The last three years have taken me to places of sorrow, joy, desperation, fear, and love in ways so unexpected I may never make sense of them. Almost three years ago, I married Sam. Then I got breast cancer. Then I found out my fertility was ruined. Then I finished my Ph.D. Then I had twins by way of surrogate. Then I moved home to California.
None of these things were in my life plan, and tonight I find myself sitting in a hanging chair in the living room, staring up at three breast casts I made when I was in treatment as my baby falls asleep in my arms. I am staring at them, thinking about the life I thought I had, about the professor I thought I’d be, about the kind of family I envisioned and the sorts of things I imagined I would do for fun. I wish I had a control group for my life, so I could know how it might have been- but the fact of the matter is, I don’t have any of those things I thought I’d have.
I did not have my twins in my uterus, I do not have a professor job, and the life I am living does not even begin to reflect the life I always thought I’d have. That’s not to say its all bad, but it certainly isn’t what I planned for.
So I am staring up at these breast casts. They are sitting atop my bookshelf in a row. The first one is of my breasts before the mastectomy, and it was made by my friend CJ on the night of my Boob Going Away Party. Actually she made the third one in the row that night too, but the one on the left is the first one we made. I painted it blueish silverish whitish, and I pasted lines of my dissertation over the right breast and lines of my pathology reports on the left breast, and then I painted a human heart in the middle, with spidery veins that reach up and over the top of the bust.
The second breast cast, the one in the middle, was made while I still had an expander in, and you can really see the difference between my boobs. When you have a mastectomy, the doctor must remove a good portion of the skin, so the expander stretches what is left so there will be enough room for the implant. That one is painted purplish whitish greyish. I glued yards of purple yarn in swirly patterns around the expander boob, and that fake boob looks protected and taken care of and warm underneath all that yarn. There was a time right after my treatment was done, but before I finished all my surgeries, during which I was better at taking care of myself, better at being gentle with myself, and better at packing my day with warmth. This bust is from that time period.
And then there’s the third bust, which CJ made at that Boob Going Away Party. It was the really good one- she smoothed all the wrinkles and got the edges just right. I never painted that one because I wanted it to be perfect, and I was afraid of messing it up. It sits awkwardly at the end, as though I might return what once was if I can just muddle through the middle stages. It sits there unpainted, undone, a blank slate- some kind of representation of the girl I could have been.
Instead I sit in this swing, and I try to figure out what happened. My professional life is slowly disintegrating in front of me- so much so that I think often of what else I could do, how else I might be gainfully employed, other ways to make enough money to live the life I want to live. Though I have a Ph.D., it doesn’t seem as though I’ll be joining the tenure track anytime soon, despite the utter shock professors and administrators express upon hearing that I “haven’t been snapped up” as a leader in my field put it the other day. Then again, another said to me about the academic job market “it’s a mirage, and I wish I could fix it.” I smiled, because I’ve myself used those exact words to describe life after the day my Ph.D. was conferred.
I can only wonder, if I hadn’t gotten cancer…
Or maybe the universe has a divine plan for us all, and Professor isn’t mine. Do you believe that? Is there something we are each meant to do, and the world closes door after window after door, until there is nothing left, and you must walk the path you were meant for?
I applied to an art therapy graduate program the other day. Maybe I could do that. Everyone raises their eyebrows, asks me why I need another degree, tells me I have so much to offer, I should just use what I’ve got and do something artsy and beautiful and hopeful. But the thing is, I just don’t know how to do that and also make enough money to buy my babies formula. Maybe I missed the memo. How does one live a creative and enriching life, without insane stress related to money?
Maybe if I could be a therapist, and make art with people, then this life would be easier. But its all full of maybes, you know. Maybe this, maybe that. How badly I want a promise, something I can count on and be sure of, an absolute. Maybe I should go back to non-profit work, but I can barely swallow the thought of that many hours of heart-labour for such a whimsy salary. Of course, it would probably be more than I’m making now, but there wouldn’t be so much flexibility and it would mean saying goodbye forever to the academic pipe dream. This child sleeps on my chest, and I know I must figure this out soon, for she will have so many things she needs, and I expect myself to be able to be present for her and her sister without feeling tortured over my professional situation. And the question hangs, what now? What now, what now, what now?
And I wonder if I’m pining over a body I don’t have anymore, trying to fit myself into a bust that is not my size anymore, attempting to be someone I was never meant to be. I really am not sure. I have no idea how much is me, and how much is the job market, and how much is the universe, and how much is cancer fucking everything up, and how much is just how it would have turned out anyway. And really, how are we to know?