From the Archives
(March 2005) I’ve scribbled lyrics and guitar chords into a fat blue spiral-bound notebook for years—had the thing back when I lived with my parents and was running away all the time, so at least since I was 13. (That would be the early seventies.)
If I’d transcribed all my music into the notebook, then I would have filled it up long ago, but most of the songs in here are ones I tried to figure out on my own or ones I wrote down after somebody played them but couldn't provide a photocopy of the piece.
Anyway, I’m in my forties now and, damn it, can’t read these chords anymore!
My sad reality is that I just can’t tell if I’m looking at a G or a C or an F or an E anymore ... and I DO NOT want to get bifocals, goddurnit!
(Hmmm, maybe I can get contacts for near-sightedness instead and just put on reading glasses when I need them; yeah, then I can pretend I’m not really getting old....)
And while we’re on that topic, I had my second mammogram a few weeks ago and received the dreaded letter saying that my films revealed tissue overlap and multiple new lesions bilaterally since my 2003 mammogram. Didn’t know exactly what this meant, but knew it didn’t sound good, so I scheduled a more-extensive mammogram screening and an ultrasound pronto and waited, trying not to fret.
Me and breast cancer go back a ways. Two of my friends were diagnosed with it five years ago and within a week of each other. Louisville is one of my dearest friends—someone who refers to me as her daughter. When her partner called to tell me the bad news, I got in my car immediately, lied to a nurse and said I was Louisville’s birth daughter, and was sleeping in a chair in her room when she woke up from her mastectomy.
Louisville was my academic advisor and she became my friend and mentor. My eighteen-year-old angry self showed up in her office with a chip on my shoulder and a burning desire to go to college despite my being a runaway with no savings whatsoever who knew I had no choice but to work full-time while attending classes.
I didn’t know how to manage it but knew I wanted to (the answer: lots of good advice, determination, and student loans).
I had mostly lived on my own for three years by then and worked full-time for minimum wage in a hospital kitchen (which meant I’d never starve, an important criterion when you make minimum wage).
The tough little me who managed to finish high school with honors while scraping together enough money to (mostly) not return home knew how to survive, but I lacked self-confidence and believed I had no right to actually be in college. And each time I ran out of money and had to crawl back to my parents leeched away even more confidence, especially if my father was violent or my mother was paranoid and delusional.
Louisville swears that she could barely hear me speak back then—a fact few people who know me now would even believe.
In addition to giving me good advice and encouragement, inviting me over for home-cooked meals, convincing me to stay in school when I was so exhausted that I was on the verge of giving up and, eventually, convincing me to continue my studies at the graduate level, Louisville lined up odd jobs for me.
You don’t even want to know how many faculty members’ houses I painted in the seven years it took me to earn my undergraduate degree!
I insisted that Louisville come here for treatment so I could take care of her and she agreed. And so began her year of surgeries and chemo and hair loss and radiation and leg pains and bad wigs and floppy bra inserts and hope and fear and grace.
I did freelance work, which allowed me to go to nearly all of her treatments with her.
It was a trying year, but she came out on the other side of it and has nearly completed her reconstructive surgeries at this point. She returns every three months for scans now, but no recurrences, thank goodness.
Lizbeth completed treatment about the same time as Louisville and also seemed to be doing well. Her hair grew back in and she went back to teaching a full load. Then, while traveling to a conference, she collapsed on the Louis Armstrong airport tarmac and died. The cancer had returned and spread very rapidly, killing her before she (I hope) even knew that she was sick again.
Then, in 2003, my seemingly healthy, exceedingly wise fifty-eight-year-old, vegetarian, new-age crystal-squeezing mother-out-law who moved through the world with such vibrancy—getting dropped by helicopter into the Canadian borderlands for two-week canoeing expeditions or taking off to Peru to explore sacred ruins—was diagnosed with inoperable, late-stage breast cancer.
Doctors were doubtful that she would even emerge from the coma that first brought her to the hospital, shocking us all, and we listened to this news soberly, hoping against hope that she would at least regain consciousness.
She did and we took her home in a wheelchair, grateful for any amount of time left with her.
Mud and I and our extended family walked around in shock after that, driving back and forth to the hospital as each new crisis threatened her life and doing whatever we could to care for her body and soul as her body slowly ceased functioning.
I’d known Mud’s mother for ten years at that point and loved her dearly. She felt like the mother I never really had and her numerous kindnesses, over the years, softened many of my hard edges.
My massage and craniosacral-therapy sessions with her, especially—although emotionally difficult—made me realize just how much pain and violent memories I kept stored in my body. These sessions helped me locate and eventually heal from a lot of that pain and we talked at a deep level about life and healing and death.
She was not afraid of death but was also not ready to let go of it when she died this past April.
The local dyke chorus had been planning a large-scale breast-cancer fund-raiser for over two years at that point and I got on board with the planning. Rehearsing and performing Diane Benjamin’s heart-wrenching but beautiful oratorio “Where I Live” was hard, but so important to me.
I do not like to be in the spotlight, but was determined to say Louisville’s and LizBeth’s and Mud’s mother’s name aloud during the memorial piece. And did.
And yes, I will finally wind my narrative back around to my own mammography tests.
So. The day of my tests finally arrived and I made my way to the cancer building, followed the nurse into a waiting room with changing rooms along one wall, took off my clothes, put them in a plastic bag, donned a scratchy hospital gown, and sat in the waiting room with all the other women who had either received similar letters recently or who were already in treatment for breast cancer. A steady stream of women continued to enter the waiting room, then step out of the changing rooms transformed by thin cotton into patients whose life was suddenly brought into sharp focus by fear of the dreadful C word. There were at least three such waiting rooms in our wing and they were all busy.
Nurses called us to the testing area one by one and we endured our second-tier mammograms.
Now the first-tier mammograms really aren’t all that painful if you plan them around your period—a friend recently referred to the pressure of the plates as kind of pleasant, actually, and said that she likes the attention—but the second-tier tests hurt so much that they take your breath away.
The technician screws small plates onto the questionable areas so tightly that, if you didn’t hurt so much, you’d laugh when she says “now don’t breathe.” The tests are over with quickly though, and then you return to the waiting room and wait and wait and wait.
Some of my second-tier results were also inconclusive, so I waited for an ultrasound as, every 15 minutes or so, a nurse stepped into the room and said “Ms. X, the doctor is ready to go over your results with you now”—which made us all look up at Ms. X, whose hands fluttered as she dropped the magazine she was pretending to read down onto the table and we glanced back down at the magazines that we were pretending to read.
The ultrasound confirmed that I’m just walking around with a bunch of fluid-filled cysts—probably from all that Turkish coffee I drank like water during grad school.
This was my second cancer scare since November though and I felt like doing something drastic—kissing the sky or something. I usually just go to the beach at such moments though.