The beginning seems like the place to start: puberty. Puberty brought with it headaches and breasts that budded like sweet plums and only stopped when they’d achieved proportions that were both foreign and shameful, like a pair of those grotesque, award-winning pumpkins. Foreign, because I think of myself as having a tidy, logical mind. I wanted a tidy body to follow, and my breasts were anything but tidy.
An underappreciated aspect of being busty is the – perhaps primal – reaction of the heterosexual male to their presence. It seems to me that, no matter the age of the woman bearing the breasts, they are a signal of availability. The larger they are, the more available.
I’ve loathed them my whole life.
This was not my first round of visiting surgeons and making jokes about how someone owed me dinner after the awkward examination. This was the first time I had already decided I was going to go through with the surgery. I had found an NIH study that retroactively looked at women who had gone through a reduction and also experienced migraines, and the study had found that there was a not insignificant number of women who found that the surgery improved their experience with migraines.
A note on the migraines. At 13 they were headaches. At pushing-40, they were two day affairs, complete with the occasional bout of vomiting, managed (poorly) with narcotics and dread. I am not fond enough of pain to undertake surgery for vanity, but for the chance of managing the migraines? I was all in.
Of course any medical discussion of the breasts was bound to be uncomfortable, and in the interest of focus, perhaps I should write my open letter to doctors everywhere in another post.
Given my age and family history, the doctors were insistent that the process start with a mammogram.
Recommendation number one: don’t get a mammogram if you are at all hormone-induced tender.
The mammogram revealed little bright flares of calcification, a cluster of three in lefty that was … concerning. So biopsy removes all the questionable cells, the pathology reveals DCIS, now I have a plastic surgeon and an oncology surgeon. Yay me?
The surgery had been scheduled for before Christmas. It got pushed back to the end of January, as I now had two surgeons with schedules to balance. The plan was to start with the oncology surgeon, who would excavate around the little marker they left buried in lefty to clear my “margins.” Basically, scrape a swath of flesh around the place where the malign cells had been. That tissue would get closer examination in pathology, but meanwhile, the plastic surgeon would take out the weight of breast tissue determined by my insurance company and I would wake up with (comparatively) feather-light breasts. Two surgeries, one recovery time.
And that’s what we did. A little over 3/4 of a pound came off each breast. If you have read this far with interest because you too are contemplating this surgery, a list of things I had wished I’d known are next. If you have read this far with interest because you are contemplating this surgery and somewhere in that process you’ve found DCIS, you get an extra list of things I’d wished I’d known.
Things I wish I’d known about getting a breast reduction:
- Your fear of the pain of recovery is way worse than the actual recovery. Not everyone is this lucky, but I was on pain killers for the first three days – Vicodin, not Percoset – and after that? Really not painful at all.
- If you have sensitive skin you might be allergic to the antiseptic that they swab you down with pre-surgery. Those itches are MISERABLE.
- Either healing was super itchy or I was especially itchy because of some otherwise undiscovered allergy, the itching was unbearable. I ended up e-mailing my surgeon and she prescribed me steroids. Don’t be afraid to speak up post-surgery if you have questions, if something seems abnormal, if you aren’t feeling right, if you itch… Whatever it is, send an e-mail, call the office, whatever.
- When you first wake up, your breasts are the shape and hardness of barbie boobs. It is really quite incredible, and strange.
- When the surgeon tells you that it is impossible to say for sure what size you will be when you’re done? Believe them. And then connect them to this article. *Digression after the list.
- You may loose sensation in one or both of your nipples. You may be hypersensitized in one or both of your nipples. You might have one go one way and the other take another route. Both are likely to pass with time. Not guaranteed, but likely. I got one of each, and both are making progress, though getting sensation back is slower than getting the hypersensitivity to calm down, at least for me.
- You know how it used to be that you were familiar with the bra companies and which ones made bras that fit you? Throw that out the window for a while. You will likely need to find a new go-to bra company and a new go-to size.
*Digression. A doctor who has not lived with large breasts is going to understand your issues technically, abstractly. They can look at you and see how the breast structure isn’t meant to support that much weight. They can assess proportionality, or make an aesthetic call about what your ideal girls would look like. But on a fundamental, necessary level, they don’t understand.
This matters, because they are likely operating under the cultural assumption that, within in reason, big boobs are better. And so they are likely to balance a mix of the insurance requirements for how much weight must be removed, the understanding that bigger is better, and their notion of what a nice boob looks like.
But the amount of weight required by the insurance company may not get you all the way to where you want to be. For example: I would like to be able to run across the yard without physically holding my breasts in place. That is a significantly different measure, it is a dramatically different way of thinking about the surgery you are about to undertake. And there is so much uncertainty. How do you turn 350 grams into an understanding of the volume that is going away? It means something to the surgeon, who will be standing over you with a scale to the left, carefully weighing each cut to keep the insurance company happy.
If you combine the second chart in the article with my experience, it adds up about right: 350 grams is approximately 3 cup sizes. (The article suggests about 115 grams of tissue/cup.) And that’s consistent with my results, 4 months later. To end up where I wanted to, they would have needed to remove another 230 grams, at a minimum.
Before the surgery, and with a complete inability to wrap my mind around 350 grams, it seemed to me that anything was possible – I could come out a B cup, for all I knew, and I didn’t think I was ready for that dramatic of a change. But I was really hoping to land somewhere between a C and a D. After the surgery… If I had *started* at this size and walked into a surgeon’s office, I could be approved all over again for breast reduction surgery. DEEPLY disappointing.
My unhappiness with the degree of reduction dawned on me slowly. At first, the Barbie boobs were entertaining. I kept trying to buy medium sized stretchy bralettes, my husband kept telling me I needed a large. No, I insisted. My boobs are supposed to be in the C/D range now, medium is the right size.
Says the lady who hasn’t seen C since 14. I don’t know what the hell a C is supposed to be. I don’t look at anyone’s boobs but my own.
It took me a long time to accept that I am still busty. At first, it was funny. Ha ha. I went through surgery and I have so much to share that they could take out 1.5 pounds and I still have big boobs. Ha ha.
And then I went to try on bras and realized that it wasn’t funny anymore. My dream of being able to buy a bra at Target that didn’t require an advanced degree in engineering to design was dead. I still need the bras that cost $80. On sale.
The point is: that article is going to make a difference in the conversation you have with your doctor. I’m *sure* that you can’t get precision out of their chart, but in my experience, it is a pretty good starting place. The prediction in cup size using their chart would have been spot-on. Print out a copy of the article and take it with you. If your surgeon doesn’t take you seriously or is affronted by your insistence or reacts with anything aside from curiosity/interest/being willing to talk to you about getting to the right size, FIND A NEW SURGEON.
If you are looking at breast reduction + DCIS. Also, things to know with DCIS…
- DCIS is not cancer. It is pre-cancer. A risk factor for cancer. It is not cancer. Whoever tells you that you have DCIS may or may not make this clear to you.
I have had doctors tell me in the same conversation that I am not a breast cancer survivor and that I now have a three generation history of breast cancer. My grandmother found DCIS in a breast when she was 85. My mother died of breast cancer (and never had DCIS). They found DCIS in me. So if I’m not a cancer survivor with DCIS and my grandmother doesn’t have cancer, she has a cancer risk, then there is only my mom with breast cancer and your three generation theory is bullshit.
- Removing breast tissue reduces your risk for cancer. It doesn’t make it go away, but less breast tissue, less breast tissue that can go wrong. When they are talking to you about the things you can do to reduce your risk for cancer in the future, keep in mind that you have already done something to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
- They are likely to suggest you go on tamoxifin. Tamoxifin is pretty standard post breast-cancer treatment. It supresses estrogen and if your DCIS reacts to estrogen, taking away estrogen seems reasonable.
Except it isn’t. Because tamoxifin is associated with an increased risk of endometrial cancer.
Let me understand this. You want to treat the one risk of cancer by giving me another risk for cancer? Oh, you can f&ck right off with a spoon.
Incidentally, no one said “oh, by the way, this drug we want to seriously consider taking to prevent cancer might give you cancer.” Informed decision my ass.
- Any time someone brings up the scary C-word, the first instinct is to react like you’ve got a spider crawling on you. It isn’t reasonable, it isn’t rational, you just flail and scream and slap at yourself until the spider is gone. Never mind if you’re in the middle of driving a car at the time. Similarly, the doctor says cancer, and suggests surgery tomorrow and chemo the day after, and all you can think about is getting this vague and terrifying thing out of your body as soon as humanly possible. It all seems reasonable. Except the cancer didn’t show up yesterday, and in most cases, the cancer isn’t going to kill you tomorrow, so taking a couple of weeks to get a second opinion, do your own research, look into the efficacy of the proposed treatment and its risks, cut all sugar out of your diet… Take that time. Not that much is likely to change in a week or two, and you can’t possibly make a good, rational decision about what you’re going to do sitting in a kleenex of a hospital gown with a doctor looming over you.
- Everyone in this situation has incentives. This doesn’t make anyone a bad person, but all of those incentives are not aligned. Your doctor has three entities to make happy, and of the three, you’re the only one that doesn’t involve money. The other two entities are the health insurance and the malpractice insurance. You’re trying to be healthy and everyone else is trying not to get sued. Insist on your perspective being heard. Do not do anything you don’t feel 100% informed about. Carrot juice is not likely to save you from cancer, but chemo doesn’t come with promises or guarantees either. The right answer will be unique to you, and it will probably lie somewhere between doing nothing, carrot juice, and doing everything. Decisions made out of fear are usually bad decisions, and scared decisions under time pressure from figures of authority are especially likely to bring with them some regrets. This is your body we’re talking about. No one else lives in it. Insist on a process that YOU feel comfortable with.
- If they do a lumpectomy at the same time as the reduction, expect the side with the lumpectomy to take longer to heal.
This is probably enough for one Sunday night, though I have more to say – particularly about the doctor/patient relationship. That can wait for another post.
Breast reduction blog posts tend to get a lot of new traffic – if there are brand new readers with questions that I haven’t touched on, use the comments. I’ll try to answer, though I am not promising I’ll respond quickly.
Also: I still have the migraines.
Also the second: all the tissue they removed cleared pathology and I don’t have to see the oncology surgeon until July, at which point she may receive a piece of my mind.
The recipe isn’t the only thing tugging at me from the bowls of my blogging self. There is also cancer.
Except that I don’t know exactly what I want to say about it. On some level, I understand that the word relates to me in a new way: before it was just my birthday. Now I have a cancer surgeon. I am joining a cancer study.
This cancer comes with caveats. First, it is not mine. I refuse possession of it, for any of the gods and sprites who care about such things. Second, it is the best possible option, if you’re going to pick from the available options for bad luck.
It has its own acronym: DCIS.
In terms available to normal people: some cells in the ducts in my breast went a little wonky. The wonky cells were all sucked out by a needle in the process of the biopsy. You couldn’t even see them in the specimen jar. The wonky cells were contained to the duct, so they are not invasive. They weren’t growing as slowly as they could, but not as fast as they could either.
This is not the cancer that is likely to kill you. The most probable outcome is that nothing will go wrong with my boobs ever again. The potential that something will go wrong with my boobs again is greater than it would have been had nothing ever gone wrong in the first place.
And yet, I hold the breast with the biopsy bruise gently. I look at her with affectionate pity. I remember what the needle feels like when it’s buried in my flesh. I am holding myself carefully too. Something in me has sustained damage, and I don’t know how bad it is yet, except that it could be worse.
The news, the diagnosis, is not the only ache. It is a shadow of the deeper ache and it pulls on those connections with a strength disproportionate to its size. Laying on the biopsy table – a thing I will describe in detail later – I thought about crawling into the hospital bed with my mother, and willed myself not to cry. I did not want the biopsying doctor to know that I was anything less than stoic and impervious. I did not want to talk about my feelings or share my mother with this woman, except perhaps as a shield.
And that is the second difficulty: the doctors. They ask the wrong questions. They decide and recommend in terms of insurance. First, their malpractice insurance and second, my health insurance. They over-react because no one ever got sued for over-treating a disease. Generate as much fear as possible because afraid people are compliant. My doctors are not bad people. They do not approach my body in this way because they are malicious or wish to injure me further. They approach my body according to their interests. I cannot fault them for this.
However, my interests are going to determine what I allow. And I will freely resent the way they talk to me, that calm reasonable voice adults save for crying children that they use on me even though I’m not having a tantrum, I’m only resisting going along blindly with the application of their interests to my body.
I am gone. Have been gone?
No, present tense. I am currently gone. I don’t know when I will come back, but the first whisper of a notion that I must come back has begun caressing my ear.
There are reasons. None of them interesting or unique. The life and the writing used to live in symbiosis, but the life got bigger and greedier. The writing is still unconvinced it is as important, as worthy, as the dishes and laundry and dog and groceries and …
It takes a woman to prioritize dishes over a voice.
There is also the notion that the things I have to say are not necessary in the world. One more white lady with deep thoughts? Oh, we are so short on those. I went back to my friend Alison’s blog and had a borrowed thought. I don’t have to be necessary to the world; I can be necessary to myself.
This is about five minutes old, this chain of thoughts. I came here because there is a recipe I keep buried in wordpress, and I had a moment where wordpress was lost to me. Password? No idea. Log in? Beats me.
But google remembers – a blessing and a curse – and I am a centimeter less gone than I was an hour ago.
Of course it happened to me too. More than once. In an assortment of ways, in various situations. A little over a year ago; in 2013; as a teenager; as a child.
White Americans tend to start from an ahistoric assumption that safety is the default. We live in a collective bubble defended by relatively unassailable boundaries, formidable military might, and national neighbors who more or less want to leave the 800 pound gorilla alone because they are safer nestled up next to it than at odds with it. Inside our daily lives, broadly speaking, we expect to be safe. When we interact with the police over speeding tickets or improper use of our turn signals, we don’t expect to be shaken down for a bribe, or a favor. We don’t expect to reach for our wallet and get shot as a result.
But safety is not the default for the vast majority of the world. Really, only white folk in Western nations have successfully created a bubble that more or less covers us and definitely doesn’t cover anyone else. Everywhere else, no one is safe from drones and carpet bombs and chemical attack and corruption and, of course, sexual violence in the form of harassment and rape.
None of which is mentioned to diminish the individual trauma. Just to point out that we need to think a little deeper about all of this and start asking some questions. What does it mean to feel safe? What are our rights? As an American, I believe that I have the right to bodily autonomy: control over where I go, what I do, who I do it with, and what happens after the fact. I have the right not to be willfully, physically damaged by another person; and also the right to expect that others will conduct themselves in such a way as to ensure that the things under their control conspire to do no harm to my physical body. I have an unpredictable, anxious dog. I am responsible for ensuring that unpredictable, anxious dog is not in a position to inflict pain or damage on another with his teeth. That is my obligation, others have the right to expect me to conduct my affairs in such a way as to not endanger anyone.
Does everyone have the same right to safety, or bodily autonomy? If a worker exchanging her time and effort for money in the workplace as a secretary has the right to say no when her boss wants to stick his tongue down her throat, does a prostitute who is exchanging her time and effort for cash have the right to define what effort she is willing to engage in? It seems to me that the two situations are fundamentally the same.
If a white woman has the right to insist that her breasts not be touched by a coworker, does a black woman have the right to expect that her co-workers won’t touch her hair? Is one’s head any less included in bodily autonomy than one’s breasts?
We should be careful with our outrage, lest we find ourselves with the same fundamental flaw that runs through every accused perpetrator of infractions both egregious and irresponsible: the inability or unwillingness to recognize the discrete, complete, equally valid experience embodied in every other human we come across. The wanting impulse that can only see the want in you, and not the want in the other.
This is why men feel different about women after they have a daughter. Why things make sense to them after fathering a girl that didn’t make sense to them before: a daughter is the first female they have ever met from whom they want nothing. She’s the first female in their life where there is nothing that she can do for them, and everything that they can do for her. A mother is there for warmth and comfort and sustenance, and that is the extent of it. She might as well be a microwave fronted by a teddy bear. A girlfriend is pleasure and support and someone who agrees that they are the most important person in the room. A wife is pleasure on demand and clean shirts and the mechanism which allows them to focus on what pleases them while ignoring the mundane, like keeping the house clean. A secretary is a coffee dispenser with a nice ass. But a daughter? A daughter is hopes and dreams unrelated to him, but that he has cause to absorb as his own. He looks out for her, has hopes for her, because she is not a bundle of things that can be done for him, she is a bundle of things she wants all by herself.
And suddenly, the notion that a man somewhere might treat his daughter in the same way he has treated all the other women in his life starts to mean something. A fourteen year old in a short skirt isn’t a temptation he’s going to have to wait four years to oogle, she’s his girl in a few years. She’s a kid who plays with lipstick and then goes home to watch Frozen for the millionth time, because she’s a kid.
So yes, #metoo. But you know what else is also #metoo? Looking at someone and ruthlessly preserving my obliviousness to the fact that they are a whole and complete person with a perspective, and reasons, and a history, and a story, and wants that are completely foreign to me yet still as valid and reasonable as my own.
What allows Al Franken to forcibly kiss someone, or to pose for a photo with a sleeping woman’s breasts in his hands, or to put his hand on a stranger’s bottom, is that he isn’t coming to the exchange with the understanding that her desires are equal to his, that she as as much right to control what happens in her mouth as he does, that she is whole and complete and he has no right to inflict consequences on her without her participation or consent. She is the punchline, the object, the manifestation of his desire to be approved, or to feel strong, or whatever. She isn’t as human as he is, at least at that moment his mind. He is the good guy, the hero of the story. She is a prop.
Is the flaw as deep with Franken as with someone like Roy Moore, or Brock Turner, or Bill Clinton, or Donald Trump? Probably not. But it is a flaw we all possess, this working assumption that our experience is the only one that matters. It is the belief behind every backstabber, every bully, every liar, every con job, every corporate raider, every bank executive behind a massive foreclosure operation, every abuser, every racist… the list is endless.
I’ve heard it said that compassion begins when we start to recognize that everyone we meet is attempting to move towards comfort and away from pain. There is something equally fundamental in Don Miguel Ruiz’s agreement to take nothing personally. Restated, it isn’t about you. Nothing is about you. The world and the people in it are not there to serve your desires.
No one has a greater right to safety than another, not by race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, belief system, education, ability, creed, or experience. Without exception, everyone should be able to walk through the world in complete control over what happens to and with their bodies. We can talk about toxic masculinity, sure. But let’s also talk about toxic self-absorption, and the conviction that everyone else’s role in the world is to serve your immediate desire. Let’s talk about the fatal conviction that, no matter the room you stand in, you are the most important person in that room. Strip every individual in a society of the conviction that nothing matters quite so much as what they desire in any given moment, and the world would change in an instant. And for the better.
Ladies, we might be entering a new, horrifying era in history. I’d like you to close your eyes and visualize this terrifying world in which men might be forced to police themselves in the workplace. Imagine a world in which men might have to worry about how they are perceived. All the time. In every situation they find themselves in. Wouldn’t it be horrible if men had to live with the constant paranoia that something they say or do might be taken the wrong way?
Can you imagine having the entirety of your professional reputation entirely dependent on how other people see you? Can you imagine having to be that careful, all of the time? What if a gesture is misunderstood? What if the tone doesn’t come through correctly in the e-mail? What if that friendly smile comes across as a leer? What if that stray pat on the bottom is perceived as inappropriate?
No one should have to live in this level of fear, and we’re on the verge of thrusting an entire gender into a future of anxiety, manic self-policing, and indigestion. It is a tragedy, I tell you. An utter and complete tragedy. I don’t know how men could possibly be expected to function under these conditions. Something must be done. Forthwith. Without further hesitation.
First, let’s just go with the part where I’m going to be on the irregular blogging schedule indefinitely. Things with dad are still wobbly, it is what it is.
But I want to talk about debt. Now, I’m sure I’m late to the game. I can’t be the first person to come to some realizations. Some of this comes from recent career events that have me working in and around financial stuff. (I wanted to be a paid author – I write, and I get paid. It’s kinda worked out, just not how I expected.) Some of it comes from trying to get my own checkbook in order. Some of it comes from reading random financial books and blog posts, and watching random videos.
Here’s the deal with debt.
The banking industry doesn’t care about the principle. Let’s take your mortgage. Say you owe $100,000 on your house, and you’re paying 5% interest. The lender doesn’t care that much about getting the $100k back. That’s chump change to them. What they want is that 5%. You go to corner bank, put in your loan application, and then their people look at all your paperwork. What they want to know is if they’re going to get that little 5% over the next 30 years. Because that little 5% is going to add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once they’ve given you that mortgage, they turn around and sell it. Because there are a LOT of people who want to buy the right to collect that 5% over the next 30 years. Fannie and Freddie do a lot of the buying. They take all of the little loans that they buy and package them up and sell those to wall street, so investors can buy into a piece of the action.
They aren’t buying and selling the $100,000 that you owe, they are buying and selling the 5%.
If you can’t make your payments anymore and your loan becomes a “non-performing loan,” it becomes toxic to the balance sheet of whoever holds that loan. So they sell it to companies who buy the loan. It’s now called a note. Companies will happily sell that note for much less than the balance, and another company will happily buy it, because even if they come to an arrangement with you where your principal is reduced, they can still make money because they’re still collecting interest on whatever agreement you come to.
Seriously. Say you know you owe that $100,000 to the bank, but you aren’t making your payments for whatever reason. The bank might sell the right to collect that debt to a new company for $50,000. That new company now can come to you, negotiate your balance down to $75,000 with a reduced payment. You’re feeling good because you now owe $25k less and your payment has gone down. The company is feeling good because you’re back on track to pay them $25k more than they paid for your debt, plus the interest terms you’ve just agreed to.
It’s the interest that matters. And here’s why.
When you buy something with cash, it is an even exchange. The dollar is more or less equal to the item you’ve just purchased. If I go to Marshall’s and buy makeup brushes, I’m paying for the goods, the convenience of the store front, and the cost of the employees. The margins aren’t particularly great on any one item. There’s enough that it keeps them in business, but Marshall’s has to put a lot of energy into it. They have to spend most of that $1.00 just to have the thing I want in place at the time I want it. Not a whole lot of new wealth is generated that way.
Debt, on the other hand, is lucrative. Really lucrative. Your debt, specifically.
In the past 20/30 years, in real terms wages haven’t gone up all that much. But we keep thinking things will get better, so to keep up with the Jones’s, we whip out the credit cards… Those mofos should be ashamed of themselves.
The systems designed by the people with money are designed to keep funneling money upwards towards those same people. They do it by reducing taxes on the kinds of incomes that generally only the super wealthy get (capital gains and the like) such that Mitt Romney only pays something like 15% in tax and the rest of us pay something like 30%. And if they aren’t getting enough by moving money up the wealth hierarchy through ridiculous tax systems, the entire apparatus is geared towards driving your debt.
The 24 hour news cycle? Intended to up your anxiety because anxious people find security in trading money, which is intangible on some deep, prehistoric level, for things. Commercials. Intended to drive your spending. It’s all designed to drive your spending, because the small cog of your spending moves goods around the world, and the big cog of your debt moves wealth out of your pocket and into the pockets of the already wealthy.
This is one of the reasons why the powers that be are so vehemently against some of the regulations put in place by the U.S. Government – because that gets in the way of their ability to generate more debt by raising the credit standards for issuing debt, for a start. The whole mortgage crisis had more to do with the inability to collect the interest payments than it did the outlay of initial cash that went into the purchase of all of those homes. That initial money is more or less solid, because it goes back to the 1 for 1 exchange of cash for a real thing. $100,000 in initial purchase price is land and sticks and bricks. It’s not that different than the purchase of a pair of shoes at Marshalls. That dollar is a real thing, represented by leather and buckles and the like.
My argument isn’t that everyone should avoid debt… That isn’t a practical stance. But I would propose that understanding what’s going on is important. One book I’ve read suggests that the only debt you should have is the kind of debt that has an asset attached to it. At least a home has the hope of appreciating.
The argument also isn’t that all bankers are evil. Most people most of the time are just looking after what they understand as their own best interest. That’s true of me, it’s true of bankers, it’s true of pretty much everyone you meet. It isn’t personal, it isn’t evil. But. From a stance of neutrality, I can not be mad at them for their desire to generate more wealth for themselves, and still recognize that it is a system that is designed to suck my resources out of my pocket and into the pocket of someone who already has plenty ‘nough.
Just something to think about.
The front door to the hospital is the gateway to an alternative reality. The glass doors slide open silently, you step across the threshold, and it is suddenly okay to make your dinner out of a grilled cheese sandwich – the kind you got as a child, white bread and american cheese, not the kind they make in gourmet food trucks with brie and pears and bacon – and onion rings.
The woman who is supposed to guide me to my father’s room is having an extended conversation with a nurse about her pregnancy and if you can predict the sex of the child by how a woman is carrying the pregnancy. I’ve been driving for two hours, so I decide to find the bathroom. While I’m washing my hands, my stepmother texts me the room. When I exit the bathroom, they are still talking about the nurse’s pregnancy.
This hospital has a sign out front claiming that it is in the top 100 best hospitals in the country. It isn’t as nice as the hospital mom died in. Dad’s room is tiny. It has one of those ubiquitous hospital chairs in it, the kind designed for helpless family members to occupy in the interminable hours between visits from the Doctor, who maybe this time will tell you what’s really going on or what to expect. You can sleep in a chair like this, if you must. But this chair that is expected to serve as home-away-from-home, a bulwark against the exhaustion, has to be re-arranged every time dad has to go to the bathroom.
Which is frequently.
He talks for six hours straight. He’s stuck in one of those experiments where some disproportionate scientist inserts a probe into a frog’s brain to see which nerve makes that first toe twitch. Except now we’re poking at emotional abscesses in his brain to pinpoint exactly which of those pustules will erupt in which form of pain and paranoia. There is one for my mother, one for his sense of failure, one for his grandiose understanding of himself. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are mentioned frequently. He grins maniacally when they bring him his dinner and he announces that he’s getting the Trump treatment. There are algorithms, and numbers, and codes. He had a mission, but he couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth shut, so he blew it.
It isn’t her fault and it isn’t your fault, I’ll just have to reset. We’ll go back 7 minutes and all it will cost is putting her in a box and making her suffer. But this is the last time. Because I’m the real God, the absolute final God, and I had to go back and find the first Pope.
He hits me. Twice. And this is when I realize it is an alternate reality, one in which your father can punch you in the arm as hard as he is physically able, and you don’t take it personally. I mean, you keep your arm out of punching distance after that, let’s be honest. But in this reality, when your father calls you fat and ugly to your face, a shithead and a dumbfuck… you just sort of agree.
He is nothing but id and these soft spots in his emotional landscape. Failure comes up again and again. “I’m a failure,” he tells me. “Me, me, me, me, me, me…” until I wonder if he’s going to find another word. I think I might be a trigger. After all, I was the one who forced him to tell my mother that he’d been cheating on her. Well, forced… I told him either he could tell her or I could tell her and he really didn’t want me to be the one to do it. At the time, he told my mom that I’d arranged the whole thing because I like being at the center of the drama. I know he’s never really forgiven me.
I’d give my left nut to be able to go back in time and cheat on your mother.
He doesn’t have to go back in time – that’s what he did. I don’t tell him that his nuts are safe. He’s too likely to pull up his hospital gown and show them to me. He grabs two nurses by the breast, and that’s not even the worst of it.
One of his nurses is black. And then he does it.
I’ve heard the word before. Of course I can. There are loads of ways to say it. My elderly uncles, twenty years ago, casually. Just one word among many. In songs defiantly, or affectionately. From my friend who is allowed to use it when she talks about her ex husband because she’s black. I’ve never heard it spat with the contempt, the vicious intent behind it, at least not until my father hurls it at his nurse.
Ice Cube, while on Bill Mahr’s show last week called it a tool, a knife. I believed him in the way you believe someone with expertise you don’t have. The mechanic tells you that your fuel gasket is leaking and you believe him. I believe Ice Cube differently today than I did last week. Now I know why it is entirely fair when a black woman says she can’t trust white people. This reason is different from her reason, but it is a reason nevertheless.
My imperfect father wouldn’t be called “woke” in his sane life, but he’s probably better than most. My life is populated with black friends, they’ve been in his house, eaten at his table, and he’s never given a hint of harboring racial animosity.
And yet. Lurking in my father’s id, right next door to the groping of unwilling nurses, is the knife.
There’s nothing comparable. I can’t comfort myself by thinking that a black man in the same position might holler cracker with the same vitriol. It isn’t the same. In a white man’s mouth, the word is a threat. Even for my diminished, elderly father, delirious out of his mind, it is a threat of rape, of lynching, of dismemberment and pain. In a hospital setting, he’d be cold-clocked and on his ass before the threat was followed through, but does it matter?
The nursing staff assures me that it’s alright. They hear this kind of thing all the time. But how does frequency make it more alright? This malignancy is unmistakably there in my father’s id, and this woman has had to bear it time and time again, if not from him than from other white people.
Is it in my id? If my frontal lobe shuts down and all I’m left with is the raging need to maim anyone who crosses me with whatever weapons I have near, is this knife close enough in my psyche to be the thing I reach for? And why would you ever trust a white person again, knowing that there’s a reasonable chance that, somewhere lurking in their mind is a knife that they keep just for you?
On the drive home, I talk to a friend who is a psychiatric nurse. He suspects we’re dealing with delirium. It is a symptom more than a disease, it pops up around urinary tract infections, sepsis, unpredictable shifts in medication. All three factors are present and accounted for in my father right now.
Today, he is back to algorithms, logarithms, and this mission for the Pope that only he can see through.