Chapter 1: And So It Begins

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Matt dragged me back to New York University Clinical “C” Center. We took a morning rush hour train from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station. I wanted to walk the remaining six blocks to quell my anxiety.

It was so much colder this day than it had been the previous week when we ventured into the Clinical “C” Center. That day, the breast surgeon over-kneaded my right breast, unable to feel the deep mass the mammogram had promised. Her sonographer pushed and poked a slippery wand deep into my breast while I struggled to remain still and conscious. When the technician asked me to hum, a gray shadow thickened as the drone reverberated off a rib. A biopsy was ordered for the following week. Ever since, I’d been hoping that this was all a big waste of time for a benign lump.

Frigid winds blew down 34th Street. I wrapped my wool coat tighter and adjusted my hat. Matt held my hand, pulling me behind him, as he weaved through the crowds. The red earflaps on the alpaca hat that Sara, the eldest of our three daughters, had knitted for him danced behind his broad shoulders. Sara worked in Manhattan and planned to meet us for lunch. Matt had the address of a bar with an incredible beer list; we thought it would be a good place to go to celebrate the probable good news after the appointment. I hadn’t told Sara the reason for the appointment; I didn’t want to worry her, and besides, after a week of thinking myself into it, I believed the lump to be benign.

My anxiety heightened in the waiting room and then even more so in the next room, where they left me to wait once again after having me don a seersucker robe. Thankfully there was plenty of space to pace.

Finally, the doctors arrived, and I was instructed to lie on a hard table. A pathologist, radiologist, nurse, and technician surrounded me. As soon as the poking for the just-right spot started, I faded from consciousness.

I expected this. My squeamish nature has always allowed me to escape discomfort through fainting. I felt my body lighten and fall limp. I could not see but heard distant voices calling my name, debating if they should stop. I mumbled for them just to finish. I passed out again as the pressure mounted and the needle plunged deep into my breast.

Once I was upright, still wrapped in the shapeless robe, I was escorted to a small lab to chat with the pathologist. He asked for my medical history. It was boring. My history was clear of memorable injuries, illnesses, or surgeries. By my thirty-first birthday I had given birth, without anesthesia, to three healthy baby girls. Presently I struggled with blood pressure and weight issues, but I assured the pathologist that I would seriously work on that.

The pathologist reviewed his decades of experience and expertise in studying this insidious disease. Wow, I thought as he rambled, this ancient scientist must have invented the microscope and staining protocols that initially identified pathological cells. He was giving me way too much of his resumé.

Finally, he came around to the biopsy.

Positive. Absolutely positive.

I was speechless. How could this be?

He rattled on as to the depth of the tumor, the size, the need for surgery, and how he admired the skill and manner of my surgeon, Dr. Axelrod. My eyes welled up with tears. I needed to sit down. He patted my shoulder and said, “I will get your mister.”

Matt walked into the room, arms laden with coats, hats, and my oversized pocketbook. He took one look at me and said, “Oh, Christ, this doesn’t look good.”

The pathologist repeated his résumé, the biopsy findings, and the next steps. Matt held my shoulders, let me bury my tears in his chest. He made the appointment with the surgeon while I got dressed.

I could not wait for the elevator. I darted into the stairwell and raced down the stairs and through the glass doors into the street. It was still cold and crowded; all these people were going about their business, unaware that my life had taken a sharp detour. Matt grabbed my hand as we navigated our way to Penn Station.

“Just get me home,” I said.

The early afternoon train was surprisingly crowded. Wedged between a sleeping stranger and Matt, I called Sara as the train pulled out, struggling to keep my voice steady.

“It will be okay, honey. It is small. Not a big deal. I will call you later.”

“We can fix this,” Matt said for the second time as the train lumbered through the tunnel under the East River. Matt had always seen problems as engineering projects. He identified a need, came up with a well-planned solution, then executed the solution—and it always worked.

We started dating during the last few months of our high school senior year. Matt was the powerful center on the football team, a boy with thick glasses and an innate talent for understanding and tackling almost any obstacle. I needed a smart friend to help me pass the New York State Physics Regents Exam; he needed a prom date. That was the summer of 1975, and we’ve been a couple ever since.

During college summer breaks, Matt earned his tuition and expenses by clamming on the Great South Bay. Every summer he kept grumpy motorboat engines running, even if it meant spitting gasoline into sputtering carburetors. In our twenty-seven years of marriage, he had gutted and rebuilt two homes and pieced together small fleets of cars and boats to fit our needs and desires. Matt could fix almost anything. But did he really think he could fix this?

And “we”—he spoke of “we,” when it was me who had a growing tumor. Me who had to have the surgery and God knew what else. Me who was suddenly being made to face my mortality. I wanted to cry a sea of tears on that unbearably slow train. This was not supposed to happen.

At forty-nine, I had believed that I would skip along into old age with no more than a few bumps and bruises along the way. In 1985, my second baby, Hallie, was due to be born when Hurricane Gloria ravaged Long Island, leaving us without electric power for a week. Even the hospital had to rely on generators. Luckily, Hallie arrived a week overdue, ten pounds of perfect beauty. That same week, Halley’s Comet passed by this hemisphere—but between caring for a hungry infant and her busy two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Sara, and cleaning up from the hurricane’s path, I missed it.

When that happened, I vowed, in my robust state of twenty-eight-year-old health, that I would have a birthday bash at 103 to celebrate a fulfilled life and the return of Halley’s comet. For twenty years I had been inviting everyone that came into my life to that party. The women in my mother’s family were fierce and lived close to their centurion birthdate. I figured the odds that I would make it to that party in decent mental and physical health, to see the comet’s next sweep past Earth, were pretty good.

But today, thoughts of being dependent and possibly facing a shortened life expectancy crowded the train car. I wanted to scream! This could not be happening to me—not now, not ever. I could never be strong enough. I had always believed that God didn’t give us tasks we weren’t strong enough to endure. I had always been the wimp. I cried. I trembled. I became a large blubbery puddle in the face of the slightest medical challenge.

On top of that, this was such rotten timing! The house was for sale. Our empty nest in Remsenburg, a tidy hamlet on the south shore of Long Island, had been stripped of all its homey comforts, the better to entice picky buyers in a housing bubble crisis. Three different realtors’ “For Sale” signs had adorned our front yard for over a year. We had already bought a lot in Sayville, our hometown, twenty-five miles west of Remsenburg, so we could be closer to family and old friends. I was also waiting to be called for an interview to fill a speech therapy vacancy at a school district. Will the call come while I am recovering from surgery, or worse, dealing with treatment side effects? I wondered. Hallie was graduating from SUNY New Paltz in May. Could I postpone any debilitating treatments to see her walk?

I had to call Mom and my sisters. How was I supposed to tell my Hallie and Robyn? I hadn’t even told them about the biopsy because it was not supposed to be positive! I could not keep them in coddled ignorance. And what if I could not work? Could we manage with me on disability? And what about the daily housekeeping? Matt could cook and take care of basic upkeep, but he would find any excuse—work responsibilities, promising fishing reports, and/or boat maintenance—to not have to vacuum or do dishes.

These thoughts and more rambled through my head as I pressed quiet tears into Matt’s coat. The sleeping stranger on my other side stirred and shrugged his head into the window frame. Matt kept squeezing my hand, promising that it would all be okay.

As the train rumbled on, I suddenly realized I would need my husband more in the months to come than I had ever needed anyone. If I had to depend on one thing, I could depend on him to remain steady and calm. He would not be a chest-beating martyr or an emotionally detached ghost. He would be a rock. Each hand squeeze assured me that this was the truth.

Damn it, the biopsy was positive! I have cancer. How am I supposed to do this?

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