(me skiing in the tundra at about 40 below)
My grandmother died of a broken arm. Not technically, but that’s how I remember it. She’d been in a bad motorcycle accident; suffered a severe concussion from which she never seemed to fully recover. She’d not broken her arm then. That came later. My recollections of this bit of history are by osmosis, by eavesdropping, by just being there when my rather loud family had had too much to drink and words spilled out unbidden, unwatched. In essence, when my grandmother’s arm somehow got broken, she had decided that she was done. She wouldn’t get it treated for the longest time. She stopped speaking, eating, talking. She’d take care of her plants in the garden out back, but beyond that, she was a ghost. It took her a few decades to fully and completely die, but I remember thinking then, even as a kid, that she’d let that damn broken arm kill her. Let it drag her under completely; let it take her away from me.
That year back home, in a place devoid of gardens or anything not rendered in black and white, I had broken my wrist while doing backflips on the bare concrete floor of the gym. I heard the distinct crunch-snap-snap of it before the pain hit. Hot, sharp, wail-inducing, when it finally came. I went home, my swollen hand held tightly to my chest, under the heavy coat. When my parents came home, I had already decided that I wouldn’t tell them. I felt it was broken with every cell of my throbbing appendage, but telling mom and dad would solidify that fact, and I wasn’t brave enough to hear it for sure. I managed to hide it all the way through supper, my hand hanging limply, uselessly under the lumpy sweater, parents too busy yelling at my brother and me over something or other to notice. Afterwards, when the table was cleared and mom had asked me to open the tiny widow a crack to let out the smell of burnt oil, I had used that hand to do it, out of habit. And screamed. And was dragged across town to the doctor, and the x-ray machine, and the slides with all those scary lines in them, and finally there was a cast.
There was a tiny part of me that was stunned I was still breathing after that ordeal. And that I was expected to go to school the next morning, and the one after that. And that nobody looked at me with those eyes people look at you with when they know for certain you’re dying.
But I am Russian, and we’re an oddly fatalistic lot. It’s in our collective DNA. It’s the reason every time I put on something Russian in my house, a movie or even a cartoon, my very much non-Russian husband looks at me funny, and states that there is a sense of foreboding in the opening credits/music/scene. Two cartoon characters could be piloting a very colorful rocket, huge smiles plastered on their faces, and at the first tiny bit of silence, hubby winces. “Something bad is gonna happen, I just know it,” he’d say. And he’s never, ever wrong.
Maybe to fight against that cultural imprint of the inevitability of death or the longing for it, depending on who you ask, I spent my teen and young adult years taunting fate in every way that should have rendered me deader than dead. Proving my own immortality to some Slavic god of impending doom. Learning to be brave. I’d sledded into rocky bottoms of abandoned mine shafts, jumped off roofs of the tallest buildings I could find (into the snow, because there was always, always snow), took off with one way tickets to wherever I could get to or hitched rides with strangers, and did all the other dumb, crazy stuff that mom claims is solely responsible for every gray hair on her pretty head.
At some point, years into my actual adulthood, I found myself on the low-railed balcony of a tall building looking down, and I was afraid. I remember the shock of it, the embarrassment. I’d never been afraid of heights before, but in that moment the fear was so sharp I had to step back. That feeling of loss of the dare-devil me, the invincible me lingered; it lingers still. But more than anything, the shame at having taken that step away from the edge, at not fighting the fear.
(me on a ledge of a hotel in Manhattan, still invincible)
It’s strange how some things bother us long after they happen; these small moments that make us face who and what we are.
At the beginning of December, I turned 44. We drank at a little club offspring had a gig in; had a nice dinner. We joked about me being over the proverbial hill, and walkers with brightly colored tennis balls in my immediate future. A few weeks later I woke up to a bizarre lump in my neck. Hubby, my unofficial diagnostician of all that ever ails me assured me I just had a cold and as such, my lymph node was swollen. Not a biggie. When it was still there three weeks later, I googled it. Naturally, pretty much everything that came up in response to my search predicted certain death from one kind of cancer or another. So off to the doctor’s we went - if only to assuage my fears. “A sinus infection,” was my quick clinic guy’s five second assessment. Ten days of antibiotics later and the thing was bigger. Harder. More uncomfortable.
I live in Florida and the temps even in the evenings have been generously in the 60s. Too warm for a scarf. Not that I own many. But I find one, in a box of winter clothes we never use and start wrapping it around my neck. We go to our primary doc and he plays with the damn thing, asks a million questions and schedules a CT Scan. My first. Since I have to go to the imaging center anyway, he writes an order for my first mammogram as well, because he tells me nicely, at my age, I need one. The few days until the appointment I am weirdly manic in that funny not funny way. I tell hubby dearest how karmically glorious it is that we just got ourselves life insurance policies, albeit tiny ones. I drink more than I should in the evenings. I sit outside at my patio/smoking table, wanting to regret the cigarettes I’d been smoking for some two and change decades. The thing is - I don’t. I enjoyed pretty much every single one of them, save for the few that came on the heels of trying to quit.
Finally, I’m at the imaging place, hubby holding my hand as if I were a small child, but I am terrified and so I am grateful for it. The waiting room is full of old people. The kind I don’t think I am ever going to become. And none of them are smiling or laughing or speaking. It feels strange to be sitting there, among them. Feels like whatever they have is much, much worse that whatever I have.
The contrast (via Iodine IV) is unpleasant. I taste metal and bitterness and I can smell the unique sea-borne sharpness of it, but the tech is nice and my CT is over in a few minutes. Less scary than I thought it would be. The mammogram, however, is - well, let’s just say it sucks. I am 5.2” and tiny. As in I barely have much to work with in the boobular area. The machines must have been made for people much taller and larger. The stand holding the tray your boobs are supposed to be placed on does not move up or down. I have to stand on my tippy toes, my ribs digging into the sharp edge of the tray, as the tech lifts my boobs up and away from me, and there is a moment where I want to tell her that these suckers are, indeed, attached. Instead, I do as I’m told, and hold my breath, and let her take the pictures.
Then the waiting starts. I was never worried about the mammogram results, just the lump on my neck, and those come back first, by way or a long readout hubby picks up. Calcium deposits in some gland that isn’t a lymph node. In essence, not what google said. Not cancer, by the looks of it. Then a nurse from my doctor’s office calls and tells me there is a density issue/thingie in my right boob and I need to go in for another mammogram and an ultrasound, asap. I don’t like the urgency she attaches to it. I don’t like the idea of having my boobs manhandled and plastered to that too-tall bit of equipment. But mostly, I hate the idea of waiting again. Of not knowing. Of being in this in between state.
Hubby turned 47 a few days ago. I would love to plan a little surprise shindig at the house. Invite the few friends we have. Watch him smile and laugh and get a tad drunk. He turns even funnier than he ordinarily is when he’s buzzed. I miss his laugh, the funny accents, the jokes, the conversations with friends. I want to plan it for Friday, no matter what news I get on Tuesday. But I am not sure I’m brave enough to do it and not turn it into a pick my new boobs party, inadvertently, of course. And mostly, I want to be brave enough to not let any of this find purchase in those soft, raw parts of me. I want, desperately, to never again be the me who takes that step back from the edge. But deep down, I am. And that scares me more than anything.
So for the next however long I have of the still waiting, the not-knowing and whatever happens after that–I’m looking for pieces of myself from long before. I am fighting that bit of wiring that made my grandmother not be there for anyone or herself. In short, I am going to try my best to banish the fear before it sets in; to try to find my way back to that unwise, invincible version of myself. Because the few people who love me deserve that. And who knows - I might surprise myself by liking heights again. Even if I have to give up some body parts for the pleasure.
Thanks for reading this weird bit of unraveling…. I mostly write fiction and occasionally poetry. I’m also a proud member and one of the founders of the Isle of Write. You can find us by clicking the treasure map below.