I sing of bodies changed.—Ovid
I’ve always been fond of anesthesia. When I was eight, I had my tonsils out, and there was a memorable moment before they put me under in the OR—breathe deep, they said, and I did, knowing perfectly well that I was headed for a little death and that they were not telling the whole truth: “Breathe deep,” they said, and though I swear they were pouring something through a funnel into a cloth over my nose, being a good girl, I sucked in the gaseous stuff like it was my mother’s milk—as if I could, in my zeal, suck up life itself.
And then, before my first inhalation was complete, there was a shimmering buzz that outlined my whole small self, and I was cut out and pasted onto oblivion. When I woke up, time had miraculously passed, things had been done in my absence, and there was a fire in my throat—not a pleasant feeling, but they brought me ice cream, and I had the distinct sense that I had done something brave. The next week I started coughing up blood and had to be taken back to the hospital, where I was given a crib and what seemed like hourly injections, which I almost got to enjoy, they so fortified my sense of brave adventuring. It was my first time away from home, and proof in my secret heart that I was not the girl of my mother’s comically exaggerated stories—the one who ran circles around the doctor’s table to escape his needle. I have since had an illogical fondness for hospitals.
So when I recently sat in the pre-op section of a large hospital, waiting to have a malignant tumor removed from my breast, I was surprisingly placid. I [End Page 45] could sleep through it. Things would be done and I wouldn’t have to watch. “Give me one of those tranquillizers,” I said, when the doctor came to explain why my operation was three hours late—emergencies of which, I guess, I was not one. They brought the drugs and, according to my witnesses and the cell phone snapshots my husband so helpfully showed me later, I began to sing joyful tunes, stretching out my arms to conduct this symphony of a world before lapsing into a deep sleep.
I awoke a survivor. They didn’t even let me stay overnight. Not very heroic—yet people insist on heroism. “You’re so brave,” everyone says. And I keep thinking, what’s the alternative? Would I feel differently if my prognosis left less room for hope? I’m suspicious. Am I secretly in love with easeful death?
When I set forth for the mammogram after finding a lump in my breast, I was alone. My husband was teaching, and this had all happened so fast that no one else, not even my children, knew. I’d been through false alarms before; over the years I’d learned not to panic.
So I hardly flinched when the technician proudly swung the new digital imaging screen around so I could see the map of my breast. It was much clearer than the celluloid image that had cleared me just six months earlier. There were some well-defined spots that were whiter than the rest, but who am I to let my fears interpret the scientific evidence? The technician sent the image to the doctor who would read it; she assured me I shouldn’t worry, asked me to wait, and left the room. There I was, cool as the lab with its looming white mammography equipment, my sole companion. I mused on dinner—should I stop at the store and buy some salmon?
When the doctor popped his head in the door with a smile, his first words were, “You have a malignant tumor.”
I found myself extremely calm. “How big is it?”
“Oh, tiny, tiny, tiny,” he said, a phrase that kept playing in my head the rest of the day: “Tiny, tiny, tiny.”
A momentary doubt: was he covering for not finding it six months ago? I...