It started this way: Lucky Lefty, the boob I always liked the most, the one with the cute freckle and the one that rarely got in my way, has a lump. Only no one calls it a lump; the nurses walk around that word, the radiologist calls it a mass and a possible fibroadenoma. The first thing they told me: 1 out of 10 women are called back for a second mammogram following their very first. I am young. I’m not worried. It’s the ten-year rule that brings me in; my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the month after she turned 40. Her children should be tested for the cancer earlier; 10 years to the day. So here I go, early thirties and a mammogram.
The scheduling receptionist tells me I’m too young; wait until I’m 35. I want to tell her that it’s not like I’m doing it for kicks, but it’s nice to know there’s still something I’m still too young for.
The first mammogram appointment comes. I intentionally forget not to drink caffeine. Caffeine makes the breasts tender, but so do the 22 pounds of weight that compress them for imaging. A small percentage of women faint when this happens. Guess who’s one of them?
The second time around, I warn them. I may faint, with or without the 22 pounds of weight. Diet Coke at hand. There are two bright and cheerful nurses, one in training, to attend me. Like ladies-in-waiting for my boobs.
It is a sunny Tuesday afternoon, but the lights are dim and the walls window-less throughout the clinic. Good lighting to hide wrinkles. Good lighting to hide fear. The second mammogram is over quickly, and I am ushered into a waiting room. Still topless, a paper gown crinkling against the purse slung over my shoulder. If they see anything, they’ll do an ultrasound. No one says what they see just yet. When they come back for me, it’s down another window-less hallway into another wing. Radiology and Ultrasound.
In the ultrasound room, my boobs’ kind handmaids and I talk about The Bachelor (which I don’t watch) and I learn about Ben’s bad bachelor choices with That One Girl they don’t like. They cover my boobs with a warm gel and take a few test glances while we talk. My toplessness is routine, natural. The radiologist comes in and takes over. A mechanical wand slides through the warm gel on my breast and casts an image on a screen above my head. He points to a black mass. There it is. He doesn’t talk about reality TV, but about biopsies. I am scheduled for a needle biopsy at 8 in the morning Thursday.
My mother cries when I call and tell her. “It’s simple, Ma, I promise. Just a little needle. In and out.” It was different for her. They put her to sleep, cut her open. She cries, thinking that’s what’s going to happen to me. “There won’t even be a scar,” I assure her, though I have no idea. It sounds nicer to say.
I don’t want to call and tell anyone else. What would I say, anyway, if I called? I tell my husband in person, but no one else needed to know. Better to keep it hidden, just in case. Just in case it is nothing. Better to be natural, calm, speak of other things.
Anyone else I speak to that Tuesday heard normal things. Like the recent email from Stig, planning to visit in August, wanting to know if North Carolina had waterfalls. We’ll go to the Appalachian mountains, I say, visit Sliding Rock.
But even through this, there were gnawing questions behind every word. If the lump in my breast was the Big C, was cancer, would I be able to slide down waterfalls? Stig struggled for years with dialysis for his kidneys, fighting the enemy within his own body, but still managed to travel and live in London. If I have to fight, the thing I must fight will be above my own beating heart. How the hell do I fight that?
On Wednesday morning, I have a job interview. My boobs are sore from the squishing. I wear an outfit with a loose top to hide the fact that my bra isn’t tight. I don’t tell them about the morning biopsy scheduled for the following day. The whole thing makes me tired, and when I get home I ignore the texts on my phone until I change out of my binding clothes. Texts from the husband, naturally, but one missed call and text from London. It's Ashley, asking me to call as soon as I can. On a Wednesday morning? Odd, but with the time difference not that unusual. I hesitate.
Could I make it through a whole conversation without telling her? We call each other using Skype; see each other’s faces. There’s no hiding. She’d see it in my face, immediately, that something was terribly wrong. A stranger at a job interview I could hide it from, but her? I settle on my bed with my laptop and check my phone again. A new text from my husband, short and to the point: Call Ashley.
She answers the echoed ring of Skype. Her eyes swollen and red. Immediately I know, as she would with me. Something was terribly wrong. We barely say hello before the words leave her lips.
“Stig,” she says, “passed away.”
The nurse ushers me into a small dressing room. Blue gown, open at the front. Boobs akimbo and swinging. I wait. It’s early morning, too early, and the silence of the dressing room is a far cry from the noise in the surgery waiting room. It’s the waiting that undoes me. I check my phone, see a new message from an overseas number. Don’t read it, I tell myself. You know what it’s about, and you have to hold yourself together. Hold yourself together.
We cried together, Ashley and I, hollow tones that bounced eerily through the speakers of our shared call. It had to be some horrible, terrible lie, a prank gone too far. Somewhere Stig had to be pounding an empty beer glass on a table, laughing at our silly American dramatics. I had an email in my inbox from a few days prior to prove he was coming to visit when the season turned warm, didn’t I? We would go to the Appalachian mountains, we would drink cold beer in NoDa, we would slide down rocks made smooth from eons of melted snow. Ashley and I choked words through tears; our dear friend passed peacefully in his apartment, no hospital beds, no rushed hands of doctors. Sudden. Young. In his thirties, and still too young for this.
The nurse comes and leads me from the dressing room to a sterile room where the biopsy will be performed. It has the same hushed darkness as the Women’s Center, but packed full of equipment. I am positioned on a hospital bed on my side, arm above my head.
“You’ll feel a burning,” the nurse says. “It will spread through your breast before it goes numb.”
I want to ask her how deep that numbness can go. It took me years and a jump across the ocean to find some of the truest friends my life has ever known, to finally eradicate some of the deep loneliness I carried, and I never intended to let them go.
A needle enters above my heart while the nurse tells me something about her children. I can't follow what she says.
I want to tell her. Open my mouth, through the preparations of numbing and prodding, say, “My friend. My friend Stig died yesterday.” I say nothing.
The doctor comes in, describes the procedure. Parts of the lump will be removed for testing, and in their place Lucky Lefty will carry a small ribbon-shaped twist of titanium. I would either carry it forever, a twist of metal to signify that the lump was tested, benign. If the lump was cancer, it would be removed when the whole of the mass was taken from my breast. I nod. Say nothing. The doctor is brisk, but the nurse is kind. I feel the movement of insertion, but the anesthesia has numbed my breast just like they said it would. There’s no pain from the metallic operating tools piercing me.
I cry anyway.
The two now are inevitably tied together in my mind; the impossibility of Stig’s death and the needle scar on my breast.
One has healed over, complete. The words written to Ashley the next day, “Benign, benign, boob’s all fine.” The grief still settles in strange ways, like the noises of a house in the night; the creaks of walls, the shifting of weight on beds, the slow drone of traffic subsided to hollow train whistles. It waits a little longer, nestled below a twist of titanium and time; beating, beating, healing.
|Stig and Natalie, April 2010.|