Shriveled: My Mother's Breasts
Mother stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bathroom. She started taking off her blouse, then hesitated, scanning my reflection in the glass.
I nodded, insisting, “I want to see.”
She looked at me pensively. “It’s not pretty,” she said.
“I still want to see.”
She undid the hooks of her bra and showed me where Dr. Chandler had opened up both her
breasts to get rid of the fibroid. The operation had been carried out several weeks ago, but until that morning, when I was seventeen, I hadn’t been able to muster the courage to look. “My tits are all shriveled now,” Mother said.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” I said. I felt the wave of emotions, the thumps inside my chest that betrayed them. I turned away, showing a sudden interest in Mother’s zippered pouch on the dressing table. Inside a mirrored plastic compact, the once fluffy cotton pad was flat and frayed around the edges.
Mother put back her clothes and leaned against the mirror, facing me, squinting, as if evaluating an expensive purchase. “Are you okay?”
I wasn’t. When Mother had told me that it was going to be a “simple operation,” I had not believed a single word. After all, both my grandmothers have died of cancer. It runs in the family, as they say. We have bad genes, bad hormones, whatever.
Before they were diagnosed—separately, each when it was already too late—Grandma Simone and Grandma Clara were the very picture of blooming health: rosy cheeks, impervious to germs, hearty creatures. I can still clearly see Grandma Clara lying on the hospital bed, fat pillows holding her head upright, and a pastel floral blanket pulled up to her chin. Her face had lost its fullness, and when I took her hand, it was cool, the pulse slow and unsteady under my fingers. A nurse strode into the room, eyes shuttered and noncommittal.
Ever since that day at the hospital, Death has not ceased breathing down my neck. I always believed that everyone—every single one of the people around me—thought about Death every day. Turns out that’s not the case.
I’ve been obsessed with breasts since I was ten.
I was envious of Barbie’s breasts—the upturned, pointed cones would never cause her any trouble. Barbie, stiffly beautiful and happy, would never share the curse of real womanhood.
At the market, I stared at the chests of the female vendors who kept their money in a folded wad in their dresses, against their breasts, so that it was soft and creased and warm when they lay it out on the car nose to count it. Did they worry about death by breasts?
When my older sisters and their friends talked, I made myself small and listened. They all remember me as a tenacious eavesdropper. What a wealth of information they must have provided about the changes in the female body. But somehow the few conversations I do manage to remember all involve tits.
As a pre-teen, too often I lifted my t-shirt and looked at my chest. I was horrified when my nipples started to get bigger and darker, and the puffiness turned into two small, but definite bumps. I didn’t want a training bra, the wearing of which I feared would urge my chest to grow titties, but my friend Fanny told me, “If you don't wear a bra, your breasts will grow forever.” She threw back her head, laughing.
My father brought me my first real bra, helping me to put my arms through the straps as he tried to find out how to fasten the back, how to snag up the shoulder straps. The elastic cups pulled against my chest, my bumps looking a little higher and bigger. I stood in front of the mirror, staring, twisting and turning in shock and awe.
My obsession intensified, my hands moving over my chest more often than ever before, probing, inquisitive. Is that a lump? My forehead creased, my upper teeth scraped my lower lip as I tried to locate a cyst, a fibroid, some kind of tenderness.
One day, I felt a sharp cramp. My jaw unhinged. I was in so much pain I thought I was going to die.
“Where is the pain?” Mother asked with furrowed concern, swatting a mosquito on her calf.
I shifted from foot to foot. “Right there,” I said, pressing one hand under my belly. “And my breasts—they’re about to explode.”
I mocked my own anxiety, but while both of us sat by the phone waiting for the doctor to return our call, cross-legged and reading, I chewed my already gnawed-at cuticles down to the bloody quick.
At the gynecologist’s office the next day, I lay back on the paper scroll on a table, the cold rod of each metal stirrup pressed into each foot arch. I felt bare inside the paper gown. It wasn’t the office of the sweet, sensitive Dr. Chandler, who was out of town, but that of some other doctor one of my aunts had recommended.
The doctor examined my breasts first. “Are you pregnant?” he asked disapprovingly. And when I said no, he looked at me doubtfully, his teeth very straight and white, although one of the front
ones had what looked to be a hairline crack in it. Apparently, I didn’t have a virgin’s breasts. “Are you sure?” he asked again, still probing my tits. His top lip had a natural outward curl that kept his face in perpetual sneer.
“Yes, I am sure. I am not sexually active.” My tone was harsher than I intended it to be. “I’m only fifteen,” I added, as if it really meant anything. And, “Are my breasts going to be okay?”
“You’ll be fine,” he said days later, when some lab results came back. “Your hormones are...wild! That explains your acne and your very thick hair... We found some micro-cysts. Don’t worry. You’re not going to die or anything.”
He put me on the pill, and the manufactured hormones did seem to work some magic. No more pain. No more swollen breasts.
I was no less obsessed.
I startled when my first love traced his fingers over the swells of my breasts. I felt butterflies flutter and float under my bellybutton.
“You have the most amazing tits,” he said.
“Will you love me when I don’t have them anymore?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know—if they have to cut them off.”
“And why would they have to do that?”
Fifteen years later, I am still obsessing over my breasts. My mother is visiting this week
and she’s standing in front of the mirror in my bedroom, examining her breasts. This makes me uncomfortable.
“I don’t do this anymore,” I say. “I used to find lumps every single time. They were everywhere.”
I’m drinking a glass of milk with Milko in it—a crunchy, sweet, supposedly chocolate tasting-powder. I take a gulp, set down the glass on the night table and cross my arms over my chest. Breathe in. Breathe out.
“I’m afraid of breast cancer,” I say. It’s the first time that I’ve really expressed my fear.
And somehow saying these words take the power away from them. I am overwhelmed with
Mother walks toward the bed and sits next to me. Her face seems to be dissolving in sweat.
It glows a shiny film. She curls her fingers into mine and I feel the heat of her palm. “Don’t worry,” Mother says. “I’ll show you how to self-exam properly.” ***
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