October 21, 2004

My face was tilted toward the stream of water from the shower-head. Water spilled from the corners of my closed eyes as my fingers outlined the unfamiliar lump in my right breast. Around and around again, I traced its edges. Try as I might, it wouldn’t go away. How could I have missed something this size when I showered yesterday? Or the day before? Or...but it didn’t matter. I’d found it today, this lump, firm and big on the side of my breast. I kept my eyes closed and finished rinsing my hair.

Until that moment--until the lump--October 21, 2004, was meant to be an ordinary day, if such a thing can exist on a campaign trail two weeks before a presidential election. An 11:00 A.M. town hall meeting at the Kenosha United Auto Workers hall. A rally later that day in Erie, Pennsylvania. Scranton in time for dinner, and Maine by sunrise the next morning. I would speak to at least two thousand people, prepare to tape a segment for Good Morning America, discuss Medicare premiums with senior citizens, talk college tuition with parents, and, if it was a very good day, influence at least a few undecided voters. Just another ordinary day.

But I had learned long ago that it was typically the most ordinary days that the careful pieces of life can break away and shatter. As I climbed out of the shower, I heard the door to my hotel room click shut. I knew instantly who it was, and I was relieved. “Hargrave,” I called out from the bathroom, wrapping myself in a towel, “come feel this.” Hargrave McElroy was my dear friend of twenty-three years, my daughter Cate’s godmother, a teacher at the high school my children had attended, and now my assistant and companion on the road. She had agreed to travel with me after John had been named the Democratic vice presidential nominee. I had previously chased away a couple of well-intentioned young assistants who aroused my desire to parent them instead of letting them take care of me, which was wearing me out. I needed a grown-up, and I asked Hargrave to join me. She had no experience on campaigns, but she was a teacher and what’s more, the mother of three boys. That’s enough experience to handle any job. Choosing Hargrave was one of the best decisions I would make. She instinctively knew when to buy more cough drops, when to hand me a fresh Diet Coke, and, I now hoped, what to do after one discovers a lump in her breast.

Hargrave pressed her fingers against the bulge on my right breast, which felt as smooth and firm as a plum. She pressed her lips together and looked at me directly and gently, just like she was listening to a student in one of her classes give the wrong answer. “Hmmm,” she said, calmly meeting my eyes. “When was your last mammogram?”

I hated to admit it, but it had been too long, much too long. For years, I had made all the excuses women make for not taking care of these things--the two young children I was raising, the house I was running. We had moved to Washington four years earlier, and I had never found a doctor there. Life just always seemed to get in the way. All lousy excuses, I knew, for not taking care of myself.

“We better get that checked out as soon as we can,” Hargrave said.

I had a feeling she meant that very morning, but that was not going to be possible. We had less than two weeks before the election. Undoubtedly people had already gathered in the union hall to listen to the speakers scheduled before me, and there were young volunteers setting up for a town hall in Erie, and--as the King of Siam said in the musical -- “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” My lump would have to wait; the ordinary day would go on as scheduled....

In the backseat of the Suburban, I told Hargrave how to reach Wells Edmundson, my doctor in Raleigh. With the phone pressed to her ear, she asked me for the details. No, the skin on my breast wasn’t puckered. Yes, I had found a small lump before....

She hung up the phone. “Are you sure you want to keep going?” she asked me, pointing out that our schedule during the remaining eleven days until the election entailed stops in thirty-five cities. “It could be exhausting.” Stopping wasn’t going to make the lump go away, and exhaustion was a word I had long ago banished from my vocabulary. “I’m fine,” I said. “And I’m getting this red blazer.” “You’re braver than I am,” she told me. “From now on, I will always think of that blazer as the Courage Jacket.” Within minutes, she was back on the phone with Kathleen McGlynn, our scheduler in D.C., who could make even impossible schedules work, telling her only that we needed some free time the next Friday for a private appointment.

All the plans to deal with the lump were made, and the appointments were days away. I wanted to push it all aside, and thanks to Hargrave and the thirty-five cities in my near future, I could. We gathered Karen and headed out for that ordinary day.

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