My Symptoms Glared in Neon

With my hair down—the way I wore it—the lump was hardly there at all.

But there were other signs that something was very wrong. Hindsight is so damn revealing. Looking back, my symptoms glared and flashed in neon, and yet I managed to ignore every one of them.

Like shortness of breath.

On a recent Sunday, my husband and I began a two-mile walk. I’d hiked this slight but steady uphill trail dozens of times without much effort. But after less than a half mile, gasping for breath, I had to stop. Not just to rest, I’d already done that; but to turn around and go home. This was like Pavarotti pushing himself away from the table without finishing his Primi course. It just didn’t happen. I rationalized a virus, menopause (boy is that a catch all!), or a funky biorhythm day.

Besides the fatigue, I had night sweats. Yep, that symptom got dumped into the menopause bucket. I had agonizing leg and foot cramps that I attributed to too much exertion. (Which was ridiculous since I couldn’t exercise.) I’d lost weight. Not that this upset me, but it was very odd. Lastly, I had facial swelling. (Menopause, again, what else?) I’d asked my husband, “Do you think I look different?” He said, “No, Honey. You look great.” Getting progressively puffier, I asked again. Finally, the third time, he admitted, “Yes, you do look a little different, but so do I. We’re all getting older.”

We joked about getting hit by the old-age truck: how aging didn’t happen at a steady rate but sometimes just came along and walloped us. From where I sit today, it seems that I must have been comatose to have so thoroughly ignored, or rationalized, all of these symptoms into a few convenient categories that I could do nothing about. Menopause, after all, is not controlled with diet, exercise, or attitude adjustment. I simply didn’t make the connection that these symptoms could have anything to do with the stubborn little lump on my neck. Or I didn’t want to. And my husband never said, “Honey, maybe you should go to the doctor about this shortness of breath thing, or the leg cramps, or the night sweats. And you’re losing weight.”

There were two of us who were comatose. It’s not his fault. At home, I am bossy and throw my weight around. Had he encouraged me to get these bizarre symptoms checked out, I would have repeated what my gynecologist had said, “Just fighting a virus. Nothing to worry about.” He would have accepted that. Not challenged me. Still, I wish he had paid more attention, been more concerned, more assertive. I put myself in his place. Even without knowing about a lump, I would have insisted that he get the wacky symptoms checked out. Ironically, in his trust that I knew best, his detachment made me feel ignored and abandoned.

This was similar to how he felt about me. About our marriage. About our sex life. He hadn’t told me this in so many words, but I could tell. I could feel it. We both had empty spaces that the other didn’t fill. He was not the perfect protector who would make it all okay that my dad had left. He was not the man to say, “Don’t worry, Honey, I’ll take care of it.” ‘It’ being everything. And so, in my disappointment, even resentment, I was not the most affectionate wife, withheld myself from him. Had a diminishing interest in sex. This took time but that is where we were headed when I got sick. Both of us in separate camps wanting the other to be someone else. Seems it should have been easy for both of us to take a big step towards each other-but the first one is always the longest.

Shortly after the dismissal from my gynecologist, I’d taken a trip to India with three women friends. Like a stowaway, the lump got free passage to the subcontinent. Traveling through Rajasthan, we donated suitcases full of books, clothing, school supplies, and personal care products. We ate boatloads of vindaloo, rode through the Sam Desert on camels, and spent wads of rupees as if they were play money, which, of course, they were.

In New Delhi, the lump joined the party.

My friend, Jeanne, and I stood in our lavish suite at the Imperial Hotel. Filmy morning light slanted in through the twelve-foot high windows, warming the deep red Persian carpets. She peered at me then gestured to my neck and asked, “What’s that?” Embarrassed, I covered the bulge with my hand. I’d hoped no one had noticed. “Oh, it’s new. My doctor says it’s just a virus. I feel fine.”

At outing of the lump, a trace of fear sidled down my spine but I smiled, turned on the thick carpet, and said, “You ready? Let’s go.”

My denial was as massive as a country, a foreign language, the pain of an abandoned lover.