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06/03/2013 08:08 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

My Left Breast -- Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

No one knows exactly if your cancer will kill you sooner, or later, or not at all. There is the often broken five-year test of time, there are statistics and prognoses and studies, there are oncologists, radiologists, surgeons, and social workers; there are articles in the New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine that often contradict each other. Lung cancer has killed many non-smokers and marathon runners have had heart attacks.

I was told in the support group that if cancer didn't kill you, it changed you forever. But even though I was fragmented and scattered and shook and needed to be put back together, I didn't believe it. It was too mythic, I decided, too romantic, too sentimental, a TV illness of the week. You've seen the movie.

To my surprise, I discover that the myth reflects truth. I am recast with a new integrating core; there is a reconstituted me, glued together by radiation and a new way to see. I am a different person in both a vague and dynamic way that is as ambiguous, as ill-defined, as incomprehensible and life-changing as giving birth or falling in love. I am freer, calmer, less lonely, better friends with myself. I have more of an edge and more softness; my likes and dislikes are crisper. I understand more deeply the friends and acquaintances and the people I love. The epiphanies slip in and out of my awareness like a butterfly or a breeze, but lie in wait and return.

Cancer runs a tight ship. You have no more patience for small talk. Cancer insists on curriculum. Conversation about trips, kids, grandchildren and real estate makes you restless. Cancer doesn't suffer fools gladly, or for that matter, the mean, the shallow, or the boring. Life strips itself down to simple equations. It is a crazy relief.

Cancer explodes old relationships and seals others. You realize who the people in your life really are; you can see into their souls. You know the green of spring for the first time; the thoughts in your head; your mistakes. Your cancer has the spin and speed of a ride at Disneyland. Time is slower and faster; each second, minute, hour, is either stopped by a new sight or fresh insight, or speeded up into terror (my God this thing can kill me). You are more peaceful and more afraid. As old as you are you understand the cliché for the first time: that each moment is gone forever, never, ever, to return.

You are riding in a taxi with the meter running and your money running out. So you clean out the deadwood in your life, allowing what remains to flourish. You are more what you were meant to be. You love more and are also strangely removed; an observer, as if you are already looking down from heaven, reinvented.

The doctors I see all have the same bland look of central casting. The white coat, the benign even features, the anonymous, careful faces. The monotonous voices. They even smell the same. No Goldsteins or Moskowitzes with the big nose and dark intense eyes of the Jews I used to know. This, after all, is Texas, not New York. As a secular Jew living among Catholics and Protestants through JD's family and friends, my cancer mysteriously comes with a longing for Jews.

Like my Uncle Sidney. He was the only one who protested when my mother took me out of high school to model clothes in a department store.

You mean she quit school?" he bellowed to my mother. "You want she should grow up a dummy?"

We were at his house for dinner. His poor wife had to cook two different meals every night--boiled potatoes and herring, or chili con carne for Uncle Sidney, because that is all he would eat, and a normal meal for everyone else.

"Listen, Sidney," my mother said. "A job's a job. We're in a Depression, have you heard? The City Hall pays me in script. You try to buy groceries with script."

He leaned back in his chair. "The goys quit school. Jewish people educate. Jewish people learn," he said, pointing to his head.

My mother raised her voice. "Do me a favor, Sidney, and mind your own business."

"She should stay in school. It's a goyisha school, okay, but she should stay in. She should read Chaim Potok. Sholom Aleichem. A little Yiddish wouldn't hurt. I could teach her." He put his fork down and glared at my mother. "How can a girl who drops out marry a Jewish doctor? Stay in school, marry a doctor. Or, okay, a lawyer. Have babies who grow up professors. That's what you do to the anti-Semites."

They were arguing about me as if I wasn't sitting there. But I didn't mind. I loved that Uncle Sidney liked -- loved -- me enough to care if I stayed in school or not. I loved the rhythm of his Jewish accent, his warmth, his love of learning, his ambition. His loud opinions. I loved his authenticity -- the way he was who he was. And that he nagged his children to read, to learn, to achieve -- and now, even me.

He was the only one of my relatives who talked to me about my father. He said that when he needed money to go to college my father was the only one who helped him. So he became a CPA and did well even during the Great Depression. He was the first person I ever knew who protested the war in Viet Nam.

"What's wrong with being a model?" my mother said.

"A model! Is dat a business? A dressmaker is a business, a schoolteacher is a business. A model? Better she should be a bookkeeper."

My mother ignored Uncle Sidney's ranting, as I knew she would, and I left school to model clothes at Halle's Department Store. When I got married, Uncle Sidney walked me down the aisle. Afterwards at the reception, he got drunk.

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