Cats vs. Cancer
The New England Review
Vol. 40, No. 1 (2019)
or read below:
Cats vs. Cancer
I throw the bandage in the trashcan with the clumped kitty litter. I ask the kitty, both of us lying on the bed on top of the covers, “Did you do your best today? Did you show up and do what you needed to do today?” The kitty rolls lazily onto her back and stretches out her arms and legs like she’s in rigor mortis. She was recently neutered and I rub her shaved belly and mending incision line. She is purring. She is black with long white feet and white front paws, a white chin and half a white nose. “Kitten mittens!” I say rubbing her belly. “Cat jammies! You did a great job today, kitty!” I adjust the icepack under my bra. When I lifted my bra up in front of the mirror earlier there was blood on the outer surgical bandage. I remember the nurses said if I see some blood that’s normal.
The first time I saw the kitten was a month earlier after I rented an art studio on the basement floor of a warehouse building in the far reaches of Brooklyn. I worked on a painting for a few hours and then took a break to look out the window. The basement studio window was eye-level with ground-level alley. Looking back at me on the other side of the glass was a little black kitten. I looked away dismayed. When I looked back hoping she’d be gone there were two little black kittens looking at me. I looked away again uneasily and when I looked back there were three little kittens—two black ones and a black one with a white nose and white paws. Again I looked away, this time on the verge of panic, and when I looked back there were four little kittens looking back at me through the window—two black ones and two black ones with white noses and paws. I turned away, went on my computer, and Googled “What to do when you can’t save the world.” I read several posts, turned out the light, and left for the day.
The next day there were no kittens in the morning but by afternoon one of the little black ones appeared at the window and over the course of an hour she multiplied into four. They batted at broken glass and chased the plastic lids of coffee cups to and fro in front of the window. They scratched in abandoned planters and bit each other’s necks. They would stop occasionally to stare in the window.
I went and bought a bag of cat food at the deli and found some bowls. At dusk they lined up on the broken sidewalk and watched me with eight green eyes as I filled the chipped bowls with cat food. Their white whiskers twitched in unison and they moved their heads like they were watching a tennis game as I swept up the broken glass in their garbage-can-alley home.
A large gray cat seemed to watch over the kittens. Sometimes when I walked from the subway to the art studio the large gray cat would emerge from an alley several blocks away and walk ahead of me on the sidewalk. We would both turn right, then turn left, then I would open the gate while the large gray alley cat scooted underneath, both of us ending up at the bowls to feed and watch the kittens.
At night I went on the Internet and read about the difference between stray and feral cats, the cat overpopulation epidemic in New York City, and the mayor’s new campaign to handle the epidemic with TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return). A concerned citizen is advised to contact a rescue organization, then take a class to learn how to trap the animal and bring it to the aspca for neutering. Then the neutered cat is to be returned to its original location to live out its life on the streets. I realized the large gray alley cat’s clipped ear was not a dogfight injury but a universal sign that he had been trapped-neutered-returned.
There were inquiring phone calls, sad kitty posters, desperate pleas to neighbors, and sleepless nights worrying about the kittens. After a month, my sad kitty posters attracted two other codependent caregivers, and we joined forces to get the kitties TNR’d but then in the end we didn’t have the hearts to release them back to the alley. We quickly got three of the kittens adopted, with just one kitten left. After much pressure, convincing, and cajoling from the other ladies—“Two cats are better than one! I have four cats already or I’d take one! How can you not love a kitten? Your older cat will love a little friend!”—I begrudgingly took home the most fearless Tuxedo. “Say goodbye to your sisters,” I told the feral kitten as I cornered her and pushed her into the carrier. “You are never going to have to play with broken glass again.”
The kitten’s first day at my apartment was a nightmare. When I released the kitty to her new home she promptly scrambled into my closet and disappeared. My older cat rushed in like a rabid raccoon, straight into the back of the closet, and a ferocious attack exploded. I grabbed the older cat and she turned on me, biting my hand hard. I held tight and tossed her out of the bedroom and shut the door, adrenaline surging. My hand was bleeding. The new kitty was squeezed into the farthest back corner of the closet. Was this safer than releasing the kitten back in the alley? I wasn’t so sure anymore.
The next day, I had a mammogram and ultrasound scheduled, due to a small lump in my left breast. I wasn’t worried. This had happened before. All previous diagnostic tests had revealed benign cysts so there was no reason to think this time would be different. The night before my test, and after the hair-raising cat fight, I called my friend who had two cats and fibrocystic breasts. We agreed the diagnostic tests were annoying but necessary and my friend recommended reading a book called Cat vs. Cat to better understand cat behavior and ensure a better outcome from my new cat introduction.
I downloaded Cat vs. Cat on my Kindle so no one would see what I was reading in public. There was a two-hour delay for diagnostic mammograms and ultrasounds so I welcomed the opportunity to be educated in cat behavior while sitting in the series of waiting rooms. In the outer waiting room we got to keep our clothes on and an occasional husband, son, or fiancé sat with a woman, but no men were allowed in the inner waiting room, as we were all given lockers and instructed to remove everything from the waist up. In the inner waiting room we were reduced to our pants, winter boots, and flimsy wraparound gowns. The women who must have been here multiple times this winter were smart enough to wear button-down sweaters that they kept outside their lockers and draped on their shoulders.
Most women were looking at their cell phones in lieu of the pile of women-themed magazines: Redbook,Glamour, People, Self. There was a lone Sports Illustrated magazine, presumably left behind by a stray male companion. We all had our locker keys attached to plastic colored slinkies around our wrists. I settled into Cat vs. Cat, tilting the screen when an embarrassing title chapter like “Understand the Feline Hierarchy”appeared in a large font so none of the other braless women could see, but they weren’t looking anyway.
I was eager to learn key information about cat behavior, such as, if you brought a new cat into your home, your resident cat would perceive the new kitty as a threat. Cats were territorial and would defend their space and become extremely stressed with the intrusion. For that reason, introducing a new cat was more successful if one took certain steps: Keep them separated in different locked rooms for weeks. Let them sniff under the doors to get used to the idea there is another cat nearby. Slowly, sometimes over months, wedge the doors open a crack, so they can see each other. Rub socks on their heads and let them sniff and attack the scented socks. Gauge how well it is going by how aggressively they attack the socks.
The chapter on introducing a new cat stressed patience. Some cats will never like each other. I didn’t know this was a possibility. I saw a flash of my life—chasing cats from one room to another in a cat-patterned bathrobe, spraying ill-behaving cats with a water bottle (but not letting the cats see that I was doing it; it should appear to be an act of God, stressed Cat vs. Cat), cat toys filling the cabinets, endless mammograms and ultrasounds and a few uterine biopsies in between.
The waiting room was cold and I was hungry. They finally called my name as I was reading “The Importance of Territory: TURF 101,” while crossing and rubbing my arms for warmth. I stood at the machine and lay on the table dutifully submitting to the tests, and every time I felt pain I shut my eyes and saw flashes of the older cat attacking the kitten.
When my tests were done, I was left to wait in the ultrasound room sitting on a pale blue paper liner. I had continued to read about how to extend your cat’s territory by adding vertical platforms. According to Cat vs. Cat this can help your cats interact more harmoniously as they can keep a social order. The dominant cat gets up higher and the cat lower in the pecking order stays on the floor. I made a mental note to search for an aesthetically appropriate cat climber to purchase on the Internet when I got home.
The doctor walked in and said, “There are several things going on,” and I snapped my Kindle case shut in surprise. She described three areas that needed to be biopsied. “It’s probably normal fibrocystic changes, considering your age, but I’d like to be sure.”
I made my follow-up appointments with the receptionist who advised me to have all three procedures done in one day. “One right after another. Least invasive to most invasive.” She sounded bored which reassured me in the same way a bored flight attendant did during turbulence—although the phrase “least invasive to most invasive” sounded a bit like a line from a CIA manual on torture.
I spent the next week painstakingly keeping the cats separated and shopping online for a suitable cat tower to extend their territory. I had to carry a tote bag between the rooms with a spray bottle, a can opener, cans of cat food, and a fork. I needed to keep one hand free to try to grab a cat if one escaped. If I slipped a moment on diligence, my older cat charged into the bedroom in a flash and pounced on the kitten with a fury. After each attack, I’d have to hunt around the room to find the kitten. She’d be curled up on a high shelf in my closet in a basket of socks. She’d be tucked in a shoe under the bed. She’d be jammed behind the air conditioner on the floor of my closet. I’d play with her on my bed while my older cat stuck her paws under the door with her claws extended, growling, just hoping to snag some tender kitty flesh.
The kitten was slinky and soft and buzzing with joie de vivre. She’d chase her tail in a frenzy of spinning kitty cyclone and topple over at the end like a ragdoll. She’d wiggle around under my armpit while I took a nap, purring deep-throatedly on my breast. Her little white paws looked like she had mischievously gotten into a tub of white paint. “Paint paws! Bunny feet!” I’d say, staring into her bright green eyes. She’d hold my gaze for a moment then leap on the curtains and hang like a kitty Tarzan.
I tried to play with my older cat in the other room but she just sat there staring at the door to the bedroom like a sociopath. If I tried to hold her, she bit me. Behind her golden eyes were the letters K–I–L–L. I was starting to worry this wasn’t going to work out.
The older cat was found as a kitten in the snow outside Key Foods on Seventh Avenue. She was pregnant and the person who found her said to the kitten, “If you are still here in the snow when I have finished my shopping I will rescue you.” After the woman finished her shopping, the kitten was still there waiting in the snow, “as if she had heard me.” At least that’s what the cat’s bio said on Petfinder.com. It made a good story, anyway, and when I adopted her I told her, “You will never have to get pregnant and live in the snow again.” At night when she crawled onto the bed next to me and suckled the blanket, I would coo, “Does Mommy miss her babies?” They had to abort her babies due to an infected uterus. She, too, in the beginning had a shaved belly and a surgical scar.
When I returned to the hospital for my biopsies, the first two least invasive procedures were unexpectedly painful and in the middle of the second least invasive procedure I started to cry. The nurse asked if there was anyone in the waiting room she could get for me and when I remembered that I had come alone I shook my head and tried to pull myself together. When the doctor and nurse finished I had a surgical bandage on each breast and I went to the bathroom to cry in private. I was so hungry and anxious that I got on my knees and asked God to give me the strength to go through the most invasive procedure. I’m not sure I believed in God but I was desperate. I washed my face and pulled up my hair in an elastic band. I walked out of the bathroom and told the nurse I was hungry and she gave me some graham crackers and juice. She told me that my hair looked nice. She finished going over my medical records while I ate my graham crackers like a starving animal. There were crumbs under me on the exam room floor. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said. “We’ll have to clean up worse than that after your procedure anyway.”
She found the line on my record for allergies. “Hmmmm, it says here you have an allergy to alcohol?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to suck the juice out of the juice box with the miniature straw, but the juice could barely flow through the tiny opening.
“What happens when you have alcohol?” she asked, perplexed.
“I get drunk,” I said.
It took her a minute.
“Oh, I got it! I’ve seen this before! Don’t you worry about a thing.”
She showed me the machine with a vacuum attached to a hollow needle that would be inserted deep into my breast while I lay on my stomach on a table similar to a bunk bed with my neck cranked to the side. My breast would be pulled through a hole and clamped between glass and a doctor would sit under the table and make a cut to insert the needle. She explained she would need to inject my breast multiple times with Lidocaine—“load it up with Lidocaine” is what she said—as the area was deep inside. “It’s just like Novocaine,” she said. “Just not for your teeth.”
When I left the hospital after my three procedures, I had three bandages on different areas of different breasts. The most invasive procedure was harrowing. How sheltered had I been in my life that a standard procedure that millions of women had every week and bored the receptionist to tears almost broke my neck, my spirit, my resolve? I didn’t think I would make it through, but I did and I was bursting with pride and relief when the nurse helped me get off the high table, holding gauze over my breast which was now bleeding and missing some tissue from deep in its core. I stepped over the bloody gauzes and graham cracker crumbs to get to my flimsy wraparound gown. I went home to await the test results, and at this point I thought the worst was over—except for the cats.
The modern, multicolored, stackable-cube cat-climber was delivered by UPS the following day, and I had to ask the UPS man to help me get it upstairs. I opened the box and assembled it, trying not to use my left arm so as to avoid pulling on the passageway through my breast left by the tissue-sucking vacuum. The older cat wouldn’t climb it and the new kitten seemed trepidatious. I unstacked and restacked the cubes to make two shorter towers. I lay on my bed after the exertion of assembling, disassembling, and reassembling the cat climber. I wanted to rest before I had to leave for my friend’s birthday party. My breasts were yellow, green, and blue from the multiple biopsies, the cats were fighting under the bed, and the window was rattling in the wind—the window was shattered and duct-taped back together from when my cat sitter broke it.
That is when I got the phone call, and I had to strain to hear the doctor over the catfight and banging windowpane. The result from the most invasive biopsy was DCIS, otherwise known as Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, or early stage breast cancer. The doctor noted that my cells were high aggression and she referred me to a cancer surgeon. My doctor finished the call saying it could be worse, a lot worse.
I canceled going to my friend’s birthday party and got on the Internet. My shock multiplied as I read that the treatment of choice for DCIS was often a single or double mastectomy. The cancer surgeon would need to look at my results and recommend treatment. If the DCIS was in one location of the breast, the recommended course of treatment would be a lumpectomy. Often this procedure would have no body-altering impact and may or may not be followed by drug therapy and radiation. If the DCIS was in more than one location of the breast, the recommended course of treatment would be a mastectomy often followed by drug therapy, breast reconstruction, depression, even more dating trauma, body image issues, endless follow-up appointments, support groups, and a lifetime of psychotherapy.
The next day the news went from terrible to horrific. My friend’s boyfriend had killed himself the previous night, the night of her birthday party, the night I got the cancer diagnosis. She was celebrating at a friend’s house without him, as they were in the middle of breaking up. My friend found him hanging in their bedroom when she returned in the morning. I could almost feel the cancer spreading as I counted the days to see the surgeon.
The cancer surgeon was all smiles and looked like a college freshman who played rugby. She told me within minutes that my cancer was small and it was localized. The recommended course of treatment was a lumpectomy, where she would cut a half moon under my nipple and follow the guide wire that would be pushed in earlier to point to the tiny spot of cancer. Then she would cut out the cancer. I was beyond ecstatic. I swore to myself that I would never take my breasts for granted again. The cancer surgeon told me to schedule an MRI as a precaution to take a good look at both breasts and make sure there were no other spots of cancer but she didn’t expect to find anything new.
The day before my friend’s boyfriend’s memorial, I was at NYU’s Perlmutter Cancer Center for my MRI. I had fixed my makeup before I left home with the optimistic thought that maybe I would meet a cute guy, perhaps with prostate cancer, who had an MRI scheduled that day. He would hopefully have something early stage also, very treatable, as I wasn’t interested in dating someone past Stage One. It would be good also if he liked cats so he could comb the new kitten with a flea comb while I distracted the older cat from attacking her. I suspected the new kitten had fleas.
While I was in the waiting room I remembered that it was a women’s cancer care center, no hot guys with minimally invasive cancer in sight. Just old ladies, once I really started looking—lots of them, as I looked around more—lots and lots of old ladies who left trails of crumpled Kleenexes, half-sipped water bottles, lipstick-smeared paper cups, canes hooked over armrests, and walkers parked in open areas. Not even any hot young women with cancer, never mind the guys.
The waiting room was packed as all the old ladies had canceled yesterday due to the icy streets. Today, though, they were back in full force with their orthopedic rubber boots, vinyl purses, and Glamour magazines. Cell phones were ringing endlessly as they forgot them on their seats, couldn’t find them in their purses, or didn’t know how to turn off the ringers anyway.
When they called me in I thought fleetingly that maybe the MRI tech would be a hot guy. She wasn’t and she had a hard time getting in my IV. They had to call in the nurse who told me I had thick skin. She pinched some of the skin on my hand and said, “thick skin, that’s good for you, less wrinkles.” They left me alone in the room while they sponged down the MRI from the previous patient who had lain on it with a cancer diagnosis. The chair I waited on was vinyl and had a small rip in the upholstery under my thigh that hurt when it scratched my bare skin. I squirmed in the seat fearful about my threshold for pain. Then I wondered if my kitty had fleas and whether I’d have to fumigate my apartment.
The MRI was a cross between a medieval torture rack and some futuristic alien probe table. I was laid on my stomach with my breasts pulled through holes in the beige plastic surface and clamped down tight below. My arms were pulled over my head. My face was stuffed in an inset—I could only see blurred edges of beige plastic and paper liners. There was another needle inserted into my arm and they said at some point there would be a timed injection. They placed a large plastic syringe in my left hand to hold—over my head and resting on the table—as if I were going to self-inject, but my hand was only functioning as a holder. “The machine has a timer that will activate midway through the MRI and the syringe will empty into your arm. You might feel cold at the injection site. Then you might feel nauseous.” My fingers holding the syringe were going numb from my arms being over my head and the test hadn’t even started. “Then you might stop breathing,” they added, “but that doesn’t happen often.” They continued, “If you do stop breathing then you can squeeze the rubber ball.”
They unfurled my right fist and I felt a rubber ball placed in my palm and they curled my fingers around it. I couldn’t see its color since my face was pressed into the inset and my breasts were pinned so there was no way to move my head, but I imagined the rubber ball was red like a clown’s nose. The nurses spoke like a cross between sorority sisters and robots—droning but perky. “If you squeeze the rubber ball, we will ask you, ‘Are you sure you wanted to squeeze the rubber ball?’ And if you squeeze it again we will stop everything and pull you out.” My fingers stiffened around the syringe in my left fist and the rubber ball in my right. They continued, “And if we stop everything and pull you out, then you will have to come back tomorrow and try to do it again.”
After twenty minutes I started praying to God to help me not to squeeze the rubber ball. I said over and over, “Please, God, help me get through this, please, God, help me get through this.” I had incredulous thoughts about the old ladies who didn’t know how to use cell phones. How did they do this? How could they even put their arms over their heads? Was I weak? I was sure of it. Was I a coward? I knew it. Was I going to get through this? I wasn’t sure anymore.
I kept counting down from ten. I could barely make out Amy Winehouse on the headphones they placed on my ears after sucking and clamping my breasts under the table. The machine made the most God-awful techno slamming ring noise in staccato patterns. It was ear-piercing. The table was shaking. This was how they would torture and kill people in the future Holocaust on Pluto. Amy Winehouse was singing, “I don’t want to go to rehab, no, no, no,” and I was praying with sweat rolling down my crushed face, “please don’t let me squeeze the rubber ball. God, please, no ball, no rehab, no way, no, no, no.”
As I was walking to my friend’s boyfriend’s memorial the next day my phone rang and I recognized the number. I pulled over on the sidewalk and took off my mittens. The air was cold. My hands were shaking. The cancer surgeon’s first words were “I’m sorry.” They had found another spot on the MRI. I would have to return tomorrow for another MRI, this time while they used the hollow-needle attached to a vacuum to suck out more tissue.
“If it’s more cancer, is the lumpectomy still an option?” I asked, with my fingers freezing and the wind howling. I strained, thinking it would be difficult to hear, but I could hear the surgeon clearly when she said, “No. A lumpectomy would no longer be an option.” She didn’t say what the new option would be, but I knew that she knew that I knew that the new option was a mastectomy.
I sat with another friend on a wooden bench three rows behind my friend’s boyfriend’s parents. They sat in front facing the urn filled with their son’s ashes. The green urn was large and looked heavy. It looked Asian and uterine-like, with a narrow bottom that gracefully swelled at the top with a large curved handle on each side. My friend’s boyfriend had been a very solid muscular man. His calves were so notably large from working out that many of his grieving friends commented on his calves in their eulogies. I could not conceive that his body was in the jar.
My friend was crying. I wondered how my coat would lie on my chest with one breast. I stared at everyone’s breasts as the line formed to hug my friend’s boyfriend’s parents. When I hugged my friend’s boyfriend’s mother I told her that her son always made me feel special and loved. She would not let me go. She kept saying over and over, “We didn’t know he had so many friends. We didn’t know. We didn’t know.”
On the way home I called an older woman from my alcohol and drug addict recovery meeting. My voice was loud and high and fast and I didn’t recognize it as my own. She recited from the signs on the wall in our meetings to try to calm me down, but she added her own phrases and terms of endearment:
“One day at a time, honey.”
“You are not alone, sweetheart.”
“Take it easy, darling.”
Then she added, “Call the surgeon and ask her to prescribe a Valium.”
This was not a slogan on one of our signs at our alcohol and drug addict recovery meetings. She was a recovering pill addict so I was relieved that even she thought a Valium was in order. I felt new hope when I thought about the Valium. I called back the surgeon who agreed to my request and phoned in the prescription. On the way to the pharmacy I bought birdseed in order to lure sparrows to my window for the cats’ entertainment. When I picked up the prescription I saw there were two pills in the bottle and the instructions read, “Take one a half hour before the procedure, and one after the procedure, if needed.” I wondered if I’d need to take the second pill. I had no question about the first.
That night I called multiple friends in my alcohol and drug addict recovery meetings and described the procedure I would have in the morning in detail. I was hysterical by the time I got to the part where they turned on the tissue-sucking vacuum. Lisa with Gray Hair—we called her that so as not to confuse her with Depressed Lisa, and because we don’t use last names—told me to stop calling people and describing the procedure. We hung up and I threw birdseed out the window and watched. There was no sign of birds. I played with the kitty while the older cat watched unblinkingly. “You can do it, kitty! Get the mousey!” The kitten pounced on the toy mouse and the older cat pounced on the kitten. The older cat went for the kitten’s neck and there was screeching as they tumbled and hissed and snarled and shrieked under the bed. I ran to rescue the kitty and the older cat emerged with a tuft of fur sticking out of her mouth. I separated the cats and kept the kitten in the bedroom with me. I felt a wave of relief when I looked at the bottle with the two Valium on my desk.
I remembered that before they placed me in the MRI yesterday they had asked if my pants had a zipper and when I said yes they made me remove them. I found a pair of floral stretchy pants with no zipper and laid them out to wear in the morning. I pulled my heavy rubber boots out of the closet as there was snow predicted in the early hours and I had a new terror of falling down and smashing my traumatized breast tissue on the icy sidewalk. I placed the boots by the floral pants. I pulled a flannel shirt that buttoned up the front off a hanger and folded it on top of the floral stretchy pants. It didn’t match, but that was not a priority. It was soft flannel and easier to put on than a shirt that pulled over the head. I topped the pile with a lime green jog bra for extra support. The kitten jumped on top of the lime green jog bra, purring, with the toy mouse still in her mouth. I went into the kitchen and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and placed it in a Tupperware container to take with me in case there was a delay and I got hungry.
The next morning while my older friend from recovery who we called Older Gail sat in the waiting room, they took away my sandwich but let me keep my pants on. I asked one of the sorority-robot techs if she could talk to me in a very reassuring voice throughout the procedure. “I am very anxious,” I added so she’d feel sorry for me. She’d heard this before. “Honey, we’d be worried if you weren’t.”
I closed my eyes even though I couldn’t see much anyway, and as the machine started to squeal and screech I felt a curtain of peace descend over me. I thought I was having a spiritual experience—that I had found God in the center of an MRI machine and deep down in the tissues of my greatest fears. Then I remembered the Valium and thought it must have kicked in and either way, God or Valium, I was sure I would make it through this.
I was in and out of the MRI with syringe injections, needle placements, loads and loads of Lidocaine, and reassuring voices, “Wow, you are doing great. You’re going to feel a pinch. You are okay. You’re going to feel an injection. You are the best. This is the worst part. You did great. You are going back in the MRI.”
When they pulled me out of the MRI for the last time and removed the needle, the hand lifted off my back and they forgot to tell me it was over. I was still pinned to the table, breasts clamped underneath, while they tossed things to each other over my back and talked about their plans for the evening. I heard them cleaning up the bloody paper liners under my breast. Finally, my voice muffled from inside the inset and rising in pitch, I said, “Excuse me! Excuse me! Are we done?”
“What? Oh yes, great job!” Someone patted me on the back. They released the clamps on my breasts and awkwardly helped me up to a sitting position. I was so grateful for the sight of my floral stretchy pants in the midst of all the beige plastic, light-blue paper liners, and scuffed beige walls. They peeled off their latex gloves and threw them into a medical waste container. I cringed at the sight of the overflowing can picturing rivers and lakes clogged with latex.
They led me up the back stairs to wait for a mammogram with my bandaged breast and the container with the one remaining Valium in my gown pocket. I was filled with love for my fellow old lady comrades in the mammography waiting room in their mismatched tops and loudly patterned stretchy pants. I was in love with my floral stretchy pants. I was high for the first time in seven years and it was awesome.
After the mammogram I went downstairs and showed the bottle with the one remaining Valium to Older Gail the ex-pill addict. “I don’t think I need this last Valium and I’m certainly not giving it to you!” We laughed as I walked over to the trash, shook the pill out into my palm where she could see it, and slowly tipped my palm until it fell into the trashcan overflowing with granola bar and sandwich wrappers. Older Gail applauded and the woman sitting next to her asked me how quickly the Valium worked. She was clutching her prescription bottle and she was crying. She was young like me. Older Gail told me later that the woman had a fast-moving, invasive breast cancer. They thought it had spread to her other organs. She was waiting for her PET scan. I thought of the Valium sitting on top of the trash. I recalled the doctor saying when she gave me my diagnosis that it could be worse, a lot worse.
Older Gail and I parted ways at the exit to the Cancer Center as we were going home in opposite directions. The snow was starting to fall as I walked from the Cancer Center to the subway. I had my backpack only on my right shoulder. My black rubber boots felt solid. I had bought groceries the day before and for extra measure had ordered three full meals of Chinese takeout and packed the Tupperware containers in the fridge. The weather people were excitedly predicting a blizzard. It was Friday so the labs would close at the end of the day for the weekend. I’d have to wait until Monday to find out if I would lose my breast.
The snow was falling steadily by the time I emerged in Brooklyn. I let the kitty out of the bedroom and the older cat chased her back in, then stretched out in the threshold, languorously and watchful, like the kitty’s sadistic prison guard. I tried to snap the chemical icepack they sent me home with to activate the cold chemicals but I couldn’t get it to work. After ringing it in the middle like someone’s neck, I threw it away and got out a bag of frozen corn from the freezer. I had bought some frozen vegetables for this reason. I iced my breast while watching romantic comedies and yelling at the older cat. “Be nice! Stop it! Settle down!”
Hugh Grant asked Julia Roberts where she got her perfect breasts after they made love. I went to the freezer to swap the warm pack of corn with frozen peas. I wondered if Hugh Grant was too shallow to love a woman with one breast. I still cried when they broke up and then cried again when they got back together at the end. It closed with a scene of her pregnant, lying in his arms on a park bench, her breasts accentuated in an empire waist dress.
In between Notting Hilland Beauty and the BriefcaseI opened the window to throw more birdseed on the sill. The air was cold and the snow wet my face. I felt the small hairs coming out of each pore on my face, each snowflake that hit my skin, and my heart thumping under the frozen peas, the bandage, and the traumatized breast tissue. I felt oddly alive and I wondered if the birds would come.
In between Beauty and the Briefcaseand I Hate Valentine’s DayI imagined a surgeon with a hacksaw sawing off a breast on a chopping block. I pictured breast reconstruction as I lay on Dr. Frankenstein’s table and he sewed on the breast of a dead woman. I saw the bulky stitches, the discolored flesh, the missing nipple. On the Internet I finally brought myself to image-search mastectomy scars and I studied the neat incision line. The mastectomy scar images were linked to images of mastectomy tattoos of flowers and birds that ignited my interest. I could finally get a tattoo with great meaning. I read about going flat, a choice by women to remove both breasts and forgo the breast reconstruction. Some got a tattooed tank top or lacy bra.
I looked at the big breasts under the soft sweaters of the lead woman in I Hate Valentine’s Dayand imagined what she’d look like flat. In between I Hate Valentine’s Dayand The Wedding DateI checked on the duct-taped window in the bedroom. The wind rattled the crooked frame and the snow was starting to cover the cracks. I worried it might blow in during the storm but it held.
I called my friend Shauna with Red Hair to tell her about my mastectomy tattoo ideas. Then I called my friend whose boyfriend killed himself. She said he looked very scary when she found him hanging from their bedroom door. She couldn’t believe it was true. She had wanted to take a picture when she found him because she knew this would happen, that she wouldn’t believe it had happened. She didn’t think it would be respectful to him at the time but now she wished she had. “I could choose whether or not to look at the picture, but I think it would have been nice to have it, so I had the choice. I just can’t believe that this is true.”
The weekend was a whiteout of snow, Chinese food, romantic comedies, catfights, and mastectomy tattoo designs. The city noise was absent as all drivers were banned from the roads. At night in the silence my breast throbbed. I couldn’t lie on my left side. I lay awake trying to figure out how I would feed the cats after surgery if I couldn’t get out of bed. I brainstormed that I could get a large Tupperware container and place it by my pillow filled with Chinese food, cat food, a spray bottle, dishes, and chemical icepacks. I broke down and called Lisa with Gray Hair. She told me not to worry, if I couldn’t get out of bed she would feed the cats. I asked her if I needed to have a mastectomy if I could have another Valium before. “Definitely,” she said.
Saturday night my phone rings and I recognize the number from the Cancer Center. It is a male nurse who hasn’t gotten the memo that my lumpectomy may no longer be an option. He is calling to go over my medical records for the surgery. I fill him in that I am now waiting to see if the surgery will be a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. A pain shoots through my breast as I say the word mastectomy.
“That’s okay,” he says, “let’s go over your medical history for the, let’s call it, ‘to be determined’ surgery.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Let’s see, it says here you had uterine fibroids removed by myomectomy two years ago?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And it says here that you are bipolar?”
“Yes,” I say, somewhat taken aback and embarrassed.
“And it says that you suffer from anxiety?”
“Yes,” I say, my heart starting to pound.
“And you suffer from depression?”
“Not all the time,” I say, my hands sweating and ears ringing.
“And you are an alcoholic?”
My face turns red but he can’t see. I am overcome with shame by my medical records.
“Yes, but I’ve been in recovery for seven years,” I say, on the verge of tears.
There is a pause on his end. “Hold on, honey,” he says, “let me close my door.”
I can hear him get up and walk across the floor and shut his door. I’m panicking that he will recommend canceling the surgery because he has discovered that I am totally insane. He gets back on the phone.
“Look, sweetie, I’m a recovering alcoholic too, and bipolar, and suffer from depression and anxiety.”
“Oh my God, really?” I start to cry in relief.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, I am going to take good care of you when you come in for your surgery. You just ask for your friend Jeff and I’ll be right there. By the way, it says here your anesthesiologist is Dr. Virk and he’s totally hot.”
“Finally, a hot male doctor!”
“Yeah, I mean Dr. Virk can stick a needle in my arm and put me to sleep anytime!”
We both giggle about hot Dr. Virk.
“I don’t usually reveal my personal stuff to patients,” he says, “but I felt compelled to tell you for some reason.”
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my guardian angel Jeff, the bipolar, alcoholic nurse, and sleep well, even if it’s only on my right side.
In the morning the cats stop chasing each other and I look to see why. They spot the bird before I do, the older cat flattening her ears and making clicking, gurgling noises like I imagine Satan makes right before he eats children. The kitten also flattens her ears and chirps. They crouch down level with the windowsill so as to not be spotted. They are sitting side by side, united by a common purpose, which would be murder in the first degree if the window were open. I hide behind the curtain. We all watch, as the snow accumulates and the birds land on the sill. They are little sparrows with puffed-up breasts. They flicker their wings in the snow looking content, frisky—twittering, they peck in the snow at the seeds. All three of us are watching together, fascinated. The snow continues to fall and I watch as the older cat nuzzles and licks the kitten’s cheek. We all look back at the window and watch as furry breasts rise and fall, fly and land, soundlessly, in a perfectly and pristinely soft white world.