My Left Breast -- Final Chapter

You go for radiation 35 times over seven weeks. After one week you actually smile and thank the technicians. Another week and you zip off your blouse and bra, climb on the table, remove the pillowslip, lift your arm, wait for the buzz to start and stop and the technicians to return and release you. Still, each five-minute radiation session seems like hours. Away, time races, and it is more like 20 minutes than 24 hours until I am back. Time is strangely altered. I am either stuck in place or spinning with speed.

The brown-eyed doctor is quick, impersonal, his how-are-you? asked with the same interest as a supermarket checkout cashier. You silently chastise yourself for your anger. His focus, after all, is professional; he is trying to save your life. Anyway, you hope so. He checks you out once a week, instructing you to sit up on the examining table as he stares intently at your exposed breasts. Sitting there, you don't know if your feeling of humiliation is from your naked breasts being regarded merely as cancer, or from the picture you suddenly have of this doctor staring at the breasts of Playboy centerfolds from the age of twelve. This white-coated doctor is definitely not a leg man.

Around the fourth week of radiation all your energy gets sucked up into the radiation machine. You forgot -- or didn't want to know -- that the radiation zaps your good cells along with the bad and you become dazed with exhaustion. The student technician helps you off the table or you would fall. The fatigue is in your brain, your legs, your back, your heart. It is as if your bones are made of cotton. At home you're not sure you'll make it as you wobble to the bathroom. You stop talking. The telephone's ring resonates like a scream in your tired ears but you let it ring because you have run out of words. So you watch old movies on TV, drag yourself daily to the radiation table, listen politely to the student technician talk about her career plans and her boyfriend in Buda, Texas.

A few minutes of daily radiation and I feel as if I'm living under water, drained and unable to concentrate. It is as if my brain has shut down or that maybe I have already died.

I wonder about my funeral. I think of my father's funeral. I was only a baby when he and my uncle were murdered, but I have heard so many whisperings from neighbors, and stories from relatives, and I have read so many newspaper articles about the sensational murders, It's as if I were there.

But like the pastor's daughter who runs wild and the gangster's son who becomes a policeman, the murdered bootlegger's daughter -- me -- turns into a respectable housewife. Still, I am, after all, my father's daughter, and want crowds of people at my funeral, standing in the rain under black umbrellas. Like in the movies. Afterwards I want what my father, in his shame and disgrace, didn't get -- people singing my praises because I am dead. I see them sitting at a table laden with platters of herring, smoked whitefish, smoked salmon, cream cheese, hard boiled eggs, bagels. Homemade sponge cake, baked by my grieving girlfriends while I am being buried.

Feeling in my fatigue close to death from either cancer or radiation, I think I should write all this down. But I am too tired.

From shame or guilt or too little love or too much, my mother did not grieve my father's death. So I didn't either. I never shed a tear. Although I never knew him, now, with cancer, without warning my gated emotional barricade lifts and once again I surprise myself with tears. I could be simply waiting for the water to boil, the pasta in my hand, half listening to the TV in the kitchen.

It was the cancer and it wasn't; it was all my losses and it wasn't; it was, at last, my father. As if his murder, years and years ago, unmourned, would now, at last, have, in cancer's wake, its due.

JD drove me to every one of my 35 radiation sessions, even when I was perfectly able to drive myself. Each day in the waiting room he greeted the patients, sat in his usual chair, and read until I emerged from the radiation room. He gave up his weekly commute to Houston to the work he loved, and everything else in his life that conflicted with my treatment schedule. He was quiet when I was too tired to talk, listened when I vented my feelings of melancholia, gave up our social life without a comment. There may have been other spouses like JD, but in all the weeks I was there, I didn't see any.

I was told in the support group that if cancer didn't kill you, it changed you forever. I didn't believe it. It was too mythic, too sentimental, a TV illness of the week. You've seen the movie.

To my surprise I discover that the myth reflects truth. I am somehow recast, glued together by radiation and a new way to see. I am different in both a vague and dynamic way that is as ambiguous, as ill-defined, as incomprehensible and life-changing as giving birth or falling in love.

Cancer explodes old relationships and seals others. You realize who the people in your life really are; you can see into their souls. You know the green of spring for the first time; the thoughts in our head; your mistakes. You are more peaceful and more afraid.

You are riding in a taxi with the meter spinning and your money running out. So you clean out the deadwood in your life, allowing what remains to flourish. You are more of what you were meant to be. You love more and are also strangely removed; an observer, as if you are already looking down from heaven, reinvented.

The epiphanies slip out of your awareness like a butterfly or a breeze, and lie in wait.

After the last radiation session the smiling receptionist gives you a big yellow button to wear. It has a Charlie Brown figure with a smiley face, his little arms raised in victory, saying, "I've Done It."

Oh, yeah.

I am only thankful that it didn't say "Have A Nice Day."

Sartre said that you have to live each moment as if you're prepared to die -- one of those sayings that no one really believes until poised on the abyss. Then, you believe.

Death, Samuel Johnson said, concentrates the mind.

And, you finally learn, fills the heart with its gift of life.