My diagnosis with breast cancer came as such a shock that my imagination failed me. I could not look at my chest and see spindly-armed tumors reaching through my breast tissue. Nor could I imagine the next steps. I let my husband and doctors talk until I could rest my ears on words like “tumors,” “reconstruction,” and “Oncotype” and offer a decision to have a double mastectomy for the sake of my family.
There were wonderful things that I could not imagine either, like how many friends would show up at my door with a meal or a book, or how giddy I would feel when the surgery was past and I felt connected to those around me and assured of a long future.
Now, with over six months since my last surgery, the giddiness has dimmed. However, while I had figured I would return to my old life, albeit with a deeper commitment to my health and a sense of gratitude, I have been surprised again, this time by three changes in me:
1. I am incapable of small talk.
Ask me about the weather and you might hear about my trip to Baltimore to have nipples tattooed onto my reconstructed breasts. Try to engage me on my kids’ sports, and you will soon know the details of our pinworm outbreak. It’s not that I would not like to keep interactions superficial; I just can’t help but go deep. I have pondered big questions lately; there is no brain space for the weather. I am the perfect foil to the cocktail party guest who wanders into the realm of the inappropriate. In my first post-mastectomy social outing, an acquaintance went into depth about the divorce of her brother-in-law, whom my husband knows. Just after divulging the infidelity and hording of cash, she caught herself and looked a little horrified that she had shared so much. I rushed to put her at ease, “No worries! Did you know that I just had a double mastectomy?”
2. I cannot remember anything.
I am a great person with whom to over-share because I cannot remember as much as I used to. Having general anesthesia four times in five months takes its toll on the memory, as does accelerated menopause. This is sad. My memory was my crowning glory in school and in my professional life, but mostly in motherhood, when my husband and three children have relied on me to remember recitals, play-dates, games, the Greek pantheon, the My Little Ponies, check-ups, and the PGA rankings. This was how I showed people I cared, plus it gave the impression that I knew everything. As I write, my husband is asking if avocado has protein in it. I tell him I cannot remember—and he turns to the other woman in his life, Alexa, who really does know everything. I wonder if she knows I sent my husband and our second grader to the wrong field for a lacrosse practice with the wrong equipment. He texted me five times as he tried to figure out where he should be. I replied, “My memory is not what it was. We can’t rely on it anymore.’” I texted through rising tears because . . .
3. I’m fragile.
I have always been the type to well up at any strong emotion or animated feature, but the joy of recovering and being spared chemotherapy seemed to overwhelm any sense of sadness in the months after my surgery. For awhile I was less prone to tears. Then, I went to a party where a woman told me her young daughter was named Marguerite. I was so excited to tell her that my grandmother was named Marguerite. My friend told me that as a girl her grandmother’s mother had died and her father had been unable to care for his daughters, so the girls had been sent to live with a woman named Marguerite. My friend named her daughter to honor this woman who had saved her grandmother’s life. My cheeks were wet with tears. My husband asked if I was OK, surprised by my strong reaction to the gesture of my friend naming her daughter after a generous woman, but that wasn’t why I cried. The gesture made me smile, but a shard of that story cut through to the tendon of fear that had gripped my heart since my diagnosis: I could have been a mother who died and left behind young children.
Six months after my surgery this is the fate that I cannot un-imagine. I see it in distinct flashes when I watch my children struggle or my husband worry about their futures. I need to be here and knowing that can in a moment overwhelm any small talk or detail or calm.