SIX DAYS LEFT
Yesterday was like breast cancer Christmas. This is the odd, but extremely lovely thing about breast cancer; friends and total strangers give you gifts. My last cancer experience was an amazing pile of a variety of cancer type books. One book a dear friend gave me was like a photographer’s approach to mastectomies, reconstruction, no reconstruction. The book was stunning. It had female families who had a variety of surgeries posing naked with their battle wounds and their stories. I’m not going to lie, it was tough read and I only skimmed it because I wasn’t ready to take that visual on just yet. I’m much more ready now.
A client came by this past week with the most petite container of a rose plant in bloom. I haven’t seen her for quite some time and out of the blue she appears with this lovely gesture and I have it by my sink and it makes me smile every single time I am washing dishes. I highly recommend not waiting for someone to buy you flowers, but to buy them for yourself because there is nothing like a fresh tulip on a grey day at your sink. Such an easy way to add light to darkness. (Though my amazing partner brought me a bouquet of my favorite red tulips and it never sucks when you get flowers from your man or woman.)
The other gifts I received this past week were mostly definitely cancer themed and unbelievably helpful. A total stranger named Sharon Linder who owns www.getjanes.com read my essay on The Changing Room because a friend had sent it to her. Turns out she had the same experience and designed these incredible gowns that you can take with you to your appointments that actually tie in front of the breast! What a concept.
She calls them ‘Janes’ as her way to say, “Fuck off Johnnies,” (My interpretation, not hers). Get this, she not only sent me one, but she had the bag it comes in embroidered with my AW initials in the turquoisy blue I love! It is just like the L Laverne always wore on Laverne and ShirIey, remember the L? I’m not sure if the gown has the initials too, because the bag is so pretty all wrapped, I haven’t even taken it out.
Another friend dropped off a book written by a superchick named Captain Rhonda Byrd. Turns out she has quite a story about her experience with the medical world as it relates to lumpectomy choices over mastectomies and it turns out she lives right up the street from me! The name of the book is called, My Life is More Valuable Than a Breast, Is Yours? It has four stories about other women’s experiences as well and I can’t wait to read it. It seems fiery, fierce, in your face and I already can’t wait to meet her.
Another friend brought me a small bracelet with the evil eye on it to ward off evil spirits from an Armenian perspective. This came with a big vat of homemade Armenian Humus. I capitalized the H because homemade Middle Eastern Hummus is deserving of Proper Noun status, (my apologies Mrs. Nixon, Miss Arighi, Mr. Chase and Hannah Goodman, my favorite writing teachers in my life. (Notice Miss Arighi? I don’t think North Kingston High School was embracing the Ms. word in 1981, but she was definitely a Ms. And yes I know this was an awful run on sentence, but I have cancer so I can do what I want, right?) The bracelet’s evil eye is turquoise with a sparkle border. It is a beautiful gift that I am definitely taking to the hospital with me and I am hoping they at least let me wear it somewhere. That gift came along with a rub on tattoo that says Stronger everyday. I cannot remember the last time I put on a wash off tattoo. Makes me want to pull out my hula hoop.
Then out of the blue, a dear client for many years who is also a nurse anesthetist who also had breast cancer two years ago who also had the same plastic surgeon I am using stopped by. Not only did she let me see (and touch, but more on that later) her breasts so I could get a good idea of my future upper body, but she came with the most creative idea I would never have even thought of that a friend of hers hand made. It is like the neck pillows you see people using on a plane except they are shaped like hearts and are connected by a long sturdy ribbon. They are to be used to place under each armpit to give you some cushion for both sleep and for walking around support. I am number five of the women who have used them. I am in awe of the ingenuity that cancer brings out in women and the entrepreneurial spirit it develops.
Who knew what a business opportunity breast cancer is?
These are only the tangible gifts and they are gracious and helpful. I am very appreciative. The other gifts have been the words from so many people who are reading my countdown. Keep them coming, they never get old and I read every one of them. It is almost starting to feel like fan mail. And when I read them, I can feel the power of them holding my cape for me. This is what makes the word ‘Survivorship’ have meaning.
Speaking of capes, I have many mentors in my life. I happened to run into one of them at my favorite gym this past week. Judy Chaves used to own a big salon I worked at in my bratty twenties in Newport, RI and I have loosely kept in touch with her over the years. She retired long ago and has become an artist. And what an artist. She offered to draw me before I go in for surgery to capture my breasts as they are now. She is coming to my house today to do a nude (well, a half nude portrait) and I am honored to be a subject. This will cap off the last Sunday of my breasts as I know them and I know that besides the artistic expression of the experience, this will be a spiritual one for me as well.
My dear dear friend, Julie Brigidi, also offered to take photos of me a few weeks back. She took some in front of my barn (see TEN DAYS LATER photo) and most in her new studio on Bradford St. in Bristol, RI. I brought symbolic jewelry such as a ring my grandfather had given me that has a turbulent story involving my mother, a ring my mother gave me that I love and wear all the time, a necklace from my favorite aunt Kiley and a strand of pearls that my grandfather gave me when my grandmother died. I wore all of them for half nude photos and they are deep and powerful. I cherish them on a level that is really hard for me to match with words.
I highly recommend the photographic journey of capturing your body before a life changing event. The experience is cathartic and profound. Even better when the photographer has many years of life experience and a deep feminine understanding like Julie. We are going to take photos afterwards too, not sure what I will do with these, but I know instinctively they are important for a reason I don’t yet understand. I am ok with not knowing.
I am starting to be ok with the unknown.
The unknown of physical pain I am about to choose to experience as my plastic surgeon reminded me of, “alayne, this is an elective surgery,” easy for him to say, he never had breasts. I know I am not my body part. Of course. Many people in their responses have reminded me of this. I am so lucky. I know this. I am not concerned at all about the physical aspect of this really. These days, the new construction is so good that it is really hard to tell that someone has breasts that are not the ones they were born with. For me, it is more the emotion of another body part removal, the one that the medical world hasn’t really come around to talking about in the endless consults and pre-op appointments.
There are vestiges of the “take them off and move on,” that my grandmother had to endure in 1957. Watch any one of the Madmen episodes where one of the female characters had a miscarriage and then listen to the language of the male doctors and the husbands and you will understand that this was the historical approach to “women’s” problems. There are so many female doctors now and they are much more intuitive, but they were raised in the male model of medicine and the changes to the emotional caring of pre and post surgery is slow, especially pre. I get it. I am fortunate that I do my own work. Writing is part of the work and process in preparation so when I am high as a kite on oxy worrying if I am going to become addicted, I can click my heels together and repeat there is no place like home transporting myself to the work I have done PRIOR to my surgery. The mental prep work is as important if not more than the physical work. Doing that too with a strict eating regimen and work out schedule. Lean mean fighting machine on ZERO DAYS LEFT.
Every woman I know who has had implants asks immediately two questions.
Do you want to see them?
Do you want to feel them?
The funny thing about this and maybe it is because I have been in the business of beauty and women for over thirty years, I don’t even flinch. As a matter of fact, I welcome the opportunity as it really helps me see my future scars, my future warrior wounds. I get to hear what the recovery is like and what to expect afterwards. Unlike the unsolicited advice from women’s labor stories, often horrible stories, “I was in labor for twenty seven hours…” and unhelpful phrases like this when I was pregnant with Michael, these battle wound stories are really helpful. Maybe it is because I have the glory of age. Wisdom, life experience, the inner mantra of “This too will pass.” I have been wearing a cape for so long that this body part removal gives me permission to take it off for a while, not to put it away for good, but to give it a much earned rest. The gift of breast cancer besides the external gifts of tangible and intangible kindness is the much needed excuse to go silent and within. This is not something I do enough and I am embracing the excuse this time. Maybe.
alayne with breast cancer with the jewelry
Photo by Julie Brigidi