© by Peggy B. Varnado
Third Place - Short Story
The wait to hear the verdict for the rest of her life was punctuated by two sharp beeps, every fifteen seconds, as she held the line. She recalled reading somewhere that life is made up of two kinds of lumps: lumps in cereal and lumps in the body--words that provided perspective in coping with water dripping through the ceiling, crumpled bumpers, and other annoyances that kept life from being smooth and creamy.
Fingers glide smoothly over soapy skin so the shower is the best place, supposedly, to undergo the tortuous ritual each month. Let’s get it over with, fast and matter of factly, she always told herself, forcing her fingers to move in concentric circles over the swell of her breast, zeroing in on the nipple, the place of highest risk for malignancies. It was a procedure performed with her eyes closed – hot water pounding her back, forgetting to breathe. As she approached the final target on the left side of the line of symmetry, it had made itself known.
At first she kept her fingers moving lightly over the skin -- trying hard to ignore the tiny mass that was not there during the last half moon. But as soon as her fingers felt the irregularity, the familiar sinking in her stomach and the tingling at the top of her scalp began. Since the discovery of the first lump twenty-five years ago, she had undergone at least a dozen biopsies, always benign. But she knew very well that time was her enemy and like a seasoned gambler, she recited the odds in her head: The overall 1 in 8 risk for breast cancer was spread out over a woman’s lifetime. The first lump when she was a twenty-five-year-old grad student had only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being malignant. But as she had turned fifty last fall, the numbers had morphed to 1 in 15.
So she simply waited for the tingling of the scalp to spread over her head, accompanied by a flush of heat that made cold sweat drip from her armpits. She could feel it even in the shower and she could smell it—it was the smell of fear—acrid and animal-like. Then the mind games began. Don’t acknowledge the lump as real just yet. Allow yourself the luxury of finishing the shower, rinsing the shampoo from your hair.
Long after the last residue of soap had swirled down the drain, she stood with the hot water numbing her back. Now she had to investigate again before the temperature of the water dropped. She willed her fingers back to the breast and started all over, speeding up just a little when she got to the worrisome place, hoping to glide over it quickly and smoothly.
It was still there. No bigger than an English pea, a tiny rock in one’s shoe, but she knew that until it was cut out, minced onto a slide, and examined under the microscope, no lump was a safe lump.
She stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel, but there were none. Her youngest daughter had showered in her bathroom and must have used the last towel… or two. Now the vulnerability overwhelmed her. She used the gown she had meant to put on to blot at her face and her arms, then she closed the toilet lid, put the damp gown on it and sat down hard. She folded her arms over her wet breasts and held herself tightly, shivering as the air conditioner vent began to blow. She didn’t know how long she stayed like that before she held the gown to her chest and made her way to her dresser in the dark bedroom where her husband slept. By instinct, she found the drawer with her skimpy summer gowns, then closed it, and pulled out an old tee-shirt instead.
She usually looked forward to this hour when everyone was asleep—her time to reclaim the house— the computer, the television, the kitchen. On a normal night, she would pour a small glass of wine or make a cup of Earl Grey and grade papers, maybe watch the end of some old black-and-white movie. She would read something she’d been saving—the latest Atlantic Monthly, a chapter from a novel, or book reviews of books she would probably never get to. On the best nights, she would write, sometimes staying up till sunrise yet feeling exhilarated and renewed. The nights were her stolen time, the only time she found to do what she wanted and she cherished them.
Tonight, however, she knew what she had to do. She went downstairs and got her calendar. She looked over the upcoming days filled with classes to teach, board meetings, church committees, PTA, and made note of what could be cancelled and what could not. She looked up the number of her surgeon and wrote it carefully on a post-it, stuck it to the calendar, and put it by the phone. It was much better to find a lump during business hours, she had discovered early on.
She poured a glass of wine and tried to drink it fast. The essays to be graded would have to wait. She climbed the stairs and looked in on both of her daughters, long teenaged legs poking oddly out of covers, complexions dotted with zit medicine, and yet, so lovely they took her breath away. She brushed her teeth and looked at her face in the mirror. Even in the dark, she could see the strain on it, making her look older than she had that morning. She eased into bed without a sound.
It would be nice to have company at this moment, she thought--to have someone wrap her in strong arms and tell her it would be alright. But it seemed cruel to interrupt someone else’s peaceful sleep for her own comfort. Anyway, she had been through this so many times, it was like the boy who cried wolf. The last time, her husband had forgotten to ask her the results of the biopsy; but it was okay. When the reports came back good, she put it behind her as quickly as possible and tried to make up for the lost time – except for one thing. She tried not to lose that sense of being grateful for the normalcy that she could resume.
It was the normalcy she was thinking of while she waited on the phone. The electronic beeps continued to strip her nerves—eight per minute, two at a time. Funny how she longed to be doing the most mundane chores—folding the endless laundry, wiping the spills from the countertop, even slinging cold cuts for lunchbox sandwiches.
She remembered discussing that very feeling soon after her best friend Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer— the second time. Memories of Margaret were still raw. She had watched that woman fight cancer for almost twenty years after discovering the initial lump days before her long-awaited first child was born—an event so cruel it seemed preposterous. Margaret fought her way through surgery and radiation and chemotherapy with an infant in her arms and earned herself six cancer free years before finding the second lump, days after her second child was born—the one she was nursing with her remaining breast, until the chemo poisoned her milk.
Margaret opted for the full triple threat the second time as well, —looking at her bandaged chest when she came to and saying that she preferred symmetry anyway. This time remission lasted twelve years, but apparently the cancer was simply hiding out and gathering its strength. It came back in her mouth and grew toward her brain—stealing the sight from an eye and twisting her lovely smile. Margaret fought it for over a year, then died with a gracefulness that must have been some sort of testament, but her best friend wasn’t sure to what.
Suddenly the voice of the bitchy receptionist cut in between beeps. “The doctor needs to speak with you. He’s with a patient now. Can you hold?”
Oh God…the doctor had never spoken with her before on a biopsy report. She knew what it meant and she almost threw up, barely able to squeak out, “Yes, I’ll hold.” She could hear the blood whooshing in her head and felt that she might faint. She hated being this scared. And she hated the people making her wait. Her heart was pumping hard and throbbing in the biopsy incision.
She had gotten in to see the doctor early last week. He had first plunged a six inch needle directly into the mass and attempted to suction fluid out of it. After several plunges and no fluid, a biopsy was scheduled, performed under local anesthetic, and she was home by supper that night.
That was two days ago. Someone had known the results yesterday, but the doctor’s office didn’t get them in time to call her during office hours. Someone else had known her fate last night when she couldn’t sleep at all. She wondered why that person couldn’t have called her and told her—unprofessional, perhaps, but more humane than this. She didn’t know what to do but pray.
Please don’t let me have cancer now. I’m almost through raising these kids and I can feel freedom around the corner. You know I love them more than life itself, but grant me the time to rediscover who I am. I want to climb the mountains that the children were too little to try. I want to sit on the beach and not count heads in the water. I want to dance like Leslie Caron on the banks of the Seine and sit for hours in outdoor cafes. I need the time to make love under trees and in sailboats before I’m too old. Please give me the days to write at least some of the stories in my head and to read a thousand more books. If You’ll just spare me the knife and the cobalt and my hair falling out, I promise I’ll chair the damn Missions Committee; I’ll quit cussing and I’ll have more patience with my children. Look favorably on your handmaiden, O Lord. Let this cup pass from me…even though You made Margaret drink from it.
“Are you still there?” It was the bitch. “Sorry we’ve kept you waiting. We seemed to have lost your pathology report, but now we’ve found it. Your biopsy was benign. Don’t forget your mammogram and do self exams every month. Any questions?”
Yeah, she thought. I have a few. But you wouldn’t know the answers. “No questions. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
She put the phone down and walked a few steps to the sofa, but instead of sitting, she slid to the floor and put her head on the seat cushion. She felt the sobs rising into her throat and she let them come. She cried with relief; she cried in anger for the hell she had undergone so needlessly.
She wept for Margaret and Sarah and a dozen others she knew who were not pardoned by that single word “benign.” She wept for her daughters and the fears they would have to face. She was already on her knees, and she felt that she should offer prayers of gratitude, but the words wouldn’t come. She moved her face to a dry spot on the cushion and let her mind drift. She remembered her grandmother’s kitchen and the framed verse that hung above the little breakfast table: “This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It seemed as good a prayer as anything she might compose.
She opened her eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara with her finger tips, and caught sight of the old mantle clock that she kept ten minutes fast. With a little luck, she could make it to the drive through at the bank and still pick up milk before supper.