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10 August 2009: Choice

Terrible foreboding and loneliness. The two of us in this house together and nothing but discomfort between us. I wish I could feel warmth, comfort, closeness. All outward signs are there: he takes me to the hospital, makes my meals, says he wants to “be there” for me. The essential difference, it seems to me–being “there for” me versus being “there with” me. Wanting to be with me–not as a fulfillment of some duty, some cause of martyrdom.

And I’m anxious and defensive, bitter and easily upset. Recovering from the biopsy, the awful pain and ache and itch of the stitches and bandages. I don’t know how I can possibly cope with the “real” surgery when this small thing unnerves me so.

Spent yesterday restless–alternately working my way through Shakespeare’s comedies and nodding off to sleep. I sleep so easily these days, so often, so suddenly and so long, a series of deaths.

I spent more time trawling the internet for cancer-related websites, watched a woman’s hair regrow in time lapse from chemo–still no idea what is happening with my own. The search term “mastectomy support” yielded mostly information related to lingerie and swimsuits. “You may feel an essential part of your femininity is missing”–why femininity, merely, specifically? Why always the emphasis on gender or sexuality when it is an organ too, and aesthetically, functionally, a part of oneself, and not only one’s sexual self? The comfort is meant to be that, externally, socially, “no one will know.” That you can cover up your cancer, your surgery scars, like the most shameful parts of yourself. As Audre Lorde claims, a near-conspiracy to hide these women, make us indistinguishable to one another. And the emphasis placed not on prevention or recovery or cure but on reconstruction–to be attractive to men.

I’m ashamed by my inability to cope, sickened by my own appearance. How do you make a change in your essential attitude to and response to adversity? Is a change of such magnitude even possible? I don’t know how you start but by pretending, and hoping that your invented persona takes over. It’s the only way to execute a choice over your attitude. My response to most things in the hospital has been utter despair, bursting into tears. To not do that would be to actively deny my natural response–and hope that enough instances of ‘acting’ calm would eventually translate into ‘being’ calm.

But still I am on this course I have not chartered, and over which I have no choice. Or else, the only choice is to allow myself to die, which is no choice.

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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. Continue reading

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2 August 2009: 31,000 feet

Taking off from Cleveland as the red sun dips in the sky. From the air the network of streets and trees, ponds and houses seems delicate and deliberate. So many blue swimming pools.

My hair is falling out again. To distract myself I try to count the number of round trips I’ve made across the Atlantic–Oxford, Munich. Christmases, P’s funeral.

The route from Cleveland crosses Lakes Erie and Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland. And ‘home.’

Sentinel node biopsy on the 6th, Thursday. Mastectomy 8 days later, the 14th, a Friday. None of this is right, to write these words. To feel the lump, to say, to think, ‘cancer.’ I hate the sight of myself in that bathroom mirror, in front of which I’d pinch myself, a decade ago, wanting to be as thin as the models in Seventeen. Now sickened again by my soft white flesh, my patchy fuzzy head, my small and temporary breast.

We’re following the shoreline. The altitude and sunset render everything out of focus. It’s a wash of colour like a Rothko canvas and the moon looms clearly but for one fuzzed edge, mysterious, out of place.

I look down and see the unmistakable shape of Presque Isle, realize we are flying right over Erie, right over my home. Remember looking longingly at jet trails from the backyard as a child and wishing I were on ‘that plane,’ wherever it was going. And now, how much I’d give to feel safe, not to have to be doing this. A mix of dread and denial.

31,000 feet. Turbulence expected. The lake beneath. Near Buffalo, where I was born a quarter century ago.

This feeling like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Terrible fear and no way to prepare. R. says whatever is in your mind is worse than the actual experience will be. What does she know? She had a small lump removed, and it was benign.

I am sick in so many ways. The cancer, and the sickness of the chemotherapy. Of ineffectual treatment. Most recently of a virus, a sore throat and runny nose and nausea. And the terror, and the terrible malaise.

K. on the other side of the ocean. A comfort, but not to keep. A terrible loneliness is mine instead.

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26 June 2009: absence

Sleepless nights and strange morning-dreams. This free-floating anxiety shot into overdrive with the nurse’s call last night: yet another meeting with the surgeon on 7 July, and nothing to be planned until after. There is always this great sickness in the pit of my stomach; there is always this oppressive fog I can’t think through. Tomorrow I’m going to Paris, yes–and all I can feel is worry and discomfort. Guilt and bitterness. What is this compulsion for Paris?

This morning I rubbed some shampoo in the coarse fuzz that’s grown over my head–what unprecedented pleasure! The smell of the shampoo and comforting enclosure of soap suds. For an instant anyway.

A part of my body is to be cut off: the meaning, at last, of “absence.”

I dreamt of Vassar. In my dreams it is always so removed from me. Inglorious disarrray, columned like the Pantheon. And always this set of stairs I cannot seem to climb.

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I was bald then, too.

 

        

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Boring post-chemo hair post, 2

 

First proper professional haircut since chemo.

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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