His name was Dr. Drown, and he told me, as he affixed a plastic mask to my face, to count down from 100, 99, 98, a taste of garlic, the sight of snow, and the next thing I know, I’m struggling up through sludge in a dimly lit room, my sister holding my hand. Two days later, when I was hooked to a morphine drip, my surgeon bustled into the hospital room and with hands as dry as talc peeled back the bandages so that for the first time I saw my mutilated chest, the scraped flesh and sunken craters where, just a little later, they slipped in two bags of saline so I slosh when I walk. I said no to nipples not because I dislike them (I love them, actually) but because they would require a second surgery, and I’d had it with knives for a while.
This was all a long, long time ago, in another world, another life, it seems, only it’s not another life; it’s my life. I can tell simply by pulling back my shirt and seeing the man-made mounds that have accompanied me through every second since I cleared cancer about a decade ago. I stayed in the hospital for almost 10 days because the mastectomy had had complications and because I couldn’t pee, there was so much anesthesia in me. I was finally discharged on a blustery winter day when the naked trees looked like blackened bones against a solid-blue sky. The wind whipped around me and snaked beneath my shirt, where it iced my gashes in a way that felt good, felt right. Why, then, was I weeping? “You are mourning your breasts,” everyone said to me, nodding sagely, seeming completely unaware of how clichéd was their comment. I was not mourning my breasts. I pictured them floating down some river, massive, flabby, dense with cancer cells; ta ta. I’d never liked them—not even in health—never, ever, from their brazen beginnings in my adolescence. They had appeared as if overnight, so I went from flat-chested child to weighed-down woman in the time it takes the clock to sail a single circle; size D, then double D, my breasts had strained my back and made my body top heavy. So no, I was not mourning their exit, bloody though it had been.
Still, in the days (then weeks, then months) following my mastectomy, I could not stop crying, and my tears put prisms in everything, so whatever I saw looked unbearably beautiful and fragile. The whole world warbled and slid, and when I lay back on my bed, I could sense tiny tremors beneath me, as though the house might come down. This is what early “recovery” from cancer is like. You have such joy that the tears keep spilling, while at the same time you know better than anyone else how tentative is your triumph; lumps could be forming at every moment, and so you put all your energy into balancing on the right side of some scalpel, praying you can keep on your feet, praying that all the potential carcinomas within you stay just that: pure potential.
There is something holy about early cancer recovery, at least to me. You live those first months and years as if you are the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash; by night your dreams are full of the smell of jet fuel, but by day you peer out at a universe that was sweet enough to save you. I ate tarts nippled with whipped cream and dense dollops of chocolate, my fingers smeared with melt, my tongue catlike as I lapped up the last of my treat. I recall going into clothing stores and buying tops that I never could have worn before, tight little numbers that showed my surgical shape—a perfectly busty B. I learned to love dressing up, especially as the wounds healed, leaving in their place smooth skin, my scars gone glossy and pink.