A Salute to Breast Cancer Awareness

I lean her tiny frame against my chest as I see her thin reflection in the bathroom mirror. I know she will not ask for help. Still, she has become so weak, so frail, that even the buttons on her shirt have become difficult for her. I slide my arms around her and begin at the top, pulling, twisting, and releasing each taut button through its stitched hole. As I see her profile in the mirror, I recognize the wear on her face, the shine from the vanity light on her head. I pull her shirt down off her shoulders as the water in the shower streams across the tile, beating rain-like patterns on the glass door. My hands move across her back to unhook her bra, and I slide the straps off her shoulders, remove the prosthesis. I run my hands down her shoulders, across her chest, her collarbone, her space where her breast used to be.

The scar from where she fought like a dragon feels smooth–almost silky–on my fingertips. The new form is different, yes, but beautiful still. Even more beautiful.

I help her climb the small step into the steam of the shower. I look through the glass not yet bathed in water vapor, and I see her again for the first time.

These moments catch me off guard.

I feel like I am the one who should fight this monster for her, but she has had to walk a path through darkness and pain I may never know.

My eyes begin to well, but the tears are not full of loss for her breast, her hair; instead a soft smile covers my face as a tiny drop streams down my cheek. I still have the most important thing to me in the entire world.

I still have her.

(This piece was originally posted here. It remains one of my favorite short pieces that I have written, and the images I see when I read it still touch me. I hope you enjoyed it.)

Air

I hold my breath.

I am used to this practice, a habit of sorts now, as he rolls onto me, eyes wide with wanting.

He doesn’t like that part of me, the in and out, rhythmic, life-giving and life-releasing inhale and exhale. So I hold in the stale air, wet with morning dew and the building humidity of night.

I don’t remember when I learned to hold my breath…probably in infant swimming class. My mother drove me to the university pool, which in my mind still seems like this monstrous body of water, all-encompassing like the ocean, only without waves and salt. The ceiling hung over us like a forest canopy, so high we could never reach the top, with windows and light I wouldn’t be able to count for at least two more years. The experience now only lives in my mind as stories my mother has told me.

The instructor asked our parents to blow in our faces and then stick us in the water.

I try to picture my mother, not from the vantage point of being in her fragile arms, but like an outside narrator observing mother and child, blowing and holding, breathing and kicking. I try to see us bonding together, but the picture blurs as if I am the one under the water. My eyes sting from the chlorine.

I’ve been watching and unwatching myself since then. At times, a clear picture emerges, and I am there, seeing and breathing and smelling and feeling and tasting. More often, I am that child in the water, forced not to breathe, not by my own choice but by instinct.

I want to learn to exhale.

A little fiction: “Something Beautiful”

Most days upon waking, my mind drifts in and out of consciousness, wondering whether or not I will ever feel passionate about anything again.  I marvel back to sixth grade, when Mrs. Schneider gave us “passion” as a vocabulary word.  I sat there, next to Bobby Newenschwander, who, as a typical sixth-grade-boy, snickered incessantly at the word as Mrs. Schneider’s chalk scraped white letters across a golf-course-lawn colored chalk board.  I copied the list down into my vocabulary notebook, reached into my desk for my copy of A Student’s Dictionary and found the word right between “passenger” and “passionate.”  I noted a small n. next to the word and copied, “a strong feeling or desire, enthusiasm.”  I couldn’t help but read the next entry—“adjective, ardent in feeling or desire.”  I wondered then, in my eleven-year-old-self, if I had ever felt passionate about anything.

My mother was working on dinner when I tossed my backpack across the table, poured a glass of cherry Kool-Aid and sat at a bar stool across the counter from her bowl of cornbread stuffing and sliced chicken breasts.

“How was school today?”  And then, “did you copy your vocabulary list?”  This question was always part of my Monday interrogation.

“Fine, Mom.  Thanks.  And yes, I have my vocabulary list with definitions.”  Even though I hadn’t missed any words the past few weeks, I had spent the first quarter missing several words…okay, more like half the words…on the list each week.  Doing better lately didn’t erase the concern from her brow, though.  “One of our words this week is ‘passion.’  Do you know what that is?”

My mother’s hands stopped stuffing moistened bread bits and seasonings into the open breast as she looked into my face.  “Yes.  Did you look it up?”

“Sure, but I just wondered what you thought about it, and what I could do with it for my vocab. sentences for homework tonight.”

“Well,” she began, as I could see her mind working between handfuls of stuffing, carefully placing the prepared chicken into the casserole dish and just as carefully placing words, “people can be passionate about lots of things—like politics,…sports,…hobbies.  Sometimes people use the word in reference to feeling strongly about a relationship.”

I remembered looking for that relationship many years later as a college student at Emery.  Back during a time when we had no classes on Wednesday, I would wander through the tree-strewn campus, walking up and down paved hills, reciting formulas for OChem and wishing I could find that feeling of passion for someone.  Sure, I’d dated lots of guys—frat guys, athletes, intellectuals—all without a glimmer of that “strong feeling or desire” I wanted.  I became passionate about searching for passion.

Then, one Wednesday, I saw this guy driving a golf cart with lawn tools in the back as I was out for a morning run.  I waved to him, as I had grown accustomed to waving to everyone I passed, and his eyes looked eager as he returned my wave.  The tips of his hair stuck out in dark tufts under his Red Sox cap as his eyes met mine.  I passed him to feel a drop from somewhere in the vicinity of my chest cavity to my abdomen (I was pre-med at that point), and I decided to circle around and see where the golf cart was travelling.

About a mile of up and down the grey stripe of pavement dividing a sea of green, I noticed the Red Sox cap turned backwards on a body, stooped over some type of planting area.  I saw rhododendrons and azaleas, which I recognized, but he looked to be planting some type of annual as a border plant around the edge of the bed.

“Good work,” I remarked, keeping up a stationary jog.  He startled a bit, turned, and stood to face me.

“Uh, thanks.”  I watched him dust his shirt with his dirt-stained hands, hands which would later arouse feelings within me I didn’t know I could have.

“What are you planting?”

“Madagascar periwinkle.”

“Oh, it’s very nice.  I love the color.”

“Would you like one?  I have more than I need.”  He took a step toward me with flower in hand.

“I have to finish my jog now, but maybe I could catch you later,” I offered as I continued a stationary jog.  “When’s your lunch break?”

“Oh, I just have to finish this bed and two more.  I should be done about 11:30, and then I’ll need to shower.  Want to meet up at the cafeteria?”

“Sure.  I’ll see you there—a little less sweaty—around noon?”

“See you then.”

I jogged back toward my dorm with a smile all the way. We met for lunch (where he gave me a flower), and so began our two-year courtship, eight-month engagement, and twenty-seven-year marriage, filled with moments of passion so indelible…moments of support, love, and companionship mixed with anger, frustration, exhaustion, and the act of passion that would land me here.

I opened my eyes to look up at the tall ceiling.  My lovely orange suit (I look much better in red) hung over my delicate bones, my small hands that once performed surgery to sustain life were calloused and swollen from manual labor, my lovely size 6 feet that used to slide in and out of Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo were now lacing into something more like generic Converse—and I didn’t care.  I had a momentary flush of feeling as I remembered that Clara and Angelique were coming for a visit today, but it did not last long.  A pang of guilt filtered from my bed-headed hair to my bulging cotton socks, but that didn’t last long, either.  “I guess I have finally shut down, after all,” I muttered to an open cell, with no one around to hear.  If I cared anymore, I think I might try to get out, to appeal, to kill myself, but I don’t.

So I sit here, and lie here, and eat here—well, I eat sometimes—and pay my debt to society.  Never mind all the lives I saved once upon a time (which, I recorded once in med school alone to be around 27, 28 if your counted that little girl who I Heimliched in the cafeteria), but I guess that was another life…another feeling of passion.  Passion for life.  My passion for him was different.  He needed me, and I needed him.  Together we fit in ways I could not describe with words in any language I knew (which included six conversational, two dead, and one more just reading since I never learned to pronounce correctly in German).  But then, he needed me to help him leave.  And I didn’t want to; I really didn’t.  I fought against the need for the better part of a year.  But I loved him.  And he was in so much pain.  So much suffering.  “I save lives; I do not take them away,” was my mantra each day.  But he would look at me with his dark, undiscerning eyes, which reminded me of his dark hair sticking out of a Red Sox hat one spring day in Atlanta.  I put Madagascar periwinkle by our bed, but he didn’t notice.  At that moment, I realized that we could leave—like a dream—together.  He would leave his body and I would leave my emotions and we could survive in some other sphere of existence where passion filled our days and nights, where we only existed for each other.  So I did it.  It was an act of mercy as much as it was to save what we had—to save our marriage, our passion, our daughters.  And no good or great attorney could get me out of what I started, and no good or great therapist could help me live again the way I lived with him.

I guess eating really doesn’t matter anymore.  I’ll see the girls today and tell them that everything is fine, remind them to put fresh flowers over his stone.  Spring must be right around the corner.  I don’t feel as cold right now.  Or as warm, either, come to think of it.  Maybe I don’t feel anything.  I wonder what death feels like.  Cold, or warm, or like walking or running or singing or dancing or praying.  Maybe it feels like the moment you release all that energy from a lifetime of learning and going and doing and working and saving.  Some of my patients would talk about a light, bright like the sun.

I loved our honeymoon.  We spent four glorious days on St. Pete Beach at the Don.  We swam out as far as we could to the buoys each morning and ran along the beach in the evening sunset.  He wandered the gardens, with hands and nails cleaned for our wedding, but I knew he longed for the feeling of earth, of planting, of growth.  He went on to teach landscape architecture at Purdue for fifteen years, but still he was happiest with soil under his fingernails and the smell of earth imbedded in his skin.  I could see his shadow, over me, his face filled with love, then excitement, then relief.  I remember each spring, he would bring me a small pot of something new, mixed in with Madagascar periwinkle.  He would often ask me, “What if I had been planting geraniums that day?”

“You weren’t.”  I would smile back at his teasing.  “Geraniums stink.  We were both sweaty and smelly enough that day—so you needed to be planting something simply beautiful.”

And we were.  Together.  Somehow.  Simply beautiful.

Last…

The last website which was open was a shopping cart from Victoria’s Secret filled with items for their anniversary in two weeks.

The last playlist played on iTunes was simply titled, “dance.”

The last note was a grocery list including items for next week’s menu.

The last phone call listed on her cell was to the school, scheduling her days to volunteer for next month’s fundraiser.

The last food she ate was half of a pastrami sandwich on rye, with Dijon mustard, pickles, and provolone.

The last text message she sent was to her husband, a simple, “i ❤ u, always."

He had sent back an "I love you, too" reply, followed by a request for the new password she set for the email that was recently hacked. After his seventh rapid-fire text, he began to wonder. The children would be getting home soon.

He left his work for a "late lunch" and travelled the roads, winding in, and out, and through, like black ribbons weaving their ways through grasses and businesses, restaurants and car lots. He tried to call. Maybe she was taking a long shower.

He arrived home just before 2 p.m. and felt a flood of relief as the water was running in the shower upstairs. Surely she was out of hot water now, though.

He slid off his loafers by the door and mounted the steps, taking them two at a time–and the last one in a leap of three. He rounded the corner into the master bath, filled with steam that was beginning to settle like fog on the slate floor. She was sitting at the base of the water, with a calm expression on her face, her eyes as still as glass. She did not blink.

He pulled her cold body from the hot water, wrapped her gently in a towel, and called 9-1-1.

The Numbers Game

She walked into her closet, opening the door into frigid air, at best. Ah, yes. The vent is closed.

She selected a pair of colored jeans, loose enough to slide over leggings or tights, whichever one was clean. And they were lighter than her favorite, go-to jeans.

She unearthed a lightweight, long-sleeve tee, wheat colored, and pulled a thin sweater from its hanger home, sending the hanger rocking back and forth with only its hook as an anchor.

She held her sleeve and pulled the sweater on, examining it against the jeans. One shade darker wouldn’t matter, would it?

She pulled on black leggings, stretching and pulling until their fabric felt even across her long legs. She covered the black with her jeans and smiled slightly. She almost felt successful.

Since last night, when she began her preparations for her appointment this morning, she began playing the game. She thought of this variable and that circumstance she could use to help control or change this outcome or that result. She was playing The Numbers Game.

She headed to her sock drawer, dug a bit, and retrieved her thinnest nylon socks. White would have to do. Surely her weight would be the first set of numbers she would see today.

The night before, she had meticulously copied from her insurance card more numbers–numbers attaching her to a company that would divide the cost of her care based on percentages and payments, copayments, coinsurance, and deductibles. But those numbers were not any she could control.

Dressing, however, was another matter. Her clothing might only save her a pound or two, but she could use it to her advantage still.

She placed her arms into her coat, tucked her paperwork under her arm, pulled her purse onto her shoulder, and straightened her scarf around her neck. If she watched her breathing, she could help her blood pressure readings, too.

She climbed into her car, grateful for a carport that kept ice from forming on her windshield. She lifted the garage door and mapped the office on her phone while the car engine warmed itself.

Maybe some music will lighten my mood? she wondered almost aloud as she turned the dial on her old car stereo.

Noise and people discussing pet psychics and Justin Bieber’s latest film converged upon her ears. Not exactly peaceful, is it?

Then, she remembered her friend gave her a song suggestion over the weekend. She found, “Sunny and 75” on Spotify, and continued to listen against the wipers sweeping across sprinkles of ice and snow from her view. The song made her feel warmer, though, somehow.

She turned on another happy tune, Andy Grammer’s “Fine By Me,” as she turned into the parking lot and took a call from her long-time boyfriend, who was traveling on business.

“Hey, Love!”

“Hey. I just got back from the gym.”

“I’m heading into the doctor now. When do your meetings start?”

“Not till 11 a.m. Call me later?” he asked as she walked into the office door.

“Yep. Love you.”

“Love you, too. Bye.”

He must have turned off the phone first, because she found herself standing in the waiting room raising her eyes toward the receptionist until, less than a second later, Andy Grammer was playing again at full volume.

So much for calm blood pressure.

She pushed the volume button to silent and met the receptionist with her paperwork.

“Thank you. Please sign here.”

She signed on the line, dated, and returned the papers across the desk.

“You may be seated.”

She smiled, accepting the instructions, still a bit bewildered by her loud music/reception area faux pas.

In a moment, she heard her name.

She rose to meet the nurse and began almost immediately to loosen her scarf and unbutton her coat.

“Please remove your shoes and stand here,” the nurse with kind eyes said to her, motioning to the right.

She nodded again, slid off her shoes, and shed her coat and scarf.

Thank heavens for lightweight sweaters.

The numbers calibrated to various concoctions but finally settled.

She smiled at the number–no less but at least no more than she expected.

Her height matched expectations as well, and though she knew someday gravity would have its way with her, she had not yet begun to shrink.

Then came numbers for pulse, oxygen, and blood pressure. Pulse was sporadic, oxygen was fine, and blood pressure was within normal limits.

The doctor finished the exam with orders to draw blood to check more numbers–LDL, HDL, and Vitamin D. She wondered how those numbers would affect her life.

She walked away from the building facing the wind who blew more particles of cold and white into her eyes and mouth. She settled in her car, letting the engine warm itself once again, and thought about returning his call.

What did she have to say?

I think I won playing the numbers game today….

Breast Cancer Awareness

I posted this piece originally here. It has become one of my favorite short pieces that I have written, and the images I see when I read it still touch me. I hope you enjoy it for this week’s Flashback Friday/Fiction Friday post.

I lean her tiny frame against my chest as I see her thin reflection in the bathroom mirror. I know she will not ask for help. Still, she has become so weak, so frail, that even the buttons on her shirt have become difficult for her. I slide my arms around her and begin at the top, pulling, twisting, and pulling each button through the stitched hole. As I see her profile in the mirror, I recognize the wear on her face, the shine of light from her head. I pull her shirt down off her shoulders as the water in the shower streams across the tile, beats rain-like patterns on the glass door. My hands move across her back to unhook her bra, and I slide the straps off her shoulders, remove the prosthesis. I run my hands down her shoulders, across her chest, her collarbone, her space where her breast used to be.

The scar from where she fought like a dragon feels smooth on my fingertips. The new form is different, yes, but beautiful still. Even more beautiful.

I help her climb the small step into the steam of the shower. I look through the glass, not bathed in water vapor, and I see her again for the first time.

These moments catch me off guard. I feel like I am the one who should fight this monster for her, but she has had to walk a path through darkness and pain I may never know.

My eyes begin to well, but the tears are not full of loss for her breast, her hair; instead a soft smile covers my face as a tiny drop streams down my cheek. I still have the most important thing to me in the entire world.

I still have her.

The DMV

She tapped her fingers nervously on her ripped jeans. She had taken the time to put on makeup–a smattering of eye liner (deep indigo) and smear of lipstick (shimmery bronze) covered her face. Her gold hoops dipped almost to her shoulders.

She had read the book, too. Downloaded it from the internet onto her iPhone.

When she had taken her driving test at age sixteen, her PawPaw told her simply to answer all the study questions, and she would pass. She had done that–meticulously–filled out each of the sixty-five sample questions and studied them. The process worked for her then and for her all her family members, who had just relocated from North Carolina to the panhandle of Florida.

Today she was 32, and the state where she now resided only had eight practice questions to the fifty on the test. At least she didn’t have to get into a car and drive.

“Number 82?” came a call from a tall brunette behind a brightly-colored counter. She glanced at her number and stood, slowly, deliberately. Her stilettos clicked on the linoleum. She smiled tentatively when she reached the counter, her fingernails tapping on the tangerine laminate, clashing in their fiery-red glory.

After the brunette checked (and took) her old license, perused her birth certificate, utility bills, and application, she spoke: “Computer Station #6, please.”

The heels again clicked as she walked across the room and seated herself in the appropriate place.

Her heart sank, even with answering multiple choice questions about her birthdate and age, to verify her identity. She tried to focus on the screen, but the background music drifted into her ears. She would take any form of distraction she could to ease the pressure.

“Wake me up, before you go, go…” sang a much younger George Michael, part of the Wham! duo. The song reminded her of the scene in Zoolander, which her little brother mimicked regularly–minus the explosion–anytime they went to the gas station together.

The screen in front of her glowed with a question regarding the shape of a STOP sign. Really?

She found her head bobbing and shoulders moving to the music, until the song transitioned into the female power ballad, “I Will Survive” by the legendary Gloria Gaynor. She chuckled quietly, and tried not to belt out the lyrics like she had done so many times with her older sister. Still, she let the empowerment of the song calm her into a more secure emotional place.

Another question was asked about the main way carbon monoxide can poison passengers. How did I miss that section? She made her best guess, and listened on as Whitney Houston was singing her peppy “How Will I Know?”

She was dancing now, feeling the relief of having weeded through 44 of the 50 questions on the test. 45. 46. 47. She answered them sometimes with her best guess, other times with surety. Could most of the answers really be C?, she wondered almost aloud, when large letters interrupted her thought process on the way to answer question 48.

YOU PASSED.

Thank heavens. She stood, without bothering to review the test questions, and relief swept through her. She felt all the feelings of a sixteen-year-old again–the relief, the exhaustion, the adrenaline of wanting to celebrate.

A worker took her picture on a strikingly bright green background. Not my best color, but who cares? I passed!

She paid her fee, collected her license, and clicked her way out the door, only she wasn’t sure her heels ever touched the floor.