Years ago, before my divorce, I underwent a core biopsy to analyze a suspicious finding made during a routine breast ultrasound. The results were ultimately benign. Afterward, however, I became vigilant about getting yearly screenings. That is, until my 16-year marriage to my high school sweetheart ended abruptly in January of 2012. I quickly let things fall by the wayside. Important things, most notable of which was my health.
So when I got that “good report,” even after being two years overdue, I felt like I had received a pass—from God. To be clear, I am not such a fan of organized religion (culturally, I am Jewish) and have historically been a member of the “I just don’t know” faith. However, I admit that perhaps out of fear and desperation (isn’t that when most of us doubters turn to God?), I did cut a deal with the man upstairs.
“Please,” I had bargained, “please let my mammogram and ultrasound be okay, and I swear I will never be late again.”
But I failed to make good on my promise. The time for my next annual checkup came and went.
When I finally got around to it, I scheduled the appointment when I would return home from my upcoming summer vacation, a long awaited trip to Israel. Within days of touching down at Newark International Airport, seven months late for my annual mammogram and breast ultrasound, I leisurely and, at my earliest convenience, strolled into my radiologist’s office—when the weather outside was warm, when two of my three kids were away for the summer, and when I had a lunch reservation scheduled during New York City’s Restaurant Week with my 16-year-old daughter who likes French food as much as I do.
Despite my previous health scare and consequent core biopsy never being far from my mind, I had, over time, become complacent, dare I say arrogant, lulling myself into thinking that since I already averted crisis once, I was immune. Of course, my belief system was completely unfounded, if not irrational.
Still, during my visit to Jerusalem, with my breast exam on the calendar for the following week, I made sure to put an “insurance policy” in place, just in case. I scribbled my prayers on a small piece of paper that I tore from an envelope in my bag before pushing them into a crack in the Western Wall. My wishes were small in number but large in import: I prayed for my good health and my family’s, and for the strength to continue raising my kids as I have been, almost entirely by myself (my ex-husband lives 8,000 miles away).
Wedging that folded piece of paper into the Wall, which looked like a cross between a spitball and a note I would have passed in 7th-grade study hall, I felt foolish, as if I didn’t deserve to be there. More than that, I was overcome with guilt. So many times, particularly during the four-plus years since I first separated from my husband, I had, to immediate family and a few close friends, cursed my life. Cursed God. Wished I was dead. Standing before the Western Wall, standing before God, I questioned myself: Had I meant what I said?
Later, in New York, as I dressed to leave once my appointment was over, the nurse called me into my doctor’s study. He had already told me during the latter physical part of the exam that, upon first glance, my films looked fine. Now, in his office, I was confronted with two of my mammograms—this year’s and last— backlit above his desk. On one of the images, the doctor directed my attention to an area circled in red, which zeroed in on two white specks—microcalcifications—within its border. Neither had been there previously.
My doctor said there was no immediate cause for concern, but I would need to return in four or five months for a second mammogram to see if any additional specks appeared. If more did, then we would investigate further. Unlike my doctor, I was worried. It was not the afternoon I had planned for. Or anticipated.
More than that, I was angry. Indignant even. Here I had traveled to Israel, visited the Western Wall, prayed for my good health… And now I was being told that I may or may not have the beginnings of breast cancer. What kind of God would do that?
Feeling physically and mentally drained, I walked out to the street with my daughter. In spite of the news I had just received, I was determined to at least make good on my promise to her that we would spend a fun afternoon in the city together, just she and I. It is not often I get to spend any time with my children individually, especially without distraction, which more than anywhere else comes from inside my own head.
My good intentions, however, were short-lived. When I couldn’t find a taxi, I became frustrated, and the weight of my current situation—the prospect of being sick and having to go through it alone, unmarried, unpartnered, and without anyone to hold my hand—bore down on me. In front of my child, I blurted out what I have thought and said far too often: “I hate my life.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could have taken them back. Only moments before, my life, or at least the quality of it, had been threatened. Suddenly those four words, which I had so flippantly uttered in the past, particularly during these last few years, sounded wrong. The truth was, I didn’t hate my life. I loved my life, even with all of the challenges I have faced since my marriage ended—shock, grief, loneliness, and despair—and worked hard to overcome. Regardless of what might happen to me in the coming months, I knew I could, and would, deal with whatever I needed to because I did love it.
For a little more than a day, I weighed my choices and decided to biopsy the area as quickly as possible instead of waiting. In my mind, I could conceive of no other option. Exactly one week later, I underwent a stereotactic biopsy, not the most pleasant of procedures.
And I prayed. Jewish teachings tell us the goal of prayer (tefilah) is not merely about individual wish fulfillment (although that may be a part of it) but also an understanding that, in a broader sense, it is God and only God who can provide for our needs. When our prayers seem to go unanswered, we must continue praying to God with the idea that we are not making our prayers in vain, and God may address them in ways not readily apparent to us.
Twenty-four hours later, I received a call from my doctor telling me the results were benign and I had no cause for panic. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I returned to my life, the same life I had cursed and on those darkest of days wished would end. I worked. Paid my bills. Went to the supermarket. The bank. I washed my dishes. Folded my laundry. Talked on the phone with my friends. Scheduled yet another first date. Enjoyed my children.
And I thanked God. Not only for granting me what I had wished for but also for showing me that when my prayers go unanswered, they are never ignored. Nor are those pesky postcards today I take seriously, reminding me when I am due for my next breast exam.
Stacey Freeman is a writer and blogger from the New York City area, a divorced single mom, lifestyle editor at Worthy.com, a co-founder of the N.J. non-profit corporation Jewish Mothers and Children (JMAC), and the founder and managing director of Write On Track, LLC.