I was sitting in my oncologist's office last Friday, waiting for her to come in and give me my routine exam, when it occurred to me that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago. The fact stunned me, and I sat there on the exam room table, looking out at the tops of the buildings I could see from the 4th-floor room, marveling at the fact of those 20 years.
My doctor pronounced my breasts, "perfect" and my belly "so cute," and scheduled me for another routine appointment in six months. "Bring the baby!," she called as I was finalizing the details of the appointment. And I smiled at her, because it's nice that she wants to meet the baby, nice that she would be interested in knowing what the bump turns out to be.
Twenty years ago, my mother's initial instinct was to keep me shielded from her cancer. I knew about it, but in a very peripheral way. I clearly remember that she wrote a letter my teachers explaining what was going on at home, and I will never forget the look on Mr. Deluca's face when he read that letter. I remember going to the wig store to pick out a wig that matched her tight brown curls, and I remember that was terrified that the wig would fly off when she was lifted up on a chair at my Bat Mitzvah. But I remember these things in a way that is fuzzy and distant, and not just because it was 20 years ago. You see, she wanted me to be able to erase these memories, to move on with my life as though they didn't have to be part of it. She wanted to try to shield me. I know this for two reasons: one, there are other memories from the same time in my life which my mother crystallized for me, carved into stone and handed back to me wrapped in a bow. And two, with just three months until I become a mother, it occurs to me that this is part of what it means to be a parent, that you pick and choose those things from which you incorporate or shield your children, to the best of your ability, anyway.
When I was a month shy of my 24th birthday, just barely on the cusp of my first year of law school, I found a lump in my right breast. The fear I felt that day is indescribable. In fact, when I think about the way that I felt the night I first discovered that something hard and foreign was residing inside my body, I associate it with the color white, which only makes sense if you know that I often associated strong emotions with colors. White is fear or panic, and when I think about having cancer, I feel the color white with every fiber of my being.
The biopsy showed that the lump was nothing to be overly concerned about, but its discovery opened up a whole pandora's box of white. To mitigate this, I was told to get regular check-ups by a breast specialist, something I have more or less avoided, despite two additional breast lump scares, until we moved to Boston. It was here that I decided to take control of my fear, that I determined to overcome the waves of white, and talk to an oncologist who would finally assess my cancer risk.
It is no secret that my single greatest fear is having a child that I do not get to know, of raising this baby until she is 15 or he is 24 and then vanishing from the world. Yes, I have certainly heard that one could get hit by a bus at any moment, but this statement has never worked to calm me and instead reminds me that I should be smart enough to look both ways before crossing the goddamn street. No, for me, the white hot fear is cancer, not rogue buses.
While I was sitting in my oncologist's office on Friday, I realized that try as she might, my mother wasn't successful in shielding me from anything. That's partly because genetics betrayed her and I'm considered high risk for breast cancer, but it's also because in some respects, by working to shield me from the cancer mess, she made me more curious and more afraid. I have spent 20 years worrying that I will get cancer and leave young children behind when I die. I am about to have a young child. In the past 20 years, despite all of the races and the pink ribbons, despite the advances in chemotherapy and hormone treatments and radiation, despite my own measures to overcome my fears, very little has changed.
I don't know whether this baby will worry about breast cancer the way that I do. I don't know if it will understand our family history, or have a girlfriend/wife/mother-in-law who is going through her own scare. I don't know if this baby will remain unshielded from my fears, or if it will live them and devour them as though they are their own. I can only say that I hope that the next 20 years bring some kind of change. I hope that in 2031, when I realize that it has been 40 years since my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I am not sitting in my oncologist's office breathlessly waiting for her to tell me that my breasts look perfect. I hope that this son or daughter knows no real cancer fear, never picks out a wig, or watches their science teacher cry, or harbors all of the memories associated with watching cancer take someone they love.
I realized the other day, sitting on that crinkly white paper in my cotton gown, that I can't really shield this little one from, well, anything. And that is what is making motherhood real for me right now. Twenty years ago, my mother sat in a similar room, wearing a similar gown, waiting for her doctor, hoping that she would hear that her breasts looked perfect. And I imagine her sitting there, thinking of her babies, hoping against hope that she would be able to shield them from whatever lay ahead.
If all goes well, in six months, I will have a 3-month-old at home. I will shave my armpits, put on the cleanest clothes I can find, and go to my routine oncology exam. I will not bring the baby with me, and I will perch on the crinkly white paper in my cotton gown and I will think about the fact that I am nearing the end of my maternity leave. And then I will wait breathlessly for my doctor to tell me that things are fine, that my MRI looked great and that I should come back in another six months. I can only imagine that no matter what I hear, I will go home after that appointment and think, "thank god for you, little one."