By Francesca Kaplan Grossman
The first time I found one, I had just downed a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Sweet, soft on the back of my throat, ice cold and only 99 cents, it seemed to me the best deal in drinks. I needed it. It was August in Massachusetts, and the air was hazy and heavy around my face. The can sweated, and so did my back, in fluid sheets, and I could feel my sports bra forming a damp “o” shape between my shoulder blades. Soccer practice for high school preseason had already begun, burning off the early morning hours with drills I loathed.
I pinched the cotton of my tee shirt between two fingers and pulled it away from my chest, fanning myself with the thin white fabric. Putting both hands in my shirt, I wriggled out of the bra. It felt like a stunning release to let my breasts slap against my chest as I peeled off the sticky spandex. And then, for some reason, I laid my palm directly over my right breast.
I’m still not sure how I found it. The tiny marble under my right nipple shouldn’t have been noticeable, even to me. But somehow my palm landed directly on it. I rubbed it around for a minute, kneading the circle under my skin, the flesh soft and pliable around it. Then, I pulled my hand away.
I was only sixteen and I had a plan. College, work, motherhood. But mostly motherhood. My mother was the example I could hold onto—a working mom home every day by 3:00 p.m. She was equally obsessed with her work and her children.
My mother worked hard, played hard, and knew us well. Nothing would get in the way of my being just like her when it was my turn.
“It’s nothing,” I said to myself, flipping over onto the hot, yellow lawn, the sharp grass scratching my face, the sun drying my salty neck.
The ground felt hard under me, and though I knew it wasn’t possible, I felt the little marble roll beneath me, like the princess and the pea. I imagined it green and tiny, like a pea, but also hard and impenetrable, like a marble. A marble pea.
“Nothing,” I said again.
I ignored the marble pea for six years, until it started to grow a cousin. This one I could not ignore because I was twenty-two and into truth telling. On my neck, right above where I would have had an Adam’s apple if women had Adam’s apples, was what looked like an Adam’s apple. It was oblong, as if I had swallowed a whole olive and it had never gone down.
“You have a thyroid nodule,” the endocrinologist said, looking at my chart and back at me.
“What does that mean?” I? asked frantically. I scanned?the room for the diplomas?that would tell me this man?was the best doctor ever, but all I could find was a? Best of New York Doctors mention from 2000 taped to the side of his desktop computer.
“It’s no big deal, Francesca,” he said, mispronouncing my name “Francessa.” Not a good sign….
“So what do we do about it?” I asked, my hand instinctively flying to my throat to finger the olive. It was solid under a thin layer of skin, and it moved around when I pushed it.
“Nothing, we’ll watch it.”
“Will it affect me getting pregnant one day?”
“Are you pregnant now?” he asked sharply.
“Then don’t worry about it.”
But I wasn’t satisfied with this answer; I couldn’t bear to imagine my life without children. I remained quiet, nodding my respect for a doctor that I was sure must know much more about my body than I did.
So I watched it, in the mirror, in store windows, wherever I could get a glimpse. And it continued to grow.
My husband, Nick, is six foot two. I am five foot nothing, which makes for funny family pictures and a tough time kissing. When he’s on his knees, we’re the same height. There’s a picture of us on our wedding day with my head completely pushed back like a Pez dispenser as he leans down over a foot. At that moment, the olive had grown into a walnut, jutting out of my otherwise flat neck in what should have been the best picture of my life.
“Don’t you think we should take it out?” I had practiced this line a thousand times in the bathroom, at home, and then, right there, outside the doctor’s waiting room. It was the first thing I said to him when he checked on the walnut.
He gave me a stern headmaster’s stare.
“We don’t need to do anything, Francessa. It’s a nodule. Many, many people have them, especially Jewish women.”
Huh? I nodded. It had taken all my courage to get the sentence out, and I could say no more.
“OK.” I finally mustered, unsatisfied and uncomfortable.
“We’ll biopsy it. All right? If that will make you feel better,” he added. It sounded like an accusation.
But I welcomed anything that might reassure me that I was going to be okay.
I had the walnut biopsied every year for seven years, and there was no change. Every time the six-inch needle pierced my neck flesh, I winced guiltily for making the doctor check it.
* * *
The first time I shit in my pants I was on the platform of the Number 6 train. I was twenty-six, and a cup of coffee I’d sipped now led to stomach pain I can only classify as agonizing. Though I did everything in my power to get up the subway steps and into a nearby restaurant to relieve it, my cold, shaking body had to let go three steps from the top. The problem in a situation like that, I have since learned, is that walking makes it worse, and stopping gets you nowhere.
Now covered in a putrid brown film that no one could mistake for anything else, I sprinted in shame to my gym, a place that had been my salvation. I rushed? into the shower with all ?my clothes on, peeled ?them off, pumped bright ?green body soap into the crotch of ?my jeans, and threw away my balled-up underwear in a naked dash from the scalding shower to my locker.
When I was finished, I sat on the cold metal bench with towels draped over every part of me, my jeans and tee shirt and bra draped over the bench. How could I possibly live a normal life like this? How could I one day take care of someone else—a child. My child?
I should tell Nick it’s over, I thought. Let him find a woman who is healthy and strong, always ready for life.
Yet I felt elated, having escaped the stomach pain that had overtaken me a half hour earlier. It was blissful, this pause, like a welcome inhalation of normalcy.
I learned later that year that autoimmune disease means your body is attacking itself. It’s chronic pain you can’t escape. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you.
A delicate young woman with a black gym tee shirt came over to me in the locker room.
“Are you okay?” she asked me.
I nodded, unable to speak. A rising ball of humiliation threatened to choke me, almost like the giant walnut within me. “Do you want me to dry those for you?” she asked gently.
I sighed with gratitude, nodded my thanks and sat in tiny white towels for the next forty-five minutes while a woman I didn’t know dried my shit-stained clothes. She handed them to me in a CVS bag someone had left behind. I had no choice but to put them back on. I proceeded to walk home, seventy-three blocks and two avenues and one bridge, just so I wouldn’t have to get on the subway again.
All this time I hadn’t only been growing a walnut in my throat and developing an angry belly—it felt as though I’d also been growing new skin. Heavy skin. Skin that felt bruised in every pore. Soon, simply turning over in bed was torture. My skin was calloused, pocked, red and raw, especially in the joints.
The doctor told me this pain was peripheral arthritis, connected to the Crohns disease I apparently had developed to accompany my thyroid autoimmune disease.
He actually said, “It goes nicely.”
* * *
On a Tuesday I went to have my thyroid walnut biopsied, and, three weeks later, I was having it removed.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the doctor said. “It’s so rare to have cancer so young,” a second doctor agreed. “Plus, thyroid cancer is a good one to have, if you have to have cancer at all.”
When I turned twenty-nine, I went into Lennox Hill Hospital to have my whole thyroid removed. Doctors suggested I just take half out and “see what we are dealing with,” but I was getting to the point that enduring two back-to-back surgeries was an unbearable alternative. And, I was starting to doubt that these doctors knew what they were talking about, so I demanded they remove the whole thing.
I recovered fairly quickly from the surgery and was home on the couch, a cat curled in the indent of my knees, watching “The Golden Girls,” when the phone rang.
“I don’t want you to come all the way in to hear this,” the surgeon said. “It turns out it was cancerous after all.” He added quickly, “But the good news is, it’s out, so you don’t have cancer any more. Probably.”
I remember hanging up the phone and staring at the TV for a full five minutes. When I thought of Nick, my stomach curdled into ice-cold cement.
“I can’t believe I will never see my own children,” I mourned out loud. And then, “I can’t believe he is going to love someone else.”
Assuming I was going to die, I couldn’t bear the idea that Nick would have a whole life, a good life, a long life, after I was gone. And the children he would have would not be mine.
I called him. “It was cancer,” was all I could say. He was home twenty minutes later, sweating as if he’d run the whole way.
I’ve always been angry that the doctors didn’t acknowledge that I had cancer. For years, they told me I was fine, I was overreacting, nothing was really wrong with me, and then they took the thing out, diagnosed it, and it wasn’t mine anymore.
I am, of course, grateful it is gone, but I can’t help but feel cheated. It is a strange and wicked reality.
In a bout of post-cancer depression, I lay on our couch for twenty-two days. No extra radiation was needed, but I ducked out of society anyway.
No one but Nick knew how long I stayed there, only getting up to pee, eat, and feed the cats. I ignored calls and Nick ran interference. Sometimes, he would come home, walk over to me, kiss my head, make us dinner, and tell me about the world outside.
“It’s nice out, Fran,” he said at the beginning of April, two months after my surgery, seven weeks after diagnosis of something I no longer had inside of me. I nodded through heavy eyelids.
Soon after, Nick took me to Jamaica so I could get away. It was such a beautiful thought, to take me away from the grime of the city so we could spend a few days on the beach. It was a grand gesture because we didn’t have the money, and my guilt spread as I agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting than spending hours on a plane, in line-ups at the airport, without the comfort of my own bed at night, in a strange, hot place.
The first night, I had a glass of wine and watched the resort show, thinking that if I were pulled up on stage to dance like some of the other vacationers, I would just have to lie down on it.
“You look great,” Nick said to me, smiling his crinkly smile and touching my arm. He was a liar, but he was a sweet liar. I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were rimmed with a yellowish tint. My skin was flaky and beet red from the sun be- cause the medicine I was taking made my skin sensitive in a new, exposed way. My neck was swollen and my fingernails, for some reason, were blue.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, knowing that I was about to throw up.
I muttered an “I’llberightback” jumped off the stool and dashed back to our room, three outdoor stairways away. I slammed myself through the bamboo bathroom door and didn’t make it to the toilet. Orange vomit covered the walls of the bathroom, sliding down the tile in gooey bits. I lay down in the middle of the room on the bathmat, and a few minutes later, Nick knocked on the door.
I couldn’t answer.
“Fran?” He pushed in the door and took a step back. I am sure what he saw repulsed him, and though I couldn’t possibly move, I imagined retreating even further into myself.
“Oh, honey,” he said sadly. He got a towel and washed the walls with the floral soap from the shower, scrubbing the floor, literally mopping up the mess.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and took the bundle of towels out into the hallway. When he came back in, he had bedding, a pillow, and a glass of water.
“Can you drink this?” he asked gently.
“I don’t know,” I squeaked. “I don’t know if I can sit up.”
Nick came over to me and slid down onto the mat next to me. He smelled like the floral soap and salt water and the beer he had abandoned. Lifting my head in his hand, he tipped a small sip of water into my chapped lips.
“There,” he said.
He put the glass of water down on the floor?next to me and I rested my?face on the tile in front of the bathmat, the coolness an astounding relief.
Nick tucked my head under the pillow and made a floor-bed under me.
“You don’t have to do this,” I croaked.
He ignored me and slid his body down next to mine. “Try to sleep,” he said.
I tried to nod as his hand traced light circles on my back.
* * *
Since that day, I have been to many doctors, but rarely one who smiled. So when I started to see OBs, I feigned calm as they poked and prodded, expecting a deluge of bad news, like “barren,” and “unable.”
I surprised myself (and Nick, too, I think), when we got pregnant swiftly, without event. Both times. And both times I was nauseous and swollen and pimpled and sweaty and so, so tired the whole time.
But I was a “healthy” sick. Which was new to me.
Finally, both times, my body was working like a normal woman’s, and I was finally growing something inside of me that wasn’t going to kill me.
* * *
Our son was twelve weeks old when Nick went into the hospital the first time. His first migraine was now six days old. The second time we were practiced in both migraines and newborns, but this one was accompanied with a stomach pain that drove him to his knees.
Covered with monitors, IVs and confusion, Nick stared at me in disbelief. I could only stare back. We were in the wrong roles and weren’t sure how to act them out. I grabbed his hand and squeezed the bruise that had started to form beneath the IV needle. He winced, and I mouthed, “I’m sorry.” So I did what he always did for me. I called his family, got him a ginger ale, cleaned his chin, rubbed his back, sat in the chair, and waited for answers.
We don’t have an answer, even today, for the disease that clots Nick’s blood. Until we know what it is, and probably even if we do, he has to take a blood thinner that prohibits him from any activity in which he might bump his head and bleed to death. He can’t ski or play basketball, and if he gets into a car accident, the prognosis is grim.
But there is more. Our roles have changed and meshed?into one. There is no longer the strong and the struggling. Now we are both.
There is not much we can do. We go to yoga on Tuesday mornings. I work part-time. We both take generic Paxil. We stretch our dollars, we cook on Sundays, we watch Millionaire Matchmaker and chuckle.
Even in the most peaceful, mundane, white-picket-fence version of our lives, there’s a tinsel-thin fear. Another knowledge, one neither of us will admit.
Sure, I’m scared he’ll collapse again from the pain of a clot, shield his eyes from the agony of light, or that his bruises will spread until they paint his skin purple. Or worse, that we won’t see the bleeding, and it will drown him from the inside.
I’m scared I’ll be aimlessly squeezing my flesh and come upon another marble pea that won’t be so easy to remove and will snowball rapidly. But there is more than that.
It is quiet, this fear, and it says: To have two sick parents is a curse. As I tuck in my son and I kiss the wispy hair on the back of my daughter’s sweet head, it whispers around the room. What if they lost us both and had to fend for themselves? Even worse, I wonder if there are silent horrors swimming around beneath their skin? Will their genes betray them? What have we done?
It does not escape me that my two children grew out of me the same way everything else has. They, too, started tiny and unnoticed, growing into the small, wonderful people they have become. I made them.
We made them.
Which can’t be good.
When one of them gets a cold, I prepare for tuberculosis. When one has a bruise, I take a sharp breath in, praying it will not grow. And fevers, well, they just about crush me.
Will my daughter shit in her pants on the 6 train? Will my son be attacked by knots of blood in his veins? Will they grow things the size of olives, walnuts, golf balls under their skin? Will they demand they be removed? Will they hate us for it?
I didn’t drink alcohol for nine months both times I was pregnant. I power-walked and did yoga, tried to sleep well and limited my medications to those that were absolutely necessary. I ate eggs. I did everything I was supposed to do to keep my babies safe and healthy.
But I couldn’t give them healthy, strong parents. And I don’t know how to live with that.
We have dinner together every night, the four of us, like the family we hope we can be.
“Mama,” my son says, his dark brown eyes wide, a yogurt mustache tracing his upper lip.
“Yes?” I say, controlling myself not to wipe it off for him.
“Will you take me to school tomorrow?”
“I can’t, babe.”
My daughter parrots, “Why?” in a two-year-old voice that barely makes sentences work. But her blue eyes are expectant.
“I have to go to the doctor, guys.”
“You always have to go to the doctor,” my son replies, annoyed.
I can do juice cleanses and downward dog myself into my forties. I can strip the negativity from my bones and delete phone numbers from people who will never be real friends. Nick and I can eat more quinoa, love each other late into Sunday night, cut up credit cards, and find family-friendly bikes.
But the very real possibility that something new is happening, is growing beneath the surface of our collective skin, is almost impossible for me to stomach. Though the only choice for us is to try.
Author’s Note: There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. And it is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. We, as mothers, as women, as humans, all teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have—a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make—and the impending terror of the possible—a sick parent, or child, or us, a money catastrophe, a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. The thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us. That line is where I like to hang out, where I try to write. I hope it is the place where fact becomes truth. This essay turned me inside out, and I feel better after writing it, like throwing up after a stomach bug, or coming up from a deep dive, gulping for air.
Francesca Kaplan Grossman’s previous and forthcoming work includes contributions to Motherlode, the Huffington Post, Ed Week/Teacher, Glasscases.com, among other publications. Francesca lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza. She is currently working on her first novel, The Night Nurse, and a collection of personal essays, The Math of Me: A Collection from a Life out of Sequence.