THE BLOG

What Price Karma?

01/21/2014 07:00 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

My last mammogram was scheduled on the hottest day of the year. And in the Northeast, that almost always means humid. People are sweaty and cranky. Hair is frizzy. It's not like this time of year, when everyone is merely recuperating from spreading good cheer.

The clinic I go to has its own parking lot in the back, although the spaces are small and hard to get in and out of. I go to this particular breast clinic, despite its tight parking lot (and also despite the fact that they do not accept insurance) for one reason: they tell you right then and there whether you have cancer.

I've courted worry like an ambition my whole adult life and must now go to great lengths to avoid it. A cancer diagnosis is not an unfounded fear for me; my father and nearly his whole blood line has already died of it.

This is why I chose to back my car in to the parking spot. It's not an easy maneuver but I had already decided that if I was going to learn I had breast cancer on this sweltering day, I was going to want to get out of the parking lot fast. I consider myself a good driver and an outstanding parallel parker, but backing into a parking space is not one of my super-skills. I turned the radio down so I could concentrate. The silence did not get me into the spot with any more facility, although it did allow me to hear the scrape I inflicted on the car to my left.

I quickly pulled out of the spot and drove all the way to the back of the lot, pulling into a space (frontwards) that had no cars on either side of it. I was now a bit late for my appointment, so I made my way quickly through the heavy summer air to the car I'd dinged. It was a newish-looking gray sedan, a fancy make and model, immaculate inside with plush leather seats. And now a white scrape on the driver's door.

If I had had on different clothes, I could have used the bottom of my tee shirt to try and buff the mark out. But this day was too hot even for tee shirts; instead I had on a silky tank top, one not conducive to buffing. I gave the spot a little rub with my finger. Nothing happened.

Looking around the parking lot, I realized I was alone. No one had witnessed my bungled parking attempt and I was now even more late for my appointment, so I decided to abandon the mess I'd made and go take care of the business I'd come for.

Hitting a car without leaving a note seems a bad idea on any day, but a particularly bad idea, karma-wise, when you're on your way to a mammogram. Halfway to the clinic's entrance, I turned around.

I pulled a scrap of paper from my purse, leaned against the victim car and composed a note that took responsibility but also downplayed the incident. With a teenage driver in my house, I knew how much a new side door panel would cost. I knew how much almost everything from the body shop would cost. Even the most seemingly simple fix would rival the cost of my uninsured mammogram. These thoughts deflated me. The thick hot air seemed thicker and hotter. Sweat started running down my sides (no antiperspirant allowed before a mammogram). I scribbled my number at the bottom of the scrap and placed it under the windshield wiper.

This breast center shares a building with one other tenant: a plastic surgeon. I thought, If I'm lucky, the car owner is here for a routine mammogram. Because if she were instead here for some cosmetic procedure, she may not be a person who holds a neutral and detached attitude about the finish of her car. She might feel the need for a car whose exterior was smooth and flawless, a woman with little tolerance for the slight imperfections that give us all character. Yes, if she were here to visit the plastic surgeon, this ding was going to cost me.

Car repair became my only concern as I sidled up to the mammogram machine. Normally, I would be dreading having my breasts squeezed flat by those malevolent glass panels, but on this day I relished it, hoping that the pain could serve as my penance rather than the two or three thousand dollars it was surely going to cost me to right my wrong. During my consultation, I confessed to the doctor what I'd done. Her take on the situation was practically identical to her advice on breast care: "We can only try and do all the right things and then hope for the best."

My breast exam turned up nothing and when I returned to the lot, the victim car was gone.

My son had done nearly this exact same thing in a Starbucks lot a year before. He too had left and gone back to write a note. The owner of that car took a long time to call him -- over a month -- so I knew that I could hear from the victim car owner at any time. Even though waiting for the car call seemed a thousand times easier than waiting to hear about mammography results, it still made my worry wheels turn.

I spent the rest of the day relieved about my favorable mammogram results and proud of my good deed. And I couldn't figure out which bothered me more. For all my forays into a spiritual practice that regards the nature of the world as relentlessly changing -- that our only real "security" is not in the receipt of "good news" but in the acceptance that all news is neutral, and impermanent, and perhaps even illusory - I still find myself happily attached to a "clean bill of health." And I hate that it feels like a "good deed" to simply do what's right -- to own my mistakes even when no one is looking. My own car is two years old and full of parking lot dings. I've never received a note, and I'm sure no one was diagnosed with breast cancer as a result.

If only it were that easy to avoid cancer, we'd all be leaving notes on cars and apologizing to people we may have slighted. We'd all be doing the right thing even when nobody's looking. It actually doesn't sound like the worst way to go about life.

Three days after my mammogram, the car owner called. She hadn't noticed the note for two days and until she saw it, she'd never noticed the scrape at all. "What a sweetheart you are for leaving that note," she said and told me she'd let me know if the mark didn't come out at the carwash.

I couldn't believe she was making such a fuss about the note I left. I wanted her to understand that I wasn't naturally a good person, I just wanted a good mammogram. I was actually planning on telling her the whole story when she called back. But she never did.

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