A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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— for Gregory
“IMAGINE that you are a house,” my oncologist, who is a nice enough guy despite his poison needles, says to me, “and that there is a thief in this house, a very sneaky, harmful thief who wants to take everything you have, take over your house, and stay for good. . . .”
And drag me into the basement and snicker, I think, like Chuckie, the evil horror-movie doll, while he chews the remains of my shaky belief system between his teeth.
I am sitting on the doctor’s sterile examining table, playing with my dark, flowing ponytail: the hair I see as my sensual self, the curly ends that I love, the whole bundle of which I enjoy sticking through the back hole of my Yankees cap like the proud Bronx girl I still perceive myself to be, down inside, despite my distant gaze.
“And the only way we know to keep this thief at bay,” my oncologist goes on, “is to blast a cannon into your house, destroying some good things, many of them things that you love, to get at the bad thing that’s hiding there. We might break some valuable antiques along the way, because we must break them. But later you can replace the antiques.”
His secret weapon: metaphor. The guy knows my weakness for it because on my second visit I gave him a couple of books I’ve written, one poetry and one journalism. Or maybe he just uses this line on all his pain-in-the-ass patients who question him to death about how to avoid death.
Truth is, I gave him the books not so much from any leftover generosity from my waning socialist beliefs as in an attempt to avoid becoming a forgettable number, like I was at the pink women’s health clinic that misdiagnosed me, telling me that the lump was nothing. That’s what they told me: “It’s nothing.” The place made me wish that Hawkeye Pierce were my doctor, wish that I were in a tent somewhere in the Korean mountains, with primitive tools and limited anesthesia, not in inner-city Paterson, New Jersey, at a well-funded faux paradise of pink bows and pink couches and flowered walls and peppy, positive paintings and appointment-reminder cards decorated with tiny pink smiley faces, all to hide their incompetence, to camouflage the truth, to tell me I was fine when I instinctively knew otherwise. As if this bomb had gone off inside me before. As if I had dreamt about it once in some made-for-TV movie of my subconscious.
“Just trust me,” my oncologist says.
I stare vacantly at him, feeling the pointed questions rise within me, the relentless reporter I have relied on for years looking for answers, searching for truth from the outside in, banging my head against the wall. Questions like: Should I listen to this guy and his “5 percent better survival rate if you do this; 3 percent better if you do that”? Followed by How tough am I really? and What the hell do I really believe in, anyhow?
Thing is, I did not think I would have to answer this last question till later in life: at least age fifty, if not fifty-five, like my mother. I remember how my family and I had to talk her into chemotherapy, which she predicted would not work. (As always, my mother was right.) She said she would rather stay at home and read her Bible, bedridden and frail — “He maketh me lie down in green pastures . . .” — than go for treatments at Columbia Presbyterian. But we convinced her to let the needles kill the bad within her. Lacking the thief-in-the-house imagery, we resorted to plain begging.
At the end, too weak to speak, my mother somehow managed to get out the words of her favorite Psalm — “I shall fear no evil . . .” — the one she told me to memorize in high school because it would calm me in future days. She pulled the words from a place so deep within her that, for a moment, watching her, I forgot that I was losing her.
“Every case is different,” my oncologist reassures me, as my breast surgeon did before him. My surgeon, an intelligent woman with a sense of humor dark enough for truth and light enough for hope, has framed artwork by children hanging in her plush office in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. She gave me back my faith in pink bows — that is, if I ever had faith in bows before, or the color pink.
Sitting here now in my oncologist’s office, a few months after the surgery, I twirl my hair and listen to details about going after the thief with the latest chemical-warfare strategies. I try to imagine myself bald and nauseous, like my mother, and my mind plays ping-pong with the words evil and cancer: the cancer of evil, the evil of cancer, the cancer of evil . . . my new mantra.
But there is no time for mind games: chemo and radiation, both necessary, my doctor insists. I leave his office in a daze, knowing that cancer is an enemy to fear, yet not wanting to be afraid of anything. I wonder how deep inside me the answers to my pending decisions are buried. Part of me knows that the cure goes beyond what their weapons can touch, that I must search for it from the inside out.
But, being an activist reporter by trade — an identity that I once pinned to my chest to define me — I first exhaust myself with research. I buy all the books, look at all the Internet sites about breast cancer: the alternatives of Gary Null and Lorraine Day, the breast bible of Susan Love. I read them long into the night. And in the end, I basically listen to my doctors anyway. I turn down a few treatments along the way — my doctors sometimes agree with me, sometimes look at me as if I were crazy — but mostly I take their advice.
MY MAN, a Vietnam veteran and painter of pictures, takes care of me when I am throwing up and too sick to eat and too weak to stand. He cares for me the way only a veteran can, reminding me the entire way that I will be a survivor, like him. That’s what he said when I called him at my home, right after the hospital told me I had breast cancer, the same hospital that three months before had told me I was finer than fine. “You will be a survivor now,” he said. “Come home.”
When I got back to my apartment, he told me I would be like the painting of his that hangs above my couch, a favorite of mine called The Happy Survivor: a strange, wide-eyed creature with a third eye and a vibrant red-and-gold bull’s-eye mandala over its heart, standing behind a white line. I, too, will be at that place, a grinning knower on one side of the line, with the bulk of humanity, who do not quite get the beauty of every single moment, on the other. They never knew this terrible happiness, or else have forgotten it, a luxury my man says I will never be able to afford again. And he swears I will be fine, the way a white light told him he would be fine when he was left to die in a crossfire in Cu Chi in ’69.
We’d never discussed his war experience much before. I knew only that he felt survivor’s guilt, which I could not really understand despite my attraction to the floating spirits in his work. For years I wandered around the perimeters of his painful silences. But now the gap was gone. He was able to talk:
“I had the M-79, and each shot lit up the night like a flashbulb. I had no cover, and I had to roll after each shot, because the dirt was being shot up by bullets wherever I was. I shot all my rounds. I was out of ammunition. Then the mortars started. They came in right on top of us, some as close as four feet away. Sergeant Swoope was killed immediately. He was right next to me, a nice guy from Newark, a kid, really, like me. Another soldier was pinned beneath him and wounded in the legs. I couldn’t get Sergeant Swoope off the other soldier, and the mortars kept coming, along with small-arms fire and grenades. I got hit in the right shoulder and I was helpless and out of ammunition and the mortars kept coming. There must have been fifty of them. The only reason I am alive is because the VC thought we were dead. It wasn’t my time. And it isn’t yours.”
A YEAR PASSES. It is September 11, and I am sitting under a walnut tree in my sister’s beautiful backyard in upstate New York, drinking green tea and reading a book about Zen. My hair is growing back. It has come back very curly — tight curls, like an Afro. I am a “sista” now, says my next-door neighbor Candace, a certifiable Black American Princess with a serious addiction to Manolo Blahnik shoes, tennis bracelets, and cellphones. She has an infallible ability to cheer me up. I don’t know what to do with my hair except what she suggests, which is to keep it “fashionably close” to my head, practically shaved. I find a perverse freedom in this that I would never have thought possible only a year ago. But at the moment, I sit and sip and read, not really caring about such ridiculous details as hair.
In the days before this one, I felt my cells die inside me — mostly good ones, although I imagine they killed some bad ones, too. In a delirious fever after the first treatment, I told my sister this as she sat beside me — that I felt my individual cells falling away from me like autumn leaves, that I felt myself dying. I heard her muffled tears. Then I heard her call my oncologist at home to tell him what I was saying, and he answered that it wasn’t true, I wasn’t really dying, and he prescribed some pills for anxiety, which put me to sleep.
In the days that followed, the delirium returned, the feeling of parts within me drifting away. Simultaneously, I felt every bad thing I’d ever done in my life spin around in my head and connect to every other bad thing in some kind of bizarre organizational chart. And I asked for forgiveness. From whom, I still do not know. Myself, I think.
So, sitting in my sister’s backyard beneath the walnut tree a year later, I want peace. Every moment. I am not banging my head against the wall these days over corruption and poverty and cruelty, over things outside myself and beyond my ability to change. I want to stay healthy, to keep the thief out, to keep the good cells happy and the bad ones at bay, and to meditate about nobody else’s truth but my own.
And I am getting pretty good at this game, this inverse reality intended to bring me inner peace. Look at me doing so well here, sipping my tea, reading peaceful thoughts on a peaceful morning beneath this peaceful tree.
My sister’s house painter, a reformed drug addict and born-again Christian, is painting lavender trim on the side of the house behind the walnut tree. Yesterday he ranted to me about the out-of-control greed in the world. I told him not to get so worked up because it would make him sick (feeling I had some authority to predict this). Now he slides down off his ladder and asks if he can turn on the television inside. He just heard on his Walkman that the World Trade Center was hit by a plane.
I sip my green tea. I don’t want to go in. I want to read my book on Zen. I don’t want to know about this.
But despite my newfound intention to regard the problems of the world as a dream, I put my book down and get up. The house painter and I watch the second plane hit. And for days to come I sit in front of the television, which I had given up along with coffee and sugar and white bread.
I am not shocked at all. If anything, I am shocked by how many other people are shocked. I know that there will be a Precious Moments figurine about all of this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. And I know America will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind correct purchases made at the mall.
I get back home to New Jersey, and I watch the countless cars zoom past in front of my apartment building. The city has rerouted Route 80 traffic onto my street, but hasn’t bothered to put in a light or a crossing guard or, God forbid, a pedestrian walkway. I have watched cars almost run over children and old people, and I’ve written letters to city hall — all ignored. As the cars speed by today, the flags on their windows create a red-white-and-blue blur before my eyes, like the trails in a bad acid trip. I try to see this, too, as part of the dream. I see people looking shocked, see the liquid fear in their eyes, and wonder if I once looked the same.
And with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get at the thief who has robbed us of innocent lives and threatens us still; of hitting large territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. And the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.
I do not know where all of it is going. I only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. The thief is inside all of us. And part of the cure, at least, lies in knowing that.