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me in my muff

April 4, 2017

Yesterday a call from the hospital that I need to retake my recent mammogram because there may be something weird happening in the left breast. They’ll do the retest next Monday. It was the soonest time, the woman said, and when I stammered my disappointment, she told me not to worry.

It runs in my family. Or maybe it just walks, I don’t know.  My mother got it in her fifties. The doctors removed her left breast—just like mine, I think in sudden solidarity!– and she survived into her nineties before the cancer returned only to discover there was little left to feed it. And my sister Diane, I think. It shouldn’t be such guesswork–knowing if your sister had cancer or not—but that’s the sort of family we are. When we’re sick we’re like dogs. We crawl away, beneath the porch, and don’t want help. Still, I think Diane had breast cancer, but they “caught it in time.”

Something very tedious already about all the clichés attached to this. I wonder if I can get away with skipping them, in favor of fresher feelings. E.g., do I have to say that of course “it could be nothing,” yeah yeah yeah? That we’ll just have to “wait and see”? Or that even if it is cancer, surely they’ve “caught it in time”? What about how the treatments are so much more effective these days, how it’s amazing what doctors can do?

(Glibly:) I think I can handle anything but the clichés. There were so many during the Hannah years, you see. [Hannah was my first daughter. She was autistic.] What do doctors know? Maybe she’ll grow out of it. I see progress!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All I really know right now is that if this isn’t the life-changing moment, then that moment will simply come later, and maybe it will feel just like this, at first. What I feel: fragility. It’s visceral; I feel fragile in my bones, which I don’t normally even pay attention to. I feel made of thinnest glass. I feel like I should try harder not to bump into things all the time.

In my mind, meanwhile, I’m mainly just curious, for now. I don’t know what will happen, but it might be a fascinating, even a sort of “important” moment for me. But for now I can know nothing. So I put the mammogram-plus-sonogram appointment on the calendar, then live the day I’m in. I’m watching myself closely, but looking outward to do it, at the mirroring world. Colors are vivid, but maybe not more so than usual. Guitar practice goes on as usual, and in fact I found some songs I’d loved and lost, and I credited imker [my Netherlander friend now four years dead, whom I’ve invited to haunt and advise me as necessary] for letting me find them, ‘cause they were delightful. Then later I realized that I ought to let Mom haunt me now, for a while, because breast cancer is more up her alley than imker’s. So all right, I’ll hold tight to her through this.

Whatever this is.

It could be nothing.


April 16, 2017

It was nothing.

But it haunts me—my god, I’m so hauntable—or, really, what haunts me is mortality itself. How crazy that I can’t just surrender to it. How crazy, how ordinary.

Mike Elliott died. Two days ago. He was a classmate at St Mary’s, who was very popular and smart and funny, and who liked me and talked to me between classes. We were never close at all, not even close to being close, but I liked him very much, and now, maybe a month after learning he had colon cancer, he’s gone. It seems crazy to me that this should be true. I learned he was ill the same day I learned I didn’t have breast cancer. Maybe only  because it’s that time of year, it feels like a Passover story. Death strolls past my house and into his. He was my age, Henry’s age. He’d felt no symptoms. He’d written me a couple of breezy emails just recently about my dubious role in planning our upcoming class reunion.

I’m sure other people from our class have died in the forty years since we graduated. I just don’t know who they are, and likely didn’t know who they were back then. But this guy—Mike Elliott. I didn’t really know him, of course, and I hadn’t seen him in years. But his death resonates because it’s so ‘untimely,’ and because he was always so fully alive in my mind and in his own, and because it seems he somehow represents my high school years. He was one of those lifeline people back then, along with Mike Radigan, Sue Duffy, Paula Morris, Aneida Jackson—that tiny set of semi-friends whose quirky minds I liked to be around, who made me feel a little more at home in that otherwise foreign place and time. Awful, that time. It really was, you know, for me. I could say it to them now, I guess. I think sometimes about doing that, using the “class memory book” I’m supposed to be compiling(stories from everyone, not just me) to come clean about how awful high school was for me, how ugly and foreign and unlovable I felt.

Thing is, though: I’ve gone through so much more since then. So much that was, for lack of a better word, ‘worse.’ Hannah. Hannah. [My daughter died twelve years ago.] My poignant little palindrome. High school was nothing compared to those days.

And right now as I sit here, I’m supposed to be writing something, or editing my agent letter. In honor of Easter Sunday, you see, I’ve decided to rise from the dead. Turns out that’s not quite as easy as it sounds.

I’ll write in this little journal. I’ll write things that don’t ‘count’. Huh, and note how I react to that notion: an anger rises. I find I hate the idea of things either counting or not counting. I hate the judgmental rigmarole—why do I have to be a famous writer, anyway? When I was six, I wrote because I loved it. I loved to write in the same artless way I loved to sing. I wrote, I sang, I dreamed the livelong day. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder whether what I was doing was important or glamorous or self-defining. I didn’t do it to impress anybody—not really. I didn’t even know writing was supposed to impress people–not beyond a round of applause for the school play, I mean–and I surely didn’t know it was supposed to be a competitive sport, not until the silly little shark pit that was grad school.

(Even now, the notion of a “famous author” still feels silly to me. Oxymoronic.)

Why do people want to be famous? Why do they even want to be ‘read’? History and common sense agree that it rarely makes you happy. Yet I myself have always been asked and have asked myself the contrary question: why don’t I want to be famous? Why don’t I care whether anyone ‘reads’ me? I’m the odd one out in this game. I’m the light hiding under the bushel basket. What people don’t ever seem to consider is that bushel baskets nest like matrioshki dolls, that when you come out from under the first one, you find yourself merely in the next one, just as dark and anonymous, but a trifle bigger and thus less cozy.

We’re all anonymous eventually. I don’t know why we fight it so.

Beside my bed there’s a picture of me at around the age of four. I’m in my snowsuit, my rubber boots, a hood tied by a string beneath my chin. I’m also wearing (my hands are ensconced within) my furry white muff. I loved wearing that muff—do they even make them anymore?—for the sweetest simplest reason: nobody could see what my hands were doing. Not that my hands were doing anything people would care much about. No. Johnson and Johnson—I named my hands after the baby powder—were just holding each other or forming a bridge or dancing or posing in prayer. All the same, their privacy was delicious to them.

I’ve always been that way. I’ve always loved cubbyholes and closets. The hiding place behind the water heater. The cave beneath the grand piano. I loved the park and forest trails most when no one else was there, and I could play out my save-the-world fantasies with purest panache.

I have an ego. A huge one, in fact. Honestly, I think I’m amazing. I just don’t seem to care much whether anyone else knows about it. Can that possibly make sense? That is, am I crazy, or is it everybody else? All my life I’ve lacked what they call ‘ambition.’ But I write the books, don’t I? I’ve written three books in thirty years. Thirty very distracting years, I could add (but won’t). Most people never write even one book, so far as I have noticed. I am who I am. The world (which by now is mostly an old voice in my head) expects more of me. The world wants me to come out from under my bushel basket only to entrench myself in theirs. Am I wrong to find that ridiculous?

Irony: if I let them go—all those voices urging me to want to be read—I’d probably write better, and certainly more often. The joy of it would be so much more full and pure. I don’t know why I can’t just follow my own path, why I always have to doubt what (I think) I know to be true for me. Next to the picture of me in my snowsuit and muff is a picture of Hannah—the iconic one, when she’s two and standing balanced on the folding chair. It’s only at this exact second that I realize how alike we look in our poses, how we share the same sly sidelong glance, as if we know a secret no one else would understand, as if we like it fine that way, as if we’re here but also somewhere slightly else–two smiling, dimpled girls content to be unreadable.