and interrupted schedules
“The rule in my family is I can tweak my husband’s nipples, but he can’t tweak mine,” the radiologist said, then: “oh no, honey, not like that. Your hips need to be flush against the pad.”
She gestured from her chair in front of a computer screen where pictures of my spine told a bad tale: osteoporosis, just as I’m facing down a seven-year medication regimen that will keep me in menopause, leaching more of the nutrients from my bones as it does so.
“But really the rule is a joke!” the radiologist continued, giggling. “I don’t have nipples! He couldn’t tweak them if he wanted to!”
She was trying to cheer me up, I think, on the grounds that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago and was—after a mastectomy and chemo—doing well enough to make boob jokes on the job. She was going to retire soon! She’d recently been to a topless show on vacation in Vegas! She was living!
I felt a little strange, in an uncomfortable-I-don’t-want-to-talk-to-anyone way, but mostly tired. The radiologist was pushing 70 (she’d told me, in triumph). I’m a 35-year-old with a 65-year-old’s diagnoses, a 65-year-old’s bones.
There were more scans scheduled after this one, more machines to enter, more pads to lay flush and quiet against while lasers turned my body into numbers and shine.
I wanted to write to you today about Meghan O’Rourke’s book The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness, a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award for its fine sentences and lyric exploration of what it’s like to live with chronic, ambiguous illness in the United States. I kind of hate the book, actually, though I’m still trying to puzzle out why. It does what a lot of my favorite illness narratives do—raises questions, challenges systems, writes both unflinchingly and metaphorically about pain.
In my work week, I strive for a balance between lectures, reading student work, researching and writing my own. I’m always behind, for one reason or another. This week, I had hoped to spend Theo’s Sunday nap pre-recording my lectures and reading the first batch of essays from my three classes of students so I could save Monday for writing through my impulse to recoil from O’Rourke’s project. Tuesday would be for editing and responding to the online student discussions I’m behind weighing in on. Wednesday, I’d publish the newsletter essay, take a break for lunch yoga with a friend, then return home to my ephemeris to prepare myself (and this newsletter audience) for the next astrological week ahead. But everything got thrown off because I’d forgotten first about the daycare closure for President’s Day, and second about all of the scans my oncologist had scheduled for Tuesday: bone density, CT, full-body bone contrast. A full day at the hospital, to see where I stand post-chemo.
The good news: no metastatic disease. The bad news: no time for complex thought about O’Rourke’s book or anything else, really, in between the “scanxiety,” the requisite fasting, the well-intended-but-terrible jokes of care providers, the osteoporosis.
The endless smiles of the nurses and techs I saw Tuesday freaked me out, the way they all avoided saying the words cancer and recurrence, though that’s what they were looking for. In some ways, it’s both similar to and opposite from what O’Rourke is doing in her book as page after page turns upon noble, if abject, distress. In truth, I find the monotonous emotional registers of the hospital and The Invisible Kingdom equally exhausting. Both seem to be reaching for something—levity? gravitas? a balance in between?—but never quite catching hold.
Now it’s Wednesday, and I’ve got to figure out a way to move these bad bones faster, add weight to the week, to-do list and schedule some of the few things I can tweak.