My mother’s breasts hung like buoys, dancing with the movements of the tide- free, but anchored. I remember resting my head on her large chest as a child and I can’t imagine her without them. She poses holding up her bra strap for a picture days before her surgery and we put it on the fridge.
The surgeon just now removed her iconic breasts and I wonder where they were discarded to; I think about how much we will miss them…
Remaining now, only a zipper-stitch wound across her breast-less chest. The metal barbaric staples are aligned almost inhumanely from arm pit to arm pit, with drain tubes protruding and hanging down to be emptied carefully.
Although fragile and emotional, she comes out of surgery over-medicated and over-exuberant.
“Oh you guys brought jelly fish for me. Look at them dancing around”, she laughs. We look at each other and find relief in the moment, as she has not yet noticed her chest due to the friendly hallucinations of visiting sea animals. This ‘moment of noticing her chest’ is derailed by the doctor informing us that they will have to send her biopsy results to a specialist. A new fear has set in as we wait for news about our dear single mother’s future. Will the doctors predict that she will meet her grandchildren someday…Will the most important person in our world be taken away from us?
I wash her hair that will soon fall out and thwart off scary-dressed nurses that enjoy celebrating Halloween. A male nurse comes in at night to pray with her and I take a moment to sleep. She cries at night in the hospital bed. I hold her hand, sure that there is nothing left to say.
Like a fearful first time mother of a new born baby being discharged from the hospital, I am reluctant to leave our team of doctors and nurses; I am 19 yrs. old and unsure if I am capable of handling this on my own. We have to leave. I change her drain tubes and take her to the doctor to pump her chest as the fluid buildup is too much pain for her to handle. She is beyond brave and tells me I should not have to do this. I call the doctor several times to inquire about the fateful news; they delay.
A few days after her discharge, I get in the shower with her and hold her drain tubes carefully behind her while she washes her hair by herself for the first time. She dries off and I hand the tubes back to her. Unexpectedly mom yells,
“I feel glass in my stomach- I can’t breath” and suddenly she starts to hyper-ventilate. I rush to get a bag for her to breathe in and push her onto the bed as she faints.
She lays there lifeless for seconds…. or minutes… I pray, with tears gushing. I yell for God to help me. I grab cold rags to cool her down and she opens her eyes calmly and says,
“God just told me I have more to do”.
As fast as the darkness came, it left.
She takes a long nap and I go for a long drive, talking to Jesus as if he is buckled in next to me.
The doctor calls and apologizes for the delay. They could not believe the results of the breast and lymph node biopsy; with a stage 3 aggressive form of cancer, they are surprised to report that she does not have any cancer in her chest wall. We breathe in again and breathe out prayers of gratitude.
The time of celebration is short lived as chemotherapy begins. Her hair mimics the changes of the season, as leaves fall quickly to the ground. Handfuls of my mother’s hair fall out while she is at a mall without me and I secretly cry at home, thankful that I am alone to reveal my weakness and fear uninterrupted. She pretends to be ok and I do as well.
We visit the wig shop and giggle as we try on some curly, grey do-ups. I parade the long, sexy, red hair wig for her and it generates a smile. The wig we purchase ends up in a few of our late night attempts to make our mom laugh. My brother and sister put on a show and in-between smoke breaks on the snow covered washer machine and listening to David Grey’s song: “Sail Away with Me”, we dance away our fears.
When the chemo hits my mother’s blood stream, it knocks her to her bed and loads her with strange distastes and constant vomiting. I sneak into her room and hold her foot while I continue to talk to Jesus about how much I need her; I pray that she would remain strong. She rolls over and cusses, then murmurs “Thank you”.
On route to her third trip to the chemo chair, we stop at a gas station. While I am in paying, I look out the window to see my mom is no longer in the car. I find her curled up, sitting on the gas station curb like a lost teenager. With a scarf swept beautifully around her bald head, flowing over her unzipped winter jacket, she pretends to not see me standing next to her.
“Mom, you are half way done with these trips. Get your butt in the car”, I playfully say.
She pouts and says she is thinking about giving up. I taunt her back to the car with magical images of her grandchildren, my wedding day and smelling the ocean again.
“Im not going- It is too scary today”, she says.
After much coaxing, she agrees to come with me to the doctor’s parking lot so that I can go in and postpone her treatment for the following week. I instead decide to go in and gather further ‘reinforcements’ and like an army, the nurses and I come out with a wheel chair and deliver her to the chemo chair. Mom is angry at me, but simultaneously thinks I am witty for tricking her. She surprisingly visits with the other patients in their chemo chairs, encouraging everyone in their battle and acting as if I did not just literally force her to get her treatment today. She is amazing like that.
Mom says this time it feels like a Mac truck has ran her over…She is so sick and unable to even move. I fear the bad stuff is killing all of the good stuff, as her spirit seems to be weakening as well. I sit out in the snow at night and pray and listen to the silence. Its hard to small talk with friends or return phone calls. I’m holding my breath and hoping for a miracle.
Out of the blue, Mom goes on a date with a man she met right before her surgery. She comes back from her dates all giddy, like the homeless teenage girl had found a sugar daddy. For the weeks she is sick, she is at home with me bossing her around and when she is feeling better, she is on dates, with him.
I chuckle to myself- God literally sent this person to help Mom remember that her beauty is not in the large boobs that were thrown in the trash can or the hair that fell like leaves in the fall. Despite not having any eye lashes left from her chemo therapy drugs, my sister and I would dress her up for dates and use heavy eye liner and deep colored lip stick to match the shades of the scarf on her head.
My rebel teenage-like mother quit her chemo one week early; she says she “Is ready to move on from this”. So like a mother slowly allowing her teenager to take steps away from the home, I also transition roles from ‘nagging nurse’ to ‘concerned daughter’. She stops throwing up and we have a man haul away the washer machine on the back porch.
Her hair grows back grey and wildly curly, emulating the spring flowers pushing through the snow. Fanned by the realization of ‘death merely avoided’ and kindled by new prospects of love, the small embers of hope that remained in my mother’s spirit started to grow. She dyes her hair bleach blonde and gets married.
“Grandma’s boobs were sick and so the doctor had to take them away”, we tell my daughter when she asked.
My mom raises her shirt to display the breast-less battle-scared chest and meets eyes with me. We can’t say much out loud, but her eyes say it all. Sometimes the worst of times and the best of times are at the same time. We don’t miss her boobs after all.
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