A few weeks after my diagnosis, I found an achingly beautiful, black and white photograph of a woman the night before her mastectomy. There are only three elements in the photo: the woman, a camera on a tripod, and a mirror. Its composition and minimalism is stunning. And like a brilliant short story, it said so much (and no more) with so little.
In the photo, the woman is nude and sitting in front of the mirror. She has short hair and a long neck. The camera on the tripod is right beside her, like a friend who has just heard the news and is being a silent witness. The woman is looking down instead of making eye contact with herself or with the viewer. Oddly, it’s not necessary to see the woman’s eyes to feel the weight and power and pressure of the tsunami that is building momentum behind her.
(Has anyone else ever seen this photo? I stumbled upon it once on the internet, and haven’t been able to find it since…)
I lay alone in bed the night before my mastectomy. Ocho and I had broken up (my idea, so he doesn’t look like a bad guy) and we were trying to figure out how to be in each others’ lives during a crisis. We had only been dating two months when I was diagnosed.
My brother had come down from the City to spend the night and drive me to Mills-Peninsula in the morning. The kids were going to spend the night at their dad’s, since I had to leave the house at 6 a.m., but Mike decided to spend the night here.
Naturally, I slept about two minutes. At 4:50 a.m., I turned off the alarm before it rang. Even with that precaution, my body spiked adrenaline. I got in the shower in the dark, and let the warm water run over me. It diluted the tears, but seemed to intensify the fear. My tsunami was gathering height and speed.
I ran the soap quickly over my breasts. I did not linger. I wanted to get out of the shower, pack, drive to Mills, be admitted, and have the anesthesiologist with the blue Rasputin eyes put me to sleep. Get this thing done. Now. Feel what I had to feel about it later.
As I had hoped, my brother broke the tension while we were driving to the hospital. He put in a CD. “I made this for you for this morning,” he said. Instead of Mozart’s piano concerto in E flat, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” filled his Honda Pilot.
In pre-surgery, a sweet nurse gave me two gowns, a disposable shower cap and disposable booties. I took them into the little changing area and got undressed. I looked at my breasts in the mirror and touched them lightly and briefly. And then something happened; something that continued for about a year. I couldn’t cry. Instead, a small painful sound came out of my mouth. It reminded me of the exasperated sigh that Holly Hunter’s mute character, Ada, made in “The Piano,” when she was trying to express anger silently. “How odd…” I thought, as I put on the gowns and slippers and stuffed the cap in my pocket. I took my contact lenses out, while my entire body began to tremble. My brother was a calming presence in the small pre-surgery room.
A few minutes later, my kids, my ex, and my Mom and Dad came to give me a hug and a kiss. As I walked away from them, putting on my paper cap, I felt the tears coming. My mom said something to me. I think she asked me if I was scared. I turned to look at her, but I didn’t want her to see me cry. I told her I was ok and smiled.
Every morning for three weeks after my surgery, I would get undressed, tie my bathrobe belt around my waist, attach my drains to it with safety pins, put on the Dixie Chicks, and get in the shower.
I’m still mad as hell, and I don’t have time to go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right, probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell and can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should…
I knew I was mad as hell; but I couldn’t access that anger, or anything else for that matter. Instead, I would feel an upwelling of grief, followed by that painful sigh that had become my replacement for tears. And then nothing.
I tell this story not to elicit sympathy or any other particular response. I actually tell it to myself. I feel that if I tell my story enough, it will lose some of its awful power.
At the end of “The Piano,” Ada, her daughter, and her Maori lover, George, leave New Zealand on a boat to start a new life together. In transit, she has George throw the piano overboard, and it sinks like an anchor, but not before the rope that tethered the piano to the boat gets tied around Ada’s ankle and takes her with it. We see her sinking and struggling not with the rope, but with the decision to sink with her piano—which represents both her creativity and her captivity—or to swim to the surface. She swims to the surface, where she finds grace, acceptance—and her voice. It’s an overwrought example, but I like the symbolism. I can sink, or I can swim. And, while I’m not ready (or able) to dive into grace and acceptance, I’m happy to just dog paddle for a while. And tell my story.