Mom and Dad already called this morning to sing “Happy Anniversary” to Dave and me. I beamed, teary-eyed, as I always do for their milestone calls, in hearing the smile in Mom’s cheery soprano and the love in Dad’s rumbling bass accompaniment. We just hung up the phone. It’s 11:45 AM. My parents have no way of knowing I’ll be calling back in fifteen minutes, as pre-arranged with my sisters, to tell them the bad news.
I’ve known for certain for about three weeks. I’ve had biopsies and an MRI. I’ve talked to a number of my surgeon’s patients – wonderful women who encouraged me and generously described their experiences. I’ve decided on a double mastectomy, even though only one breast is affected, so I don’t have to do this – or worry about doing this – again. I have a surgery date – July 1. And I have words like “Early stage, non-invasive, inter-ductal cancer.” I wanted to know as much as possible before telling my parents and my children, Tucker and Casey.
My dread of these conversations has clouded each day almost as much as the diagnosis itself. I’ve cherished the fact that my role as the chatty daughter and strong, supportive mother is intact. I’ve marveled before at the success of my public face, but in this case the mask is not a disguise as much as a happy refuge where doctors have not yet weighed in.
I told my two sisters, Rita and Francie, a week ago. I wanted to give them time to absorb the news so they’d be ready, calm and informed, when Mom and Dad found out.
The three of us came up with a plan: Francie and her husband Matt would arrive at Mom and Dad’s just before noon so they’d be there when I called. Rita would be available in the afternoon, so Mom could rehash, as we knew she’d wish to do, later on.
It has not been an easy year for my parents. They’ve lost several lifelong friends and had their own health issues to deal with. I marvel at their stoicism. They mourn these losses, but still, when I call, they answer with exuberance. When I’m older, I want to be that way for my kids. When Tucker and Casey ask, “How’re you doing,” instead of responding with blood pressure numbers or an update on my aching back, I hope I remember to answer, as my parents do, with a good natured, “Fine! And you?”
It’s 11:55. Francie calls on her cell to tell me that she and Matt are pulling up to the house. I wait five minutes so they can park and get in the door before I dial the same number I have dialed since I was ten years old.
Mom answers. “Lea! Hi! Francie and Matt just dropped by.” So happy to have two of her girls checking in at once.
“I know, Mom. Could you ask Dad to get on the line too?”
In prior discussions, Rita felt strongly about this. She thought it would be too scary for Dad to hear only Mom’s half of the conversation; to see her face drop – maybe see her cry – and not know what was happening. He gets everything second hand. Ever since we were kids. He’s always across the room saying “What’s going on?” as Mom gasps into the phone and says, “Heavens, Dearie, how exciting” or “That’s awful!”
Clearly, Mom’s antennae are tingling; I don’t think I’ve ever asked Dad to join her on the phone. “Is everything okay?” she says.
“I’ll tell you all about it, Mom. Everything’s fine. Is Dad on yet?”
“Just a sec. Paul?” She calls, “Pick up the phone. Lea has something to tell us.”
Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to them.
“Lea? Is that you, beloved child?” says Dad.
I picture the four of them – Mom, Dad, Francie and Matt – waiting in my childhood home to hear what I have to say. I am pretty sure that Mom picked up the phone in the “New Room,” a modest sitting room so named about forty years ago when it was re-decorated, the stucco walls painted pale yellow and the furniture refreshed with blue and green slipcovers. In my mind’s eye, my mother perches in the straight-back wooden chair by the phone, her silvery hair pulled back in a colorful hairband just as she’s worn it since she was a child. My sister, perhaps with one finger twirling a strand of blond hair, watches from a seat on the sofa in front of the window.
In the den, where I imagine Matt and Dad have settled, the shelves that held red leather volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia when I was young are now laden with antique toy cars, boats and tiny figures waiting on an old-fashioned train platform. Across the room is the bar, a wooden dry sink, scarred and scratched where I used to poke at it while chatting on the phone with my best friend, Edie. My father, I feel sure, sits heavily in the red and white striped overstuffed chair in front of the window, his usual spot, while Matt probably sits in the matching loveseat.
“Are you all right?” Mom says.
I take a deep breath and spell it out. Boom, boom, boom. No breaks between words. Facts, dates and reassurance. I don’t cry. Thank god, I don’t cry. In fact, I think I sound pretty chipper.
Dad, whose feelings spill easily into tears, holds it together, asking questions and
saying, “I see. Okay,” at my answers. Eventually, he says, “Courage, Child” and hands the phone abruptly to Matt. Mom is worried and weepy. Both are brave.
Just as I knew they would be.
* * *
Despite her dancer’s posture and athletic strut across the concourse of Grand Central station, Casey’s pale skin and dark-circled eyes convey fatigue. Her tight yoga pants and camisole are black; “Pilates” is written in white across her chest. Her auburn hair is clipped back in a loose knot that bobs when she pauses to cough into the crook of her arm. I can hear her hollow, chesty hack from where Dave and I wait on a stone staircase.
We’d planned all along to take her out to dinner this weekend – and tell her about my cancer – because we knew we’d be in the city for last night’s party. Then, she called a few days ago, her voice plaintive, to say, “I think I have the flu, Mom. My roommate will be away; I’m sad about Zach and I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want you and Dad to catch this, but I want to come home.”
Besides her illness, my girl is still grieving about her break-up with her boyfriend. I wanted her to come home. I love the fact that she still finds comfort with us. Plus, there are few things that anchor me so completely as having my kids home in their beds. But my surgery is in two weeks: I cannot get sick. So I called Debby, my sister-in-law, who’s a skilled nurse practitioner and asked her advice.
“Of course you want Casey home,” she said. “But wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Don’t kiss her on the face and don’t let her kiss you. And don’t hug her.”
My daughter is sick and sad and I can’t hug her? This is going to be hard.
I’m still wondering how to avoid that hug as she joins us with a weak smile. I hold my breath, lean over and brush her cheek with mine. “Hey Sweetie! You feeling any better?” I say.
“A little. I had two pilates clients this morning so I’m kinda wiped.”
Dave gives her a good, big, real hug. “How about some coffee for the ride?” he says. “We have time.”
“That’d be great, Dad.” She grabs her rolling bag and the three of us stroll down a corridor to Oren’s Coffee Shop. Dave goes inside to order and Casey and I wait by the door.
When will I tell her about the cancer? My girl who’s sick and sad? Who needs my comfort, not more sorrow. On the train? Tonight? Now?
Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to her.
“I’m having a mandatory boob job July 1.” I blurt. I came up with that opening line weeks ago. It opened the door. It sounded harmless. But it told the story.
“Wha… Mom?” Her eyebrows arc as she tilts her head, her eyes puzzled. “A boob job? I don’t get it.”
“I have… a little breast cancer,” I say apologetically. For that is how I feel. So sorry. Sorry that I’ve brought this into her life. Into our lives. I roll out the spiel, watching my daughter’s face tighten from confusion to worry… to tears.
“A little breast cancer? What do you mean “little”? Mom, I can’t look at you and believe this. You’re so healthy. How could this happen?”
I’ve wondered myself, but there’s no answer.
“Everything will be fine, Sweetie. I’ll be fine. It’s just lucky I had that mammogram.”
Dave returns with our coffees. “I told her,” I say. He nods and we turn toward the ramp to walk to our train, but first, I hug her for a long time.
* * *
Tucker has been serious about life and his work since he was very young. While other kids were out playing, he’d be bent over his homework or the computer, absorbed. I’d encourage him to join them. “Come on, Lovin’! Go outside and have fun!”
Without looking up, he’d respond, “I am having fun.”
In college, again, he was wed to his work. I remember once I said, “Tuck, lighten up! This is the time life gives you to be a kid.”
He snorted and said, “Mom. I haven’t been a kid since I was ten.”
And in a way, he was right.
So, I knew that my level-headed son would take this news as well as anybody. That he’d listen to the information, process it… and believe it. That last part is important for me now, too. I want to believe the “non-invasive, early stages” stuff, but how do the doctors really know until they get in there?
Anyway, Dave and I had a long-standing plan to visit our son and attend a reading by two authors at a bookstore a few blocks from Tuck’s apartment. When my diagnosis was confirmed, we decided this would be the time to tell him. My poor boy – little knowing that this delightful parental visit would be an ambush.
As always, when we’re about ten minutes from Tucker’s place, we call him on our cell phone to let him know we are close. We arrive just as he is getting off work, about half an hour before the authors’ presentations are due to begin. With near perfect synchronization, he strides into view as we park the car on his street.
“Hey Mom and Dad!” His smile is broad, happy to see us, unsuspecting. I reach up to hug his tall, skinny frame. “Hello, my lovin’.”
“Hey Boy!” says Dave.
Oh this is so weird. The three of us so cheery. So normal. Yet everything has changed.
“We should head over to the bookstore,” I say. “These guys are pretty well-known. It might be crowded.”
As it turns out, it isn’t. We have plenty of time to purchase some drinks and muffins at the snack bar before sliding into the second row of folding metal chairs set up in the back of the store. Almost immediately, Dave makes friends with an older couple sitting in front of us. As they talk about the ease of city life and the convenience of walking everywhere, Tucker peels the paper wrapping off his blueberry muffin and I open a bottle of water.
Pounding. My heart. I hate to do this to him.
When will I tell him? Now? At dinner? Tonight?
I am counting on my boy here. He will take it well.
“Tucker, I might as well just come out with it.”
He turns to me with a bright smile, expectant. Why not? I’m good at this now. There is nothing foreboding in my demeanor or expression. I’ve told enough people that the words roll off my tongue with brisk confidence. I even laugh at the end of the stream of information and say, “Not exactly what we’d planned to do this summer.”
His smile lingers for a moment, an expression leftover when it’s meaning has flown, before his brow furrows and his eyes darken. “Oh my god, Mom. How long have you known? Are you okay? I can’t believe you’re able to laugh about it. ”
“I’ve had a month to think about it, to make some sense of it. And yeah, surprisingly enough, I’m okay. I’ve been lucky all these years. Everyone has hard times; it’s my turn, I guess.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” says my son as he puts an arm around my shoulder and pulls me close. We remain still and quiet as people file into their seats, as Dave chats with the couple about their travels, as the first speaker shuffles his notes at the podium.