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by S.L. Wisenberg

Cancer Bitch

 A Journal

February 19. A Filling Without a Sandwich

I am a member of the Sandwich Generation—Baby Boomers (mostly women) who are caught between taking care of cranky teenagers and creaky parents. Except I have no children and my surviving parent walks the mall five days a week, lifts weights in her morning exercise class, goes to more movies and lectures than I do, and still sends me money—for my birthday, Chanukah, Valentine’s Day, and whenever she makes a withdrawal from a limited partnership, in some financial transaction I don’t quite understand. She doesn’t need me to send her checks or to help her understand Medicare Part D. (For this I’m grateful. And I’d probably pass my mother’s questions on to my husband, Linc, who explained it to his mother.) Now I am the one going into the hospital for the second time in less than a year, and she’s the one flying up to take care of me. On the phone Sunday she asked me if I needed her to do anything. I said, tentatively, If you’re going shopping… Are you going shopping…? Because she is a shopper. Not a clotheshorse, but a lifelong shopper and comparer of merchandise. She is comfortable shopping. And as she strides through the mall she goes into the stores and sees what’s on the racks. She said, Yeah, and I said, Maybe you could buy me a robe—because my two robes are terry cloth and I think they’d be too heavy to wear in the hospital bed. But she’d already beat me to it. She’d bought me a silky robe and a washable one and another one, and is bringing them with her, and I can choose any or all, she said, and she also bought me a button-down top, and my sister has approved of the purchases. I mean I just realized two days before that most of my tops go on over my head and that I hardly have any that button or zip, and that I probably won’t be able to raise my left arm for a while, and she’s more prepared than I am.

What I’m trying to say is that my mother still takes care of me and by rights she shouldn’t have to, and she’s 28 years older than I am and is healthier. Cancer-free. She is thinner and more moderate in her habits. I am faster and stronger and my hearing is better, I could beat her at mall walking, as well I should.

I feel like I’m complaining. I don’t want my mother to be sick and feeble. My friend Dan is almost 60 and he says he’s never grown up because he never had children. To parent (well) you must sacrifice and think of others—who are helpless—before you think of yourself. I have never taken care of anyone in that way. Linc and I have, I suppose, a mutual care-taking pact, but he’s not helpless (except when he’s trying to find something in the refrigerator.)

Do I feel guilty bringing my mother out of retirement to take care of me? No, because she’s not flying here to be my full-time nursemaid. It’s only for a week or so. And she likes it. (What kids always say when they’re pulling too hard on the dog’s tail: But she likes it, Ma.) Really, she does. She likes feeling needed. Am I feeling guilty for having a mother capable of taking care of me? For being pleased that she wants to? Guilty because I’m not taking care of her. She doesn’t need help. I researched hotels for her last night and then she called and said that when she made her plane reservation, the agent offered her a good rate (This price won’t last, he told her) on a hotel. She’ll pay for her flight and for her taxi and hotel. (She doesn’t stay with us. She prefers a hotel.) I feel guilty, most of all, I guess, because having a healthy 78-year-old mother to help me after my mastectomy is a luxury. And luxury, by definition, is an indulgence.

February 20. Heading for Loss

I had a friend, a jokester, who used to open his wallet and ask if you wanted to see his pride and joy. Then he’d pull out a card with a picture of Pride floor wax and Joy dishwashing liquid. For many years my pride and joy has been right there on my head. Friends would say they recognized me from afar by my very thick, wavy hair. In junior high I didn’t appreciate my hair. I considered it frizzy and needing to be straightened chemically with Curl-Free, and then physically, by a process called wrapping. The method was passed down by older female friends and relatives, like a folk custom. You needed long bobby pins and a clean, empty orange juice can with both ends removed. After using shampoo and creme rinse (conditioner had not been invented), you would towel-dry your hair, of course, then comb out a section from the top of your head and wind it around the orange juice can, pinning it with the bobby pins. Then you would take the rest of your hair and wrap it around your head (the largest roller of all). Then after wrapping your head tightly you would sit under your hooded hair dryer and talk on the phone for the two hours it took your hair to dry. This is why we washed our hair only once a week. Somewhere in my 20s, probably when Cher’s hairdo changed from curtain-straight to curly, my hair turned from high maintenance to low. Instead of complaining about my hair, I became vain about it. I was proud that curliness and body were things others strove for and that I achieved effortlessly. Women grooming themselves in bathrooms have complimented me on my waves and curls. On the other hand, when a college friend of mine brought me to her parents’ for Christmas dinner, her very WASPy mother looked at me carefully and said slowly, Your hair scares me.

My own mother has threatened, when I’m visiting her, to cut my hair in my sleep. My hair is what hers would look like if it were left to its own devices, which it isn’t. Ever. Linc is always after me to cut it so he can see my face. So he will.

February 22. A Nervous Laugher

I have become a nervous laugher. I told someone I work with, at the place I will call Smart University, that she should meet with my student teaching intern by herself, that I would normally want a three-way meeting, but I didn’t think I could schedule it because—lower my voice, move in closer, laugh a little—I’m having a mastectomy February 28.

I hate nervous laughter. It seems to be covering up, negating what you’re saying. I don’t want to be a nervous laugher. I remember talking to someone a few years ago about her mastectomy and she was all barky nervous laughter. It put me off. But I am doing it. I’m getting a part of my body cut off, ha-ha. If the cancer has spread I could die, ha-ha. I know that laughter is close to crying, I know that people’s faces can take on similar expressions laughing and crying, I know that people say: I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and: We laughed till we cried. Do people ever cry till they laugh? When you do a book reading before a big crowd, the nervousness and anticipation of the crowd make a little shudder run around the room, and everybody laughs so readily. It’s easy to make a happy, willing crowd laugh. They want to laugh. They need it, to let off steam, from their waiting, their wanting. The nervousness of all being together, chairs set up in rows, side by side. Maybe it’s the potential danger of the crowd that makes us nervous. Note the side exits. We are animals that need to make noise.

The Auschwitz smile. That’s what I call a certain type of survivor smile—a frozen smile that has nothing to do with and all to do with what the survivor is relating. A smile to keep out the horribleness of it all. A smile that keeps some of the past at bay. That keeps the past from rising and twisting and striking again and again, as the voice of the survivor is telling the story once again. First we had this then we didn’t and we had no food and we had typhus and they rounded us up… The death and the dirt. The unnecessary loss. There was no reason for the loss. A madness to it all. A madness that made no sense but cut a swath of terror.

February 28. Stiff Upper Lip

I started today to feel there was something wrong with me for not feeling terrible. Do I have a death wish? Did I leap from denial to acceptance in one fell swoop? Do I see the diagnosis as a black-humored punch line delivered by Fate? I admit, I’ve checked out from the library the only legitimate book of Holocaust humor I know of, Laughter in Hell—and what’s more, I thought the book was funny. Not joyously funny, but dark cackly funny. It was full of satire and irony by people who were living through a terrible time. Some making fun of the Germans, some of the situation.The essence of the Jewish joke, after all, is that a smart, weak person is in a helpless situation.

So I am a living Jewish joke. My father used to say that the hypochondriac’s tombstone says, I told you I was sick. All this worrying about everything, and here I am with a malignancy. Three tumors, or else one big one that’s made up of three smaller ones.

Quick, a joke, which may or may not have been in that book: Two German Jews are in Paris in the late 1930s, having fled Berlin. They’re sitting at a sidewalk cafe and see a group of French soldiers march by, barely in step. Ach, says one derisively, ours are so much better.

More February 28. The Knife

Will my world finally cave in on me when I wake up tonight and see the bandage covering what used to be my left breast?

March 2. Looking At It

I looked at the incision. To do that I rolled down the camisole and the Ace bandage. There is still some curve to my breast. How much is swelling, I don’t know. There are angry stitches on the edge by my underarm and sunken-in stitches about three-fourths of the way across the breast, making the breast look smooshed in, like it’s been in an accident. It hasn’t been; it’s been in an on-purpose. Not as horrible as I thought. I put the bandage back on and then replaced some gauze as protection, between the skin and the white stretchy mastectomy camisole I bought at the hospital gift shop.

I’m going to call it my Soviet camisole; it’s unlovely and utilitarian and looks like it was designed by a committee way before Perestroika. The stit che s make my bre ast loo k smoo shed in, like it ’s bee n in an accide nt. it hasn’t bee n; it ’s bee n in an on-purpose.

March 6. Negative and Positive

I got a call that my sentinel node was indeed negative, after the final tests. Which is what everyone predicted. This means that the cancers haven’t escaped into my lymph system. When I report this to people, they congratulate me. As if I’ve done something wonderful.

March 8. What is a Meltdown?

It might be when you’re feeling very shatterable and don’t want to answer “fine” when people ask you how you are and you’re feeling shaky and so instead of going to your mother’s hotel to meet her and your husband for an early dinner at 5:30, you go at 5 and lie down in her second bed and start crying and saying that everything is so hard and you hate these drains they won’t take out, they hurt you and get in the way, and it’s so terrible they have to start giving you poison for 20 weeks, even though the chemo man said most people don’t have nausea or vomiting, and she is perfect in her mother role and says yes, it’s hard, and lets you sleep till 6:30, when you have to get up and teach your 7 PM class at Smart University three blocks away. And so you teach your class, which isn’t as lively and fun as at its best, but still has content and is hysteria-free.

At the break your students have a basket at your place at the table with chocolates and soaps and colored pens and books, and you are able to be enthusiastic and grateful. Truly. At home you sleep and watch TV and call the chemo nurse back to schedule your first round of it and you pause to weep while you’re still on the phone, and she says, Are you OK? and you say you are.

Your husband says that someone at work asked how you were and he said you had a meltdown. 

S.L. Wisenberg is the author of the short story collection The Sweetheart Is In and the essays Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions. Adventures of Cancer Bitch, based on her blog, http://www.cancerbitch. blogspot.com, is coming in spring 2009 from University of Iowa Press. This excerpt used with permission.