It was the summer and my mom was going through an identity crisis.
Back in the eighties, technology wasn’t what it is today and it was a tricky situation when it came to swimwear and prosthetics. “Tricky” as in, there was little accommodation, particularly for those with limited financial means, which we were. If you were one of the lucky women (such as my mother) with a flat post-mastectomy chest and you wanted to go swimming, you had only a few options. All of them, well, rather awkward.
Your first option was to buy a women’s bathing suit and go sans filler … just let the fabric hang limply off the front of the suit. Weird, but it was a cheap and easy fix.
A second choice was to wear your “special bra”, complete with compartments to stuff your silicone lady pieces into. The bra would be worn under the swim suit. Also a bit weird, but if the suit had enough coverage it worked alright; as long as you turned a blind eye to the set of double straps.
On this beautiful late summer afternoon, Mom was wearing the second option: swim suit and silicone-stuffed bra. The air was buzzing with cicadas and the trees looked wavy and hazy even though there wasn’t even a wisp of a breeze. She was sitting on the edge of the pool with her toes dangling in the water; her usual poolside pose. She rarely went in beyond the waist for a good reason. But it’s hard to spend your life on the sidelines watching other people swim – especially when it’s HOT out.
She climbed down the ladder and carefully slipped into the water to cool down. I don’t blame her. The water was refreshing and she loved swimming. Once emerged, she sighed in happy relief and overall, was pleased.
For a few minutes, that was.
We were visiting at a friends house where there was a boy and a girl similar in age to my sister and I. On this hot summer day, everyone was out in the pool. Mom joined in the fun and became the official “thing thrower”. We were playing the game of retrieval, similar to how dogs are entertained, by finding any type of item that sank to the bottom of the pool or floated on the surface of the water. We delivered it all back to my mother at lightening speed. We would swim out on the count of three in a big flurry of waves and splashes to see who could collect the most items. The game was fairly rowdy but going along perfectly well until the boy found and retrieved a curious item floating on the surface of the water – something he’d never seen before.
In the centre of all the splashing and yelling, he stopped, thrust his hand high out of the water and declared in his loudest voice “Look what I found!” He looked positively victorious.
There was a pale pink silicone blob in his hand.
I recognized the pink blob immediately. The boy had no idea he was holding onto my mom’s boob.
Awkwardness ensued. There was some nervous laughter from Mom who’s hand quickly patted her chest to find which side was empty. I was asked to “Please bring it over to Mommy”… so I yanked the lost lady part from the hand of the boy and delivered it back to her. I was mortified. As far as I could tell, none of my friends had to retrieve their mother’s body parts, floating and bobbing on the surface of neighbourhood pools. Most certainly we were a unique bunch.
After that, all was as well as it could be. We resumed our game and Mom returned to the sideline, rather quiet.
The cicadas continued their buzzing.
I wonder if the experience of the floating boob was the reason for a very curious decision she made later that year. This is when I pause to mention the third bathing suit option, which, on a visit to the Brock swimming pool, my Mom decided to try out for the first time.
She called a spade a spade and walked out of the change room, in her blue polka dot bikini bottoms.
Honest to goodness.
Technically, a woman’s bathing suit is designed with the top part for sensible reasons. It’s for covering up her chest. Now, if there’s no chest, we have grey area … and new rules apply (or don’t apply – depending on how you look at it). Practically speaking, she had options similar to what a man would have had when deciding what to wear to a pool party. In fact, a man had more to show off, or rather, cover up, than Mom had.
So, when she came strutting out of the women’s change room wearing only her blue polka dot bikini bottoms, you’d think that would have been alright. It’s certainly less offensive than fake floating boobs bobbing on the surface of a public pool.
Well, it wasn’t. These days, women are free to do what they want, but this was the Eighties – before the legalization of toplessness and the acceptance of public breast-feeding.
Mom was escorted out of the pool area by security and told to wear a full suit or don’t come back.
I’m sure she didn’t come back.
Maybe you would have done things differently.
As for my mother … this was not a stretch for her. She was being herself and doing her best with what options she had in the midst of a very big crisis. True, going topless was an extreme statement, but I’m certain a mastectomy is downright confusing to any well-adjusted woman, particularly when it comes to body image. I won’t even begin to cast judgement on her. I simply have no grasp on how to understand the circumstance or how to weigh out the strange options she had to consider.
I’m remembering this bazaar story on these hot summer days with cicadas buzzing in the backyard and pondering all the ways in which I will never understand the struggles my mother went through. As a kid, I thought my parents had it all figured out. I didn’t ever consider they could be hurting or going through any type of crisis. Now that I’m older, I’m starting to see the humanity in my parents simply because I am beginning to see humanity in myself more and more every day.
The days of thinking I could somehow “get it right” are over. Now, I see my own personal struggles and mistakes, the questions I have … the lack of answers. The simple black and white days of the past have been painted into a very complicated shade of grey.
I don’t mind. In fact, I’ve come to realize, the world has always been grey; the black and whiteness of my past was only ever of my own fabrication. It was a child’s make-believe world created to make sense of the uncomfortable and confusing stories I didn’t understand, such as this one of floating boobs and polka dot bikini bottoms.
Black and white is comfortable; grey is awkward and requires compassion with bucket-loads of empathy. Grey takes work. I must resist the urge to paint black and white overtop of what I don’t understand. Answers to “Why?” should be less important than learning how to handle the discomfort of the questions. This is what I tell myself … and what I try to do, even though I do a very poor job of it a lot of the time.
Nowadays, as I remember these stories along with all of their summer-time warmth, cicadas and awkwardness, they help me in the practice of NOT figuring it out and instead, help me in learning to just let it be.
“If you live in the questions, life will move you into the answers” says Deepak Choprah. I have a suspicion that the answers look a whole lot like acceptance and forgiveness, empathy and understanding … and they’re not black and white at all, as I used to hope they would be. Answers most certainly don’t come in boxes with labels on them.
Some things can’t be explained and maybe they don’t need to be.
My mother walked into the Brock swimming pool … topless. Go figure.