Before I even tell this story–I’m fine. It’s all fine.
Today was such a stupid day to cap off a long long string of stupid days. G had a horrible toothache and had found a dentist who could see him at noon. I’ve been out sick for a couple of days but was finally starting to feel better. Then Carlos said, “My tummy hurts” at bedtime last night.
You know how that sentence turns out. Lots of laundry and not much sleep. So when G and I were deciding how to manage today with a sick kid, we stood over our phones and hashed through the calendars.
“OK,” I said, “I can stay home this morning but I have two things this afternoon that I can’t move or miss–at 1 and 2:30.” He checked his phone. “That will work. I’ve got a few things this morning then dentist at 12:30.” We’d hand off Carlos at noon (Lord willing and the breakfast doesn’t rise).
Everything worked out fine. I logged in to work from the love seat while Carlos had some yogurt and screen time. Carlos got to play in a warm bubble bath until he was wrinkly so that I had time to diagnose form submission problems, send mass emails, post news stories, reschedule appointments. I kept the wheels on the bus and the boy hydrated and the laundry going. Like moms do.
By the time G got home, Carlos was dressed and fed and ready for an uhventure (to the dentist’s office!). I got myself dressed and fed and ready for a follow-up diagnostic mammogram.
The regular one I had on Monday didn’t get the thumbs up from the radiologist. Instead of getting the thin pink envelope in the mail that says, “All good!” I got the call from a very neutral sounding scheduling secretary to come back in for another look. OK. No big deal. Hooray for good insurance and 3D imaging and all of that. All of that stuff I never ever ever want to think about.
It’s weird when you work at the place where you get your healthcare. It’s not anonymous. It’s Monita taking my insurance card and Odessa printing forms and Cathy doing the scheduling. Vickie walks by and Connie is the boss and everyone knows my name. Even in the waiting room, I sat next to the mother of Carlos’ kindergarten teacher. It’s another day at work, except I’m remembering that sometimes it’s not good news.
She positioned my right breast and compressed the plastic plates. I watched the digital pressure reading–30 lbs. I stood calmly, doing as I was told. It’s not that bad, the squeezing. It’s better than not knowing. She steps behind the clear screen and as the imaging arm moves and clicks and whirrs, she says, “Hold your chin up high and breathe….stop breathing.” Three clicks.
As I’m holding it all together and focusing my eyes on a screw on a conduit clamp near the ceiling, everything stops.
Stop breathing. What if this is the first paragraph in the story where I stop breathing? I don’t want to stop breathing.
I tell myself that I’m being dramatic. That this is normal. That every time we upgrade the machinery, I need a new baseline. That I have about a 20% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime.
“And breathe.” She comes out from behind the screen and we move on to the next series of images. She spends more time on my right breast and I start to get suspicious. I let my eyes move to the screen where the digital image is displayed and a giant white constellation burns its way into my heart.
I’m held fast in the machine again and I don’t want to cry but I saw what I saw.
“And (whirr) stop breathing…(three clicks)…and breathe.”
She assured me that the images were going straight to the radiologist, and if he wanted to get an ultrasound they would do that right away, today. This was starting to sound serious. I sat in the waiting room with a copy of Oprah’s gift list that smelled too much like Elizabeth Taylor perfume. And I tried not to think about Christmas next year or this year and what it might look like for my little boy, who loves the tiny tree in his room so much that he falls asleep in its soft glow every night.
Then Molly stuck her head in a different door and called my name. Out in the hall, she said, “We’re going to go ahead and do an ultrasound today.”
As I lay on the table, the computer behind Molly cycled through the screensaver of slides that I publish for the hospital–meetings, recognitions, announcements, reminders. All that stuff I spend so much energy on. All that stuff that fills up my days. I stared at the mural on the wall, a hexagonal window with a white orchid resting on the sill. Molly began clicking and tapping Enter and clicking and dragging and tapping again. Taking the measure of things. That sound that I hadn’t heard since my babies were growing inside.
Then I waited for the doctor to look at whatever Molly had marked. I stared at the picture of an orchid in the picture of a window in a quiet room so that I wouldn’t think about the white constellation inside.
I hadn’t even told G where I was going–he had a toothache. I had a 2:30 meeting to get to. Would I go there, relieved? Would I go there knowing that I had a biopsy scheduled in a few days? Would I not even show up because it’s really hard to care about a meeting when you might have cancer?
Cancer. I started thinking about that quiet wait when I sat in one room while Richard sat in the other to hear The News. I laughed at those old cancer pants (that are still in my closet). I looked down at my plain black pants and then said, “Stop this. You’re being stupid.”
Or you’re not. OK, fine. If this is it and everything in my life is about to be flipped upside down, I’m not giving up. Little Gay will be the first person that I call. It’s her awful job in our family–being the doctor.
I wouldn’t be alone. I started naming all the women I know who are years and years and years past this quiet room where you wait on the doctor. Jo and Chris and Debbie and the other Debbie and Susan and the other Susan and Dominique.
And Gleam. And that friend’s mom and the other friend’s mom. Wait wait wait, don’t think about them. I cry. I cry for the tiny red and white elf Christmas ornament that Gleam brought me from Europe, that last trip she got to take with her daughter.
Don’t worry about things that aren’t true. Don’t. Just breathe.
And stop breathing.
Because the doctor walks in. Molly is with him and I brace myself.
He waves the wand and studies the screen. He declares it nothing to be concerned about. It’s dense tissue and some kind of cyst something something and I can’t hear because all I can feel is the breathing going in and out and my breathing sounds like laughing. I say, “Are you sure sure? Can we do a biopsy just to be sure?” He tells me to come back in six months and quit worrying about it.
Then I tell him that I’ll need to explain this to my sister and he rattles off so many Latinish words that I get lost in the glory of it. Words are breath and laughter is breath and I am breathing until I stop breathing.