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Two Radical Mastectomies

by Teresa Werth

My mother kept saying "two radical mastectomies..." when she spoke about Grandma to neighbors and relatives, to friends on the phone, to Daddy. Her voice was sad and she kept shaking her head, crying sometimes. It was 1956. I was nine years old and I knew it was something bad. Then my mother took my little sister out of school and the two of them flew to Florida to take care of my grandma. They were gone for a very long time, three months, I think. Sometimes my Daddy would let me talk to Mommy on the telephone for a few minutes. I missed her and my sister so much, even though Ona, the lady who came in each morning to take care of me, was very sweet. When I got to talk with Grandma, I could hear the smile in her voice and she sounded happy to talk with me. She must have gotten better because Mommy and my sister came home. Mom never talked about the "two radical mastectomies" again but I never forgot those words because they were so strange and so scary.

Grandma was a pretty woman. Her skin was tanned and soft. She got her hair done every Friday at the beauty parlor. It was the color of brown velvet and almost always held in place by a hair net while she worked. She drew on perfect brown eyebrows each day sitting in front of the big round mirror at the curved wooden make up table in her bedroom. Her routine seemed special and glamorous. No matter what the job was (each day had a specific job), she did it all made up and put together in a tidy package. The finishing touch was always the bright red lipstick that matched her bright red fingernails. From the time I was about eleven, I spent eight weeks of each summer in Florida with her and Grandpa. It was my declaration of freedom to earn enough money babysitting and selling greeting cards to be able to fly to Florida for the summer. So each summer day would start the same way. I would stand back and watch Gram's whole make-up process, imaging that one day I might be as glamorous, as well put together. I thought she was beautiful.

Grandma had some other interesting qualities. Her teeth came out. I only knew this because I saw them in a little pink covered plastic dish in the bathroom. I looked in it once when I got up to pee during the night. Grandpa's teeth came out, too and he made me laugh by pushing them out of his mouth at the dinner table. Then she would holler "Larry! Stop that!" and I would laugh and laugh. She wore glasses. She had to have them to read the newspaper or make her grocery list or watch her soap operas. She was deaf in her right ear from a childhood injury. (She was hit in the head with a baseball bat.) She could fingerspell and had some "deaf & dumb" friends that used to come to visit once in a while. She wore a hearing aid in her bad ear and carried the little battery pack in a soft, white cotton pouch that she hid in her bra. Grandma also had "falsies," two little fluffy pillows that went inside her bra or halter top during the day. She put them on her dresser at night. One summer day I walked into her room while she was getting dressed and was shocked to see that she had no bosoms. Right where her breasts should be there were two long scars that went from the middle front of her chest, under her arm and around to her back. I stopped and stared. "Oh, honey," she said. "Would you like to see my incisions?" It was too late. I had already seen them. "This is where I had my two radical mastectomies. I had cancer in my breasts and they cut them off. I don't have cancer any more." It was as if the pieces all fell together in that moment.

Grandpa used to joke and say that when Grandma got ready for bed and took out her teeth, took off her hearing aid, her glasses, and her falsies there was more of her on the dresser than there was in the bed. Somehow the joke made it all seem less tragic. I hadn't thought about all of this for a long time, years maybe, until last spring, on a rainy day in May 2009.

I can feel my mind whirling as I struggle to stay calm and in control of my emotions. I understand that life is messy and unfair. Then I step into the parking ramp elevator with a woman about my age and her 30-something son. Everybody is going up to Level 5. Their sullen demeanor matches my mood. "Not your best day at the hospital?" she asks him rhetorically. He nods his head in agreement. Looking at me, she says, "I brought him here today and they pulled out his wisdom teeth." I look her square in the eyes. "I'm coming here Thursday and they're going to cut off my right breast." She chokes. I hear the echo of my crass remark. I want to take back my words but my anger bubbles over. "My breast trumps his teeth." "You're right," she says. "It does."

A retired communications professional, Teresa has written poems, stories, songs and plays since kindergarten. Writing and revising words give her great joy. Her most recent experiences as a breast cancer "thriver" informs her latest work and admits her to a unique sisterhood. Her book, Pink-on-Pink: Writing My Way through Breast Cancer is soon to be published. She has published many poems and was the winner of the 2010 Snapdragon Poetry Competition for the 9th Annual International Dragon Boat Festival in Washington, DC with her cancer poem, "Women I've Never Met." Her work has also been published in the 2010 Story Circle Network Anthology and newsletter.