99 Problems

Published on November 15th, 2016 | by Cheryl Klein



In college I read a short story in which a boy gets kicked out of school. He’s the child of migrant farm workers, and he has trouble keeping up. He knows his parents will be mad. On the walk home, he keeps thinking, Maybe it didn’t really happen.


torbakhopper / Flickr Creative Commons License

I’ve long forgotten the name of the book or author, unfortunately, but that scene stayed with me because it perfectly captured those moments in life when you try to rewind time with your brain.

When I got out of work last Tuesday, I looked up an animated New York Times graphic that depicted a needle wobbling between Hillary and Trump, showing the likelihood of who would get elected based on the count coming in. It showed an 82% chance of a Hillary win.

Like so many people, I’d showed up to my polling place that morning feeling proud and optimistic. People chatted in English and Spanish, greeted their neighbors and sympathized with a toddler who wondered where the “boating” was.


“The Boating” CAFOD Photo Library / Creative Commons License

By the time I picked up my 21-month-old son from daycare and put him to bed, the NYT needle was at 80%…for Trump.

Like so many people, my first thought was Wait…what? Like so many people, I rapidly cycled through the stages of grief. Denial (polls hadn’t closed in the West), anger (duh), bargaining (more on this in a minute), depression (for dinner on Wednesday I ate half a bag of gummi worms and scraps from Dash’s highchair). I don’t know if I’ve gotten to acceptance in any but the most literal sense.

One of the weirdest and saddest parts of scrolling through Facebook in the dark, on the floor of Dash’s room, was seeing posts pop up from earlier in the day. People in pantsuits. Voting with their elderly mothers or young kids. Proudly sporting “I voted” stickers. The algorithms pushed these posts upward and reminded us what the world we’d imagined hours earlier might have looked like. Maybe it didn’t really happen. I wanted to grab the NYT needle and pull on it with all my weight.


Wednesday morning I woke with the hungover feeling that follows any awful event. But I spent most of the day focused on Dash. He had a bad cold and, on Sunday, I’d noticed a little knot at the back of his neck.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, following an already difficult year of fertility treatment that led to miscarriage. I’m in remission. “Remission” is medical-speak for “possibly done with it, but who really knows.” To be in remission is to be haunted.

That is to say, I do not take any lump lightly. I suspected Dash had a swollen lymph node, Googled the prevalence of lymphoma in children (very low) and took him to the doctor on Monday. She wasn’t too worried, but she uttered the word “ultrasound” before I told her about my own cancer history and nervousness. Her vigilance was enough to keep my anxiety at a low boil right through the election.

The ultrasound was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. That morning, I realized I’d made the appointment on the four-year anniversary of the ultrasound that led to my own cancer diagnosis. In the same building.

My magical thinking started zinging and popping like oil on a hot pan. Why didn’t I make the appointment for a different day? But not everything was going as it had in 2012. After all, that election went great! So clearly, if good election = cancer, then bad election = no cancer. So Dash would be okay, right? But, oh no, was I really about to throw the whole country—the whole world—under the bus for the sake of my child? I would do it—it was my job as a mother—but what a terrible person that would make me! It was like that storyline on The West Wing when President Bartlett had to step down temporarily when his daughter was kidnapped so he wouldn’t make biased decisions and put the country in jeopardy to save her.


Magic, phrenology, the EPA under Trump.

Uh, yeah, just like that.

Walking through the glass doors of the Huntington-Hill Imaging Center, my heart raced. I wanted to cry. I kept telling myself This is an opportunity to be brave. Thinking of my story as dramatic and noble helped. I can be amazing for very short periods of time.

Dash had fallen asleep in the car on the way to the ultrasound appointment, and was still groggy as the tech gelled up his neck and rolled her wand over it. He was still and compliant, the model of a good patient or a sick child. I knew he was just sleepy, and he always takes a long time to wake up, but a small part of me wanted him to squirm and shout, just to show the tech (i.e. me) how healthy he was.

I held his head and his hand and chatted with him while I watched the tech take measurements on the screen. I did not lose my shit.

All ultrasounds pretty much look the same. If you’d told me Dash’s lymph nodes were jelly beans or my own ovaries, I would have believed it. Still, I tried to commit the images to memory. Later, as Dash ran around a hot, empty park, I searched the Internet for pictures of malignant lymph nodes and healthy ones. Would I call Dash’s nodes round or oval? I couldn’t remember. It seemed to matter. Everything looked the same.

As I Googled, my body chanted danger danger danger, transporting me to the days of fertility treatment, miscarriage and cancer—all those times my future has hung on the results of medical tests. But as true as that feeling was, I knew with equal certainty that cancer wasn’t the end of the world. That’s the weird thing about trauma. It makes you stronger and more vulnerable at the same time.

I texted an epidemiologist friend, who reminded me of the same: Most kids survive lymphoma and leukemia these days. (I have two friends who lost nephews—separate nephews—to leukemia. For them this parenthetical is not a parenthetical. For them “most” means nothing.) Most adults survive these cancers too.


See that look on her mom’s face? That was me.

And guess what: Dash is fine. With only nominal guilt, I harassed the doctor’s office into rushing the results, and they came back marked “mildly prominent, nonspecific, possibly reactive,” which is medical speak for “yeah, he has snot draining into his head and it made his neck bulge.”


The sun came out again in my little corner of the world. (I mean this figuratively, because in L.A. it was already so apocalyptically hot and dry that Dash’s hair stood on end after one trip down the slide Wednesday.) It wasn’t lost on me that I was where I was—breathing a deep sigh of relief that my son was healthy—because of luck and good health care. So many people forget that when they vote: Those nice things you have? Most of them aren’t because of you. Some of them are directly or indirectly on the backs of others. Some are just a roll of the dice.

To be the healthy parent of a healthy child you were fortunate enough to adopt. That is everything. To remember that my job isn’t to hoard what I can and hiss and scratch to keep others away—that’s only possible when I feel at least a little bit safe.


(c) Brian Feinzimer / LA Weekly

I believe that people who voted for Trump don’t feel safe. Some of them are right about their vulnerability, but wrong about the reasons. To them I want to say:

Dude, I get the fear. And I know how hard it is to walk toward the thing that terrifies you. Maybe for you a brown America feels like the Huntington-Hill Imaging Center feels to me—like the edge of the abyss. But it’s made of metal and plastic, polyester and people. Only the abyss is the abyss. The rest you just have to walk into.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency