I am stunned. Right under my fingers, as big as a wad of bubble gum, only harder, like the cap on the toothpaste tube. I feel it again, and my stomach jumps right up into my chest.
No. Through the apartment, touching the leaves of plants. No. Feed the cats. Open the refrigerator. Close the refrigerator. I can't eat. I can't read, can't watch any more of a television movie about a meteor falling straight into downtown Phoenix, people screaming and glass flying, a foolish movie that leaves me gasping. I am thinking of that thing, buried in my breast, breathing and nesting and eating like a fleshy mouth. I call Dr. Dragonas. "But maybe I'm just being silly," I say. "I'm only 34. I don't even smoke anymore."
I am supposed to cover a school committee for tomorrow's paper, but I just can't do it. I walk through the streets. It has begun to snow, sifting and hissing against the ground. I smell wood smoke, someone's cozy fire. My father loved a fire, in all kinds of weather, but particularly in this kind of cold. Silver-haired, with his arm drawn back, snowball in hand, laughing -- I have a photograph of him like that. His teeth were exactly like mine, very white and perfectly shaped. To share even the same mouth and nose and drooped left eyelid. Martha, my cousin, died of cancer last year at 33. Twelve years ago, I danced with her brother Bill in a little cafe', just before he landed in Vietnam and was killed. I remember dancing close, because neither of us felt like cousins, and laughing, and the lights turning blue with cigarette smoke.
I sit on the edge of the examining table while Dr. Dragonas probes and tests. I would like to rest my head against his shoulder. Pressure against my left breast stirs the ache again, so like a toothache. Dr. Dragonas discovers a second lump up high in my armpit that has been aching for the last few days like a strained muscle.
What is it? What is it? But he will give nothing away except a shot of Metaxa brandy that he keeps for emergencies. He and the nurse with curly blond hair take turns calling hospitals, looking for a bed and an operating room.
"Breast resection," they say into the beige telephones.
Resection. It sounds like refashion, as if they are going to remake my breast. No one says the word "malignant," or "tumor," or "cancer."
"We'll just put you into the hospital for a few days and take a sampling of those tissues to find out what's going on," Dr. Dragonas says. "Don't worry, Dorothea, it's just a biopsy."
Perhaps. I am already crying when I get on the elevator in the parking garage, for the man standing next to me looks at my face and then down at his shoes. Rain has begun, and it is bitterly cold. Gene is in New York, photographing. I call my newspaper to tell them I cannot go to work. I need to talk to someone, so I drive to my mother's house. Up until I was 14, I always thought of it as my father's house. It was my father who defined the boundaries of my life: his pear tree, his two peach trees, his narrow white house with black shutters on a dead-end street in Dorchester, Mass. There was my mother and my older sister Moira and my little brother Billy, of course, but my father was the one. He died in his sleep when I was 14.
I stand in the middle of her living room, still wearing my coat, and my mother stares at me without speaking. Ill with liver disease, her body is swollen and yellow. She is frightened by my tears. The TV blares in the corner because my mother is deaf. I am interrupting her favorite program -- "The Odd Couple." When it ends, Oscar and Felix are still friends, and I am drunk from a highball my brother has given me.
Back at my own apartment I walk from room to room trying to get myself under control. My cats and plants and books are no protection against the circling black cloud. One aunt, three cousins, four uncles -- all of them dead or dying from cancer. But writing the names of the people I love makes me feel better. I sit at my typewriter and make a will, leaving my silver ring and car to Gene, crystal beads to my mother, shell necklace to Gene's mother and an Indian silver bird charm to my friend Eileen, who doesn't own many things.
So there is something worse, after all, than your man turning away from you. Your own body turning away, running away with a crazy new life of its own.
THE AFTERNOON LIGHT is piercing white. Snow color. The wind is like a blow to our faces. Shivering from nervousness and the cold, I kiss Gene's parents goodbye and slide into the car. Goodbye, goodbye.
Gene smiles at me. "Don't cry," he says. "One would think you're going on a long, long trip."
"Well, I am," I answer in surprise, not being clever at all. "Aren't I?"
Blood sample, lung capacity test for the anesthesiologist, electrocardiogram, X-rays. A man in a lab coat pulls the chest X-rays out of an apparatus that looks like a Coke machine. Checking the names written on them, he turns and looks at me in my voluminous hospital wrapper, then down at the X-rays again. Is that mine, I want to ask. Can you tell me if the lumps show? Pale-faced and worried women in bathrobes walk up and down, up and down in the ward. Shuffling and bent, up, then back again. "What are you here for?" several of them call over to me, friendly and nosy at once. "What are you here for?" They are like a Greek chorus. Harpies. "What are you here for? Have you had yours yet?"
Dorothy across the ward is having her hernia examined by her doctor. "Don't you ever wear mittens?" she asks him. "Your hands are so cold."
The nurse shaves the hairs around my breast. "The doctor wouldn't be able to see a thing otherwise," Irene says. "They wear those magnifiers doing a biopsy, you know, and it would look like a forest." She nicks me a few times, shaving off small moles.
"Would you mind if I felt the area?"
She presses firmly, running her fingers into my armpit where the larger lump aches all by itself. "I've felt a lot of breast lumps in my life," she says, "and I don't think you have anything to worry about. Aren't you only 34? Well, then . . . "
The lump is so small I wouldn't have noticed it if Gene hadn't touched me, stroking and kissing in our warm Sunday afternoon bed. A bruise, I thought. A pulled muscle. My period. The next morning my hand found the same soreness and beneath the soreness, the lump.
Irene turns out all the lights. The snow falls against the hospital walls, and around me the women breathe like tired animals. The hospital rocks a little in the wind, groans, a large ship getting under way.
At 7:30 a.m. a nursing attendant rolls white elastic stockings up my legs, squeezing my cold feet gently with her warm hands, then wheels me down the hospital corridor to the operating room. The walls slide by. Gonzo. I am really gonzo on their Demerol, head rocking around. Faces in masks, flowered caps. "Are you Dorothea? . . . Hello, are you Dorothea? . . . Are you Dorothea Lynch?" And then nothing at all, Blackness. I try to lift my eyelids, one eyelid. Nothing moves. I must be dead.
What is this? What is this pain? Ferocious, tearing open my armpit. I can hear their voices. How can I be dead? I try to wiggle my foot, my finger. Then, it's the doctor making the pain, Dragonas saying, "Oh, oh. This doesn't look so good."
When I open my eyes it is nighttime, and Gene is alone by the side of my bed. No results? No results. I try to tell him what I think I heard during the biopsy, but I am too tired.
When I open my eyes Gene is with my mother and some of my friends. My mother is reading aloud from a children's book, and everyone is laughing. I cannot understand any of it. What has happened? But my mother reads on and on.
When I open my eyes again, Dr. Dragonas comes in wearing his overcoat, bringing in the cold night air as he unwraps a red plaid scarf from his neck.
"Well, Dorothea," he says, standing beside my bed, "you do have the disease."
Malignant. I awaken in the morning in a fog of medication with the word malignant on my tongue. I say it aloud, though the nurse who gives me a shot for pain will not talk about the biopsy. Dr. Dragonas arrives to change the surgical dressings and tells me they had to cut my left breast to sample the tumor. The cut on the right breast, a mirror-image biopsy, was done because some breast cancer patients have a tumor in their other breast.
But I don't really understand much of what he is saying. "Three out of four lymph nodes involved . . . a bone scan to survey metastatic sites . . . then we will plan your protocol." I put my hands over my face until the nurses come in to move me downstairs. The day passes in a blur of sleep.
B EFORE DAWN a large man in a navy blue three-piece suit wakes me in a voice so casual and so precise he could be talking about school budgets. Dr. Robert Shirley explains that a modified radical mastectomy means removal of my left breast and the lymph glands under my arm. Or, I might choose to have primary radiation therapy instead -- long needles with radium implants stuck into my breast. "Maybe not the best thing," says Dr. Shirley, "what with the possible radiation spray effects that could generate tumor activity in the other breast."
A radiologist, Dr. Kinsella, visits my room next to tell me about this very same primary radiation therapy. Dr. Kinsella doesn't know what Dr. Shirley, a surgical oncologist, means by a "spraying effect." Not in his experience, he says, has it ever happened. "We would give you 25 external radiation treatments, but we would use radiation shields to protect the rest of the body. The implant is a fairly low dosage and only remains in place for a few days."
I look at the doctors and I think of undertakers, straight and dark and inescapable. "Interstitial implant, morbidity, adjunctive chemotherapy." Listening to them is like trying to decipher the code in my Graham Greene spy stories where finding the answer means saving the hero's life.
"Of course, it's your decision after all," each doctor tells me. "Radiation or surgery. You decide."
I want to find out what a mastectomy looks like so I call the American Cancer Society. The woman on the other end of the telephone tells me that books with pictures of cancer treatments aren't considered suitable for nonmedical people. Volunteers at the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Information Service refuse to discuss primary radiation or any other alternatives to surgery, instead counseling me to have a mastectomy, which is, they say, the "proven method of treatment."
I tell my friends all that's been happening to me and I ask them what they think I should do.
"You should look for books that will help you decide . . . "
"I don't think you should rush into anything. There's a doctor in Texas or California, somewhere out West, who is treating breast cancer patients with vitamins. We would have done that with my mother if there had been time . . ."
"Do you know you don't have to get a mastectomy anymore? What about just having a lumpectomy?"
"If it were me, I would have radiation instead of surgery."
I PORE OVER photographs Gene has made of me: happy family snapshots, 15-year-old prom pictures from the days we first began dating, blue nudes, sunset nudes. "Make a picture of me now," I tell him. If he takes a photograph today, it will show the bloody scars from the biopsy. Until a few days ago, I didn't know what one looked like. And there must be thousands of women who undergo the slice-and-snip-and-examine procedure without knowing the first thing about it.
We women, how in the dark we are about our bodies and what can happen to them. We ask in whispers, in the corner at a party or on the telephone: What does a breast lump feel like? What does cancer look like? Will I be all right?
Gene sits me on one of the mattresses on the bedroom floor. The room is cold. The sun, setting behind the house next door, leaves one bar of light high on the wall. He makes the photograph.
ALL I WANT TO DO is climb into bed with the cats and sleep. I wish someone else would visit doctors, look for books, make the right decision. But Gene is like a mosquito, needling, pushing, telling me to get up, get dressed. He brings me to Dr. Peter Deckers, a surgical oncologist at University Hospital, to get a second opinion. Dr. Deckers is a huge man with ruffled hair and rumpled clothes. He lightly touches my biopsy wound, and then he sits, stooped a little, reading the pathology reports I have brought along. He agrees with the findings sent over from Boston Hospital for Women.
"If you were my wife, I would tell you to have surgery. And yes, I would follow it up with chemotherapy as added insurance."
I decide to go ahead with surgery.
That night I cannot sleep. I am obsessed with when that one different voracious cell in my breast first exploded into life. The books say tumors can grow for years before they are detectable to the touch. So I can't help wondering if it was already in place that night we skinny-dipped at Sunset Lake, or when I covered my first news story, or that summer I spent trying to run more than a mile.
"MAYBE you should make photographs of the whole thing," I tell Gene. "If there aren't any pictures of mastectomies, maybe you should take pictures of mine."
"No," Gene says looking upset. "No, I couldn't. We have no permission to photograph inside the hospital. And a camera would be in the way when I'm with you."
"Come on," I bully him. "You're always criticizing me and our friends for not recording the important events in our lives."
Dr. Shirley, now in charge of my treatment, is surprised when we tell him we want to make photographs, to try and salvage something from this experience. I hold my breath, afraid he will be cynical or abrupt, but he says, "Sure. What you do in this room is your own business." Dr. Shirley, who looks like an aging, pink-cheeked football player, seems pleased with himself. For the first time in weeks, I am happier, feeling more in control.
With his finger, Dr. Shirley demonstrates tomorrow morning's incision. "We will go up to the clavicle and make the incision down to the chest wall. The whole breast peels off rather nicely," he says. An incision in the shape of a smiling mouth. They will clean off the lymph nodes, the chest wall, the arm muscles, and my long, splendid ropes of veins.
AFTER THE radical mastectomy, my first dose of adjunctive chemotherapy is to be on January 2. Happy New Year, Dorothea.
Small glass vials containing the drugs, adriamycin and Cytoxan wait in my cold, dark kitchen pantry -- all $600 worth of them. I have never once thought about the costs of my treatment: $5,000 for my 14 days at Boston Hospital for Women, $1,500 for Dr. Dragonas' biopsy and Dr. Shirley's mastectomy. I have health insurance from my newspaper; I wonder what sick people with no insurance do?
The hospital pharmacist told me adriamycin is expensive because it is a relatively new drug. "Oh, yes, it's poisonous," he said. It is so caustic it must be dripped intravenously into the bloodstream, where it has no chance to collect in one place or burn the skin.
"Of course, I will have chemotherapy." That's what I have said over and over to doctors, nurses, friends. "Of course, of course," as if I am afraid of nothing. Like Dr. Deckers, Dr. Shirley believes adjunctive chemotherapy is added insurance. He says, "Twenty years from now you'll be glad you went through it."
The night before my first treatment, I go with Gene to see "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." It is a bad choice of movies: people losing control of their own bodies; alien plants reproducing cell by cell into duplicate human beings; clinging green tendrils; and everywhere change, change, change.
Dr. Shirley and I go over the chemotherapy procedure for the last time. I will lose all my hair and my menstrual periods may stop. Most people become nauseous, so he prescribes Compazine, and he tells me I might get some marijuana and smoke that as well.
I have been doing some reading on my own, too. My cancer textbook tells me how important it is for the patient to receive the maximum dose of chemotherapy drugs each time. Mathematically, it is all beyond me: tumor-killing cells to the tenth power, to the eighth power, to the sixth power. Each time they dose me, they kill the same percentage of cancer cells that are left circling around in my body, until theoretically my own immune system should kick in to polish off the last of the little killers.
Dr. Shirley ties the rubber noose tightly across my upper arm, trapping the veins. Boom-bam, boom-bam slams my heart, pouring more blood into my veins, swelling them for the needle's sting.
I hate it. Not even surgery with all its risks and complications seems as deadly as pouring these poisons into my veins. My stomach and bowels tighten with dread. When the doctor touches my hand to encourage me to make a fist, my fingers are ice needles.
"Oh, oh, wait," I say, as he begins emptying the syringe. "Oh, what if my heart should fail? Oh, stop. Stop, stop."
"Are you going to be sick?" he asks me.
"No. It's the taste. I can taste the chemical."
They all look at me. Dr. Shirley, Ann the nurse, Margie the aide, and Gene with his camera in his hand, and they wonder what I am talking about. How could I taste the red chemical just beginning to run into my arm? Is my blood already sending a warning to the nerve cells lining the back of my throat, my tongue, all the way to my brain?
I SIT ON MY bathroom floor and lean my head against the cool toilet.
"Poor Dors," Gene says, sitting beside me, wiping my face.
I am angry at being so sick. "Aren't you going to take a picture of this, too?" I snarl at him, as if I were the camera's victim instead of the director.
I throw up every 15 minutes; I can time it by the commercials that run all night long on the television. Five hours. Eight. Gene falls asleep finally, waking periodically to empty the basin and get me glasses of water. After 11 hours the sky is beginning to lighten, and I think the ordeal will have to end pretty soon. After 15 hours Gene calls Dr. Shirley's office, and the nurse tells him it should be over soon.
After 18 hours I stop vomiting. Gene brings me a glass of milk, but I do not dare move, afraid the least motion will set loose the nausea again.
"I don't think I can go through this four more times," I say tearfully to Gene.
"Yes, you will. If I have to carry you there, you will.
Three days later, I am able to get up, shaky and depressed, like someone who is recovering from the flu. There is my dressing to be changed, and I try unsuccessfully to wrap the bandage myself. More of my hair has fallen out, and it is caught in choked little balls that itch my scalp like Brillo pads. I get on the bathroom scale. "Six pounds," I say to Gene. "I've lost six pounds. At least there's one good thing about all this."
IN MAY I TAKE OFF my wig once and for all and throw it in the trash; an act of faith. My own hair is still just a soft bristle, and when I return to my job on the Patriot Ledger people smile at me and sometimes even run their palms over the top of my head.
My first assignment is to cover the Holbrook High School graduation ceremonies. Bright beautiful day, graduates in flapping robes with cameras, hundreds of happy faces. But, over to one side, there is a group of townies who have caught sight of me. They whisper, laugh, then point. Other people turn to see the source of the joke.
"Hare, Hare Krishna. Hare, Hare Rama," they begin to sing the words at me, as if, by virtue of my haircut, I were a member of the Hare Krishna sect. They are seeing something out of the ordinary and they are eager for a little blood.
I feel the wind in my hair -- "Hare, Hare Krishna" -- and I am embarrassed and finally angry, angry the way I was last week at Carson Beach when an elderly couple turned and stared at me, and a woman who could have been my grandmother muttered, "bull dyke," as I walked past her.
The boys watch as I approach, their smiles shrinking, hands jammed into pockets. They shift from one foot to another.
"Do you know why I look like this?" I say to their smug 16-year-old faces. "I have cancer, and I had to have treatments that made my hair fall out. How do you think that makes me feel? I hope no one in your family ever gets cancer and is treated the way you are treating me today."
The boys put their heads down, red in the face, and move back silently.
The bronze plaques and framed certificates on the white walls are honors from the Harvard Medical School. The photographs are of politicians. Before ushering us to an inner office, a receptionist makes it clear that we are intruding on a busy schedule and an important life.
"What do you expect to do with all your writing?" asks the eminent oncologist. "Of course, it's probably a good way to exorcise some of your feelings."
"No, I'm a journalist," I answer, trying to sound confident but feeling as if I were reciting for a grade school teacher. "Gene and I want to research how it is for others who live with cancer."
I pray that the doctor will look over the excerpts from my cancer diary and Gene's photographs and say to us, "Who could refuse you?" Instead, he acts as if a gun is being pointed at him. Without moving out from behind the desk, he turns down our request to work with his cancer patients.
For months now we have been battering against the doors of officialdom, writing letters, meeting with hospital administrators, board members, lawyers, public relations people and more than two dozen doctors. What could be more natural, I had thought, than a cancer patient wanting to write about other cancer patients?
An oncologist and board member at Boston Hospital for Women is horrified at the idea of our making "intimate" photographs of his patients. In a letter he circulates to fellow physicians, he claims that Gene had asked to photograph a woman having a vaginal implant as treatment for her cancer. He calls Gene a pornographer. When we ask my old gynecologist for help he sees "no need to rock the boat."
Other doctors beg previous commitments or offer to act as their patients' mouthpieces rather than let us meet with them in person. We are told that even if patients agree to work with us, our writing and photography will still compromise their "right to privacy." It is cited again and again as the reason for keeping us out until I cry in frustration. Jesus, it's not a secret illness. One out of three Americans will get cancer. I cannot understand the mistrust, this opposition to us.
In desperation, we contact Dr. Peter Deckers at University Hospital. Dr. Deckers, who had advised me last November on my own cancer, listens to us, really listens. After taking a deep breath, he exclaims, "Why not?" His thunderous voice booms even louder, "Why the hell not? Maybe we will all learn something."
I TURN IN the humid night, winding the bedclothes around myself. Awakened in the darkness, my mother rousing me in the winter morning, "Dress quickly, hurry, let's hurry."
"Where are we going, Mummy?"
"Don't you remember? You're going to the hospital so the doctor can make your tonsils better."
I lie still, swallow hard, trying to clear my head of sleep and dreams. Gene has to pull me to my feet. "The alarm's gone off. It's 4:30."
Dawn is just a golden streak in the sky when we park our car outside University Hospital. The guard at the front desk checks the identity cards pinned to our coats. The photos show us smiling, aware of our new, officially recognized status. We have been approved to work with patients after all these long, long months. "Made it," we say to each other as we head for the elevators to C-5. C building, fifth floor. C for Cancer. A rustle of sheets, a moan running down into a snore, one wet cough that goes on and on. At 5:30 in the morning the cancer ward is a no man's land. The corridor is dim, lined with dark rectangles that are the doors to patients' rooms. Out of the rooms drift the odors of antiseptic, urine, alcohol, the perspiration and breath of a dozen sick people.
We tiptoe along the hall. Gene carries his camera over his shoulder, and I clutch a new notebook as if it were a permission slip. Dr. Deckers, bless him, has arranged for us to go on rounds. Waiting is his amiable chief resident, Dr. Bill Kelley, and a handful of interns and students who look us over warily. At 5:45 we begin.
There are two purposes for making rounds, I've been told. One is to check on the condition of patients, the other is for medical students to see and discuss real-life cases. The group files into Mr. Nichols' room. Fearful of saying or doing something inappropriate, Gene and I hang back in the doorway. I look at Mr. Nichols, a middle-aged man who has a virulent form of blood cancer. I think of Gene's photo of me after surgery with a terrified face and watery eyes, and I feel helpless. Bill Kelley checks the chart and asks Mr. Nichols if he is in any pain. Then he waves Gene and me forward near the side of the bed.
Mr. Nichols holds out his hand for me to clasp. The exhausted, gray face breaks into a smile. "A story about us would be a wonderful thing," he says. "But we must hurry if I'm to be involved. I'm leaving in a few days to get married."
At this news the medical students and interns crowd closer, whooping out loud and shaking hands with Mr. Nichols and with each other. Everyone is laughing, telling marriage jokes. The good spirit is contagious. Two interns introduce themselves and promise to assist us in understanding other patients' cancer. A medical student puts his arm around my shoulder and welcomes me aboard.
IT IS VERY HOT. My surgical dress has short sleeves but they bind. The dress itself is too short; the material strains at my waist. We put on throwaway shoe covers and ugly flowered paper caps, so silly on top of the men's heads that patients stare and make nervous jokes about them.
And finally the mask. Now we know it is for real. Today we are going beyond the silver door -- so like the door to a meat locker -- into the operating room. At first we were told the patient would be Mrs. Boles. But after granting Gene and me permission to attend Clistee Boles's surgery, Dr. Feller had second thoughts. His once friendly face closed to our questions and excitement. The operation on Mrs. Boles, a nurse tells us, will be Dr. Feller's first as a member of the permanent oncology department, so only staff will be in attendance. This operation, the one we will be witnessing, will be on Mrs. Burke.
The mask is confining and throws nervous-smelling breath back in my face. I wonder if our breath and the patient's breath have the same taint of fear? Mrs. Burke has already been taken inside Operating Room 1. If I look through the little square of glass on the door, I can see the anesthesiologist already at work. Gene follows the OR nurse into the room, a camera over each shoulder and one around his neck. Dr. Kelley is finished scrubbing up at the sink. It cannot be put off any longer. There is nothing left to do but follow them in. I check my pocket for the ampul of ammonia I have brought along to counter my tendency to faint.
The heart monitor is beeping. Mrs. Burke's face is covered with a black mask that pours oxygen and anesthetic into her lungs. Her chest rises up and down, and her breathing is so deep. almost a snore.
There are five ORs in a row, like mechanics' bays but without the grease. Even though it is small, our operating room is hard to take in all at once. Clean green and white tile, the glare of huge overhead lights, monitors, a mess of wires, plastic tubes, beakers, stainless-steel tables. What they call the heart of the hospital is such an undersized, utilitarian place. I had hoped for a glass wall to stand behind, a stool out of the way to sit on, but there is nothing except the skinny edges of this 12-foot-square room to hug with my shoulder blades. I'm back as far as I can get.
Suddenly, Mrs. Burke is naked. I forget to look at her breast even though I know she, too, has had a mastectomy. Her pubic area and her white belly where they will do the cutting are exposed. Her skin is relaxed.
Deckers is late. They are all waiting for him -- nurses, Dr. Kelley, students, the anesthesiologist. Finally, he strides in, huge, mumbling behind his mask. His wet arms are stretched before him like the lead actor in a thousand Hollywood hospital dramas. The scene is so corny I almost lose my nervousness.
"I have four medical students. Why do they give them to me?" he asks loudly in mock anger. "Four medical students! That's like getting four hemorrhoids. No one gets four hemorrhoids at once." Everyone laughs, even the medical students. Even Gene.
Dr. Deckers twirls and twists into a sterile paper coat and pushes his hands into thin rubber gloves. One after another, the doctors spin into their work clothes in a kind of ritual dance and move to the table.
At noon, on a sweep through the ward, Dr. Deckers stops by to make sure we're aware that the operation of another patient, Mrs. Gavone, has gone as planned. He describes the surgery so confidently that one might imagine he had cut her toenails, not her stomach. Then, all work and wild energy, he moves on, students in tow, while Gene and I sit.
Two hours pass. In front of me in the recovery room the patients, bristling with tubes, float on their beds like pigeons on the ocean, displaced. Hearing them wheeze for air, I think of the wind in the trees, then of a black night in Maine, in Manomet, when I was 10 years old. There wasn't a moon or stars or a light on the road. My sister Moira and I lay down on our backs in the suffocating darkness, as if we were buried alive in the sky.
I catch my lower lip with my teeth to keep back the tears, and Gene mistakes my grimace for boredom. "Both Mrs. Gavone's mother and father died of cancer," he whispers in my ear. "Her father after being cared for at home; her mother the day after she first went to a doctor. The woman had concealed her symptoms and her pain for close to two years, not wanting to be another burden to the family."
When Anna Gavone's eyes open, Gene is standing by her bed. Through the thickness of the drugs she somehow recognizes him. Dizzy and nauseous though she must be, she raises her hand and forms her thumb and forefinger into the letter "O" for okay, so that he won't worry, so we can share her coming back.
"Oh, I'm to be a star," says Mrs. Gavone, pulling open her hospital gown, so that the doctors and her daughter Susan and her granddaughter Kimberly can see the incision. Kimberly, who had begged to stay during the examination, looks down at the fleshy wound and begins to breathe like she might swallow up all the air in the room. But she doesn't back away, and in a minute her panic fades. When the doctors say goodbye, Mrs. Gavone, with Kimberly beside her on the bed, talks of what brought her to C-5.
"It was 20 years ago that I began to have terrific pains and to pass blood. My family doctor couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, so he sent me to the hospital. There the doctors found a lump. A surgeon said it was a growth in the bowel. My father died of cancer of the bowel. So I went through 4 1/2 hours of surgery, after which the doctors said, 'No, not cancer. We got everything.'
"Even my family physician assured me it wasn't cancer. What I didn't know, what I couldn't know, was that my husband had told the doctors I was the kind of woman who couldn't handle bad news -- so they didn't tell me.
"What I was, was a dull housewife who lived in a small world -- overweight, diabetic, on weight-loss medication. My husband, though, was a very social man who loved partying and his career. He was away for months on end running summer camps for a living. He didn't want me to go outside the home to work, so I didn't. I was his wife, raising his children, running his home. And he didn't tell me.
"He should have told me. Knowing would have changed the way I lived. I would have lost weight. I'm down now from 304 pounds. I would have gotten more exams. He should have told me, at least after we were divorced. No, it probably wouldn't have kept the cancer from reoccurring, I don't think, but I would have been alerted."
Mrs. Gavone turns on her side in the bed, her face reddening. She is silent for a few minutes. "God, people have to be careful. When I told my doctor a few months ago I was hemorrhaging, he told me not to worry. Since I had no pain, it must be my age. I was bleeding like I was in diapers, but again and again when I called he said, 'Don't worry! You're in the change. Age 55.' When my daughter Susan found out about the bleeding, she pushed me to see my old surgeon, who gave me a D and C. Still, I went seeking the advice of a specialist. And Deckers told me it was cancer, a liver tumor. I learned also what had been written on my old medical records. 'Do not reveal cancer to patient.' "
I sit here crying and crying, unable to pull myself together. My eyes are swollen, and my mouth stings with salt. The second shoe has finally dropped. I found a swelling yesterday, a lump on the same side where I had my mastectomy. An aspiration into two lymph glands shows malignant cells.
MY HANDWRITING isn't mine. I look at the black characters as they move slowly across the page and I can see the writing is not mine. It's terrifying. I am a character in one of Le Carre's spy novels, or a drug addict, or a schizophrenic who lives in a dozen worlds. But, of course, I am none of these things. What is happening is that the doctors are stealing my brain, bit by bit, and I am cooperating with them.
My handwriting isn't mine. I am 38, again a cancer patient. Four months ago in December of 1981, the cancer returned in my lymph nodes. They irradiated me, but in April it was back again followed by headaches and weakness on one side of my body. Diagnosis: brain tumors, which had to be treated before attacking the lymph nodes with chemotherapy.
So they slapped me down, got a CT scan to find the metastases, and zap -- 60 seconds on one side with the linear accelerator, 60 seconds on the other. And, of course, I am taking something called dexamethasone, which is a steroid.
But they make it sound so easy! Sure, you'll lose your hair like you did before with chemotherapy, but it is only 10 radiation treatments to the head. It couldn't be simpler.
One of the best radiologists in the country, I am told, Dr. William Bloomer, is the man monitoring my case. He's brilliant, they say. I'm sure it is so. But no one at the outpatient clinic tells me that radiation burns. My tongue, nose, throat and lungs feel that they have been scraped and salted. Sometimes in the car, I hold my mouth open out the window, letting the air cool the burn.
No one tells me the steroids will make me a space cadet, wheeling around like a pinwheel, unable to pull a word from my head, to think a coherent throught. When I talk to my friends, I sound like a 12-year-old, not able to say anything of consequence, yet they look at me as they always have.
BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ. I am the fly. The noise can't be stopped unless it is I who am stopped. Buzz, buzz. Between the little tumors in my head, the rest of my body and the outside world, there is a barrier of chemicals. I am a fly in a bubble.
Last night I woke up many times and thought of the garden I planted out back. I pictured it growing, filaments reaching, tendrils, hairy protuberances cracking through the soil. I lay awake in bed pulling up weeds, pulling them out like I pull out my own hair -- rake and stir; lift it free. All night the windows glowed as if dawn were on the way, but it was 10 o'clock, then 2 o'clock, then 3 o'clock.
I thought of the garden getting stronger, but it was not a benevolent image. The garden was breathing on its own.
Dr. Bloomer wishes me a quiet "good luck." He will not commit himself to cures, merely improvements, but I don't expect anything else from him. Still, he is less cold than he has been. We even talk about new wigs for my bald head.
MYSTERY, what a mystery this life is. The plants are filling out. The garden out back of our house sprouts one-half-inch here, an inch there, and I am changing, too; cancer plods on from node to node, remarkable and not remarkable at all, like summer itself. Just another growing season after all. Is this resignation? I hope not. I do not intend to give up without a struggle, but more and more I see myself as a thread in a huge and royal tapestry -- important to the central design but having an end, a place, a physical destination.
I think of the young daughter in Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali," spinning, whirling in the rain, her hair flying out like a flag the night she died. No one is special, are they, when all is said and done? And, of course, each of us is very special, very singular, carrying weight. I matter. I would like to open the window tonight and yell that outside. I matter. Or go down and lie next to the plants and whisper it.
October 7, 1985
For almost two years I have been sleeping half on the floor or against the wall, not wanting to move Dorothea's notebooks and diaries off my bed. On hot, humid nights, pages, loose from their binding, stick to my back and my shoulders; in winter, when I try to turn over, they crackle like dried leaves. Still, I can't move them. Almost everything else that belonged to her -- clothes, car, jewelry -- has been donated to charity, sold or carried off by friends.
Here it is, a hopeful October morning. I drink coffee and catch the news on TV. At 10 o'clock, I telephone the office, but there are no messages, no assignments, no urgent need for me to do anything. I wander back up to the bedroom and close the door. What's outside blurs, recedes, and I am alone again with Dorothea.
I flip through the big, red diary and the ledger book in which she wrote her dreams. Time swings back and forth -- 1975, 1983, 1979. Dorothea has thick, tangled brown hair; a cap of prematurely gray hair; the babyish fuzz that grew in after her first chemotherapy treatments. Lying on the bed, closing my eyes, I begin seeing places and reliving experiences at the same time. I see Dorothea kneeling in the garden laughing, pinching a tiny, ripe tomato from its stalk; and the dark, rainy streets outside Mt. Sinai Hospital. I see the old cemetery at Adams Lake and the room in which Dorothea died.