Yesterday I wrote, but it was in a journal while I hung out in the Union Square Barnes & Noble cafe and listened to other people who were doing the same. Being out and about during the day is going to be an anthropological study, so there’s that to look forward to.
I had two doctors’ appointments back to back. For some reason, the older I’ve gotten, the more magical doctors’ appointments have become because one always turns into more. These two were no exception. Tuesday’s sprouted another (which I think will sprout yet another when I call to schedule it) and Wednesday’s sprouted two more. It might surprise you at this point to hear that both doctors told me everything is totally fine with me. I’m smart enough to know they aren’t lying. They are trying their professional and personal best to make sure everything remains okay, and for that I am grateful.
I’ve had a strange relationship with death my whole life. It’s not that I’ve been obsessed with it or constantly afraid of it. I think I understood from an early age that death was real and could happen any time. When I was young, I’m pretty sure I thought I’d die of skin cancer. I knew I should put on sunscreen all the time, but I didn’t. I got burn after burn. I’m not even sure if mom tried to scare me by telling me about skin cancer – I don’t remember her using fear to parent ever actually. She did that with my older brother by putting a rubber snake in his doorway so he would stay in bed, and to this day he’s terrified of snakes. The guilt is something she still lives with even though it happened 35 years ago. Anyway, regardless of where the idea came from, I assumed I’d die of skin cancer and that was that. There was an outside possibility that I’d go in a horrible bike accident, but I’d been over the handle bars a few times and lived to tell about it, so skin cancer seemed more likely.
Then I got hit by a car for the first time. Okay, maybe “tapped” is a better verb. The car made contact with my body while we were both in motion, so call that what you will. I was riding my bike home from a volunteer counselor-in-training gig for a summer program at the local elementary school. It was about a mile from home. I was 14. I’d gone farther on my bike at 11 or 12 for a summer music program, violin strapped to my back and all, so this didn’t seem like a big deal. It had been raining in the morning, but it had cleared by the time I was going home, so the rain poncho I’d worn while I rode in was safely tucked into my backpack. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, even though I had one somewhere. The big white car was turning right on red and didn’t look to see that I was in the crosswalk. I, being legally blind, couldn’t tell that the driver was looking at oncoming cars from the left instead of anyone who was crossing WITH THE LIGHT to his right. Boom. When I was on the ground, looking up, I first realized that I wasn’t dead, head cracked open in the road, because my backpack had flopped up and cradled my head. I don’t know that the impact without that would have killed me, but I’m very pleased I didn’t have to find out. I then felt metal on my lips and instantaneously realized it was my bike lock key, which was on a white string around my neck. It had flipped up into my face as I fell. Assessing these two pieces of information made me realize I was okay enough to think, so next I thought, “WHAT THE FUCK, YOU ASS HOLE. I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY!” to the driver. Third thought, friends. I don’t waste time! I assess the damage and then RAGE!
The driver and others on the road got out to help me. My bike was toast because one of his front tires had run over my front tire. I had an impact wound on my left shin that was starting to bleed, but nothing else seemed wrong. The driver, an old man for an old car, offered to drive me home, but I didn’t trust his skills with an automobile. And I was pissed at him for HITTING ME WITH HIS CAR. Home was still a mile away, but I was pissed enough to walk through any pain and drag my bike with me. Of course, the pain set in faster than I expected. I tried to stop in all the churches I passed because I trusted a church to have a phone so I could call my mom. She was a trustworthy driver. She had never hit me with her car (even though she very much wanted to more than I few times, I’m sure). No luck, which also made my angry. The church I went to was always open, so what was wrong with these places? I finally got home and threw my bike down on the side walk. I went into the house, yelling what had happened, and then jumped up on the kitchen counter to extend my now totally bloody and swollen leg. Then and only then did I cry.
Harrowing, but not life threatening. It did teach me how easy it is with my vision to miss something. I figured I would definitely die in some kind of car accident because of that incident.
A year and a half later, I was approaching my 16th birthday, and I was miserable. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I was in therapy and on meds, but everything was horrible. It was my sophomore year of high school, and nothing was going the way it was “supposed to.” (“Supposed to” being some of the most dangerous words in the English language). I took matters into my own hands and overdosed on three different medications. In the back of my mind I knew it wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew I wouldn’t die even though I wanted to. Obviously I was right. The morning after, I threw the note I’d written at my mom and yelled, “I guess I can’t do anything right!” In total shock, mom said I could stay home from school that day and left for work. She didn’t stay. When she got her head about her again, she came home and took me to the ER. They didn’t pump my stomach, but they fed me charcoal. And by the time I was puking it back up, I was crying and apologizing for being so stupid and selfish. But you can’t try to kill yourself and then just go home. I had to be put in the psych ward of the local hospital. Now, the local hospital is an extraordinary facility… except for their psych ward. They also don’t have a separate place for children and adults, so at a week shy of my 16th birthday, I was in with (mostly) men in there forties and fifties. The only thing my three nights there accomplished was to scare the shit out of me enough to make me never ever want to attempt suicide again.
There is a whole mess of stuff I could say about that particular incident, but for the purpose of this entry’s focus, I will conclude by saying it changed my relationship to death. If I’d had any kind of fear of death before, it was completely gone now. I’d forced myself to look mortality in the eye, so I was no longer scared of it. I no longer actively sought my own death like I had in the misery leading me to overdose, but at the same time, I didn’t fear it. I recognized it for what it is: an inevitable part of life. Also, it showed me the love and support I wasn’t allowing myself to feel, a huge portion of which came from my church family, so in a weird way, it reaffirmed my faith in God and all He promises us about what comes after this life.
Then I got hit by a New York City taxicab when I was 21. Okay, “clipped” might be a better word. But again, it made contact with my body while we were both in motion, so there’s really no way to get around it. It was my fault this time because I was scurrying across Broadway against the solid don’t walk light. I had fewer injuries, but a prized pair of Mary Janes lost its life to the velocity of the cab. Of course, it was almost seven years to the day of my other car collision, so in addition to thinking I’d be killed by a car, I also thought I’d happen either in seven years’ time or, working with half-lives, in three and a half years. I’m happy to say I have NOT been hit, tapped, or clipped by a car since, so I was wrong about the timing, but I’m still a little convinced that it’ll be a car that does me in.
I say again, I’m not obsessed with death. This isn’t something I sit around thinking about. It just so happens that my magically multiplying doctors’ appointments made me think about it.
I was confronted with mortality again when mom had an atypical heart attach when I was 26. That’s a long story for another time (and the basis for a novel I’m slowly figuring out).
The next time I thought I might die is chronicled in my short-lived weight loss surgery blog that I linked to in my first entry. The initial surgery to put the Lap Band in went perfectly. It was about 10 months later when I couldn’t eat or drink anything without immediately throwing it back up that I had a big problem. I didn’t think I was at death’s door, but I didn’t know what to make of having to have a revision surgery. I also felt terrible, like I’d done it to myself, because the surgery was to correct me choosing to put a foreign object into my body. And there’s always the risk of not waking up from anesthesia. The doctor who’d done the original surgery is in NYC, but I was in NoVA at the time, so that made me anxious too. Luckily, the doctor in NoVA was a very handsome man in his late 30s who had an excellent bedside manner and wasn’t afraid of a lawsuit, so he reached out many times and held my hand when he saw I was getting scared about test results and next steps. I came out of it all fine. (and wrote the cute doctor a thank you note for how wonderfully he’d dealt with my anxiety.)
13 months later, I WANTED to go play in traffic and get hit by a car because I was in so much pain. That was my gall bladder. The ER I went to that night was not cool, not cool at all. Fortunately and unfortunately, I was so sick that they couldn’t operate on me, and I found out my weight loss surgeon could perform my gall bladder removal. Hooray! I trust her completely, so she can cut me open whenever. In the ER though, while they were doing tests, I honestly didn’t know what was wrong with me and wondered if it was severe enough to kill me. Judgmentally, I also wondered if the doctors and nurses there were incompetent enough to accidentally kill me. In my defense, they didn’t listen to anything I said about my medical history and how I was feeling. They didn’t give a shit that I told them information that would have saved a lot of time, resources, and money. And when they were satisfied with the empirical evidence they’d extracted and analyzed at 8 am (the same information that I told them when I went in at 11:30 the night before) they didn’t give a shit about managing my pain while I waited for more tests or being gentle with me during the new battery of tests.
Only a few months after my gall bladder, the biggie smacked me in the face. Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mom died of breast cancer that metastasized into bone and brain cancer. While we fought tooth and nail to keep mom alive, I was also confronted with the reality that this could be genetic. I could have a very clear picture of what’s really truly going to kill me. It’s not skin cancer. It’s not a car. It’s not myself. It’s not abdominal pain from a slipped Lap Band or a gall bladder infection. It’s breast cancer.
In 2014, after mom had gotten through the worst of it, I started (slowly) taking care of myself again. By that I mean I went back to the OB/GYN for the first time in about five years. Yeah, I know. It’s called an annual, not a “whenever I decide to go.” Hearing my medical history and my family history prompted the doctor to suggest I talk to a breast surgeon, the person who would potentially run the genetic testing on me and who would definitely do baseline monogramming. My best friend was in the middle of her own fight with breast cancer at the time – the same order and level of treatment my mom needed but with fewer complications because she is much younger and healthier than mom was when she went in to her hell. Anyway, I was on the fence about testing. It turned out I didn’t have to worry about it after all because the breast surgeon’s receptionists never found my referral, so I let it go.
Well, you guessed it. One of my appointments this week was the OB/GYN, and now that I’m 35, she very much wants me to at least have a conversation with the breast surgeon to talk about what my best options are from a preventative standpoint. Like I said, everything is fine now, and she wants it to stay that way. There’s also no rush because my mom and grandma were diagnosed in their 60s. I am less on the fence about getting the genetic testing now. My instinct says, “don’t bother, just live.” The vain part of me says, “Hey, if they can reconstruct your boobs with fat from other places on your body, that kinda kills two birds with one stone!” (Because if I test positive, the next step would likely be a full mastectomy to remove all breast tissue, like Angelina Jolie did a while back). Does insurance even cover the test though? So many unknowns.
But it got me thinking about death, not in a macabre, depressed way. Just in the kind of flippant way I’ve outlined my life history with death here. Like anything in life, if you can’t laugh about it, it’s probably going to end up killing you. So, HA HA DEATH! I’m sure you’re coming, and I thought you’d be a car for a long time, but if you’re going to be breast cancer, then that’s fine too.