The Blog

Angelina Jolie as Inspiration

I'm never influenced by celebrities. I would never consider going on a certain type of diet because someone famous did. But today I stand corrected. Today I feel moved enough to listen to a celebrity. To be influenced by her choices and her suggestions.

I'm never influenced by celebrities. I would never consider going on a certain type of diet because someone famous did. But today I stand corrected. Today I feel moved enough to listen to a celebrity. To be influenced by her choices and her suggestions.

I was greeted by the headline "Angelina Jolie Has Double Mastectomy To Prevent Breast Cancer Risk," and I will admit one of the first thoughts that went through my mind was that a lot of men would be in mourning today. I could imagine the bad Facebook jokes that were going to be made, the stupid jokes late-night comedians would be preparing.

Then I read her Op-Ed, "My Medical Choice," in The New York Times with my breath held.

My mother, too, died young from breast cancer. I have had doctors recommend I have the test to find out if I carry the "faulty" gene, BRCA1, which would be an indicator that I am at a greater risk of developing breast cancer.

But I have not had the test. I have brushed it off with the excuse that if I do carry the gene perhaps insurance companies would not want to carry me anymore. I have not even had a mammogram since my first one the year after my mother's death.

My first mammography.


I teach my creative writing class at Hunter College. Subway. 68th Street. Asian man, blue jacket, khaki backpack, sings "Ave Maria." My mother's favorite song, sung at her funeral. Almost one year ago now.

Uptown on the 6 train to therapy. Before my mammography. My first one. I am 35.

It's cold. I'm bundled up in my mother's brown, fake-leather coat--the one whose sleeves were wide enough for her lymph-filled, swollen left arm.

I stop at a store on 86th Street before my trip across town on the M86 bus. I buy a pair of black, knee-high socks because the ones I'm wearing have lost their elasticity and keep ending up around my ankles. I'll change into them at my therapist's office.

Cross town through Central Park. Barren trees. Pockets of crusty, icy, yellow snow.

In Starbucks after therapy, listening to teenage girls discuss Harvard as a backup school and the difficulties of riding horses.

I arrive at the office; I haven't felt this nauseated since pregnancy.

"Is this your first mammo?"

"Any procedures done on your breasts? Do you have implants?" I roll my eyes, glance down at my flat chest and wrinkle my brow in question.

A man with a mustache reads The Meaning by Karl Marx. A heavy-set older woman in a blue sweater, gray sweats and sneakers fills out paper work. A mother talks on her phone; she doesn't want her kids on the bus by themselves.

I wait to experience what my mother did when she first felt the lump. When her life changed forever. Can I do this without crying? Another woman, black puffy coat, gray hat, says, "I love you," on her phone.

Everyone seems fine, but statistically, one of us in this waiting room will get breast cancer.

I'm ushered back, take off my blue turtleneck and bra with the guitars on it. I smell my sweat. Not allowed to wear deodorant today. The waiting room has a doorway onto a patio that overlooks Broadway. One could easily climb, fall or jump over the black iron guardrail.

Done--I wait for the R train. Home to Queens. It wasn't bad: the technician lifted, tugged, laid my breasts inside two plastic sheets. Had to do one scan over. The scans he redid were for my left breast. My mother's cancerous breast. That's the one I worry about. The nipple I had pierced when I was younger.

Very clinical. Image the boobs. And that's it. Go home. Wait for letter.

I realize I never changed my socks. They gather around my ankles. Cold legs.


Drive to Mom's cemetery. Nick and Genny sleep. I brought a photo of Genny to leave for my mother--Genny standing next to a snowman she built with Nick. I should put the photo in a plastic bag; it's supposed to rain. I combine two bags of crackers from the diaper bag, mixing Cheese Nips with wheat crackers. The photo slides in with the empty bag's cracker crumbs. I pull out my notebook, rip out a sheet and write down -Her life was never dull. Nick and Genny collect pinecones and line them around my mother's grave. I place the bag below her name, Mary Bowe Koechig.

Leaving the cemetery, I feel hazy and spacey, as if I've seen a dream and am trying to remember it so I can analyze it or share it with friends. It's all cloudy in my mind and I see the past and I see the future, but I don't hear any sounds at all. It's quiet and still, like being underwater.

"The minivan seems to be working well," Nick says as we pull up the ramp onto I-95.

I nod. "For now," I say. I look back at Genny in her car seat; she sucks on two fingers and rubs her nose with another as she sleepily gazes out the window. I keep my eyes open. I watch the road disappear underneath me.

The letter arrived. I sat on my chair only a moment before I carefully ripped it open.

Negative. Normal. No cancer. And that was relief. For then.


But in these last six years I've had two more children and been nursing. A lot. You can't have a mammography while breastfeeding.

And the test. The whole insurance thing.

I've been avoiding. Doing my best to not face it. To not look at a letter that needs to be rewritten. It's time. Time for me to stop moving, running.

It's time to be influenced by a celebrity.