Overpass Girl: The Power of Anonymity

On Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day (October 13th) the Breast Cancer Consortium (BCC) published “Demystifying Breast Cancer” — a special issue of the BCC Quarterly edited by Grazia de Michele and Cinzia Greco. This international collection of original and compelling essays is intended to bust myths, resist stereotypes, and unveil how social dynamics impact the experience of breast cancer. The stories reflect the lived experiences of women diagnosed with breast cancer in different parts of the world, from the United States to Belgium, Israel, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, belonging to different social classes and ethnic backgrounds, and with different sexual orientations.

As one of the contributors to this special issue, I tell the story of Overpass Girl, O.G., as poet Steve Davenport calls her, a woman living with metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer.

Somewhere Overpass Girl bruises, blows, burns.
Somewhere retreats. Somewhere folds in. Somewhere
enthralled, ravished, betrothed.

— “Good Housekeeping,” from Overpass by Steve Davenport

When Steve Davenport opened his email that day in 1999, he had no idea his best friend from senior year in high school, a woman he’d lost touch with for 17 years, would end up a character in one of his books. In Overpass, a collection of 47 poems published in 2012, Overpass Girl (or O.G.) hovers above the terrain of the Illinois floodplain. It’s as good a place as any to tell a story of friendship, and cancer.

OverpassGirlCoverWho is O.G.? How does she feel about being an anonymous player in a poet’s intimate and unapologetic rendering of her life with metastatic breast cancer? Somewhere Overpass Girl bruises, blows, burns. Somewhere retreats. Somewhere folds in. But somewhere is not just anywhere. Overpass Girl exists in real time and space. She lives and breathes. She reads about herself in the third person. Somewhere enthralled, ravished, betrothed.

Overpass Girl is the nameless, faceless person who could be anyone, or a lot of someones. That was the point. That was why she gave Steve Davenport permission to tell her story, from his perspective, while claiming no ownership for herself. In an era when stories of survivorship carry significant personal and social currency, anonymity is the exception to the rule.

When I read Overpass and Davenport’s companion essay ‘No Apology For Happiness,’ I felt O.G.’s ominous presence. I recalled the people I loved, with cancer, and that unbecoming grief that persistently burrows into one’s heart after deep loss. Raw and unembellished, Davenport’s words rang true.

“As in I drive in rectangles above a lake of gasoline carrying news about a friend’s cancer. Overpass Girl’s cancer. As in I drive and drive and I have this friend from childhood who has this cancer and I am making myself angry, layering it on top of my hard-wired happiness. I, I, I, I as in the straight lines of road and railroad track and refinery fence and levee, all of it forcing a script of right angles I trace and retrace with the wheels of this beater van because I have no choice, the engine clicking like synapses firing tiny holes in my brain pan.”

I had an Overpass Girl of my own, a few of them. I wanted to know more about Steve’s.

How I Met O.G.

Steve Davenport and I had already been corresponding. I loved his work and featured several of his pieces on the Breast Cancer Consortium website. I inquired about O.G. “How is she doing?” Steve copied O.G. on his emailed reply, “Now’s as good a time as any to introduce you. O.G., meet Gayle. Gayle, O.G.”

I told O.G. I’d like to set up an interview with her about Overpass, why Steve wrote it, and her experience reading herself in it. This started an email conversation that lasted more than a year. I learned about O.G.’s history, her attitudes about breast cancer and pink ribbon culture, and her everyday life as a woman with metastatic disease.

For instance, I found out that O.G. came from the so-called “wrong side of the tracks” and that when they were in high school she had to cross an overpass (literally) to visit Steve. Her family life was volatile, so she welcomed spending time with his family, people who were accepting, with no airs, no judgment. She and Steve were just friends who would hang out, nice and easy.

After graduation O.G. married a man in the military and moved out of the country. Steve went to college. Without electronic communications and social media, it was harder to keep in touch in those days. But circa 2000, a flurry of emails followed by Facebook messages and a 35th class reunion rekindled that old, close friendship. Then things got blurry.

After a few years of benign breast biopsies, O.G. was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. During this time, she and Steve communicated more often. She sent him long, rambling emails and apologized for them, but kept writing. O.G. told him the truth about her relationship with cancer, something she couldn’t seem to do anywhere else. She was holding down a job, was a caregiver to an ill parent, felt like she had to put on a brave face for her kids, had a husband who didn’t want to talk about it. The marriage didn’t last long after the diagnosis.

From the biopsy on, Steve rode out the good and not so good news, asked questions, listened for details.

“It’s gone. It’s back. Radiation burns. Clinical trials. Insurance. Needle biopsy.”

O.G. felt like a hamster in a wheel, spinning to keep her life from falling apart. She was sick, terminal, doing the best she could, angry she couldn’t share her deepest feelings with most. Public spaces like Facebook were especially painful. Everyone had an opinion, and O.G.’s didn’t seem to matter — unless it needed to be “corrected.” Steve took it all in.

At some point, Steve felt the need to put ink to paper (or fingers to keyboard). He’d send O.G. snippets of poems, a few lines at a time. If he wanted to check something for accuracy, like the needle used to take out bone marrow, he’d ask. But where his writing was concerned, O.G. made few, if any, comments.

O.G. wasn’t sure why Steve started writing about her, but thought it might have been cathartic. “I think he felt as we all do,” she said, “helpless, and this was something he could do.” Then O.G. added,

“He supported me, cheered me on in his own way…Perhaps he was…making sure that he said things in a way that I couldn’t. I was always searching for real stories about real people with real feelings and I was having a terrible time finding them. It was quite therapeutic for me to be able to just lay it all out there.”

O.G. told me more about her quest for real stories, rather than those “cute little sayings” that seem to be mantras for the newly diagnosed. I laughed when she wrote:

“What drug are you on that makes you not have a care in the world except what to pack in your pink backpack for your first day of chemo, which, by the way, will be attended by four of your closest friends who will don boas and tiaras and decorate you with similar, but much more flamboyant garb? I [keep] waiting for the male strippers to arrive to entertain during infusion.”

“It’s like trying to slay a dragon with a lollypop.”

O.G. doesn’t mince words. But she keeps them to herself most of the time. “That rock and hard place is so uncomfortable,” she says. “I don’t like muzzling myself, but I do it. Truth is so unacceptable these days. It’s always perceived as negative.” If truth is synonymous with negativity in the cancer world and positivity is the cornerstone of survivorship, then there is no place for truth in that world. To speak her truth, O.G. needed to give her words and her identity away, to a trusted poet and friend.

“A few days ago Overpass Girl, minus one breast already, was sedated for a biopsy. The night before the procedure, she sent me an email with a subject line borrowed from her favorite novel, Holy Book of the Beard. “Spit in the face of cancer” is Helga’s advice to her daughter, advice that her daughter shares at her mother’s wake. In that email Overpass Girl told me there’s a letter in a trunk. For me. Heat-seeking with my name on it.

Tonight the word is Trunk.

Is Letter. Is Truth-Telling.

Is No-Escaping.

A letter for me, to be opened one day, right in there with letters to her grown children, her husband. A letter to be sent if and when. Another bomb.”

Overpass Girl lives with metastatic breast cancer. She argues with her insurance company to get approvals for tests and treatments. She fears that the metastasis on her femur may no longer be “playing nice” and that chemotherapy drugs for life may be the only option. She steers clear of pink fanfare, and offers an ear when others come to realize that the well-intentioned advice to keep up one’s chin in the face of cancer may have the unintended effects of squelching emotions and silencing truths. She sends long emails, and Steve Davenport turns them into poems.

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