The doctors told me that it wasn’t anything to worry about, the tiny bulge on my belly near my hip. It poked through a layer of fat, just hanging there, soft and pale like a ball of dough that I could knead with my knuckles and palm into a disc. Not knowing what to do with it, or what it was, I’d sometimes numb myself by getting high and imagine spinning it in the air like a pizza and baking it on a rock in the sun to pitch across the grass of the local park for my old dog, Luna, to fetch.
But in bed that night, when I squeezed the lump in my fist and let it go, wishing, for some odd reason, to see it hold form, to keep the shape of my fist, I watched it inevitably revert back into a misshapen mass instead. And then I thought about my daughter, whom I hadn’t spoken to in eleven years, and those delightful, simple moments when she was just a girl with little pigtails and a plain, clean skirt. In those days, when she heard something funny, she’d throw her head back in peals of laughter and after a while the sound would fade magically into the silence like a sugar cube dissolving beneath the dark surface of a steaming cup of coffee. I thought about her now, years later, and how she’d hardened into a closed-mouth woman, an angry, bitter-lipped housewife with mean and narrow eyes that gleamed like papercuts above her cheekbones. I thought this, then the moments in between—when I found out about her struggle with depression, when she dropped out of law school to pursue an MFA, when her first novel became the bestseller she’d always dreamt it would be. I thought about the morning she was married and when she called me, sobbing, the first time he hit her.
At first they told me it was benign, the growth, and I said, “Sometimes even doctors make mistakes.” I insisted on more scans. Second opinions. Alternative explanations. I told them about the online articles I’d read, the quizzes I’d used to self-diagnose so I could tell myself—okay, these are the possibilities, the probabilities, the things I need to do. This is what it is. What are the treatments? What’s time sensitive? What’s affordable? I even asked myself questions I would’ve laughed at before, seemingly petty questions about the antioxidant properties of gooseberries, the miracle cures of meditation, herbal tonics, even yoga. I asked myself if I should become a raw vegan and what that might mean about my love of the local Brazilian steakhouse. Suddenly, absurdly, these questions were a matter of life or death.
They ran more tests.
Then they told me—yes, in fact, it’s cancer.
The evenings seemed to lengthen in the following weeks; shadows elongated and Luna got cranky and howled in the dark. I’d fret, sleepless, laying on my bed and listening to the wind whistle through the mesh of the storm-door. I thought about calling her, dialing the number she’d probably already changed long ago. I still had it memorized and sometimes I’d mutter it under my breath, digit by digit. I’d hold my phone in one hand and with the other I’d stroked the thing on my torso, the thing I still had to close my eyes to call by its name: the tumor.
I thought about telling her that I missed her, that I wished she’d kept in touch. But other questions seemed more pertinent, more upsetting. They churned in me. I wanted to ask why she was still married to that man, Ross. Why hadn’t they separated? They’d learned to hate each other, their love mutated into chilly embers. I’d told her, at the beginning of things, that she’d one day hate him, that she was making my mistake, she was marrying a drunkard, a playboy. And she was a writer–marrying another writer was just stupid, plain, clean stupid. But she just scowled and shrugged off my predictions; Mom, please, Mom, please…
I thought about calling her but instead I pinched the tumor and winced from the sharp spasm of pain. I thought about our last conversation. She’d accused me of smothering her, of trying to turn her into myself. Molding was the word she’d used. Molding and selfish. You selfish bitch! I couldn’t believe it. I’d thrown my hands in the air, shaking my head, on the verge of deranged, disbelieving laughter. Me! Selfish! After all I’d given up for her.
I changed my mind. Lifting the phone to my face, I punched in the numbers, determined to tell her—look, I have cancer, okay? Okay?
I pressed the phone to my ear, breathing haggardly, and waited for the ring. But all I heard was the buzz of a dead line, droning and droning like all the days to come.