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November 01, 2008

Looking Back

[This one was published in last month's O Magazine and is reprinted here for the Young Survivors I met last week at the Gilda's Club event.]

It’s clear to you immediately that you can have anything you want when you have cancer.

Your doctor called at 1pm and since that moment, your husband has met your every need, even anticipating needs (proving that he had been capable of such all along).

Word spreads and your doorstep shows it -- a cheery bunch of Gerber daisies, a little tin of peanut butter cookies, a calla lily. The phone calls are endless. You think to yourself that your diagnosis is probably generating as much curiosity and awkwardness as winning the lottery would.

Everyone treats you like you are a saint, an elderly disabled saint.

Except two people who still want you to find their bunny -- not that one! -- and fill their sippy cups and read them a book. They never say please and they always interrupt and they lean into you even when you are so hot already. And their ignorant self-centeredness is proof that you are still managing to put your children first even when you are in the crisis of your life.

Claire comes towards you with her bulging diaper and her hair is stuck to her forehead with the musty sweat that builds up during her morning nap. She knocks over your tall pilsner glass of iced peppermint tea, the one that Edward made for you in a moment as romantic as the one in which he proposed. Claire doesn’t say she’s sorry, she just cries because her t-shirt is wet on the bottom part and she loves her Elmo and Rosita t-shirt. Georgia also cries, because the tea went onto her paper where she is scribbling. She is so close to three. Her party is in five days. You’ve been talking about it for months -- when you push her in the swing, when you put her to bed, when you cut up her apple.

“Guess what’s happening in two weeks from today?” you say.

Then, between calls to medical centers, long sessions on breastcancer.org, and emails to work colleagues, Edward says, “We’re not gonna do the party, right? It’s too much.” But you say “No! She has to have it!” because you are feeling dramatic and magnanimous and like you can’t possibly let cancer have it’s way with your daughter’s first real birthday party. He says, “She’ll never even remember it.”

“I will,” you say.

On Wednesday, you swing into the Mammography center to pick up your films to take them over to the national expert you will wait three hours to see, making lists and pretending to sleep and reading old People magazines about Jen and Brad and that Angelina Jolie. On the way home, even though you’ve just been told you will do chemo for 5 months and then probably have a mastectomy after that, even though it’s dinnertime, you pass Michael’s craft store and you tell Edward to pull in -- “real quick” -- so you can get some decorations and order the helium balloons and he looks at you like you’ve just cut your own hair with a kitchen knife.

But then you’re in there, at Michael's, and it’s so exciting to be in line with the other people whose great concerns are finding three matching green photo mats and some extra wide gross grain ribbon for their fall door wreath. You’re up and the tired cashier says, “How are you tonight?” and you say, “Good!” and it’s the biggest lie you ever told as well as the God’s honest truth and you don’t really know what you’re doing but someone’s gonna have a great birthday on Saturday and it’ll all be because of you and you aren’t irrelevant yet, even if you are defective and are messing everything up for your family.

You are perky coming out of the store, even holding the door for the woman behind you, who is having a bad day, you can tell. Edward is slumped over the steering wheel like he’s been shot from behind, which he kinda has. He sits up when he feels you coming towards the car. He is “fine, just tired.”

Your kids are asleep when you get home and Sophie, the babysitter who breaks out every time she has a pop quiz, looks at you tragically but you divert her by saying, “Look! Look at these great party hats -- they go with the plates -- see?” You sound like Mrs. Dalloway. Edward hands Sophie a wad of twenties and says, “Thanks Soph.”

You unpack your shopping bag from Michael’s and show Edward the candy decorations for the cake you haven’t made but will and he says “Good” and you can’t bear to ask him how he is again because it might come out this time for real and so you just turn on the stereo and as he heads to the answering machine, you say, “Let’s do that tomorrow” because the machine says 14 people called and every one of them wants to tell you that you are in their prayers and that God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but Edward is responsible and level-headed and says, “It could be about your bone scan.” You realize you forgot something in the car, maybe, so you say “OK, I gotta go get something in the trunk anyway” and when you come back he says, “The scan is on Friday. I’ll call Sophie.”

The party is scheduled for Saturday afternoon and when you send out the email about it -- yes, it’s happening, please no cancer talk -- you realize you will have to have a conversation with your children before all these people come over. You google talking to children about cancer and you start to worry that some kid will say “My grandma died of cancer” and then you realize your daughters don’t know what death is. Because why should they?

Then you find this line: “Cancer is like weeds in a garden.” That’s really good. You think you should send a thank you card to the person who came up with that phrase. See how important words are, you think.

The bone scan makes you cry. “Stay still please,” says the technician, who has an Irish accent and looks like a guy who loves his pub. It’s so big, the machine, it’s so Willy Wonka/Mike TV and you can tell it is extremely expensive and you know very little but still enough to know that if they find it in your bones, you’ll probably die before you turn 40. And that’s why you cry and that’s why the technician asks you again to “stay very still” but when he comes to your side to help you up off the table, he has tears in his eyes and you know that he does this every day so why would he cry?

Friday is a two-Ambien night. Sleep is deep and black and divine.

Saturday! The party. Georgia is at your feet in no time. “Mommy! I’m three! I’m three years old!”

“You are, do you feel any different?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I don’t feel anything. Everything feels exactly the same.” She looks concerned, like maybe if she can’t feel it, it didn’t happen.

“Well, even if you can’t feel it, it’s real,” you say, newly expert in the matter.

Edward comes in and lifts Georgia up and she is so happy and the party will be great.

Everyone will come with a bigger gift that they had planned -- at the last minute they will tape something extra on the top; a recorder, a pony tail holder, a My Pretty Pony. Claire will also get a pile of gifts. In an hour, Georgia will blow out her candles and there will be wrapping paper everywhere and the goodie bags that compliment the paper plates will be torn through and it’ll all be on film and towards the end, after about half the people have left and the afternoon is drifting towards five o clock, you will open a bottle of chardonnay and the remaining mothers will gather around and fill little polka dot paper cups and you will all stand in the sun and look at each other and your children and shake your heads and make that little sound you do when you don’t know what else to say, the little sound that says didn’t see this coming and you will lean into one of them and feel that tiny contraction in your throat that means you’re going to cry and you will decide to let it come, it’s really okay now, because Georgia is running in circles on the back deck with her new butterfly wings on and a hot pink helium balloon tied to each wrist and needs absolutely not one more thing from you.

For now.