. . . January 5 seemed so far away. But that was as early as they could see me again. I asked to speak to a doctor; perhaps an explanation over the phone would allay my fears. But it didn’t. I promised myself, reformed hypochondriac that I am, that during the second mammogram I wouldn’t care how hard the machine clamped down on my breast, I would yield to the pain. I needed that machine to do its job and not see what it had seen before.
Shortly after I made my second appointment, I realized that sharing even the possibility of my having breast cancer with friends was not a burden I wanted to spread around. Notice that I say nothing of family. Unfortunately, for me, my family is synonymous with warped, mean-spirited, self-loathing, xenophobic, small-minded and physically and sexually abusive people. Not your A-list in times of trouble. For many years I believed my biggest offense to them was that I was born in Boston. Many years ago, an aunt by marriage gave me a sweater for Christmas. It was a light gray acrylic. Woven into it was a pattern of three rows of four, mostly, white sheep. Except for the last sheep, number 12. That sheep was black. Even then the 13-year old got it. The message wasn’t lost. I have that sweater to this day. I do have two minor children, though, that I love dearly. I opted not to tell them either. My daughter is so emotionally fragile and volatile I worried that she might not finish her senior year if I shared my information with her. My son, with his tender heart, would have been crushed. I told the children’s father, my ex-spouse, for obvious reasons. During that conversation, I heard genuine concern in his voice and it pleased me. I have long since forgiven his mistakes as a husband and I hope he has forgiven mine. He is diligently working on the dad thing. If anything were to happen to me, I knew the kids would be alright with him 24/7.
So, I soldiered on. Going through each day, stoic. The stress and fear building, but always internalized. I was just going through the motions. And when I was laid off, I had even more time to dwell on what was at stake on January 5. But behind the fear something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a deeper uneasiness that wasn’t connected to the fear of death. With the dawn and at the evening of each day, I felt empty. When the children weren’t home, I’d allow my sadness to show. And when I expected them back, I would feign being busy or start preparing dinner and checking homework. Some days I’d get paralyzed in one position in front of the TV. Hours would pass. Precious hours. It seemed none of the things that fortified me worked. Prayer and meditation had no effect, but I continued to do both, if for no other reason than because I’m a creature of habit. I felt lost looking to find what used to be my always available mystical and spiritual center. I attempted to read The Power of Now for the fourth time, a book I adore. But time was always measured in tomorrows. Again, I tried When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron but the attempt fell flat. Music didn’t move me. Those very personal comfort songs—In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning or Someone to Watch Over Me—left me cold. Buddy Guy, Marvin Gaye, Buckwheat Zydeco, Michael Buble didn’t move me. Music had always moved me. There was something else at war internally, not just the possibility of breast cancer. I took to taking showers just so that I could give myself another breast exam. I constantly stood in front of the mirror naked from the waist up, looking for flaws, trying to see what that damn machine saw, that damn evil machine.
I called my grandmother just before Christmas. I knew she would be glad to hear from me. My grandmother never made a secret of her love and affection for me. She would say it publicly and in front of cousins and sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. I don’t know why I rated such favor. Maybe I was her strange fruit. And I knew I hadn’t fallen far from the tree in more ways than one. A stranger answered her phone. I’ve always called my grandmother “mama” or “momma.” When I was feeling especially respectful, I’d called her Ms. Adele, like a properly brought up southern child, although I was neither. This day it was “let me talk to Ms. Adele.” The stranger on the other end said, “She ain’t here; they took her to the hospital. She was doin’ a lot of bleedin’.” I questioned the stranger further in that weird clipped tone that says, “If you don’t answer me fast enough, I’m going to reach through the phone and choke the life out of you.” You know that voice, right? Ok, maybe it’s just me. But I got some answers and I hung up the phone knowing I just had to wait.
The dysfunctional family dynamic wouldn’t allow me to call anyone else who might know something about the situation. I waited several hours to call again. During that time I tried not to think about losing her. I thought about the larger than life, out loud living, take-your-breath-away loving, you-better-hold-on-to-something-or-you’re-gonna-get-hurt laughing that my grandmother had done in her 92 years. And, slowly, I began to recognize the uneasiness that I had been feeling. I grew embarrassed at the time I had wasted in the short month since my demonic mailbox experience. I was living in fear. I had betrayed Ms. Adele and most of all I had been betraying my self by not living, as she taught me, by example, to do . . . . out loud.
The children and I visited with Ms. Adele for a while on the Saturday preceding my hospital visit. She was in good spirits and glad to be home and as she would say “tickled” to see me and her great-grandchildren. If you’ve listened to my podcast, you know how many lessons I learned from her and how I pass them on to my listeners. Back in the day, she was what people used to call a “looker.” Although she spent many hours on her feet she always wore high-heeled shoes. She knew she had great legs and she showed them off. She was almost 80 when the doctor suggested that she stop wearing the heels. She did so begrudgingly. She is small and less imposing now, barely filling her favorite chair, which has been around since I was a little girl and from which she would quite regally direct goings on in the house. From the direction of the chair, we never wanted to hear, “Don’t make me get up and come in there.” The chair is showing its age much like Adele—frayed and torn around the edges and the original upholstery barely detectable. The seat now layered with multiple towels and pads, some for comfort, others for necessity. But, oh my, her humor and mind are so sharp. She asked about my love life, of course, and what happened to the guy that came with me to visit her several years ago. Adele admonished me to pick a good man and stick with him. But take my time picking. Now, I should say here that the “man” conversation was pure Adele and rather salty. There is, indeed, lots of her in me. I’m reminded that I got some good stuff out of her gene pool too. At the end of our visit she held on to my hand as we walked to the door—not because she needed to but she wanted to. I, on the other hand, was holding on to hers just a little tighter because I needed to. I kept my upcoming hospital visit to myself. My grandmother has claimed this time in her life just as ferociously as she has all the others and she readily admits that she’s tired. Death is nearer to her now and I believe she willingly walks with it without fear. I am proud that she is my grandmother and I hope I can live as fearlessly as she. Do you remember what the character Red from the Shawshank Redemption said, “Get busy living or get busy dying”? I saw my grandmother live. And while she may not be busy dying, her house is in order.
On January 5, I went to GW Hospital alone. No husband, no kids, no boyfriend, no girlfriend, no family. Just me and my grandmother’s spirit—ready to live loudly and fully, wanting the world to know I’m here. The mammogram technicians handled my breast like so much honey-colored Play-doh. The doctors were thorough and patient. I didn’t even flinch at the sight of an aspiration needle for the biopsy. I waited for the test result. If I had cancer, would I fall apart? Fortunately, I don’t have to answer that. After three mammograms, a sonogram and biopsy, I was sent home with, at least, a clean bill of breast health.
I started to cry as I walked along 22nd and I streets. It was ok to let the tears go. I was relieved and felt that I could take back the illusion of control of my body. And to exert that control, I headed straight to the tattoo shop! I had waited long enough. I decided several years ago that I wanted a tattoo. I laid down face up and let the artist get to work on an understated sunburst with two X’s in the middle. I’ll let you figure out what the meaning is. But after years of other people imposing their will on me, it felt really good to unleash the badass and lay claim to my own body.
Change indeed! In 2009, in the Nation’s Capital, that sound you hear, that’s not a celebration of President Barack Obama—that’s me living out loud. Feel free to say, “Sunny, What The Fuck?!”
’til next time