Teach the Children
© Copyright 2020 by Maureen Moynihan
Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash
An hour before surgery, the medical attendant parked my gurney in the hallway as if I was an unwanted sandwich scrap left on a room service tray.
“Someone will be right with you,” he said.
“Like when?” I asked.
“Can you be more specific?” I prodded. His vague response left too much room for my anxiety to play--10 minutes? 20 minutes? Tomorrow morning?”
“As soon as possible,” he said. Then walked away.
“That’s not very helpful.” I hollered. My voice bounced down the corridor as the outline of his body faded into obscurity.
Defeated, I sank into the pillow and listened to the plastic shower cap crinkle; my head was a bag of lettuce. A parade of medical professionals marched by my gurney but no one noticed me. I had melted into the landscape of the surgical wing, no more remarkable than a potted plant. It’s hard to feel human when you’re treated like packaged vegetation.
Does it even matter if I’m here? I thought.
Doubt crept into my ears and chewed on the irony of chopping off body parts in the spirit of self-preservation. Yet my choices were limited; either I had the cancerous tissue removed or cancer would eat me alive. Not a lot of wiggle room there for contemplation. I chose the former option as it provided a false sense of control and the promise of a longer life.
But to what avail? What if the Cancer God comes back and demands another sacrificial organ to quench its insatiable thirst for life?
If so, I’d be sure to offer up a subordinate organ, say an appendix or a gallbladder. I don’t event know what those organs do and believe the former is disposable. Why must cancer demand something close to my heart? Literally.
I wondered if my decision to have a double mastectomy was too aggressive. After all, my surgeon recommended the removal of the cancerous breast only as it was the least invasive procedure.
“You have canca!” Said Dr. Chin Liou, MD, PHD. “We take way the canca breast, leave non canca breast.” He reeked of brilliance.
Regardless, I craved a second opinion. Preferably an immediate one and without the hassle of a referral. I dove in that Google search bar like a drunk at Oktoberfest. Much to my chagrin, breast cancer experts from around the world validated my surgeon's advice; removing one cancerous breast does not reduce the risk of cancer in the other breast. Or any other part of the body. On the contrary, a bilateral mastectomy does double the risk of infection, pain and recovery time. I could even do the math.
Still...certain items belong in pairs:
Salt & pepper shakers
All the animals of Noah’s Ark
Emotion weighs heavy in my decision making process, no offense to the scientific method. That doesn’t mean I make choices with the impulse of a 3-year-old at a carnival show. It means I listened to my gut. Or that little voice inside my head that tells me eating a sleeve of Oreo cookies is not a healthy strategy for stress management. It means my feelings count; I count.
Trusting our instincts is a relearned behavior. I think we are born knowing answers but become conditioned to expect our feelings to be validated through the tap of our fingers and a stable internet connection. Living in the age of information often lead to analysis paralysis, especially when human lives are at stake.
Fortunately, I was taught that fact might not be true but it might not be true for me. While some relatives punch attendance cards at graduation ceremonies and religious rites of passage, my Nana knit her presence into the fiber of my being. She rocked me before I knew words, wiped my tears when my rabbit died, and scooped up a super-sized bowl of ice cream when my boyfriend dumped me. By investing in my life, I learned that my thoughts and feelings mattered because they mattered to her.
My instincts told me it would look weird to have one breast constructed in 2016 while the other developed during 1979-1981. Skinny jeans vs. Bell bottoms. Apple iPhone 7/7 Plus vs rotary. Obama vs. Johnson. Furthermore, I was hesitant to leave one breast hanging alone, flying solo, prematurely stripped of her life long companion as she strategized the perfect opportunity to avenge her partner’s assassination. I’d snip that percolating conspiracy right in the nipple.
Be gone with both of you!
But as I waited for surgery in the hallway, parked like a cheeseburger under a heating lamp in the take out shoot, fear beaconed..
Will the pain be sharper than labor?
Is it possible to feel feminine without breasts?
What if my husband is repulsed by my scars?
A platoon of fear mites marched through my veins, sending a tsunami of panic waves through my bloodstream. Thought I tried to shiver off the consternation, the fear bellowed on:
What if my husband is ashamed of me?
How will my daughters feel when I hold them against breasts that are not real?
Will I ever feel desirable again?
If only I had a potato peeler to whisk the fear from my skin. Every cell in my body screamed “GET OUT!” Out of the paper patient pajamas. Away from all the sick people and their perennial moans of pain and suffering. A bright red exit sign near the stairwell called to me.
Psst...over here! It said.
Go out this door and down the stairs!
Get out while you still can!
At times, I’m a good listener. I wiggled from the seal of sterile sheets and hospital corners that enveloped my legs. A cool breeze of fresh air whistled through my toes as I slipped off the medical compression socks. It reminded me that the choice to stay and have this surgery was mine; I could still go home.
I visualized walking through the exit door and back into my life. I’d make grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup for lunch. Later, I’d take my children sledding in the backyard while our dog chased their pink snowsuits and giggles down the hill. When the snot on their face exceeded the power in their legs, we’d drink hot chocolate and watch a movie as we snuggled on the couch and ate popcorn. Sure, ripping the IV out of my arm would sting but our memories would last a lifetime.
Then a voice asked, “What will that teach our children?
It was the wisdom of my Nana. Even cancer, with its loud and voracious appetite for isolation, could not silence my Nana’s spirit. Her energy was always with me, steadier than my thoughts and stronger than the moon.
Damn. Ripping an IV out of your arm and fleeing from a hospital is not respectable behavior; it’s the action of a coward. Running around the streets of Boston in a hospital gown while trying to hail a cab is crazy. I had a beautiful opportunity to teach my daughters what bravery looks like by facing my own fear.
Nana had a saying about parenting, “When you plant corn, you get corn.” Or what is put into the child comes out of the adult. Hug and kiss a little boy and he will hug and kiss his wife. Shower a girl with criticism and she will be a cynical boss. Show your children to run when confronted with fear and they will fold like a lawn chair under pressure.
What will you teach our children?
I aborted my escape plot. As I stared at the nondescript ceiling tiles, I imagined they were stars and thought how the Universe works in mysterious ways. Some of us just get lucky. It’s as if Mother Nature looked upon us and proclaimed, “This one is gonna need some help.” so she tossed down an Papa or an Auntie of No Relation to steady the wobbly new foal who was struggling to stand.
These angels validate our sense of belonging, no different than the salt in the ocean or the roots of a tree. So we roam the earth, in search of a means to share our grace, as it would be selfish to stick that kind of love in our pocket and use it when we didn’t make the cheerleading squad. That kind of love demands much deeper work. It is a magic that must be given away to bloom into its full potential.
By the time the medical attendant drove my gurney to the surgical room, my fears were absorbed by a sense of purpose. I was ready to jump into unknown waters and accept the consequences of my decision. What a wonderful lesson to teach my daughters.
My surgeon appeared masked and cloaked in his surgical attire. “How are we doing today?” he asked.
I looked at him with absolute clarity and confidence. Then, with every ounce of power and authority within, I commanded, “Cut them off.”
Our Nanas, Papas and Aunties of No Relation must wonder if a child remembers all the love that was poured into her. Do the countless lullabies and the endless conversations about the obvious mean anything? How does the next generation celebrate the memory of a permanent soul?
I’ve lived to report that yes, every drop of adoration is remembered. Its value may lay dormant in our soul for years , just waiting to be challenged. And when it does, what a beautiful song it sings.