FRESH YARN presents:
Officer Frank tells me I'm lucky I'm not dead.
Then he tells me why I shouldn't bother pressing charges. "Even if we caught 'em, million to one shot you'll get anything outta 'em. Cut your losses, chalk it off to a bad day."
I stare at his bald spot sticking out like an area rug plopped on freshly cut grass. I watch the tow truck yank away the royal blue mangled accordion that used to be my car. And I start laughing like hell.
Officer Frank just stares at me. "Maybe you should go get checked out by a doctor."
I try containing my hysterics. Fail. Try again.
Perhaps if I'd played my damsel in distress card with any degree of aplomb, he'd have offered me a ride home.
But I am, after all, my mother's daughter.
My mother, all 5' 3" and 110 pounds of her now, was built of South Philly stock -- where everyone was tough, the women just kept it secret. If asked to, Mom could change a flat tire, tweak leaking faucets, and throw a speedball better than anyone three row houses over. But most of the time she baked mandel bread, finished class assignments with stellar penmanship, and played the violin for bored neighbors.
She grew up with perfect teeth, perfect SAT scores, and got a Masters in French while most of her friends majored in Pre-Wed. She had time. So she took it.
The day she finally got married she laid out a budget on hotel stationery, and told my father they were ready to have kids.
Seven years of infertility drugs followed, prescribed by short-sighted doctors with limited resources. Four years in, after everyone she knew was making several laps around the Baby Track, she packed up and moved to France with my father, where cutting edge trials were surpassing any options they had Stateside. They both spoke the language fluently, and were obsessed with warm baguettes. Three years of hormones and poisons injected into her arms, legs, and rear-end at unpredictable, inconvenient times. Timing was everything. My brother was their miracle baby. I followed two years after.
Mom was never a homemaker. But if she'd have cursed more in polyester suits and leaned a little farther to the Left, she could've been FEMA Chair.
Growing up in Jersey, I learned how to change tires and fix leaky faucets, but could never do it without ruining my brand new shirt. I didn't learn violin or how to cook mandel bread. But I learned Mom's art of smiling, doing the work, and taking hits however they came. "Lucky day," my mother would always say, no matter what was going wrong. In the world of glass half-empty/half-full, Mom never weighed in; she was too busy figuring out how to fill it to the top next go-round.
So when she called me and left a message on my voice mail that just said, "Lucky Day," I knew to call back right away.
It was 2001, and I'd just passed under six skies in six days, New Jersey to Delaware, Tennessee to Arkansas to Texas, en route to college. Six skies away from my mother on the other end of the line, telling me something I didn't want to hear. I smiled through clenched teeth as I followed crude gas station directions, turning left, right, left, down Austin city streets I suddenly didn't give a shit about. I was paying attention to the voice on my cell phone. For the first time in my life I was struck with the idea there might be a limit to my mother's words.
I tapped on my thigh, in rhythm with music I couldn't block out and I pulled into Barton Springs. I didn't see the pecan trees and walnut groves that lined the mile-stretch of water. I simply stopped the car, left my keys in the ignition, and threw my body on the grass.
"This stupid thing," my mother called it.
She never used the "C" word. Never will. She never said prognosis or hospital or radiation. I rested my elbows on my knees, my hands running through my scalp, brand new cowboy boots pointing up to the sky.
"Lucky day, huh?" I said to my mom.
"Your father's been getting fantastic parking spots all afternoon," she said.
I told her I loved her. She told me not to drive too late at night without "two flares and a spare".
The next day they launched a nuclear war inside my mother, inside the same flesh I once depended on for love and vitamins. No target dates. No guarantees. Only mothers, doctors, drugs, and prayers pressed tight between my father's fat fingers.
Five years later, we were all experts in pharmacology, wig design, hip hospital lingo, and fashioning surreptitious means of throwing up in public places. I hadn't finished undergrad, but got my Masters in Navigating Red Tape, and a PhD in Managing the Moronic Masses. My mother got to keep both her breasts and one of her day jobs.
The day her margins and mammograms came back clear, she celebrated with a piece of chocolate cake, two glasses of red wine, and told me to get the heck out of her house. She kissed my hands, then threw my empty duffel bag on my head.
No one ever expects that first call, that first time. No one ever imagines hearing their mother talk about "options." The second call, the second time... there's no shock. More like resignation. Sure, you've taken vacations, and completed degrees, moved across the country, made plans and kept them for the first time in ages. But it was always as if you were waiting, no matter how many years later, for the phone to ring.
When it did, when my father said the word "spread," I hung up, and started making calls. Not to my aunt, or boyfriend, or airlines to find a way to get my ass home to New Jersey and fast. I called the doctor, made an appointment for the next day, ate a plate full of veggie stir fry without oil, took a shot of Nyquil, and went to bed.
The next day, a hirsute doctor with an excellent reputation and worn shoes told me he'd have his nurse come in to speak more in-depth about "psychological ramifications." Before I could ask him why I was in a paper gown if I only wanted a blood test, he was already out the door.
A tiny nurse
with big hair and no sense of humor came in, sat down next to me, titled
her head, and asked me why I thought this was a good idea.
I told her about my mother. I told her about the first time, and now this time, and how there isn't going to be a this time or next time for me, not if I can help it. One blood test would tell me if I had the mutated gene: BRCA1 or 2. I'd done the research. My insurance wouldn't cover it and I didn't give a shit. The test for the breast cancer gene was imperfect, but out there, and I wanted it. She looked at me like she was thinking of herself, like she had Issues, the way her eyebrows furrowed and she nodded too much.
Here I was, I thought I had time. I thought I could take it. I didn't want to be wrong.
Getting the test would be peace of mind, I assured her.
"Not always," she said, and waited for me to ask her to expound upon that pithy nugget of vagueness.
I didn't ask her to. I'd memorized every paragraph in every available article from NCI to Sloan-Kettering to Susan Komen. Test positive, you run the risk of being a poster child for fatalism. Test negative, Survivor Guilt so thick you can't see straight.
But I already knew that feeling all too well. The year my mom first got her "all clear," two close friends lost their mothers to cancer. The next year, when my duties as a Hollywood assistant unexpectedly included cancer research, I stayed late, put together packets and primers, and bought wig stands for people I barely knew. With everything I knew, I was powerless, helpless, and, ultimately, irrelevant.
"Survivor guilt isn't getting good test results," I told the nurse, unable to look her in the eye. "It's still having my mom when a two-year-old doesn't."
I looked up. She went back into the hall, spoke with the doctor in hushed tones. And she came back with three empty vials and a needle that I swear she just threw in out of spite.
Three weeks later, I stared into the doctor's fat, hairy face. I couldn't stop counting the pores on his nose.
"It's not a life sentence," he tried to assure me. I knew that. "You have options." I knew that, too.
The women in my family are already well versed in the modern definition of Women's Preventative Medicine. Two of my cousins had their kids by age 30 and cut out their uteruses on account of their mom. And aunt. Mom will take five years of tamoxifen, again, after her cancer clears.
I'm suddenly a percentile, a positive on a chart. Up to 87% chance I'll develop breast cancer and up to 44% chance for ovarian cancer in my lifetime. My mother's history is my present: Ashkenazi Jew, daughter of a woman with breast cancer, Hormone Replacement Therapy and fertility drugs that were pumped through her and possibly into me. I am my mother's daughter.
The fat doctor, I could tell, wanted me to cry. But I didn't. Not even after he told me I could consider having children soon, then opt for preventative bilateral mastectomy and oophorectomy before 35. One clear way to reduce the risk of getting "women's cancer" is to remove that which biologically (and socially) defines me as a woman.
I wanted to ask my doctor how fast he thought they'd come up with a pill or something if the only way to prevent prostate cancer was to cut off his penis. Instead, I smiled, I gave Nurse with Issues my co-pay, and I waited to say every curse word I could think of in every combination imaginable once I got into my car. (Windows rolled up.)
The rest of the day I spend driving around Los Angeles with nowhere to go. For fifteen minutes I let myself say the words "time" and "mastectomy" out loud. I let myself think about having children and not having children, and imagine scars, and picture a lame cartoon rain cloud looming over my head. And then I tell myself to shut the hell up, quit whining, and keep driving.
I do errands for my boss that can wait, and when he looks at me and asks me if I'm okay, and I say yes, he knows I'm lying and he lets me. I call automated tellers and pay my gas bill, my phone bill, my overdue credit card bill. I call the airline to settle frequent flyer mile issues. I call my friends and make dinner plans. I do not call my mother.
I keep driving. I hear every CD I have in my car, then I stop at the CD store, pick up Bob Dylan's "Oh Mercy," and blast songs about Love Gone Wrong.
I'm heading off the freeway, five minutes from my apartment, when I'm hit head on.
My car makes the same sound I did when I was six and pulled out my mom's old violin and started jack-rabbiting away on it. It takes me a minute to get my bearings. Stupid Dylan, I think, making me do something stupid. I get out of the car and check to see if I did anything wrong. The guy in front of me stumbles out of his Chevy pickup. He's drunk, pock-faced, and completely unaware he's just driven the wrong way onto a freeway off-ramp. He takes one look at my face, looks at my totaled car, gets in his truck, tosses two empty beer cans out of the window, and bolts away.
I stare at my phone for a minute or four. I don't call my mother. I don't call my boss for help. I don't call anyone to pick me up. I call the police.
Officer Frank tells me to cut my losses. People die from things like this all the time. It's the drunk guy's fault, sure, but there's no one to really blame.
It occurs to me that's exactly what I've been driving around for 12 hours looking for. And even now, I'm empty handed.
As he rides off, I dial my mom.
Car accident. Head on, drunk driver, no insurance, I tell her. I can hear her breathing on the other line, a little thin. She sounds like she always does, about two minutes before the Cytoxan gets to her and she needs to excuse herself to vomit.
"Did you not just hear me, Mom? Car is completely totaled."
"Let me call you right back." I wait three minutes on the side of the freeway, then call myself a cab. My phone rings again.
"I'm back. Call waiting." I know she's lying, and she knows I know, too. "Are you in the hospital?"
"No," I say.
"Do you have every limb you woke up with this morning still attached?"
"Are you on the phone with your mother speaking in full sentences?"
"Yes, Mom, I am."
"Lucky day. Go get yourself a nice sandwich."
I tell her
about Officer Frank, the pock-marked evil man with beer cans at his feet,
the new Dylan album I picked up in the clearance bin. I don't say a word
about options or Nurses with Issues or test results. I don't cry to her
about time. We have it. We take it.
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