On The Street Where I Live(d)

On The Street Where I Live(d)

First, listen.

This morning I walked down a dawn-lit sidewalk on the street where I’ve lived. This is both past and present tense in the strangest and most marvellous of ways.

As I walked by each house that has colored my childhood, I realized that not much has changed except for the occupants of some. When I still lived here as a child, I had memorized every window, every shingle, every front door and the cement path that led up to it. I memorized every tree, every fence that (sometimes successfully, often times not) held in a friendly barking dog, every bump in the cement where I’d tripped and skinned my knee or bumped over with my rollerblades. And the big tree that stood like a faerie castle where most of us always ran to hide during manhunt, because if you could get in through the bottom level, the other branches above created a sort of natural fortress. If you were brave enough, you would climb to the highest limb and feel like the king or queen of the block.

I have vivid memories of the older kids camp-out on the patch of grass between my house and the house next door. It involved a massive tent and a co-ed sleepover and stories that became engrained in our memory as blocklore; someone licking a firefly and saying it tasted like peanut butter and the swirling tales of who had kissed who, something that I couldn’t fathom at the innocent and precious age of five. But I remembered it well, mostly because I was both mystified and disgusted by the idea of the prettiest girl on the block wanting to kiss my terrible brother.

I walked by the patch of grass where there had once been a massive tree trunk that seemed carved as a seat, for any runaway kid on the block. I remember trekking 100 feet from my front door to this very spot, feeling as if I had crossed the Sahara desert on what was a very hot August midday. The sun was at its peak and I had packed my backpack with all the essentials: a juicebox, my favorite doll, a packet of Smartees, and a chapstick. And with that, I was out the door. Why? Could have been anything. Mom wanted to brush out my tangled mess of hair (a big LB no-no) or I wasn’t allowed to have a playdate with my best friends or I was in trouble for not eating all of my lunch that day. These were cardinal sins against my five year old existence. Commit them and Hasta la vista, mis padres! 

When my name was yelled out the door for dinner, I decided my parents had learned their lesson. Tough love, man. It’s the name of the game. But I always ended up back home.

Home. Home was the tiniest house on the block. In all of my years of passing it by, I’d never seen it. It was only on this early morning as I walked by in quiet but constant acknowledgement of the house I had spent an important handful of years in that I looked to it, then to the house directly next door: big. The one across the street: huge. All around me, these houses seemed to rise up like they never had before. Big, big, bigger. I laughed because I realized I had never noticed it before. See, we had the big backyard. We had the most grass footage, and the long, strangely-shaped driveway that led back to a garage we never used and a patio we lived on, where we hosted block-wide barbecues and where the summer babies blew out their birthday candles. We had so much backyard, my dad had built a bunny run where we, a family inexperienced in the bunny world, ended up with a wayward brood of fuzzy creatures when our two “female” pets ended up mating. There in the yard, we even had a long clothesline that my mom used. The sheets would blow in the cool breeze of the day, and we’d play among the dancing sheets until we were told to stop, for fear of dirtying them up again. Because we were always covered in some tree sap, or maybe dirt, but definitely grass stains. We had a wall of morning glories that greeted us each new day with their purple faces, so beautiful I had as difficult a time as ever not picking them off the vine to mash into my “perfumes” (a recipe as simple as squashed up flowers and a dash of water from the hose).

Moving away from that house, we moved into a much bigger house. My brothers no longer had to share a room, there were one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen and a dining room, a basement and an attic. But there was nothing sadder than leaving our tiny house on our block. Because it had become our block, us kids, from different families and different backgrounds, who met in the street with the common goal of finding a way to have fun until dinnertime. When you’re young, you don’t notice if you’ve got the smallest house on the block, if you’re poor, or even if you’re rich. You just go on playing and living and laughing and crying. And if you’re lucky, you’re surrounded by others who don’t notice it, either.

I silently acknowledge the little white house whenever I pass by, seeing light through the windows and the latest occupants going about living within. I give a little smile in thanks, for giving me and my brothers the chance to have a carefree childhood, surrounded by other carefree kids causing trouble, breaking bones, having impromptu Frank Zappa dance parties; for irrational fears of the Mad Jogger, first kisses, and the “car, car, C-A-R” chant because without it, we would have all gotten hit by at least one car during a game of Spud.

To Jefferson Avenue, with love.

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Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams

Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams
Note: I have been meaning to write about my personal experience for Breast Cancer Awareness Month for a while now and, well, I’ve finally gone and done it. Take care of yourself.

First, listen. (It fits, promise.)

I’ve had a fear of my own chest since I hit puberty.

From the age of 14, I had to deal with… breasts. I’d like to start off with saying that the idea of becoming a woman did not excite me, like it did some of the other girls I went to school with. I grew up trying to fit in with older brothers and their friends, so the notion of having cleavage and wearing a bra disgusted me. To put it more simply, I was more of a Roberta than a Teeny. I hid when changing for lacrosse practice and always wore high neck shirts (luckily, turtle necks were so in, thank u 90s/00s). And I never let anyone tell me that maybe I needed a real bra instead of the at-this-point-way-too-small cotton training bra I had been wearing in hopes that it might force my chest to regress back to flatness, the way I liked it.

Being a woman was scary, this was something I was aware of even at 14 years old. Every time something happened to me where I was maturing away from being a girl, I was struck with panic. Maybe it had something to do with being raised by my dad and not quite knowing how to start the conversation of buying a bra or maxi pads (author’s note: both were so awkward), but the whole idea of any of it scared the hell out of me and I would have taken a hard pass if it were at all possible.

Still, the gynecologist’s office opened up doors for me. Here was a lady who just knew things I wanted to know. Like information about birth control (can I get some?) and STDs (how does one keep from getting one?) and sex (what even?), all of these things that, by age 17, I’d heard of but never had before (thank goodness, amirite, dad?). Though this new woman in my life had become a beacon of hope and information, all of my appointments are riddled with anxiety and nerves.

Years later, I learn that my aunt (my mother’s twin sister) has fought and survived breast cancer. Suddenly, my breast exams leave me even more tense than before. I wait in agony as my doctor feels around, for her to inevitably feel the lump in my breast that I always assume is there, just waiting to be discovered. I plead with the universe, I never wanted these things, anyway!

Then, my mother is diagnosed with and survives ovarian cancer. My cancer riskometer (not a thing), rises exponentially. I’m in college and when a guy feels me up, I worry about him finding a lump that the doctor may have missed.

“Are you performing breast exams on yourself regularly?” Doctor Kathy asks me, routinely.

“Yes,” I lie, routinely.

I sit in my paper gown with sweaty palms during every appointment, unsure of whether Doctor Kathy could ever understand that I can’t feel my own breasts for lumps because I harbor so much fear of finding what I’m looking for.

Finally, it is suggested that I should get genetic testing. (And not just me, but my brothers, as well. Because the BRCA-1 and -2 gene can be passed through men but it also increases the risk of testicular and prostate cancer.) I sit on this information for yearsYears and years. (Fine, I’ll tell you. Eight years.) I spend hours breaking down in tears over the idea of it. As a teenager, I was so sure that naivety was the way to go. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. But man, that doesn’t work with cancer. It just doesn’t. The fear of my chest, that I have dealt with since I was a teenager, forced me into realizing that knowledge = power. Also, knowledge = health insurance covering more frequent screenings for women at risk for these vicious female cancers.

I made an appointment for what felt like lightyears away and began filling out paperwork with information I have just about memorized by heart — Mother: ovarian cancer at 47, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Aunt: breast cancer at 45, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Grandmother: breast cancer at 44. And there are other far-flung familial relations that I’d never met or even heard of who lived in the wake of this genetic material climbing its way through our family tree.

When the day finally came, it was as cloudy and gray as my headspace had been. It really only involved giving blood and playing the waiting game. And I waited in a kind of daze because 95% of me had resigned to the fact that I had this mutation in me. But it was the other 5% of me hoping to beat the odds that was left just a little bit devastated when the results came back:

POSITIVE FOR A DELETERIOUS MUTATION

deleterious
[del-i-teer-ee-uh s]
adjective
injurious to health

 

The word has stuck with me ever since I first read it. It’s just so fucking ugly. And yet, I found a strange amount of clarity in seeing it in my test results. I felt lucky that it’s not the more aggressive strain BRCA-1, lucky that I now know what I’m looking for (sorta), lucky that now my health coverage would allow me to be more vigilant. Because having the gene doesn’t mean you will get cancer, and not having the gene doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer.

Recently, I mentioned the results of the test to someone. Oh, I’m so sorry, they said, with a sorrowful click of their tongue. Don’t feel sorry for me, I wanted to tell them. If my body is a temple, then perhaps it can also be a fortress. In which case, I’ll need all the defensive intel and strategy I can get in order to keep these BRCA bastards at bay.

For more info on genetic testing and counseling: MSKCC
Header image is a gif from this video