I woke up on a table, unable to breathe. There was a man, a Chinese man, Dr. Wong, a radiologist, ordering me, almost begging me to take in air, but I had forgotten how. I had never experienced pain like this, the pain of an organ suddenly missing; an organ taken, removed, cut out: my lung, the upper left lobe gone, and I woke up on a metal table and breathing was not a thing I knew how to do.
Panic. Memories of drowning, my belief that I had drowned in a past life, a ship with sails that went down; memory of an actual event: 1971, Mindy Solomon. I was eleven. Jewish sleepaway camp, pools, lifeguards; prepubescent girls who couldn’t see straight we were so alive with the sudden discovery of desire and the boys across the field, midnight bunk raids and stolen kisses. A secret stolen kiss with Bobby Savage in a bowling alley. My first kiss. A tongue in my mouth… magical rush of desire, passion, heartbeat; a cute blond-haired blue-eyed Ashkenazi Jewish boy’s tongue in my mouth.
In the pool that day, Mindy Solomon, all chubby Marblehead privileged Jewess, all wound up from her own first kiss with another boy, a dark haired Sephardic Jewish boy named Lawrence, not Savage and Sweet and blond-haired-blue-eyed like my Ashkenazi Bobby, my first-kiss Bobby — Lawrence: braces, awkward, acne; still, he kissed her and she felt all I felt… rush of desire, passion, heartbeat, and so it didn’t matter that she couldn’t swim when she jumped into the pool on that day. I had dared her and I promised to save her if she started to drown and when she did start to drown, I offered myself as a life raft and she climbed on, grasping for something, anything to buoy her up; she was bigger and more desperate, and then there was all that privilege.
So that on day in 1971, at Camp Litchaven in Southern New Hampshire, James Taylor blasting in the background and other girls stealing first time kisses behind colorful cabanas, Mindy Solomon, not intentionally, not REALLY intentionally, almost drowned me.
What I remember next is the lifeguard, an older man, a counselor: bald, distracted, he had been falling asleep in that high chair, he dove in and saved me, finally, pulled her off me and dragged me out of the pool, resuscitated me, brought me back to life with, “BREATHE!”
I woke up on a table; I had forgotten how to breathe. Dr. Wong was standing over me, looking panicked. I couldn’t possibly be his first patient who didn’t know how to take in air with part their lung cut out, and after remembering drowning and before anything else, even before before I thought about what it would mean to my children to maybe grow up without a mother—-my son only ten, and my daughter fifteen—-what I thought about first was Paris.
That I would never see Paris.
So here I was, not yet knowing if this cancer that had taken part of my lung had spread, had made its way into my lymph nodes and bones; not yet knowing if the phone call to my children, the children I had just moved to Hawaii a year before, would be one of goodbye, of I am sorry to leave so soon, of please get on a plane to Boston, please make that 5,000 mile trip to see me again, one more time. See, cancer is that kind of thief, and this cancer, this shocking and most unexpected cancer in this lung, now taken/removed/cut-out, it crawled into my bed at night while I was asleep, an uninvited and unwelcome adversary, and now I am on a metal table, and breathing is a memory.
Mindy Solomon and stolen kisses with Bobby Savage back then, raiding boys’ bunks and the hot summer sun of 1971 sleepaway camp in southern New Hampshire, and all that would be ahead, desire-passion-heartbeat, and now Dr. Wong ordering me to BREATHE!, but I can’t; and in that nanosecond between my life flashing before my eyes and that first breath… the second first breath of my life… that excruciating, impossible, deeply sad yet ecstatic first breath that came with the possibility of rebirth, reawakening, of loss that would be transformed into abundance, the sliding glass door that opened in that moment and there would be exquisite gifts; but in that nanosecond between drowning and who I would become, later, that began with that first breath on that table that day, there was only Paris.