Whenever I am lost, I can find myself in a book. Or perhaps I can get lost in a book, and in turn find a way to keep trucking. Bookstores have provided lasting comfort from childhood fears to emotional (overdue) breakups to crippling depression or struggling to figure out what sort of “career path” to take (I’d really love said path to enable me to pay off student loan debt once and for all). Missives from Harper Lee, Lucia Berlin, Stephen King, Kinky Friedman, Mary Roach, Vanessa Hua, Joan Rivers, Philip Roth, John Waters, Alan Cheuse and so any other writers have enveloped me with knowledge, ideas and hope.
At age 39, I was hit with breast cancer—22 rounds of chemo, 7 surgeries, 8 infections, 49 blood tests, and 1 over-the-top crush on my surgeon (even though we are both married). There was also what is known as a DIEP mastectomy, where both of my breasts were cut off and new ones were shaped with skin cut and moved up from my stomach. Recovery time from DIEP is a minimum of four to six weeks.
My “last straw” moment arrived when I opted for genetic testing that had me spitting for five minutes straight into a plastic cup in a bland medical suite. My spit yielded a BRCA1 finding, which makes me more susceptible to breast cancer. I tried to focus on the graphs and diagrams the too-young genetic counselor showed me from her gigantic black three-ring binder, but I wanted to snap, “You don’t have any disease, right?” It was irritating to sit there and look at her glossy, long locks and despair that I was bald, bloated and without any eyebrows or eyelashes.
In a kind and gentle tone, she was offering a thousand bleak probabilities: if you live to age 80, you are more likely to get ovarian cancer, as shown by this bright orange circle. If you live to 60, you may get this kind of cancer, too (instead?). Although there were no signs of cancer in my lady parts, I quickly opted for a hysterectomy after the BRCA1 consultation, even though it would mean insta-menopause complete with hot flashes, bone concerns, excessive chin hair and decreased sexual desire.
These medical reveals and the ensuing procedures and symptoms keep me exhausted. I used to be able to walk, talk and schlep groceries and fun supplies, but those activities—that version of me—seem like ancient history. Almost overnight, routines change: no longer can I put in long hours at work events, or gravitate towards rich and fatty red meat-centric tasting menus that are often par for the course when writing about food professionally. It will take some time for me to realize that I can’t even spend time doing things I love in the same way, either.
I thought books could continue to be a default activity. However, in chemo, I let myself fawn over a People magazine while guiltily eyeing my New Yorker and Vanity Fair—although chemo kills cancer cells, it also can zap a patient’s ability to think clearly and remember things. Reading longer texts is startling, as I realize I am re-reading the same page without fully comprehending, over and over.
One sunny day, I collapse with exhaustion on the wooden floor of Dog Eared Books, a bookstore that is deceptively close to where I live in the Mission District. I am with my husband and young son. We hadn’t even walked far, just to the grocery store for a few pieces of fruit, followed by a playground visit so my son could work off his weekend exuberance with other little guys.
On a table nearby, the bestsellers almost taunt me. I’m not ready to stand up. Then, I would to do the usual: pick a book up, flip it over, read the back, and happily ponder how many books we’ll get this haul. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal looks promising—but don’t we have that at home already? Chemo fog leaves me grappling and wondering. Would I rather hit up something that is completely different from my own painful reality?
How could I be this out of it? I never get into pity parties and ask, “Why did I get cancer” but it is easy to get pissed when I can’t figure out when (if?) I will ever be able to return to my normal semi-vibrant self.
I am a loudmouth and oversharer, but having to sit down and not do anything in this sea of books brings only shame and silence. I want to be back home. There, I could get cozy, maybe stretch out under the fleece blanket my Aunt Liza bought to warm my bones—especially needed on chemo days. Chemo zaps my energy so much, I usually guzzle what feels like a gallon of water, build myself a womblike cave of blankets of different colors and fabrics, and wish for silent and lasting sleep. Only in my dreams do I feel happy, because I don’t know I have cancer when zzzzzzzzs beckon.
Above the register, I look up to a big painting of a red wagon on a blue background. I love it. This art reminds me of how kids get pulled to and from fun places. These wagons are all the rage since kids can smile or sleep as they roll past local farmers’ markets, the foggy sidewalk by Ocean Beach, or under the verdant eucalyptus groves of Golden Gate park.
I wish I could fold myself into a wagon appropriate for my five foot eleven frame. Perhaps we could schlep even more books home? Would I fret more or allow myself to close my eyes and rest at last? Why did I overdo things yet again? (How could I have known that doing routine errands could turn out this sad?)
I let my husband Oscar do his thing on the other side of the store, where fiction and history titles are laid out. His excitement at having some leisure time is something I do not want to interrupt—he changed the putrid smelling oozing bandages in the days after my surgery, and has taken on a mountain of household stuff that I can no longer do.
On our early dates, I was intrigued to learn that his family was like mine in one important way: although there was not much money, our parents put a priority on giving us access to as many books as possible. This shared experience cemented our bond, and bookstore events are now so central to our union that I wouldn’t even be able to count the number of times (or dollars) we’ve devoted to these spaces that are sacred to us—chemo brain or not.
My young son tries to get my attention as he holds up a book—I slowly nod no. Earlier at the playground, I hid in the shade and watched him run around. He gave up on the idea of me running around to chase him—which of course used to be easy and fun. On his third ask, I tell him, “my body is broken and really tired today. Maybe dad can chase you?”
We’re all sort of fumbling at figuring out how to best proceed when my “I can’ts” kick in. It feels like the ghost of playground me is floating by, I can see her with her bright and kicky tennies and cool mom jeans. She can easily push him on the swing for as long as he likes. But not now.
I wish I could read you that sweet book about farm animals and pancakes, but it’s not gonna happen, buddy. Explaining cancer to him always leads to more questions. I fumble at getting the info right. Yes, some people die of cancer, but I probably won’t. And no, I didn’t get cancer from having dirt under my fingernails from trying to revive the herb plants that grace our kitchen window—although, yes, it’s confusing that there is not a short or easy answer on why I have cancer.
I try to gaze at the magazines and zines near me—feminist stories from Bitch Magazine that often surprise and get me saying, “hell yeah!” These shelves have good brain food, but disappoint since I can’t execute even making my own shrub vinegary drinks with directions from the hippie-ish organic food mag—an undertaking that would excite me if I had better health. I’m getting messages of what I can’t do, which makes me feel sad and a tad angry. Yet, I do like being near all these books and magazines and am relieved the store has not been evicted or put out of business.
My eye doctor recently warned me that I may have herpes in my eyes (not the sex-related kind of herpes… what sex?). I sobbed right after she showed me pictures of my eye glands, because my eyes now resemble those of seniors who are 75 or older. Perhaps I am frustrated because my body seems like it has aged into such a broken-down version, and I don’t trust that the process will slow down anytime soon.
By the register, I see Patti Smith, in a serene looking black and white photo for the cover of M Train. Hmmm, she’s been through the ringer what with Mapplethorpe and her dying husband for all those years. I’m excited just a little because I think she’s so talented, different, and creative—the real deal.
Maybe I can at least try to lose myself in some new tales and stories. Thinking about Smith and her work and long history calms. I remember that I do have options—even if it feels like my body has failed or betrayed me today.
How do I keep going?
Picking up a book in a bookstore is a fab first step. Even with my battered and bruised body, I still have it in me to keep questioning. Keep trying. Keep reading.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.