This is a sketchy diary comic of my experience getting my first breast MRI.
There was a small rectangular window where my face was pressed against the head rest; I could see my hair cascading down over the underside of the cot-thing I was laying on. That’s what is depicted in the first and last panels of this comic. Mostly I kept my eyes closed, listening to the loud clanking, and in between when there was silence Greg or the MRI tech talked to me. There were plugs in my ears, so their voices sounded muffled and far away.
The whole thing lasted about 45 minutes. It was fine. I will get one of these once a year for the rest of my life unless I am pregnant.
Sometimes all these medical appointments feel stressful and I wonder why I am doing them. But really, mostly, I feel good to be doing them. It’s the only thing I CAN do in the face of my odds of getting cancer (85% chance over my lifetime). Early screenings are REALLY important because if I do get cancer, it will be diagnosed as early as possible, while it is small and treatable.
“Treatable” is the operative word here, because there is no “cure.”
Even though there is no cure, catching cancer early means it hasn’t spread yet and they can take it out surgically, possibly not needing chemotherapy at all. It means living longer and better. It means being around for my kids as they grow up. A better chance of growing old with my husband. It means maybe not dying the way my mom did.
It is REALLY important that I have health insurance coverage for these early screenings. They are impossibly expensive without that coverage. What I have is technically a “pre-existing condition,” a genetic disorder that I was born with that has been in my family probably forever. It isn’t my fault, or anyone’s fault, that we have this.
I am very nervous about the new “healthcare” bill. I am scared of losing my coverage for these screenings. I’m scared of losing coverage for pregnancy and birth and women’s bodies in general.
I am scared of having to choose not to get medical care because it costs too much money.
I am scared for anyone having to make that choice.
This photo of Mama was taken in April 2012, at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, a year before she died.
It cuts me how impossible it is that she is dead now, that she died a year after this photo was taken. Despite the bald head, or even because of it (she looks so strikingly beautiful with her bald head), she is so alive here. She was a bit weak, yes, couldn’t stay up too late at the party. But we danced. We swam in the hotel pool. We put on red lipstick.
But it also cuts me how we knew, a little bit, and maybe unconsciously, that our time was limited. I had this constant pain just above my stomach from her fist cancer diagnosis in 2007 until she died in 2013. A tiny pain, subtle and not always noticeable, a tight knot. For three months in 2010 everything I ate made me sick. I went to a doctor about it and she told me nothing was physically wrong.
It’s still a shock most mornings, that she is not here. Sometimes she is alive in my dreams and everything is normal. In these dreams she has been sick but recovered and I feel such great relief that she is okay. Then I wake up.
Giles doesn’t get to know her except in stories. This is a huge gap, a thing he is missing and will be missing his whole life. She would have been a wonderful grandmother (Meme, as she wanted to be called), a great friend, a huge presence for him.
I’ve always said I have no regrets. Mostly this is true. But there are some living in my shadow, in the back corners of my brain.
I’m angry. I’m also sad, scared, some other feelings I don’t know how to name.
It doesn’t get better. It will never be better. It will just be life. Good and bad at the same time. Heartbreak and joy.
I don’t know what else to say. I have a lot of things to say.
My appointment went really well, and I feel really good about the medical team I will be working with. We stayed with some of Greg’s family who live walking distance from the hospital. They watched Giles while Greg and I went to the appointment. The snow was falling so beautifully, and the day felt auspicious since it was the anniversary of Lee’s death.
I don’t have many photos of him. This is one of my favorites:
It feels important to share photos of Lee. For the people who love him, so we can look at as many of his alive moments as possible. He was really here, he was a person, he wore khakis and a tie for the homecoming dance in 2003. He had a certain way of standing.
Giles is crying again. That scream-crying of yesterday, a sound we haven’t heard too much yet, in these four months of his life outside the womb.
So I walk him around the house and stroller him and nurse him and talk to him and sing and try and try to figure out what is wrong. Finally I sit down at the computer and I put on this video and we listen to my mom’s voice.
Giles falls asleep. I hold him, trying not to move.
My mom talks about the breast cancer playing cards she made. She talks about how there has to be something positive to come from the fact that one in eight women has breast cancer.
And then we watch this video.
What do you have and what do you need?
Seeing me and my mom together both heals and breaks my heart. This video takes place at a really lovely time in our relationship. December 2012. A time I am so very grateful for and need to be reminded of.
I wish she could see the life I’m making now. Maybe she does, in her own ghost way. But I have to do it without her, with only the memory of her to guide me. Memories of my childhood. The photo albums, notes and emails from her, conversations that are only recorded in my mind and have faded and changed as I take them out again and again to examine and mine for her presence. There is so much longing.
Today my mom would be 58.
Today my baby is 4 months old.
Today I am drinking coffee, cuddling Giles, having feelings. It’s not okay that she’s dead. It’s not okay that she isn’t here to be a grandmother to Giles (Meme, as she wanted to be called), and to help me paint and arrange my first house, to see Phoebe’s land and paint there, to make her art, dance in the kitchen, roast chiles, take walks, ride her bike, talk loud and fast, to “bricolage” her way through years and years. It’s not okay that she’s not getting older.
Giles just wailed for about an hour. Full on scream-crying and nothing I could do calmed him down. I looked him in the eyes as tears poured down his little face. I feel like wailing. I feel like scream-crying out of my broken heart.
From my mom’s blog, vimorpainter.wordpress.com (which you should check out if you miss her, because her words are there, her voice, some little piece of herself, and you can visit it anytime):
Sketch Yourself in Words, 2007
My name is Viola Rose Moriarty. It’s not the name I was born with—except the Viola part, that’s my grandmother’s name that died long before I came into this world. The rest of my name I chose myself after a brief, failed young marriage in college. I didn’t want my husband’s name, but I had no name to go back to since my father had been absent from my life since I was six years old and my mother had remarried with a new name. I didn’t know who to be so I chose my favorite literary character, Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. And in a small Denver courtroom, for the reasonable price of thirty-two dollars I started to become the person I am now.
I am bilingual, an artist, a retired educator, a parent, a lover, a friend, a palm reader, a lifelong learner and a wife. I have loved my adult life, seizing the majority of days with pure abandon, humor, moxie and chutzpah.
When I was diagnosed with cancer I began to work it into the mix: the surgeries, the appointments, the emotions—all with help from my therapist, family, friends and most of all, from my husband.
People usually see the upbeat and adventurous and creative side of me. It’s only Jon who knows the skid marks and scars underneath, the billion ways I’m afraid. That I’m an enigma.
So, I did pretty well through the first wave of cancer, drafting my comic book The Adventures of My Left Breast and making paper dolls with new hospital gown designs. I took photos of everything and I saw myself doing pretty well in those pictures.
Then I went to chemotherapy. First day: Treatment okay. I sketched through it. Second day: Jittery but okay. Days three, four and five I have descended into a staticky evil fog filled hell that I can never adequately describe. Like trying to pay attention through a vibrational band of intense, angry static. Everything hurts. Reading and listening are so hard—so, so hard. I’ve never felt anything like this and I don’t feel strong enough to cope with it. It’s day six now and I’m a little better, but still unable to go to drawing tonight. I’m still unable to focus enough to get my art supplies set up and begin a painting.
I’ve got to grab onto something that will break through here—a different way to work these days. Come on, help me out Max Ernst, David Park, Alice Neel, Mr. Rauchenburg—–anybody? I pray to the dead and to the live painters to help me….help me work.
I have raised my girls and they are spectacular—they’ll be home to help me with my haircutting soon. I want them to see me able to do this; I want to be a good role model. I want them to see me work when working feels impossible.
I don’t want my daughters to ever suspect the terror of being separated from one’s own self.
I don’t want my husband to see me defeated in this way, bumbling about like a babosa instead of the sexy, arrogant, often insane woman he loves (and slightly fears).
But this is where cancer—no, not cancer, but the treatment of cancer—-has me by the breasts and by the balls, so to speak. It’s taken over the airways and it’s screaming at fever pitch. Static and black chaos are filling the room around me, slurping into and over the rims of my eyeballs and nose and around my fingernails.
There’s no escape……and I have never, ever learned how to surrender.
Viola Moriarty, April 2007, After Chemo #1,
(From an assignment in the Moving through Breast Cancer class with Anastasia Nute)
This song has always made me think of my mom and her cancer treatments. I imagined her as Yoshimi, and the robots as the cancer, the vitamins as the chemo and radiation.
My cover of Yoshimi by The Flaming Lips (on ukulele):
I finished the cancer comic book. With the help of a really lovely woman named Kate Barber and the Publication Studio at the Williams College Museum of Art, it is printed and bound and is a real live book I can hold in my hands.
I want to cry. The intense joy of seeing the physical result of seven years of work plus the deep sadness of my mom not being here, not seeing this, and the sadness of everything we’ve gone through… seeing it and holding it I want to cry.
Reading the first part of this book, my mom’s part, is the only thing that makes me feel close to her right now. When other people tell me they dream about her or feel her presence I get mad, because I don’t feel it. It’s too much for me to feel it, or she just isn’t here, and I’m so mad, because she’s not here and she’ll never be here again.
But she’s in this book. At least, a part of her is. 2007 Viola is here, and I remember all these scenes. Reading her story in her own voice with her drawings and collages and handwriting is comforting and devastating at the same time.
We made this together. And I finally finished it.
Now that it’s a real live book, organized and formatted, I’m going to send copies out to publishers and hope it gets made into a book you can actually buy in stores, at comics festivals, and on the internet. I’ll let you know when that happens. (Incidentally, if you are a comics publisher reading this, feel free to contact me.)
The first time I drank Boddingtons was on a freezing February night in Syracuse in 2007. I had taken a Chinatown bus from New York that that arrived in a dark parking lot where Lee was waiting for me. We went to a crowded pub for dinner and he ordered two beers. “This will change you life,” he said.
My mom had very recently been diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time and Lee was the only person I wanted to talk to about it. I ignored all the calls coming to my cell phone that weekend– friends wanting to see if I was okay, because they’d heard from someone else about my mom. Lee and I walked around campus throwing snowballs at each other. We watched a soccer game on TV– the only soccer game I’ve ever actually watched. Argentina was playing. Lee made crepes for breakfast.
My bus back to New York left at 2am on Sunday from the same dark parking lot.
March 10th, April 18th, September 6th and November 11th.
Those are the birth and death dates of two people I have lost. I always know when those days are coming, always feel it about a week away and it hangs on for a few days after. I want to do something momentous on those days and I also want to crawl into a cave of blankets and hide. Nothing I do is ever satisfying or important enough, and I never feel better.
Tonight I’m going to drink Lee’s favorite beer and try to just feel the shitty feelings and remember as many memories as possible. It’s never going to be fair or okay.