Sunday, December 26, 2010


I hate waiting. Yet, somehow I managed to book my mammogram for the week before Christmas, and found myself waiting for something I didn't want during the busiest week of the year.
I had a lump removed from my breast seven years ago, so getting a mammogram for me is always a cause for heart-pounding, knuckle-biting anxiety. What's more, since that first lousy mammogram, every mole, hive, aching joint, and stomach pain makes me wonder: Do I have cancer? Am I dying?
How stupid. Of course I'm dying. We all know how life's movie ends. Still, it didn't help matters that my pre-Christmas technician was one of those perky young ones. She wore a squintingly bright orange t-shirt to set off her sprayed-on tan and chatted like a parakeet as she maneuvered me in and out of the chilly breast sandwich plates. Her sharp nails were scratchy on my bare skin. I shivered like a wet dog at the groomer’s.
When she was through, the technician told me to “sit tight, Hon,” while she brought my films to the radiologist. She left me in a “For Women Only” waiting room with soothing prints of chubby women in garden hats, picnicking in a forest. Who picked out those particular prints, I wondered. Someone who thought we'd be calmed by them? Someone who thought, Oh, good, the fat women in these pictures will make everyone feel thin?
There's one other woman in the waiting room. She studiously avoids my eyes and flips through her magazine. I wonder which particular circle of hell she's in.
I consider the waiting room magazines, artfully arranged on the table in front of me like a colorful fan by some zealous volunteer. I can't bring myself to take one. It would be like pulling a feather out of a peacock's tail.
Seven years ago, I had the lump removed from my breast because my mammogram showed microcalcifications gathered in a “suspicious cluster.” Such a garble of a word, “microcalcifications.” Not cancer, just tiny calcium deposits. Lots of women have them. Normally, they show up on mammograms as big and round and scattered, like benign flower petals. But, for some women, microcalcifications appear in patterns associated with malignancy. These are smaller calcium deposits. They’re more numerous, and they come in an array of shapes: Rods, branches, even teardrops. A good radiologist will feel his hackles rise when he sees them arranged just so.
The last time I had an interesting pattern of microcalcifications, I had a “needle loc” biopsy, as the booking receptionist so breezily referred to it. Her good cheer suggested that there was nothing to fear about the procedure. My boyishly enthusiastic, tactless surgeon’s description of it was “just a little slice and dice.”
Now I know better. A needle location biopsy is a two-step procedure that takes several hours to complete. It’s a type of surgical biopsy that involves more breast sandwiches, but with the added discomfort of a hollow needle inserted into the breast. The hollow needle conveys a long thin wire into your breast in a way that makes you feel like a remote-controlled car. The amount of tissue removed ranges “from the size of a grape to that of an apricot,” as my surgeon had explained.
“What am I, a fruit basket?” I joked.
Oh yes. I joked around during that first biopsy. Then I got home and fell apart, plagued by unanswerable questions: Can you go barefoot in heaven? What would my children do without a mother? If I have chemo, will I look as good when I'm bald as Sigourney Weaver did in Alien II?
I waited weeks for those results. Because the local radiologist deemed my biopsied bit of flesh to be “in the gray zone,” the tissue had to be sent to a Boston cancer hospital, to a man so famous for his breast biopsy readings that my surgeon actually referred to him as “Dr. Breast.” And Dr. Breast, it turned out, was on vacation for two weeks.
“How dare he take a vacation when I need him?” I joked, and hung up, feeling sorry for that abandoned little piece of me sitting alone in a Boston lab, cooling its tiny heels.
As I waited, I tried to look on the bright side of cancer. If I lost my hair, I could be a shaggy brunette on Tuesdays, a smoky redhead on Thursdays, and hey, why not go blonde all weekend? Breast cancer could have other benefits, too. I could finally say no to the PTO! I’d book that vacation to Spain!
When the biopsy results arrived, they weren’t the best, but they weren’t the worst, either: I had DCIS, which means “ductal carcinoma in situ,” or “Damn Cancer In Sight.” The treatment was a lumpectomy, which the insurance company insisted on calling a “partial mastectomy.” I cried, because it suddenly seemed as if a piece of me had gone renegade: The breast that had once nursed my three children was acting up. Naughty, naughty breast, after all of that money I’d spent on expensive lingerie and bathing suits! If that was the thanks I got, maybe I’d just ask the surgeon to lop the whole thing off. Breast be gone! Ha! That would show ol’ Lefty who’s boss!
On the day of the surgery, the only truly bad moment came in the operating prep room, where I made the mistake of asking a nurse how much she thought the surgeon would remove. She patted my hand with a smile. “Oh, he’ll probably take out a chunk the size of a plum. You’ll be just fine.”
A plum! Can’t these people think about anything beside fruit? I fumed, and then the mask was over my face. The next thing I knew, my husband was leading me out to the car with a bandaged boob, a woozy head, and strict instructions to avoid my favorite underwire bras.
As I recovered from the lumpectomy, I had one more visit with my surgeon, who said, “Well, there’s no such thing as a 100 percent cure for cancer, but I’d say you’re in the 99 percent range.” He’d gotten clean margins all around the affected tissue, which meant I wouldn’t need radiation or chemo. “Go home,” he said. “Be happy.”
And so I have. For the last seven years, I’ve managed to do just that – except when I worry about having the Big C.
“What I hate about cancer is this feeling that I'm disappearing one piece at a time,” complained a friend as she headed into her second skin cancer surgery recently.
“Me, too,” I agreed. “Only with me, it’s probably going to be one melon ball at a time.”
We laugh about our battle scars, my friends and I. What else is there to do? We're all learning to wait with grace, and trying to remember that waiting is really just another part of living.
So take your next piece, I silently admonished the radiologist and the surgeon as I sat in the waiting room the week before Christmas, still not touching the magazines on the table. I know I'm not alone. I can deal.
The technician finally came back, all smiles. The other woman in the waiting room and I looked at each other. It was my name the technician was calling. I stepped out into the hallway, supposedly out of earshot, though I knew the other woman must be listening avidly, trying to see which one of us was going to make up the next count of breast cancer patients in this hospital, this country. We know we're in this together.
“Everything looks fine,” the technician said. “Go ahead and get dressed. Merry Christmas.”
Indeed. Happy New Year, too. And may every woman know that she is never alone in the waiting room.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Two of the most common questions people ask writers are: 1) When do you write? And 2) What do you do if you get writer's block?
When I see these questions headed my way – whether from a friend, a student, a book club member, or a radio talk show host – I freeze like a possum crossing in front of a bicycle. That's because my answers are so unsatisfying to most people:
1)I hardly ever write, but I'm always writing, and
2)I don't get writer's block. Ever.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking: What the hell? What kind of writer doesn't have writer's block! Maybe you're even rolling your eyes like a dismissive teen in Algebra class. But both answers are true.
Here's my current secret weapon against low creativity libido: Spin class. You know, that's the class where you furiously pedal a stationary bike to nowhere in an ominously dark room, while an anemic looking instructor shouts orders over thumping techno pop music. “Sprint!” “Climb another hill!” “Break away!”
I never thought I'd take one of these classes, because who doesn't look stupid in padded bike shorts indoors? Then I discovered that I can solve any thorny writing problem in Spin class. Just this morning, I was pedaling hard to pass that old guy with the big calves in front of me – funny how I never can catch him – when I suddenly thought of a way the killer in the novel I'm writing could lure the protagonist into his car. Bingo! I nearly fell off the bike, it was such a brilliant idea! (I won't take time to explain it here. Let's just say that it involved a snake in the basement.)
I don't know if it's the rush of adrenalin that causes ideas to come when I'm exercising, but if I'm sweating, I'm writing. Jogging, gardening, moving furniture, you name it. Even a walk loosens up the words locked in the crammed, disorganized closet of my brain. I take my dogs hiking most mornings after dropping my youngest child off at school. My usual spot is a Conservation area with winding paths through marshes and woods. At one point, there's a terrific view of the river (where I often imagine bodies being dumped.)
There's just one trail that I can't follow anymore, because it passes a sculpted tree with colorful green and yellow lichen on its peeling gray bark. I once hiked past that tree and imagined a spirit woman stepping out of it, her hair flowing right out of the bark, to block my protagonist's path as she went walking. Now, Voila! I'm terrified of that tree. But it's a great plot point in my novel.
Sex serves nicely as creative exercise, too. I keep a journal on my bedside table. My husband has learned not to ask what I'm doing, as I roll out from under him and scrabble around for a pen so that I can jot down a new bit of dialogue that appears like a ticker-tape announcement in Times Square as we're getting busy.
This all might sound flaky – I am a writer, after all – but the truth is that even scientists have linked creativity to exercise. Some research suggests that you can experience a boost in brain power for up to two hours after just half an hour of exercise, no matter what the exercise is ( Check out Dr. David Blanchette's studies on the link between aerobic exercise and creativity at Rhode Island College (, or a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (
Better yet, print out articles about creativity and exercise to read while you're running on the treadmill. Then sit down to write. You might be surprised by how fast new ideas pour out of your pen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kayak: One Word, One Life

The word was written in red ink across the top of the manila file folder. Shaky letters, a modest schoolboy hand. Definitely my dad's writing.
I sat back on my heels in front of the cupboard where I'd found the folder and stared at the word, almost unable to breathe. Like my father, a Navy officer, I never throw anything away that I might use. This folder was stashed among many others in my office. On some, the lettering has been scratched out and rewritten two or three times. How had my dad's folder ended up in here with mine?
I keep turning up odd things that belonged to my dad, despite the fact that he died two years ago. There are the old photos of him in his Navy uniform, for instance, where Dad looks like Gerald Ford on steroids. A collection of foreign coins, with buttons and batteries mixed in, that he gave to my youngest son the last time we saw him. And his wax jacket from England, which I can't bear to toss, even though it makes my hall closet stink like wet goats.
“Kayak.” Staring at that single, scrawled, red-inked word makes me remember, suddenly, that Dad's kayak was red, too. It was crafted out of heavy duty plastic and lightweight enough for him to lift onto the top of his car even after his seventieth birthday.
Dad bought the kayak when he was living in New England, near me, to use on a local pond. That pond is surrounded by houses and probably just half a mile across. Yet, being a Navy man who once commanded ships, Dad bought not only the kayak, but everything you might need to navigate an ocean storm, too: a bright yellow waterproof flashlight, a neon orange life vest, a floating whistle, a box of flares. He wasn't going to be caught up short in an emergency, no sir, not my dad the Commander.
When he was diagnosed with emphysema a few years later and moved to Arizona for drier weather, Dad gave me the kayak and its bulging box of accessories – miles and miles of nylon rope, it seemed – along with this folder. Dad was famous in our family for his file folders, neatly cataloging everything from Sears purchases (the only store he ever shopped) to our school records, right down to faded kindergarten reports claiming that my brother wasn't paying attention and I needed to speak up more in class. The kayak folder was the last one he ever gave me. It had contained maps, a booklet on efficient rowing, pamphlets on how to use flares in an emergency, and a thick sheaf of boater's regulations you wouldn't ever need unless you were caught in a tsunami on the high seas.
“It's always best to know what you're getting into,” Dad said solemnly, giving the folder a fond little tap as he handed it over. “Be prepared.”
By then, he was on oxygen and had to carry a portable tank with him. Being my father, he always made sure that his tanks were full and that he had a spare. He set his watch and timed his outings to the minute so that he'd never run out of air.
“Kayak,” in red ink, on a folder. What had that boat represented to my father, that he would buy such a risky toy at age seventy?
Dad was a boy from Ohio who joined the Navy before he'd ever seen the ocean or learned to swim. The kayak continued my father's love affair with water. It was also a vote of confidence in his own vitality, despite his age and failing health. The kayak let him have a final adventure his way, prepared for a seafaring challenge with a life vest, a whistle, and flares, even on a peaceful pond.
“Kayak.” It was more than just a word. It was a message from my father to me: “Know what you're getting into.”
Know what you're getting into, when you get into a boat on the water, or into a marriage, or into a house or a job. Be prepared for hard work, for joyful play, for travel, for accidental mishaps, for parenthood, for love, for anger, for sorrow, for illness, for taking life one breath at a time, for death.
Be prepared, most of all, with the single word you would choose to write across the last folder of your life, as a way of reminding the loved ones you left behind that you are guiding them, still.