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Friday, July 18, 2014

The Dead Duck Day

 When I was four, I rewound my favorite part of my favorite movie so many times that the video tape snapped. My dad had to performing emergency film splicing while I sobbed. (The movie, by the way, was Amadeus. I was a strange child.)

Growing up, we watched movies over and over. It's just what we did. Whole eras of my life are remembered not by things like who was president, but by which movies I watched over and over. In preschool, I made my brother run lines from Ghostbusters with me. In 4th grade, I saw Jurassic Park in the theater four times. I liked to watch City Slickers before my sporadic horseback riding lessons, because it would help me feel less afraid. There was one summer, before middle school, that I watched Apollo 13 every day. Actually every day. I tucked it in among the hours-long games of tag and planning a carnival for our little street, and sleepovers where my sister Miranda and my friend Dani and I would try to become psychic.

It wasn't just me; everyone in my family was this way. (Except my dad. poor guy.)

One of the films that had the honor of being one of our favorites was About a Boy. If you're not familiar, it's about a boy (obviously) who's struggling. He's made fun of in school, and he's lonely. His mom is depressed. A few minutes into the film, his mom sends him out with her friend and a dude (Will) his mom's friend is dating. The boy tries to feed some ducks in a pond, but winds up accidentally killing one with a giant loaf of bread. The adults take him home, where they find his mother has attempted suicide. Henceforth, the boy calls this day The Dead Duck Day. (Loads of other stuff happens should just see it, despite my incredibly dreary-seeming synopsis.)

The Dead Duck Day. For the boy, Marcus, it's the turning point. The moment after which things can never be the same. Story-wise, it's the catalyst for change. The Dead Duck Day doesn't have to be the lowest point -- though it can be, the process of change often results in several even lower lows for the hero to overcome.

In actual life, there are many Dead Duck Days. Most of the time, you don't know that a day is a Dead Duck Day until a while later.

I realized that today is the anniversary of my personal Dead Duck Day. The thought floated through my head while editing photos as work. "The biopsy was The Dead Duck Day."

Two years ago today, I went for a mammogram. The tech showed me the microcalcifications, said I needed an ultrasound. That tech said I needed a biopsy. I lay in the darkened room, undressed from the waist up and covered in gel, and shook and shook, hands smacking against the table. The tech held me so the doctor could work. I was there for hours.

When I finally went home, I walked out into a biblically-proportioned thunderstorm. I was soaked within seconds; there were hailstones which, against the dark clouds, resembled the trouble spotted in the pictures of my breast.

At no point did I think, "This is the point after which nothing can be the same." Instead, I tucked the scrap of paper with radiologist's cell phone number in my pocket and thought, "What a nice woman."

But it was this day, and not the day I found the first spot of blood, or the day I was diagnosed, that was the last stop before cancer-land. That morning was the last time I was that other girl, the one who's presence I felt strongly for a while after, but who has since gone away.

I am in my coffee shop now, where I always come to write. Someone's phone just rang, and played the theme from Amelie, a film the other girl used to watch whenever she was sad.

I haven't done the over-and-over thing with a movie in a long time. Maybe that's why I feel so floaty and lost sometimes -- I don't have the same type of touchstone for my life the way I used to.

The thing about the Dead Duck is that it's a stand-in for the worst thing. The dead duck wasn't the most important thing that happened in Marcus's life that day, but it was how he accesses the truth about his mother. It was the moment just before the bad thing, that leads him in. Maybe that's why I remember my own narrative the same way, that the biopsy day was far scarier and kind of worse than the diagnosis day.

The Dead Duck is a way into the memory, but it's also a way out of it. There's a scene in which Marcus is yelling at his mom, about to bring up her suicide attempt in front of strangers, when Will swoops in and stops him by telling the duck story. Like the way I focus on my terror at the's a way to avoid the memory of the sadness five days later, I guess.

Narrative is always constructed after the fact, as a way to understand seemingly random and disconnected events. Meaning is not inherent, in anything. It is assigned. Marcus assigned the Dead Duck the weight of the suicide attempt, the way I have assigned the weight of the last two years to the biopsy.

In truth it was an awful, horrible experience. Many women feel that way about the biopsy process. But had it been negative, had I traveled on my merry way, I likely never really would have thought about it again. I might have gone home, watched a movie to take my mind off the pain, and found a new film for my rotation.

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