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No More Secrets : A serious illness has turned her life into an open book. But in turn, she feels theheady freedom to say or do anything.

For five years Rosemary Breslin, 37, has suffered from an immune disorder of unknown origin that causes an antibody to attack and destroy her red blood cells before they are released from the bone marrow. This essay is another in an occasional series.

November 29, 1994|ROSEMARY BRESLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Let's face it: There are certain things you don't want your father to know. But once I became ill, a little more than five years ago at the age of 32, I can safely say that I lost all privacy. Actually, I can pinpoint the exact moment.

Nobody knew what was wrong with me. Doctors here suggested I go to the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, where they could perhaps diagnose this mysterious illness that was causing my red blood cells to disappear.

This was upsetting me more than a little. So when the doctor at the Dana Farber asked if I wanted my father and stepmother in the room with me while we spoke, I said yes.

The doctor sat behind a desk, and we sat in chairs facing him.

He had a pen and a sheet of paper in front of him with boxes and blanks and room for notation, and he started rattling off a list of questions.

Name?

Age?

Sex?

Marital Status?

I answered them as quickly as he asked. Then he moved on to question No. 5.

"Have you ever been pregnant?"

"Yes," I said.

"Busted," I thought. Had I hesitated, it would have been understood the same.

"I told you," my stepmother said to my father, who said to me, "I'll kill you."

Apparently, late at night my father had taken to having long debates with my stepmother about abortion. She had warned him not to adopt too strident a position because as the father of two daughters, there was the possibility that one of his had, or might one day have, an abortion. Here I was, the sitting duck.

Once this news was in the open, no other secret seemed particularly important to them. By the time the doctor got to, "What drugs have you taken?" I shrugged and laughed. "I grew up in the '70s--I'd probably be better with colors than names."

As the list grew, my stepmother chimed in, "What about LSD?" I mumbled, "Maybe a few times."

Later, when I was alone with the doctor in the examining room, I told him, "I lied about the LSD. It was more than a few times." It was doubtful that my past drug history was related to my problem, he assured me. "Otherwise we'd be seeing a lot more like you," he said.

It was at this point I told the doctor, "I'm a serious person. When I was young, I did a lot of things. I don't do them anymore, but they are part of who I am. I'm not sorry I had an abortion. I was young and made a mistake. I wish I hadn't, but I did, and I'm glad that I was able to have done so legally."

My father and I never discussed again what transpired in that room. He's just not comfortable talking about it.

One of the biggest things I have had to deal with since I got this undiagnosed illness that no doctor can find the cause of, is the loss of privacy. It's changed my life. It's not a bad thing, just different. Call me weird, but I kind of like it.

It's freed me. Kind of the way old geezers can say and do what they want just because of their age.

My feeling is everyone is allowed to poke and probe into my life, literally and figuratively--and then I am allowed to say and do as I feel. Also, I have a particularly close family and friends. If I tell Abigail in New York that I don't feel well and am depressed, Maria cries in Purchase and calls Kristin in New York who calls Suzanna who calls my husband who had heard it from me first, but still calls my stepmother who calls me.

Because managing my illness can be a full-time job, my father and stepmother have been with me at all times. When my husband can get away from work, he's there too. Otherwise, he holds up the home front.

In the roughly 400 doctor visits and outpatient treatments over the years, my father boasted to his friend Nick, "I've only missed three times."

"Don't tell Arlene about the three," Nick cautioned, right before his wife picked up the phone.

Since my father and stepmother are always by my side, they hear everything. "Her count's down," the doctor says when he walks in, referring to my red blood cell count. "She just had her period," the nurse shoots back.

Recently, I ran down the hall from the nurse and tried to hide from her. "No, no," she shouted, "I want to talk to you. I don't want to weigh you."

Sure. The time before she shouted my weight down the hall. "You weigh that much?" my stepmother asked incredulously. My father commented that there's only one category I could fight in: heavyweight. I've since dropped a few, so maybe that was a good thing.

Of course, my family leaves the room when I am being examined, but doctors and nurses have seen more of my lovely Lily of France lace bras than my husband has. "That's a nice bra," a female doctor once commented. "Bloomingdale's," I answered.

When I'm not feeling well or a new treatment hasn't worked, I usually can bolster myself and get through it. But then my phone starts ringing.

"Heard you had a rough day," says the somber voice of any number of my friends or family on the other end.

"You spoke to my father," I answer.

Before my father takes to his bed, he calls everyone with the news that has devastated his day. Me, I'm usually out cruising around or working, thinking. Hey, what am I going to do? Go home and lie in bed?

Other times, my husband calls my father and announces: "She's really down." Then my father calls my house at 7 a.m. and when I tell him I'm sleeping, he turns to my stepmother and says, "It's bad. She's asleep."

Sometimes I think these people are out of their minds.

But when you get right down to it, it's not so bad. It's kind of like being a rock star--all these people constantly concerned about you, discussing you and catering to your every need.

I rather like it. Once in a while I like knowing that wherever I've been, they're saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building."

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