There is something about having your body pinched between gigantic, freezing-cold metal plates that serves as a reminder of your own mortality. You feel small and insignificant, like an ant might that’s being examined by a child under a microscope. I do the requisite inhale, a small death, but can’t quite hold it long enough for the metallic buzzing noise of the machine to shut off, so I find myself sneaking mini breaths, certainly ruining the resulting film.
Blurry film is what I assume when I receive the letter, the same letter I receive every year, requesting that I return for a follow-up ultrasound to re-examine an abnormality in my left breast. It’s that forbidden breath I took, the one that reminded me that I still was alive. But every year, when I open that letter, I wonder, what if?
My children rely on me as their sole parent since the death of their father eight years ago. I sit between them in the cramped middle seat of airplanes, so that they can have equal parts of me, and not fight; I lie in the middle of the bed during “cuddle bunny time” so that they can each have one of my arms wrapped around their shoulders; They fight incessantly whenever one perceives that the other has received a larger share of my attention. As their only parent, my children scrutinize every nuance of my existence, from my ability to mediate fairness between them, to my latest toenail polish color. With this level of scrutiny comes their unnatural awareness of the changes in my body. Every gray hair and wrinkle is noted. They beg me to dye my hair to hide the gray, and both of them panicked when I got glasses.
“I don’t want you to get old!” my nine-year-old son protested. What he really meant is “I don’t want you to die.”
Last week at his first lacrosse practice, I stood in the rain and watched as he ran laps with the other boys, clattering around the field in oversized helmets and shoulder pads making them look like teenagers rather than fourth graders. I dashed to the car to escape the rain, and had just taken out my book when I saw my son approach, his wail barely visible beneath the cage of his face guard.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, opening the car door.
“I thought you left! I keep thinking you are going to die!” I stood with him on the sidelines, rain dripping beneath my coat, down my back, trying to coax him to re-join the practice, insisting that he at least watch even if he didn’t want to participate. But I knew the practice was lost for him, his terror too great.
My fourteen-year-old daughter prefers to curl herself into my arms and talk baby talk. She clings to her little girl self, squealing in delight at all the things she declares are “cute.” Perhaps she recognizes my struggle to remain a youthful parent, as she denies her own adolescence and tries to revert to a simpler, child-like state, one not marred by loss.
I am certain the ultrasound tomorrow will bear benign news, but I am still tempted to update the sheet of paper that my son keeps in his desk with all the emergency numbers on it, the one he keeps in case anything should happen to me. In creating it, I couldn’t tell if I was his easing fear, or fueling it, but he keeps it where he knows he can find it and it seems to give him peace of mind. We have had many discussions about where he and my daughter would go to live if the worst were to happen.
“I am going to live to be very old. I am not going to die,” I promise him. Am I being too optimistic? Is it wrong to make this promise to an anxious 9 year old? I am hopeful that the odds are in my favor. And so, despite my doubts and my annual threatening mammogram letters, it’s a promise I am determined to keep.