Today was a good day I told myself. Good because two days after a mastectomy I was dressed in “sort of” matching clothes, my hair was “sort of” combed, my make-up was “sort of” done, and I was “sort of” hopped up on pain killers so the reality of how I might actually look did not matter to me. The victory was in the “I’m ready to go, even though I am missing a breast, have tubes tucked into my underwear and my whole life has turned upside down in less than a month.” Because a month ago I was a wife, a mother, a full time teacher and a ridiculously over committed human being…now I just had breast cancer.
The purpose of being up and sort of ready to face life, was an appointment with my surgeon, a nice, extremely attractive man who had recently removed my breast. My mother was picking me up for the appointment. I love my mother, she is wonderful in many ways, but she is not your typical mother. Well, maybe, if you were rich, eccentric and living in Manhattan, then she might be your typical mother, but we are none of those things. We are middle class, small town, central valley California people.
It was no surprise to open the door to her dressed head to toe as though she were going to the Country Music Awards instead of her cancer stricken daughter’s follow up mastectomy appointment. Not only was she dressed in a fur coat and knee length fur trimmed boots, but she wears big, dark sunglasses year round and currently her hair was very red. So it was really like opening the door to Naomi Judd.
Naomi looked over her sunglasses, gave me a once over and said, “Oh. Well, I can see we are going to need to get some matching sweat outfits for the next few months.” I knew right away that I did not look anywhere close to the “sort of” good I had built myself up to be. I did feel like screaming at her that the reason I did not own matching sweat outfits was because she had spent my whole adult life warning me of the evils of women who let themselves go by wearing those “horrid little sweat outfits” everywhere. But, I had long since learned that to point out the inconsistencies of my mother were futile and led to no purposeful discussion. Instead I smiled and said, “Thank You Naomi, I will work on that,” and went to locate the painkillers that were suddenly becoming a great perk to my illness.
The surgeon, again he is very nice and handsome…a rare combination of attractive and outstanding bedside manner…was, of course, slightly taken aback when he came into the room for my appointment, this being for several reasons really. One reason being the presence of Naomi, who did not take off her sunglasses for the mastectomy visit and two our reaction to the removal of my bandages.
Prior to breast cancer, I was a well endowed girl, a size C cup since freshman year in high school and a double D for college and beyond, I had been dealing with my breasts it seemed, my whole life. Not perky double D’s like you see on any MTV reality show or Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, but the kind of double D’s that sag down to your belly button, need to be lifted up and tucked into your bra. So, even though I would eventually go on to have four children, my breasts had the look of a woman who had birthed four children long before it actually happened. Simply put, I had always hated my breasts, if I had to do it over again I would have maxed out a credit card and had a reduction at 18. My mother has lived the journey with me. Dresses for dances, graduation, and just about any occasion have led to huge department store break downs and constant frustration, because while a double D on top, for most of my life I was a size 8 on the bottom. This leads to difficulties when dress shopping.
Now, I am certain, my very experienced doctor had to unveil bandages to breastless women many times and I know that many women are very traumatized by the loss of a breast, so I am certain my surgeon had seen many tears and had to comfort many women. That has to be the norm I would imagine. It is not what he got from my mother and I. As the bandages came off to reveal my totally flat boy chest on one side….my mother and I both said, in chorus, something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s not so bad, oh gosh look at that, well, doesn’t that seem like it will be just fine.” Speechless. We left the nice, attractive surgeon speechless.
After the visit what should have happened was that I should have gone home and immediately gone to bed with, yes, more pain killers. Really, the day had been full enough with Naomi and the speechless surgeon. However, I decided that I would like to stop by the store for grapes and my mother wanted a flu shot which was also happening at the grocery store that day. I am certain grapes and flu shot at Safeway always follow mastectomy appointments.
The need to stop for grapes probably came from the same place that would strike me throughout my journey with breast cancer. It came from the need to be a good, involved mother, when really that wasn’t always possible when you are in pain from surgery or exhausted from chemo or just exhausted from the whole experience of it. On this day I thought that a good, involved mother would have fruit in the house for her children. The need for a flu shot on this day, I am not so sure of where that came from. But, never the less, here we were at the grocery store. After grapes, flu shot and many other items that hit the cart, I found myself in line. I was tired, exhausted, drained and in need of those pain killers again. Naomi was still in her sunglasses (it was December, not a bright month, for clarification) and I was realizing that I was feeling like a Judd too, not Ashley as I had felt in the morning prior to my mother’s look at the door, but rather Winona.
Here in line, bickering with my mother, I heard it. “Hello Kim.” I should at this time explain that in a ridiculous twist of fate in life, I have somehow ended up living in the town I grew up in, myself and about three fourths of my graduating class. My life, since I’ve moved back, is constant run-ins with “the weird guy from geometry” or “popular girl with good hair” or “smart guy from English who didn’t like to loan me pencils.” I have long since learned after moving back that you do not leave your house looking anything less than put together or your ex boyfriend from Jr. High is going to be there and you will be embarrassed.
Today, because of breast cancer, I have forgotten this rule. So, I turn slowly to face the music. It is “guy I had a crush on who was really a looser” from high school. He was one of those guys you liked, passionately, stupidly, embarrassingly and to add insult to injury one of those guys that did not like you back. He was also one of those guys that when you had a couple of years distance on it you said to yourself, “Really? I liked that guy? I was too good for that guy AND he didn’t even like me.” It was also one of those things where had it been any other moment since I had moved back I would have been smug and thought “See, I turned out great, you are the big looser for not taking me up on it.” But, today with one breast, mismatched sweats, tubes tucked into my underwear, and Naomi by my side, I can only suck in my breath and reply “Hello, how are you?” very weakly as I take in HIS smug, “Thank God I dodged that bullet” look.
This was the day I knew I would be all right. The day when I knew cancer would be difficult, scary, exhausting, frustrating, and challenging. But, I also knew it would be funny. Because for me, and this is just me, it had to be.