by Doug Woodall
When I was growing up, I didn’t know my mom was pretty. She was a fixture in my life, and she was severely nearsighted. Familiarity and her glasses hid her beauty from me. Now when I look at pictures of her from the 1960s and ’70s, I see a woman with a pretty face, dark hair that’s nearly black, and deep brown eyes. She’s petite — though she never thought she was, and she has a straight smile, but with slight gaps between her teeth.
In 1964, my pretty mom was 34-years-old, and she found a lump in her left breast. That wasn’t a good time to have a life-threatening disease. I know it’s never a good time, but in my mom’s case, she had six children at home. The oldest was 11, and the youngest was six-, maybe nine-months-old.
When she went to the hospital to have a biopsy, her surgeon had her put to sleep; he took the biopsy, found out she had cancer, and then performed a radical mastectomy. My mom didn’t know what her surgeon did to her until she woke up in her room and found out on her own that her breast was gone. She cried inconsolably. And that was just the start of the physical and mental pain my mom had to face to live. My mom was treated for cancer three times, and during her second bout, she had one more baby.
From the time I was 7 until nearly 12, everyone at my house was anxious and stressed. Yet, I have some fond memories of that time. When my dad had to be Mr. Mom, he talked to us in a measured and tender way. When my mom was home recovering, we managed to keep a sober quietness. When we had to stay with our aunts and uncles, everyone treated us well. And in time, the horrors ended, and a new normal started. Yes, my mom was burned with radiation, her body horribly scarred, and instead of her left breast, she had a prosthesis.
I wonder if you’ll take half a minute to try to understand what it meant for my mom to wear a prosthesis. The thing wasn’t a part of her body. It was strapped on and pushed into her chest. It got sweat on it, and it got dirty.
When my mom was in public, she always wore it, but when she was home, she often pulled it out and laid it down wherever she was. It opened the door to some unusual situations. I’d sit on one of the chairs, and in a short time, I’d find I was sitting with my mom’s breast. When I’d take a nap on one of the couches, I’d wake up to find I’d been sleeping with my mom’s breast. I’d take a seat at the table to eat breakfast, and I’d find it was with me — a bowl of Wheaties and my mom’s breast. Then I had some problems when friends came to my house.
One time, my mom was working on a quilt, and her breast was sitting on top of it. My friend said, “Hey! My mom makes quilts, too.” He picked up my mom’s breast and added, “And she’s got a pincushion like this.”
“I bet she doesn’t,” I said.
“No, really she does.”
“That’s not a pincushion.”
“It’s not? What is it?”
“That is my mom’s breast.”
“What!” He dropped it, and said, “They come off?”
I said, “Just leave my mom’s breast alone. OK?”
My mom misplaced her breast and outright lost it a few times. When she misplaced it, we all stopped what we were doing and searched the house until we found her breast. When she lost it, she had to buy a new one, but prostheses are somewhat expensive.
One time, we were returning home from a camping trip. My mom said to my dad, “Honey, I don’t have my prosthesis.”
“You’re kidding. Do you think it’s at the campsite?” my dad said.
“That’s the only place it could be.”
“Shit! We’re 200 miles away.”
“You know, I should just make my own. I can make a covering. I just need to find the right thing to put inside.”
“That’s not a problem,” my dad said. “There’s a 10-million-dollar industry making that stuff.”
In a short time, five reams of what I’m calling “educational catalogs” filled our mailbox, and several stacks of products sat by my mom’s sewing machine until she found the right one. And she made 10 breasts.
My mom’s life was decidedly easier, but not mine. Now, when I sat in one of the chairs, I had a greater chance of sitting with one of her breasts. If I took a nap on the couch, I was more likely to sleep with two of my mom’s breasts. When I sat down to have breakfast, it was me, a bowl of Wheaties, and three of her breasts. And I had more friends who said, “My mom makes quilts, too.”
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month, 6:30–8 p.m., 210 E. 400 South.