Recently, I discovered a piece of pink paper amongst old documents and letters belonging to my mother. Immediately, I noticed a few interesting things about it. Firstly, it had the title “PROSTHESES AVAILABLE IN METROPOLITAN TORONTO. PRICES AS OF NOVEMBER 1982″.While that’s plenty strange on it’s own, there was another oddity. It had a very tiny anatomical looking hand-drawn diagram on it.
There’s absolutely no way to know what circumstances surrounded the delivery of this document or what inspired the diagram. Looking at it I realized there was so much I didn’t know about my mother – the experiences that she had, the decisions that she had to make. This fictional story is a way to search for and maybe discover some empathy for my mother’s world and her life. There’s much to be said for walking in someone’s shoes.
For the moment, the smooth pebble finish of the table has entirely fixated Monica’s eyes. Oddly still, her body feels as though it’s been molded and pressed to the orange plastic chair and then weighed down by a double dose of gravity. She and the chair have become one.
Musak bleeds in from the hallway under the door. She sits across from a social worker who absentmindedly hums along with a saxophone. A sour duet. Monica can’t help but notice the social worker’s lavender blouse buttoned one too few, showcasing a seemingly endless crease of cleavage. Legs crossed, foot bobbing, the woman folds a stick of gum between glossy lips while reviewing the contents of a manila folder. A quick and insincere flash of a smile is directed at Monica to acknowledge her presence. She goes back to reading, humming and chomping.
Monica scrunches her nose and gives her head a shake as though to shed the sharp-edged buzz presently erupting in her eardrums. These headaches were something new. Pressing fingers to her forehead and temples, she silently recites the words they practiced in the “Power of Positivity” course a few weeks ago. “Silver Linings”– these words were the only take-away for her . She had read about the course in one of the cancer pamphlets that had been pushed into her hand as she was being wheeled out of the hospital, post-surgery. They were all well-meaning and sincere in their efforts to help. She tried not to judge, but it was hard not to when everyone seemed to think that a brochure or pep-talk was a sufficient solution. A fix-all. That, given the right inner talk or proper mental habits, all of this could be turned into something positive. It was easier said than done. She’d like to know if any of those social workers had been through what she had in this past year. She doubted it.
The woman pulls a set of pink-hued papers from the folder and sets them down with a slight push in Monica’s direction, nodding. “Here’s a few options for you to think about”. Monica tries to maintain the space between her and the woman. Straining through the bottom of her bifocals, her back rigidly straight, she attempts to read the title from a distance.
“Prostheses available in Metropolitan Toronto. Prices as of November 1982
Her clammy hands clutch the wooden handles of her macramé bag. Inside lays her trusty tube of red lipstick which she applied to both lips and cheeks this morning. The frugal wife’s blush. Dressing up seemed like a good idea a few hours ago, but now Monica wonders why she changed out of her gardening clothes at all. Sunday best even though it’s Tuesday. Lord knows that it didn’t make any difference what she wore — or didn’t wear, for that matter. These days, the only things that caught the attention of a man were to be found on the bodies of other women – younger, two-breasted women like this social worker. Monica’s eyes involuntarily shoot a glance at the display of cleavage in front of her. Why do I keep doing that? She silently chides herself and resolves to stop this bad habit, recently formed.
Monica checks the buttons on her sweater for the third time since sitting down. It still feels strange not wearing a bra. She had pulled one out of the drawer that morning, but quickly tucked it back in. A hard habit to break. Anyway, without breasts, its purpose was lost. Still, she couldn’t force herself to dump her Wonderbras in the trash. Not yet.
A loud scraping noise momentarily jolts Monica from her daze. Dragging her chair across the floor to get closer to the table, the woman now has a pen in her hand and is pointing to black print on the pink paper. The cleavage has become closer. Larger. She shifts her gaze instead to the woman’s glossy lips making the shape of words and phrases as she reads directly from the paper. Monica adjusts her glasses, pulls her chair closer to read the script. Tries to concentrate. She’s aware that the distance is decreasing. Her nostrils twitch with the scent of fake flowery perfume that emanates from cleavage-lady. Decidedly unpleasant. She holds back a sneeze so as not to offend.
“Pre-molded after the individual is fitted, her skin and nipple colour are matched. $250”
Monica considers what she would pay to have her used breasts back. The ones so dramatically transformed by the rapid growth and extreme reduction during her two pregnancies. Stretched, but surprisingly perky. Now, post-surgery, she wishes she had nursed her babies with milk from her own body, if only to have another memory. You’ll get saggy boobs if you breastfeed was the advice from her experienced peers. How trivial the matter seemed now just 6 years later. Had she known they would be unceremoniously lopped off and so quickly … so many things she would have done differently. More swimming. In a bikini. Low-cut tops. Unapologetic cleavage. Nursing.
She realizes now that a photo, while a bit weird, would have been nice. What would they have thought at Black’s when she picked up the pictures? It would have mattered then … but now it didn’t at all. Post-surgery, she had a very good idea of what breasts were worth. She also had a pretty good idea what she would do to get them back. She’d do almost anything.
The busty social worker is drawing a tiny diagram in the right margin. Monica leans forward in an attempt to focus, her eyes nearly squinting shut. Two concentric black circles are being drawn, each coloured in with red marker. A pan-fried sunny-side-up egg springs to her mind. Monica’s eyes widen in realization. Is this woman drawing a nipple picture for her?
Leaning back, Monica looks at the woman directly, even forcefully. “You know, not too long ago I had my very own breasts that fit quite nicely into a B cup. I still remember what a nipple looks like. You needn’t go through the trouble.” Monica surprises herself with her own rudeness. She also notices that she doesn’t feel bad about it. That’s something new.
“Oh, I’m sorry, um … Monica. It’s just, I want you to know how realistic they are these days. Even the nipple is offset just a bit. They come pre-molded or made with custom silicone, a rubber shell reinforced with nylon and filled with a ‘unique’ gel. There’s even a concave back complete with a special chamber to reduce weight and allow the circulation of air. Quite lovely, really!”
Her eyes rise from the paper at this last enthusiastic statement and seem to look at Monica’s face for almost a moment. Monica eyes lift up just as the woman returns her gaze to the paper. A small gesture to connect, so small that she nearly misses it. Monica isn’t sure that it actually happened at all. She realizes that she is feeling invisible. This new body of hers had a way of making her feel like that. Had she changed that much? Or do people not notice you when you are half a woman? Monica’s not sure which evil is the lesser.
Something in the woman’s sales pitch reminded her of the dealer at the car lot where she bought her red Mini Morris Minor 15 years earlier. Rambling on about high speed, smooth shifting and other fancy features, he didn’t need to try that hard to sell her on it. Even before he started into his well-rehearsed spiel she knew she’d be driving that Mini off the lot that very afternoon. Those days, she had been so confident. Snappy. Full of spark. She knew that people noticed her. Men turned. She was familiar with the power that came with beauty.
Strap-on boobs seem to be the polar opposite of an adventure on the open road. The opposite of power. They’re the kind of thing you put on when you merely want to look normal. Not sexy. Not beautiful. Just average. Monica wasn’t good at doing average. The awareness of her parity agitates her. The loss of control is unsettling. As this new reality sinks in, she shifts in her chair, suddenly uncomfortable. Anxious, even. She uncrosses then recrosses her ankles under the chair. Sits up straighter. Her posture doesn’t change a thing.
Still, the woman rambles on, her emotionless speech filling the sterile air between them. Monica attempts to focus on the message but can’t seem to keep up. Her head still buzzes. The headache pounding and swooshing. The woman’s words are like clouds vanishing a moment after formation, dissipating into wisps.
“Then there is the “Nearly Me” brand in three designs. “Nearly Me Original”, “Nearly Me Too” and “Nearly Me Rest Breast”. The “Original” is a silicone liquid prosthesis design. A customized fit for a simple or radical mastectomy, left and right sides. All are available in sizes from 30A to 42DD.”
Monica’s eyebrows involuntarily jump as a partial smile forms on her lips. Her imagination has been jolted awake. A voluptuous profile featuring her fitted red dress appears in the mirror of her mind. The one with the plunging neckline that she wore on that night in Paris. Paired with those little patent black leather shoes that she bought in Italy. That would catch a few eyes, for sure. After this hellish year surely she deserved a little fun.
Her fingers absentmindedly float across the concave contours of her chest. Another habit she’s formed since the surgery. At first, out of disbelief. Then, after a few months, it was like reaching across the bed for her husband only to feel a void where his body used to be. Her hand reaching out for too long and resting down too late. The emptiness that she felt was a bitter reminder of why she was here in this barren room.
The woman points to a list. “Some of our clients find these items to be very helpful.
Gift Kit for mastectomy visitors consisting of:
- List where prostheses may be purchased in metropolitan Toronto, and prices
- Temporary prostheses
- Exercise rope and ball
- Book of exercises with helpful hints
Monica’s eyes stopped at item #3.
What kind of crappy gift is a rope and ball?
Perhaps the rope and ball are meant to be a distraction. When a child is having a tantrum, a parent might say “Do you want a candy?” Except in this scenario it’d be “Do you want a rope and ball?”
As though the problem is that simple to solve.
Sleeping or waking, there wasn’t a moment in the day when Monica didn’t vividly remember and wish for her body the way it once was. The vacancy on the front of her was even more visible than her breasts ever used to be. At times, the yearning was so intense that the remaining flesh on her chest actually ached. Not in her imagination, but a real, physical ache. Dull but strong.
If there existed a clever enough distraction that could cause her to forget the pain of loss which was worse than the cancer, she would buy that and pass on the fake boobs altogether. She’d pay the price, whatever it was. And then it occurred to her – perhaps the rope and ball wasn’t such a crappy gift after all. Perhaps distraction was underrated. She decided to keep that in mind.
Yes, she would take a rope and ball along with her boob order. Why not?
Now she just needed to decide which “prostheses” to get. The most frugal were the likely the order-by-mail ones. A bit tricky to order though, sight unseen. Who knows what they would feel like or look like. Custom-made seemed a little excessive. She usually went for top of the line … or rather, she used to. That’s how she chose her Singer sewing machine, the Mini, her bone-china formal dishes and her shoe collection before the wedding, the babies and the budget.
In her mind she chose the custom-made ones called “Nearly Me Original”. This isn’t an occasion to be frugal, she reasoned. Sometimes it’s okay to treat yourself. Mostly, though, she liked the name. It said everything. Nearly Me was exactly how she felt. Most of her was the same, just minus a few fleshy blobs on the front of her. Why did they matter so much, then?
How to become Totally Me once again was something to work on. It would take a long time to figure out … maybe even a lifetime.
“Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon” – As written in on the website for the photographic project endeavour called ’The Scar Project”. This is a graphic, but eye-opening view some very brave women post-surgery. My heart is broken open once again as I see the faces of these women.