Published on October 9th, 2013 | by Cheryl Klein4
Cheryl Klein’s TRIBE of BROKEN PLANS
On New Year’s Eve, Justine and Sam showed up at our door with two tote bags and an infant seat full of Ruthie. She’d been born November 9, the day I’d been shuffled into an exam room to discuss a couple of calcifications that had appeared on my mammogram.
In the ensuing weeks, Ruthie had learned to gurgle and smile. The dark fuzz on her head had thinned. She’d announced herself as a fussy, colicky baby. Justine’s C-section scars were beginning to heal, though she still carried a ring of fat and skin around her middle, which was usually soccer-player skinny.
During this time, I’d been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and the BRCA-2 gene mutation, which, in retrospect, was likely the cause of the ovarian cancer that had killed my mom ten years before. I’d gotten a bilateral mastectomy, ditching my DD boobs for reconstructed B-cups. And oh by the way, my doctors had said, you should really get your ovaries removed when you’re finished with treatment. I hadn’t planned to get pregnant since miscarrying twins a year and a half ago, but there was, I was discovering, a distinct difference between deciding not to pursue something and having all possibility surgically removed from your body.
On New Year’s Eve, though, I was feeling thin and light, the post-mastectomy pain diminishing daily. I’d never been crazy about my boobs; they’d never been a big part of my sex life, and they made dress shopping a pain. My partner C.C. was trying to get pregnant now, and we were in the two-week-wait phase. It seemed like 2013 might be a good year, if not an easy one.
Sam held up the tote bags. “We’re going to make butternut squash pizza. We brought the pizza stone.”
C.C. helped him set up in the kitchen, and I thought about the mess they would leave, which I wouldn’t be able to clean up because I wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavier than three pounds for another two weeks.
Justine scooped up Ruthie and sat in the armchair. It was a stately looking piece of furniture, upholstered with black and white vines. The front was wild with stray threads that had been plucked by cat claws, but it was still our nicest piece of furniture. I almost never sat there before surgery, because usually we kept it covered with a sheet. But during the past two weeks, it had been my throne when guests visited.
Now I sat on the loveseat, which we’d bought on Craigslist for fifty dollars. Justine lifted her maternity shirt and black sports bra and pressed Ruthie to her pink nipple. Her exposed breast was white, full (compared to the A-cups she was usually so proud of), innocent, functional. There were no scars or gummy surgical tape or Sharpie marks where a plastic surgeon had sketched out his plan. Justine’s was a breast living out its little breast dream.
“Ruthie loooves to eat,” Justine cooed, looking into Ruthie’s eyes, still newborn-gray. “It’s the one thing Sam can’t help with, unfortunately.”
Sam had gotten his own double mastectomy a couple of years before I met him. He’d been born Samantha and had previously commiserated with me about the world of triple-clasp bras. Now he was dad to a sperm-donor baby, and he changed all the diapers in lieu of breastfeeding.
After my miscarriage, I’d had what, in the old days, would have been called a nervous breakdown. I’d despised my body for turning on me, for not providing proper housing for our identical twin boys (though we’d only learned their sex from a genetic test after the fact). For months, I’d suffered from tremors and insomnia, fixating on floaters in my vision, certain the walls looked blurry and alive. A sort of slow-motion panic attack. I became convinced I had multiple sclerosis or lupus or (oh, irony) breast cancer—something written in the code of me that ensured I wasn’t cut out for motherhood.
I supposed that if C.C. were pregnant right now, I would be on diaper duty.
C.C. and Sam clanged around in the kitchen while I tried to make conversation with Justine. She barked directions to Sam: what pan to use to roast the squash, where to roll out the dough. Why couldn’t they just bring premade soup and stay for an hour like everyone else? It took our oven an hour just to preheat. I was always half worried that it still had a gas leak, even though supposedly it had been fixed.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said, and went to the bathroom for a long time. Let Justine think I was emptying the four grenade-shaped drains that extended like tentacles from my ribcage, filling with light red fluid, my body’s visible grieving process.
Then I made a dash for my phone and shut myself in the laundry room, where I texted my sister. Justine is sitting in our living room breastfeeding ruthie & telling sam she wishes he could help with that part. FML. i’m hiding like a coward. they must think i’m such a sad sack.
When the pizza was ready, I wiped my face, took a few breaths and went to the kitchen. Justine—who’d once thrown away a gift subscription to Gourmet magazine because the recipes were too simple—was a great cook, even by proxy
“This is delicious,” I gushed.
C.C. asked about Ruthie’s sleep schedule and the closet they were remodeling in their master bedroom. Sam and Justine were the only couple we knew who’d purchased a house in L.A. without any help from their parents. It was all hardwood floors and carefully curated art. I’d always admired their patient, deliberate approach. They spent years looking for a new couch; now there was another Justine liked to go visit at a fancy furniture store in Culver City.
C.C. had done a valiant job keeping our house clean during my convalescence, but even on the best days, there were piles of books and shabby Ikea furniture and cardboard boxes designated for C.C.’s computer cables. There were holes in the curtains from the time the cats brawled in front of the window.
The thing that crushed me—more than the breastfeeding, more than the baby—was that Justine and Sam were living proof of Plan A working out perfectly. MBA and law school, respectively, followed by house, wedding, sperm donor contract, baby. They were perfect new-millennium power queers. I’d been raised to believe in hard work and planning ahead, and so C.C. and I had done our own nonprofit-workers’ version of this upwardly mobile life plan. We’d started trying for a kid when I was thirty-three—two whole years before the much-talked-about fertility dip—and even in the depths of my post-miscarriage despair, we’d filled out adoption paperwork. But our relationship had cracked under the stress, and we’d spent months apart last summer, reuniting just in time for one fun vacation and cancer.
Sam poured beer for himself and Justine, who’d drank lightly and defiantly throughout her pregnancy.
“So, do you pump?” C.C. asked her. “Or are you going to wait till you go back to work?”
C.C. still lived in the world where breastfeeding was something she might do someday. Maybe someday soon, I hoped. But this information was as irrelevant to me as a recipe in Gourmet magazine. I didn’t even have nipples anymore. The chasm that had developed between us last year cracked open again, for a minute
“I’m kind of tired,” I said. “I’m going to go lay down.”
I went to our bedroom and cried some more. I emailed Haley, my most rabid breastfeeder friend, for some validation, because she also happened to be long on empathy. The truth was, Justine and I had never had much in common. Once she told C.C. that she didn’t understand why anyone would commit suicide, or even want to. “But homicide,” she’d said, “that I can understand.”
“Justine looks out for Justine,” C.C. had said more than once, and not unkindly. Now Ruthie was an extension of Justine.
Eventually I heard the sounds of dishes being cleared, and the sounds of goodbyes. C.C. came to the bedroom. She had dark straight hair, indigenous cheekbones, a boyish gait and girlish nervousness. I was never not glad to see her, even—especially—after all we’d been through.
“I should have thought about it,” she said. “It didn’t even occur to me. I just don’t think of these things—”
“Stop,” I said. “Don’t make this about your failure, because I know what will happen next. You’ll resent me because you didn’t make me totally happy.”
That was what happened with the miscarriage, on a much grander scale, and I felt the weight of it. The possibility of it all happening again, of C.C. turning her anger at herself into anger at me.
“Those things—breastfeeding and things like that—just don’t set me off,” she said.
“Of course they don’t, because no one cut your boobs off.” And then I was sobbing for our babies all over again. “I wanted to breastfeed them. I would have done it. I would have been a good mom. I would have taken such good care of them.”
C.C. was probably flashing back to the time when I’d sobbed like that every day. She probably felt a little mad at me. I felt a little mad at her for not thinking there might be something wrong with Justine whipping out her tits and talking about Sam’s lack of breasts. As if getting them cut off had been a minor, humorously rude act, like blocking someone’s car in the driveway. Because what if there was nothing wrong with Justine’s behavior that night? Then I was just an oversensitive girl who was perpetually Having A Hard Time.
There was a time in my life, in my lonely post-college years, when the idea of having a tight-knit clique of queer friends—not to mention a cute girlfriend whom I’d Canadian-married—would have thrilled me. But progress, to me, meant perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. So now our friends seemed like scheming yuppies. I knew they would talk in pitying tones about their unlucky friend who was Having A Hard Time. I existed, I was sure, only to flesh out their narratives, to add the touch of sadness that makes beautiful people more so. They would stick to Plan A while I spiraled toward Plan Z.
The truth was, I liked C.C. and myself better than I liked any of them. We were interesting and introspective! We believed in God and The Arts, in a God that could be found in a good book. We knew melancholy. We knew change. I liked our hard-won, scarred Now. But I wanted them—all those people living out the fantasy lives of my superego—to understand that our failures were also our triumph.
They would never understand. Or maybe I would never kick my superego’s ass. Same thing.
C.C. would not understand what it meant to have your body turn on you in a half dozen ways, to confirm the worst dark thoughts you’d had about yourself. But she put her head gently on my sore shoulder.
“Ow.” I shifted carefully. Waking up from surgery had felt like wearing a very tight sports bra the day after doing a thousand pushups. Not a terrible genre of pain, but a high level.
“Sorry.” C.C. relocated her head to one of the two specialized pillows she’d gotten for my recovery. It made her feel good to go on runs for anti-bacterial hand lotion and dry shampoo and long-handled back brushes.
“Justine made Sam clean up,” C.C. said. “I could tell she felt bad.”
“That was nice. I guess she knows me well.”
“Do we need to go out somewhere?” She asked. “To wash this taste out of our mouths?”
Her answer was often to get out of the house. The fact that she’d cheerfully endured almost two weeks of not doing so was a testament to her love for me and her willpower, and maybe her own exhaustion. I wanted to say yes, because I knew it would be good for both of us, but I couldn’t imagine showing up at the bar around the corner with my unwashed hair and a hoodie stuffed with drains, so that I resembled a newly and oddly pregnant woman.
So we did what our couples therapist was always telling us to: We entwined our bodies without totally understanding each other. We lay there in the stews of our respective selves and held hands across the bed.
On New Year’s Day, when C.C.’s family drove up from Santa Ana to make potato tacos, I told C.C.’s sister Elena about Justine. As an alpha female with a fierce temper, Elena had a bit of Justine in her, but she’d been through a tough divorce a few years ago, and I counted her among my tribe, the Tribe Of Broken Plans.
C.C.’s mom sautéed potatoes, and her dad brought in a case of bottled water from the car. Beverages were his thing, his practical and economic form of generosity, like C.C. with her lotion and pillows.
Elena perched on the loveseat. I was back in the armchair.
“I just hope that when I have kids, if I have kids, I won’t turn into an asshole,” she said. “When Hasan and I got divorced, people kept saying, ‘At least you don’t have kids,’ like that was this big consolation. And it broke my heart because we’d really tried to have kids, and that whole timeline of my life was completely thrown off.”
I hadn’t known that. I’d known they’d tried, but I hadn’t known that putting off kids was part of her heartbreak. But of course it was.
“I have another friend who went through a divorce,” Elena continued. “She was like, ‘Being there for my daughter really got me through the day for a while.’ And I understand that. But I had to be there for myself. I had to get up every day and try to be strong, not because it was this heroic act for my kids, but because it was what I had to do, all alone.”
Elena was only a year and a half older than C.C., but the combination of her strong will and their parents’ timidity had made her a sort of de facto parent figure. When C.C. was having trouble in kindergarten, it was six-year-old Elena who got called to the principal’s office. What had the principal been thinking? Had he assumed that C.C.’s parents didn’t speak English? They’d both been born in the US, but a certain deferential immigrant attitude lived on in Mexican Santa Ana.
C.C. had often been on the bad end of Elena’s bossiness, but at that moment I saw Elena as a tough six-year-old with skinned brown knees, yarn ribbons around her pigtails, taking notes on how to help her little sister. She’d learned young how to take care of herself, and relearned along the way.
In a more charitable moment, I might understand that Justine had done the same—Justine who’d grown up with a single mom in rural Georgia, who’d lost her favorite aunt to cancer a few years ago and maybe wanted to protect her daughter from the jagged edges of the world for as long as she could. It wasn’t her fault I was one big jagged edge these days.
I wouldn’t hear from Justine or Sam for months, despite sending a couple of conciliatory emails explaining my feelings using lots of “I” statements, explaining that I understood that hungry babies needed to eat and new parents had full plates. At first, I assumed they were just marinating on the proper response, and we’d be back to dinner parties soon. But Justine told C.C. she “didn’t think the time was right,” and the time stayed and stayed not right, until it was clear I would never get to show them how okay I really was.
Elena reached for her mom’s pico de gallo in the green plastic bowl and spooned chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro onto her tacos. I did the same, happy to have Canadian-married into a family with such tasty traditions. C.C. and Elena’s biological grandmother had died shortly after giving birth to their mom, Alice; baby Alice had been bumped back and forth between Santa Ana and Mexico before settling with family friends. Alice had loved her adoptive mom deeply, and spoke of her fondly, but she would also mention—in passing, with laughter—how she had more chores to do than the bio kids in the family, how she’d make stacks and stacks of tortillas that hungry uncles would steal, leaving her with the blame and more work.
Maybe Alice wouldn’t have known exactly how a mother was supposed to behave when called to the principal’s office about her shy kindergartner. But she was doing her best, for herself and by herself. With help and without. We all were.