I was a little kid in school the first time I ever heard that play on words. The phrase always comes back to me during the month of October and reminds me of my Mother, Annie.
It was on October 30, 1998 that a brassy female Doctor called me down to my Mother’s hospital room. Annie was having baffling problems with her breathing and had two short stays in the hospital just that year, to “remove water from her lungs.” Against Annie’s objections the Doctor began her examination while I was in the room. Calling me over, the Doctor took my hand and put it on my Mother’s chest where I felt a stony lump a little larger than a golf ball residing just at the top of her breast. Horrified at the discovery and a little shocked at the Doctor’s tactics, I jerked my hand away and looked at my Mother as if I’d never seen her before.
Before this year Annie had never been seriously ill. As long as she had been on the planet Annie hadn’t smoked, rarely drank, and other than an aversion to exercise which added a few pounds in middle age, she was a walking talking paradigm of fabulously maintained femininity. In fact, when she’d retired a few years before, she had accrued two years of sick days which, rolled over, had a monetary value that was later added to her last paycheck and paid for a nice vacation in the Bahamas. I remember asking her about how she’d managed to have so many sick days because I knew she’d had the occasional bout with the flu over my lifetime. She explained that as a divorced single parent with only a few babysitting resources, she had started saving her sick days early in her career in case I ever got sick and she needed to take time off. I guess I don’t really get sick either because that rainy day plan got way out of hand.
My daughter had just turned one year old a few months before that fateful day in Annie’s hospital room, so I was understandably busy being a new Mom for the first time while simultaneously proving I could do it all at a very demanding job. Still, I loved my Mother deeply, we were argumentative with each other but close-knit, since it had been the two of us alone for so long. How on earth could I have been so blind about what was going on with her?
As I looked in Annie’s eyes, my own flooded with questions, she was staring piercingly at the Doctor. I had never, ever seen my Mother so pissed off at anyone that wasn’t me. Feeling like the world’s biggest idiot I knew the answer to my question was simple: Annie did not want me to know and she’d gone out of her way to hide it from me. Much later I had several reasons to wonder if she’d been hiding it from herself as well. I’m still grateful to that doctor for braving my Mother’s formidable ire and shedding a harsh, but inevitable light on everything.
The story ends tragically I’m sorry to say. I won’t go into the details about doctor’s visits or treatments. Annie made that part easy since she refused any and all treatment, except oxygen and pain relievers, after that day. As someone who worked in hospitals her entire adult life she had the decidedly bleak notion that cancer treatments were worse than the illness and no amount of begging, yelling, or current research I produced would sway her. She also continued to keep the news that she was fatally ill from everyone outside the immediate family and insisted I do the same. I didn’t listen to her on that one, but nothing anyone said or did changed anything. Three months after I touched my Mother’s secret and days after her 60th birthday, she left me.
When I tell this story I remind everyone that Annie was of the Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy generation of women. Jackie actually stood there on that plane, in that damn pink suit, while they swore Lyndon Johnson in. Other than the obvious shock and grief in her eyes and the blood stains on her suit she looked…perfect. I’ve always thought Jackie’s message was: just look at what they did to my husband but know there will be a reckoning and this country will go on. For my Mother and many like her, the message was different: you stand there, you take it — all of it, just make sure you look good doing it. That was Annie all over. That is not however, nor has it ever been, me.
In the last 14 years since Annie’s death, breast cancer awareness and I have had an interesting relationship. I’ve had a mammogram every year and urged all my close friends to do so at every opportunity because it saved my life. I’ve spent serious dollars checking for inherent genetic predispositions (there were none), spoken to countless doctors and survivors, given or raised money, gone to cancer walks, cancer luncheons, cancer conferences, and read all the credible research I can stand or get my hands on. 40,000 women died annually from the disease so as soon as I felt I could, I talked candidly with my daughter about it, which unsurprisingly helped me to forgive Annie a little. Talking to your daughter, warning her while simultaneously trying desperately not to scare her, is not only difficult, it makes it all a little too real you know?
I’ve often thought about writing a non-fiction book about breast cancer geared to African-American women. I haven’t seen anything like that and given the statistics about how this disease affects our community and how much false information or suppositions there are, I felt there should be a book geared to us. If you know of something like that I’ve overlooked, please share it with me.
In the meantime, in honor of Annie and especially the other 11 months of the year we aren’t focused on this issue, I’ve been working on and happily just finished a first draft of a hopeful and romantic novella about a woman who easily survives breast cancer. While she comes through a scary diagnosis and treatment relatively unscathed she doesn’t do well with what having this particular illness can do to a woman’s psyche, sexuality, and her ability to love. It’s called, Flawed Spirit. It’s free and after some fast editing, you’ll find it here on this blog in November. Let me know what you think.
And even though October ends shortly, every month is a good month to know the truth. Here are four great resources that might help you or a friend:
Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book (the bible on breast issues, every woman should own it.)