The Last Workout: 9 days

It was only 7 days ago that I met with my surgeon and decided the fate of my breasts. My surgeon is a woman, which makes me feel infinitely better about all of this. When they called with my diagnosis, I knew exactly what I was going to do. You see, when I met my biological mom 20 years ago and she told me what happened to her, I set my mind to survival. In an awful, and very real sense, I’ve been preparing since then. I was worried that a man doctor might try to convince me to save them.

You see, I’ve been reading real, actual science papers about this process. There are several papers with men as the lead author saying things like, “The number of women choosing a double mastectomy has increased by 400% since the early 80s.” I don’t remember exactly the numbers, but it’s a lot. And, do you know what was more upsetting to that lead, male author? That women, even when they knew they could get reconstruction immediately, were choosing not to. He was concerned, “maybe women don’t know they can have boobs again, right now!” WHY DON’T THEY WANT BOOBS!?!?! He vowed to make sure women were more educated about reconstruction options.

So. Again, I figured a woman would respect my choices more, not question me or try to persuade me.

Strangely enough, my doctor is also someone who goes to my gym. When she walked into the exam room, she was like, “you look familiar. do you work out?” All of this was comforting.

Did I mention what the girls did for the last time today? They went to the gym. They worked out in the same room as the woman who will cut them off in 9 days.

Though I normally don’t look into the mirrors when lifting weights, I did today. I stared at my cleavage (what little there is) and saw how awkwardly my sports bra was fitting. Another thing I was very aware of was how I had to tug at the shoulder straps after lifting, you know, to hoist them back up. There were times I did this with a laugh and other times with tears in my eyes. I won’t rave about Orange Theory, but I do enjoy it. What I hate is the stupid band I have to wear around my sternum. Of course, I could buy one that goes on my arm, but they’re 100 dollars. Fuck that. So, I bought the chest strap at a discount. Only once has it popped off from exertion. I usually tuck it under the band of bra so it feels more secure.

I wonder: what will this strap look like on my chest when it’s the only thing there? And another question: how long will it be before I feel comfortable not wearing a bra? I mean, I just cannot imagine a time when I have nothing between me and the world except a thin t-shirt. But, like, half of the population walks around like that all of the time. On one hand, it sounds very liberating. On the other, is there anything better than coming home and taking off your bra?

 

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It’s hard for me to comprehend what my body will feel like without them. It’s my understanding that in their place I will have a numb or tingly patch of scarred skin. There is a reconstruction called a DIEP flap which basically gives you a tummy tuck and adds boobs. Overall, it seems like a pretty good deal. But then, you have two areas of skin without feeling and a huge scar that crosses your stomach. I considered this for a hot minute, but, what’s the point of having boobs that feel nothing and an area of stomach that feels nothing?

Besides the sexual component of my breasts, which I’ll write about soon, there is one intimate detail I’ll tell you now. I love to sleep naked (though I haven’t in a long time with all the kids in the house). I love to sleep with a fan and the windows open. I love to feel the breeze on my skin when I’m warm in my bed. I don’t mean it in a sexy way. I know that’s a tiny, weird thing to think about, and it’s even weirder to share, but that’s the truth.

The next time I go to Orange Theory I’ll have no breasts, an awkward chest strap with nowhere to be tucked, and probably my surgeon on the treadmill next to me.

I wonder, though, this morning when we were running, rowing, and lifting, did she look across the room and feel sorry for me? Could she tell from knowing me only a few hours that I’m struggling? That, even though I know I’ve made the right choice, that I’m afraid of what happens when it’s all over?

That the uncertainty of how long it takes me to really heal is what scares me the most.

 

 

10 days left with the girls

It’s called Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. Some call it pre-cancer. It’s considered a Stage 0, like, the very, very beginning . In Situ means “in place.” (which I learned years ago while doing archaeology. If you find a cool artifact, you want it in situ so you can get the most information about it. Its integrity hasn’t been lost.) So, that means it hasn’t spread anywhere (most likely). That’s very good. It has a nuclear grade of 2 out of 3. That means it’s not the most aggressive, but it’s also not the least.  Treatment is a lumpectomy with radiation OR a mastectomy. Why am I choosing a mastectomy when I could keep my boob? Because radiation treatment is a daily thing for up to six weeks, it can shrink your breast, burn it, or, in very rare cases, go into your lungs, heart, or ribs. I’m not into all that mess. My cancer is only in one breast, so why get rid of both of them?  Because I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, and at my age, and with my family history, my chances of getting cancer again, and even worse the next time is something like 40%.

I do have the option to reconstruct them, right now, but I don’t want to. The recovery is long and painful. And sometimes involves a lot more surgeries to make them look real and even and all of that.

I don’t have time for all that. I have rugby to play and a family to attend to. Also, graduate school.

I hope that answered most of your questions. Of course, there will be more detailed discussion of the choice to remove and not replace in the coming days and weeks.

Now, on to something more fun.

After a few days of feeling really sad for myself, I decided to try to make this fun, or at least, not awful. I’ve had to ask myself a lot of hard questions. One question that is the most difficult is this: What do you do with your breasts when you know they’ll be gone in 10 days?

So far I’ve:

  1. run up and down the steps without a bra and without holding them. Just to remember what that feels like.
  2. Stood naked in the mirror and touched them a lot. Maybe for the first time, admiring their beauty
  3. had to explore my own gender identity (but I’ll save that for another post)
  4. worn real bras and not just sports bras
  5. been much more aware of their presence. Like, I’m just really, really aware they exist.

Aside from all of the sad, selfish stuff I’m feeling about them, I promised them a farewell tour of some of their favorite things to do. I wanted to make their last days attached to my body fun for them, not all doom and gloom.

Yesterday they did this:

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They tried to take in a little sun, maybe for the first time. 

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They went on a nice hike with some friends

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They tried to make an imprint in the snow. 

Stay tuned for more adventures as the girls live out their last days on my chest.

So you’re going to die.

One of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons is from season 2. As a family, they go out to eat sushi. Homer, ever hungry, is picky at first, but ends up eating everything on the menu. He orders Fugu, which is pufferfish. The story is, if it’s cut incorrectly, it’s poisonous. Since the head chef in is having sex with Mrs. Crabapple out in her car, the young chef cuts the pufferfish, we fear, incorrectly. Homer learns of this and heads to Dr. Hibbert, where he is handed the most wonderful pamphlet:

so die

So you're going to die

He’s told he has 24 hours before his heart explodes, so he makes a bucket list and tries to accomplish everything in a day.

Good news: Homer doesn’t die. He does, however, fall asleep in his arm chair while listening to Larry King read the bible on tape. In the morning Marge finds him looking dead, but she touches the warm drool from his lips exclaiming, “you’re alive!”

I cry every time I watch that episode.

The past few weeks have been sort of that way for me. I mean, in the sense that I feel like I just went to the doctor and she handed me a pamphlet with the bad news. Three weeks ago I had a mammogram. Then I had another. Then a biopsy. Then they called to say I have cancer, but the best kind. Then, Tuesday, I spent three hours weighing my options. My biological mother had breast cancer when she was 32 and my biological grandma when she was 70. There didn’t seem to be much of a choice.

In two more weeks, I’ll no longer have breasts.

And as quickly as you’ve read all that, that’s as quickly as it’s come at me.

I’m not telling you for your sympathy, or for you to feel sorry for the kids or Gaby. I’m telling you because, as has been my way, I’ve written to you about real life things in order to share with you, you know, real life shit. Until Cyrus was born so early, I never knew so many women struggled with miscarriages and still born babies. Until I wrote about sexual harassment happening to me, I never realized how many women it affected. I write about being queer a lot, and most of you say you’ve learned something. So, here I am telling you that I’m only 40 and I have cancer, and in a very short time, I will have no breasts and huge scars across my chest. That’s a lot to process in such a short time.

So, gentle readers, that is my news. Again, I tell you because I’ve always seen it as my job to write to you about the shit that happens in our lives that we are afraid to talk about. I’m sure you’ve all struggled with something, too. Something, maybe, you didn’t know others struggled with. Or something you know others struggle with, but you’re afraid to ask or talk about it.

I don’t expect you to tell me any intimate details of your lives. And, in a very real sense, this is none of your goddamn business. But I thought I’d share this fucked up journey because…why not? I’ve already told you almost everything else.

There will be a lot of thoughts coming on this topic including gory details and a VERY FUN farewell tour, but I don’t want to try to cram it all into one post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, he IS a boy.

On Saturday night members of my rugby team headed to Portland, MO for the 4th annual street dance hosted by my second cousin’s bar. I mean, you probably know this bar is called “Holzhauser’s Bar and Grill,” and it’s pretty much been owned by a Holzhauser for 80 years.

Anyway, the rugby team has been coming to Portland pretty steadily for about 9 years. We sometimes have a bonfire in my parents’ back yard. We always drink too much and sleep in tents in the yard.

More than 50% of team happens to be made of women who date women (or Non-binary people who date women).

Of course, being from such a small place,  I always hesitate to bring my friends. We are a large group: some of us are black, brown, or present more masculine than Portland might be used to. The only reason I feel comfortable there is because of my last name. Holzhauser’s fight for their own, even if their own is, you know, a little queer. Without my family there, I wouldn’t be there.

But the story goes like this: a large group of the team was playing pool. The end.

As I was leaving, an old acquaintance of mine walked out beside me and said something like, “my son really enjoyed watching your friends play pool. He was like, ‘all those lesbians. It’s so hot.'”  Since I was tired and ready for bed I just said, “Gross.”  To which she replied, “Well, he is a boy.”

*record scratch*

I kept walking and didn’t say anything else.

Because I figured this is the best way to say something about it:

One extremely upsetting thing to me is when men think that lesbians are made just for them. I can’t tell you the amount of times some dude has looked me straight in my eyes, licked his lips, and asked me to kiss my girlfriend so he can watch. Or has asked me to kiss a random fucking woman. Or he’s asked me to come home with him and his girlfriend/wife so we can have a threesome. Or just fucking asked if he could watch while I had sex with my girlfriend (I won’t touch you, I promise). In those moments, I felt threatened. I felt scared. It’s hard to express how violating that is, how I have to worry if he might try something, or try to hurt me if I say no impolitely. When that’s happened, I’ve had to try to use my wit to get out of the situation instead of just punching him right in the dick.

So, here is this teenage boy at the Portland bar watching my friends play pool and acting like regular humans playing pool. And he finds that hot because…he’s watched too much porn. He’s seen anything in the media. He’s been taught that lesbians exist to turn him on.

And his mom justifies this. When I say to her, “Gross.” She defends him with his gender.

I know I’ve yelled about this before. But I have to again.

Cis-Men are taught that all sex exists to please them. They are taught that without a penis, the sex doesn’t count. (If my wife sleeps with another woman, she isn’t cheating). They see two women in a relationship as non-threatening and not real. Many of you have asked, “who is the man?” Because you just can’t fucking deal with the fact that THERE IS NO MAN. And, again, I direct you to a friend from high school who asked me how I had an orgasm if no dude was involved. OR all those people who questioned my virginity because I hadn’t had sex with a dude. “But, like, you’re still a virgin…”

I’ve watched men blatantly hit on my girlfriend when they knew (and didn’t care) that she was with me.

We are invisible and too obvious all at once, depending on the desire of some man.

So, women of the world, just fucking stop defending cis-men like their brains are too infantile to learn compassion or empathy.

Parents, teach your sons that no woman’s body is his god-given right. And that when two women are together, they are definitely not doing it for him.

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A Note to My Second Cousin: Fuck Your Microaggressions at the Potluck

Dear Second Cousin,

If you remember correctly, just this Saturday evening we were hanging out in Portland, celebrating all the 70th birthdays that just happened in our extended family. You and I hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, and because you’re, like, 7 years older than me, we were never super close growing up. Anyway, I made a joke about being from Portland because you’d told me your daughter was dating her second cousin and you laughed at her. And I was relating to you the time my dad told me I was related to my boyfriend. I joked, you know, good thing I’m gay, anyway. And you said, “Yeah, we all know” And the other cousins standing in the circle, sweating and drinking their Busch lights as the lightning bugs started to flash all laughed. But you. You had to say, you had to mansplain, “Well, I think women are lesbians because a man has done them wrong.” And I, ever so much more like my sweet, non-confrontational mother, just said, “Oh, my God. Shut the fuck up.” I looked at the surrounding cousins to help me, but nothing came except swigs of  light beer and the shifting of bodies and slapping of bugs.

What I meant to say was this:

  1. How dare you, or any man think that a woman’s default setting is men. That’s fucking ridiculous. I hate how men think they have ALL OF THE POWER to keep a woman straight or turn her gay. Fuck you. Fuck every guy who thinks they have that kind of influence.
  2. If every woman who’d ever been treated badly by a man became a lesbian, EVERY FUCKING WOMAN WOULD BE A LESBIAN, you sweating, cut off shirt wearing ogre. Look at you, all uncomfortable in those Wal-Mart brand, saggy ass jean shorts. You think women are into all that mess? Please.
  3. Are gay men gay because a woman has done them wrong?
  4. Lesbians are not man haters. But you, and men like you, are doing a super duper job of turning us (and straight women) that way.
  5. Also, your comment about your daughter being a lazy barrel racer. Fuck you. And fuck your sexism.
  6. I want to say your comment didn’t wake me up all night with thoughts of what I should’ve said. With me telling myself how terrible I was in that situation with no comeback. I totally stayed perfectly asleep not thinking about how I’ve been out for so long and still, you, a family member, had to say some stupid shit. Some stupid shit in front of others who didn’t notice the indiscretion or also didn’t know what to say. Some stupid shit that I, queen of witty comebacks, didn’t have a comeback to.
  7. Fuck you. And fuck the deer sausage you brought.
  8. And to the relative who asked where my “Friend” was (meaning Gaby, my partner of yearly 5 years) Fuck you, too.

 

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The Writing’s on the Wall

I have been in many romantic and sexual relationships with women during my tenure on this planet, and that has afforded me a unique position that I think most men in romantic relationships with women might not get. Women talk to other women. They talk about sexual abuse and assault because women believe you, and ALL women have experienced some sort of sexual assault, whether they are willing to admit it or not. Whether they call it sexual assault or not. The issue is, most women don’t like to call what has happened to them assault because we are always comparing our trauma to someone else’s. It goes like this, “yeah, he coerced me into having sex and I asked him to stop, but I said yes, and it’s not like he hit me, so I guess it’s not like So-and-So’s experience, so it isn’t really rape/sexual assault.” And since so many women have that story, they just call it sex. When I say this has happened to many women, I really mean most. I mean, actually, everyone. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

Here are some very upsetting numbers:

Nearly half of the women I’ve been with have been raped. And, no, not the “man jumping out from behind the bushes” kind of rape, but the “I know this guy” kind of rape. And it fucking happens all of the time, you guys. ALL. OF. THE. TIME.

In fact, I’ve never heard a story from a woman who has been sexually assaulted or abused by some guy she didn’t know. It’s always her “boyfriend” or her “friend,” or, you know, someone else’s friend at the party. Or the guy from class who’s just been trying to get her to go out with him. And these women I have loved blame themselves. Or they don’t use the “R” word for reasons I mentioned above. They don’t think their story is the worst, so they are ashamed to even say anything happened. They have been socialized to understand this is what it means to be a woman.

Growing up, I understood that a girl losing her virginity happened under this circumstance: the boy begs and begs and begs and begs until the girl finally says okay. The boy will hurt you. The boy will not understand that you are capable of feeling pleasure. If he does understand, he will not care. The boy will tell his friends. You will be called a slut. He will be called a hero. You are expected to do it again and again.

This is how it happened with most of my friends. This is the story I was told. This is the narrative I was expected to live, too. I was supposed to be okay with this, the way some of the women I’ve loved were supposed to be okay with this. And they were. They were so okay with this, that most don’t even tell this story any more. They are so used to how all of this happens, it doesn’t even seem like something worth mentioning. Because. It’s happened to all of us.

Endure this. This is what it means to be a woman.

This abuse is so embedded in our culture that unless I’ve been penetrated by a man, I’m not even considered a woman. Or, not a real woman. I’m something less, unless a man has touched me.  I know this because friends used to get confused about my virginity. “…but you’ve never had sex with a guy….”

Here’s another number:

1/4 of the women I’ve known and loved have had an abortion. The reasons are variable. One was 15 and it was her boyfriend. One was 17 and in a relationship with some fucking asshole. One was something around 20 and stuck in an abusive relationship. They all knew they were lesbians, but you know, lived in a world where they were forced to be with men. You can’t even know what that feels like. You can argue that they knew what they were doing, that they could’ve just not had sex. That they could’ve been more careful. They only knew that they were doing what they were told they should do by society. They were enduring womanhood. You can go ahead and blame the girl for a society that tells her that men’s sexuality is more important than women’s. That it is completely her fault that she begged and begged him not to. That she at least asked him to wear a condom. That he pulled it off without her knowing. That if she really loved him, she’d just do it.

1/4 of the women I’ve known and loved told me about their abortion. Which leads me to believe there are more. There are always more.

This also leads me to understand that more than 25% of women out there in the world have had one, too. My friends, if it is you, I’m proud of you for a making the choice that was best for you. No matter why you were pregnant in the first place.

Of course, not all abortions come from rape or abuse. Some come from failed birth control (which is blamed on the woman). Some come from a total lack of birth control (which is also only the woman’s fault). Some come from wanted and loved pregnancies that are not viable (the woman’s fault). Some come from life or death situations for the mother (the woman’s fault).

Most women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 8 weeks. That’s just one missed period. That’s also her fault.

After enduring womanhood and hearing countless stories from partners and friends, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine most unwanted pregnancies come from a trauma associated with how the woman became pregnant. No person should be forced to carry the fetus of a rapist.

Consider this: trans men can also be pregnant. They can also be raped. And I apologize for not tackling this immense topic right now.

Consider this: I have been told by men what my body should and shouldn’t look like my whole life. I’ve been told by men how I’m supposed to have sex. I’ve been told by men that I am not officially a woman without having sex with them. I’ve been exploited by men who see my sexuality as an extension of their fantasies. Women are shamed into sex. They are shamed into complying. They are shamed into pregnancy. They are shamed for, finally, making a decision about their own bodies.

Everyone listen closely: you know someone who has been raped. You know someone who has had an abortion.

We need to start using the “r” word. We need to start talking about abortion, too. About real numbers. About how it’s saved more lives than it’s destroyed.

You need to understand that when a woman shares with you the intimate details of her body, she has thought long and hard about what she’s saying. She has broken through the social barrier we’ve put in place to keep her silent. She has weighed the consequences and decided that she’s willing to fight the onslaught of judgement about her “choices.”

You need to listen.

You need to listen and believe what has happened.

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The Perfect Dish

Gaby’s love of food extends beyond the act of preparing it. Until her, I never really thought about how food is presented to someone to eat. I grew up in a household of corn mixed into mashed potatoes and gravy drenching everything. And though I do appreciate how food is plated now, I still don’t care. I just want to eat. But I do see the psychology  in making food look good in order to taste good.

Another thing I never really thought about until her is the art of food photography. It’s not just snapping a photo, straight on, of your dinner and posting to Instagram. Like any good photography, it’s about angles, light, and composition. A shitty photo of your dinner can make it look like garbage. Gaby’s really good at making amazing food look even more amazing. Just recently she bought a real camera and spends all of her free time practicing. If you don’t follow her already, I suggest you do in order to watch her already baller skills develop.

One of the benefits, I guess, of having her learn photography is her taking pictures of more than food. She’s snapped some great candids of friends. And, since I have a new essay coming out, I thought it was time to update my author photo. The last one was taken nearly 6 years ago. Six years ago I was in my early 30s; now I’m in my late 30s. That’s like a life time. Well, in preparation, and in an attempt to figure out lighting and the best time of day, she asked me one evening to sit just for fun. Since I was wearing a Christmas shirt and it was February, I took it off. And since I had just made myself a martini, I brought it with me. It was fun, or at least not horrible, and I actually liked one of the shots: Capture

This is an honest shot of me. This is my typical, non-smiling look. This is my sarcastic look. This is me, not really wearing clothes after I get home from work. My hair hadn’t been cut in over a year, and I figured out how to twist up my man bun. This, I thought, could be social media-worthy. I am not unattractive. There are things about me that people can appreciate. But then. I kept staring at myself. Like, one of those moments when you look in the mirror and you’re overcome with the thought, “I’m a human person. I am a mind inside a body. This is that body. This is what my shell looks like. Look at that face. I can make my face move like this…”  I used to go down that rabbit hole when I was teenager. I guess I had a lot of time on my hands. Or, I was a teenager. So, my 39 year old self looked deep into my own eyes for the first time in a while, and then this happened:

now this

I’d like to say at my age and with my life experience, this doesn’t happen to me. But it does. As much as I try to keep it from coming. I think we all do this. Or, if you don’t, please tell me how.

I see Erika, who is nearly 15, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror for way too long. I see her walk by her reflection in a window and pause to look at her hair, only to move one strand of curls back and forth for several minutes. I see her in the living room mirror adjusting her shirt around her waist and then turning around to pop her booty out and give it a hard look. I see her self-consciously moving through this world. I see her have the same anxiety we all have. Or the same anxiety I have which I assume everyone else has. We’ve talked about it. I try to tell her that I understand and that is gets better. Or we learn to turn down the volume of our inner critic. I think of this scene from Bojack Horseman.

I understand food seems to taste better when it’s expertly presented. When it’s an array of colors stacked to trick the eye into believing there is more there than in reality. Arranged to show only the best parts of each component. I suppose there are people like that, too. They know how to put themselves together.

I am not always this hard on myself. There are times I’m able to forgive myself for all the things I’ve done and move on. There are times when I’m positive that my friends like me and even care about me. There are times when I’m proud of all that I’ve lived through, when I know that I’m a good person, despite the bad things I’ve done to you all. To myself. There are times when I feel like I’ve really found myself and my truth and my wholeness and all of those things we are striving for. I can see those things in the martini photo. I can see a woman comfortable with all that she is. Sometimes I am her.

But, despite all the angles and light, I can also see that I’m not an elaborate, colorful, carefully constructed dish.

I am something like biscuits and gravy. I am either gross or delicious, depending on your tastes. Sometimes, I am way too much. I am best warm and terrible cold. Or I am something like a sloppy Joe: full of savory filling but just barely held together. If you put me down, I’ll fall apart.