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My Breast


“Huh, that’s odd,” Luke says, and he shows me: He has been able to draw out very little liquid. What there is is thick and puslike, though that could be consistent with infection.

I get dressed. Luke tells me he still sees no reason for concern; the signs point to an inflammation, and he’s prescribing Dicloxacillin, a form of penicillin. We’ll try that for a week or two and see if it reduces the swelling. If not, he will remove the lump. I am concerned: If it’s a cyst, I say, how come more liquid didn’t come out? And if it’s not a cyst, what is it?

“I don’t know,” says Luke. “That’s why we’re doing the tests.”

I go meet Nick at the Lion’s Head, downtown. He’s wearing his fedora low on his head and gives me that cocky Bronx grin that has always knocked me out.

“See, I knew it would be nothing,” he says, and within hours we are un—broken up.

I am not a hypochondriac, I lean toward the other extreme, associating sickness with weakness and therefore denying being sick. This, I believe, is the legacy of my mother, Milly, who ran off to Florida at seventeen to paint flamingos on glass, in my childhood stole trees from state preserves insisting they were hers because her tax dollars had paid for them, and at 65 is still one of the great forces of nature.

“I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” she says. “One hour after I had you, I was eating. The other women in the hospital were screaming their heads off. I made up my mind, ‘How it went in, it will go out,’ and that was that. This worrying you have about every little thing, that you got from your father. He was the worrier. Him and his mother. The Aspirin Addict.”

Also, before going off at 62 as a volunteer in the Israeli army, “I don’t fear death. Death to me is just another adventure. I can think of no greater honor than dying for the state of Israel, the Jewish homeland.”

“You’re an old dame, Ma,” I say. “You think they’re gonna put a machine gun in your hand and send you to the front? You’re gonna be cleaning toilets.”

“Don’t even bother to bring back the body,” she says.

I do fear death. Even more, I fear a bad death, strapped to machines in a hospital like my father. “Joyce,” he had taken to telling me from the mountains, when I called once a week from Paris. “Your father is a very sick man. Your father is dying.” I did not entirely believe him. I knew he was sick, very sick. I had been there for the early operations in the city and the last-minute flights to Florida. I knew the cancer was creeping up his spine and down his legs and was eventually going to kill him. But his blood counts were good, he was going to his business every day. It is a rotten thing to admit, but a voice in me, hearing him, was satirizing him: “Joyce, your father is dying”—Hebraic Dramatic Third Person, now replacing that previous family favorite, “You realize, of course, you are killing your father.” He was a worrier, and critical and angry. Worrying how he and his mother and his two younger brothers would survive on a small dairy farm when he was nineteen and his father died; worrying about making a business out of nothing when he was in his thirties; worrying once he was successful it would all disappear. Then, when I got home from Paris, I saw the worrying was real: My father was 67 and got up from his desk at the office like a man of 85, his weight down 30 pounds, shaking, and supporting himself on a cane. Seeing me, he started to cry. “I never thought I’d see you again,” he said, and I was filled with self-loathing. What the f--- was I doing in Paris all that time? I didn’t even need all of that stuff. Why wasn’t I here with my father? Two weeks later, he fell and broke his hip, and after that operation, his heart started to fail and they put him on life support. “You’re not getting enough oxygen, Bernie,” the doctor said. “Your lungs are exhausting your heart. If we don’t put you on this machine, you’re going to die. Do you give your consent?” My father nodded yes. Nobody in the family had any idea what life support meant, but in an hour, when they let us in to see him, we found out. An oxygen tube had been stuffed down his nose, his hands were strapped to the side of the bed, and he was pulling against the straps like an animal at auction, trying to speak but unable to because of the tube down his throat.


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