When Beth Israel Hospital called to say my mammogram results were inconclusive and I needed more tests, I scheduled another appointment. I got more worried when a letter arrived the next day recommending a spot compression and an ultrasound.
A firm believer in the mind-body connection, I feared I’d made myself sick because I had been angry at my ex for years. After being deserted by the woman who promised to get old with me, I struggled with the concept of forgiveness. I decided that I could not, would not, and shelved the issue.
As I reviewed my journal entries about the subject, I realized I was not in that place anymore. By now, my anger had dissipated and it was time to revisit this matter. I started bargaining with God. If I did not have cancer, I would forgive that mean woman, whatever form it took. I felt this scare happened for a reason.
I was single and enjoying my hard-won independence, but the idea of facing a serious medical crisis without a mate was daunting. Luckily, I had close friends and a supportive family.
I’d been stuck in a quandary because I believed Slim, my former partner, did not deserve pardon. Four years ago this spring, she dumped me after 26 years, cutting off all contact and leaving me in a fragile economic position. As a New Age devotee, I was bombarded with messages to let go and kept reading how this was a positive thing.
In “The Age of Miracles,” author Marianne Williamson described pardoning a man who hurt her as “a blessing.” In “Expect a Miracle,” relationship guru Kathy Freston said forgiveness makes us more magnetic to new people. In “Happy for No Reason,” Marci Shimoff called it “spring cleaning for the heart.”
As a Catholic, I grew up with Jesus absolving the men who nailed him to the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus famously advised his followers to “turn the other cheek” and to be merciful to the ungrateful and the wicked.
As a yoga student for more than a decade, I tried to live by the principles of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Forgiveness came under that heading. The teachings of Christ and all the enlightened yoga masters were similar on this issue: Whether you believed in heaven or reincarnation, practicing this trait got you a better place in the next life.
I’d gone though the stages of mourning — denial, grief, depression and acceptance. But I’d been stuck on anger. While I feared that being unforgiving made me a bad yogini and a bad Christian, I felt letting my ex off the hook was morally irresponsible. But today’s scribes said to do it for yourself; it did not mean you approved the offender’s actions.
Despite what my faith, the swamis and the New Age gurus taught, I could not see how absolving her would make me feel better. My therapist thought I saw exoneration as a way to be open to a new relationship, although she assured me I could hold onto the anger and still find love again.
“Why would you ever forgive that callous woman?” Dr. R. wondered when we discussed this two years ago. “She tossed you aside like a used tissue,” said my simile-prone shrink.
This unresolved issue had simmered on the back burner until I was called for more tests. I was terrified that my rage had given me cancer, although I knew most medical doctors would say that was ridiculous.
I tried to imagine what forgiveness would look like but came up empty. I promised God that if I was O.K., I would stop cursing out my ex. I had already tapered this off and was trying to quit since I knew this kept me attached in a stupid, negative way.
Naturally, I attempted to put my upcoming tests out of my mind until the actual day.
Just my luck, the newspaper that morning had a story about Martina Navratilova being diagnosed with breast cancer. The tennis great (and lesbian icon) was going to have a lumpectomy and radiation. My exam was in the afternoon, so I left work early to go home and get ready.
When I arrived at the medical center at Union Square, I looked at the form and saw I was assigned to a different suite than the last visit. Was this more serious? After the receptionist called my name, I went into the examining section, threw on a frumpy dressing gown and checked my clothes into a locker. Then I went into another waiting room and sat with four other women similarly attired.
The table had old issues of AARP magazine, and the one I flipped through featured an article about the best ways to treat breast cancer. I put it down and prayed this was not an omen. First Martina, now this. I heard my name called and followed the technician into the examining room.
“How are you today?” the woman said chirpily. “I need you to sign this. Then slip the gown off your right shoulder and come over to the machine.”
“I’m anxious,” I said, “about having to come back for more X-rays.”
She took three pictures of my right breast and told me to return to the waiting room. About 10 minutes passed and she returned.
“Ms. Walter,” she called and I stood up expecting to be led into another room for a sonogram. “We’ll see you in a year. Everything is O.K.”
“I’m O.K.?” I said, dazed. “That’s great news.”
I removed my clothes from the locker and went into a dressing room and started jumping up and down, my fists pumping the air, “Yes, yes, yes. We’re done. Go to hell, you stingy bitch,” I said one last time and walked into the corridor feeling relieved and unburdened. I did not have cancer and I intended to keep my promise to let go.
So what if I had just tricked myself into releasing this negative energy. I did not miss the irony that thinking I might be sick had cured my sick thinking. A health scare that I blew up in my mind took me to a level I could not reach with other methods like prayer and guided meditation. It was not a sappy kind of absolution, but it still felt empowering.
As I walked toward the East Village, I knew I’d never really understand why she left. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had loved with all my heart, and I thought of that line from W.H. Auden, a fellow gay writer who had resided on St. Mark’s Place where Slim and I lived for two decades: “If equal affections cannot be/Let the more loving one be me.”
It was a beautiful April day, so I sat at Veselka’s sidewalk cafe and ordered their homemade veggie burger and focused on all the good stuff I had attracted into my life.