If You Ever by Laura Winther Galaviz
In the Center for Women, there is the outer waiting room, where everyone still has her dignity, and then there is the inner waiting room. By the time we land here, we’ve surrendered everything from the waist up to a locker in exchange for a numbered keychain. We’ve rubbed the deodorant from our armpits with wet wipes that leave us smelling like a diaper change, and then we are led to and left in a horseshoe of chairs, in a room with no clock. The gowns we’ve been given tie around the waist, but uselessly; we all look like we’re wearing our fathers’ bathrobes, loose and gaping and hanging to our ankles. We cross our arms over our chests—to keep things covered, and to hold ourselves in. Maybe there is an equivalent room for men somewhere in the hospital, but in the case that there isn’t, I will tell you this: something about this room will make you feel depressingly human—vulnerable—all of us half-dressed and uncomfortable, waiting to have our breasts squeezed and inspected to find out whether or not they are quietly killing us.
The first year, the nurse dropped me in the inner waiting room, but before I’d even chosen a magazine she reappeared, apologetic-eyed, and said that the radiologist wouldn’t see me. You’re too young, she told me. He says it’s unnecessary. Actually, what she said was that he refused, and it set o f in me what I can only describe as desperation, a need to be soothed, assured, the way I seek out my partner after an argument.
The body speaks a language you are not trained to translate, and so you cannot possibly know if the intermittent ache in your right breast is a side-effect of ovulation, or a tiny pearl of a tumor, pulsing out a warning signal. It’s because of the radiation, she confides. There are guidelines and there are best practices, and then there is your one and only life, the image of how your mother left this world, writhing on her bed, her addled mind projecting hallucinations onto the bedroom wall. And there is the reality of your son in his school a block from the hospital, waiting for you to pick him up because there is no other parent to do it. And to be told to wait? Because of averages and likelihoods, an actuarial projection? Is unthinkable. That year and every year since, the hospital has fought me on the mammogram, but ultimately bent after a call from my doctor. But after my appointment this year—my third—they are the ones calling; the nurse on the other end of the phone is saying not that I shouldn’t come, but that I ought to come back, for a closer look. One more picture, just one small spot. Dense is the way they describe it, but I’ve been told this before. It’s very, very dense, all of that tissue.
When I was nineteen, maybe twenty, I was driving my mom to the mall and she was trying to tell me that about the women in our family—the dense thing. I wasn’t hearing it then, though; I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking about, but I can guarantee you that it had to do with a boy whose name I no longer remember, with an old regret. No real harm had befallen anyone I knew, and the world seemed safe and fair, like it’s meant to when you’re nineteen. Her adult fears felt distant and weightless, an idle conversation about the chance of rain. What I remember her saying is, “It’s just really dense. So if they tell you that, that’s all that’s about. It’s no big deal,” and I heard it with the same urgency as, If you would ever like to roast a chicken, here is how you should go about it, and I fled it away in the same overstuffed folder, labeled If You Ever.
Except it was a big deal after all. Less than a decade later, my mom left the world on a gray Thursday morning in October, after only fifty-seven years in it.
When we were driving, I had cut her o f before the end, exasperated. Mom. Okay. The only thing I remember hearing is barely a word of it. Now, fifteen years later, the nurses ask me questions that I have to call my dad to answer—Did Mom have genetic testing? Did Mom get called back after mammograms? But he listened to her the same way that I listened and now, six years after her death, I am wondering if anyone heard my mother when she spoke, if anyone has heard all of the things that I have said and meant.
The outer waiting room is filled almost entirely with men, bored or nervous or some combination of the two. No one is waiting for me out there, because I haven’t invited, haven’t allowed, anyone to wait. It’s another condition that I have inherited from my mom. The people I know are scared to die alone but, right now, I am much more afraid to be someone’s someone—their everything, but mostly their burden.
My dad took care of my mom in every way he knew how, and when he ran out of ways, he invented new ones. There was exercise. One day he left us at home together and insisted that I make her walk around the block. It was early March, and Michigan was bare and bleak, everything the color of cement. In the middle of the day in my parents’ subdivision, no one was home but us, and it was so quiet that you could believe you were walking through a model town, one of the small Christmas villages my friends’ parents erected on coffee tables for the month of December. We got halfway down the street before she turned to me, exasperated, her lips pursed defiantly, and said, “There. We did it. Fine. Enough,” and turned back. It was hard to argue, because it was my mom and still there was that between us—the balance of power—and also because I couldn’t blame her. Being there, looking around, it was hard to remember what you were doing it for.
And there was diet. During my mother’s second round of chemo, a company that sold a menu of healthy pre-made dinners intended for weight loss moved into an empty storefront downtown, and my dad signed her up, convinced diet would be the difference. There were trays of perfectly portioned salmon, green beans, rice preserved under a film of plastic, and he stacked them in the fridge and warmed them up for her, and she choked them down with a look of murder on her face. The day they did the scan that told us the cancer was not retreating, was undaunted by what we were feeding it, my parents stopped at an Olive Garden on the way home and they both ordered dessert. My mom told me this, said that she’d ordered a lemon-flavored cake, and they’d eaten silently, and maybe that’s when I knew they’d given up. Or maybe that’s when I knew that she was ready to give up, that the idea of giving in started to feel right. That it’d been earned. You would know what I mean if you had heard the way she went on about that cake, how it tasted, that she’d eaten every bit of it.
In those years, we were forever trying to solve her, but she was independent and secretive and uncomfortable with the attention. We did it out of love, but also out of fear, and she must have felt watched by all of us. Feeding her and treating her and gauging her body’s reaction. Smothering her with our love. We couldn’t live without her, and so we selfishly subjected her to whatever we could think of. There are reasons to take care of someone, and certainly the biggest is a sense of love, but not far behind is a sense of control that it gives you—not over the person, but over death—that if you are allowed to try different things, certainly you can work things out, the same way that you change the oil of a dead engine, loosen and tighten anything movable until the whole thing chugs back to life.
She was not so used to being taken care of, and dad’s presence there, his worry, his arrangements, almost certainly made it impossible for her to do what she may have liked to do—what I certainly would have wanted to do in her position—which is to disappear into herself. At the end, they fought about her pain pills. She wanted to take the full, prescribed amount. Do you want to be a pillhead? he said to her. To just sleep all day? She did, though, and good for her. We were trying to keep her there for ourselves, to squeeze more out of her before she left, but once someone wants to leave, they’re already gone. I thought, Let her, and it was a kindness for us both.
I ask to be dropped off for the call-back appointment, instead of accompanied. My fiancé pulls the car up to the entrance and I exit overzealously, increase the tone of my voice to something that shoots past happy and lands in alarmed. When I’m like this, my brain processing too much, my body matches the rhythm. I move through tasks at an anxiety-inducing speed—folding blankets, spreading peanut butter across bread, fumbling to find the correct credit card. Somehow, I’m not even aware of it. He calls this Fast-Moving Laura.
“You’re being Fast-Moving Laura,” he tells me. I am searching for my wallet, which is—it turns out—right in front of me. I grab for it too fast and drop it.
“I’m fine,” I tell him, grabbing it again. I kiss in his general direction and shut the door.
The two sets of automatic sliding doors part for me, and I push the elevator button. When I turn around, the car is still idling there, Joe in the driver’s seat, watching me. My impulse is to lift my hands and push the car forward, away, out of the garage. Move, I think. Or maybe it is leave.
I am thirty-four years old, and I have just found someone whom I love immensely, and I have finally—after a year and a half—considered believing in it. I have finally, after a year of patient suggestion on his part, moved the things out of my home and into his. I teach English to college freshmen who read Nicholas Sparks books, and I tell them all of that is trite bullshit, but I’m a hypocrite, because now I fall asleep with a foot touching the instep of mine every night, and I would swear that somehow there is a spot there, on the underside of my foot, that feels effervescent when his touches it.
The nurse who retrieves me from the waiting room is the same woman who took the pictures the day before. What will make you more nervous than anything in these appointments is the way the nurses talk to you. You will weigh every inflection of their voices, and if it is too high-pitched, and especially if it is too happy, too reassuring, you will be certain that you are dying. And you will be angry because, if you are dying, you ought to be the first to know. That isn’t too much to ask, but it’s almost never the way it goes. You have the right to this dignity, but you will never get it.
She smiles and asks me about the weather, and I want to yell until she cracks open and spills out everything she knows about what my body is doing to me. Without betraying any promises, she tries to reassure me. Maybe it’s just folded skin. If we can prove that, you can go home and with that phrase—that word, prove—how I feel about the whole thing is illuminated. I am being held; I am on trial. Yesterday, I had my life, but today I am waiting to find out if it is still mine, and the decision will be made arbitrarily, a Russian Roulette of genetics and environment. The percentage of women in their thirties diagnosed with breast cancer is only .44%, but that number isn’t zero, and someone has to fill the quota. My mother had no family history of cancer, never smoked a cigarette in her life, rarely drank, but still, genetics or happenstance volunteered her. And that election alone has increased my chances by twofold. I watch the nurse wipe and change the parts of the machine. When everything is ready, she positions me and cranks the plates together so tightly that I have to tap my fingers against my thigh to breathe, and then she sends me back to the waiting room.
I am not religious, but in the waiting room I pray. I send a text message to my best friend, who is deeply religious. I tell her what is going on and then I say, “You should talk to God for me,” because I am so irreligious that I flinch to say “pray.” I think of God not as an enemy of any sort, but as the benign sort of person you ignored in high school, then run into on the street, a decade later; someone you know you have no right to talk to after ignoring so long. Out in the hallway, a woman is instructed to take off her robe and put her street clothes back on, but return to the inner waiting room, fully clothed, and somehow this seems worse than anything. When she sits down, she lets out an annoyed sigh and shakes her head at me, and I can hear the fear in it.
After what seems like an hour, they come back for me, but I can’t go home. It is not, it seems, a fold of skin. They ask for an ultrasound, and for a moment I have the paranoid thought that they already know, but are ushering me through the shock of the announcement because they know I am only capable of taking in a bit at a time, so they reveal it in steps—plant the idea, then bring it to fruition. Mammogram, mammogram, ultrasound, cancer.
The night before, a few hours after I get the come-back call, we are lying in bed, Joe and I. I know he is on the verge of sleep because the hand he runs smoothly up and down my side starts to move in jerks, stopping and starting like a badly-driven manual car, and that’s when I whisper to him, You don’t have to go through this with me, and even through a curtain of sleep he says, That is the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said.
He says that he loves the way my brain moves through thought, calls it “oddly-wired,” the way one thought leads to an unexpected second, which gives way to a question too intrusive to ask, but I ask it anyway. He’ll answer any question, but first he says, “Go back and tell me how your brain got there.” He plots out my thoughts like connect the dots.
But he also loves my ass, and there has not been enough time for that, yet. There is the delicate balance in relationships. An adequate amount of time for indulging in a body, taking in a nice face. The time for the sort of sex life you relive in your head during the morning commute. All of that prepays for what is to come. We have two years to our name, but no matter how high the value of that currency, not enough is saved up to cash in for something like this—for cancer. I think of it like a party—we are happy to clean up the aftermath because it was so good while it lasted. But no one comes to a party to clean up, and this has only just started. And so I tell him, “I’m giving you an out here,” and he says, I don’t want that fucking out.
He’s brave, but it’s easy to be brave at the outset—even when you think it is impossibly difficult. The truth is that we know nothing about how bad it will be. And that is on purpose. That is a kindness of psychology or biology. It is how we survive something—come out on the other side and look back with no idea as to how we pushed through it. If anyone had provided a map of the trip, we never would have attempted it. At the beginning, my mom’s cancer was considered treatable. She went through a few rounds of chemo, a lumpectomy—such a ridiculous Dr. Seuss of a word that you can’t even work up the nerve to fear it. And maybe that’s why we listened to iPods while we waited outside of inpatient surgery, took the elevator up to the fifth floor to get smoothies. From where we stood, there in the waiting room of the university hospital, we couldn’t see where she would be two years later, in the same emergency room, thrashing and tearing at her clothes, her liver so tired it simply stopped cleaning.
In the ultrasound room, the new nurse asks about the weather, clicks the pitch of her voice to ten and squeezes a tube of jelly onto my left breast, runs the wand back and forth. On the monitor is nothing, gray giving way to darker gray, the screen of an out-of-tune television. In the beginning of our relation – ship, Joe and I spent only Friday nights together, lying in my bed and talking. One night he tells me, whispers almost, “I almost didn’t ask you out. I thought you were out of my league.” I wasn’t, I’m not, and I tell him that, but that unintended compliment stays with me, and this is what I’m thinking about while I lie there and watch the nurse squint at the screen. It’s vain, maybe. Or maybe not; it’s not too much, I think, to want someone who sees us in that light—especially if we see them in the same way. There are different ways to die—literal and figurative. There is my own death and the death of the idea of me, and I can’t decide which I fear more.
The doctor comes in, eventually, spends half a minute moving the wand back and forth, and tells me he sees nothing. That is all, that’s it, the end. He says, “Just keep getting regular mammograms.” But with a legacy—a birthright—like mine, the relief is ephemeral. You are always just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the thick branches to part for a minute and reveal the thing they’ve been hiding and nurturing all along, and with that comes its own set of problems— either that you will be alone, or that you will have trapped someone, and to believe that there is something in between those two—a perfect pitch where the need to be cared for and the desire to care hit the same note—feels nearly impossible. I go back to the dressing room, reclaim my things, return the key. The woman in street clothes waiting on the inside is gone, and I like to think everything has worked out for her, too. I emerge into the outer waiting room, and then I get to text him, All set. I get to leave, this time, the same as I entered.
Walking out of the hospital, it is impossible not to feel like I am getting another chance. After a bad marriage, a bad divorce, there were five years I can barely account for. For the first time in my thirty-four years, I am finally seeing everything around me, interacting with it, feeling thankful for it, and all I am asking is to hold on. Still, I know that not everyone is getting that chance, so I stop and recognize it, send up a secular prayer of sorts.
I spoke at my mom’s funeral, because I needed to have the last word on her. There’d been a disagreement among my family during funeral preparations— open casket or closed? My father advocated for open; he felt that people would need closure. I was adamant about a closed casket. Not surprisingly, my mother had lost her hair. The funeral director had put her in one of her favorite work suits and a shade of lipstick she never would have chosen, and laid her in the casket. The juxtaposition of these two things—the dress attire and her bald head—made it worse. It seemed like a sad overcompensation. The worst part was, I knew that everyone who came to pay their respects at the casket would feel the same. There is the issue of the hair, but it goes far beyond that. Somehow, cancer steals dignity in death in a way that other diseases—heart trouble, car accidents—do not. Perhaps it is the length of the illness—the chance it gives us to watch the person slowly deteriorate, until we can’t remember them any other way. Or maybe it’s the way that it chooses its victims somewhat randomly, making them seem all the more helpless and weak, like slow runners picked off by a predator we were all hoping to outrun. Whatever it was, cancer had stolen her identity. Already, when people talked about my mom, they tilted their heads to the side and spoke with a lilt. She wasn’t Barbara, who spoke three languages fluently, and who had lived in multiple countries. She was Barbara Who Had Cancer.
In this way, the world makes cancer far worse than it is on its own—by letting it claim not only the remaining years, but the ones that came before, as well. When I think of this, I understand the fight for euthanasia all the better, as the fight to die while you still have a face, a name.
People sent her, and us, pink ribbon paraphernalia; it was meant to symbolize solidarity, but it pissed me off more than anything else. The pink ribbon—or any ribbon—confuses me; what is the impulse to replace your identity with the symbol of the disease that’s killing you? In the town I grew up in, a yellow ribbon tied around a tree is how the city workers marked dying trees scheduled to be cut down.
I lost the vote, though, and the casket remained open. So I got up at her funeral and tried to remind them of the fifty-four years—the ninety-five percent of her life—that she’d lived before cancer. I talked about her time abroad, her thirty years of teaching, the way she let us, her children, fall on our faces, just to show us that we were capable of getting back up. How she made us fearless in that way. And I tried to talk loudly enough to block out the vision of her that lay before them. And I did it for her, but I did it for myself, too—in the hope that karma works; in the hope that someday, if the need arises, everything I’ve worked for, everything I was, won’t be forgotten in favor of the last chapter. That whoever is there will not hand my memory over to a cluster of errant cells. Because my mom didn’t die of cancer—she lived for fifty-seven years, and then she died, and it happened to be of cancer.
Long ago, in some odd morbid conversation, Joe and I had already discussed what we wanted our funerals to be like. One of his best memories of childhood was an impromptu family trip to Cedar Point. My directions upon his death were to take everyone there, hand out their entrance passes and say the following: “Joe is gone. But he doesn’t want anyone to be sad. He wants all of you to go ride the rollercoasters and have a great time and remember him in that way.”
“No crying. From anyone.” he told me, and I agreed. “And, Jesus Christ,” he said, “do not fucking bury me in a graveyard.” But I never would. That we agree on; there is no point in laying out the husk.
My favorite thing has always been a great joke, and so I told him that I want everyone to show up and tell their best funny memory about me. How my siblings and I used to infiltrate my mom’s revered nativity scene with action figurines, letting Optimus Prime witness the birth of Jesus. The time my best friend and I went on a surreal date with teenage carnies. The time, in Ireland, when the six roommates of 39 Kilmurry Village drunkenly removed a pine tree from the college’s landscaping, placed it in a bucket and pronounced it our Christmas tree. That, and I tell him, “If I end up dying from breast cancer and someone shows up to my funeral with a pink ribbon, put the fucking loop around their neck and pull both ends.”
In elementary school, our family cat slunk off into the woods one day, but after a week of wondering, we went and found her. She was lying on the ground, weak and listless from what turned out to be leukemia. My veterinarian friend says this is common for cats. They’re carnivores, and can’t a ford to be seen as weak, so they go o f to die alone, to save face. “Why can’t we do that?” I say to Joe, but it’s a ridiculous rhetorical question. Tis is the price you pay for being human. In a real life, there is the rise and the fall. You do the best you can while you’re alive, and then you hand your memory over to the people you spent your time on and hope that they do it justice. But still, sometimes I think maybe we never should have gone after that cat. We went out and found her and took her to the vet, spent hundreds of dollars to hear that nothing could be done. And when they put her down, we—all three of us kids—cried in the living room. Every time I tell that story, I say, “I had a cat growing up, but she died of leukemia.” I don’t remember a goddamned other thing about that cat.
Only a few weeks ago, I woke up crying. At first, Joe thought I was talking, but then he heard the chug of a sob, and pulled me close to him, saying “Hey, hey, hey….” The dream had made sense while it was happening, but when he asked me to recount it to him, all the holes appeared. Someone had made a memorial for my mother and, in the dream, I’d been going through a bit of it every day, living in it a little. There were pictures, but there were also letters—letters I could touch, could open. Then, suddenly, I came to the end of it. Not the dream, the memorial. There was blank space on the page at the end of a paragraph and nothing more after that, as if my mother’s life had dropped of just as suddenly as it actually had. Suddenly, there was nothing left to remember about my mom, and that’s when I cried so hard that I woke myself up. Joe is afraid to die, but this is my fear—not the moment when the life ends, but the moment when the memory runs out. The moment when it’s as if you had never been there at all.