Fears

What Do I Fear?

Being forgotten.

forgotten umbrellaI’m also afraid of the feeling of being forgotten. The 13-year-old-middle-school-I-can’t-breathe-because-my-friend-is-replacing-me feeling of agonizing, lonely, desperation.

I am afraid of forgetting. Memories that, at 40, already blur together or simply fade away. Moments of clarity that are no longer clear. (Not to mention words I struggle to retrieve, sentences I cannot construct. I am afraid that chemo has permanently altered my ability to retain.)

losing brain

I am not afraid of death or of dying. But I am afraid of not watching my children grow-up and of my children not growing up with me. (Is that the same thing as a fear of death? Is my fear of being forgotten the same thing as a fear of death? Maybe I’m afraid of death, after all.)

I’m afraid of other people dying. Specific people, like my children, my life partner, my best friend.

I’m afraid of my parents aging. Of course, there is no way around it, and my parents are aging before my eyes, and really, I’d like it to stop. (But no, be careful what I wish for. I don’t want it—don’t want them—to stop stop.)

I’m afraid of physical pain. I’m actually a total wimp about pain. If I had to pick my number one fear, it would be physical torture, which is bizarre because in what situation would I ever have to deal with physical torture? And yet, ever since I was a young child, this was my number one fear. Which is also a bit disconcerting, because why was I, middle class white girl in America, thinking about physical torture as a young child? (And why is torture the latest fad, showing up on what feels like every movie screen and TV show?)

I am afraid of not being liked. And not being loved. And not being likeable or loveable.unloveableI am afraid of cancer recurrence.

I’m afraid of the spot in my right breast that my oncologist told me not to worry about, even though it showed up on my last MRI. I’m afraid of the weird pain on the right side of my belly and the fact that ovarian cancer is nearly impossible to detect and that sugar is bad for us but I eat it anyway, along with too much dairy and on occasion, a highly processed Dorito or a piece of non-organic meat.

regret

I think that more than anything, I am afraid of life passing me by. That as I let this moment or this hour or this day slip on past without note or worth (which I do at least 1 out of 10 times if not 9 out of 10 times), the moments and hours and days will accumulate into a giant neon flashing sign that also comes with a bull horn that screams into my ear the same neon-flashing words, “You wasted your life! You did it all wrong! Too bad for you, better luck next time!” I am afraid of missed opportunities and missed joy and of regret.

“What do your breasts look like now, Mama?”

Snuggling with my 7-year-old daughter after reading her a bedtime story, she asks, “Mama, what does your breast look like?”

Suddenly I remember: I thought I saw her watching me on the beach when, back turned, I changed out of my wet suit. “Are you asking because you saw me without my shirt today?”

Nod.

“You can look if you want.”

She lifts the top of my shirt enough to peer at what’s beneath it.

She wants to know how they made my new breast.

I hesitate long enough to gather my response. This is why, when neither of my children asked questions before my surgery, I didn’t share any details about what was going to happen–because how do I explain a mastectomy to a 7 and 9 year old without it sounding terrifying? Of course I don’t want to say anything about cutting off a breast. Scooping out the insides doesn’t sound much better, but I can’t think of how else to answer Sophie’s question. “Well,” I manage. “They took out the stuff inside my skin and then put something else in there to make it look like a breast.”

“Oh, I get it. This one without a nipple is up and a little hard,” she explains, gently patting my new, left breast, “and this one is mushy and down.”

I smile at her language and her matter-of-factness. Smile because she’s described my breasts perfectly and without a trace of self-consciousness, the way only a child would do; and because she seems so okay about it all, no big deal. Relief. I’ve been anxious about this moment–about my kids seeing me post-surgery.

But I am also flooded by the old guilt and doubt that plagued me all those months during chemo when I was struggling to decide about reconstruction. Have I failed my daughter by deciding in the end to go through with it? Taught her that a woman isn’t a woman without breasts? I remind myself of all the other ways I’ve failed her, then–by wearing make-up and studying myself in mirrors and buying clothes I don’t need–and somehow that comforts me; rather than feeling badly about the make-up and mirrors, I remember that the fate of the whole world and of women’s rights and of my daughter’s self-confidence and of my son’s respect for women and girls does not rest on whether or not I chose to reconstruct my breast.

Still, I tell Sophie that I had to decide whether or not I wanted a new breast and that for a long time I thought no, but then I changed my mind. I want her to know it wasn’t a given, getting a new breast. “Lots of women choose not to,” I explain.

“What do they look like?” she wants to know. Such good questions.

“Their chests are flat, maybe even a little concave, which means it goes in like a dent where the breasts used to be.”

She’s on to the next question: “How come you changed your mind?”

I’m thinking about the fate of the whole world again, and I want to choose my words honestly but carefully. “Well, I thought I might feel more comfortable with two breasts, and after everything I went through, I wanted to feel comfortable in the end.” The truth is, I’m not comfortable now, with two very different breasts, but I don’t tell here that. I do, however, tell her that at some point, after I’m all healed from radiation, I might make them look more even. Do I tell her because I’m preparing her, while the opportunity has presented itself, for more upcoming changes with my body; or because I’m embarrassed by my body, even with my 7-year-old daughter, and want to assure her that I won’t always look like this?

Again she wants to know how–how will they make my breasts look more even?

“They’ll put something small inside this breast,” I say, resting my hand on the healthy one.
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I try to answer each of Sophie’s questions with enough detail to satisfy her curiosity but not too much detail for her 7-year-old self to digest. I am grateful for the conversation–grateful that she feels comfortable enough to ask these questions; grateful that she seems utterly okay with the answers and with my new body; grateful for the quiet openness between my daughter and me.

Last day of breast cancer treatment!

A short but VERY SWEET!! post:

Today I had my last day of radiation and my last day of 9 months of active breast cancer treatment! (I have ten years of Tamoxifen to go, but thank the gods and goddesses everywhere, my emotional state seems to be stabilizing after two months of…. well, hell.) The end of chemo was bittersweet for me, but today is simple: I feel like celebrating.

Thank you to the wonderful radiation therapists, Sara, Mariecruz, Kate and Dana, who tenderly administered my treatment every Monday-Friday for the past 6 weeks. (And yes, I do have purple hair. I felt the urge to do something a couple of weeks ago; now I’m anxiously waiting for the purple to grow out.)

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Moving forward, I will continue to explore questions that have been prominent in my mind and heart these last many months. (As always, I would love to hear other people’s responses!)

  • What brings me joy, and how can I bring more of that joy into my everyday?
  • Who am I really? Who am I now?
  • What about my life do I want to change and what do I want to nurture?
  • For what—and for whom—am I grateful?