As my mother awakened, she motioned for me to come to her side. The acrid scent of anesthetic drifted from her. With an elegant hand she drew me to her, and whispered, “Did they take it?”
“Come closer,” she sighed. “I need to smell something beautiful.”
I leaned down to her, and she inhaled the fragrance she’d given me a few months earlier for my 23rd birthday.
It was 1982, the Middle Ages of breast cancer treatment, when they rolled you into surgery, split open the suspicious behavior of your body, and if they found, with knife and lens, that those cells were doing what cells do, but without ceasing, they carved them out of you.
As mother and daughter, we rarely withheld anything from each other, and certainly not for long. We usually managed to tease out what needed to be discussed over coffee, or during an afternoon of shoe shopping, and always as we planted tomatoes or rolled creamy dough into sugar dreams.
That’s how I knew she had been terrified–she didn’t tell me about the tumor until the eve of her surgery. My mother was the most capable woman I knew, but she did not know how to handle this new valley in her life. If she could not deliver bad news on a platter, dressed with what could be done to make it right, she would not bring in her burden until the last possible moment.
She was not the first. My family’s breast cancer legacy begins with my great-grandmother Susan. Susan’s lustrous mane was a bodacious auburn during an age when all outrageous things were corseted, so she hid her embarrassment beneath a dusting cap. She nurtured capable daughters who worked hard, prospered, and celebrated even small triumphs by playing the piano by ear and singing in four-part harmony. She managed the binge-drinking husband—the horse knew the way home from the Corner Bar—and she made it clear to her daughters that a handsome face was not enough. Although a clear-spoken woman, when she felt the mass, she kept silent. When she could no longer keep silent because the pain twisted cries from her, it was too late.
Susan’s daughter, my grandmother Elizabeth, was a bold woman, proud of the successful, boisterous family who gathered around her table on Sunday afternoons. My elders drank coffee with gusto from her heirloom china cups and dipped her home-made donuts in bowls of sweetened cinnamon. I listened to stories of how popped corn with sugar and milk constituted breakfast and supper during the Great Depression; how clothes would be picked open at the seam, turned and re-stitched for several more seasons of wear; or how some of their friends were never the same upon returning from “over there.” My aunts and uncles would shake their heads, dazzled by their gains of good fortune. Then my grandmother would try to tell one of a handful of her oft-repeated jokes, but would be undone by her own laughter, its force so strong it would pull everyone forward, all of us cheering for her, urging her to cross the punch line herself. Breathless and hooting, she’d wave a hand and relinquish it to someone who knew it, while collapsing back into her chair, offering her dazzling smile.
When breast cancer came to her, she did not proclaim it; she mentioned it to her sons, allowed more glimpses of it to my aunts, and revealed it fully only to her daughter Mary–my mother. Grandmother wanted it removed and flung far from her presence. She did not want it to trap her as it had her own mother in a dry case of death. Grandmother survived the surgery, scoffed at feeble efforts of therapy, and died decades later on good terms with old age.
Within those preceding frames, after my mother’s radical mastectomy, she agreed to experimental, oral follow-up chemical treatment that tagged her rounds of chemotherapy. She rolled a ball up and down the wall, again and again, to rebuild strength that never fully returned in her arm. She joked how she was grateful she started with a heavy head of hair, “So now I have just an ordinary amount.” She presented commandments direct from the god named Oncologist who said, “Considering your family history, your daughter should get a base-line mammogram in her twenties.” She insisted I do just that, asked if I were practicing my monthly self-exams, and sent me clippings about studies suggesting ways to minimize the risks of breast cancer.
My mother’s cancer resided in the waiting room for nearly a decade; then, not long after my father’s death, it came for another visit. She was content with a distant date offered for the surgery; I was not. After the biopsy, I stood at the nurses’ station and said, “Find something sooner.” The offending lymph nodes were removed within weeks. Episodes of cellulitis would regularly inflame her arm during the next dozen years, but cancer would not be the cause of her death.
More than 20 years after her first cancer, my mother traveled a modulated and gentle exit brought about by transient ischemic attacks. While sitting vigil, I opened the last drawer of mementos and tokens carried as touchstones throughout her long life: the picture of Dad too thin but beaming upon his return from the South Pacific, Mother’s Day notes scrawled in my brothers’ little boy cursive, a picture of me on the day I was hooded for my master’s degree. There were golden rings; a bone china coffee cup; pictures of us laughing on the front stoop of the farmhouse, our arms warm around each other’s waist. I looked at a snapshot of my mother, lovely, taken within hours of the birth of my daughter Madeleine. In it, Mother bends over the hospital bassinet leaning close to her granddaughter, smiling, again inhaling something beautiful. I remember how she looked at me after the picture was taken and said, “A daughter’s daughter is the most precious thing.”
And then, there it was. Nested in a small box was the first prosthesis. I thought she had tossed it away long ago, hardened by her heat and action, its underside crusted by age. Its weight in my hand yanked me through the door of legacy. I looked at my mother, her breath shallow, her eyelids still. Taking her elegant hand, I leaned close.
Hours later, I walked out of the care facility; a full moon ached in the ink-dark sky. I stood in the nearly empty lot, watched the caretaker drive away with my mother’s body, and sobbed.
During the years since my mother’s death, flickers of cancer tease the periphery of my own body. I greet good news after each mammogram, and savor the words: Not yet. Not now.
My daughter and I talk about her maternal ancestors, their cancer journeys entwined in the sharing of their lives. I make donations. Sign pledges. Wear ribbons. I wish I could stand as a fourth-generation barrier between breast cancer and Madeleine. But I know all I can really do is take her hand, lean close, and breathe in something beautiful.
—this essay received First Honorable Mention in the Kelly Culhane Writing Contest sponsored by Savage Press–http://www.savpress.com/