NINE DAYS LEFT
Thank God for therapy. Thank God even more for my therapist. She is home recovering from surgery and still offered me an appointment on her day off while she was recovering. I have been seeing her on and off for at least fifteen years but definitely more on for the last five. She helps me see that the darkness doesn’t always have to be light, that sometimes it can just be darkness. I never knew that. I always thought that darkness required work to make it turn it into lightness. Pronto.
Recurring breast cancer diagnosis in less than two years is darkness. My humor lightens it. My talking about it lightens it. My writing lightens it, but for these last nine days, it is darkness. I decided after yesterday’s appointment I am going to allow and permit the dark and wallow for a change.
I pause here and reread this last line.
I am going to allow and permit the dark and wallow for a change.
That feels totally foreign to me. My heart starts to race a bit, my head starts to spin. The cursor flashes at this next line as I feel a stopping point and a blankness for a moment at the words to follow. I realize that I have never really given myself permission ALOUD to allow darkness.
Sure I have experienced the sadness that life can throw at us. We all have our own pile of shit that weaves and plants in our lives, through our lives, but I grew up learning resilience. We pull up our bootstraps, (where did this phrase even come from? Actually I just looked it up in the spirit of good writing. “by the bootstraps” was synonymous with good old fashioned American gumption, it was a phrase used to define something as absurdly impossible.
We pull up our bootstraps and we fix things, we plow through, we figure it out and we move on. WE MOVE ON. So in my world, the point, the goal is to move on, to get to the moving on part sooner than later.
I grew up with resilient women. My two grandmothers graduated college in the late 1930s. My mother’s mother, my beloved grandmother who was from Wisconsin (automatic resilience just because of climate) married a really smart Boston Irishman who was both an artist and an MIT grad engineer, oh yeah and an alcoholic until he stopped drinking, yeah! and stopped working, boo:( She had to work, economics likely, but for sanity more likely. She had four children, a rocking house in Newton and liked to have tea at the Ritz so pulling up her bootstraps wasn’t an option, it was a way of life.
My father’s mother, my other beloved grandmother was the daughter of Russian Jews, growing up in Brooklyn who followed the rules, her rules. She got married to my grandfather and he got drafted, when he was about to be done with his service, Pearl Harbor happened and he had to stay. WW2 grandparents, Jewish, the Greatest Generation, RESILLIENCE indeed.
In her neat perfect world she created with my grandfather and their three children she was my go to person for normal. She was the love of my life, secure, grounded, maternal, pragmatic. She, like my other grandmother, exposed me to culture and its importance, gave me advice when I asked, and most importantly by example showed me unconditional love. She lived in pull up your bootstraps land. Actually it was such a part of her genetic makeup that I don’t even think she gave its power any thought at all. There was no wallowing or even considering wallowing as an option.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 37 in 1957. Two short years later, her father died of cancer when he was only 59. My grandmother had to have a radical mastectomy and a complete hysterectomy. Here’s the thing though, she never spoke of it again. As a matter of fact, she with three children, 13, 10 and 7 managed to keep a radical mastectomy and all of its post psychological trauma from just about everyone. The only reason I even knew was because she told me when my brother was diagnosed. I was 29. He was 24. She was 75. I was the first family member she said it aloud to. 38 years of not speaking about it and she had a breast prosthetic because “back then” reconstruction was not invented.
When I was older and more confident in approaching the seemingly off limits subject with her, I asked her some questions. I had just completed my first 60 mile AVON breast cancer walk and breast cancer was a hot topic. The pink movement had just begun. BLICK.
ME: “Grandma, why didn’t you talk about ‘it’?”
GRANDMA: “What was there to talk about, I lived.”
ME: “How did you manage to keep this from the kids?”
GRANDMA: “The surgery was planned at the beginning of the summer when the kids went to camp (in case you didn’t know most Jewish kids go to summer camp, not sure why, but just ask someone Jewish you know and I bet they will confirm). We thought it best to plan the surgery around their summer camp schedule so when they got home everything would be back to “normal.” Who is we? The male doctors in the 50’s for sure. ‘It’s best not to talk about it and move on with your life.’ I can almost see him in his white coat smoking a cigarette spewing this thinking of the times at my grandmother. In hind site maybe there is wisdom to this, Isabelle lived to celebrate 71 years of marriage. My grandfather is still alive at 99.
No time for darkness for my grandmother. I was the one who told the female family of her breast cancer because it was important and responsible for them to know. Not even her daughter, my aunt knew, and I actually don’t think they believed me until she and my uncle found the prosthetic while cleaning out her closet after she died. So much for “go to” normal.
I never thought to ask her how they found it, how did she feel about losing her breast at 37, did she talk about this with anyone, her best friends since grammar school who she was friends with up until she died at almost 93. I never thought to ask her what her follow up was, did she have radiation, chemo, was that even around then? I never thought to ask her what it was like to live for 55 years with a prosthetic? What was it like for my grandfather? Did their intimacy change? She would have answered me. I am sure it would have been a relief to talk about ‘it’ after all those years of keeping it bottled up. We had that type of relationship. Special, bonded, open, the type of relationship most people have with their mothers. Isabelle was like my mother for sure.
It took 35 more years before cancer in her direct line of family showed its face again and that was my brother, her first born grandson (I was the first born granddaughter, but we all know that biblical significance of first born boys). Ironically, the BRCH2 genetic mutation was discovered the year my brother died of cancer in 1995. My father was diagnosed (her first born son) with cancer when he was 66, she was still alive. The potential of opening up traumatic wounds was in her face. Talk about darkness. Talk about resilience. She was 91. We never considered looking into genetic testing because of the camouflage in the male line. But the fact is that because I have BRCH2, my father did. It does not skip generations. If my father had BRCH2, my grandmother did. And if my grandmother did, my great grandfather did. Like a puzzle, the last piece was me. IS me. I am still here. This is the light. So much for my attempt at wallowing.
Isabelle J. Horowitz. Before breast cancer.