I did not want to go to the hospital this morning. The scheduled mammography appointment would stand empty without me. I wanted to say “Fuck It” to the Cancer Hospital where I would sit half naked in the green gown. Those green gowns that are like a Rubric’s puzzle in clothing with multiple white strings that seem to attach to nothing. Leaving either your butt or breast exposed. No I did not want to go and sit unadorned in the waiting room with other women, waiting their turn, stripped down from the waist, to take an x ray of the breast. A waiting room adorned with Red Book Magazines and cooking shows humming from the lone flat screen TV. A room filled with women gripping their gowns and pretending to be calm.
I go anyway. My name is called. I stand in the room with an x-ray technician and a machine. I stand close to the machine and then the technician pinches, pulls at my fleshy chest. Squeezed like a pancake (the perfect position) the machine responds with a happy hum. “Alright breathe in, hold it, hold it, don’t move!” I still at the technician’s commands. Hum, click my machine responds. “Relax.” the technician suggests. She captures the perfect picture of my gland. Yes, I stand there with the image of my breast. No longer a thing of beauty, of sexual satisfaction, but a thing to test.
No, I feel too tender this morning to enter these halls, but here I am to hear the resident say, gently, that further prognosis must be done today. I look at him. He is so young. I hide my emotion; my throat tightens. “OK, cool. Lead the way!” Out of control, feeling stripped and alone I am escorted to the next holding pit. Again, I do as I am told. “Lay down on the slab, strip to your waist…” and just then a boy doctor walks in. My god, he can’t be more that twenty-eight. I feel myself blushing. He is properly clinical, eyes fixed to the screen, as he wanders my chest with the ultra sound wand. Moving, moving and “Ah we have got it! Left breast,” he says. “You have a small growth with blood supply.” Sit up. I will show you the image.” I sit up, pulling up my lovely green gown and there, sure as hell, it sits. A roundish blob with blood veins feeding its center. “Wow,” I say feigning fascination, “Isn’t that something.” Inside screaming, “That’s my body! My body!”
My mind races back to 1958, mom at forty-two. Went in for a checkup, immediately admitted into the hospital and the next day she came out with one breast removed. Sliced from her clavicle to her upper belly. My mother, all muscle and lymph nodes are gone. Stripped. I was two and can still remember the sight.
“Let’s bring out the booze my friend and keep on dancing.” My father sang the lyric of this song holding on to his newly acquired, big breasted bride. She swayed in his arms on her gallon of burgundy high. My father was in his days of Scotch. “Oh yeah baby, let’s bring out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.” Sitting in a chair in their living room, I watched them sway across their deep green shag carpet. Sipping on a Dr. Pepper and thinking about how my father had finally landed his big breasted Playboy fantasy. I mean she wasn’t beautiful, but boy did she showcase those bountiful D cups. Like a butterfly had lighted on her chest and she was showing it off for all the world to see. These were her prized possessions and she knew how to use them. At 14, I watched her with fascination. How could those breasts wield such power?
By this time my mom had no breasts. After the first breast was removed at 42, her second breast came off at the age of 47. Nothing left of her lovely soft mounds, but empty space with vicious scars where once stood her own luscious flesh of breasts. By the time she was 48, my father started having affairs, and when 52 rolled around he asked for a divorce. As a kid I tried to sort through the blame.
You see my dad had met my mom as the beautiful Linda Lee. That was my mom’s professional name (wisely changed from Thelma Louks). She played piano in a Chicago bar. He was going to the University of Chicago, School of Social Work on the GI Bill. Linda Lee, my mom, sparkled in beaded tops and turned a man’s head with her long black hair, olive skin and dark eyes. It must have stirred a sensation up in my father cause he came back night after night just to watch her play. It took him a month to ask her out for some late night breakfast. Three years after their marriage, my mom lost her first breast. Radiation therapy left her neck burned and her beautiful hair was cut short in what they called a poodle cut. I remember my father’s shock. She walked with a cane and my Aunt Gerry came to help take care of me. We grew a pumpkin patch that ended up taking over half the back yard and Aunt Gerry gave me my first spanking. Never been hit before that. Never been hit. That same shock I felt then, was coming back to me now as I sat looking at my own lump. So shocked I didn’t cry.
“We want you to see our surgical oncologist today.” “Oh yes, of course,” I say. Somehow keeping my dignity is failing me, while I grasp my green gown, sheltering my boobs from prying eyes. The stockyard awaits for my next sizing up. I am prodded to a room where I now sit alone. It is a small room with an examination table, a computer and yellow curtains. Dr. D’Amour, surgical oncologist, is an efficient being who sweeps into the room. She is the top surgeon in her field and is trailed by several, young residents who shuffle to her side. Her eyes flicker over me as she reads my chart. She never looks me in the eye. I hide my inner shaking. By God, I have a law degree. I can look at all of this logically. And true to a style I would come to know all too well, Dr. D’Amour lays out the game plan for my next week’s surgery with the young heads bopping beside her. I suddenly feel like a lab mouse. I stop hearing. I wish to be innocent again, unaware of any pending illness. I want to be held. I want to be rocked by soft sounds of “it will be alright.” I want to hold onto my breasts. I think, “Oh my God, “I’m not a feminist! My breasts mean something to me. I don’t want to burn my bra; I want to fill it with luscious lumps. I want to attract men, with my breasts!” What a hypocrite. All I want is to keep my breasts because I want to be a physically complete woman. Where will I be? What will I be without them?
I never once asked my mother what it was like for her. Living with a defrocked chest, wide scars emphasizing the loss. After my father left for his D cup bride, my mom continued to play the piano, went on to learn to drive a car, take care of her own finances and earned a college degree in Early Childhood Education. She never remarried. She never dated. But she made a difference in her children’s lives and was the same horrible housekeeper. My mom died from best cancer. Despite medical intervention and her best efforts; the cancer attached to the spine and grew.
Today I am well. A selfish survivor that was able to dodge her bullet. I have kept my husband and on occasion still attract male flirtation. Like my Father’s D Cup trophy wife, I display my womanhood on my chest. Still trapped by the thoughts in my inner closet of what this really means for women everywhere.
On a late night in Orange County, North Carolina I was on duty as Judicial Magistrate. A knock on my door presented a local sheriff’s deputy and in tow he had Mr. William Dollar. Mr. Dollar was a polite gentleman with deeply tied roots to the rural South and a bit of a drinking problem. He had been picked up for drunk and disorderly (which means you are so drunk the time space continuum ceases to exist). The local 24 hour gas station couldn’t get him out of their store so they finally had to call Deputy Wilde. Mr. Dollar, who was unaware of what a deputy uniform and gun belt meant, kept on resisting. This is why he sits in front of me now. Smelling like Dippity-Doo Hair Gel and boozy sweat. After hearing Deputy Wilde’s testimony and reviewing the facts of the case, I determined Mr. Dollar would spend a night in the County Jail until such time as he was adjudged to be sober. For the most part, he politely listened and agreed that his condition was one of “having an extreme bout of the drunk.” He then asked if he could talk. As is his right. I said yes. “Judge Colburn you are just about the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. You are just like that Sara Pailin. Even prettier. Well, Judge I got me a real nice trailer and $600 a month disability. I will give it all to you if come live with me. All of it. Not a question. I bet no man has offered you that, but that is just how pretty you are.” Deputy Wilde intervened, “That’s no way for you to talk to a Judge, you fool!” Mr. Dollar was dragged away before I could answer. I never saw him again. Although his offer was sweet and in the end is much better than what the state of North Carolina gave me!
I am staying in Brooklyn NY for a few days with my dear friends Alice Barrett and Stan Mitchell. Stan has a studio on the third floor. Beautiful practice space. This morning I wake up late to an awesome sound of musicians winding down the staircase. Complicated Jazz, atonal, complicated blending of two basses, wind instruments and drums. Like I am in the midst of the Newport Jazz Festival. Drinking my first cup of coffee. Shit these guys are good. The leaps they make between tones, the intricacy of the bass, the jumps of blending…they take a break. All come down stairs; very alive from their music. Coffee is made, water poured and introductions go around. “How do you do?” Nice group of guys. Polite with firm hand shakes. Ken, Mike, Jeff great sound. The last introduction is to a long, lanky man. “This is Felix Pastouris, he is a bass player.” I look up at him and say, in my best country bumpkin style, “Glad to meet you. My name is Kate. You sure are tall.” Naturally the guy just looks at me and Stan intervenes with his wonderful Kiwi accent and a laugh, “Yes he is.”
The men sit at the kitchen table. Working out solos, key changes and the order of songs for their Monday night performance. The guy I just met, Felix, seems to lead the discussion. After their huddle they trundle back up the stairs for more rehearsal. And I learn that Felix Pastouris is one of the most famous bassists in our country following in the style of his dad Jaco Pastouris. Look him up! Photos and web pages abound. “Well you sure is tall!”
It is like meeting Meryl Streep, saying, “Hi. You sure are short.” I now hide out of sight. Maybe behind the couch?