A few days back my poem ON THIS NIGHT got a couple of views. It strikes me as odd when that happens. What makes folks pick a random post you published months ago as the one they want to read? And what makes more than one person check out the random post on the same random day? Anyway, the attention got me to go back and re-read the post myself, upon which I started to write an addendum, typed a few words, then changed my mind.
One, because no one reads an update. Two, because words. Three, because fear. And four, because at the end of it all, there is a lesson to be learned.
I wrote ON THIS NIGHT soon after the death of poet Mary Oliver, one of the women who changed the way I looked at poetry and my surroundings and life in general. She had been on my brain for a few days, and I had gone back and kind of wallowed in her words for a bit. Her poem The Summer Day is a favorite, and the inspiration for ON THIS NIGHT. I, like many others, love the last question she poses the reader: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
ON THIS NIGHT, and the rhythm with which I wrote it, because all of my words come out of my head and hit the page with their own beat, is no The Summer Day. I’m taken aback by how differently it reads from Oliver’s poem. Where The Summer Day is all calm and soothing, my words are full of frenzy and rush, and panic exists right below the surface. There is little room for breath, as if gulping air diminishes the ability to accomplish everything one must before sunrise, as if taking time to reflect is counterproductive. It feels like a race to the end and that final question: What will you do with yourself on this night before the rest of the nights of your life?
I read that final line of ON THIS NIGHT, and suddenly, I was back there. That night. In late January. As I stood in my bathroom mirror, still and breath held, and I felt what my fingertips knew was a lump in my left breast.
That is the power of words. They can take you anywhere in a matter of seconds.
That day in January, the one that inspired ON THIS NIGHT, I had spent whatever free time I could steal doodling an idea I had for a sternum tattoo. Later that night, when I finally got it right, I grabbed a black Sharpie and headed for my bathroom mirror. It was late, my face was scrubbed clean of the day’s dirt, I had worked on my book and finished my nightly yoga routine. A little goofing off in the mirror before my shower was in order.
I should mention right here that I am the daughter of a breast cancer surgeon, so from an early age, breast self-examination has been the norm. My younger sister and I both had laminated examination guides to hang in our showers – feeling up our boobs has never been a thing for us. Once I’d taken off my bra that evening and drawn my tattoo, admired it for a few minutes, and made some changes, I also did a self-exam. Because, why not?
A quick round-and-round of my right side revealed the same as always: nothing changed, same old tissue as the last time I checked. My left though.
I always start at the top, and work my way down and around, my fingers pressing and kneading, pressing and kneading. The movement fast and fluid because I’m well-practiced, having been doing this since a teenager. And because I’m so well-practiced, I felt that lump immediately. Lower left side of my boob, a great place to hide.
My fingers froze and although I made no sound, my brain screamed a long, panicked NO. I felt again. And again. And again. Fingers pressing and kneading fast and faster, as if doing so could make the lump press and knead itself into non-existence. Of course, it did not.
I took a deep breath, said “nah, girl,” and hopped in the shower. It was the only shower I can recall taking where I pretty much left my boobs alone. I was in that place of denial and this-ain’t-happening, and for three beats of time, convinced myself that if I didn’t touch that lump, it didn’t exist.
But here’s the thing about me: I’m a picker. A digger. I need answers. Revelations. And I prefer them immediately. Like yesterday.
So I got out of that let-me-ignore-my-left-boob shower, dried off, coated myself in vaseline like I do every night – I’m telling you, it’s the best moisturizer ever, don’t even think about arguing this with me – and lay down on my floor.
Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it won’t be there. Maybe it was just a fluke.
I counted to ten, and then to twenty, added another ten for good measure, and another ten because I was terrified. Then I pressed. And kneaded. And pressed and kneaded, until I knew the exact dimensions and feel and depth of that lump. Because it was still there. And if it was going to be the death of me, or the moment in my life where everything changed, I was going to know every goddamned detail of it.
I don’t recall how long I lay on my floor that night. I do know that once I got up, I texted a girlfriend and told her what I found. And another. And another. And then my sister, who I didn’t want to tell because she’s the baby in the family and even though most of the time she’s more mature than I could ever dream of being, still, she’s my baby sister. I didn’t want her to worry. She called me right away and we chatted, and then I told my brother, and we chatted, and I made both of them promise not to tell our folks because they were in India, and there was no need worrying them.
Somehow I got myself to sleep that night, woke up the next morning, dropped The Kid off at school, and then headed into the office to call my doctor.
Here’s how you know something is bad: you send your doctor a note on the practice’s online messaging system, and less than three minutes later, her nurse is calling your cell. It was the Thursday before Martin Luther King Day, and even though I hoped I could be fit in that day or Friday for whatever came next, I knew better. They scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound for the following Tuesday.
I had a long weekend ahead of me. Three long days of keeping myself busy, making sure I didn’t seem worried about anything because kids pick up on everything, and avoiding all thoughts of death and sickness and the like.
It was during this high-stress time that I wrote ON THIS NIGHT. Or perhaps I wrote it in the aftermath of the long weekend, when I showed up for my exams at NYU-Langone, only to be told they wouldn’t see me since I didn’t come with my films from previous mammograms done at Mt. Sinai, something no one ever thought to inform me was necessary. And so began another waiting period, although not quite as long since Mt. Sinai was kind enough to take one look at my stressed-out face and fit me into their schedule.
By Friday, I knew I was cancer-free. And that I have cysts everywhere, and will need to come back in six months for a follow-up exam, but kudos to me for my self-exam practice. Both my technicians told me to keep up the good work, and not to worry, they didn’t expect anything to change at my next appointment. But damn if those ten days were not some of the most stressful ever.
And damn if the words and rhythm of ON THIS NIGHT don’t center me right back in the midst of that stress every time I read them.
Which is a very long long long way of saying to all the women out there: SQUEEZE YOUR BOOBS, MY LOVES!
Addendum: and this time, I’m actually going to write it – Women, despite what they tell you and would love for all of us to believe, mammograms don’t hurt. At least mine don’t. Even the deeper, diagnostic mammogram didn’t hurt. Yes, you have to stand super still and not breathe and they mash your boobs to oblivion, but none of it hurts. So if you haven’t had your boobs professionally squeezed because you’re afraid it’s going to hurt, trust me, it won’t.