Chapter 1: We Interrupt This Broadcast…
Have you ever wondered what you’d do if they told you that you were dying? Not like, someday you’re going to die. Imminently. As in three months.
I used to think about it periodically. But when they tell me, my reaction is nothing like what I’d imagined: the raw terror, tingling in the spinal region, crying ranging from dignified sobbing to Irish wake-style caterwauling. Perhaps a swoon. No. What I actually do is thank the doctor—thank him, for God’s sake—proceed to have a calm, rational conversation with him about my prognosis, then—sexual fantasy starring the middle-aged alert!—hypothesize doing him. Yeah, him. Il dottor. The guy nervously plucking at his white sleeve, exposing a swatch of swarthy ethnic wrist.
As soon as the words leave his mouth I wonder, opportunistically, if his dismay can be leveraged somehow. Sexually, that is. I guess when you’re going to die and you can count the number of orgasms you’ve enjoyed in low double digits it suddenly seems absolutely essential to cram in as many as you humanly can. He is young, divinely average-looking and terrifically bad at it. Delivering grim news, I mean.
“But I’m only forty-three,” I say. That part goes as rehearsed.
“I know. Sadly, it’s not as rare as you’d—”
“But surely there’s some treatment, some operation….”
“We’ll operate, of course, but it’s not statistically likely to work against this type at this advanced stage, Mrs. Rose—”
“But they cure people, like all the time! I read something about a new drug from Norway…or was it Denmark?“
Meissner’s eyes flick to the desk clock, which he has cleverly attempted to conceal behind a trophy topped by a golf club-wielding bald man. He nods sagely. “Cyclopaclizole. FDA pulled it. Too many myoclonic seizures,” he says with a trace of regret, as if we are discussing a very effective flea collar.
At the word “seizure,” my shattered brain does a clumsy swan dive, landing in the convivial pool that is carnal escapism.
“Oh, can it, will you? Look,” I say, leaning over slightly so he can get an eyeful of cleavage, which I know is Grade A prime in spite of being riddled with tumors. “Will you have sex with me?”
Then we fuck like demented bunnies on the oversized, big-dick substitute oak desk, right on top of the dreaded biopsy results.
Okay, a girl can dream, can’t she?
Somehow, I manage to stagger out of the office without collapsing on or molesting anyone. I slide into the car and burn myself on the sun-baked seat belt buckle. Something perverse makes me press my hand hard against it, conjuring a sizzle. Chemo terrifies me. I wonder if it will hurt ten times as much as the burn. A hundred times as much? Five hundred?
The minivan skews to a stop in front of our mailbox. For a millisecond, I contemplate moving it to make way for the postman. Then it dawns on me that I no longer have to care what he thinks of me. I don’t realize I’ve left my purse and keys in the car until I’m at the front door.
I ring my own doorbell.
“Yeah?” Taylor swings the door open. Her cell is rammed in her ear. She’s wearing a triangle bikini top and her boobs are insanely perky. It is hard to believe we emanate from the same gene pool.
“Did you look in the peephole? What if I was a rapist?” I am nearly shouting.
“Then I’d kick you in the nuts and shut the door.”
I push past her, pausing in the guest bath to gulp water directly from the faucet. My throat hurts. Suddenly, everything wrong in the universe seems like a symptom instead of just garden-variety Jewish hypochondria.
Taylor blocks my way to the bedroom and holds up a scrap of cloth. “Mom, can you go to Urban Outfitters tomorrow and get me some more of these tanks? Not the girls’ ones, they’re in the guys’ section. Get me blue, green and black. And orange! But not the gross traffic-cone one, the cool one.”
Too wasted to counter the assault with an inspired lecture on the perils of not appreciating your parents properly in case they die prematurely, I ball the shirt in my hand and fall into the pile of murky bedsheets. I close my eyes and pray in what I imagine is a semi-authentic manner. I whisper “amen” and “hallelujah” several dozen times before giving up on sleep and scouring the bathroom cabinet for drugs.
The toilet seat stands at attention, the rim festooned with dabs of pee and hair. For some reason, this detail, this mundane particle of injustice, sends me over the edge.
I slam it down, my hand protected by Taylor’s shirt. A puny scream erupts from the now-cracked seat joint, which, like my mind, has never been completely stable.
“Fuck!” I yell into the bone-dry hand towels (Phil always wipes his hands on my bath sheet).
Afternoon blurs into evening while I toss and turn, willing the catastrophe onto a better-equipped individual. Once every 2.5 seconds, I actually forget I have it. My thoughts are weird. For example: What’s better for the kids, preserving my posthumous reputation by delivering the news with grace and decorum, or maintaining a consistent familial environment by crying and cussing?
At one point, I smell my son and open my eyes. Micah is leaning over me, in the process of stealing my cherished heating pad from the opposite nightstand.
“Why are you wearing cleats in the house?” I croak.
Micah kicks a clod of soggy turf off his soccer shoe, which, for the price, should not only have David Beckham’s signature on it, but also include a charity fuck for the wearer’s mother.
“See ya later, Mom. I’m taking the car.” He waggles a set of keys.
I roll out of bed, stomp across the house and lock myself in the off-garage toilet, shaking, until I hear the garage door open and my husband’s evening sacraments begin. In preparation for what lies ahead, I try to do the sort of deep breathing they teach you in yoga, in which you’re supposed to cram healing breath into every possible orifice of your body until you are at peace.
Finally, I go in search of my forever-in-wasted-motion partner in life.
Phil goes utterly still when I corner him in the living room and deliver the news. Then, true to form, he goes on the attack.
“What are you talking about?” he says irritably. His fingers twitch. I can tell he wants to flick the volume button and return to his life’s work: wallowing in flat-screen, high-definition television.
With what I believe any reasonably dignified person would call great dignity, I walk calmly toward the father of my children, plant myself in the path of the TV and obstruct his view of Barry Bonds, my arms crossed just like Barry’s (except that his are big, black and muscular, and mine are big, white and flabby). Then I leap on Phil and wrestle the remote clumsily from his hands. I brandish this electronic sliver of power triumphantly as I crawl toward the couch.
This part I accomplish sans dignity.
“What the hell are you doing?” Phil says. We are both panting.
“I have cancer,” I say, experimenting with the pronunciation a bit. This time, I emphasize the “I.”
“How can you have cancer? You haven’t even been to the doctor.” Phil’s green eyes, which I’d once found feline and mysterious, now exude a grim haze as predictable as the sky over L.A. They flicker back to the screen: Giants, 11; Dodgers, 3.
“We need to make the necessary arrangements.”
I finally have my husband’s attention. “What arrangements? Raquel? What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I have cancer of the breast. The doctor says it’s stage four, maybe inoperable. Twelve lymph nodes, Philly! Twelve!” Through the window, I watch as Ronnie Greenblatt strips off his soccer jersey and pulls the lawn mower out of the shed. At seventeen and nine months, my son’s best friend has the kind of cobbled abs that could make a nun weep.
“I thought breast cancer was hereditary. Your mom doesn’t have it. Lauren doesn’t have it.”
“Well, apparently I have it.” I bank the factoid that only five percent of breast cancers are inherited for future use.
“Do you have…”—a maroon flush of shame saturates Phil’s cheeks—“…a lump?”
“Of course I have a lump. That’s why I went for a mammogram and then the biopsy.” I envision myself through my husband’s eyes at this moment: the picture of pale, goddess-like piety and patience in the face of doom. Lumpy doom.
“Good God.” I can tell Phil thinks he should have found it himself. My husband is nothing if not dutiful. If someone had slipped it into our marriage contract—responsibility number three: perform breast lump exam on [blank’s] tits bimonthly—he would have kneaded me like bread dough every other Wednesday without fail. Also, he was probably wondering, as was I, when the last time he actually touched my breasts was. Strangely, it was one of the first thoughts that curdled in my head after my visit with Meissner: Did Phil touch it?
Telling the kids is worse.
“Oh my God, Mommy!” Taylor screeches, lunging into my arms in a manner she had abandoned at eight.
“It’s okay, honey. I know it’s hard. I know,” I say, rubbing her back, which is bare where her baby tee cowers above her low-slung jeans.
“But, Mom, aren’t they even going to try chemo?” Micah, whom I’d considered the smart one until he smoked the joint with Ronnie and plowed the Accord into the side of the Circle K last spring, defaults to calm interrogation. He takes after Phil, that way.
“The doctor says we’ll do chemo, radiation, even stem cell replacement if we have to. After the surgery to remove as much of the cancer as they can, of course.” That’s something I hadn’t understood at the time and had been too addled to ask: How can inoperable cancer be operated on?
“What about Tamoxifen? Ronnie’s grandma had breast cancer and she did chemo and took Tamoxifen for five years and now she’s fine.” My son’s denim-blue eyes are wide and panicked.
“I can’t believe you remember that,” I say, impressed.
The blue eyes snap. “Don’t treat me like a fucking idiot!”
“Mike, calm down.” But I don’t really want my boy to calm down. In fact, I don’t want anyone to calm down, anywhere, ever again. My family, least of all; as far as I’m concerned, they should start building the shrine now. I can already imagine it: my best photos (all taken in the early 1980s and slightly pixilated), my favorite scented candles from Tocca, sympathy cards, a lock of hair, smooth stones to facilitate my journey to the other side—all of it with the faint whiff of idolatry and Catholicism about it. With a dash of Eastern mysticism thrown in, of course. This is de rigueur among the coolest dead young mothers.
“How am I supposed to calm down?” Micah yells. My son goes from zero to sixty in a heartbeat. He takes after me, that way.
Taylor lifts her tear-stained face from my soon-to-be ravaged bosom. “Shut up, you douche! Mom’s dying and you’re making it worse! You’re such an asshole!”
“Kids! Let’s give it a rest, okay. I’m really tired,” I lie. Actually, the conversation has left me weirdly energized. The kids are being so damn attentive, so nice.
“Mom, I love you! You can’t die!” Taylor snuggles against me, apparently now her preferred parenting resource. The runner-up slumps against the couch, his head in his hands.
Micah pushes Taylor aside and folds his five feet eleven inches into the crook of my arm. I am fairly sure that the last time my offspring hugged me willingly was 2001, when our first family dog, Pickle, was laid to rest in a patch of rosemary. Nearly purring, I inhale my children’s gamey teen-scent, stroke their silky skin, lap up their delicious need. It is pure bliss. And that’s when it comes to me: maybe, now that I am dying, it is time to live a little.