Sunday, March 23, 2008


Photo by
Brendon Stuart

The night before surgery we tried to behave as if nothing unusual was happening, but my nerves hummed. I felt like I was being tumbled by a big wave at Santa Cruz. “Don’t fight it,” my parents had instructed me early. “You cannot beat the Pacific Ocean. Roll with it. Or press your body flat against the sandy bottom--wait for the wave to pass over. Then swim up.”

Lawrence cooked dinner; I wasn’t hungry. Jane arrived and set up a sleeping bag on the couch. Eddy announced that he would come to the hospital with the rest of the family. Officially, he was supposed to go to his partial hospitalization program, where he had been going for therapy, lectures and crafts from 9-5 each day since being released after his second stay in the psych ward. I felt a moment of hesitation, but didn’t want him to see it. Would he make some kind of scene at the hospital? Run amok amid the scalpels and antisceptic? “Are you sure you want to, honey?” I asked solicitously.

He nodded.

“Okay. That would be nice.”

After dinner, I said I wanted to watch Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle. We didn’t have the usual debate. It was my party. I got to decide. I had a crush on the Indian actor who played Kumar, and even though I’d heard the silly jokes about farting, and smoking pot, and chasing after women half a dozen times at least, they still made me laugh. We sat on plush seats in Lawrence’s makeshift theater, black silhouettes before the bright colors on the big screen. The scene in the operating room made me squeamish, but it was over quickly. Once the movie ended, there was nothing left to do but go to bed. We synchronized our alarm clocks, agreed on the lineup for the morning showers, and went to our individual rooms.

I huddled up to Lawrence in the darkness. I remembered the story of my father’s reaction to my mother’s mastectomy. How he’d taken one look at the wound and then run to the toilet to throw up. I thought how my soft breast, my welcoming cushion, my pliant embrace would be exchanged for a lopsided bone cage in the morning. Lopsided because one side had been lopped off. Would I still find myself beautiful, sexy? Would Lawrence? My whole body felt vulnerable and raw, not just my left breast, as if I’d been flayed, stripped of my flesh.

I woke before the alarm rang in the morning and immediately took two Ativan to calm my nerves. The house was hushed and hurried as we rose and showered and dressed in separate rooms. We took two cars to the hospital, so people could come and go independently. The surgery was expected to take three or four hours, not counting the lead time for preparations.

We walked as a group through the dark, pre-dawn parking lot and down the maze of halls to the surgery center—Lawrence and I in front. I wore no jewelry. None was allowed. I’d taken off my gold wedding ring that morning, along with the antique silver ring of tiny diamonds Lawrence had given me unexpectedly on our tenth anniversary, and stored them both in the plush jewelry box my mother-in-law had given me one Christmas. I had to cut off the hemp bracelet Rose had made for me at camp. It lay on the bathroom counter at home, part of a makeshift altar comprised of sand dollars and seashells, my dead mother’s pale yellow tea cup. Rose said she’d make me another bracelet, and I asked her to weave it during the surgery. I liked the image of her fingers moving back and forth, intertwining the rough brown threads, choosing where to place a smooth colorful bead, thinking about her mother while they opened me like a package with a sharp, silver knife. It would be as if she were casting a spell, weaving a magical net of safety, protecting me from danger, or error, or pain. From anything unexpected.

I also asked her to wear the new tarot pendant Greta had made me, after I put aside the one featuring The Tower. This one had the Two of Cups on one side, depicting a man and woman toasting, which stood for the new closeness and gratitude I felt towards Lawrence since my diagnosis; on the back was the Three of Cups, showing three sisters dancing, which symbolized joy and support and positive outcomes. I had picked those two cards carefully after learning I had cancer, and Greta told me she had hidden a third between them—Strength—which portrayed a queenly woman subduing a lion. Rose was wearing this amulet for me when we arrived in the dark parking lot.

Once inside, Lawrence and I paused outside the swinging double doors while the family found seats in the waiting room. Eddy sat stiff-backed and silent, as if holding the boundaries of his body together was an effort that took all his concentration. Others looked more relaxed. Once everyone was seated in the dark little room, Lawrence and I passed through the doors, into the burning light.

“Hello,” I greeted the nurse behind the counter as if I was checking into a hotel. “I’m here for a mastectomy.”

First we were led to a changing area where I took off my clothes and put them in a little locker. I wore my light blue hospital gown with the opening in front, as they had instructed, and little paper booties, as we walked to my designated bed. A nurse drew the curtain around us, and came inside. I lay on the bed. Lawrence sat in a chair beside me. The nurse asked a few questions about when I had last eaten and what medications I had taken before taking out a black felt pen and writing “yes” on my left breast and “no” on my right one.

“How do they know that ‘yes’ means remove this breast?” I asked. “What if they think it means to keep it?”

“This is the way we always do it,” she told me. “They know what it means.”

While she was writing another nurse came in with a pair of white tights she asked me to put on. “These will keep the blood flowing in your legs during surgery,” she explained. “We hook them up to a machine, and they massage you.”

“Cool,” I said. “But why would the blood in my legs stop flowing?”

“Because the anesthetic slows down your heart. Because you lie so still for so long.”

After I pulled on the tights, she asked if I wanted a tranquilizer to make me fall asleep before they wheeled me to the operating room. Yes, I told her. Yes. Yes. Yes.

I drank the orange liquid from a small white plastic cup greedily. The nurse left, pulling the curtains shut. Lawrence climbed up onto the bed, squeezing tight against me, putting his arm across my soft belly, directing his ragged breathing into my neck. I saw our bodies from a distance, as if in a movie, the camera mounted high on the ceiling, looking down on us. My red hair splayed out on the pillow; my blue eyes looked straight up, into the future; Lawrence’s black shape and my blue one intertwined together on the white and chrome hospital bed.

Come back next Sunday to read the next chapter, or buy a paperback copy of the whole novel HERE.

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