THIS MORNING when I walk into the kitchen my Other Self, who I have given the name of Lenore, is sitting at the table painting her nails. I never paint my nails.
"I don't want to be buried in a coffin in a grave," she announces to me without looking up and without any detectable segue from her hot "Flamingo Pink!" fingertips to the topic of death.
"I plan to do death the sensible way" she says. "Cremation is the only option. No memorial service unless it's in the form of a great big dance party and funny, interesting speeches about how great I was, from everyone I've ever known. Did you know that green tea fights wrinkles as well as cancer? It's full of antioxidants."
I reach down to stroke my cat Greta's head. I do agree with Lenore's take on coffin stuff. Take a deep breath, I say to myself. Your breasts have always been full of lumps. It'll turn out to be nothing. Just another stupid, benign cyst.
Lenore, who has zero interest in my lump or impending doctor's appointment, rattles on. "You know, sometimes I make a mental list of all my ex-lovers, and it's enough just to say their names, although these days I'm hard pressed to remember all of them. I'm sure there was a time when I thought it would be impossible for me forget a single one."
"Nothing is impossible," I say, swirling the cream into my coffee. "The most awful things are not impossible. Dementia is not impossible. Senseless war, not impossible. Reality TV, not impossible. Excruciatingly painful diseases, death, caskets, coffins, unfulfilled dreams. . . . none are impossible."
"You're in a real bummer of a mood," says Lenore. "Well, neither is buying a house of your own someday ... impossible, that is -- or finding true love, though I know you'd beg to differ. Or finding a great haircutter; hideously difficult, yes, but not utterly impossible. Or losing twenty pounds. Or writing that book you keep saying you've got inside you. Or living to hold the grandchild you claim to want to cuddle and read your favorite storybooks to -- the ones you've been saving all these years."
I try to remember the titles of those storybooks. Goodnight Moon, Brer Rabbit . . . that tiny one about a carrot seed. Another tiny one, what was it? oh right: A Hole is to Dig. Jesus, they're probably all mildewed by now, or falling apart, bugs crawling between the pages, turning to gross dust down in that box in the garage.
I dump the filter full of wet, dark french roast coffee grounds into the trash, then stare at Lenore's purple feather boa, which is wrapped around her neck even though she is still in her robe (a flowery silk kimono, in contrast to my thick but comfy lump of polyester), and I wish I could absorb more of that feathery, speakeasy outlook of hers. Look how fortunate you are, I say to myself, giving it my best shot. You had a good radiologist, didn't you? She did her job and sent you a note saying: "There is an abnormality. Get thee to a hospital for follow-up tests."
I try to imagine what receiving a bad diagnosis would be like, and decide that my head would probably feel as if it had been chopped off and tossed into another universe. What if the word "metastasis" is included, and, if so, what will remain of me after I disappear from this particular reality? Two unread books on the bedside table? An unidentifiable vegetable -- cabbage? broccoli? -- wilting away in the wok? Another available single man (my relatively new boyfriend Jack), for all of San Francisco's desperate women to descend upon? A motherless son?
I force myself to stop trying to envision the unenvisionable, and to concentrate instead on listening to the small but distinct sound, like a tiny faraway siren, that has become a continuous background noise inside the depths of my right ear. Do I have tinnitus? Should I look it up online? Wouldn’t that be a better way to spend my time than obsessing on the topic of my possible imminent demise?
Yesterday, at Lenore's instigation and insistence, I ordered three pairs of high heels over the Internet — in turquoise and purple and chartreuse. I've never done such a thing before and can see the folly in it. But maybe I need to make more room for folly in my life. Lenore says I am being gobbled up by my dependence upon the habitual, plus my fear-based, worst-case-scenario temperament.
So. This afternoon I will drive to the hospital and pick up my mammogram film and its accompanying report, then head on over to the surgeon's office for more tests. On my way back I will stop at Radio Shack to buy a telephone battery. Why can’t they sell those things at Walgreen's, along with the regular AA and AAAs?
I hold on to Jack's hand in my mind's eye. Jack, who threw me a party for my 50th birthday. Jack, who took me on a trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico because I said I wanted to see for myself what Georgia O'Keefe had seen, and because he knew how much I love a wide open sky. After only one year with this man, I already know he's a keeper. If surgery -- a lumpectomy? a mastectomy? -- ends up on my to-do list, he'll get me to the hospital and back. He'll be there for me. He's just that kind of a guy. But even so, I feel like last week's tulip, my head wobbling on a failing stem, about to flop over the edge of the vase.
I fill a glass with water and swallow my mouthful of vitamins and other assorted supplements as Lenore looks on with one eyebrow raised and a questioning tilt of her head. Lenore spurns the mega-supplements routine, preferring to start each new day with whatever her taste buds fancy and without regard for minimum daily requirements. She fuels her body with a secret formula that I long to know but also fear; it almost certainly includes cheesecake on a regular basis.
After Radio Shack I will head north into the wind, smelling the smell of my own salty sweat, which suddenly makes me remember the scent of my son's hair, years ago when he was three instead of eighteen and would come running into the house from the back yard, his whole body warm and moist and excited by life. I would press my nose against the top of his silky-haired head and smell the heavenly, scruffy scent of little boy -- of dirt and grass, dandelions and pine needles and sunshine and who knew what else?
The smell of life in general is bold today, full of zing. It includes even the strange odor of a few thousand maverick cells in my left breast, cells that have gone wild with the thrill of springtime and blossoming. And who can blame them, really?
Note: This piece is a "Then"post (as opposed to a "Now" post). I wrote it at the BEGINNING of this breast cancer "journey."