First Published in The Petigru Review, Vol. 2, 2008
Margie told me the fear was physical, like the stab of a knife right through her gut. It took her breath away, rocked her off her feet. She slid down the shower wall in shock with the water running over her. She couldn't think, she couldn't move, she couldn't even cry. At first.
When the water lost its heated edge, she came around and lowered her eyes to look at the offender. Her left nipple. When had it hardened and changed color? She was in the shower just twenty-four hours before and hadn't noticed any difference. But this was significant. Could it have happened overnight? She hadn't felt any pain—still didn't feel any pain. Her last mammogram, less than a year before, had come back negative. Had there really been nothing there, or could it have been misinterpreted?
As she struggled to her feet and turned off the water, emotion pushed her chest into her throat. She moved to the bed wrapping the towel around her and looked at the clock. Her nose began to sting and her breathing became ragged. I'll have to call work, she thought, even as her throat constricted. She tried to stave off the emotion, think logically, she had to be practical now. What will I tell them? What can I tell them?
Her mouth stretched wide and she sobbed. She fell over her pillow and gave into it. Loud, wracking howls of pure anguish. Pain and fear emptied out of her, smeared her face and pillow, then slipped into thoughts of her family.
"Thank God Andy wasn't there," she said of her son later, when she told me. "I can't imagine how he would've reacted."
My brows creased. "I would hope he could've comforted you." Knowing her son as I did—a community college student still living at home—I understood he didn't know the first thing about comforting anyone. Let alone his mother.
"Dear God, I was butt-naked," she said.
This elicited a slight chuckle from the both of us.
"What about George?" I asked of her husband, a worse jackass even, in my opinion, than the son.
She sighed. "I didn't know what to do."
She said, in her heart, she knew he'd be of no help, no comfort to her, no holding her close, no shoulder to
cry on, no encouraging words to hope for the best. She didn't expect him to show any outward emotion toward her. He would only think about how the whole thing would impact his life.
Instead of calling him, she called her job at the insurance company. She knew this, too, would be a struggle. Not the time off, but the coverage. Even though the company handled health insurance and Workman's Compensation for many of the industries around Orlando, its own employees had shopped around for a better deal. They were in the midst of being assigned new HMO doctors.
Getting an emergency mammogram approved was the first battle. She was either on the phone or waiting for her calls to be returned, but she found she had some good friends at work. They put other duties aside as they found her the right doctors, the coverage she needed and appointments as soon as possible. By the end of the day she was exhausted, both physically and emotionally, but her co-workers had gotten her a mammogram in three days and an appointment with an oncologist the next week. The waiting and worry would be unbearable.
By the time her husband and son got home Margie was on the couch trying to get some rest. She had achieved a certain amount of emotional distance for which she was thankful.
Neither of the men said hello when they came in. They didn't seem concerned about her van in the driveway hours earlier than it should've been. They changed their clothes and went about their routines—the son went straight for the computer, the husband to the garage to work on an old car he'd been restoring. It hurt her feelings. She wept again.
But she sniffed back her tears and straighened herself up, ran her hands through her hair and, over their protests, gathered her men together in the family room. George, her husband, didn't say much—asked about her appointments, not offering to go with her—but he patted her twice on the shoulder and went back to the garage.
"Pretty much what I expected of him," she told me. "It was obvious I was scared to death, and I got a couple of pats on the shoulder." She shook her head. "And then there was Andy. I would've done anything in the world to have spared him the news. You're supposed to be strong for your children and I was already frightened and weepy. When I told them, his eyes filled with tears. He stood up and ran to his room like he thought the news would go away if he denied it." She sniffed back a tear telling me. "I stood at his door trying to talk to him, to see if he was okay."
She turned to me with a look of disbelief. "See? I was the one who needed comfort, but I was worried about how he felt. I guess that's what mothers do though, isn't it?"
"I guess," I told her. I didn't know. Maybe I'll regret not having kids in my old age, but the more I hear about the hell my friends have gone through with their children, the more I feel like I've dodged a bullet.
Another jolt, she told me. She wouldn't be able to count on her family for support. She felt totally alone. Her parents were both gone, her only brother half a country away and they were rarely in touch. She was too wrung out to call him.
She went to bed and crawled under the covers. She wondered what would become of her. A few more tears trickled down her face, but not many. She was dry. At some point she fell asleep.
When she woke up her first thought was dinner. She wasn’t hungry, but she wondered whether the guys had eaten. Andy's door was closed, meaning he was in his room, and there was no sound, so he was playing video games with his headphones on. She didn't knock. George was watching TV in the family room when she passed through to the kitchen. He didn't look away from the TV. He didn't speak to her.
Neither George nor Andy had offered to make her anything for dinner, but she excused them, thinking they didn't want to wake her up.
"Why was I making excuses for them?" she asked me. "They should've been taking care of me, but it was like . . . I don't know. The kitchen was a mess. Andy must've made a frozen pizza. The box was on the island, stacked on top of a cereal bowl left from breakfast, with the pizza pan on top of it. Of course the pizza stuck to the pan so it was a crusty mess. His plate must've been in his room. It looked like George had had himself a little celebration with a banana split. The banana peel was on the floor, right beside the trash can. Ice cream drips dotted the counter smeared with various toppings. At least he'd remembered to put the ice cream back in the freezer. The can of whipped cream was still out.
"I picked up the banana peel and threw it away, then started to clean out the sink. How difficult would it have been for them to load the frickin' dishwasher? At that moment, anger just grabbed me—it seized me! I wasn't even hungry! I wasn't fixing anything for myself, why should I clean up after these two pigs? I had the ice cream scoop in my hand and I just slammed it as hard as I could into the sink and screamed, 'Goddamn it!'"
She chuckled. I made an astonished face. I 'd never known her to lose her temper.
"Boy, that got George's attention," she continued. "He goes, 'What's wrong?' Mind you, he didn't get up off the sofa, but he at least looked at me. I gave him like, a primal scream, threw the pizza pan on the floor . . ." she giggled, "and then I yelled, 'clean up this fucking mess!'" She giggled again.
I continued to be amazed. I'd never heard her curse beyond a 'hell' or a 'damn.' "Oh my God," I said, shaking my head.
"I set my alarm and went back to bed. There was nothing else for me to do but go to work for the next few days waiting for my appointments to come up. Plus, I knew there were other women there who'd had breast cancer. At least there, I could get information and support. I didn't wake up the whole night and George had already left by the time the alarm went off."
Margie told me all this as I drove her to her biopsy. She said her husband had "truly wanted" to be with her for this, but he was too busy at work to take the full day off. He'd leave work at lunchtime and meet her there. He'd drive her home.
She was nervous but hid it well. Better, I expected, than I would have in her place. I tried to keep the subjects light. We talked about gardening, a hobby we had in common, she talked about her sewing guild and I updated her on our dogs and their latest antics.
I dropped her off at the third floor check-in point at Florida Hospital downtown, then went to find a parking place. Remarkably, I found my way back to her. By then, she'd been directed across the hall to another waiting area. Two waiting areas later it was time to settle in.
She told me about her oncologist, a slight Asian woman, Dr. Lin. She was glad it was a woman and said she'd been much more at ease than she would have been with a man. She said the doctor had explained the different kinds of breast cancer she might have, based on the mammogram and physical observation. All the terms she used were way over my head and, truthfully, I don't remember any of them. The biopsy would confirm the exact diagnosis.
When the conversation turned to the possibility of a mastectomy, her eyes filled with tears. We both reached for tissues we'd had the foresight to bring. I put my arm around her and squeezed.
"I'm okay," she said after a minute. She wiped the tears from underneath her eyeglasses. "Dr. Lin says they make realistic looking prostheses, but . . . ." She trailed off for a moment before she sighed. "I just don't know how I'm going to feel, ya' know? About myself. I've never been a beauty queen, but at least I had all the right parts." She skewed a smile at me. "Dr. Lin told me about several support groups. Here at the hospital and around town. There's even a meeting at the Oviedo Baptist Church."
"That'd be close." Completely out of my realm, my usual glib tongue failed me.
"Yeah." She leaned her head on her hand.
"Can I get you some water?" I asked, after a few minutes. At least it was something I could do.
"No, I'll be okay." She looked at her watch and frowned. "Sheesh, it can't be too much longer, can it?"
I shrugged and looked around the room where, I swear, it seemed like most of the same people remained who had been there when we'd sat down. They'd been calling people back. Surely these were different people.
"George should be here soon anyway," she said. "And I know you need to get home for the doggies. Besides, it's well past your lunchtime. Why don't you go ahead on home. George'll be here any minute I'm sure."
Part of me wanted to jump at the idea. I didn't want to feel this way, but I kept looking at the people in the waiting room as if they had something I could catch. I was uncomfortable in their presence. Who was I? What could I do to help anybody?
"No, I’m okay," I said instead of bolting. I looked around again. Where was George? He really should've been there. "I'll stay till George gets here, at least."
"Well," she said, resigned. "You don't have to."
"I don't mind." I laid my hand on her arm and smiled. "I want to."
"Okay." She smiled back.
Just then they called her name and we both had a moment of panic.
Margie looked at the nurse and said, "My husband's coming."
The nurse reacted with a questioning look.
"My friend has to leave, but my husband will be here any minute. How will he know where to go?"
I thought of a place I'd tell him to go, but I kept quiet.
Comprehension overtook the nurse's face. "He can check with the information desk and they can tell him how to find you. You still have some time, we're just going to prep you. He'll probably be here before you go back and you'll be able to see him."
We stood up. She took a deep breath and I gave her the most reassuring smile I could muster. Then I hugged her. "It'll be okay," I said, not believing a word of it. "Call me tomorrow and tell me about it, okay?"
Her eyes welled up as she turned away to follow the nurse. The nurse put her arm through Margie's with empathy and led her back, speaking to her softly.