I forgot the word “palindrome” yesterday.
It slipped out of my vocabulary for a couple of hours, as if to go get a coffee or take a nap. I was on a hike with a friend, marching through the woods, talking about the gifts and betrayals of aging, catching glimpses of grouse and bunnies and garter snakes, and I wanted to say something about palindromes, but I couldn’t.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I could say many things about palindromes; I could define them and give examples of them. I just couldn’t remember the word for them.
This particular phenomenon is not new to me; it started a good 10 years ago, if not more. Usually, though, the words that go missing are proper nouns—names of people, cities, book titles, movies and the actors in them. I will call for a word, and it will not come, or at least not immediately. Long ago, I started imagining my body as a multi-storey research library of sorts, with me as its sole patron. I request a word, a name, a title, from my brain, situated at the top floor of the library. And, sometimes, my brain needs to send a page down several levels—to around my heart, say, or my gallbladder—in order to retrieve my order. In these situations, there’s nothing to do but wait, moments or hours or weeks, smiling politely and awkwardly at the head librarian and making small talk—“It has an A and a P, I think but I’m not sure in what order ha ha”—until the page returns.
“Palindrome,” I said, only apparently apropos of nothing, in the middle of our hike, and my friend nodded.
* * *
I am mildly obsessed with palindromes. I have been ever since I learned about them in sixth grade, when our art teacher introduced our class to them, some project that must have folded back on itself, mirror image. Step on no pets, we learned; Madam, I’m Adam. I came up with a Toyota on my own and have since searched, unsuccessfully, for a longer, palindromic, sentence in which to embed it. I remember that it seemed portentous when, later that year, a new girl named Anna transferred to our school.
When I journal, I am happier than should reasonably be expected when the date at the top of the page reads the same way back and forth (November 11, 2011—11.11.11—was a particularly good day, as was November 2 of that year: 11 02 2011; I haven’t had as many good days since 2013 ended). In my car, I watch the odometer, perhaps more than might strictly be considered safe, for palindromes—89,598 kilometres, 86,268. I have been known to plan driving routes around significant palindromic events, like 99,999. I habitually scan the world for texts and patterns that read the same back and forth, beginning and ending in apparently the same place.
In university I took precisely one science class: biology for arts majors. I remember being astonished to learn that palindromes—those quirky little plays on words from my elementary school days—signalled the beginnings and ends of genetic code, buried amidst the sea of random nucleotides: ACCTAGGT / TGGATCCA at either end, bracketing the instructions that dictate our inner workings, our very selves.
Palindromes, it dawned on me, weren’t simply fun patterns; they were in our DNA. They were, quite literally, the stuff of life.
* * *
The stuff of life was, as usual, the guiding principle of our conversation that day in the woods. This particular friend and I aren’t capable of, or at least don’t seem particularly interested in, small talk. We met—more than a decade ago now—through a mutual, public disclosure of secrets: I heard her, a radio producer, being interviewed on public radio about a documentary she had made, chronicling the process of taking her father to court for sexually assaulting her as a child (he was convicted). Inspired, I pitched my own story to the broadcaster: I wanted to document the process of interrogating my own DNA. My mother had died a few years earlier from metastasized breast cancer. She, and I, had been part of the scientific studies that had identified the genetic mutations—BRCA1 and 2—that had caused her disease, as well as the ovarian cancer she had ostensibly “beaten” 20 years earlier. Ovarian cancer, we were learning, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else—a lump in a breast, “spots” on lungs, liver, bones, brain. I had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation from my mother, and I had been looking for a way into the process of finding out whether, in fact, I had. What secrets lurked in my DNA? Telling the story—in real time, on national radio—seemed, paradoxically, like the safest route, at least emotionally: I wouldn’t be going for blood draws and meeting with genetic counsellors; I wouldn’t be facing down decisions about prophylactic mastectomy and oopherectomy, or whether it was safe to have another baby—I’d be making art.
The radio station assigned my friend (not yet my friend, although I think I had some inkling) to be my producer. I took that as a good omen, relieved to be paired with someone whom—I assumed—understood the vulnerabilities of revealing intimate details to the public. “What if the news is bad?” I asked her early on in the process. “What if I find out that I have the mutation and I don’t want to tell the whole country?”
“Then we can stop,” she said. “We can shelve it. It’s your call.”
* * *
We had wanted to go on this particular hike for a while, now. The trail ran along the Pigeon River, which acts as part of the international border between Northwestern Ontario, where we live, and Minnesota. We had hiked the Canadian side of the river several times together, usually once a season, making our way up to the top of the waterfall and marvelling at its power and the way it changed throughout the year. In the winter, the mist froze over itself in layer upon thin layer, creating a protective ice cover for the water rushing underneath. In the spring, that cover began to crack and melt, creating windows through which we could see the water underneath, always moving, pouring over the precipice. If it wasn’t too icy, we’d climb onto the rocks at the top of the falls, amazed at our own daring and the lack of protective barriers; on the US side of the border, hikers were prevented from such risks by fences and guardrails. We would make our way to the shore of the river and look across to the other side, imagine how easy, or not, it would be to smuggle ourselves across, but then wonder out loud why we would bother: even before the pandemic, the United States, so close, so seemingly similar to us in Canada, felt increasingly dangerous, frightening, unfamiliar.
But we had crossed the border by legitimate channels that morning, showing our passports to the armed US Customs and Border Security guard. Somewhere along the drive, my odometer did something interesting, and I noticed it.
And now we were here, walking, and I couldn’t remember the word for that phenomenon when things fold back on themselves, repeat in mirror image.
* * *
Ever the intrepid reporter, I carried a voice recorder into my final appointment with the genetic counsellor, the one where she would tell me whether I carried the mutation. In the recording, she has barely launched into her prepared speech about the process of testing, the odds and the disclaimers, before I interrupt her, my voice catching and slightly exasperated:
“Do we have to go through all this?”
“Yes,” she replies, almost playfully, “I always do. Not just for you, for everyone.”
“Okay,” I say, doubtful.
“I just want to know.”
“You want to know.”
“Okay.” She pauses. “We didn’t find it.”
And the tape dissolves into pure sound, no words: a long gasp; a sharp, sucking, intake of air; and then sobbing. “You didn’t find it. You didn’t find it.”
That moment, obviously, is the apex, the very top of the story arc, in the radio documentary that my friend and I ultimately created, the one released on national public radio, the one that cemented our friendship. They’d run my blood and cells through a scanner, isolating the chromosome, the allele. They had searched for a certain subsection of DNA, signalled at either end with palindromic tags, and they hadn’t found anything. As an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, my odds of carrying the mutation had been about one in 40, as opposed to the one in 400 of the general population. As the biological daughter of a known mutation carrier, my odds had shrunk to one in two, yes or no.
And now, we knew: no.
A collective exhale. I would die, yes, one day. But now the spectre of dying like my mother, like my grandmother, wasted and hollowed out in a hospital bed in my 40s, faded. Not entirely gone, but now not the only possible narrative.
* * *
And now let’s cut to 10 years after that moment in the geneticist’s office, 10 years after the documentary played on national radio, to, say, a restaurant where two women, fast friends, meet every few months. They are firmly in their 40s now, middle-aged and midcareer; one is recently separated, kids in middle school; one has a daughter just graduating university. They have perfected their dining routine: they arrive at 5:30 PM, right when the restaurant opens, and secure a prime table. They drink wine, but only one glass, because tomorrow and middle age. They meander over good food and good conversation, and they can be home and reading in bed by 9 PM, because tomorrow and middle age.
Except that this dinner, the radio producer says to her writer friend, her voice threatening to spill over: “I have some medical news for you.”
And the present moment folds back over into the past, to our first meeting, and we are both, once again, waiting to find out.
* * *
We walk through the woods on the other side of the border. The trail here is steeper, more rugged than on the Canadian side, and I watch my friend for signs of flagging energy. It’s been a year, more, since that early-bird dinner, since she drove herself to the emergency room, puking from the pain, since the surgeries and the chemo, since the disastrous, depressing “Look Good Feel Better” workshop where we felt so bad for being so ungrateful and yet so snarky. (Drag queens, we thought: drag queens are really the only people who should teach this workshop.) Her hair has grown back. We have been out for dinner, although wine now tastes like metal to her. She seems okay. And so I follow her lead.
We are talking, as I said, about the stuff of life: the Codex of tiny moments that add up to our happiness, the way they shift and morph. Whether and how and when she should go back to work; our children and how they simultaneously break us apart and heal us, how we have learned to weather the breaking; the stories we want to tell and how best to tell them in the limited time we have left. Because ovarian cancer, the science tells us, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else. This is especially true when you are, as my friend is, one of the one in 400 members of the general population who carry the BRCA mutation.
And this is the dénouement, the surprise ending that neither of us expected, even considered, when we made that radio documentary together all those years ago: that she, the producer, the woman behind the microphone, was always actually the one in danger. Look at our family trees and they are nearly identical, mirror images of each other: a grandmother, a mother, a cousin with breast or ovarian cancer—it’s just that the pattern stopped with me and continued with her. It’s just that someone noticed on my side and not on hers. It’s a story so stupidly overwhelming, a coincidence so unlikely, that we are barely able to talk about it. We shake our heads; the words don’t come.
Except, sometimes, in the woods, walking.
Why not go back to work for 10 more years, I ask, spitballing at least one possible future, and collect your full pension?
“There’s no point,” she says, as the falls come into view: “I’ll be dead by then.”
Around us, we can see only trees and more trees, and the falls, roaring with spring runoff, no ice to shield them. Maybe it’s the landscape, just expansive enough for me to hear those words and not argue, not point out, say, that my mother lived 23 years post diagnosis, or suggest the possibilities of medical advances, prophylactic mastectomy. I want so many possible futures for her, want to control the narrative, to speed through the unknown in the same way I could make the genetic counsellor get to the point already.
But the woods are big enough, right now, to hold space for the words we can’t remember, the narratives we can’t control, the things we can’t know, the stories we can’t stop telling and just shelve when they turn out to be tragedies rather than comedies.
Are the woods big enough, though, for how angry I am? At how nature tricked both of us, but betrayed her while sparing me? At myself, for continually inserting myself into a story that is no longer mine, never was? At her father for his crimes, at the president and the administration of this country we have crossed into, at every single predator who has targeted someone smaller, weaker, less powerful, more in need? At the ways in which those predators take up so much space, eating into our bedrooms, our narratives, our very cells, and how it feels like the only defence too much of the time is to cut off and poison the parts of ourselves they’ve touched, hope we live to tell the tale, hope that the cycle isn’t repeated, mirror image, in our daughters’ and our granddaughters’ lives?
Is it any wonder I don’t have words for so much of it? That my aging body—and I am so, so grateful for the privilege of aging—has manufactured a stopgap between impulse and word, forcing me to sit in the wordless essence of unknowing, to accept at least temporarily how little I know or can control?
We have seen the falls, mirror image, on either side of the border now. We retrace our steps back along the path. Gasoline is cheaper here, and I fill the car, reset the trip odometer to zero. We’ll be back to see the falls, most likely, in a season or two. Until we aren’t.
We begin the drive home, my eyes scanning the road for deer, glancing regularly at the dash for significant palindromic events.
Susan Goldberg’s work has appeared in, among other places, the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Catapult, Full Grown People, Lilith, Stealing Time, and The Manifest Station, as well as on the CBC and in several anthologies, including HerStories’ Mothering through Darkness: Women Open up about the Postpartum Experience. She is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. She lives with her sons in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can’t/won’t stop collecting and refinishing midcentury modern furniture. Find more at susanlgoldberg.com, and @susan_l_goldberg, and @milk.n.bread on Instagram.