Fine, Thanks, by Mary Dunnewold

Chapter One

In the six months before I had cancer, I fell down three times.

First, in January, on a barely frozen Saturday morning, a silvering of ice on every surface. But the dog had to be walked. The dog, bred for pulling freight in the northern wilds. It was not her fault. She threatened to topple me on the driest of surfaces, in mid-July, when my flip-flops adhered to the sun-melted asphalt. But now, in the ice-shrouded January, she was standing still. I moved the tiniest bit, just to make way for the neighbor’s car, careening around the corner. The unfriendly neighbor, out to buy grocery-store donuts on Saturday morning.

Was it careening? I can’t remember. Anything that moved that morning was careening, because of the ice-bound stillness, the rigidity of the trees.

I stood still, but then stepped aside, the tiniest step, to avoid the careening car, watching where I put my foot down.

Not a dry patch. I thought it was a dry patch. But it was hard to tell, on that ice-glittery morning. Nothing was dry. Nothing was to be trusted.

I went down, not even like a cartoon character, not even flailing my arms and legs. I went down at the command of gravity and friction, or anti-friction, just down. My arm cracked, just like that. Crack, and it’s broken, obviously.

What do you do, then, when you go down, and your arm has cracked, and the dog is sniffing your face with her big watery nose, wondering: What new game is this? While you gaze up, stunned, at the indifferent, prison-grey sky? And your neighbor, unfriendly despite the cookies you took to his sullen wife and unruly children, at least stops to say, are you all right? And you say, I think I broke my arm. And he says, oh. Then gets back into his car, and pulls into his snout-house garage, which is tacked onto an exact specimen of the uncharming, beige houses of the suburbs. And the garage door shuts quietly behind him, because of the silent, inexplicable physics of the ice world.

Strike one.

The second time was in public. I never wear heels. I wore heels. The “new” me. Look at me, I can wear heels. A last-ditch attempt at sexy youth, having spent my actual sexy youth wearing only comfy shoes, canvas and plastic, which I sometimes decorated with Crayola markers. Sexy Shoes as the Great Experiment of the Aging Feminist.

I was wearing a dress, even, and nylons, and heels. The restaurant was trendy, but not that great. Not good enough for a dress, and nylons, and heels. But never mind. We were dressed up and on a date. I think my husband, Jeff, was even wearing a jacket, but who knows. He only owns one, and it pretty much stays put on the red plastic hanger in the back of the closet, nursing a chronic case of agoraphobia.

I’d only had one drink. Really. It was not the drink. It was the ice (again). This time, the tiniest piece of ice, not the great, unavoidable swath of ice. I was striding through the trendy, not-that-great restaurant, down the narrow gangplank between the bar and the tables, because the whole place was quite small, actually. Intimate.

Suddenly, more like a cartoon character this time, a cartoon character on a banana peel. Except there was no banana peel. I was down.

It was just a tiny piece of ice, mostly melted. I store the memory of it in my right foot, where it imprinted through the thin sole of my imposter dress-up shoes. I went down, just like that, my traitorous skirt flying up around my waist.

There was a gasp, and many diners half-rose out of their chairs, responding to the visceral call, the altruistic gene. Attention: Member of herd is down! A waiter ran over to help me up. My husband offered me his hand.

No, No. Fine. I’m fine. Really.

I’m not drunk, damn it.

Ice on the floor. I tell you.

Strike two.

The third time was my Near Death Experience. A casual fall on a mossy step, head missing the corner by an inch. I already had cancer at this point. At least my body had cancer. I did not yet have cancer because my brain did not yet know that my body had cancer. You can’t have cancer until your body and your brain cooperate in this matter.

Anyway, I ask you: If there is A Plan for Me, forged by The Universe (about which I have grave doubts), why would I survive this near-death fall, with only a few-day’s stiff neck as remembrance, just to be preserved for the ordeal of advanced-stage cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, eight surgeries, multiple infections, and a subclavian blood clot? Wouldn’t it have been better to die quickly, in that hapless fall, in a moistly green, temperate paradise, on a morning hike with my sweetheart, because the wooden steps into the ravine were damp from a passing shower?

My answer to that question, even now, is: No. It would not have been better to die in a tragic fall, a few months before my cancer diagnosis, before I had cancer, and thus not actually live to have cancer.

I have wanted to live every minute since I was diagnosed with cancer.


There is a moment when you pass through the threshold, the gossamer curtain, the liminal ectoplasm, from not having cancer to having cancer. Like moving from “not-parent” to “parent.” “Parent” did not happen the moment my first-born entered the physical world. Rather, it happened when, returning from the hospital on that sunny Tuesday in June, I reached towards the screen door, green paint peeling, the latch a little rusty around the edges, and thought: my life will never be the same. And when I entered the house, plastic car seat handle digging into my arm, the baby squirming in his bucket, life as I knew it was over.

With cancer, it was the mammogram technician’s eyes. Or averting thereof. Her refusal to look up from my chart as she explained that she “just needed a sec” for the radiologist to take a look. Consigning me to Pink Gown Purgatory while she went out, for just a sec.

When she hurried back in, the radiologist bustling behind her, his eyes on my films, I knew I had passed through that curtain. The bustling, the hurry, had an exaggerated physical quality, as if it could fill the chasm yawning in front of me with movement and sound. Or at least provide a diversion. Like in the video of the selective attention experiment, where you never notice the guy in the gorilla suit, strolling through the basketball game, because you are so focused on the game itself. Me, the radiologist, and the mammogram tech, all suited up for basketball. Cancer in the gorilla suit.

I’d had a clear mammogram in January 2010, six months earlier. They’d called me back for “a few more views,” then concluded I was fit for service for another year. But I’d been called back in other years, and biopsied in two of them. In fact, call-backs had become fairly routine. Like forgetting to write my name on math papers in fifth grade. Kind of troublesome, but no harm done in the end.

But in July that year, the last Monday in July, before the Thursday eye-avertings, there it was. A lump.

I had pretty much dispensed with self-exams. The latest research showed they didn’t accomplish much, really. But my annual exam appointment was on Tuesday, so on Monday, in the shower, hmm, I wonder if they’re right about that. I’d hate to go in and have a massive lump I never noticed. How irresponsible. How careless. Like driving with your blinker on and your gas cap hanging open.

My fingers went right to it, as if my body knew I had cancer and was done waiting for me to figure it out. Okay, brain, don’t over-think this. Here’s the lump.

Left side. About seven o’clock. Not that I usually think of my breasts as clocks.

It wasn’t much of a lump, really. More like a weirdly grainy area. Not like the lump in the fake boob we passed around, some of us grimacing, some giggling, in ninth grade health class; plastic breast with ready-made cancer. (Where were the boys that day anyway? Feeling up fake testicles?)

But that tiny step through the gossamer curtain did not occur on that Monday in the shower, or even on Tuesday, when my doctor, looking thoughtful, prodded the area. Grainy, she pronounced. Let’s do a mammogram.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe she looked at my name on her schedule as a bright spot in her day, not as a cancer candidate. I am what is known as “compliant.” In fact, I am the queen of compliance. Exams, screenings, immunizations—I’m on board. I don’t smoke or fool around. I drink some wine on the weekend, but that’s good for my heart, right? I call ahead for prescription refills. I eat organic and do yoga. I wear my seatbelt and my bike helmet, and yes, I feel safe at home. My father, tragically, died too early of dementia, but otherwise my relatives die of old age, counting the days. My worst vices are expensive chocolate and Grey’s Anatomy.

Besides, we liked to swap titles of recent good reads while she probed my nether regions.

So I made the mammogram appointment for Thursday morning. Despite the “grainy” pronouncement, I wasn’t worried. I could wait until Thursday.

I went to work, met with colleagues, came home, and walked the dog, made dinner with friends. It was corn-on-the-cob season. There is nothing like an ear of corn harvested in the lush, verdant Minnesota fields a few hours earlier and sold from the back of the Larson family’s red pickup by fresh-faced midwestern teenagers in the parking lot of Gina’s Hair Palace. Boil until slightly tender, three to five minutes, and finish with a generous sprinkling of salt and a smear of pale yellow butter. On the list of things worth living for, corn-on-the-cob season in Minnesota is at the top. I ate lots.

Even Thursday morning, when I could not have better staged a real-life Stupid Metaphor, I wasn’t really worried.

Stupid Metaphor Number One. I was fussing around in the kitchen, hurrying to clean up so I would make my 8:30 appointment at the clinic. I don’t know how it happened. I swear I didn’t touch it. No ice was involved.

My favorite drinking glass, the lone remnant of a four-glass set, a wedding present in 1984, shattered.

These were quality glasses. Not cheap Target junk that breaks into dagger-like shards that you pick up one by one and toss in the trash. It shattered into a thousand little crystalline pieces (okay, I know, literature has been here before, but this actually happened) and they went everywhere.

I thought: give me a freaking break. Off to get the cancer mammogram, and my favorite glass shatters as I go out the door. I can’t possibly have cancer, because that would be the stupidest thing that has ever happened to me.

But, of course, I did have cancer. And I was only a few eye-avertings and a gorilla basketball game away from knowing it.


So a few hours later that Thursday morning, I was in a procedure room, bared to the waist, slathered with betadine, needle poised for the assault. My appointment had been for 8:30 a.m. I had spent a few minutes first in the stupidly pink waiting room, waiting for the mammogram tech to appear, paging through Glamour magazine. (Only in waiting rooms. I have principles.) It was now 8:50 a.m.

Those rooms are dimly lit, as if it’s date night with the radiologist. I’m sure there is a perfectly good medical-scientific explanation. Screens, ultrasound images, the necessity of eye avertings. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s about keeping the half-naked, shivering woman, who is envisioning her motherless children and her husband’s remarriage to the cute divorcee down the block, from finding the door.

The voices were all so deliberately soothing. The radiologist was so nice. He apologized profusely with every SNAP of the biopsy extractor, which sounds something like a staple gun.

Okay hold really still, I’m going to count to three, then you’ll hear a snap, okay? Ready? One. Two. Three. SNAP. Sorry. Really sorry about that. Okay hold really still again, I’m going to count to three, then you’ll hear a snap, okay? Ready? One. Two. Three. SNAP. Sorry about that. Really sorry.

Okay, I get it. You’re sorry. One two three Snap. Just do it and get me the hell out of here.

The blond women in pink scrubs had multiplied, the eye averters. There was one to open the plastic packaging on the equipment, one to guide the phallic ultrasound wand across the terrain of my left breast, and one to pat me on the shoulder and help me pretend I did not have cancer. I wondered if my husband would marry the divorcee or just go back and forth between houses at odd hours, out of respect for the children.

Your doctor will call you. Probably tomorrow afternoon. Leave your number with the nurse.