The alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. but I need not have set it at all as I had been wide awake praying for sleep since ten o’clock the night before when I crawled into bed, Ambien on board. It was the pre-Facebook, pre-Words With Friends, pre-iPhone era, so my options were limited. I knew I needed to rest, to prepare, to go in strong, but there was just no damn way I was going to sleep.
I was due to arrive at 6:30 a.m., thirty minutes prior to my procedure. I took a shower, washed and pulled through the curls of my hair, styling it to within an inch of its life, but (and this is notable) stopped short of applying any makeup…even my beloved mascara. There would be no need for it where I was going, and, in fact, it would only become a smeared mess which could well have been the thing that put me over the edge.
My mother arrived promptly at 6:15 a.m.[i] to get the boys off to their respective schools – Georgie[ii] to daycare, Harrison to his first grade classroom. It felt sneaky leaving before they were awake, but I couldn’t bear to say goodbye, so we split as they were just starting to stir awake. It was better for everyone. Well, for me, anyway.
As we got in the car, I noted to myself that the fact that I had not slept for weeks did not seem to be impacting my energy level. In fact, I felt as though jumping directly out of my skin was a very real possibility. I popped a Xanax, took a deep breath and settled in for the ten minute drive to the hospital. It was time for me to actually have the bi-lateral mastectomies that we had been discussing for weeks.
There are parts of the day and following weeks that are so vividly etched in my mind that they could have happened this morning: walking into the pre-op area, not nearly as looped from the Xanax as I would have like to be and being warmly welcomed by the team of nurses that were going to take care of me; my surgeon, marking my breasts and commenting that I had great tissue..but I was quite sure, positive in fact, that I heard him say “great tits”; and chatting with the orderlies about how my surgeon just told me I had great tits. And then, not a single memory until nine hours later when I woke up, thrashing not from pain or anxiety, but from the cuffs around my ankles which were keeping my circulation going and, of note, driving me out of my fucking mind; sweating and not being able to lift my arms to secure a ponytail; wanting my glasses so I could see, but learning that they were already in the room that I would occupy once I was deemed stable enough to be transported from recovery. And the little mounds that my doctor (yeah, the one who liked my tits[iii]) made sure to create so that when I awoke there would be something, anything where my breasts used to be.
The two days I spent in the hospital are a blur. My one recollection is the walk I took around the hall with my father who was, at the time, dying of lung cancer. It was the first time ever that I was actually walking more slowly than he. We were shaky, tentative and scared.
That was ten years ago: November 18, 2004. It was the Thursday before Thanksgiving which has become a holiday which threatens to knock me down every year, but has yet to succeed. In that time so much has changed that it is nearly impossible to believe. In 2004 my two sons were approaching respective birthdays: George would be three, Harrison ten. I now have a nearly 13-year-old named Jessie and a soon-to-be 20 year-old who is far more man than boy. My father is gone…for close to nine years now. I am no longer married, no longer live in the home in which I raised my children and no longer have two sons. Those ten years were my forties. And now, with my, gulp, choke, egad, 50th birthday on the horizon I feel so many different things, but mostly grateful.
Not only am I alive, but I have cancer in my rear view mirror and the scars to prove it. I have met so many incredible people along the way – my team of doctors, the oncologist and the plastic surgeon (who I affectionately refer to as the one who took ‘em off and the one who put ‘em back on), my nurse who was considerate enough to go through a divorce at the exact same time as me and has become my friend and the people who have been with me through every single upheaval that has defined my forties.
Today is a big deal for me. I never quite know how it is going to go down. I have had November 18th s that have been marked by shopping sprees, crying jags, malaise and euphoria – and sometimes all of the above. I do not know what today will bring. I do know it is an anniversary I will never ignore, forget or not appreciate for what it has given me.
[i] If you know my mother, you know this is notable. The “promptly” part, that is.
[ii] Name choice intended
[iii] He did NOT say I had great tits (which I did) but to this day, every time I see him I remind him just so I can see him blush.