My sister Sheri, fourteen years my elder, gave birth to a baby girl when she was 19 years old. Sheri was unprepared to parent and the child was given up for adoption. My sister named her baby Erica but this was changed to Carolyn by her adoptive family. When she was about 18 Carolyn, called Cari, initiated contact with her birth-mother, my sister. My sister's daughter has been a part of my life for over twenty five years now. I hope my love for her atones, on behalf of my family, for the childhood she spent questioning.
Cari tested positive, several years ago, for a gene mutation that effects the body's ability to fend off tumors and is often found in women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. It is generally agreed that women who suffer from the mutation (BRCA 1 & 2) are about 87% more likely than the rest of the population to contract breast and/or ovarian cancer. My niece was advised to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy, which, I think, she postponed because other medical issues arose. This year Cari is diagnosed with a malignant tumor and undergoes a mastectomy and will soon begin a regime of chemotherapy. She suggests that I undergo the blood-test for the mutation myself and my first response is that I'd rather not know. I mention this to my general practitioner and he seems surprised that I'd want to remain in the dark but he respects my wishes and doesn't push.
I tell Dr. Connie, my OB that my niece has tested positive and that there was a high incidence of breast cancer in the rest of my family and, never a master of delicacy, she responds “Fuck!” Dr. Connie has no patience for stupidity and when she tells me to take the test it is pointless to argue. My niece, within five minutes of my request, faxes me a copy of her own test results which save me the expense of a full panel and my OB arranges to test me only for the same single mutation.
If the result is positive I will schedule a prophylactic mastectomy immediately and while I'm not jumping for joy, I know that if this is indeed the case I will have greatly reduced the probability of contracting breast cancer. I realize that if my niece hadn't had the courage to seek out her birth mother or had lacked the motivation to stick around after doing so, I would not have the opportunity to preempt breast cancer. I have two close friends who've undergone mastectomies and ravaging chemotherapy. They are both eager to hear my test results.
I give the employees time off but go into the office myself over the holiday weeks, mainly for peace and quiet. I arrive on Boxing Day and my voicemail light is on. Customers seldom call and communicate mainly by e-mail. I assume it is a sales call or bill collector and decide not to play the message until after the holidays. The red light starts to get on my nerves though so I push play and hear Dr. Connie announce that my test for the BRCA mutation is negative. The same doctor who announces me free of genetic mutation also informed me seventeen years ago that I didn't have uterine cancer. “You're pregnant, you idiot.” Now she tells me I don't have the breast cancer gene. My breath quickens and I go a little shaky. The enormous relief is clouded by the clobber of some huge karmic debt and a twinge of sheepishness about telling my niece and my two breast cancer survivor friends that, for God knows what reason, I've been spared. Also, given my faith in irony and movies, upon learning that I don't have the Ashkenazi breast cancer mutation it seems inevitable that I will shortly be decapitated in a fiery crash or, while waiting in line to buy stamps, caught by a bullet sprayed by disgruntled postal worker.
Enough time is passed so that my sudden death wouldn't be the ironic denouement of genetic good news. But, my chronic wrestling with karmic obligation and mortality is still ratcheted up a bit. My college son is home and for a few weeks we are four again, but next week back to three, and before I know it, two. Things are so light at work that it's easy to knock off early and I make special dinners or take afternoon jaunts.
Spuds and I are taken with the L.A. art extravaganza Pacific Standard Time. We attend the California Design exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There is a Barbie Dreamhouse with a real closet, gift-boxes from Joseph Magnin and a Studebaker Avanti. I am in heaven and vindicated for my dogged California boosterism. It is thrilling to look, with my son, at things that were beautiful to me when I was a child and still are. Spuds is polite but withholding as I incessantly point out objects that resemble things in my own horde. He knows I am fishing for, “Yes, mom. Your taste is museum worthy cool.” He does not bite. Nevertheless we are both overwhelmed by the dazzling display of furniture, fabric, floor-plans and ephemera that gives perspective to the Golden State's enrichment of the mid-century design canon.
I envision a leisurely weekday visit to the Getty Center but all hell has broken out there. Fortunately Spuds has the book Everything is Illuminated and I am listening to Philip Roth's Nemesis on CD so the hour from Getty Drive to a narrow parking place on level 6 passes not unpleasantly immersed in Jewish-American literature. The wait for the tram up the hill is estimated to be 30 minutes. We walk, which I am thankful about when the restaurant server informs me that the powdery substance with the distinctive taste that I'd inhaled from the edges of my spartan lunch entree is the molecular gastronomic creation “dried butter.” We take pictures of each other in the garden and Spuds notes my ineptitude with my Iphone as I inadvertently capture on video, for several minutes, my own feet.
The photography represented for Pacific Standard Time feels skimpy but there are scads of big important oils by heavy hitter painters. There is a small exhibit in the Research Center Gallery that traces the paper trail of 1960s L.A. artists. There are postcards with 6 cent stamps, posters, publications and Polaroids. I spent hours, in the 60's spirit of craftsmanship and generosity, on handmade correspondence. I find in my own box of adolescent memorabilia, thick bundles of hand written or typed cards and letters, many bearing decoration. The only correspondence in my childrens' memory boxes are birthday cards from grandparents. The folks who were making all the 60's stuff that seemed so magic were all older than I was. I was frustrated at being too young to make something new and beautiful and important. Now I am too old to operate an Iphone.
The wait for the tram back down the hill is long. We take the footpath. The clouds glow hot pink over the ocean as the sun sets. The traffic is light and we make good time home. I throw together dinner and all four of us sit at the table then, after the three clean up inadequately, we watch a documentary. This is the last work day of a year when one friend died too young and another friend's robust mother died in a freak accident. There was a time in my life when I felt too young to be relevant and now suddenly I am too old. But my family is near and my home has objects that please me and although I'm the only one who gives a rat's ass, some are of museum quality. I've dodged the bullet on the Jewish gene. It would be a slap in the face to those who were not as fortunate to waste a moment immobilized by looming eventualities or wanting anything more than what I have right now.