Memories of Mammaries

 My friend Dorothy is a "real" writer; that is, she does it for a living. She writes for Metro newspapers and is a published co-author of a hilarious dating book,  Dating Makes You Want to Die. I asked her to contribute a story about her and her mom, to kick-start an initiative to explore other mother/daughter relationships here.  When my mom first passed away, Dorothy was there with much-needed support, including the titles of several books she thought I might find some comfort from. This piece is equally funny and reflective, just like Dorothy herself. by Dorothy Robinson

When I was newly pregnant with my baby boy Sam, my 74-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. This was something of a surprise for everyone; breast cancer doesn't run in our family and Mom was diligent about having a yearly mammogram. It appeared without warning, laying claim to both her breasts. And it was fast, growing so big that just cutting the cancer out wouldn't be an option. She'd have to remove both breasts, the sooner the better.

When you undergo a mastectomy, most of the recovery is done at home. It isn't pretty.  To help with the healing process, the surgeons insert a tube in the hole where your breasts used to be, which then dangles outside out of your body. At the bottom of the tube is a suction device, resembling a tiny, clear, plastic grenade. For days and weeks after the breast is removed, the body shoots fluid to where it used to be to help clean the wound; lost, the soupy mess has nowhere to go and collects under the skin. The drains help to clear this and keep infection and pain at bay. But someone recovering from surgery needs help emptying those little grenades and keeping a log of the output. And that would be me. My 76-year-old father could hardly say the word "breast" and my brother, who lives down the street from my parents, gave me a look that said, "I fix their DVD player every week, you are doing this."

Before I heaved my pregnant self to Delaware to help while my mother recovered, I did some reading on how to help a woman who was going to lose her breasts. My mother had weathered health scares before, most notably a heart valve replacement---a much more invasive procedure, which she got through with little drama or setbacks. I figured this recovery would follow the same path. My research suggested that women undergoing a double mastectomy should get therapy to help with the psychological effects of losing their breasts. This seemed kind of nutty to me, as my mother was way past needing them. Maybe other, younger women would be affected by such a loss but not my Steel Magnolia of a mother.  A former judge and Southern WASP, she is the human embodiment of those ubiquitous "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters.

But this wasn't the case. The night before she was to undergo her surgery, I expected a usual night at home with my parents: Scotch for them, a discussion on an interesting article from that day’s Wall Street Journal with maybe a little basic cable thrown in. Instead, my mother was inflamed with sadness and anger. She wept. She yelled. She couldn't be calmed.  Wide-eyed at this woman I didn't know, I pleaded with her to take a Xanax, to have a drink---anything to calm her anxiety.  I was scared. This was not my mother. In my mind, it wasn't a big deal. It wasn't a foot or an arm. Just two lumps of flesh that had done their job. They had to go so she could live. It was a simple swap, I figured, and one that would let her continue to do important things in life, like being able to meet her new grandson. I texted my husband, who remained back at our home in New York to work, that I was surprised at her emotions. Our minister came over and, along with my brother, we held hands as a family in the living room and said a little prayer. Finally calm, she sheepishly asked me to take a photo of her breasts. Sheepishly, I did.

The surgery went well. And 24-hours after the doctors removed her breasts, she returned home, with me by her side. The nurses in the hospital rued this in-and-out policy. "A man comes in with prostate problems, he stays for four days. You get your boobs removed, and you go home in less than a day," one nurse said to us with a shake of her head, as she showed me how to clean my mother’s drains. For a week, I stood next to my sad, incomplete mother, while cells swirled within my body, creating my baby. I emptied out her blood and bits of flesh, keeping a diligent log for the nurses who would swing by our home to check on her progress.

When, six months later, baby Sam made his appearance, my mother was back to her usual self, healthy and cancer free. She has an angry scar across her chest (no matter how good the surgeon, the scar from a double mastectomy always looks like the operation was done in a back alley) and two pairs of "falsies," as she calls them in her Southern lilt, to put in her clothing to help give her shape. We can now even joke about her operation.  When she first held her week-old grandson, he tried to peck at her chest, like all hungry newborns do. "You're barking up the wrong tree there, buddy," she laughed.  That night, surged with hormones and gratitude, I wept at our good fortune.

Recently, while still on maternity leave, I spent some time with my parents at their little beach cottage to escape the oppressive heat of Brooklyn. After some trepidation at the thought of feeding the baby in front of my proper father, I finally just went for it. Soon, cocktail hour would mean sitting on the porch, my folks enjoying gin and tonics; Sam, milk.

You can read thousands of essays on the meaning of breasts, but until you place your sweet baby in front of them, you will never understand how important they are to your personhood, to your sense of self, to being a woman. To lose them is to lose a part of you; a part of your history. Finally, I understood my mother’s sadness. Perhaps if we were a more dramatic family, maybe we would have really focused on the significance of breasts and a new baby when our matriarch had just lost hers, and discuss it, like they do in therapy. Perhaps everyone did but we didn't say it out loud.  Instead, we just enjoyed each other's company under the hazy July sun. The only one who really cared about boobs or no boobs was Sam, who spent his evenings sucking happily while my mother and her new falsies looked on.