1991 – Mother, daughter, author, angry woman


What is the old saying? "If you want God to laugh, make plans." In 1991 I was ready to put breast cancer behind me. I had been reconstructed and looked like all the other moms. My group had become a safe haven for expressing my deepest fears, and I had grown to love the women I came to know so well. We cried and laughed and, through them, I was beginning to heal. I had begun writing a book about breast cancer that was almost finished called The Breast Cancer Companion. It was going to be my breast cancer swan song so to speak. My farewell to breast cancer. Tom's consulting business was doing well and Kirtley was growing into a bright, wonderful, funny child.I discovered my second home was the classroom, and I had a real penchant for teaching writing – not the easiest thing in the world to teach. Of course, nonfiction is much easier to teach than fiction because if someone isn't creative, they just aren't, and if you think it's easy to make up stories, try it sometime. Nonfiction on the other hand, takes perseverance, and that I have. I also have curiosity about the human condition so asking women questions about how they had handled breast cancer was easy, and I quickly became fast friends with every one of the 90 some women and men I interviewed for my book. To find them, I created a fact sheet and had a number of doctors offer to leave it in their exam room to see if women would be willing to be interviewed. This was before patient confidentiality requirements, and we could do stuff like that back then. I had an agent who was shopping it around in New York and she had a lot of interest from a fairly big publisher. Then, in October, my mother called and told me she needed a breast biopsy. When she told me she had had the lump for eight months, I couldn't believe it. She had been too busy, she told me, to do anything. My brother had had brain surgery and, well , there was just too much going on. On top of that, she had had bad mammography. Mom's lump, now the size of a small egg, was up under her breast and close to the chest wall and mammography had missed it until it was huge. My sister and I took her to the day surgery building and went to lunch while she was having the biopsy with my surgeon. I kept thinking she couldn't have breast cancer because it couldn't happen to both of us. When we got back to the building I went in looking for mom in one of the recliners lining the wall with all the other women who were recovering. She wasn't there. My stomach started to clench as the nurse nodded toward the small, private cubbies. "Oh," said my sister. "She is over here. That's nice. They gave her a private place." But it wasn't. She was there because she had cancer. I hated that I knew that. My surgeon Sally was with her when we walked in, and Mom started crying and apologizing. So Mom. Apologizing because she had cancer. "I never thought I could get cancer because you had it," she said. "Well there probably wasn't any reason to think that," I said, knowing that now was not the time to blow up at her for waiting eight months to get the lump check out. The next week she had the other scans and when we met at the surgeon's office to go over the pathology report, I again hated that I knew what it said. She had lesions in her lungs. My mother's cancer was already metastatic. When Sally went over the pathology report with her, Mom looked at me for a translation. What do you say to your mother when you know she is dying? I looked at Sally, "Did you make an appointment for us with Bob yet?" I asked, referring to my oncologist. She nodded. "He said he can see you this afternoon if you want to go over now. He'll wait.""Isn't he sweet," Mom said, or something like that. She was treating it like we were all going out to lunch instead of planning to talk about which drugs she would get that probably wouldn't do any good. In a way, I wanted her to stay that way. My mother had been a take-charge kind of person all her life. As the wife of a Naval officer she had traveled the world with four children, always making it interesting for us as she struggled to organize our lives and the life of our father. But she looked at it like a great adventure. How many times had I heard the story of traveling to Japan in 1954 on a converted destroyer with all the other dependents. Mom was alone with us. Dad went on before as was the Navy way to make ready. So here she was in a cabin on the fourth level below water level with four children ages, 7,5, and 6-month old twins for a two-week ocean crossing. I can still vividly recall the day the ship pulled into Sasebo, Japan. On the dock was a sea of officers all dressed in uniforms with white hats. Mom pointed and said, "There's daddy." She often said she needed to write a book. She was smart and taught me how to gather information better than any journalism class. Maybe it was those years as an FBI secretary before WWII. You get my drift. But she was tired, and the woman I saw on that table wanted me to take charge, so I did. We went that day to see my oncologist, who was now my mother's oncologist. You just don't think you will share your oncologist with your mother. We tried three different regimens with mom. None worked and each made her sicker. On the last one in spring of 1992, she told me she wanted to stop because she felt so bad. She felt so guilty, like she wasn't trying hard enough. We all reassured her that she had done her best. We knew it.When she died in May, 1992, my brother decided to build her coffin. He is an expert woodworker, and it was beautiful. All her grandchildren helped with it. She would have been so pleased. Me, I was angry. I watched my precious child go up to see her grandmother at the visitation, and I was seething. "Not my daughter," I screamed at the universe, realizing that the deadly worm I had survived had just killed my mother. Was it somewhere else in my family, too? I was a mother, a daughter , a sister and an angry woman. At that moment angry woman was winning. The next day I found out that William Morrow had bought my book. Breast cancer had just become my life's work. I dedicated it to my husband, my daughter and my mother.P.S. I just realized that today is my mom's birthday.

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