It’s 1992 and I’m soaping my breasts in the shower so I can check for lumps. The first time a doctor told me I should do periodic breast exams, I laughed and said, “That’ll be easy. It should take about a minute!”
But I’m feeling something in my left breast. More soap. Lather. Stand up straighter. This thing is not just a lump. It’s what you’d call a mass.
In bed, before sleep, I guide my husband’s sweet and careful hand to the spot.
“Right here,” I say. “Feel it?”
‘I do,” Henry says.
I can’t help but notice the way his dark, heavy eyebrows squeeze together in the middle of his forehead, the funny way his mouth is twisting to the side. I hate telling him. Not just because he’s going to be worried, but because saying the words out loud makes them real.
Next morning, I call two people: My doctor. And my sister.
Brenda, three years older, is the person I want to tell if something is wrong. She’s practical, clear-headed. She knows what to do. What to think. Well, the real story is, she knows what I should do, what I should think. When Brenda says it, I believe it.
But, she has her own news.
She’s just had a routine mammogram – she was getting ready to call me! — and they discovered calcifications in her breast.
“Not exactly a tumor. More like sprinkles,” she explains. “But it could be breast cancer.”
Our doctors refer each of us to a surgeon. The same surgeon. My appointment is the day after hers.
I’ll soon begin writing a novel in which the two main characters, Mickey and Thea, are based loosely on Brenda and me. In the book, each sister discovers a lump in her breast.
After the book is published, I’ll give a reading in one of those bookstores with hardwood floors and deep, upholstered, wing chairs. A woman in the audience will say that she finds the situation with the two sisters and their biopsies hard to believe.
“What are the chances of two sisters having tumors in their breasts at the same time?” she’ll ask, leaning forward in the chair, wrapping her arms around herself, satisfied to be on to me, to expose my insubstantial grasp of reality.
Students in fiction workshops are always defending their far-fetched plot twists by insisting, But it really happened that way.
My job as teacher is to say, It doesn’t matter. What you write has to seem believable to the reader.
“But it really happened that way,” I’ll hear myself telling the woman.
Brenda sees the surgeon, doesn’t like his abrupt manner. “I know he’s used to dealing with patients who are asleep,” she tells me, that closed tone of voice, “but I’m not going to put up with his rudeness.”
The next day I see him. I mention that he saw my sister. He immediately lets me know that he knows she was not exactly thrilled with him. He says to me, “You make sure your sister has those calcifications biopsied. It doesn’t matter whether I’m the surgeon or not. She needs a needle biopsy. As quickly as possible.”
Then he examines my breasts, his eyes gliding across my face until he finally focuses on the wall behind me. All the while, he’s kneading.
But then he spends more time talking about Brenda’s situation than mine. I think he knows something. Which makes my mouth go dry. I’m suddenly more worried about her than me. Being the younger sister, I’ve always thought of her as more important. It’s not a problem. Just the way it is. In my mind, she’s Technicolor and I’m black and white. She’s an entrée. I’m a side dish.
Brenda finds a different surgeon. In an uncharacteristically independent move, I stay with Dr. Abrupt.
Our biopsies take place one day apart.
We both wait for the pathology reports.
Mine is benign.
Which is a capsule image of the two of us. I’m that prim type of person you could call benign. And Brenda – she is certainly not malignant, but she is tough.
Our pathology reports are symbolic in another way: They’re an indelible example of my perennial good luck and her bad.
In small and large ways, Brenda’s life has not been easy. She started wearing glasses in the fifth grade, had to wear braces for years. She matured late; her friends matured early; they dropped her in the eighth grade, did not take her back until the tenth. She didn’t have a boyfriend till freshman year in college. My life has been very different. My eyes were fine, teeth straight. I started dating in the sixth grade and remained close with my girlfriends throughout. She gave birth to four boys in six years, had three in diapers at the same time. I had a girl and a boy, spaced three easy years apart. Barely three months after her first baby was born, she suffered terrible injuries in a car accident.
And all this will pale in comparison to what she’ll go through later.
For now, though, this feels like an extreme situation, an intense danger, a watershed. She and I react the only way we know. She stays strong. I worry. I’m with her for the duration – the mastectomy, her recuperation in the hospital, recuperation at home.
Months later, I go with her to the plastic surgeon to discuss breast reconstruction. The two of us are side by side on a loveseat in the afternoon light of the waiting room. You would never know we’re in a doctor’s office. We’re unfettered, never stop talking and laughing. When a nurse calls us back, it almost feels like an interruption. But we were having such a good time, we might joke.
The nurse leads us to a small room, where she turns on a video. ‘There you go,” she says, and closes the door behind her. The beginning of the film is what I’d call pastel. We witness the joys of reconstruction, its many advantages, hear nice music, see marvelous sunsets lightly smudged by a soft lens. There are loving families, romantic husbands. Then a doctor appears onscreen. Now the colors are crisp, lots of white. The doctor sits behind a very neat desk and explains every possible thing that could go wrong. Then he’s gone, and there’s another dreamy sunset, more music.
After the film, our same nurse leads us into an exam room, where she takes Brenda’s history, instructs her to remove her clothes from the waist up, tie the cotton gown in front. And she leaves. Brenda turns away from me, drops her blouse on the chair, slips into the gown. (I know she’s not wearing a bra because bras are still uncomfortable.) By the time she has stepped back up on the table and adjusted the gown beneath her, we hear a knock on the door and the surgeon enters.
I’m glad his broad back blocks my view. It wouldn’t be fair for our usual modesty around each other to fall by the wayside just beside she’s in this situation. Oh yes, he’s saying as he examines her, she’s an excellent candidate. She’ll do very well. This will not be difficult. He’ll do this, then that, details about the surgery itself, the fine results.
He leaves the room so that she can get dressed. He’ll return to finalize things, answer questions; then we’ll go down the hall to meet with the surgery scheduler. I read a diploma on the wall while Brenda changes into her blouse. After she’s buttoned the last button, we both turn, at the same time, to look each other in the eye. I’m eager to know what she’s thinking.
“Why would anybody ever want to do that?” she whispers, conspiratorially, shrugging her shoulders the way she does, those shoulders whose shape I know so well.
She’s saying the exact words that have been rolling around in my head this entire appointment.
“I agree, Brenda. I totally agree.”
She does not have breast reconstruction. She goes on with her life, being the same strong self she has always been. In fact, if you met her – even this soon after her surgery — you would never be able to tell she’s had breast cancer. She’s a person who knows how to steady herself.
Jews don’t have coats of arms but if my family did, it would say, Sisters Matter. Adoring your sister is as common a trait in our family as red hair or bowed legs might be in somebody else’s. As rare and expensive as long distance was when I was growing up, Mother and her two sisters called each other more than anyone we knew even thought of calling out-of-town relatives. Between calls, Mother would sit at her desk, writing long letters to her older and younger sister, spelling out all the specifics of our lives. Mother would also inquire in detail about her sisters and their families, following up on a niece’s tooth-ache or spelling test, the blouse a sister found on sale, wondering if it did indeed go with the skirt she had in mind when she bought it. Back and forth — the breathless letters, phone calls, visits between Mother and her sisters.
But it wasn’t just those three sisters who were close. It went back even further. Mother’s mother and her sister were also tightly bound. Mother used to tell Brenda and me how, in the early 1900s, our grandmother would take the train – by herself! a woman who barely spoke English! in those days! – all the way from Denmark, South Carolina, to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to visit her sister. The only mementos I have from my grandmother are eight letters she wrote to Tante Celia in Yiddish – those words like little squiggly designs on a rug, those two sisters like a pair of parentheses, like arms holding something invisible.
Moving into the future, the sister connection will carry through to my identical twin granddaughters, Lucy and Zoe, who, when they learn to talk, will each call herself and the other, “Nay-nay.” As though they reside in the same skin. When Lucy looks in the mirror, she’ll point to her reflection and proclaim, “Nay-nay!” When Zoe wakes up and sees her sister in the crib across the room, she’ll call out, “Nay-nay!” I talk on the phone with one of them, their voices indistinguishable, and I’ll say, “Who is this?” The answer: “Nay-nay.”
They’ll begin to say their names when they’re two, around the time they learn the word, “mine.”
So many sister stories. Brenda and I are part of a design that has existed in our family forever.
When Brenda and I were young-marrieds (years before her breast cancer), Mother treated the two of us, along with her older sister, Emma, to a weekend in North Myrtle Beach. This was before Myrtle Beach turned honky-tonk, when it was still quiet and lovely. We stayed at the Caravelle, an oceanfront motel where Mother and her sisters always stayed because if you got a room on the first floor you could walk right out your door onto the sand. Aunt Emma and Mother shared a room, Brenda and I a room adjoining theirs.
At breakfast the first morning, in the motel restaurant, Aunt Emma shook salt on her oatmeal, then reached across the table and shook salt on Mother’s. Not just a sprinkle. A heavy criss-crossing.
Mother’s response, her voice plaintive, good-natured, even a little teasing: “But I don’t like salt on my oatmeal. I like sugar.”
The four of us laughed at everything this said about sisters.