Thursday, December 02, 2010

Slice of Life.

The flat-screen TV on the wall at Washington Radiology Associates is playing, of all things, back-to-back episodes of The Cosby Show. This, to me, is an unexpected and inspired programming decision on the part of WRA: Who, after all, could object to The Cosby Show? Everybody likes The Cosby Show, or they did, until the kids weren't cute anymore and the show got a little too smug for its own good.

In the episode playing, Sondra is informing her parents that she is abandoning her plans to go to law school so that she and her Ewok-like husband, Elvin, can start a business together. They move into a crummy flat and invite the very displeased Cliff and Clair over for dinner. This episode just happens to contain one of my favorite exchanges from the show. At one point during the visit, the front door slams and two frames fall off the wall. Cliff looks at the frames. "These are your degrees from Princeton," he says, looking at them in a detached way. "Yes," Elvin says. "They fell down," Cliff says. "Yes," Elvin says. "Rather symbolic, don't you think?" Cliff says, perfectly deadpan.

Up front at the desk, they are scanning films from my "baseline" mammogram a few years ago. When I was told recently to get my first "regular" mammogram, I realized I had absolutely no recollection of my baseline: what it was like, when exactly it was, where it was done, or where the records were. I had to call around and finally located them in San Francisco. The provider mailed me the films so they could be compared with my mammogram today. I never opened the films. I just handed them over to the receptionist.

The credits roll on the Sondra episode with that boppy, Bobby McFerrin version of the theme song, which I find myself remembering down to every last "doo." I can't focus on my magazine: The Cosby Show is too great a force. The older woman next to me has been chuckling aloud. It's sweet.

The next episode features the bizarre symphonic dance opening of season 5 and starts with Theo's departure for college. My name is called just as Cliff begins searching Theo's jacket for the check that Theo was supposed to have mailed to secure a dorm room. I look back distractedly toward that scene as I walk up to the assistant, as if I don't know exactly what will happen.

In the back, there are a bunch of curtained changing bays and a row of women sitting in gowns along the opposite wall, most of them seemingly older than I. It strikes me as a lot of women, though it's just five or six.

In the changing room, a fact sheet on mammography screenings notes that it is unclear why a medical panel recently recommended screenings every two years instead of annually, despite a study showing that this change would result in a 19 percent reduction of benefits for women. In pen, someone had drawn a line from this passage to the margin and written, "To save $."

I come out of the changing bay and nearly flash the row of everyone waiting, my gown already coming untied. No one notices. "All this, just because we have boobs," I think. I start thinking of insane or absurd things I could do to break the silence while we're all waiting: maybe suggest we start a wave? Flash everyone on purpose? It's so quiet that I don't even mind one woman talking on her cell phone, even though there's a sign prohibiting cell phone use.

In the mammogram room, an older lady asks me to take off my gown and hands me a protective apron to wear around my waist. She waits in front of me and I feel shy all of a sudden, fumbling for the ties on my gown, which is now stubbornly shut. "What is my problem," I think. "My pair is probably about the 500th this lady has seen all day." I drop the gown and she gets to work.

As you know if you have had a mammogram, the screening involves mashing the breast between two plates and taking an X-ray of it. By "mashing," I mean to say "manipulating this body part into a shape that hardly could be thought possible or desirable." By the time the radiologist jams what little I have in there, my boob looks like a pressed orchid petal -- or like a lab specimen, which it suddenly is.

This press n' snap occurs six times: three angles for each side. Slices. Hold still. Hold your breath. OK, relax. It hurts. It is awkward. And then it is over.

"Your doctor will get a report next week, and let you know if anything else is needed," the radiologist says. "They are still digitizing your baseline films, so you can wait for those and get them back, if you like."

I go back outside and sit down, forgetting to position myself in front of The Cosby Show, and then not caring when I realize I can't see it, because I need to stare at nothing for a minute.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, when she was 49. In general, I consider myself a pretty good daughter, but whenever I look back on this period, I feel ashamed of myself for how little attention I gave her. The shame increases, rather than lessens, as the years go by.

Her relatively modest treatment, and stellar recovery, had made it astonishingly easy to pretend nothing was wrong. She had a lumpectomy, from which she quickly recovered, and radiation treatments that she received on breaks at the hospital where she works. Her hair did not fall out. She looked the same. She complained very little, asked for very little. She had a scar, of course, but I couldn't see that.

I asked her how she was doing. I offered to do whatever I could. I told her I loved her, as I always did. There was nothing beyond that to do, it seemed, and I liked to think about it all as little as possible.

What there was to do, in retrospect, was to listen -- really listen -- to what she was going through. To ask how she was doing more. To ask how she was doing for longer. I failed in that. She would try to tell me sometimes, and I would listen, but not really encourage more or ask questions. I was too busy avoiding the terror associated with her being ill, and holding on to the idea that, because she was okay, nothing had changed.

The waiting room is crowded with women. I fight back the urge to cry -- kindergarten tears, as if I'd been pushed down on the playground. "What is your problem?" I ask myself again, and shut the tears out. "Nothing has happened to you. You are fine."

But why had it been so uncomfortable this time? Surely I went through the exact same thing for my baseline screening. Maybe it was easier to tolerate when I had the luxury of knowing I could forget about it for a few years. Now it was impossible to avoid the vise of regular mammograms; the vise of even the barest recognition of what my mom had been through, and what she continues to go through in the effort to watch for and ward off the cancer's return; the vise of a sisterhood I don't want.

Once outside with my films shoved in my purse, I well up again, and again scold myself. I have no business crying. There are people back in that room who either do or will have much more to worry about than I have at this moment, and this moment is all I have. My times to worry will come, but not today.

Today, the only things it makes sense to focus on are the cold, clear air, the fact that I'm okay (I think), the fact that my mom is okay, the blissful state of being between jobs, melted gruyere and caramelized onions on toast, Christmas lights and that weird Cosby intro. What were they thinking, anyway?

Music: "Don't Look Back"


  1. You had me welling up there, too. Very moving post. And cut yourself some slack. After all, you have time to make it up to your ma - a very lucky thing indeed.

  2. Thank you! You're right.


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