A young doctor with a benign bedside manner punctures my right breast. I lie naked from the waist up on a table, covered in paper that crinkles when I move. Ultrasound guides his needle — a submarine beneath water. The room is stark, decorated in medical minimalism. The curtains are white and clean, the sleek cabinets gray, and the walls an unremarkable shade of blue. This comforts me. I like clean, tidy spaces. They shield me from chaos. But today chaos stalks me, despite the sterile environment. In an effort to appear calm, I smile from under a Xanax haze. I do not want this doctor to think I am weak. I believe that if I am strong, if I am a good girl, everything will be okay.
When the radiologist is done removing rice size samples from the lump inside my breast, I cover my exposed body with a hospital gown. He repeats the same speech that I am sure he has told hundreds of frightened women — results in three to five days, blah, blah, malignant, blah, blah, benign, blah, blah. I listen wide-eyed, shaking my head up and down. When he leaves the room, I cannot bear to look at my breast. So I dress myself without seeing, using tricks I learned during puberty. Tricks passed from girl to girl and mother to daughter. Tricks designed to keep us modest and cover our shameful bodies. During the birth of my daughter, a few months after my forty-first birthday, I will learn that modesty and dignity are like pantomime — an illusion preformed by fools. I flash back to images of nurses and doctors. Their hands work frantically to shift my baby, whose heartbeat soars in utero. Hands busy bringing life to fruition care little for modesty. With the act of giving birth, dignity evaporates like fog on a New England beach.
This same newborn, now eight years old, sits with my husband waiting for me. I see them as I pass through the frosted glass door separating reception from the procedure area. I am acutely aware that I am no longer the same person. I am older. I am vulnerable. I wear a titanium clip inside my breast — a permanent marker “just in case.” My husband asks if we can stop for lunch. He says he is hungry. I am not. I want him to treat me like a glass figurine and keep me from breaking, but he is oblivious to my fear. If I were stronger, I would insist on going home. But the surreal world of core needles, nodules, radiology, and breast cancer distract me.
We choose a pub. My husband is an Englishman and enjoys traditional pubs. The waitress brings us water and walks away just as blood oozes from beneath my bandage. My daughter sees the stain and asks, “What’s on your top, Mommy?” Seamlessly I answer, “Ketchup, my love. Someone spilled ketchup on the table.” She is satisfied and returns to her menu. I sit in muted disbelief while a red stain expands across my ivory lace blouse. My husband breaks the silence and mumbles, “Why don’t you go to the ladies room?” so I do. I return with an ice pack given to me by the doctor. It is tucked between my bra and flesh. I know that it distorts my shape, but I do not care; I save my vanity for another time. When lunch is over, my daughter and I make our way home. My husband returns to work.
Three terrifying days I sit by the phone. All the while, beneath my clothes, a thunderstorm of color alters the landscape of my body. It is a palette of haunting possibilities in deep, rich hues. The day after the procedure, I stand braless, facing the bathroom mirror. Majestic purple rises from beneath the stiff, wrinkled, terrain of the crimson, stained bandage. The dried blood gives way to violent shades of purple — colors that both frighten and excite — the promise of nature’s strength and domination. I cannot look away from this wonder: this fear, this force of nature underneath my skin.
By the third day, three shades of purple consume three quarters of my right breast. In the mirror, I notice a moss green color bordering the purple flesh. I trace the winding path with my finger. Three to five days. I turn from the painting on my chest, and dial radiology, even though I know I am acting against protocol. I can barely breath when the receptionist answers. I hear irritability in her voice — as if she knows I am calling too soon.
“We sent the results to your gynecologist,” she blurts as my heart pounds. I want to scream at this silly woman, but I thank her instead, hang up, and dial my doctor. Thump, thump, thump. My heart races, my arms shake.
“Dr. R’s office, may I help you?”
Yes — yes, you can help me — where are my fucking biopsy results? This is what I want to say. Instead, these words come out: “I’m calling for the results of my core needle pathology report.” I try to sound official, important, informed, but it does not help.
Sounding bothered, the woman tells me the doctor will call me back. I pack my fear down with the remainder of my sanity and take my daughter for a pedicure. Meanwhile, under my shirt, beneath my bra, the landscape of my breast rages on in a sublime eruption of color, now bordered by green and yellow highlights. This green earth, this yellow wheat, has grounded the storm inside my breast. Somehow I am comforted.
My daughter and I stroll home comparing shiny, new nail color. Her smooth fingers are crowned with miniature nail beds decorated with soft, pink polish; a white girlish flower adorns the left index finger. They look breakable, like porcelain. I wonder if she can hear the distraction in my voice as I admire her nails. I have played this role before — clown mommy — anxiety hidden behind a happy facade. I am unable to tell if it is believable. But she seems carefree, skipping ahead, hands splayed out before her. I am convinced she remains untouched.
When we get home, I walk to my bedroom and watch the blinking message light. A rush of heat covers my face like a veil. One, two, three seconds, I forget to breath as I press the button and retrieve the message. The doctor’s voice, firm and clinical, speaks to an unseen recipient. Test results are benign. She repeats the diagnosis. I feel nothing: no rush of relief, no victory. Fear still clings to the parameter of my imagination. I’ve won the first round, but glory is evasive. My hand caresses the lump that has formed on my breast, another remnant of what could have been. I am beaten and sore, but safe.
My little girl has slipped into the room. She is quiet and frightened over something she knows nothing about — yet instinct tells her to fear. She looks at the machine, then at her mother’s face. I do not know she is there. “Benign,” I whisper. Benign, and my fear recedes. My spell breaks. Images flood my head: college graduation, first job, first broken heart, the birth of a grandchild, and like a rock I am firmly lodged in these visions — at least, that is what I know for now.
“Mommy. Who was that?” my daughter asks. I turn and see her little face screwed up in confusion. I pull her toward me, my love, my light, and dispel her fear. “The doctor said that Mommy is healthy. Now go and play.” She smiles and scampers through the house. My eight-year-old, who for a brief moment grows up too fast, is released back into childhood. And I, with my battered flesh, am released from a battle I am not ready to fight.