The email made my palms sweat just a little. That made me worry, which made them sweat just a little more.
I had agreed to do a final piece for my editor at the Hyper Local Times before hanging up my invisible press pass to focus on my MFA program, and teaching my freshmen. When my monthly assignment came via a late August email, I was expecting to profile another lawyer, CPA, or banker, as had seemingly become my beat.
On my screen instead were the names of three breast cancer survivors and an oncologist, along with details about the breast cancer story my editor wanted for the October cover.
So why the soggy palms?
Simply put? I don’t do well with medical drama of any kind.
The longer answer is a bit more complicated. See, for the past year, my anxiety has been totally in control, probably for the first time in my life. But situations requiring me to focus on scary medical realities happen have always been triggers. Oh, and I was a week overdue for the once-every-two years mammogram that I had negotiated with my doctor, and was, frankly, considering foregoing.
Doubtless a result of my status as a life-long student of literature, I also am a big believer in the concept of everything having meaning. As in: everything that happens must be foreshadowing significant plot events; otherwise it’s just bad writing.
For my off-kilter cranium, I knew the situation was a potential recipe for disaster. The mental math for me works this way: I usually get a boring banker story, but because I was going to skip my mammogram, I have been given A Sign in the form of an assignment that will force me to have conversations that will scare the $%^&# out of me so I will turn myself in for a mammogram and they’ll find the tumor. Crap, I have cancer.
This logic makes complete sense to me. Particularly since the last time I almost didn’t go for a routine medical appointment was 12 years ago; I ended up going and discovered that I had a furtive pack of precancerous cells requiring surgical removal. See, proof. But even as I considered the assignment, I realized that I was more worried about having an anxiety relapse than my assumed bout of cancer. I decided that the thought was rational, and a Really Good Sign that my head was screwed on tighter than it used to be, and that I just might be able to approach a sensitive topic like a professional.
When I was a child, my father was a disc jockey in a large market. He told me that to be successful in his line of work, professionalism was key. He recounted a story that, to him, defined the kind of professionalism media demands. A fellow DJ was on the air when he received word that an accident had claimed the lives of his entire family. Within seconds of absorbing the devastating news, the song that was playing ended which would mean Dead Air (evidently the worst thing that could happen in a Major Market) unless he did his job and announced the next song in his most crisp and clear Radio Voice. Which he did. The ultimate pro.
I hated that story. If that was professionalism, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to be a pro, even though I was sort of interested in radio at the time. Instead, I chose a different kind of media, and I really have no idea what being a “pro” writer is all about, but perhaps I am beginning to learn.
A meeting was scheduled at the home of one of the survivors. The house was on a shady street in a quiet neighborhood behind my university. The lawn, sidewalk, and porch was inviting and well put together, but not in a manicured, trying-too-hard sort of way. As I approached the door, I remember thinking that nothing bad could have ever happened in this house, that “bad” was too incongruous with the porch’s cozy white rocking chair, the well-tended plants and the stone walkway. But of course that was silly. Neither “bad” nor “good” respect boundaries in this world.
The door flew open, and, as if to prove my point, three beautiful women welcomed me inside the home (that was, incidentally, my kind of gorgeous in every imaginable way, punctuated with pieces of art from all over the world, and colors straight from my own personal palette) and made me feel like I was walking into a brunch with old friends.
Over the next couple hours, I learned about some of the scary things happened to these women. Things like Lucy’s hair falling out all at once during a wash at her salon, a story she actually catalogs among her blessings. “Wasn’t that a wonderful way for it to happen?” she asks, as though she were explaining a proposal, or a promotion.
Dora’s mastectomy happened on the day of her grandmother’s funeral. And Veronica? The vibrant, fun loving owner of the beautiful house continued her job as a funeral director during the entirety of her treatment. How did she cope? By explaining that in her line of work she sees people all the time who never had a chance to fight the thing that killed them. Of course, it got more challenging the times when breast cancer was the reason someone’s story ended with her signature on their final paperwork.
But despite the treatments, the uncertainty, the prognosis—Lucy, almost a decade removed from her diagnosis, refuses to know either her cancer’s stage or likely outcome—these women spent most of the afternoon laughing and talking about life.
As for me? Although I have to admit to making my mammogram appointment within 5 minutes of returning to my van (it was scary stuff, OK?) I really didn’t think about it again until I went a week later. I can’t tell you I enjoyed it, but I can say that I didn’t cry, hyperventilate, or annoy anyone with ridiculous questions, as is my usual MO. I learned, in time, that all is well for me, for now, and, in that, I have a tiny bit in common with Lucy, Dora, and Veronica, who, for now, are just fine, too.
I went on to write my story, during which time I received a great deal of response to the survey I posted to collect woman-on-the-street data. From the flood of messages and feedback I received in just over a day, I felt like a struck a chord, which made me think about who I will end up becoming as an MFA. After all, I was accepted based on a portfolio of humorous stories, which quite literally makes me the class clown. Is that OK?, I wonder. Can I say enough as the class clown? Will I ever feel as important, and smart, and vital as I did during those days on my semi-real story, as though I am tapping into a societal nerve? Are class clowns required to exhibit professionalism?
These are the things I do not know, but might find out as I get closer to being a full-fledged MFA. But for now? I’m as cool as a cucumber, and with dry palms to boot. And my Hyper Local Times cover story is hot off the press.