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It’s My Dash

Gratitude is pecking at my window in the form a female cardinal. She is so dignified with her red crest and tail and beak, even if I do sense her judgment. It’s nearly noon. I’ve been writing since early this morning, and I’m still in my bathrobe. Our dog, Iris, sleeps in a puddle of sunshine, a respite after having surgery just a few days ago. She is also doped up on pain meds, her last vial of the stuff emptied as of this morning. Upstairs, middle daughter is home from college to rest off a bad cold. It’s winter, but already I can feel the season losing its grip. Not that it had much of one. We’ve had no snow to speak of.

The last few months have been the strangest and the best. I’ve left teaching for the first time in years, and now I have time to write. Not time to merely squeeze it in. Not time to neglect so many other things, like my husband and children, and try not to feel guilty about writing. But actual writing time.

Like the fussy steward of some historic structure, I am quite protective of this new stage. I will not squander it. Every single day, you’ll find me here on my sofa or at the dining room table, plunging into unknown territory. With this new novel, I’ve researched and interviewed. I’m planning trips to do more research and interviews. There’s a pile of books I’ve read and annotated and more I still need to read and annotate. I’ve devoured page after page of archives. This is how I spend my time now.

I can honestly say that out of all the books I’ve written (far more than are published) this new topic has consumed me to an extreme. It has me in its grip. It has angered me. It has brought me to tears. If you’re a writer, you understand this is a very good thing. Otherwise, how can you possibly tether yourself to a computer for hours on end?

Sometimes I marvel at this calling, this obsession, this addiction, this strangeness that comes with being a writer. Here I sit, having set aside a long-time career I loved, one that came with a title and a steady paycheck, to hang out in my bathrobe and, forgive the strong language, please clutch your pearls, make shit up.

A few days ago, I chatted with an old friend who is trying to decide what’s next in terms of her professional life. Often she is asked this question: What do you do? Her response is usually to hem and haw and say things like, “Oh, this and that.” To tell the truth of it, however, my friend has given up a job she enjoyed to look after her dying father, made a major move from one country to another, and rehabbed a house long-neglected. More recently, she moved her aging mother (and elderly dog) to a condo nearby so she can take care of them both. This and that? Really?

While talking on the phone, as we usually do once a week, my friend and I mulled over her situation and discussed the dreaded question: What do you do? She decided her response should now be this: “I clean up dog shit and take care of my mother.” If that’s the case for my friend, then my answer would have to be, “I sit in my bathrobe until noon and make shit up.”

There is a lot of shit in this post, but I’m striving for honesty here.

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for someone I don’t know. He was a childhood friend of my husband’s. It was at a nice club and on a Friday night. Normally, I would’ve told my husband to go without me, but we figured we’d head out to dinner afterward. And, also, I find that memorial services for folks I don’t know can be interesting. Obviously, I don’t go browsing the obits in search of such events, but when, on occasion, I’ve done this sort of thing, it has proved oddly inspiring.

At the service, another childhood friend of the deceased got up to read a poem called The Dash. I’ve since Googled it. The writer is Linda Ellis, and you can see the poem here if you’re so inclined (or slated to speak at a funeral). https://thedashpoem.com To sum it up, the poem maintains it’s the dash that really matters. That tiny mark of punctuation in between the dates of our birth and death. You know, what we do with our time while on this planet.

Last week I had a not so good mammogram and was called back for another one, plus an ultrasound. The second mammogram didn’t go any better. A biopsy was scheduled. Let me stop right here and say, I’m a total wimp. I hate needles. I hate going to the doctor. I have two recurring nightmares: my teeth fall out OR I’m being jabbed with needles. You can imagine why I’m so scrupulous when it comes to brushing and flossing.

Like the neurotic writer I am, I spent the night before the procedure looking at gruesome YouTube videos. As much as I hate needles, I hate surprises about such things even more. Alas, I arrived at the facility sleep-deprived and on the verge of what Oprah calls ugly crying. I’m just barely holding it together as the radiologist initials my right boob with a Sharpie, and I take my arm from the sleeve of the gown. The tech, a soft-spoken, young woman with a nose ring, begins gnashing my breast with the ultrasound probe.

It’s freezing in this room, and I’m scared and now quivering. Quivering is probably not a good idea when needles are about to go into one’s breast, I decide, so I close my eyes. I take deep breaths. I try not to envision all the gray hair I’ve just gone through the trouble of growing out falling out. There is the soft murmur of voices, shop talk between the tech and radiologist. I will myself not to hear a word of it. It’ll be over in a few minutes. Celebrities who are long-term survivors of breast cancer go through my mind—Melissa Etheridge, Robin Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Wanda Sykes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The radiologist, a pretty fifty-something woman with thick-rimmed glasses and bright green eyes, grips my hand, leans in close, and says, “We’re not doing the biopsy. It shrunk since last week. There’s not enough for me to grab with the needle.” Hearing this, I’m slightly disbelieving. But it’s true, so I get dressed and meet the pretty green-eyed doctor in her office where my breast is quite large on the dark screen. “Cancer doesn’t shrink. It gets bigger,” she tells me, though she insists we keep a close eye on things. I am reassured, but also curiously in limbo.

My husband and I collapse onto a bench out in the lobby. As we sit wedged between two plants, quietly talking, a woman in a wheel chair is pushed past us. She’s in a surgical gown and cap. Clearly, she is having some procedure far more complicated than the one I just evaded. For now, I still have my dash. I still can DO things. But what about hers? Is her dash shrinking or growing larger? I say a silent prayer for this stranger.

Rewind to the early morning of my biopsy. I’m about to head down the stairs, but I pause on the landing. A question is nagging me: Is writing full-time what you want to be doing? If this is it, is this it? Hard questions for a hard day, but I nod and go make toast.

For now, I’m stepping away from my computer. I’m going to go do something else— get dressed and eat lunch. Later this afternoon, maybe I’ll go for a walk in the winter sunshine and forest bathe down by a stream near our house. Believe it or not, this is also part of being a writer. Getting outside and breathing. Holding the ailing dog close and whispering, “You’re such a good girl.”

After all, it’s my dash, and I can do whatever I want with it.