After the mammogram, I’m informed that there is a “suspicious mass” in my right breast. I could have told them that! Something Big is Happening. I sense the first vibration, the first tug, on the net I’ve woven so carefully.
That afternoon, wearing a fresh stiff brown robe, my mother and I meet the radiologist, Dr. K. Her exuberant hair froths past her shoulders, but her warm brown eyes rest on me steadily as she introduces herself. She opens my gown and my breasts are exposed in front of my mother, who hasn’t seen me naked in over thirty five years. Above my mother’s seat are portraits of Dr. K’s children, a boy and a girl, in soccer gear.
The radiologist rubs cold gel on my breast, rolling a cold hard tool over that lump, over and over again. I want to move away, but obediently remain still. I ask about her children, the sports they play. She then numbs “the breast,” and inserts a number of long needles deep into it, removing cells for investigation.
I have stepped aside from my body. It’s about three feet away. I see the familiar curve of “the breasts,” I see the doctor’s gloved hands touching the right breast in ways I’ve never imagined. I see the six inch needles entering the flesh, but I do not feel a thing. After a while the doctor says quietly, “I think this is breast cancer.”
Someone has crushed my chest, I know because I can’t feel anything. I can’t breathe. I’m dull and blank, out of my body, I cannot say one single thing.
My mother asks, “How sure are you of that?”
The doctor answers, “I’m quite sure… the shape [unintelligible words, I can’t hear her] … disorganized margins,” Did she say disorganized? THAT is not OK, disorganized is never OK! “We’ll wait for the biopsy results to confirm, but I’m quite certain. Let’s set up a meeting with the surgeon for Monday.” Surgeon?
“I’m sorry,” I blurt.
“Sorry?” the doctor asks, surprised.
“It must be hard, telling women they have breast cancer all day long, then going home and being with your kids.” Standing two feet beside myself, I am astounded. What the…? She’s getting a breast cancer diagnosis and she’s apologizing for the doctor’s difficult day!
A receptionist at the counter wants to schedule me with a surgeon across the hall. What? I ask her to repeat a question. She says something, her words like bubbles in a fish tank. “….Ashkenazi Jews?”
“What is Ashkenazi?”
There is a gene carried by Ashkenazi Jews, Jews from Eastern Europe, which puts them at a higher risk for breast cancer. The receptionist must determine if that test should be ordered when I see the surgeon on Monday. I’m not sure if I Am or if I Am Not. I feel Naught. My brain is confused. I can’t think clearly.
My mother nods, “Yes, her paternal grandparents were Russian Jews,” she replies. I’ve been betrayed by my ancestors.
It goes without saying that this conversation is conducted in an undertone. The three of us understand that there are Innocents, the undiagnosed, in the waiting room, and that they must not hear us.The beginning of the end of my first life.
I’ve entered a surreal world where “the patient, aged fifty,” with a “malignant carcinoma, 12 o’clock, right breast,” constantly exposes her body: to be touched, tested, cut apart, and discarded, burned by dozens of un-introduced strangers.
Fury burns cold in me, but I can’t feel it, since I feel nothing. My body stands at the counter. It mouths words, it writes a check for the copay, it looks at its calendar. It schedules an appointment with a surgeon.
Released from the office, I stand barefoot in the hospital parking lot. Somehow, I’ve removed my shoes, my sandals dangle from my fist. I need to touch the Earth. I breathe deeply, gasping, or perhaps sobbing. The car door hangs open, cooling the interior. spinning in the draft are the two feathers I found a couple of weeks ago, Owl and Eagle. THIS is the message they were bringing me! The asphalt smells bitter, it warms my feet, steadying me. Above, the sky, ringed by golden maple trees, their leaves pulsing against indigo, whirls. My ears ring, I still can’t hear. Lightning strike.