Today’s my birthday. I’m 38.
I have always loved my birthday and felt like it was a big deal to make to the next year. It might make me sound like a morose little girl, but I distinctly remember turning 10 and feeling amazed that I had made it into double digits. I remember thinking, “Ten is a long time to be alive! I am so lucky!” I have always been in awe at the passing of time, of life lived; I have always had a sense that there is an end to this and that each day, month, year has value.
This past April I went through an entire month thinking that maybe my luck had run out. My right breast suddenly felt different from before, and it felt unusually different from my left breast. I have always had lopsided boobs (I distinctly remember my right one growing first and my friend, Nancy Titcomb (no pun intended by her name) joking about our uneven baby breasts in 6th grade homeroom), but something felt off. I watched a dear coworker live through cancer this year, and another lovely friend of mine fought off breast cancer last year (GO see her in this amazing documentary, “Mondays at Racine,” if you can), so I had cancer on the mind.
I went to my midwife, thinking she would pooh pooh it all, but she felt something and, although calm, gave me a referral to get a mammogram. I walked out of her office shaking, hands literally shaking, as I dialed the number and, over the surprisingly loud traffic of Metropolitan Avenue in Greenpoint, got a mammogram set up for that afternoon. I took the train into the city, and walked slowly down the street and saw the large sign for the Comprehensive Cancer Care Center and had to call upon years of yoga breathing to get myself together. This was one place I had hoped NEVER to enter, and here I was, walking in at age 37.
Stacey (my super midwife) had recommended this place because she said if there was something seen in your mammogram, they would do a sonogram immediately and not make you come back another day. I waited in the waiting room, a cross section of New York City with women of all ages, races, and backgrounds waiting to have their boobs smooshed to the point of agony in a machine that looked like a medieval torture device. Then I had that done. Ouch. I sat in the post-mammo waiting room and the woman came back in and asked me to come with her: I needed a sonogram. At this point, I started to sob to the point that I couldn’t talk, because yes, they had seen something. Of course, they were kind, telling me it was small and they just needed to check it out. But it was there. It.
My only sonograms so far in life were for my three pregnancies. I had forgotten how horrifying that first sonogram was when the first baby was found dead in me. Those memories had been overrun by the next two pregnancies and the sonogram images of wiggling fetuses that became our children. I suddenly felt that dread again, it came back with surprisingly familiarity, like a nasty old friend who finds you on facebook and makes you feel a little sick to your stomach when you see their friend request. “Oh, you,” you think. “I haven’t missed you in my life at all.”
My left boob had a little visitor. And while it looked innocuous, it’s location was suspicious, making it a “suspicious mass” in pre-cancer terminology. Behind the nipple is a tricky place because some cancers like to hide out while they grow. It looked small and insignificant, and I had two choices. I could, 1.) get a needle biopsy to see if it was cancer or, 2.) come back in 6 months for a follow up mammo. Of course, I did #1. I would have dissolved into an anxious puddle had I waited.
A week and a half went by. Biopsy. Painless, but strangely bloody because your nipple is where all blood vessels converse. I mean, A LOT of blood. Shocking.
Another week went by before the biopsy results. They called me to change my appointment to three days earlier. I thought that was a sure sign that it was bad news. Adam came with me. Nurse did intake interview. “Any cancer in the family?” Not sure, adopted, know my biological mom’s side. Colon cancer in bio mom’s cousin who is in late 30’s like me, I explain. Nurse gives me look of sympathy, shakes her head sadly, writes this in notes. My insides are quaking. I can feel my bowels shifting. I worry I might lose control of them.
A LONG few minutes before doctor comes in.
Then a nice jolly doctor who looks like Santa in that he is short and stout and has a head of bright white hair enters and booms in a voice full of mirth, “Well, everything’s okay!” I almost fell over. I was okay. I felt a relief that is still palpable as I write this now. Thank you god, universe, whatever. So. deeply. happy.
That was the longest, scariest month of my 38 years.
This entire episode of my life happened during National Poetry Month. Note: I didn’t/couldn’t write about it then. It was too raw. I was too scared.
But during this time, I was hanging out a lot with this super cool peer mentor employed at my college, Carlos Burgos, or Iro, his poet name. He’s a young poet–quite an amazing one–and we were talking poetry. I told him of my lack of zeal for poetry and how I wanted to change that. I told him I wanted to read a poem every day in April. He suggested writing them.
I chortled at him. Bah! I have NEVER written a poem.
What’s worse is this confession: The one poem I claimed I wrote in the third grade, I plagerized from Jennifer Ludlam. It was called “If I Were A Rainbow” and I memorized it so that I could claim authorship of it. I could still recite it, if needed, but I didn’t write it. I lied and said I did.
When I was alone and scared in my apartment, before my midwife appointment, I felt like writing a poem. And I wrote a poem! It is the only one I have ever written. I felt stupid writing it–like an amateur–but I wrote it anyways.
And now, in retrospect, I think of this from a teaching perspective (Yes! I did connect this to teaching! It took a long time, but it was coming!): It was terrifying to put words onto paper in a format I feel totally uncomfortable with. I think of how my students feel this way about writing in general–how the act of writing anything academic terrifies them. I am thinking about how I wrote this poem in April, but I am only ready to share it with you now in July–that’s three months of marination–which is impossible in a semester-long class. I am thinking about how vulnerable the students must feel (as I feel now), putting their work out there for peers, the professors, their teachers. . .I am thinking about how I can make this process easier for them, how I can try harder to alleviate the terror of writing for school and in general, and how to help them find their voices through words.
And, as much as April gave me pause about my life, it also spoke to me about how fear can push you to do things you didn’t think were possible, and how we can all do things we have always thought were beyond what we perceive our abilities to be, even it’s only writing a poem.
April 2, 2012
I have only had one time
when I felt my body turned against me,
when it waged war against my intentions and I couldn’t control it.
My first pregnancy seeped through my legs
slowly at first, and then
with a force that shook my body in an unfamiliar way.
As if I were turning inside out.
I felt so betrayed for an entire summer.
A darkness that was like being submerged in water.
Today I go see my midwife for my annual, a bit early, because my right breast feels different.
I noticed it two weeks ago.
I thought maybe my toddler had punched my tit while playing.
But it’s still there—something?
I can’t tell.
I hope for nothing.
I hope that the woman who helped me grow and bring life into this world two times after my miscarriage will do the exam and say,
“It’s just tissue—no big deal” and send me home with relief.
Tell me to drink less coffee. East less chocolate. Exercise. Lose ten pounds.
All options are fabulous considering the alternative.
But, for the first time since my miscarriage, I am scared that my body is doing something against my will.
Cells dividing, shit happening.
The odds working against me.
I had a dream last night that I was running in woods, trying to save my breasts from invisible enemies.
Very à la Hunger Games.
I hope I am spared from the reaping.