The first week of December in 2007 I told my three teenage sons that in three weeks I would be having surgery. I didn’t say what for. Not one of them asked any questions. Not one.
The year before I had been diagnosed with breast cancer—caught early, stage 1—followed by a lumpectomy and a week of internal radiation. They were not all that kind throughout any of it and I gathered it was because they were frightened—a therapist friend confirmed it. The night of my surgery Colin had eight friends over to play videogames in the basement. I called my sister Madeleine to cry.
I got through it all just fine, wearing my happy, strong face always in my sons’ presence. “Cured” is what Dr. Dowlat called me, and though I would take medication for at least five more years as instructed, I was going to be fine, 98 percent chance of fine. Which is pretty close to fine. I was not going to die. Not from that anyway.
All the psychology and child development textbooks will confirm this as normal: My three boys were not empathetic or interested when just one year later I introduced a new surgery to the calendar. Altruism is not so common in that age range. However, you would have thought they would be just a teensy bit curious. After all, I had been the only parent in the house for 12 years, since Colin was 1.
I was divorced from their father, who had been estranged from them for three years by then. No contact, no support, no anything, his choice. He had moved to Amsterdam and did not acknowledge birthdays or Christmas.
That is precisely why my sons wanted no information from me. They did not want to learn I would not be alright. I am the only parent they have.
My oldest son, Weldon, was 18 and a freshman at University of Wisconsin-Madison living in a dorm room with a young man who was a musician and who routinely stole his protein bars. The good news was the roommate went home most every weekend. But during the week, the roommate’s friends stayed over in the closet-sized room with the predictable bunk beds; the roommate’s friends slept on the floor, in chairs. Save the free bagels in the lobby of the dorm, it would have been completely miserable.
Brendan was a junior in high school, 16, on the wrestling team and spending his home hours in his man cave in the basement—two TVs, an Xbox, futon, couch, bed with too many mismatched pillows and a refrigerator around the corner. I separated Colin and Brendan from sharing a bedroom when Brendan was 10 because I could not survive the shouts and threats –over everything from muddy shoes to pushups to chicken wings— every night before they fell asleep and every morning when they woke up to fight about toothpaste. It was calmer when each son had his own room.
Colin was 13 and an eighth grader with Justin Bieber hair he tended to religiously. He rode his bike to school and back—with one friend balancing on the handlebars and another standing on the pegs attached to the back wheels. Of course no one wore a helmet.
How would they know if they didn’t ask? It could have been plastic surgery—though I do not believe in it for cosmetic reasons only. I prefer to think I am loved for my mind. I do not lie about my age—55 for the record—because I think denying how old you are somehow negates your right to be on the planet for a significant period of time. I want to be here and I want each minute I have been here to count, to mean something. Do not erase me, nor the lines on my face or the freckles on my arms.
They didn’t ask. I could be having a toe amputated or an organ removed. No one asked.
At dinner more than a week later, Colin did.
“I’m having my ovaries out,” I said without emotion or explanation.
Brendan looked mortified. “Gross! You still have those?”
I didn’t tell them my doctor thought I had ovarian cancer. I didn’t tell them that I was terrified I was going to die. I just kept chewing.
Getting to this point involved a tedious list of unwelcome discoveries—ultrasound to elevated CA125 test to another elevated CA125 count on a second test—all leading to the conclusion that I had either benign cysts or ovarian cancer. The nickname for ovarian cancer is the silent killer. As if you would prefer a loud killer.
I am going to die. I didn’t die from the breast cancer but now I am going to die from ovarian cancer. I dodged the first bullet, but not this one, this one is going to get me. This is no cancer lite. It’s a death sentence. No one survives. Two years, five years, 10 years, everyone dies. The breast cancer was a dry run. This will do it. This is the real stuff. My children will not have a parent. My children will be orphans. Mothers die. Good mothers die.
In my pre-op appointment in her office, Dr. Streicher said she would go in laproscopically, “disconnect the left ovary”—that was the term she used. I envisioned it as unplugging the cable to the TV in the basement—remove it, seal it in a plastic baggie and if it was clearly benign, then the procedure was over.
If the mass was suspicious, a pathologist on call would do a frozen section and Dr. Streicher would have an answer in 30 to 40 minutes as to whether or not it is cancer. Frozen section. Now I am picturing egg rolls, pizza, spanakopita, in the grocery store aisles with the frosted glass doors that open slowly.
If it was cancer.
If it was cancer, she was just going to remove all of it—everything. I pictured my abdomen like an empty shoebox.
“It will take one to one and a half hours, tops if there is no cancer. If there is cancer, maybe two hours,” Dr. Streicher was deliberate and poised.
I wrote it down carefully in my notebook.
One hour equals no cancer.
Two hours equals cancer.
I have been to many funerals of mothers—and fathers—and they are always horrific, even the ones where the husband is brave and the bagpipes are playing. Especially those. Everyone cries.
My two brothers have lost their wives—Madonna had ovarian cancer, Bernadette a brain tumor. My friend Catherine died before her four children were grown and they sobbed so fitfully at the funeral as her husband nearly collapsed at the podium of the church, thanking everyone for coming in a robotic voice that sounded like a phone recording at the bank. Sue and I sat together in the neat pews. Cecilia and I drank wine at the lunch. Sometimes I think I see Catherine driving past me on the way to the grocery store in her van. And I think I need to call her. She is dead.
It’s no better when the fathers die, but at least with the fathers gone, there is some kind of hope; that is if the mother can hold it together. The father dies and no one is thinking the family is completely doomed now, because the mother will hold it together. None of it is good, of course, and if the mothers die, the fathers do OK. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror when a mother dies; she is often the keeper of the secrets, the soft heart, the time piece that regulates everyone else. The center of gravity. The fear is that everyone loses their footing, like quicksand.
Lying on the gurney, before I was wheeled into surgery, my sister Madeleine held one hand, my sister Maureen the other. It was 7:30 in the morning. Of course I had been up all night, the way you are when you are so nervous and when common sense will not land on you. You think if by sleeping you are saying it is normal, this is fine, let’s go about our everyday business, shall we? Lying down would be wrong; closing your eyes and surrendering would be unwise. No, you must stay up, stay awake, greet the sunrise, keep a vigil soldier sharp over the madness. It is not just another day.
It would be over by 9:30. Either way. I wonder if I should renew my magazine subscriptions. The nurse took my glasses. I couldn’t see anything clearly.
Count down from 100.
99, 98, 97, 96.
When I woke up in recovery, I searched for the wall clock, frantically, squinting. There it was, a large white circle with black numerals big as my fist. 9:50. I had been in surgery more than two hours. More than two hours. Two hours and 20 minutes. I was going to die.
Maybe this was how it would be; isn’t this how it is for all of us? I would go along, get on with my life, raise the boys, work, and never really know how it would end up, not at all conscious of the fine print details on anything. Any degree of certainty was an illusion, self-deception at its worst. There always exists the chance that at any moment any one of us could be pirated by misfortune or surprised by someone’s capricious change of heart.
Cancer the size of a thumbnail. A decision to walk through a different colored door. A right instead of a left. This flight instead of the next. At any time the cancer could come back. At any time, anything.
I started to cry, a convulsing, sobbing hurricane of tears. I wouldn’t see the boys graduate from college. I wouldn’t see them get married, have children. And I was so hoping their wives would like me. I wouldn’t get to go to Australia, Sweden, Thailand. I wouldn’t get to paint more, have a nice kitchen, write more books, love someone so much I could float.
I think as a mother—or father—the second you hold your squirming infant, with tiny hands and soft doll lips, it all stops being about you. You as first anyway. They need to remind you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you affix the mask to your child, because your instincts will not allow you that option.
You pay their tuitions first, you give them the window seat, the benefit of the doubt, the blanket when you are cold, the forgiveness you won’t give yourself. Because that is what mothers do. And doing that does not feel sacrificial or martyr-like, it feels normal. To not do that regularly, consistently and before your first conscious breath of the day feels like a betrayal of who you have become, of who you have been miraculously granted to be.
It is only when you see and understand fully that the door may be closing forever that you wish maybe you had jumped out the window once or twice for a stroll by yourself when the moon was full. It is then that you thrash helplessly in regrets and almosts and never got to’s. It is then that you become selfish and demanding and howling angry. It is then that quiet and accepting seems impossibly insane. It is then you wonder how you could ever be humble and calm.
Maybe only two or three minutes later, Dr. Streicher, her head covered in a blue surgical cap, walked over to the bed, held my hand and said, “There is no cancer.”
I sniffled. “But it has been two hours…”
“It all went very well. You have been in recovery for a while.”
Six years and five months later and I am still here. I don’t think about dying every day any more. I do feel victory with each passing year, knowing my sons are older and they would be OK. 25, 23 and 20. I saw Weldon and Brendan graduate from college; Colin is graduating in two more years. The older two have jobs, are independent, though I still pay for everyone’s cell phone.
When I fly—which is about once or twice a month for work—I play this game in my head when the plane is landing; it’s kind of morbid, really. The closer we get to the ground in the last few minutes of approach, I think, if we crashed now, I would not live. Descending faster, closer to the stripes on the runway below: If we crashed now, I could survive. Wheel touch is imminent. If we crashed now, I would definitely live. Seconds before the brakes screech, if we crashed now, I would be fine. And then we land. Sometimes the passengers clap.