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I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of my parents whispering to each other. There is something frightened in their voices. In the dim light of my bedroom, I look across to my little brother's crib. He is sleeping. He's two years old. I am five. Everything in our room seems to be as it should be. My wooden dollhouse with the pink roof is on the table under the window. On the other side of the window is my brother's playpen, and next to that is the big green armchair where my mother sits and reads to us. In the corner of our room is my grandmother's old china cabinet, which my mother has painted yellow and filled with our toys and books. My dolls sit in a row on the middle shelf, staring down at me, as always. Suddenly my mother runs into our room. She snatches me out of bed and carries me under her arm over to my brother's crib. She grabs him up under her other arm.
She hurries with us out of our bedroom, down the narrow hallway into the dining room. She shoves us under the dining room table.
"Stay there," She tells me.
She goes quickly through the darkness, past the light of the half-opened bathroom door toward her bedroom. I can see her struggling to help my father move something big through their bedroom doorway. It is the mattress from their bed. They carry the mattress into the dining room and lay it on top of the table.
My brother and I often play under this table. It is has fat, round legs, and it's long and made of dark wood. It used to belong to my mother's Aunt Mamie who lived in England. Sometimes my mother throws a sheet over the table, and my brother and I make believe that we are in our own tent, like the G.I.'s I hear my parents talking about at night when I am in bed. I wonder if she'll throw the sheet over the table, but she doesn't. She crawls under the table with my brother and me.
My father has turned off the bathroom light. Now I hear him in the kitchen pulling down the shades over the windows, which look down over the back courtyard of our apartment building .The children who live in our apartment building play in the courtyard. We have swings there and a sandbox. Poplar trees and a tall hedge surround the courtyard and a black iron gate leads to the Avenue in Queens, New York, where we live in this spring of 1944.
My father comes out of the kitchen and hurries past us in the darkness into the living room. He pulls down the Venetian blinds that cover the three big windows behind the sofa. He crosses to the window over the bookshelves where he keeps his yellow and white National Geographic magazines and his books with the pictures of old sailboats. He pulls the blinds down over that window, too, but he opens just one slat and looks through it, out and up into the night sky. I can hear the faint droning sound of approaching airplanes. Under the table, my mother grabs me and my brother up onto her lap. Her arms tighten around me so that I can hardly breathe. Her breath comes in short gasps. My father crawls under the table with us.
"What's the matter?" I ask them. I am starting to be afraid.
This droning sound of the airplanes has lulled me to sleep every night since I can remember. At night, after I am in bed, I hear my mother and father in the kitchen talking about the planes...the B 52's, they call them, the bombers that fly over to Europe to help "our boys" win the war against Hitler. My father has taken me to Idlewild airport near where we live to see the planes. They're big brown planes that lumber down the runway and take off into the sky far above our apartment house. These are the planes that keep us safe. It's the B-52's, our bombers, that make the droning noise. Isn't it?
"What's the matter?" I ask again.
"Shhh!" my father whispers, sharply.
The sound of the planes grows louder and louder. The noise is like thunder over our heads. The floor seems to be shaking. The noise feels like it is inside of us. My little brother screams in the blackness. I break free from my mother and try to crawl away from her, to run over to the window, to look out, to see what my father was looking at up in the night sky. But my mother grabs my foot and drags me back under the table. She wraps her arms around me again. I struggle to free myself from her, to get away from her, to get out from under this table where I can't breathe. But she won't let me go. Finally, the sound of the planes starts to fade. The noise grows dim and far away, and then there is quiet, and darkness and the sound of my mother's short breaths.
The next morning, when my father talks to the woman who lives in the apartment next to ours, he learns that the wailing air raid siren that awakened him and my mother was the all-clear signal and not the alert. He tells my mother that we were the only family in the building who had crouched in fear, in the darkness, waiting for German warplanes that never came.
"I hope they don't tell anyone," my mother says. "What will people think of us?"
I ask my mother why we had hidden under the dining room table.
"It's the safest place to hide," she says.
"To hide from what?"
"If they were German planes, they might have dropped bombs on us."
"But they weren't," I say.
"They might have been. You never know what might happen."
Several nights later, I hear the sound of the planes again. This time I don't wait for my mother to come into the bedroom for my brother and me. I am already up, running for the front door to our apartment. I must get us out of here! I will run down to the basement of the apartment house where there will be a deep, dark place for us to hide. We will be safe there. But the door to our apartment is locked. I can't get out! I shake the doorknob and beat on the door. I scream and scream for someone to help me open it. My father runs down the hall toward me. He picks me up. I struggle violently to get away from him but he carries me back to my bed. "No! No!" I am still screaming. It is only after the droning sound of the planes overhead has faded away that I can stop. But I know that nothing is safe anymore. I can't escape the fear of what might happen. I have no control.
Thirty-five years later, on a November night in 1979, I lay in a darkened room of Yale New Haven hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. That night, I heard the eerie, muted sing-song calls for doctors over the intercom. I heard the hushed voices of the night nurses and their soft, quick steps outside in the corridor. But of all the sounds in the hospital that night, the worst was the muffled weeping of the woman in the bed next to mine. The sound was full of terrible and unspoken loss, fear and desolation. I was lying in the bed next to the door. Her bed was next to the window. She had turned her head very far away, almost into her pillow, trying to hide the sound of her grief.
She'd been admitted several hours after I was, and she had not spoken a single word, not to the nurses who came to attend her, not to her doctor who came by to see her, not even to her family who had gathered around her bed earlier that evening to visit her and bring her comfort. Instead, she lay with her eyes closed tightly as if trying to block out everyone and everything around her, as if to shield herself from some inevitable calamity that was about to happen. But she couldn't protect herself. She had breast cancer. So did I.
I looked around. Another darkened room, I thought. Another night of terror. But this night, there were different sounds. Not the sounds of airplanes rumbling overhead while I, a child of five, crouched, terrified, under the dining room table. No. On this night, the sounds were of stifled sobbing and anguish in a sterile hospital room. There was no one to protect us. There was no deep, dark place to hide until the danger passed away. The danger was here. The calamity had come.
Early the next morning, my breast would be cut off. There was no escape from this. Like the woman next to me, I was powerless, alone, terrified. My torment had begun three weeks before, in Bethel, Connecticut, on a brilliant October afternoon when I went to see my gynecologist about a lump I had in my right breast.
I'd had the lump for several years and had it checked regularly, but on this visit I saw a look of concern on the doctor's face as he felt it this time. "What's the matter?" I said.
"This doesn't feel the same," he said.
I felt a sudden sharp stab of fear, then panic. "What do you mean?!"
"It feels hard. It's rooted in there. I'd have a surgeon look at it as soon as you can."
I left his office and drove home. I was a teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in nearby Wallingford, and I lived on the campus. On my way home, I pulled into a gas station near the school. I wanted to call Pat, a man I'd met several months earlier, who had urged me to see the doctor.
He was the only other person who knew about this lump in my breast. I hadn't told my four children. I'd been divorced from their father for three years. My oldest daughter, Dana, nineteen, was living in California. My daughter Peggy was a freshman at the University of Connecticut in nearby Storrs. She was eighteen. My two youngest children, Andrew, fifteen, and Annie, thirteen, were going to be students at Choate. Andrew was still living with his father. He would come to the school the next year. Annie lived with me in one of the faculty apartments in the freshman girls' dormitory. I didn't want her to overhear my conversation with Pat when I told him about my visit to the gynecologist. I could hear the concern in his voice when I said I had to see a surgeon about the lump.
"What does your doctor think it is?"
"He didn't say," I said. "Do you know of a surgeon?"
"No. Can you ask someone at school?"
As soon as I got home, I called Dianne, one of my new friends who taught with me in the English department. She gave me the name of the dean of breast surgery at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in New York. The man was a pioneer of the Halsted radical mastectomy, an operation in which the entire chest muscle is cut off with the breast, leaving the chest wall caved in and hollow. He didn't believe in the success of the new modified version of the amputation. Pat went with me into New York to see him.
He was a tall, thin, old man with a shock of white hair. I remember thinking how long his arms and legs were. In his white coat, he reminded me of a large stork. When he felt the lump he shook his head. I saw a look of fury pass over his face, and he muttered something I couldn't hear.
Of course I needed a biopsy, he said. He would perform it in the operating room and wait there for the results while I lay anesthetized on the operating table. If the biopsy should be positive, he would perform his operation then and there. He would slice off my breast and my chest muscle without my even waking up. I would have no say at all.
"But I won't have any choice," I said. I felt as if I couldn't breathe.
The doctor raised his eyebrows and stared at me.
"If you have cancer of the breast, of course you have no choice." he said.
He shook his head, astonished at my ignorance. I gasped. I slid off the examining table and stood up.
"I have to get out of here!" I said to him.
He looked at me, curiously. "Suit yourself," he said. Then he turned and stalked out.
I got dressed and rushed out to the waiting room and over to Pat who was standing by a window.
"What?"he asked, alarmed. "What happened?"
"Let's get out of here." I said
We went to the elevator and pressed the button for the main floor. Inside the elevator I told Pat what the man had said. I began to cry.
"What's the matter with him?" he said, incensed. "Of course you have a choice! It's your breast! You don't have to stay here."
Outside, the sky was overcast and the air was humid, oppressive. We drove through the city streets over to the east side in silence. A light rain had begun to fall, and the streets were slick, shiny. Pat turned to me.
"If this should be a dangerous thing in your breast, it can be cut out. Once it's gone you'll be well again. I know it. We'll get a second opinion."
I nodded. I looked out the window at the rain and the gray buildings looming over us. I didn't believe him.
Choate's health plan included the doctors of The Surgical Associates of New Haven, three surgeons who practiced at Yale New Haven hospital and taught at Yale. They were Richard Selzer, Bernie Siegel and William McCullough. I made an appointment to see one of them early the next week. I drove down to New Haven after my classes on the following Tuesday.
I sat for several minutes in the waiting room of their office until a nurse appeared and showed me down a hallway past several closed doors and then into an examining room. She laid a little white paper jacket on the examining table.
"Take off everything from the waist up and slip this on," she said, "Leave the front open." She patted my arm and left the room.
I took off my blouse and bra and put on the little paper jacket. Then I sat down on the examining table to wait. I felt naked, sitting there. Alone. A strange, ringing noise had begun in my ears, and I felt suddenly lightheaded and nauseous. Again, I felt I couldn't breathe. "Oh, God, I thought. What is happening to me?" I tried desperately to calm myself. After all, I told myself, this is Yale. These doctors must be highly skilled. If anything were wrong with me they would certainly be able to cure me. And besides, at least now maybe I had some kind of choice.
The door opened, and the doctor strode in. He was tall, in his early fifties, and he had the lean energy of older Ivy League men who are still athletic, like the coaches at school. He wore loafers, chinos and a light blue, oxford cloth shirt under his white coat. He put his hand out to me. "Dr. McCullough," he said. His voice was deep, calming.
"Good Irish name," he said and smiled at me. "What's going on?"
I described the lump and how long I'd had it.
"Let's take a look."
As he felt the lump, I searched his face for any look of concern but he gave no sign of what he was thinking. Instead he pulled a chair over from the side of the room and sat down in front of me. His eyes were kind, gentle.
"I can see that you're worried and I understand why," he said carefully, "but this is small.
There's a good chance it's nothing serious but I would like to do a biopsy." He smiled at me again, reassuringly. "What do you teach at Choate?"
As we began to talk and I saw how kind he was and how genuinely interested he was in me and what I taught, I relaxed for the first time in weeks. He didn't seem to be that worried about the lump. Maybe the disaster I feared was not about to happen after all. And maybe the fatigue that had depressed me for months would finally go away. It was a certain kind of fatigue, a constant ache in back of my eyes, that made me feel drained, hollowed out, empty, exhausted. Maybe now I would finally be able to sleep. I made an appointment to have the biopsy the next day and left the office.
Pat drove up to New Haven from Fairfield to wait for me in the surgeons' office while Dr. McCullough did the biopsy. It was a quick, painless procedure. Almost too easy, I thought. When it was over I went out and sat down next to Pat in the empty reception room to wait for the result.
We sat thumbing through magazines. Pat kept trying to interest me in an article he'd found about dogs, but I couldn't concentrate. It wasn't that I was thinking of anything else. It was as if I were suspended in that room with its plain linoleum floor and hard yellow plastic chairs forced to wait . . . for what? I tried to make an effort to be interested in what Pat was saying. I took the magazine from him but my hands were trembling and I dropped it. He leaned over to pick it up and gave me a sideways look.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm very cold."
"Try not to worry," he said. He put his arm around me.
At that moment, Dr. McCullough burst into the waiting room and rushed over to us. He looked shocked.
"Susan, I think you'd better come in to my office," he said to me.
He looked at Pat and then at me.
"It's O.K." I said. "This is Pat. This is my friend."
Pat stood up to shake the doctor's hand. He'd come straight from his office, and he hadn't changed his clothes. He wore ripped jeans, flip-flop sandals and a red t-shirt with an image of Superman on the front of it. The doctor stared at Pat. He seemed not to notice Pat's outstretched hand. He looked back at me.
"I'm afraid it's not good news," he said.
We followed the doctor down to his office and sat down in two chairs facing his desk. I remember that as I sat there it seemed to me that I was watching a play that was about to begin. The characters were all in place for the opening scene. There was the doctor in his white coat, sitting behind his desk, one hand to his forehead. There was the younger man with the dark curly hair, in his red t-shirt, leaning toward the doctor. Finally, there was the pale, thin woman with long, dark brown hair and frightened, light blue eyes. She wore a brown tweed skirt and a beige silk blouse. She sat, straight and rigid, in her chair in front of the doctor, her hands locked together in her lap. As I watched, the scene began to unfold and I heard the doctor's voice. He spoke slowly, and his words seemed long, drawn out, distorted, as if coming from the far end of a long tunnel.
"The tumor is malignant. You have cancer. The cancer is aggressive," he said.
I heard the dark-haired man's voice.
"Can't it be something else?" he asked. "Can't it be a mistake?"
I saw the woman turn slowly in her chair and look at him.
"No." she said in a flat voice. "It can't be anything else."
But it was my voice.
The surgery was scheduled for the end of the following week. I could not have imagined how long that week would be. On the way out of the office, the nurse gave me a book that one of the other surgeons, Dr. Siegel, was referring to all the group's patients. The book was called, Getting Well Again by a cancer specialist, Carl Simonton, his wife Stephanie, a psychotherapist, and James Creighton, a cancer caregiver and counselor.
Outside in the parking lot, I tried to reassure Pat. I was calm enough to drive back to Wallingford by myself. He must drive back to Fairfield, I said. He had to get back. His wife and children wouldn't know where he was. And I had to get home. I had to think of some way to tell my children that something was wrong.
I made sure he drove away before I got into in my car. I sat there for a few minutes to control my shaking legs. I looked out around the parking lot. It was a brilliant October afternoon, but the sunlight was harsh, glaring. The red and gold of the autumn leaves were too vivid, gaudy, against a sky that was too clear, too blue. The other cars and buildings around the parking lot looked surreal, shimmering in the strange, garish light. I remember feeling oddly calm, sitting there in my car, in spite of my trembling legs. I felt satisfied somehow, as if a private prophecy I'd made about myself had finally been fulfilled. I had always been terrified that I would get breast cancer. I'd lived in fear of it, but I had expected it at the same time. The truth was that I believed I deserved it. Now, I had it. Now, I no longer needed to fight my fear. I could rest. Now, I felt as if the ordeal of the past years of my life, the guilt, the fear, the helplessness of all those days were finally over. I looked at the book in my hand. Getting Well Again. Sure, I thought. Who gets well again from cancer? I started my car and drove home.
(c)2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Immune Spirit by Susan Ryan Jordan. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications,3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.