In January 1972, Ms. Magazine burst on the publishing scene, and I devoured that first issue like a well-marbled steak. No more Ladies Home Journal or Good Housekeeping. Finally, a magazine by women, about women, for women, honoring women’s struggles and heartaches without sentimentality. I no longer have that first copy, though it might be a collector’s item now, like my first Apple II.
New York Magazine began an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ms. In 2012 with this—lest we forget:
In the years leading up to the birth of “Ms. Magazine”, women had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood. Job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, no rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Seven years after that first issue, Ms. magazine played a part in a major turning point in my life—a 90º turn from the path I had whizzed along for the first half of my life.
My arc of professional growth and opportunity had been consistently upward, with no apparent end in sight. I’d never had a setback. I had met every challenge with a high enthusiasm, certain I was smart enough to learn what I had to know to handle the job, and tough enough to handle the threats. I was the eight-armed woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms.—arms enough to do it all and still hug my children.
Now that I’d been sent back to the Lab in Portland, I had new funding and a continuing program to direct, but I was demoralized. And, my personal life remained dysfunctional and unexamined. I ignored the clear and persistent evidence that my husband was having affairs. When we had dinner at Bob and Susan’s house, Ralph and Susan sat across the table from me, and I could tell from the position of their arms, even with a tablecloth, that they held hands under the table. After we went home, I confronted Ralph. He was incredulous.
“Ever since your surgery, you’ve been paranoid. You’re acting nuts. Imagining things.”
Perhaps he was right. It was easier to just believe him and remain in denial. For our marriage, it was too late for an intervention.
I needed an intervention.
The day my “intervention” began was in late August, 1979. It was late. Ralph slept, I didn’t, a pattern we had developed in recent months. The next day I was leaving for Honolulu to work with Jolena McGuigan at Chaminade University, and it was always hard to sleep before such a trip. The September issue of Ms. had arrived that day, and I sat up in bed paging through, stopping to read if an article caught my eye.
My breath caught in my throat at a headline: “DES Mothers at Risk for Breast Cancer.” A doctor had prescribed DES—diethylstilbestrol—while I was pregnant with Kelley, saying it would prevent a possible threatened miscarriage. Years later, we learned several facts about DES, so freely prescribed in the Sixties:
- girl children in utero when the mother took DES were at risk for vaginal cancer, and breast cancer, infertility, spontaneous abortion, preterm delivery, ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, stillbirth, and early menopause;
- DES didn’t prevent miscarriages.
I learned these facts from Ms. Magazine.
Kelley had to begin regular pelvic exams at age 14. Vaginal cancer was indeed a real risk.
I read the article about DES mothers and breast cancer, and my fingers wandered to my right breast. I had not done regular breast exams—I was only 39, too young for breast cancer. But there it was, a hard lump the size and shape of a walnut in the lower inner quadrant.
Waves of heat and cold moved through me. I flashed back to age eleven or twelve and my early breast cancer fears. I wanted my Mama to be playing cards in the next room so I could call her and she could tell me it was just my imagination.
Finally, I tried to wake Ralph. My husband, my partner. “Feel this,” I said.
He opened his eyes, saw my fingers on my breast. “No, don’t want to,” he mumbled. Perhaps he thought I wanted something more intimate. He went back to sleep. I was very alone with this.
The next morning, I flew to Honolulu for the two-day work session. Told Jolena, who immediately gave me all the attention I had hoped for in an understanding, involved, and loving partner. I didn’t have one of those. Fortunately, I had Jolena. She was ten years younger than I, but she understood my fear and shock, and knew how to give me the emotional support I needed. She listened, hugged me, asked all the questions I hadn’t even asked myself and pushed me to get an immediate biopsy. When our work was finished, she drove me to the airport, making me promise to call my doctor as soon as I got home, and to keep in touch with her.
“You’ll get through this,” Jolena said as she walked me to my gate. “And I’ll be right here cheering for you, all the way.” I flew home feeling supported, and braver, and more optimistic. I was not so alone now.
When I got home from Honolulu, Ralph was gone on another “business trip.” I called my doctor, who arranged for a surgeon, and I had a biopsy. Alone, still.
After the biopsy, wanting company, I went next door where my boss, Bob, lived with his two sons, both of whom were preparing to be doctors, and their stepmother Susan, Ralph’s “business partner.”
Brett, in his second year of medical school, had questions for me.
“That lump you found, is it hard?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it movable?”
“No, it’s fixed, doesn’t move.”
Brett sighed and exchanged a quick, worried glance with his brother Robert, who was in his final year of medical school. They knew. So did I.
The four-day wait for the biopsy result was a long, terror-filled time alone. I didn’t want to call my kids until I had concrete information. Didn’t want to scare my friends.
The surgeon finally called with the biopsy result. He was blunt, and in a hurry. “You have breast cancer. We’ll need to see you tomorrow to schedule surgery.” I hung up the phone and wandered out to the street in front of my house and just stood there, lost, feeling abandoned and alone and grief-stricken. At that moment Bob drove by, home from work. He stopped his car and rolled down his window. “It’s cancer,” I said, my hands on the windowsill. His hands covered mine, and stayed there, without words, until mine were warm.
Ralph and Susan returned two days before surgery. When I told Ralph about the biopsy results, he had very little to say. The expression on his face reflected his frustration. I could see the wheels turning in his mind (no doubt my own paranoid mind at work)—“I’ll have to stick around for this. I’ll be expected to provide support and comfort. I don’t want to.”
My surgeon told me he would perform a “quadrectomy,” a new technique to avoid complete mastectomy for small tumors, which mine was not. I pointed this out to my surgeon. “The tumor is already 4 cm. Wouldn’t a complete mastectomy be safer?” I asked. I didn’t give a fig about keeping the breast, the source of my present problem.
“No. Now that we finally have a way to preserve breast tissue, I’m not going back to the old mutilating surgeries.”
“But I don’t care if it mutilates—I just want the breast gone, all of it!”
The surgeon rolled his chair back away from me to his desk, his face and neck red with anger. “If you’re going to insist on a mastectomy, then you’ll just have to find yourself another surgeon!” He turned away.
Find another surgeon. I belonged to an HMO, and the only available surgeons were his colleagues. He was known as the best breast surgeon in the system.
I capitulated. That’s how men were then, in particular many male surgeons, and that’s how I was, then. Capitulating. Would I ever stop capitulating to men who made life-altering decisions about my future? That’s who I was then in my personal life—giving in, going along—as a lot of women still were at that time. In my professional life I was a strong successful woman who faced risks every day. I could be ferocious, could confront, could take care of myself. But in my personal life I was afraid of confronting betrayal and abandonment.
I thought capitulation and complicity would keep me safe. But that belief was beginning to erode.
~ ~ ~
The night before surgery I was tense, and scared. I was not allowed to eat or drink anything. Ralph called Susan to come over and “keep us company,” so he wouldn’t have to try to reassure or comfort me on his own. They were able to eat and drink, so they did. In fact, they killed a couple of bottles of wine. I sat and steamed, angry and lonely, unable to speak up for myself, since I hadn’t been asked if I wanted “company.” I wanted a partner, not company, but he wasn’t available.
I made a feeble attempt to be “good company,” watching them get silly drunk. I joined the conversation and referred to something I had read as “banal.” I pronounced it “bay-nul.” Susan went into paroxyms of laughter, choking and spitting at how hilarious I was. I gave her a puzzled look.
“It’s pronounced ‘ba-nal’,” she sputtered. Ralph joined in the hilarity. Still, for reasons I will never completely understand, I stayed in the room. There was no point in trying to discuss this latest indignity with Ralph—he had names for me now, shaking his head in disbelief. “Paranoid.” Or, “Unstable.” Or, “Unreasonable.” Or, “Imagining things.” They were just trying to cheer me up, couldn’t I see that!?
No. They were having a party, just the two of them, at my expense and right in front of me, on one of the worst nights of my life.
~ ~ ~
In 1979, even a partial mastectomy required five or six days in the hospital and an extended recovery period. Twenty-nine years later, by comparison, my double mastectomy required only one overnight in the hospital.
The morning of September 7, Ralph took me to the hospital and stayed through the surgery. A few days later, he brought me a tired bouquet of dusty field daisies picked by the side of the road on his way to the hospital, then left on a “business trip” with his “business partner.”
Alone in the hospital on Saturday night, I could see the lights of downtown Portland, and imagined that people were having dinner, going to the movies, leaning toward each other, laughing and talking and enjoying the fun of being together. And there I was, paralyzed and alone.
It wasn’t until I was discharged on Sunday that I realized I had no way to get home, no purse, no money to call a cab—and I was too humiliated to call anyone and admit my predicament, which would have laid bare the whole catastrophe of my marriage. I was stuck in the hospital, alone once again, and unable to make a decision that would change things.
Fortunately, my sister Anne and her husband popped in to visit me, and found me sitting on the bed, fully clothed. Without comment, they gave me a ride home.
I would have left Ralph then, but was too dispirited and weak to pack boxes, and my kids could not easily come to help, being in college or living on their own, without cars. At least that’s what I told myself. In fact, ironically, I was terrified of being alone at this low point in my life. Once again, I was seeking safety in all the wrong places. To confront the betrayal and the abandonment would have only made my failure real: yet another failure.
I looked for American Express bills in Ralph’s desk, and found receipts for glamorous dinners for two at the top of hotels, in restaurants I had never been in. Still, I stayed, recovering my strength. My oncologist said I needed no further treatment, just a couple of months to heal.
I visited Ralph and Susan’s office, and wandered into the second room, set up as a living room and furnished with a new sofa and coffee table they had picked out together. I sat on the sofa. It felt strange. Hard. Lumpy, for a new sofa. Ralph tried to distract my attention to the lovely lamps he and Susan had picked out. Instead, I stood up, saw the handle on the lower front of the sofa and pulled it out. The sofa was a bed, completely made up with sheets, blankets, and pillows. Ralph, quick and glib as always with his lies, explained, “It’s for clients who might need to stay over. Don’t go all paranoid again.” I glanced at their secretary, a friend of mine. She looked away. She knew. She hadn’t told me, but she knew. As so many others did. Ashamed that “everyone knew” of my humiliation, I still pretended to believe the lies. Still paralyzed by fear of being alone.
Life went on, I went to work every day, while Ralph and Susan worked in their “office,” or were out of town. I made plans to leave him by the end of October.
In mid-October, a pickup hit my car in an intersection, totalled my vehicle and sent me to the hospital with a concussion, broken teeth, broken ribs, and a suit pocket full of broken glass. I woke up in an ambulance. A paramedic had found my home number in my purse and called Ralph. He came to the Emergency Room. Again, I saw that expression of frustration—“What next!” I was getting to be such a drag. Even to myself.
For a month I pretended, at work, to understand what people were saying to me, though I could only hear word salad and see their lips move. Gradually my brain recovered, and I set a new deadline: December.
I told Ralph I was leaving. He made no objection, other than to tell me it was up to me and he wouldn’t interfere, but it was my own paranoid decision. He didn’t offer to help me move out, nor did he offer to move out himself.
On December 31, my kids helped me move my things to an apartment. I had bought a new car, a white Saab I picked out all by myself, and we packed it full of boxes. The kids were not only willing to help me move, they were eager—in fact, delighted that it had finally come to this. They, too, had been waiting for me to come to my senses.
I was out. It was a new year. Alaska, empty nest, breast cancer, car accident, lying and cheating husband, it was all past.