Friday, September 21, 2012

saga of a mammogram

Yesterday I had my annual mammogram. It was actually my first since the diagnosis, as my first post-treatment screening was March's MRI.

Berowne was with me Wednesday night and Thursday morning, which helped with the panic enormously. I had asked him to be there, which is fairly huge for me - I have a very hard time asking for help, and if through no fault of his own he hadn't been able to be there the disappointment would have been disproportionate and I would have beat myself up for asking in the first place. Because I should accept that I am the Spartan boy and cancer (or divorce, or body hatred, or whatever) is the fox and I will just let it eat me alive, because THAT IS WHAT STRONG PEOPLE DO. Right?

Not right. Hence blogging about my various foxes. And asking my boyfriend to come over. As I said, that was absolutely the right thing to do and it meant I headed off to the hospital feeling pretty good emotionally.

I was fortunate to have a wonderful tech, who was upbeat and informative and knew what she was doing, so that the intense pain was never something I had to bear for more than a few seconds. For my very first mammogram I had a tech who apparently had never dealt with larger, denser breasts before, and I had to be re-positioned and re-photographed over and over. It took forever and I was black and blue for days, and it's amazing I was willing to have another the next year. But this woman was great, and even the side-squishing-ones (I am sure that is a technical term), which involve stretching one breast so violently away from the other that it honestly feels as if the skin and muscles on your sternum are going to split, were over quickly.

Then I went back into the waiting room, because once you've had cancer a doctor reads your mammogram scans right there, and you don't have to wait a couple days for your results. I was quite Zen during this wait.

Then they called me back in for more pictures. "It's okay!" I thought to myself. "It often takes two pictures to get my whole boob!" But I noticed that the tech wasn't looking quite as upbeat as before.

She put me in a side-squishing position, but even worse than before. My chest muscles and skin were at snapping point. My breast was mashed to unbelievable dimensions. My head and arm were at weird angles.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Sort of," I said, meaning that I thought I could bear it for the length of a picture (about six seconds) without actually screaming. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, not in the sense that I don't feel pain easily but in that I am willing to bear a lot of pain if there's a reason and if I know it will end soon.

"Because I need you to hold that for two minutes," she said.

"You what now?" I asked.

"There are calcifications in your breast. If they respond to two minutes of intense pressure, we'll know they're just milk of calcium and harmless. If they don't, well."

I held that position for two minutes. "That wasn't fun," I said in a squeaky voice, when released. Spartan Boy Gets a Mammogram.

"Hmm," said the tech, looking at my pictures on the computer screen. I looked too, and saw lots of (okay, maybe ten) little white spots, throughout the breast. The same little white spots they showed me last year, when pointing out the cancer.

I was sent back to the waiting room. There was a woman ahead of me also waiting for the doctor to review her pictures, and then the doctor got pulled into a procedure. I waited for twenty-five minutes, seeing that picture in my mind's eye. Sure that my other breast (et tu, Lefty?) had cancer.

Mentally, I went through the whole process of getting them removed. Of the physical trauma of multiple surgeries and the emotional trauma of having to re-build my body, knowing my shape will never be quite the same no matter how good the plastic surgeon. Knowing that the replacement breasts will have no sensation, so my sex life will be altered on a basic nerve-ending level as much as it will be emotionally. Knowing that if I do manage to have children, I won't be able to nurse them.

And the physical recovery is not something I could do on my own. Someone would have to come stay with me: even if I ignore my own needs enough to shrug off the idea of not being able to open my kitchen cabinets or wash my hair, I can't ignore that I wouldn't be able to take the dogs out and so three or four times a day I'd need someone else there. Would I accept Berowne's pre-emptive offer of being that person? His job is an hour and a half away from my house. Would I ask one of my brothers to fly to Massachusetts and stay with me? Have my friends rotate days? Why did I park at a meter instead of the garage? I'm going to leave here with a cancer diagnosis and find my car's been towed. How do I ask for help without it being a tacit admission that I have failed at everything ever?

Most days I like living alone. Sitting in a mammography waiting room, facing surgery which would leave me with honest-to-God drains under each arm and no ability to even take my own dogs outside when they need to pee, I did not like it one bit.

The tech finally pushed the curtain aside and said, "Beatrice? Do you want to talk to the doctor?"

I gave her a puzzled look. Do I want to? Don't I have to? Surely they aren't going to let a tech tell me the cancer is back?

"You're good," she said. "Good good. But the doctor wants you to come back in six months, not a year."


She said a few more times, "You're good good," because she could tell from my expression it wasn't sinking in, and let me get dressed, and then I met with the doctor. He told me that the white spots were all proven to be milk of calcium deposits, as they reacted properly to the Torquemada Squish. However, around the surgery site on the other breast, there are spots which could be either fat necrosis - a typical aftereffect of surgery - or potential microcalcifications of the type which were previously found to be cancerous. So he recommends keeping an eye on those and re-checking in six months.

I meet with one of my oncologists next week, to discuss further. If she's cool with waiting six months, I will feel fine about that. (I will be a WRECK in March 2013, but that's then.) I walked out so exhausted from the excess of emotion that I felt numb, and found that my car was still there, and ran a bunch of errands in a dazed state, and that night was in my pajamas by five and sound asleep by eight-thirty.

My boobs live to fight another day! Once they have recovered, that is. Ow.

I am really, really lucky to have the people around me that I do. Doctors and friends and family and all. I know I'll get through whatever happens in six months, and I'll keep working on my ability to ask for help. And on my ability to maneuver my ridiculous muscle car into small spaces, so that I can park in the damn garage next time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

romance, novelistic and otherwise

Since last posting, I did finish The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. It was an interesting if uneven take on the migration of African-Americans from the South during the twentieth century. Wilkerson focuses on the stories of three specific migrants, and one of them gets far more page space than the other two. Unfortunately, I found him the least interesting, and the chapters about his material success read like the society pages. But she does a good job of explaining her subject matter, and I like her prose style.

I have been meandering through The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd, but I'm not going to finish it. Its premise is that Shepherd has taken the characters from Bleak House and written a new story around them, but a) seems like the same story to me, with one extra character thrown in; and b) I didn't know you could just put Dickens' sentences on the page in a slightly different order and say you've written your own book. You can't get that shit past someone who re-reads Bleak House at least once a year; I know those words, and Lynn Shepherd didn't write them. Forget this.

In the first flush of being able to get library books on my Kindle, I went for quantity over quality, and have spent too much time reading stuff I don't like in consequence. I am going to be more discerning in future.

And now for my Deep Thoughts On Romance! Which I am sure you were all dying to read.  

So, my boyfriend. (Of course I'll look like a horse's ass if the relationship ends and I've got all these schmoopy blog posts, but I made peace with the concept of looking like a horse's ass long ago.) I got to see him both days this weekend and both days it was ridiculous: children and dogs were following him around like he was the Pied Piper, and he was hauling heavy ladders and generally being manly, and at a certain point I started silently cracking up, because I felt like I was in a romance novel. Except that the only thirty-five-year-old woman in a romance novel is the heroine's mother (usually described as "still a handsome woman" or, my personal favorite, "remarkably preserved").

And thinking of romance novels made me wonder if you really can be ruined for love by what you read. If all my early time with Austen and the Brontës, not to mention the later romance novels, made me go looking for things I shouldn't be after.

(To do myself justice, I always hated Wuthering Heights with the fire of a thousand suns. And identifying too strongly with Jane Eyre is still not like identifying with, say, Bella from the Twilight books. Which I have not read, but I have read many hilarious bloggers who have read them. I think we can all agree that Jane Eyre would not have put up with any of that "true love means creeping in your window at night and watching you sleep" crap. Jane has boundaries, and expects them to be respected.)

Much of the appeal of romance novels, in addition to the fact that they provided those of us who are ancient some teenage titillation in those days before the internet, is that they play to the fantasy of being special. Of being unique. And when people wonder why smart women could possibly read that trash, I want to explain to them that it is precisely the smart gifted girls who were sold that fantasy, and sold it young. We can be grandiose, to say the least. In my freshman year of college, after a theater performance which was so pretentious that I blush to my toes recalling it, one friend of mine said to another, "[Beatrice] is going to be famous, isn't she?" And when I heard that, I accepted it as no less than my due. Because of course I was going to be famous. I was nineteen, and thought all you needed to be famous was an ability to speak Shakespeare well and a whole lot of angst.

We were all going to be famous. All the smart young women, under-socialized and overflowing with talent we didn't know how to focus or that terrified us with its potential. And some women I know did focus it, and honed it, and are living amazing lives. Some of us stepped back from the more artistic aspects of our skill sets, took different paths for whatever reason, and are living amazing lives. I don't think I'm still in touch with anyone whose life isn't amazing in some way, because I choose not to be in touch with the disappointed or bitter.

But the passion to be unique, to be the one woman who can do such-and-such, doesn't entirely disappear. And what romance novels tap into is that passion, albeit sometimes with an unfortunate dash of all-other-women-are-the-competition. (Good romance novels don't have that dash. In Loretta Chase and Joanna Bourne's books there isn't a Rival With Previous Sexual Experience, as there is in many other ones I've read.) How unique can you be if a man who everyone agrees is a sweetheart falls in love with you? But a man who has a splinter of ice in his heart (to match his icy slate-gray eyes), whose mouth twists cruelly right before he doles out some punishing kisses, who has to be worked over for three hundred cliché-filled pages by the heroine's dizzying spunkiness and virginal innocence before he can grit out the words, "I love you," - if he falls in love with you, against his will and wishes, then you are truly a special snowflake.  

I mock, of course, but I'm mocking myself as well, because I damn well saw the appeal in that, and can still understand it. To be the only woman who can heal a damaged heart is a powerful concept. I still sometimes get mildly panicky because I do not consider myself sufficiently useful, particularly in traditionally feminine arenas. I can cook a little; I hate cleaning; I can't sew or knit; I loathe ironing; I don't garden. The only practical help I can offer a man is to organize his books for him. So it strikes a chord in me, the idea that some intangible quality of mine, my heart or soul or aura or whatever, could be enough to open an otherwise closed heart. Otherwise what good am I?

I thankfully have never dated anyone whose heart I would describe as closed. But I have dated men who were self-destructive or unhappy or simmeringly angry at the world all the time, and however ego-gratifying it may be when they finally break down in your arms and confess their love, the rest of the time it's not a whole lot of fun. And it shouldn't be about your ego in the first place. If it is, by the time it gets to the clenched jaw and the muttered, "I love you," you may be so exhausted by his negativity that your own heart will sink to hear those words. Great, you think. Now I can't leave or he'll kill himself.

An exaggeration, hopefully. But I agree with my namesake who, when Benedick says that he loves her against his will, replies, "In spite of your heart, I think; alas, poor heart! If you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for yours; for I will never love that which my friend hates." I don't want a man to love me if he doesn't want to, if he resents the fact that he does. Resentment, on both sides, entered my marriage and poisoned it to the very roots. If you have to grit your teeth when saying you love me, don't say it at all. Get on your fierce charger and ride off across the moors and find an eighteen-year-old heroine who will have the energy to overcome your angst. Despite being remarkably preserved, I just don't have the strength for that any more.

But some days I still want to read a book the point of which is two people falling in love. And those days I am going to sit down and read a romance novel - a good one, by Chase or Bourne or Julia Quinn - and not feel guilty about it. I might even cry if the ending is done right, and I won't feel guilty about that either. I don't need to be a special snowflake any more, and brooding heroes try my patience, but I don't believe there's anything wrong with a story about love. Or with men who do manly ladder-related things. Nothing wrong with that at all. 

Friday, September 14, 2012


So, this is just pathetic. It's been nine days since I last posted and in that time I have almost finished one new book. I have been re-reading all of Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks mysteries, but even that has been snatched in brief moments, because Adulthood has taken over my life.

Adulthood, damn. When you just have to deal with things, because they are happening and you are a grown-up. It's certainly not always bad, but sometimes it is. Arranging the ultimate fate of my dead car is bad (and so stressful, even though it looks like it will be relatively straightforward in the end). Tearing the house apart trying to find a phantom cable box which the cable company swears I have and without which they will not turn off the cable, which I wanted to get rid of because I'm not using it, is bad and irritating. Attempting to not have a panic attack every five minutes when I think about my mammogram next week is very bad.  

However, there are also the good things about being an adult. And chief among those things is dating as an adult. Dating one pretty fantastic guy, that is, as opposed to being actively on the dating scene. I have no idea what playing the field is like, and frankly would rather never know. I had an OKCupid profile in the last year, but deliberately peppered it with things I knew would mean I'd never be contacted (doesn't drink, recently divorced, stays home, bores you), because I was terrified to date. And to date a complete stranger, whose word you have to take for everything...? God, no. Not with what I've been through.

It's funny; when friends asked me when I was going to start dating, the thing I always thought and never said was, "When one of Olivia and Feste's guy friends is single." I didn't even consider that thought, or come up with reasons why their friends would be the type of guys for me (logically, it makes sense, but the thought popped into my head without weighing it). And so, when Olivia sent me a text slyly suggesting that I come up to their beach house on this specific day for specific reasons, instead of responding that I would be busy hiding under my bed that day (which I probably would have done had anyone else sent me that text), I thought, Okay, let's give this a try, and put on a shamelessly flattering dress and indulged in AC on the drive there. AC! In a car with a black interior, on a 90-degree day, in New England! Why don't I just move to Las Vegas and live on fried cheese, hedonist that I am! 

My monstrously decadent effort to arrive neither shiny nor sweaty apparently worked, though our first date was on a day when it was, at a conservative estimate, eight million degrees and two thousand percent humidity, so that by the end of it he could probably see his reflection in my nose. He called me for a second date anyway.

For several years now I have been watching friends who are in their thirties meet significant others, and fall fast, and move fast. I know several people who got married within a year of meeting their future spouse. I viewed this with intense concern, from the interior of a failing marriage between two people who fell fast and hard for each other.

"It's different when you're in your thirties!" my friends said. "It's so much easier! You know who you are!"

Oh, please, I thought, remembering the way Claudio and I, twenty-three and twenty-four, knew that we were meant for each other forever. How different can it be?

And then I was single and thirty-five, wondering how I would ever feel confident and desirable enough to date after having my world-without-end bargain turn into a rejection of everything I am.

"It's easier!" people kept saying. "Dating as an adult is easier!"

My ass, I kept thinking. My confidence is shot. And it's about confidence, right?

Well. It turned out that, after living by myself for a year, after dealing with cancer, after figuring out a lot about my priorities and what I want and need from the people in my life, it wasn't about walking into a date with some sort of mythical bottomless confidence. It was about walking into a date knowing what makes me happy. Not what validates me as a human being; not what gives me the right to exist, loathsome as I am, because Look I Have a Boyfriend! But what makes me happy. 

That really is what it all came down to. I am still self-conscious about lots of things, my complexion primary among them (especially in summer). But at twenty-four I would have spent that whole first date staring at the floor, pre-emptively crushed because I knew that no one will ever fall for me with my red greasy July skin, and I would have already resigned myself to never hearing from him again, and of course I wouldn't have. And I would have been fixated on that to the extent of not actually processing whether or not I wanted to hear from him again. With that self-loathing voice in your head, you can't hear anything else. You can't get out of your own head long enough to see if you actually like the person you're with. At thirty-five, I was interested in what he had to say, and whether I liked what I was learning about him, and there wasn't any committee in my brain working overtime to try and construct responses he'd like. When he asked questions, I just answered them. Because I knew that if we didn't delight each other then we'd simply call it a day and move on, and it wouldn't mean that either of us was permanently unlovable.

(Of course, that makes me sound like I had it completely together and wasn't nervous at all. Ha! At one point he said something mildly suggestive and winked - literally winked! - at me, and my flirtatious response consisted of stuttering and then saying, "UH." Lauren Bacall, eat your heart out.)

This seems to be adulthood. That, and never for one second not being myself around him. I had a brief spate of panic when I wondered what will happen when the real, boring Beatrice emerges, after all these exciting dates during which I pretended to be spontaneous and social, because that is what happened when I was in my early twenties; and then I realized that the real, boring Beatrice is not waiting in the wings. Berowne has been going on dates with her all along.

"So," says Adulthood, "what was it that everyone was saying about it being easier? That you scorned?"

"Yeah, yeah," I say. "Come back when you can help with this body image thing."

Because, alas, one thing I don't seem able to outgrow is the body image problem. Now - and this is important both in that people who worry about me read this and in that I know what a major change it is - I do not engage in disordered eating any more, and I haven't for years. I am justly proud of the fact that when the old self-hatreds loom at me in the mirror, five minutes later if I'm hungry I am going to damn well eat. I love food. I love the social ritual of eating. I hate being hungry, and everyone around me hates it when I'm hungry, and my little exercise addiction and a decent metabolism mean I can usually eat what I want and stay relatively slim. Less so as I age, of course. But I refuse to ever starve myself again.

So my eating habits are not being affected by my body image issues. But my feelings are, and that is still hard. I am regaining the weight I lost in early June; unfortunately, I'm not regaining it because I am eating lean protein and putting muscle mass back on. I am regaining it because I can no longer watch a BBC period drama without eating an entire pint of ice cream, and Netflix has a lot of BBC period dramas available. Next week I have a work physical which involves finding out my weight and body fat percentage, and I am worried about the result making me unhappy. It is very, very hard for me not to believe that thinner is always better; not to feel sexier and worthier of attention when I'm ten pounds underweight. I don't know if that will ever change. Maybe not acting on those feelings is the best I'll be able to do.

Gah! Let's talk about something more cheerful.

On the good side of self-image, my hairdresser has taken to cutting my already-pixie-short hair shorter and shorter, just because (she says) I can get away with it. Last month I was startled by the shortness, and this month she went even farther. I look like Joan of Arc, if Joan of Arc was thirty-five and had opinions on air-conditioning (she probably would have, if they'd had it). And I really like it. The morning after having it cut, looking at myself with my cropped hair and nothing to hide behind, I thought, "This is my face," and experienced a deep pleasure at the thought.

It wasn't vanity, I'd hope; and the thought wasn't, "This is my beautiful face." It's just my face. Asymmetrical and long-nosed, with frequently bad skin, deep laughter lines around the eyes, and one age-spotted area where I apparently missed with the sunscreen every day for decades. And I like it more the less ability I have to hide it behind anything.

Adulthood. A mixed bag, but on the whole miles better than what came before. It's working out for me, at any rate. Now if I could just find that cable box and have time to read something.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

vacation, magic, tabloids, hardy men

So, I went to Canada for five days with my mother, my older brother, and his girlfriend. We had a wonderful time seeing plays and eating a ton. I brought several nice outfits and then wore the same pair of jeans for three days, which makes a successful vacation in my book. I am distinctly chubbier than when I left, which should be a good thing - I needed to put on weight - but I am having a hard time seeing it as such. Ah, body image issues, you are so much fun! Please go away now!

We saw a mediocre "Henry V" (the title actor didn't have much range and too much energy was put into making the production movie-like), a sweet "Much Ado About Nothing", a fascinating "Elektra" (very stylized, very modern, beautiful translation), a wonderful "Cymbeline", and an excellent "Pirates of Penzance" (was getting bad reviews, we don't like the actor playing the Pirate King, we were very worried; and then it was steampunky and slapstick and hilarious and great). Just lovely.

On the trip I finished The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, which I eventually decided I didn't like. It is about two young magicians whose mentors set them against each other (but of course they fall in loooove), and the competition takes the form of a magical circus with increasingly complicated exhibitions and performances. Too much of this book was description of the exhibitions, which Morgenstern didn't do well enough, and the magic didn't follow its own rules all the time (the hero's magic did, but the heroine was of course perfect and so could do anything she wanted). Some of the supporting characters were fun, but the hero and heroine were very dull, and this book ended up being just far too twee for me.

Then I read The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins. It's about the newspaper coverage of a dismembered body found in New York City in 1897, and is quite fascinating. My one problem with it is that Collins introduces too many policemen and journalists too early and then expects us to remember them all. I lost track of which journalist worked for which paper, and occasionally couldn't remember whether the man in a given scene was a journalist or a detective. But other than that it was an excellent read.    

And then I decided to give A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon, a whirl. I picked it up from the library, thinking trash would be good for vacation reading. And I have read other books in this series, so I know they are serious trash. A couple years ago I ran across the first one in a used bookstore; reading the back, I realized that I had actually encountered this book at my cousin's house many years before, when I was still young enough to have a fairly giddy reaction to explicit sex in books.* And by the time I found it again, that cousin had died. So that day I headed to the counter with Outlander, and its two sequels which had also been gifted to the used bookstore, out of nostalgia more than anything else.

Well, I did not have to read long before realizing why someone, possibly my cousin, had donated all three at a wallop, but apparently in the intervening years I forgot just how bad they are. The premise is that our perfect-in-every-way author proxy heroine travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 and meets a six-foot-five Scotsman with perfect teeth. As one does. And then there is lots of sex. And lots of homophobia. And lots of racism. But mostly the madness lies in the gender roles, which are so bad and so offensive that just the first hundred pages of A Breath of Snow and Ashes (which was all I managed) was enough to make me lose my mind. During the two days I was reading it, I tried about four times to pick a fight with Berowne, simply because whenever he sent me a chat message all I could picture was a drunken unwashed Gabaldon hero, stabbing brutishly at his iPhone with a body part not necessarily his finger, grunting, "My woman!" and looking forward to the time when he can force himself on me, in public, while I say, "No," because that is what a real romantic hero does.

You may think I'm making that up. I'm not, and the character performing this charming act on his wife is from the twentieth century, not the eighteenth. Ladies and gentlemen, Diana Gabaldon's idea of true love. I hope you were not eating while reading this.   

Berowne, not being a Gabaldon hero, reacted to my incendiary attempts with mild bafflement rather than condescension and physical assault, and eventually I put this terrible book aside and almost immediately realized it had been making me insane. (Yes, I apologized to him.)

I'm home now, with my dogs, and have retrieved the muscle car from Claudio, so I have transportation even if it is very silly transportation. I get to see Berowne soon. I'm reading books I like. Things are pretty darn good.

*So I was probably about twenty-one.