That day,the day before I was supposed to get the results of my biopsy, I was called into a meeting on the 21st floor to present TV commercials to the new head client on our biggest account. Dave wore a suit and cowboy boots with extremely pointy toes. All the men were wearing suits. I was wearing a black turtleneck, black tights and a pink wool miniskirt with large mod buttons. This was 11 years ago.
There was a general fear that Dave would take the account to another agency, and that fear was concentrated in the conference room. The executive creative director, a nice-ish guy I didn't know named Ira, introduced me. At that moment, the anxiety I had about the biopsy and the anxiety in the room joined
forces. My mind became as unquiet as a mind can be; my mind was a subway platform at rush hour.
I stood. If you were listening for it, you would have heard my voice waver; if you were looking, you would have seen my hands shake.
I don't know what Dave heard or saw. Gradually, as I read the scripts and described the story boards, this client I was supposed to impress and befriend turned first his legs and then his arms and finally his face away; even before I'd finished, his back was to me, and all eyes were on him. I took this as a sign that I had cancer. I had cancer, and Dave sensed it, and everyone in the meeting sensed it, too. When Ira mouthed, "Sorry," what I read on his lips was, Sorry you have cancer.
I can't explain how it happened -- maybe the anxiety wore itself out -- but a few hours later, I became calm. Out of nowhere, my mind, for weeks too agitated even to think in words, said, A biopsy is just a test. It came to me as a revelation, and that's how I said it to my older brother that night over turkey burgers at the Chelsea Square diner.
Andy nodded, Uh-huh, or even, Duh. He seemed a little irritated, which in itself was heartening. "I can't believe I was so worried," I said. "I can't believe I made myself so crazy. You know the chances of me getting breast cancer?"
He didn't, and neither did I. "Really, really small," I said.
Then I told him about the meeting with Dave. I said, "It took everything I had not to cry."
"Yeah," he said. "You don't want to cry."
I rode my bicycle to work the next morning, as I did every morning. I rode because it was fast and I was always late and because it might be the only exercise and fresh air I'd get. I rode because it gave me a feeling of control and freedom that is hard to come by in adult life, and especially in New York.
At work, everyone came up with theories about Dave and called him names and told stories of their own humiliations. I was feeling better until I got a voice mail from Ira saying I'd done "fine," a word seldom heard in advertising: Presentations were "incredible" or "amazing"; barely adequate products were "simply the best." Fine -- that's what I was worrying about when the surgeon called with the bad news.
My friend Michael and my brother and I met with the surgeon in a small examining room at New York Hospital. Michael sort of leaned against a sink. Andy and I sat up on the papered table, our legs dangling.
Dr. Yurt stood. He had silver hair and wore silver-rimmed glasses. He gave the impression of being very clean, as well as smart and kind, all of which reminded me of my father, a doctor himself, who'd died of leukemia a few years earlier.
Over the phone Dr. Yurt had said only, ". . . abnormal cells . . ." Now, when he said the words breast cancer, my brother gripped my shoulder -- involuntarily, I think.
Dr. Yurt said that he'd know more once we got the full report from the pathology lab, and after he performed the lymph node dissection, though he added that I'd probably have chemotherapy no matter what. "Because you're so young," he said.
In the weeks that followed, I'd hear a half-dozen doctors say what Dr. Yurt said now, and each time I'd fill in the rest: Because you're so young and full of life. Because you're so young and able to withstand the ordeal. Because you're so young and have so much to live for. Finally, I'd ask one of the doctors, "Because I'm so young and . . .?" and would be told: "Breast cancer is more aggressive in younger women." The younger the woman, the worse the prognosis.
Outside the hospital, my brother unlocked my bicycle and walked it for me. I said how much I liked Dr. Yurt. "He reminds me of Dad."
Andy said, "What, besides the white coat?"
"Just the coat," I said.
We didn't speak again until we'd crossed York Avenue. Out of habit, I glanced at the jewelry on a vendor's table, and Michael said, "I'm happy to see that cancer hasn't impaired your retail impulses."
We kept walking west. We hadn't agreed on a particular destination, but everywhere in Manhattan is west of New York Hospital.
Andy said, "What do you want to do now?" Then he added, "We can do anything you want," words he'd never said to me before.
I was about to say my standard, "What do you guys want to do?" Instead, I said that I wanted to go rowing on the boat pond in Central Park.
Andy said, "When I said we could do anything, I didn't mean anything."
We walked all the way to Central Park to find the office to rent rowboats closed for the season.
"My luck," I said.
That afternoon, every joke -- ". . . your retail impulses . . ."; ". . . I didn't mean anything"; "My luck" -- was funnier than it would've been because of the distance it had to travel from despair.
We three deadpans sat on the steps of the plaza overlooking the pond. It was November, and there weren't many leaves left on the trees. The sun was pale and fading. When it got cold, Andy said that he'd ride my bike home, and Michael said, no, he'd ride it. I said, "I'm going to ride it." But they wouldn't let me. They said I was distracted and would get in an accident.
That night, six or seven of my friends came over for dinner, though I think we drank it. I remember a lot of high-quality joking, and then, during a pause in conversation, Rachel, a distant cousin who'd become a close friend, announced, "You're going to have a lot of sexual issues to deal with."
Maybe a second passed before my friend Carol jumped in and said, "I'd like to discuss my sexual issues first, if no one minds."
Later, Michael said, "I don't know about your cousin."
What I loved about Rachel was that she was basically an 8-year-old. She had a bumpy nose and freckles and sometimes wore her red hair in braids. That summer, riding bikes at the beach, we'd made up an opera based on the name of her Polish work friend, Asha Vishititsky.
As it turned out, though, Rachel also had a gift for saying or doing the wrong thing -- not absolutely wrong in the high court of judgment but inadvertently hurtful or simply off. After surgery, when I was in horrible pain, Rachel looked around my hospital room and said, "This isn't as bad as I thought it would be." After I finished radiation, she would send me a brochure for a seminar on dying.
My brother called my mother and sister and everyone else who deserved to know -- everyone but Will. Will and I had been breaking up for months or even years; once, after we'd gotten back together, Andy had said, "He's like a booger you can't get off your finger."
Michael told Will, and he came right over. I repeated what the doctors had told me and what I'd read in Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. The numbers weren't bad -- I think I had a 60 percent chance of living for another five years -- but I'd lost whatever faith I'd had in statistics: At 33, I had roughly a 1 in 4,000 chance of getting breast cancer.
Whatever the numbers, it seemed like I was going to die soon. When I told Will that I was sorry I would never have children, he said, "Let's make one right now."
During chemotherapy, when I'd feel really sick and daunted, I'd ask Rachel to tell me about the year she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo. I liked hearing about the boy who appointed himself her protector after the chair in her hut had been stolen.
My friend Garth took me to the dog show.
Carol scratched my back.
Will hung pictures of handsome bald basketball stars on my refrigerator.
Once I couldn't watch my hair fall out anymore, I asked my brother to shave my head. He brought over vermouth for martinis and pretended to be Master Hairdresser Monsieur Tony.
Finally it was summer, and, ding-dong, the witch was dead: Chemotherapy was over. In July, I rode my bicycle up to New York Hospital and met with a radiation oncologist. She was Chinese and young, maybe even younger than I was, but she had authoritarian written all over her.
After she examined me, I mentioned that I was going to the beach that weekend and asked if it would be okay if I swam in the ocean. In truth, I was just doing an imitation of a compliant patient; it didn't occur to me that she'd say no.
"No," she said.
"No swimming in the ocean, or no swimming, period?"
"So I can't swim in the bay?"
She wrote something on my chart, probably, Shut up.
"What about swimming in a pond?" I said. "Or a river?"
She looked at me.
I knew I was getting on her nerves, but it seemed possible that this was my last summer. "What would happen if I swam in the ocean?"
"No swimming in ocean."
"But what would happen if I did?"
She said, "Long-term negative result."
"Thank you," I said. Thank you so much.
I felt like I was defecting when I went for a consultation at Columbia Presbyterian. Dr. Hayes had freckles and looked like she'd once played field hockey at a Catholic school for girls. She was neither warm nor cold, but she gave me the feeling that she was paying attention and would save my life if she could.
When I asked her about swimming, she said an immediate yes, and I decided: You are my radiation oncologist.
The breast cancer support group called Y-Me made me think, Y not U? But I had my own ideas of how and why, primarily that the Powers That Be had seen that I hadn't appreciated life enough -- I hadn't loved it. Oh, now you want to stay, the Powers said. Prove it.
I'd felt like I was proving it during chemotherapy because it was so hard. But radiation was supposed to be a day at the beach, which was why I decided to ride my bike to Columbia up, up, up in Washington Heights, the North Pole of Manhattan.
I took the earliest appointment I could; the sky was still dark when my alarm went off. I put on a dress, bike shorts and sneakers. My wig was waiting for me on my doorknob. With the homicidal heat of August and my hair at bristle length, wearing a wig had become pure torture -- a hair shirt for the head. Right then I decided to give myself the gift of wiglessness, a Happy Radiation present from me to me. In the mirror, I looked less sick than radical, and that was how I felt, too. I rode up the West Side Highway, along the river, and it was a thrill to feel the air on my head and neck. I had my Walkman on under my helmet, and I roamed the stations for galvanizing Motown.
As I got farther uptown, the hills got steeper. I pedaled harder than I ever had. By the time I got to Columbia, my legs were rubbery. I barely had the strength to take off my helmet -- but I was exhilarated; I felt like I'd entered my own Olympics and won.
The ride had taken well over an hour; radiation took five minutes. I lay down into a half-cast of my upper body; the technician aligned me with the grid of red lights beamed from the ceiling, and left the room to turn on the toaster.
Then it was over, and I was outside, unlocking my bike. I was still wobbly and considered taking a cab home; I could throw my bike in the trunk. But it was beautiful out -- a perfect beach day -- and I got on my bike. The reward for pedaling up those hills was gliding down.
This could be a place for a happy ending. But that wasn't how it happened.
As I rode, I cheered myself at each major cross street -- 125th, 96th, 72nd, 59th, 42nd, 34th. I was five downhill blocks from my apartment on 24th Street; I was in the homestretch. On 29th Street, there's an overpass, and that might've made it hard for me to see the car. I can't say for sure, but I think I had the light. I think I'd just found "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers on the radio. I think that the moment before the car hit me, I thought, Now I can rest.
The first thing I remember is the emergency room at St. Vincent's and my brother sitting by my bed. I remember asking him, "What am I doing here?" and, as I asked, feeling that I'd asked before.
I had. I asked and he answered, asked and he answered, until finally I said, "Let me get this straight -- I got hit by a car on my way from cancer treatment?" I tried to make a joke -- I hate slapstick -- but I couldn't remember the word slapstick.
My other jokes didn't come out right, either: When the doctor told me that I'd been found 20 feet from the car, I said, "Good thing I wasn't closer." Or I thought that's what I said; neither the doctor nor my brother registered that I'd spoken.
I remember steeling myself and saying: "Tell me the truth, Andy. They're afraid of brain damage, aren't they?"
I don't remember him saying, "No, you just have a concussion." Or my response: "They're afraid of brain damage, aren't they?"
Apparently, we repeated this routine at least a dozen times before he gave up and we reenacted the central dynamic of our childhood:
Andy: (No answer.)
Andy: (No answer.)
Late that afternoon, I stopped repeating myself, but I had no memory of the six or seven months leading up to the accident. "Retrograde amnesia," the doctor said.
I told my brother, "I can't even remember if I'm going out with Will."
I was kept overnight in the hospital for observation, and Will came for me in the morning. Even though he'd seen me without my wig before, I got a pang.
He asked if I wanted my cracked helmet as a memento; I didn't.
I remembered everything except the accident itself, and the doctor said I probably never would -- a kindness of the subconscious, he called it. I had a long scab underneath my chin from the strap. One leg was badly bruised and sore, and I used crutches until it was better. For the rest of the week, I took a car service up to radiation. Then cabs. I went to work every day.
I told everyone I was fine and pretended that I was.
But my brain was different. It was slower, and it wouldn't let me think hard: I could go up the first flight of an idea, but when I opened the door that had previously led to the next staircase, I'd find a wall. My speech was halting; I struggled for the most basic words -- breakfast, tomorrow -- but they were there, at least. The more complicated words, the ones I didn't say aloud but knew, were gone; every word tenuously lodged in my brain was cut loose.
I couldn't read. I rode my bicycle but without any pleasure. For the first time since my diagnosis I felt blighted and vulnerable; I felt like death was leaning in for the kiss.
It was Dr. Hayes who insisted that I was not fine. She told me that I was taking a leave of absence from work and then sent me to a neurologist and a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist gave me a prescription for antidepressants.
The neurologist diagnosed my symptoms -- acute depression, inability to perform sequential thinking, loss of vocabulary and lack of fluency -- as post-concussion syndrome.
Eventually, she said, everything would come back.
A brother and sister were throwing the Halloween party, Rachel told me. "They're really close," she said, "like you and Andy."
I struggled to find the words for a gracious but definite refusal. "I don't know," I said.
"We'll go with Claudia," she said. "You like Claudia."
Rachel knew I didn't want to go: Even in my brighter, bolder days of shoulder-length hair and full brain function, I'd been party-phobic; these days I was overwhelmed by a party of two. But she believed this party was just what I needed; she believed she was dragging me out of a sick room into the light and air.
All that week, she called to tell me how much fun we were going to have, and how was my costume coming along?
When I hesitated, she said, "You have to try."
I'd stored my wigs in tissue paper and got out the only one I'd ever liked wearing; long, blond and synthetic, it was a wig that didn't even try to pretend to be hair.
We were meeting at Claudia's, and I rode my bike there, because it made me feel like I could leave the party anytime I wanted.
Rachel opened the door, wearing yellow rain overalls; she was a condom. "What are you?" she asked.
I said, "I'm a girl with long hair."
She turned away. She might've been angry: I was late, or maybe I hadn't put enough thought into my costume.
Claudia appeared in a black bodysuit and homemade tail, a costume I myself had worn as a child, though in hers Claudia looked less like the black cat I'd been than a cocktail waitress at the Kit-Kat Klub. We mimed cheek-kissing, because of her drawn-on whiskers.
Rachel was stuffing condoms in her bib pocket; she planned to give them out to anyone who asked what she was. "We're going to another party first," she said, "somebody Claudia works with."
I stopped breathing right. As casually as I could, I said, "I think I'll just meet you at the other party." As though to explain, I added, "I have my bike."
Rachel turned and looked at me. She didn't want to go, either, she said. Her voice was slow and instructive: "We're going because Claudia has to go, and we're her friends."
I don't remember every detail of the party, probably because I was trying not to be there, the way I sometimes did when a nurse couldn't find a good vein to draw my blood and kept poking. But I remember that the hostess, Claudia's work friend, was just out of college, and so were her guests. It was dark. Rachel stuck with me or nearby, but we weren't talking. I leaned against a wall. I sipped my beer. I sat on a sofa.
I was waiting to go, I was checking my watch, when the idea of death came to me. Since my accident, I'd thought a lot about death -- thought is the wrong word: Suddenly, I'd go blind with fear and doom. But that wasn't what happened. It wasn't a knell I heard but a siren, and the emergency was not only that I would die but that this was my life, this: The second that just went by was life, and that minute, life; it was all life, whether I wanted it to be or not. I asked myself what the Hell I was doing at this party, a rhetorical question, but, as though in answer, my memory replayed Rachel ordering me around and my mute obedience.
By the time we left, I was seething, though neither Rachel nor Claudia noticed. On the elevator, they chatted about the party -- who was cute, for example.
Then we were outside, and I was telling them that I could never do what we'd just done ever again. I said, "I don't have time," and again, "I don't have time." I was surprised to hear how angry I sounded, but my surprise was nothing compared with theirs. They stared at me, two Normals backing away from a Crazy.
"I'm not saying you did anything wrong," I said, and I heard sanity in my voice, though I didn't see it register on their faces. "I'm not easygoing -- I don't know if I was ever easygoing -- but I know I'm not easygoing now." I looked at Claudia, but I was talking to Rachel -- that was the dishonest part.
The two of them stood close together, and it occurred to me that they wanted to hold hands. They were friends from childhood; their expressions were identical and made them look like they were related.
"I don't blame you if you can't be friends with me," I said to both of them. "I'm hard. I'm not sure I could be friends with me."
I was saying nothing more than a simple and obvious truth: I wasn't a normal girl in a Halloween wig, going from party to party. But it was exhilarating to find the right words for how I felt and to say them aloud. For the first time in weeks, I was smiling. I was right here, alive on Earth, alive on West Broadway, alive with my condom cousin and her cat friend, facing me like two bank tellers in a stickup. It was still my turn to talk, and I waited to hear what I would say next.
Melissa Bank is the author of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot, published in May by Viking. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.