Slowly I am waking up. I feel luscious wrapped in pink flannel sheets and feather quilt. What do I want? It’s October, the pumpkins are ripe, and I haven’t had one bite of pumpkin pie yet this year. That’s what I want—pumpkin pie and coffee breakfast. Why not? Marie Callender’s is only a mile away, and walking there and back will give me the exercise I need, instead of the usual treadmill downstairs in our apartment complex’s gym. I say to myself, “Let’s go!”
I had scheduled myself to write a story today for Friday’s autobiography class. There’s a lot in the news about breast cancer this month. I’ve never written my story about that. Maybe that’s what I’ll write. It’s not a comfortable story for others to hear, but I’ve accepted it and its ramifications by now.
I was in my early teens and my mother was telling me about her mother who she named me for, and who had died shortly before I was born, after my mother was pregnant with me. “What did she die of?” I asked. “Oh,” my mother answered, gritting her teeth, “some disease.” I could tell that was the end of that conversation. In the ensuing years when the subject of breast cancer came up, my mother tried to hide her panic, but I could always see her fear.
I pull on my black flannel pants, red blouse, and matching jacket, put money in one pocket, cell phone in the other, hang the lanyard with my keys around my neck, hurry down the stairs and out into the warming sunshine, where I cross two busy streets, pass the park where friends are playing tennis, and continue down the block where the lawns and yards are glorious with color. In my head are flooding experiences and impacts breast cancer has made on my life.
On a Friday evening in 1975, I walked into my house, late because I had just had my yearly physical and they had kept me wanting extra x-rays. The phone was ringing; I ran to answer. It was my doctor saying to me, “I’ve made an appointment for you with a surgeon for nine-thirty tomorrow morning. Be there.” The extra x-rays, the lump in my right breast they had been biopsying for two years gave me clues. The next morning as I waited in the surgeon’s office I saw the positive of my breast x-ray on his desk. The breast was covered with tiny specks, clustered around the lump. While I waited for the surgeon I was reading a psychology book for a class I was taking. As I read, the message came to me, “I am not my boobs.” The idea was strong, if my breasts were gone I would still be the same person.
My breasts were fully developed when I was eleven. At that point, whenever I ran they flopped, and it was painful. I complained to my mother, and she gave me a dollar and a half and told me to go to the store and get a brassiere. I went to the department store, and told the clerk that I needed a brassiere, and I had $1.50. She tried one on me that cost $1.50. It was exquisite, made of strong material, fit me perfectly, and held my breasts from bouncing and relieved all pain. My mother was not happy. She thought I would pay twenty-five cents for a bra, and get several. But I had done what she told me, so I ignored her complaints.
I had just turned twenty when my first baby was born. When I put him to my breast to suckle, after some help from the nurses he and I got that act together. He was happily nursing, and I was happy with nourishing him. Then, two weeks later my temperature went up to 104 degrees and I was terribly sick. My doctor came to see me and diagnosed that I had a new disease that had come in from the Orient by plane, that I had to give up nursing my baby, and take her prescription medications. After the doctor left my mother stood at the foot of my bed and sobbed, “You’re going to die and then what’s going to happen to this baby?” I had no intention of dying. For the first time in my life I yelled back at her, “Get out!” She told my husband that she was leaving and he would have to take care of me and the baby.
After she walked out and drove away he came into the bedroom. He picked up the medicine bottle and read the label, “Two teaspoons every hour.” Then he looked around the bedroom and asked, “Where do you keep the teaspoons?”
At Marie Callender’s I take the most comfortable booth with its soft seat and stained glass windows focusing the sun onto a play of colored lights. I order a coffee and a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. The portions are generous, so I dollop whipped cream into my coffee for kaffee mit schlag. I open my notebook and enter notes for the essay. I remember a story I had written before.
I was being wheeled into the surgery room on the gurney. I asked myself, “This may be IT. Is that OK?” As I thought over my fifty-two years being totally filled I decided, yes, it would be OK. Then I remembered reading an archeology book of my mother’s, Magic Spades. At age ten I determined I would go to Greece to see the murals at the Palace of Knossos on the Island of Crete. I had not done that. If I survived this surgery I would do that.
I survived the surgery, and for fifty weeks I drove downtown to my doctor’s office every Thursday after work. He would draw blood from my finger, test it, give me an inoculation of chemotherapy, and I would drive home, hoping to get there before the vomiting and diarrhea set in. It was a hard year. My hair and eyebrows turned white and fell out. My friends didn’t recognize me. My doctor told me that I shouldn’t quit my job. That was good advice. As hard as it was, it kept my mind occupied.
The next year I said to my husband, “This summer I’m going to Crete to see the murals at the Palace of Knossos. I would like you to come with me, but if you don’t I’m going without you.”
“It’s not the first place I’d pick to go, but when you put it like that, I’ll come with you,” he answered
“If you come, you have to have a good time.”
“Yes, I’ll have a good time.”
The next summer we spent a week on Crete, plus a two week folk dance tour of each area of Greece, which included special lessons from the top dance teacher in each one. The last afternoon of the tour a group of us went to the Dahlia Wine festival where they were performing music and everyone dispensed as much wine for ourselves as we wanted to drink. Late in the evening a folk music band started playing, with a huge outdoor wooden platform for dancing. About a hundred dancers mostly men, many young uniformed soldiers were doing the popular Greek folk dances.
When I tried to clamber onto the platform, suddenly four men lifted me up and set me among the dancers. They were doing zebekiko, which is a men’s dance where one man dances in the center, improvising dancing while feigning being drunk, reeling and slapping the floor while the rest of the dancers circle around him, clapping and calling out yassoo, and hopah. I was welcomed into the circle. When the music changed to a syrto we easily formed in a tight shoulder hold and sailed around the platform with the hops and skips to the music.
The young soldier on my left started blowing in my ear and licking it. Nothing like that had ever happened to me on a dance floor before, but I decided if it gave him a kick it wasn’t hurting me. Then I looked down.
His right arm was around my neck and his hand was kneading my right breast prosthesis. I was horrified. How long had that been going on? I couldn’t feel a thing. Visions of myself being gang raped under the nearby bushes scared me.
When the music came to an end I threw my arms around his shoulders, looked him in the eye, shook my head and said “No. No. My husband—husband.” I knew he wouldn’t understand the word, but then I saw Bob nearby. I ran over to him, clung to him, and said, “Protect me.” Bob was a hefty, broad shouldered guy, bigger than the soldier, who by this time had disappeared in the crowd.
Prostheses were expensive and a nuisance to care for, and to use. I decided that I wouldn’t use them. Most women don’t notice. I suspect most men do. I enjoy freedom of movement, and dressing. Another benefit of being a breast cancer survivor is that for more than thirty years I’ve not had to have a mammogram.
I close my notebook, drink a refill on my coffee and order a pumpkin pie to take home. I walk into my apartment, put the pie in the refrigerator, sit down in front of the computer and start to write In Honor of Breast Cancer Month.