7 August 2009: awaiting my own tragedy

Day after biopsy–sitting bandaged in the backyard. An excruciating experience all around–less from the pain of the surgery than the hospital inefficiency, in a corner alone for hours afterward, told I’d see the surgeon–that I must see the surgeon–before leaving. “Before six.” Near seven I’m confronted with a registrar who does nothing, looks at my bandage, asks, “Are you always this pale?” Refuses to answer when I ask how to take care of my stitches, dressings, etc. Says the nurses will explain everything. She goes home. The nurses don’t know. Seven days or one, covered or left exposed? So I am still bandaged, taking painkillers and waiting.

What an absolute mess I must seem–and am, snapping at everyone and crying. Jetlagged still, having managed to sleep half an hour before going to the hospital, my first time under general anesthesia, terrified and alone. And back for the mastectomy, the “real” surgery, in a week. The seemingly impossible process of recovery.

The girl in the next bed was laughing, joking with the hospital staff. She was in to have a fibroid cyst removed. “As long as no one cuts my nipple off,” she says to the nurse, smiling. And I think–this is wrong, a grave mistake, shouldn’t it be me there? Instead the urgency of my situation is amplified. Five months ago, it is now almost, waiting for the diagnosis which was almost certainly, they assured me, fibroadenoma. Then cancer. The giant leap for womankind. Now this radioactive, surgical biopsy, more serious, but somehow less horrible than the first because it wasn’t a surprise, an invasion of that magnitude. Now waiting to find out not whether I have the horrible disease, but how horribly I have it. Grading. I always got good grades. And despite my perpetual pessimism about most things, I have a strange optimism about biopsies. Which is dangerous of course, because look what happened before.

So the doctor I met with in Pittsburgh says he’d be “surprised” if it had spread to the lymph nodes. But then, that’s exactly what they said here, only to find it was cancer. Surprise! After “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Sure. That roomful of people, looking at each other, nodding in unison to confirm how surprised they were. Me, stupid, faint, childish in my polka dot skirt and Mary Janes. What does their surprise mean to me? Should I feel honored? At their optimism, if that’s what it was. Dr. S. saying, “we’re hopeful.” As if hope were a treatment, a cure. As if it were anything.

It was raining then too, the day of my diagnosis. I was clutching my blue raincoat in the hospital hallway. Raining the day I began chemo, when I climbed into the loft bed of my little flat and vomited. And a downpour yesterday; we drove to London, dangerously, in it, and it began again fourteen hours later in time for us to leave. K. ran to the car while I stood outside the hospital, holding nothing and sobbing. “Are you okay?” someone said. And I nodded, because what do you say to a stranger?

“How old are you?” the nurse asked yesterday. “Twenty-four? You’re a baby.”

Of course I am. I have never felt younger or more helpless, never. And my body has never felt older, more decrepit and disgusting.

The bandage is not so bad, it’s everything else. My hair of course, getting patchy, falling out steadily, the pathetic covering I regrew over the past few months littering the pillows. Lost hair, gained weight. They made me strip off my nail polish yesterday and I got a look at my cracked yellowed nails. All to complement the fake, nippleless, Franken-stitched breast they’ll make me. I feel sorry for K. I wonder how he can stand it. Maybe he can’t.

At home, I flipped through my high school journals, and was not as embarrassed at that self as I imagined, but amazed at my intensity. Perspicacious pessimism–and actually prophetic in it, or at least realistic. I wrote at seventeen: “I am awaiting my own tragedy.”

Everyone has one, surely, coming up, sooner or later, I supposed. To varying degrees, maybe. But I’ve always been waiting for it. Or maybe  pessimism causes cancer, that holed-up negative energy. Maybe. Either way–awaiting my tragedy? Here it be.

I don’t want to write poetry about cancer, and writing poetry about anything else when the cancer is there feels absurd and inauthentic. Which it shouldn’t, I suppose, considering the nightingales etc that sprung from Keats’ tubercular body. But then tuberculosis is that metaphoric disease of passion, excess–and, like leukemia, a disease for the beautiful: pale, thin, bedridden and mindsoaring, blackeyed, the occasional spot of blood on a handkerchief or the delicate bruise.

I rub my head; a shower of little hairs on the white pages.

Crying when K. kisses my breast, to think in a week it will be a biohazard, medical waste.

And then comforted to remind myself that we are all waste, sooner or later. Worms try your long-preserved virginity, and all that.

Two weeks ago we were in Yorkshire–climbed the hill to Heptonstall and found, finally, Plath’s grave, covered in seashells. I sat beside it and listened to her recorded voice reading “Parliament Hill Fields”–my favourite, perhaps–and “Lady Lazarus.” Thinking of her body beneath me, “the flesh the grave cave ate.” Wanting to cry from the sheer strangeness of it all, looking up at St. Thomas a Becket looming over her, isolated on that English hill. But embarrassed, almost, to be so moved when the person beside me felt nothing.

I could half-imagine her presence. That at any moment she might emerge. Rise with her red hair…

but how awkward to rise in isolation, miles from anywhere. Perform the “big strip tease” to an expanse of headstones, medieval ruins, a sleepy tea shop.

From Hebden Bridge we took the bus to Haworth, which we’d been mispronouncing as Hay-worth. The bus trip was shocking–I’d never been sure what to imagine of “moors,” and I’ve never been confronted with a landscape so unexpectedly, unassumingly dramatic. It made me dizzy, rising into the hills. At one point I swore we could have been flying; the perspective was so striking. The grey sky and misting rain intensified the isolation, rawness.

I’d always thought Jane Eyre’s escape from Thornfield rather silly, her melodramatic encounter with the elements. Now I see how it is actually terrifying–the way I felt a fear of the openness when we walked the Ridgeway–a feeling strangely akin to claustrophobia; not too much surrounding you, but too much of nothing.

K. got chatting to an old man on the bus, a blue-collar landscape painter, like his father before him, who rambled on in adoration of the moors in a half-comprehensible accent. He’d been caught in a rainstorm the previous day, and was racked with a frightening cough.

The Bronte house was another striking experience–Branwell’s mediocre paintings, the table where the sisters wrote, the sofa on which Emily died, protesting her illness to the end. Charlotte’s tiny shoes, her wedding bonnet, and most tragically the bonnet made for her always-unborn baby.

In a way I enjoyed the two days in Yorkshire more than the jetsets to Rome or Paris–the private pilgrimage, the ghostly, understated landscape and its literary resonances. One early review of Wuthering Heights suggested the author had dreamt up her horrors from eating toasted cheese–but how could one look at the light disappearing on those moors and not see Heathcliff in them?

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them…

from “Wuthering Heights,” Sylvia Plath

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