By René Syler with Karen Moline
March 15, 2007
Former CBS anchorwoman René Syler takes a look at both the humor and the pain in two major life events in this chapter from her book on parenting.
Late in the morning on November 29, 2006, I was in my office going over my schedule with Jahayra, as we do every day. When I opened up my calendar, though, I saw a meeting scheduled for that Friday with Sean McManus, president of both CBS News and CBS Sports.
This was not something I'd see on my schedule every week.
No matter what you do for a living, when the big boss schedules an unexpected meeting, your stomach drops. My inner alarm bell started to shriek. Calm down, I told myself. There had been whispers about changes being made to The Early Show, but nothing concrete.
The whispers had had nothing in them to make me quake about losing my job.
"What's the meeting about?" I asked Jahayra, who told me she didn't know. She knew only that they'd initially wanted the meeting to be on Thursday, but I would be out of town shooting a segment about a Christmas tree farm in rural Massachusetts.
The next two days passed in a blur. Wanting to be punctual on Friday, I arrived a few minutes early at the CBS Broadcast Center, across town from the television studio, and killed time buying a cup of coffee. I had to laugh. The meeting had originally been scheduled for eleven thirty, but I'd had to push it back to nine thirty because Cole's class had a field trip and he was counting on me to be one of the classroom mommies.
Steeling myself, I soon pasted on my professional smile and walked into the room, where I immediately saw Sean along with Steve Friedman, the vice president for morning broadcasts. When Sean walked out for a moment, I mouthed to Steve, with whom I'd worked closely over the previous year, "What's going on?" Okay, so perhaps it was a stupid question, because once I'd seen Sean and Steve waiting for me, I'd been fairly certain this wasn't going to be a social visit.
"You'll have to wait until Sean gets back," he told me, avoiding my glance. That's when I knew for sure.
When Sean returned and shut the door, I tried to lift the coffee cup to my lips, but suddenly it seemed to weigh two tons. I hoped against hope they couldn't see my hand shaking.
"This is the part of the job I hate," Sean began. "We're going to go in a different direction. ..."
The rest of the conversation melted into a blur, but I managed to piece together that the news division of the Survivor network was voting me off the island.
Actually, it was a very short meeting. But perception is a funny thing in times of crisis, because everything moves in seriously slow motion. I remained calm, and am thankful that my sense of humor was still intact.
"It's really hard for me to sit here and tell you this," Sean said.
To which I quickly replied, "Not as hard as it is for me to sit here and listen to you tell it."
We shared an uncomfortable laugh, and then I stood and shook Sean's hand. Steve gave me a big hug, and I promised both men I would give the network my all until I walked out the studio door for the very last time. It was only then that my voice cracked and my eyes began to well with tears—but not one of them spilled over. I am extremely proud of that.
Mrs. Henry can make me cry. But my bosses who've just fired me—no way!
There were so many thoughts in my head as I left, that I was certain people walking past me could hear them. One of the first thoughts was how difficult it was going to be to put on a happy face and work for the next three weeks, as if I hadn't been fired with no warning, as if I didn't have a care in the world. (Doesn't this fall into the category of cruel and unusual punishment?) I knew it was going to be the toughest thing I'd ever had to do at work. Tough, but not impossible. I am, after all, a professional.
And I've had enough years of good-enough-mother training to know that you can never let anyone see you sweat.
One of the most frustrating things about my predicament was having this devastating bit of information inside me and not being able to do anything with it. Before I could tell anyone outside of my inner circle, the news had to go through all the official channels, and a press release had to be put out to the media, which I knew would cause a stir, as surprise moves in high-profile jobs always do.
Somehow I arrived at the lobby, and said good-bye to the kindly guard who'd let me skate over the years when I'd forgotten my ID badge.
As soon as I climbed inside a cab, I called my best friend in the whole world, Buff. He was very surprised when I gave him the news. He had, in fact, completely misread the intent of the meeting, and had been confidently reassuring me that there was no way they were going to fire me.
Hey—no one said he was perfect!
Then I called my agent and gave him the bad news. Back at the studio, the building looked different. It felt different. In little over an hour, my comfortable work home had become a house where strangers dwelled.
At the office I told two people: Harry Smith, my wonderful coanchor, with whom I've always been close; and Jahayra, my trusty lieutenant. Both of them looked at me in shocked disbelief. It's strange, because I was still not visibly upset or in tears, partly because the news had to remain quiet, at least for the time being. But halfway into my conversation with Harry, he got up from behind his desk and gave me a bear hug.
That's when I lost it. I mean, I really broke down, with that heaving, sobbing sort of crying.
I wasn't angry, just incredibly sad.
I gave Harry another hug, and then hurried into my own office to change. Cole's class was leaving for its field trip, with or without me. Life goes on. Fired or not, I'd already signed on to be one of the class mommies on Cole's field trip, and class mommy I was going to be. No matter what!
During the ride to join Cole's class, my emotions veered wildly. (My driver, mercifully, did not.) At first I had to deal with the sheer, immense shock of what had happened. Obviously, since all of us on The Early Show had been told there'd be changes, we'd been expecting something. But I hadn't thought that when the music stopped I'd be the one without a chair.
Then there was this alternating sense of relief because I realized I would soon be spared the three thirty a.m. wake-up calls.
Then, just as quickly, I had to deal with crashing waves of worry about how this overnight change in my job status might translate into a drastic change in lifestyle. I know I can cope with change; I always have. But dealing with sudden changes is often not always so easy for kids who are prone to worrying about the stability in their lives, especially when the rug has suddenly been pulled out from under the feet of one or both of their parents. Plus, kids always want to know the details, especially the "why." At this point there was no good "why" associated with my sudden shift in status.
Before I knew it, we'd arrived a few minutes ahead of the class at a theater where they were going to enjoy a lesson in filmmaking. So there I stood, light rain falling on my head, with no umbrella and no job.
Had I been a smoker, this would have been an ideal time to suck two butts. And a martini, for that matter.
Instead, I got something a whole lot better. When the bus pulled up, Cole was one of the first to bound off. As soon as he saw me, he shrieked "Mommy! Mommy!" and ran over to me, throwing his arms around my waist.
At that moment I knew there was nothing wrong with me and that I would be okay.
That hug, at least for the moment, was all the cure I needed.
I sat in the darkened theater with Cole and his class, and the hour raced by as I kept one eye on the big screen and the other on the little screen of my BlackBerry, which by then was exploding with e-mails from Buff, my agent, and my publicist. Team Syler, as we dub ourselves, was hard at work. Honestly, I got this warm surge of pride and contentment when I thought of my team. I felt that with all these people believing in me—the most trusted, loving people from the personal and professional aspects of my life—all would work out not just fine but better than fine.
I held on to that thought later in the day, when I broke the news to my kids. Cole was sanguine, quickly accepting the news more readily than Casey because he instantly figured out that I'd be home more, at least until I found another job.
"Does this mean you're just going to be an ordinary housewife now?" he asked with a cheeky smile.
I had to explain that being a housewife was never ordinary, but that, yes, I would be around more for now. No, I would not be taking cooking classes. Yes, I would be riding his tail more.
Casey was a tougher sell, and I saw her lips quivering. See, I had been doing something that in retrospect was kind of dumb (or at least short-sighted). Close to bedtime, when I'd be trying to prepare the next day's segments for the show, I'd always tell Casey and Cole that if they didn't leave me alone and let me study, I would do a horrible job and get fired and then we would lose the house.
Well, you guessed it.
"Are we going to lose the house?" she asked, with tears standing in her eyes.
Never before had I so deeply regretted using that adultspeak with her. A child of ten should not have to worry about the roof over her head.
I gave her a huge hug, wiped her eyes, and quickly explained to her and Cole that television is and always has been a tough and volatile business, and that sometimes people are let go unexpectedly.
"Then why do you keep getting jobs in television?" asked Cole in his infinite wisdom.
Still, that weekend was tough. Despite the amazing amount of support I got, I just wanted to curl up in bed and not have to talk to anyone, but we had a number of official events to go to. One of them was a black-tie tribute to actor Will Smith by the Museum of the Moving Image in Manhattan. I borrowed an absolutely gorgeous Carmen Marc Valvo gown and got all dolled up. No one could have known from my bright smile that anything was wrong. While walking down the red carpet and posing for the paparazzi who were shouting my name, I couldn't help thinking, Wow, this may be one of the last times I'll be doing this.
And then I thought, Oh, no, it isn't! And then I realized, hey, what the heck. I knew I was glowing. I knew I'd never looked better.
As the weeks went on, I realized that being a lame duck was, well, interesting. Someone asked me a question about The Early Show, and I could only reply, quoting Robert De Niro from Meet the Parents, "I am now outside the circle of trust."
As soon as I said that, I realized I was liberated. It's a word Buff had used when he'd first heard the news, and I'd thought he was saying that only to cheer me up. But then it struck me that, yes, I really was about to be liberated. And I realized I would now have the time to find a new job that would showcase not only my skills, but also my wacky sense of humor.
This wacky sense of humor has been what has carried me through this unforeseen blow. It's like a vaccine, protecting me from the ills of life.
I am pleased with the true me. That's not to say this change hasn't been hard. It has been among the hardest things in my life. Sometimes I feel really good and strong, as if I've been handed the opportunity of a lifetime. Other times I feel utterly defeated and demoralized, with my self-esteem hovering somewhere just above the dirt.
And then there's the practical good-enough-mother part of me. The part that realizes these things happen, that there's an ebb and flow to life that's out of my control—just as my children's personalities and interests are—and that this change is somehow meant to be. I haven't had one day of panic, thinking I have to find another job right away just so I can be back on television in a jiffy. I guess that's the difference between the René of thirty-three and the René of forty-three. At thirty-three I would have been beyond devastated if I'd gotten fired. Now I'm much more patient. I'm thrilled to spend more time with my children.
And I will be back in the game, probably sooner than I think.
But then again, I have to confess that there have been times when I've been sitting in my office, a scant eleven minutes before I'm slated to go on the air, thinking, I want to disappear. I cannot put on my happy face and do this.
Then I pull it together, and do it. You know why? Because I am a professional who always gives 100 percent. I can hear the words of the original good-enough mother, Anne Syler, ringing in my ears: "The only fair in life is the weather."
Ain't that the truth!
Really, sometimes you can think only in clichés when you're living through the "when it rains, it pours" / "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" time of your life. I'm especially thinking in clichés right now because I'm not only living with the sudden loss of the job I loved, but I am also dealing with the anticipation of another huge event.
I'm about to have my breasts chopped off.
Okay, perhaps "chopped" isn't quite the right word. "Prophylactic mastectomy" certainly has a more elegant ring to it. But whatever you call it, I had decided to make such a radical move months before I found out about being fired, and the surgery had already been scheduled for January 9, 2007.
I reached the conclusion that such a drastic procedure was right for me after four years of worrying coupled with multiple biopsies that left me disfigured and scarred. Ever since I was diagnosed with the hyperplasia with atypia in September 2004, I've had to have a mammogram every year, followed by increasingly painful biopsies, which are then followed by three anxious days of wondering whether I have breast cancer.
It sucks, to put it mildly!
I had really been thinking about this prophylactic surgery as they took me in for my biopsy in September 2006 and put me on the table. "Don't cut my nipple," was the last thing I managed to mumble to my surgeon just before finally slipping into blissful drug-induced sleep. I knew my surgeon had successfully performed what's called a nipple-sparing mastectomy, and I thought, Well, you never know.
In no way could I have anticipated just how disfiguring and excruciatingly painful my recovery from this biopsy would be. (Note to the squeamish: You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph!) First off, needles are used to place guide wires, so the technicians and surgeon can figure out where the suspicious area is located. Oh, and by the way, before you go under, these needles that carry the guide wires are inserted into your breast without an anesthetic! And then afterward, because this was an invasive surgical procedure, there was fluid in the breast that had to be drained once a week. For three dreadful weeks. This meant a long, long needle had to be inserted deep into the breast to aspirate the fluid, and it hurt like hell.
I remember crying like a baby while the technicians inserted the needles. Then after they all left the room, I cried some more. In fact, the morning of that biopsy I couldn't stop crying. I cried when they asked me my name as I was checking in. I cried when the nurse gave me my gown. I cried when they inserted the needles. I cried when they walked me into the operating room. The tears continued to flow as I lay on the table, while my surgeon promised to take good care of me.
After enduring all those needles, I thought, I've had it! This is it! I cannot and will not live my life this way and go through this again. But then, much like with childbirth, that terrible, searing pain goes away and you say to yourself, Oh, come on. It wasn't really that bad, now, was it?
At least when you go through the pain of childbirth, the result makes all the suffering worthwhile.
Ultimately, my decision to have the prophylactic mastectomy was driven by many factors being stirred together in one big cauldron of breast stew. The first and most important factor was a desire to make a real and substantial dent in my breast cancer risk. Without breasts, not only will I be freed of the need for regular mammograms and biopsies, but I will also instantly lower my breast cancer risk by about 98 percent.
Buff's comment when he heard that was, "Wow, the surgery seems kinda like a no-brainer, doesn't it." But of course it's not—because they're not his breasts; they're mine. And because we're talking about lopping off ostensibly healthy breasts.
Well, at least for now they're still healthy.
The second factor in this decision was that, remember, I not only have a mother who survived breast cancer, but my father lived through his own breast cancer as well. This makes oncologists pay attention, as there tends to be a genetic component to male breast cancer.
The third factor was my having been diagnosed, as I mentioned, in September 2004 with hyperplasia with atypia, which is another breast disease that can increase the risk for breast cancer. This meant that the increasingly unbearable yet mandatory biopsies could be a necessity every year, in perpetuity.
The final, deciding factor came several weeks after my last biopsy. After the breast had been excruciatingly aspirated for three weeks and the swelling had gone down, I was horrified by what remained of my left breast. It was perhaps a half-cupsize smaller than the right breast, with a huge scar to boot. My left breast had literally collapsed on itself.
I couldn't even stand to look at myself in the mirror. We may take them for granted or stuff them into bras that don't quite fit, but breasts are such a huge component of who we are as women. Even with all the trouble they'd given me of late, I liked my breasts. They'd fed my babies. They'd made me feel sexual. They were an integral part of my body.
I felt cheated. I led a healthy life, kept my weight in check, didn't overeat or drink too much or smoke or go in the sun or have any other self-induced risk factors, and yet here I was with these pesky and no-longer-perky breasts giving me hell.
I stirred the cauldron some more, and then it hit me—Buff may well have been right. Seems like a prophylactic mastectomy could be a no-brainer after all.
As soon as I made the decision, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. (Okay, sorry, can't help myself!) Honestly, I'd been on the fence about undergoing this surgery for so long that it was incredibly refreshing to have at least made a decision.
Once I did, I spoke to many, many women who'd already had the surgery. All of these women were incredibly helpful, compassionate, and willing to show a perfect stranger how splendid their surgically reconstructed breasts looked. Not one of them had any regrets whatsoever.
Still, I know I won't have any more feeling in my breasts, and that's a tough concept to live with. I also spoke to several friends who've had their breasts augmented, and they shared details of how, precisely, I'm likely to feel, which helps ease the normal anxieties. (They told me the chest area feels "heavy" afterward, and that you can hardly move, because the implants are inserted up under the muscles of the chest wall, and that I should be prepared for it to hurt, a lot, at least for several days after the procedure.)
I also spoke at length with a therapist who specializes in treating patients having cancer surgery. I wanted to talk to an impartial party, just to make sure I'd covered all my bases and looked at every angle. She assured me I had, and I found myself pleased and comforted that I'd made the right decision—for me.
Sure, I wonder what I'll feel like once I've recuperated from the surgery itself, when there's no way to undo what has been done.
Other than that, I have no real hesitation or trepidation because the pros so grossly outweigh the cons in my mind. Of course there will be armchair critics who might think my decision was way too drastic, but my answer to that is: This is something I need to do for my own health and for my family. I plan to be a good-enough mother for a very long time, thank you very much. And part of being good enough is taking a proactive stance. I'd rather play offense than defense.
So, there you have it. When all of this with my job and my health was going down, I have to admit I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering about life's challenges. You know, the really gritty keep-you-awake-at-night ones—and why they always seem to happen at once. And I've got to say, well, yeah, so they happen at once. I can deal—even while telling myself that it's not fair. Unlike in those mercifully long-gone days in Mr. McCullough's math class, no amount of cramming will help me through some of life's exams.