a top-flight oncologist at another hospital in New York, Weir Cornell, which "everyone knows is better than Sloan Kettering."
Marnie is a writer whose novels win well-deserved book awards, and was also a Peace Corps volunteer at the same time I was, she in South America, me in Africa. 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, and when we both can go, we always have a good time. I just alluded to the fact that I'm an actual writer. I usually don't tell people that because it's such a conversation stopper. But I won't say a lot about it because writing is a really boring topic. One possible detail you might not find boring are the questions I get at book talks/readings, whether at Gateway Community College in New Haven, or down the street at Yale, starting with, "How wide are your margins?" Or worse, "How do you get an agent?" This particular question rings terror in a writer's heart because 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, and if you like it, you could send it to your agent. Me, having been in the aspiring writer's shoes, means I will sympathetically read the first fifty pages and get back to him, though when scanning through the front matter, I pretty much convulse at his 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--you have such a good attitude, and then gives me the name of her friend's doctor at Sloan-Kettering, telling me she often goes with the friend to her appointments. He's 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 for appointments with Dr. Norton. I give the name of Marnie's friend. I am routed to Dr. Norton's PA. (I'm sure you know a PA is a physician assistant, who likely used to be a nurse, not to be confused with an NP, a nurse practitioner, or an MA, a medical assistant. My father was in manufacturing as were 90% of men in the 50s after they got rid of all the Rosie the Riverters when the war ended. When he was way on in years, a health care provider introduced himself to my father as an MA, and he thought the guy said ME and was totally happy to have a mechanical engineer take care of him.)
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 free health care benefits, but at least they now have health insurance that's…uh…affordable, thank God.
So, I tell this person, Dr. Norton's associate, about the appointment I want to make and she asks me my diagnosis. I say, "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 on 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 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 will do very well to choose an oncologist at Yale. Cancer patients sometimes cannot handle the commute since it includes getting from Grand Central Terminal to our offices. 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 move there. 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 tells me he's willing to sell his boat if I have to live in New York.
My daughter, Jene, gets me the name of the person everyone says is the best oncologist at Yale. But he is heavily involved in a research program and is not taking on new patients just like Dr. Norton, even if a patient has a daughter in community health at Yale-New Haven.
So 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. After she further explains to me why I don't see an oncologist until there's a pathology report, I say, "Okay, but I'm going to have to google him once I know who it is and I 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's—"
"Excuse me? The playwright? He's dead."
She says, "What's the playwright's first name?"
"I forgot. Why?"
"Our doctor is Dumitru."
I stop that conversation. I am losing my mind, which you are entitled to do when you suddenly have cancer.
She says, "You can make an appointment once we have your pathology report."
I don't respond. She tries harder. "Dr. Ionescu is the new head of oncology here."
I still don't seem to have anything to say. I have lost my mind. She has one more piece of information up her sleeve: "We stole him from MD Anderson!"
Wow. I'm back. It is not necessary for her to say another thing. I know all about MD Anderson. It's a cancer hospital in Houston, Texas. While I'm teaching a writing class, one of my students hands in an essay describing how his son was diagnosed with some kind of deadly leukemia "...on Tuesday." (The class is every Friday.) He then hands in pages of details about researching treatment for this cancer, finding that the greatest success rate in terms of the number of surviving patients, as well as the most experienced doctors who treat it, are in Houston at MD Anderson.
He calls me Monday and asks if I've read his essay. I tell him I have and how sorry I am to read of his sad news. He says, "I know it's a fiction class, but I found myself writing what was happening."
I say, "All writing is good for your fiction. Don't worry."
He says, "Thanks." Then he says, "I'm taking my son to MD Anderson for a second opinion. Can I mail you another essay next week? I won't be back for class."
I tell him he can. I ask him, "Can I read your work to the class? They'll want to know."
Eight students. We are a tight bunch.
First, a pause, then he says, "Okay. I'm feeling burdened with not telling anyone."
The next week he notifies us and his supervisor at IBM that he's moving his entire family to Houston. IBM sees to a new job for him in their partnership with NASA.
The class decides to send him their assignments and ask for his critiques, if possible. He is glad to have something to do other than what he's doing. He is unable to come back to us, though. When the class ends, the participants form an aspiring writers' group. I tell them they aren't aspiring, they're actual writers. They laugh at that even though it's true. They maintain contact with their classmate in Texas. Ten years later they will all fly to Houston for his son's graduation from Rice. Soon after that, my student and his family move back to Connecticut, except for his son, who will remain in Texas for the regular monitoring he'll require all his life. He will stick with MD Anderson. He's hired at NASA. He continues to do well.
The group gets together once a year for three days of intentions to write, but they talk instead and have fun. I get Christmas cards from all of them. Then one of them gets a short story published in "Golf Digest," a magazine that doesn't publish fiction. They think his story is an essay. It isn't; he made the whole thing up.
Bottom line, here, I'm good with Dr. Ionescu. When I google him, I find out that Dr. Dumitru Ionescu is Romanian. I'm very admiring of immigrants. I am regularly boggled by stories of my immigrant grandparents, as you may have noticed. A cousin of mine draws our family tree headed by our Canadian grandmother who has a baby every other year for twenty-four years, but the tree shows a four year gap between babies six and seven. I ask my mother if a baby died. She says, "No. Pippi was serving in the Boer War when my sister Coranna was born. A year later he came home and a year after that, my brother Romeo was born." (Pippi is as close to papere as we grandkids can manage, papere being the French Canadian diminutive for grandpa.)
My response is, "WHAT?"
She asks me, "What, what?"
"Ma! Pippi served in the Boer War?"
She deigns to explain the Boer War connection. "Pippi is still a Canadian."
First, I ask, "He never became an American citizen?"
"He didn't have time. He worked three jobs."
"Did he pay social security?"
"What are you? A Republican now?"
"That was a joke." I don't tell her I realize that social security didn't come into play till FDR. But I drop it and go back to the crux. "So what if he's a Canadian. What's that got to do with the Boer War?"
She rolls her eyes in a gesture of, How could a daughter of mine be such an idiot? She says, "The land that had the Boer Was was owned by England. Just like Canada is owned by England. So when World War I broke out, he was drafted."
"He was drafted?"
"What are you, a parrot?"
"Holy shit, Ma! How come I don't know that?"
She rolls her eyes in a gesture of, My patience with you has run out. She says, "What does it matter?"
My mother's generation only talks about the weather, how cute Pat and Vanna are, and who she should sue when the 8th fairway is under water so the course is closed.
Anyway, I tell Beth I'm fine with Ionescu, but that I prefer to make the appointment myself.
She says, "Sure," and gives me the number. Beth, I come to find out, is trained to give a breast cancer patient anything she wants. She says to me, "Don't forget to mention Dr. Quigley's name."
I call and, without telling the Dr. Quigley-recommended oncologist I haven't had my biopsy yet, she assumes I did and makes the appointment. Nice. I don't have to lie to her.
A HUGE PLOT TURN occurs in this memoir the day after my phone chat with Beth.
Backstory: When my second or third novel is published, I have 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 lives before she ends 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?
It hasn't always been that way. In 1944, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus tent catches fire during a performance in Hartford, CT, the fire attributed to official malfeasance. Said officials had seen to the six-city-blocks-long big top being water-proofed with equal parts paraffin and gasoline. One spark from a cigarette, and one-hundred and sixty-nine people are dead, thousands seriously injured, almost all women and children because the war is on, meaning all the husband/dads are in Europe or the Pacific, dying and getting injured themselves, but in far fewer numbers percentage-wise than the people who went to the circus.
The corporate head honchos at Ringling, knowing the horrific risk of dousing the tent in the equivalent of napalm, turn themselves in, plead guilty, and are incarcerated. So maybe if the radiologist is wrong, and I have a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer with seven months left to live, I will feel driven to make a citizen's arrest of every goddamn one of those crumbs at GM. Maybe, even if the radiologist is right, I will do it anyway, if I actually get through all this cancer shit and am…uh… cured.
So, anyway, 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, 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 having to do with my having 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 is standing next to her with a heads-up for me: "Our alarms might go off during your reading and 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 though they don't run, they sneak out when my head is down. This does not say I write crummy books, but rather that there are a number of people who are easily offended. I had an American Airlines pilot raise his hand and ask me why I swear so much. I say, "Whoops. Did I say a bad word?"
He says, "No, but you swear in your book all the time."
I tell him it's my characters who swear so much, not me.
He says, "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.
So, now, in Westport, I get a lovely, thought fairly long intro from the librarian, and 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 are finished glomming down their bag lunches, not purchased, by the way, at the Westport restaurants, considering the smell of Skippy's that goes out the door with them.
Reason #2 as to my having a half-dozen attendees beyond the usual dozen: 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, 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+ 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 are of a certain age, meaning older than me, and who lead 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, but we're the Morra girls! I'm Marion, this is Mollie, and here's Eve."
All three stick their hands out, and we shake.
Mollie 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, too, 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 in the first generation Italian-American community. 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 with other characters, whose names are also listed, along with their nicknames.
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, 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! So we don't know who the hell the author is either. By the time I turn the last page of the fourth and final book, I didn't give a shit who's who because, as I said, they're all so obnoxious. I immediately have to follow up by reading The Martian to calm myself down. Matt Damon is really good as the Martian in the movie.
Mollie goes on to say, "Viscu means Viscount in Italian."
She next launches into a story of how my grandfather got the nickname Viscu. 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 continues. "So 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 what with my grandfather being an anti-fascista and getting 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. They don't do bag lunches: "We tend to refrain from eating out of bags," Eve says. I accept since my publicist 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 jumping ahead, I call my dad, and he fills me in. "This was Westport?" he asks.
"They're the rich branch of the Tirones. They won't have anything to do with us because we're the poor Hartford relatives."
I call my Auntie Palma (born on Palm Sunday or did you guess?) after hanging up with my father. She tells me that what my father said isn't true. "I bet one of that branch of the family slighted your father," she says. "The Morra girls are lovely just like their mother. She was very good to me." She pronounces their name, Moodah, which is the kind of pronunciation you get in the Piedmontese dialect spoken in the Piedmont region of Italy where you find the city of Milan, where my rich Italian Tirone relatives have a townhouse; and in Turin, where they mainly live; and in Asti, where the family farm is. There are no poor Tirones in Italy.
Auntie Palma also says that she never met the Morra girls until they were all adults because when she and my father are children in Elmwood, Connecticut—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.)
So then, Auntie Palma goes on to say, "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 is 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 the family's barns in Asti. They hand me a copy of a picture of the barn with the tree, and sitting in front, my great-grandparents holding their new baby, Francisco. I can have the picture. I am so overjoyed to have this priceless gift.
I google the Morra girls. Marion and Eve are medical writers. They are famous medical writers. I buy their most famous book, Choices, meant for everyone out there who is diagnosed with cancer and who want to find out the choices available to them besides the ones their doctors tell them, or most often, don't tell them. I buy it. It is fascinating and written in such a fine narrative style that it is as entertaining as it is informative. It's over a thousand pages. That gives you an idea of how many choices there are, but fortunately there's a comprehensive index. By the time I'm diagnosed with cancer, I've forgotten about that book.
Meanwhile—if you haven't forgotten the way I forgot about Choices—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 each other beyond a couple of exchanges of Christmas cards. But one day, a few years ago, my daughter is working at Yale-New Haven on weekends in the med/surg unit. A woman is admitted on a Saturday morning. The woman's name is Mollie Donovan. My daughter looks for the VIP listing on her chart because only VIPs get to check into the hospital for the weekend. A VIP's doctor will come see the patient on a weekend, while the rest of us can wait till Monday, thank you.
Jene is a hands-on nurse. She sits on the edge of her new patients' beds, holds their hands, and introduces herself. She will also bring them coffee—or whatever they are needing—and gets the information she requires to put into their charts while chit-chatting the whole time. Jene and this particular patient end up having quite the chit-chat.
Mollie tells Jene she looks familiar and asks where she lives. Jene says, "Branford." Branford is the town next to mine, East Haven.
Mollie says, "I have a cousin who lives in East Haven. Do you know people in East Haven?"
Jene says, "My mom and dad live in East Haven."
"Do they know any writers there?"
"My mom's the only writer in East Haven."
Mollie just stares at her. Then she says, "Omigod! 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 calls me, I tell her that Mollie Morra Donovan is one of the rich Westport Tirones. Jene says, "What's a Rich-Westport-Tirone?" I tell her. Then she says, "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, I see. It needs a new chapter of its own. Ergo, Chapter 10 will be the only chapter in this memoir with a title.
Note: The last 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," so what is the point of another edition?
I'm not going there.
CHAPTER 10. 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 remember Choices so well and can't believe there will be no new editions. You might as well stop publishing the Encyclopædia Britannica because you can find out everything you need to know at "Wikipedia" (æ is called an "ash" and it is acceptable not to use it any longer, but I like using ashes.) Meanwhile, I'm thinking, 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?!?!
I go get Choices out of my book shelves. Alas, there is no such cancer as DCIS when the book is published. I'll have to get the latest edition. My copy is the third. I have Eve's phone number and I decide to call her. It's been a long time and as soon as the how-are-yous are finished, Eve tells me that Mollie passed away. I feel so terrible and I tell her how Mollie was Jene's VIP and she says, "Mollie told me 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."
"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," rather than September 11th.
"Okay, listen to me…" she says again "…in case I forget this: During the biopsy, the minute you feel anything, give the doctor a shout-out so he'll stop what he's doing and give you more lidocaine."
I say, "Rest assured."
"Can you meet us before then?"
I say, "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 a.m. till my brain freezes over, except during Christmas mornings of yore, when my kids tumble down the stairs before sunrise and head for the tree. I can hear them now: "SANTA CAME!" They shout that long after they stop believing in him.)
"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 geographically on I-95 halfway between Eve's house in Essex and Marion's house in Milford, and right near me as 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 are 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 get two fried eggs over easy, home fries, white toast, and coffee.
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 recommends 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. "Alas, Marion, 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, Dr. 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." 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, "Well, here's the thing. Dr. Devlin's secretary called me back and told me he arranged it so that I can 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. A lot! Leading the oncology department at Yale? 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 any sense to you?"
Marion says, "No. However, that is the protocol."
"But isn't the oncologist the big cancer expert?"
"So 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?"
"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, "So, guess what?"
"I made an appointment with him anyway."
"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, Mary-Ann, 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 until Marion says, "What's the oncologist's name again? Ibsen?"
"No, Marion. Ionescu."
Marion says, "I'm going to check him out, but just know, Mary-Ann, 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.) So Jessica's father feels that if you need a surgeon, make sure you find out how many surgeries he's done. If he says 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.
Eve says, "Listen…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. So, you—"
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."
"In my late twenties. But just for a few years. I didn't inhale. Like Bill Clinton. If I inhaled, I'd faint."
Eve said, "Good." Good means it doesn't really matter if you're lying or not. "So, all that stuff is important. At the same time, it's your breast. Yours. Get as much information as possible because even with what we've said, no one cares more about you and your breast than you."
I say, "Charlie does."
Then we spend a long time talking about who Charlie is and all our personal stuff. Marion and Eve have retired and are spending their 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 back yards, and intend to rent and be footloose and fancy-free from here on in.
Our breakfast ends with them making me promise that I will call them with any and all questions, something I most certainly come 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.
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 how miserable it is 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 to me by the radiologist with no name. Charlie and I drive into the "Air Rights Garage" at Yale-New Haven Hospital and head upward 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. But isn't it funny that the garage is named for the fact that the hospital has to buy air rights over their own parking lot from the city of New Haven to build a five-floor parking facility? Clearly they become so pissed they name it the "Air Rights Garage." They could have named it after the Mayor. They could have named it after the first famous Yalie: "The Nathan Hale Garage." Or maybe just, "The Spite Garage." At least the guy who foot that bill wasn't the owner of Chef Boyardee, as with baseball stadiums.
We follow the Smilow signs, driving round and round, whereupon we see a pair of huge glass doors emblazoned with the word: SMILOW. What's with these people 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 six feet high." Do they think that makes them presidential material? Lol.
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—glass ceiling, too. Perhaps the design is meant to cheer people up who have cancer, or who might have cancer.
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… is a giant desk with a smartly uniformed security guard sitting in the chair 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 his training leader is rushing toward us from out of somewhere, not unlike when the people who return to Earth in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" come 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."
He gives me directions: "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 the palm of her hand between my shoulder blades, smiles, and asks me, "You haven't been here before?"
"You're seeing a doctor then?"
My stomach is turning over in addition to my feeling faint. "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, those 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, 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 into his hearing aids. He is 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? 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.
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, the floor where we started.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, for the breast center."
I say, "I've yet to see a hospital designed with a patient in mind."
She says, "This one wasn't."
We take some twists and turns past a large crowd gathered up at a cell hot spot and arrive at Dr. Quigley's office, where the guide immediately leaves me, 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 quite 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. Then the doc comes in. We stand up again. Diane Quigley.
Yet another kindly smile but a very strong handshake. I introduce Charlie, she shakes his hand, too, and I tell her my daughter is a nurse in community health and will be running over here any minute.
She says, "Good."
Diane Quigley has shiny, black, curly hair and 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, tough.
She gestures for us to sit down again.
A young woman in a white lab coat comes in. We are introduced: Marina. 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. All Smilow Breast Center doctors do not look at computer screens and take notes on the keyboard while talking to me or asking me questions. Doctors today, excluding Dr. Slattery and Dr. Montessi, never so much as look into your eyes. They stare into a computer screen instead. They have no idea, as have doctors of yore, that if your eyes are bloodshot, yellowed, crossed, rolled back into your 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 the computer to order blood work.
The doctors at Smilow each have a Marina 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."
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.
She waits. Here is what I say only in a nutshell: When I got pregnant, I got swellings in my armpits. My obstetrician told me it was errant breast tissue. 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. So, in my left armpit, the swelling goes 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 armpits. 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 am 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 collapses into a chair. She doesn't say, Charlie's my stepdad; she's too tired. 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. I take off my T-shirt and bra, and put on a johnny coat. Justine 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 in with Marina trailing behind, her arms full of the folders with my medical records and I don't know what else. Justine leaves. Marina sits down at the computer, while I learn what "a good look at both armpits" 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 while 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. Dr. Quigley is already there, Marina 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 is lying. So 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?"
She says to Marina's back, "What's the date?"
The reason she asks Marina instead of me is 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. I hope she's also a professor at Yale. I later learn she is. Good.) "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 go. She hugs Charlie and me and says, "Call ya tonight, Mom."
To her back, I say, "Okay, sweetie." She's on the run.
I read the pre-op instructions aloud to Charlie on the way home after he clicks the setting on 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 too 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.
Naturally, Charlie says, "Good thing vodka isn't on the list." He's talking about our Sunday morning greyhounds.
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 walks in, followed by Marina, who offers a quick nod to me.
Just he is about to slip behind the computer, while I'm wondering if Dr. Quigley has assigned her to me, or if she has to share her with him, Dr. Ionescu says to her, "Thank you, Marina. I won't be needing your assistance today."
He says that with a Romanian accent. He sounds like Johnny Depp in I forget which movie.
Marina, meanwhile is taken aback, but looking at me shrugs, and is not quite out the door, when Dr. Ionescu, 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 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 would be a dilemma more gruesome than powerless, since what chance has a johnny coat got against Dr. Ionescu's blazing white lab coat that happens to be starched to the point of military-grade steel?
And 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 might have to tell her she has Stage 4 cancer and will be dead by 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 consideration to the study. I need it before I speak with my surgeon and radiologist."
The very edges of his lips turn up a tiny bit. He says, "If I have the pathology report on your biopsy, I will only need to see you once."
He folds his arms across his chest. We stare each other down. I figure, let him fill in his immoral silence. He does. "Do you believe you have cancer?"
"Why is that, if I might ask?"
"I saw it in the radiologist's eyes."
He raises an eyebrow in a manner of Count Dracula. But then he gives me a smile that isn't wise-ass. A small smile, though. He says, "I 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 condition 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.
He says, "I will think of something to write in my notes so your insurance company will pay for this visit."
I relax. 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 either, Would you like to go have a cup of coffee? or Wanna fuck? He says, 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 what makes you tick.
I thank him for his intention to manage a reimbursement for my non-protocol appointment. Then I say to him, "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 there is the exception. 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 feel sympathy for him on that front. Not as much as I feel for the women who make such a decision. 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. I smile at him. A smile of, maybe, camaraderie.
I change the subject. "Listen, Doc, I'm really into statistics."
Just like Dr. Quigley, he says, "Good." 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. 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 will need to know in order to adjust my life so that I don't waste any time that's left."
He just looks at me. I see a lot in his gaze. He is in a Catch-22. Maybe he should have his nurse ask his patients if they want to know the statistics behind the choices available to them. Then he won't have to see the patients who don't want to know anything it all. It's a waste of their time and his. Then he can just see people like me, who the need the head honcho to tell them the facts — to tell them 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, but you won't know what drugs to recommend until after the pathology report."
His accent becomes more pronounced, "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 if she has. 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 Count Dracula: $8372. I think about that. As Yale's Chief of Oncology, the Count is of course entitled to get paid a lot more than the minions; though over 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. 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.
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.
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.
As I approach the lobby desk at Smilow, Beaumont is now looking fairly confident. He looks up, smiles. "Breast Center, right?"
He says, "You were my first customer. I'm sorry I was no help."
I smile back at him. I think it's my first genuine smile, and hopefully, not the last at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. I say, "The first day on a job is in the top ten of everyone's worst nightmare."
And he, "Yeah, it sure is."
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, feeling a bit subdued what with the journey, 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 says, "It certainly is. It's why I volunteered."
I say, "Thank you."
She leads us around the corner and here we go past that giant fountain and food court. Then she takes us down a new corridor past the two gift shops. I think I told you the first one is the normal one, but in the other a woman standing at a display counter is bursting into tears.
The guide, really subdued now, says, "That's the shop for breast cancer patients who have had mastectomies."
A shop girl is still holding up the bathing suit she was showing the woman 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.
The Breast Center turns out to be a big room packed with living room furniture—ugly upholstered sofas and chairs, and a myriad of coffee tables strewn with magazines like WebMD and Women's Health. Cruel choices.
Dear Smilow, Get fifty subscriptions to People so all the women with breast cancer can read about William and Kate and their latest baby and other such stuff that keeps people at a safe distance from reality.
In the moment before one of the receptionists sitting behind a long counter can ask me what she can do to help me, I end my quick scan of the room. There are so many people packed into one place, all of them wanting to blow their brains out, including the patients' husbands, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, and kids.
The receptionist says, "Can I help you?"
I ask her, "Are you Denise?"
"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. Or maybe she doesn't 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, but I don't. I used to be verbally caustic like my mother but have come to try to keep such comments to myself. I write them though, as you, Dear Reader, now know. 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 us to have a seat till someone comes to get us.
Charlie and I sit together on the only sofa that has two empty spaces. We nod to the man in the third space. He's weeping. I pull a Kleenex out of my little packet, something I carry around these days. 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 turn to all-out crying, for sure.
One wall of the room is glass and our immediate view—directly on the other side of the glass wall—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. This first rope is: You don't park in the parking garage for four bucks. That amount happens to be five dollars less than valet parking, that is, only if you don't lose your parking ticket, which patients tend to do since we're in altered states. Forget about 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. But 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, Fuck 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 to take Charlie and me to a mini-waiting room, where I can change in an adjacent room full of lockers. 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 fly southwest we have an extremely hard and bumpy landing. There are at least five banging bounces of the wheels. When the plane slows down, the attendant announces, deadpan: "You may have noticed that we've landed."
I change into something that isn't a johnny coat. The only difference is 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 I have 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 wearing dishtowel material.
Then 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 stares 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 Mama you said that to me. She's been hoping someday a lady would say that. Took twenty-six years. Mama 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 do to differentiate themselves from Protestants.
Hank Aaron says, "My Mama 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, what with Charlie next to me, enabling my not wanting to go anywhere in a wheel chair. Now, he 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. This Hank Aaron guy just happens to be a compassionate person. Nice. So, 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 at him. Charlie's shoulders are very broad, so much so I can't get my arms all the way around them. There's a tremor in his shoulders right now, so he's glad I look back to him. He calls out, "I love you, Wonder Woman."
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. I got it down now."
I say, "I'd 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," and 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," he says—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," and 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 so 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 and 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 smiling at me, stand there. One says, "I'm Dr. So-and-So, and I'll perform the biopsy."
She holds out her hand. 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 online the various styles of transducers and decide I'll call mine a derringer even if it does shoot barbs rather than bullets. I recover a memory of Nancy Reagan. She once announced during an interview, in defense of gun-lovers' loony-tune interpretations of the Second Amendment, "I own a gun." Then she smirks and says, "But it's just a little gun. A derringer."
A little gun? What does a derringer do, kill people a little bit? Now I know why I think of my transducer as a derringer. That Nancy Reagan story is in the back of my head and it comes to the front of my brain just before I'm biopsied. Nancy Reagan—no surprise here—becomes 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 brain, and the shooter is clearly insane, you see things from a new perspective. Charlie says if an unbalanced person is denied access to a gun, every member of the household should be denied access, too. Like Adam Lanza's mother, for example.
I order the monkeys doing their polka thing across my brain to please stop and try to focus on what's happening to me right now at Yale-New Haven Hospital.