The summer of 2010 was one of the hottest and personally cruelest in memory. Hundreds or maybe thousands of cicadas droned on in the heat with a high-pitched buzz that burrowed into my brain. The hum of the cicadas, not as plentiful this year, remind me of the day I saw my mother for the first time after my mastectomy. At that time, she slept in a hospital bed in the living room, escaping now and then for chemo treatments, to go to the bathroom on a commode next to her bed and at times when she could rally her strength she would walk to the end of the driveway. My father trailed behind her on these excursions carrying the portable oxygen tank.
In the living room, a larger oxygen tank played like a metronome with a hushed whoosh-click-shahh in the corner. It measured the minutes, days and hours and at times seemed to propel us through some of the most difficult conversations. A soothing white noise that lessened the sharp edges of a reality yet to come. “Mae, I want you to give the eulogy.” We hadn’t realized it then that she was planning her wake and funeral. It wasn’t until after she died and we all sat at the round wooden table in the funeral home to discuss plans that each of us had been given a task by my mother. There really were no decisions to be made. Each of us held a piece of the plan and now free to talk without my mother there it snapped together easily. “When did you all talk about this?” my father asked drowning in grief. There was no particular date to point to. It was just statements she made in the course of a visit. Jumbled together with the everyday needs of food or medication much like the living room furniture.
When the hospital bed was set up in the living room we secretly believed and hoped it wasn’t permanent. She had rallied before. The couch and chairs all pushed aside to make way for the bed; we left them in disarray. To organize the disorder would have meant that we had accepted defeat and that she would never climb those stairs again to her room. No one had the desire to extinguish hope, hers or even ours.
It was just a few weeks later that I would go to The Town Shop, a bra shop in NY, with my favorite black dress. I needed a bra that would disguise my mastectomy, give a hint of cleavage that didn’t actually exist. The woman in the shop that helped me kept making a tsk, tsk noise at the sight of my breast “under construction”. I told her to stop. “There are worse things in life than losing your breast.” She just huffed. I put on my dress to see how the new bra looked with it and contemplated my reflection in the mirror. “It’s perfect.” I said and catching the woman’s eyes in the mirror I added, “I’m preparing to wear this to my mother’s funeral.” With that, she collapsed into my arms and sobbed. I couldn’t join her as I was emotionally too numb and to allow my tears to fall then might have destroyed me. Instead, I concentrated on breathing in then out in a rhythm set by the oxygen tank next to my mother’s bed. My life was in question and my mother’s was nearly over and to have embraced the enormity of that was beyond my capability. Simple tasks were all my heart and head could handle.
My first visit with my mother after my mastectomy was without outward emotion. She had been sleeping and we all had arrived belatedly to celebrate her birthday. The twins, Colleen, Lisa, my brother and my father were all there. We sat on the furniture that faced all directions and acted as though nothing had changed. The oxygen tank regulated all of our breathing with a hushed whoosh-click-shahhh in the corner. My mother and I caught each other’s eyes but we didn’t discuss then what had happened to me. Too great was the horror she knew I faced as she herself had faced her operations. To say anything openly would have brought no solace to anyone in the room. It just isn’t in our nature to cause an emotional scene. The oxygen tank pushed us along to the greater need of the moment – lunch.