A few nights before my surgery last Thursday, my mother stayed with us overnight. I looked over at her sewing under the lamp and asked what she was making. She held up a little square of Liberty cotton print, and showed me the handkerchief she was stitching by hand for me, rolling its little hem under with impossibly delicate and even stitches. I took it in to the hospital and held it with me during the two pre-surgical procedures. As I lay in the "nuclear medicine" chamber, and listened to k.d.lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel on my ipod, I thought about how this little handkerchief could carry my mother's love, and all the wishes and prayers and love of my friends and family, stitched and folded into its borders. These things made it easier to lie still and passive — the perfectly docile body — during the fine and precise violence of tracking the single "sentinel" lymph node that would be taken for biopsy, and later, of inserting the "hook wire", the metallic thread that would guide Suzanne's hand straight to the diseased cluster of breast tissue.
I took my handkerchief into surgery, too, relinquishing it for safety only at the last minute, mumbling something to the kindly faces of the surgeon and anaesthetist about the movie Braveheart. I can remember thinking it would be easier to close my eyes rather than seize the "teaching moment" and explain about the transfer of the embroidered thistle from hand to hand in that movie.
I came home the next day, and four days later am feeling remarkably well, with barely a trace of the mutilation and loss I was convinced I would feel. I'm sure I had heard or read the phrase "breast-conserving surgery" before, but had not allowed myself to think that this consoling term could belong to me, as it now clearly does. I know it is early days yet, of course. I have felt tired and kittenishly weak, too, not up to much more than sitting in the sun, or lying on the couch. Sometimes I browse through the enormous pile of "literature" I am accumulating: breast cancer is almost as textual an experience as pregnancy and childbirth. There is fiction, too, of course, starting in the days before surgery: David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System; Peter Goldsworthy, Three Dog Night; Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire; Lemony Snicket, The End; and M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down.
The highlight of my day, though, often comes when someone calls by and takes up the brand-new hardcover edition of Middlemarch that Paul bought for me. Whoever is around sits or lies down in peaceful attitudes as the visitor reads a chapter or two, and signs and dates the page where they stop. After one such reading on Saturday, two dear friends went home and read to each other some more.
There will be time and energy, I hope, in the future, to pick up some of the threads being debated at In the Middle; for now, these moments of repose, peace and stillness.