Sunday, October 5, 2014

Northern Lights

First there was the confusion that follows sleep, the disorientation to time and place that accompanies being awakened before you are ready. Otherworldly red and blue patterns were flashing across our bedroom walls and ceiling the way I’d always supposed the northern lights would appear: vibrant, thrumming, spectacular. Jack was still a tiny baby sleeping in his crib across the hall from us, so I was able to shake my head clear in an instant, as only new mothers can. But the baby monitor revealed nothing except its steady-state static. I glanced at the clock, which read 5:19AM. I turned to my husband, sleeping hard. And then I thought to look out the window. Behind our back yard in a narrow strip of untended woods between us and a country road stood at least a dozen officials. The lovely colors on our bedroom wall we owed to the flashing sirens of a police car and an ambulance pulled to the side of the road. I looked more closely and discerned the wreck of a car. Its front end was wrapped grotesquely around a tree, now an unnatural amalgam of metal and wood.

Someone had brought in high-beam lanterns, which had the effect of making the scene before me look like staging for a movie set. Surreal on multiple levels, then. The cast was milling about, no one in a hurry to extricate a body, or two, from the mangled vehicle. One man even stroked his beard, contemplating the scene just as I was, behind the window in my nightgown. Now I moved to awaken my husband. He and I stood together as we processed the news: that a person had (possibly, likely, most certainly) died some short distance from our back yard. I went to check on the children to reassure myself that the world had not gone completely topsy-turvy. They slept splayed out and heavy, the sweaty, untroubled sleep of innocents. I tucked in their sheets and blankets, aware as I did that I might wake them. I think now that I hoped they would rouse and comfort me. Instead they slept on.

My husband and I ended up going back to sleep just as daylight started to slant its way into the far corner of our bedroom. Later, perhaps that afternoon, I learned that a man, a father, a husband, driving too fast, had missed a curve on the road and driven straight ahead, sailing into the late night air for a moment before slamming into a tree in our little culvert. He was a doctor. He’d been on his way to the hospital, some said. But it was too early in the morning for that, others chimed in. He and his wife had been arguing, people whispered. They’d been drinking, or so went the water-cooler chatter. The truth is that there is no truth, except possibly the man’s wife’s truth, which she hasn’t shared, and why should she? Some believe that he committed suicide, some that he looked down at the most inopportune moment of all and missed the curve. It doesn’t matter. He died, and that is all.


When we’d been on the market to buy our first house, we’d walked through a house that we rather liked. After the showing, as we stood outside squinting in noon’s bright light, the realtor had cleared her throat before speaking. “I do have to tell you,” she’d started weakly, “that there was a suicide in this house. In the master bathroom. Some people aren’t bothered by that, but others…,” and she trailed off. Her words hung in the humid July air. My husband and I nodded, acknowledging receipt of the information. We’d save discussion for later, in the privacy of our own bedroom, where I confessed that there was no way I could ever live in that house, knowing what I now knew. My husband was more sanguine. But I was adamant. I would not be able to shower, bathe, or even brush my teeth in that bathroom without imagining the middle-aged woman who’d… Well. If my husband didn’t agree, he accepted my perspective, and we moved on, to another house, to the house in which we’d live for three years before a man drove his car into a tree in the scrubby woods behind our back yard.

We don’t live in that house, our first house, anymore. But my new job has me drive down the exact stretch where a country road swings left and our old house sits right. It is a tricky curve, and I can see how easy it would be to blink and miss it. Every weekday morning I take the turn and remember the fellow who didn’t. I imagine him floating for a second or two, I imagine his surprise and shock. I imagine the moment of grinding impact. I wince. And I think of that young woman at the window watching the accident’s aftermath; I think of her aimlessly checking her children, her house of cards, before finally returning to bed for lack of anything better to do.  

written in 2012

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Let's just get this out of the way first thing, shall we?

Benign, such a pretty word, a word reminiscent of the word 'beignet,' which treat I have tasted and declared delicious.


When I heard the good news this morning, I felt, of course, overjoyed, but also - all of a sudden - profoundly tired. It was as if I had been holding my breath for three weeks and finally remembered to exhale.

Do you know that feeling, the one you experience after you are issued a speeding ticket? Oh, c'mon, don't tell me that you've never gotten a speeding ticket! Huh. Well, I have, and I've noticed that for a month or two afterward, I am overly conscious of my driving. I don't speed (if anything I drive too slowly!), and I am scrupulous about following all the rules of the road (e.g., signaling turns early, or coming to a full and lengthy stop at a stop sign). But after some time has passed, my driving slides back into the realm of the automatic. It retreats to the background.

Today I have a new lease on life. I have been stamped healthy. I am a lucky one. So for the next few weeks or months I will walk around with a dopey grin. I will notice the leaves turning colors and marvel at the spectacle, even more than I usually do.

And then I will forget, and go back to living my life, and being frustrated by long lines at the supermarket, or telemarketers, or my children's inability to get their dirty laundry into the baskets provided for same. Human nature it is, and yet I wish I could bottle today's joy for future use.

But maybe it's tiring to live such an examined life, and that's why the lessons we learn - from speeding tickets, from the possibility of having cancer - don't keep informing our every move.

I don't know. Nothing to take from this, perhaps, except delight. Pure delight.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Roosevelts and Us

"You'll see," she muttered, frowning as she cleaned her glasses with characteristic ferocity, "It all goes to hell in a handbasket. Your eyes, your teeth..." Here she trailed off, waiting for me to take up her thread and carry it forward, a stitch or two, maybe three.

Instead I parried. "It doesn't have to be like that. You can recast your lot. Be grateful for what you do have, the love of family, your ability to walk on your own two feet, your wisdom, however hard-won."

She snorted, unconvinced, as I had known she would be. Later she died, still uncompromising in her belief that life had failed her, never considering that she might have failed it.


And now here I am, cleaning my own reading glasses, running my tongue over ever more fragile teeth. Older now I think than when she instructed me on how awful it is, this growing old business.

Facing my own mortality as she faced hers. But no, not at all as she faced hers. My poor mother.


History is wasted on the young, they say, although not on my sixteen-year-old son, who inhales it as he does the promise of food. But that is another story.

At night my husband and I clasp hands and watch The Roosevelts on PBS. It is not anything close to a fast-paced show, but we are riveted, more by the photos than by the commentary. All those frank faces, unsoftened by color, staring out at the unknown, at us.

Yes, he and I clasp hands and wonder about the biopsy results that are forthcoming and in what ways our narrative will be directed by those results. What will our history show, the black and white of us? What will my cellular history show, the black and white of me?

I try to memorize Eleanor Roosevelt's gaze, her strength and candor all bound up in her eyes, and the way she holds her neck, proud and defiant and strong. If I mimic her posture and her direct, even challenging, look, perhaps I can too feel proud, defiant, strong.

Because I am certain of this: I want to be Eleanor, shaping history instead of letting it shape me.

My bloodline be damned. Eleanor can be my guide. Under her tutelage I will take nothing for granted, disparage nothing, neither my aging teeth nor my aging eyes nor any damn part of this beautiful life. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014


I've never felt as vulnerable as I do right now. Awaiting a diagnosis will do that to a person, I suppose, and yet what I am discovering is that this fragile period is opening me up in ways I hadn't anticipated. I walk around with one of my breasts chronically tingling, as if ready to let down at any moment, and I find that the feeling itself makes me more generous with others.

An example: I have never felt such maternal affection for the children in our classroom as I do right now. These nineteen children are dear. Others concur; we do have a wonderful group this year. But it's more than that, for me as I am right now. I am wide open, exposed to each and every one of their tender young hearts. And open to adults, too: I am seeing so much that is good in everyone with whom I interact.

I would not have expected this gift - of seeing beauty wherever I cast my eyes - to blossom from a bed of fear and worry. But it makes some sense. These pinprick reminders of mortality heighten empathy, for we all - no matter how different from one another we may seem - will spend an equally fleeting time with feet placed perpendicular to earth.

Today I find myself close to tears, of gratitude for you and you and you, and gratitude for all of this. All of it. I walk around the house as I open windows wide to the treat of cool, dry air. I pass a mirror and notice that I am beaming. I hadn't known that my smile was as broad as it appears reflected back at me, but neither am I surprised to find it so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Partial Update

The problem with disclosing this situation, as I have chosen to do, is that people will expect an update. And that's only fair. I do not regret sharing my story - perhaps someone will benefit from it, if only by thinking, "Huh. I haven't had a mammogram for too long." That's to the good.

But today was disappointing. I guess I half-expected to walk in and have the doctor say, "It's all been a mistake. You're good to go."

She didn't. She said, "We take this very seriously." So I had an EKG and bloodwork. I will have further diagnostic testing done next week, and surgery on the 17th.

I asked the surgeon about my odds, you know I did. She replied, "With this condition, we use the 2/3 rule. 2/3 benign, 1/3 not."

The duct will be removed on the 17th and then sent for biopsy. Biopsy results will be in on the 24th. That's three weeks more of waiting and worrying about the Big C.

If there is cancer, well then a second, more invasive surgery will have to follow the first.

I can't really believe this is happening. It hasn't sunk in yet. I keep wondering whether this is my new reality or just a blip.

1/3, 2/3.

(Oh, and the surgeon is adorable - she looks like Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project - only even prettier than Mindy. She could be my daughter, she is that young. And well dressed. So there's that.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014



My first instinct was to call my mother. I can't call my mother.

So I am going to write here, and yes, I know that this blog is supposed to be shuttered, but if I don't write this through I think I will explode.

Warning: Physical details ahead may make some uncomfortable. Stop here if I am describing you.

Last week my right breast started bleeding. The nipple, I mean. (Aside: I hate the word 'nipple.' Also 'moist.') I looked on the internet, of course. "See a doctor immediately," I read. Ever obedient, I saw a doctor yesterday. She had me take a blood test to monitor prolactin levels and set me up with an appointment on Tuesday to see a breast surgeon.

A breast surgeon. I didn't even know the specialty existed. But why not? Heart surgeon, lung surgeon...

Here is what I've gleaned from my research:

The source of the bleeding is most likely to be benign - a ductal papilloma, they call it - but it will still need to be excised. (60% of cases fall into this category and need no further follow-up.)

30% of the time biopsies show precancerous cells, and further treatment is warranted.

And the other 10%? Cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ.

I have a long weekend during which to ponder all of this. I am trying to focus on the 60%. But my mind is stubborn and keeps sneaking out to smoke and drink and generally get up to mischief with the unlucky 10%.

You see, my right breast has been wonky for decades. So wonky that I have a little tag in it to mark a spot that does not need further biopsy. Like a cow, or a shark, I have been tagged.

Yesterday I told the doctor that my breasts have always been more trouble than they were worth. D cup, anyone? That she could feel free to lop them off, and I wouldn't care. She laughed. I laughed.

But I'm still not sure that I was kidding.

There is no end to this post, not yet. Perhaps on Tuesday I will be able to finish it off in a satisfactory way. The odds of that look to be around 60%.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Skin and Bone: A Farewell of Sorts

It was a September day so balmy that it carried regret on its back, the sense that summer had come and gone without enough respect paid to the great outdoors. The children were in school. The little one had not cried at drop-off, and I was feeling relieved, and daring to be hopeful about drop-offs to come. Across from the preschool was an abandoned train station and its tracks, covered over now by nature's restorative efforts. The parents of children attending the Montessori school typically scrambled down and then up the other side of the trackbed, a shortcut enabling them to reach their cars faster, and start their days sooner. 

Somehow I skidded down into the base of the channel. My thong sandals were flimsy. There must have been morning dew. I don't really know. I didn't pay attention to the chain of events that would seem important only in retrospect. My right leg made contact with the bottom of the U-shaped ditch, and I heard the snap of bone. And then, incredibly, a second snap.

I sat stunned for a minute. I assessed my predicament through a sudden fog. I stared at my right foot, which was angled in a grotesque and improbable way. I looked to both sides of me. Where were all the parents? On the road to my right I saw the short school bus that had disgorged, minutes earlier, a small group of kindergartners. The bus driver sat lounging in her seat; the bus' accordion door was folded back to welcome the warm air.

This story is not about my broken leg, although the leg was in fact broken. Both tibia and fibula. Accidents happen. Even freak accidents happen. They happen to healthy 37-year-old women on sun-kissed days when all one's ducks seem to be in a row (no tears at drop-off!).

However, this story is about my broken leg, in one sense: during my six-month convalescence (a period including three surgeries, two plates, eleven screws, near-total bedrest, and excruciating sessions of physical therapy), I began to write.

Why, then, did I make a point of telling you about the bus driver? Because when I was sitting frozen in that ditch, having recognized that I was unable to move, I could scarce muster the courage to raise my voice, shout, "I need help." My first reaction - not horror at my twisted leg, not pain-fueled hysteria - was embarrassment. Shame. I did finally yell for help, directing my volume toward the bus driver, but I found doing so as agonizing as my injury. As for the bus driver, good soul, she went into the preschool to fetch the director, and call for an ambulance.

Soon teachers were at my side, and parents too. I remember wondering how they could have appeared so quickly, when a moment or a lifetime ago they were nowhere. A clutch of women made a circle about me, clucking sympathetically, chatting about their own history of broken bones, ailments, and accidents. As women do. Never in my life before or since have I wished so fervently to spit out ugly, venomous words and scatter them like seeds, to stop these women from speaking about nothing when there was so goddamn much pain, which had flown up and off the scale, finally, and was now sending streaks of lightning across my visual field and causing my stomach to knot so fiercely that vomiting felt a foregone conclusion. Instead I smiled and nodded and felt for all the world as if I were hosting a coffee klatsch right there on the weedy, pebbled trackbed. There would be no speaking my truth, not on that day.

When a month later I began to write - encouraged by a blogger friend - it all came tumbling out, the mess I'd kept closeted for years, so thoroughly closeted that I'd completely forgotten about the existence of the closet. I wrote and wrote and wrote, publishing every day and sometimes twice in a day. You thought I was prolific, readers of my blog, and I was, but only because there was so much pressure behind what had been stopped up for too long.

I 'found myself' (as much as I detest that expression) in my forties, and I couldn't have done that without blogging. I had articulated a divide: between my thirties, when I dared not speak my truth, and my forties, when I wasn't so much speaking my truth as shouting it. But this divide was artifice - a literary device. The real divide came before I reached forty years old. It came on September 14, 2005, when I broke my leg and realized that even in duress I was apologizing for drawing attention, for causing trouble, for creating a fuss, for being me.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for blogging, for you, the people I've grown to love through blogging - you who never turned away from me during my metamorphosis but instead embraced me. At least one of you will surely laugh and accuse me of crying wolf, claiming to be done with blogging when in a few months I will prove otherwise. At that accusation, which we all know to be well-founded, I shrug. I can write only what I believe to be true at the time I'm writing it.

But hey, that shrug? Means that I am finally comfortable in my own skin. It's taken forty-six years and a lot of experiences I'd rather not have had. And yet: God! I am so thankful to be here, now.

My leg has healed. The two plates and eleven screws, they will remain inside me for the entirety of my life.

I like to think that some of us just need a few screws and plates - and a blog - to help us become ourselves.