For Kim Soerensen
A mastectomy does not end after surgery. Not after the swelling goes down and the fluid finally drains. Not after every remnant of gummy, gray surgical glue and dried blood has washed down the drain of the claw foot tub. Not after the stitches have been removed and the scar has turned light pink. Not after the leaves on the cherry tree out back turn yellow. Not after Halloween. Not after you graduate from physical therapy ready, they say, to do the lymphatic massage at home on your own. Not after you return the post-surgery, wedge-shaped mastectomy pillow to your new friend Kim who had her breasts cut off three years ago. Not after the yellow leaves on the cherry tree begin to fall and some of them land on the blue stone marker that reads
IN LOVING MEMORY
OF MY LEFT BREAST
and when you brush the leaves away the blue stone feels like ice to your fingers. Not after you get fitted for a mastectomy bra and a prosthetic breast. Not after you bequeath your ruby-wine Victoria’s Secret bra to your best friend Bunny. Not after Thanksgiving when everyone was at your house and you slipped away to your bedroom and cried because when you told the relatives you were fine you felt like you were betraying yourself. You were not fine. Not after you become so attached to the prosthetic you begin to call it “my breast,” as in, Where did I leave my breast? Har har. Not after your range of motion returns and you raise both arms overhead like a gymnast sticking a landing. Not after the last three leaves cling to the cherry tree like children clinging to their mother. Not after your nipple itches but you cannot scratch it because it is not there. You scratch anyway and when you cannot feel your fingers on the scar you freak the fuck out and scream at Steve, My nipple itches godfuckingdammit! and he says he is sorry and you know he is sincere, your kind, gentle husband, but still you want him to do something but there’s nothing he or you can do to scratch the relentless itch that will not go away. Not after you can finally—finally—sleep on your stomach again without pain sending you to the ceiling. Not after you return to the gym. Not after you add three new weight machines to your workout for chest strength. Not after you gasp one blustery day when you see those last three leaves gone from the cherry tree—gone—and their goneness registers in your chest like cold metal. Why do they call it blue stone? From where you stand, next to the barren cherry tree, desperate to scratch your phantom nipple, the blue stone marker is gray not blue. Not after you purchase lavender body butter from the Community Market right before Christmas and massage it into the scar in circular motions every night after you shower by candlelight because candlelight dims the edges of what you see when you look down. Not after you look down in the shower on Christmas Eve day and gasp. You cannot believe it’s gone. And you cannot believe that you can’t believe it because you know it’s gone—it’s been gone—but there it is all over again, that unbearable itch: Your breast is gone. The white claw foot tub turns cold as a glacier beneath your bare feet. The mastectomy does not end after Christmas and all its trimmings have been returned to the far corner of the upstairs hall closest. Not even after the New Year promises new beginnings that wink like silver confetti in the light.
Saturday, January 9, 2016, four months after surgery. I walk out the front door, Steve in tow. A cold, gray, drizzly day. Not a day for walking. Brrrr. But I walk. I walk away from the cherry tree away from the blue stone marker away from the claw foot tub. The bluff walk downtown is empty and then it is not. Up ahead I see someone. I could collapse under the weight of not wanting to see anyone I know but then you recognize her walk and I scream, “Kim!”
She does not recognize me in my purple felt hat. We’ve only met twice, after all. Once in my foyer, once in hers, handing off the wedge-shaped, post-surgery mastectomy pillow.
“It’s me, Marilyn!” I let go of Steve’s hand and charge her.
“Hello,” she says. We hug and she asks me how I am and I tell her the truth. Yesterday I was curled under my desk howling for my left breast. I tell her I hadn’t done that since before surgery. I tell her I locked my office door so Steve could not get in. I introduce her to Steve. I tell her how I kept screaming, “It’s never coming back!” like I was realizing it all over again for the first time, and how I cried until I threw up right there under my desk. I couldn’t believe my breast was gone, I tell her, even though it’s been gone for four months and oh my god is this normal?
“You’re grieving,” she says. “And you’re not just grieving the loss of your breast. You’re grieving the loss of your self. The self you once were.”
My mind flashes on my adolescent self. I did not weather adolescence with grace. As my breasts developed and I experienced what it was to be seen as a body—a body with breasts—instead of as a self—my self—I pined for the girl I’d been before breasts, the girl with grass stained feet who could still run through the neighborhood without anyone heckling her breasts. It took me a long time to catch up with my body—my breasts—to walk (and run) with my shoulders held high and embody the woman I’d become: a woman with breasts and a self.
And here I am now, decades later, one of my breasts come and gone.
Kim’s down jacket is pearl gray and unzipped. She is wearing a blue-gray sweater beneath it. Beneath her sweater, her breasts. I look at them. I’ve seen her reconstructed breasts. She showed them to me when she dropped off the post-surgery mastectomy pillow. We were in my kitchen. She does not have nipples. It did not occur to me then, before my surgery, before my decision not to reconstruct, to ask her if she could feel her nipples. I wonder now, Do they itch? Does she scratch at them even though they are not there?
Her eyes are bright blue.
“You lost the self you once were,” she says, “and you don’t yet know who you’re becoming.” She used to surf, she tells me. But they took her core muscle to reconstruct her breasts. Without core muscle, she can no longer surf.
She misses who she was, on the board. Her former self, surfing. Her blue eyes soften to gray, and I glimpse her loss. But then they twinkle back to blue as she assures me that this will get better it really will and it’s important for me to know that, she says, because even though the unbearable really is unbearable it is not unbearable forever.
“You just don’t know your new self yet,” she says.
My new self. I do not feel new. The taut skin where my left breast used to be feels like candle wax that has hardened.
Do we lose our previous selves as we grow into the next version of who we are becoming? Or do we take with us an imprint of every self we’ve ever been—that girl with grass stained feet included—so that we are, each of us, a congregation of selves singing into being who we are now, this very moment, this body, this self?
Kim tells me the many things she loves about her life, now, like being here on the bluff walk, preparing for a light show that her arts organization is sponsoring. But for months after surgery, she tells me, there was not much light. She says she was so mean to her kind, gentle husband, the one who loves her most, that neither of them knew who she was for a time. She turns to Steve and says, “We don’t mean it.” She is speaking for both of us, for me and for her, and I feel seen, the darkest reaches of my new self emerging. It took time, she says. Months and months and months. The grief came in waves, and she never knew when it was coming.
Surfers ride waves.
She tells me it is a process and on the word process the ground quickens beneath my feet: writing is a messy, uncertain, wobbly process. Writing comes in waves. The mastectomy did not fuck with my writing muscle—my core muscle.
I keep Kim there in the cold, gray drizzle way too long. Every word she speaks tells me who I am. Who I am becoming. I cling to her. Later, when I visit the cherry tree, its bare branches weathering winter with grace, I will notice that the blue stone marker, slick with rain, does indeed emit a hint of blue.
We make plans to meet for coffee, she and I, and then we hug goodbye. As I walk away, I feel her imprint: the pillow-soft down of her coat, the solid embrace of her arms, her reconstructed breasts. I was aware of them when we hugged. I hugged her harder.
Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives (www.writingwomenslives.com), where she teaches women who are done with silence how to free their voice, claim their truth, and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her writing appears in River Teeth, Superstition Review, Literary Mama, and Under the Gum Tree, and her essay “Against Memory” was a finalist for AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Her memoir-in-progress about her experience with mastectomy explores the correlation between body, self, and voice. She lives in Lynchburg, VA.