In the Dead of Night – A Mastectomy Story by Jane DeShaw
The February night is moonless, black, as you turn your head to the left and gaze out the second-story window. The limbs and leafless branches of the huge maple tree just outside are like cold, barren, groping arms, sinister in the streetlamp’s dim glow. Lying flat on your back in bed, each arm is propped up on a large pillow. Except for your elevated arms, you are nestled like a caterpillar in a cocoon. You would think this should make you feel safe and secure. You would think. Where did they put your breasts? Were they tossed in with pieces of kidneys, livers, and gallbladders, like a giant Cobb salad, to finally co-mingle as a giant heap of ash at the bottom of a massive incinerator? Are pieces of them floating idly in a formaldehyde-filled jar on a pathologist’s laboratory shelf? Seems all the doctors—and there have been many—have admonished you to keep your stress level down. You wonder if at some point one of them implanted an anxiety barometer inside you, with an alarm to go off to alert you if the level goes astray. The alarm goes off in you now as little prickles, like inside-out goosebumps, start to invade your chest and arms, followed by an intense heat, beginning in your face and exploding throughout your body. You try to pray.
What are the odds of recurrence? You try to remember the statistics, but you know those are just numbers. You did all you could so it won’t return. But will it? In a few years, you’ll have to make a choice whether to continue taking, for five more years, the medication that is already decreasing your bone density and elevating your cholesterol level. It lessens the chance of it returning, but should you say enough already because of the side effects?
You bend your legs up and down, one at a time, sliding your feet along the soft cotton sheet, wondering how long it will be before you can curl up on your side again. Did some rogue cell make it into your bloodstream before the biopsy? You never seriously thought in the past that you wouldn’t participate in new chapters of your son’s life…marriage, fatherhood, grannyhood on your part. Will it return? You stare up at the ceiling, teeth clenched.
What is he really thinking when he looks at you now? You hear his rhythmic breaths as he sleeps on the other side of your right-arm pillow. He has been helping you put the camisoles over your head, getting your arms through them because, for now, you can’t raise and bend them well. You have watched his farmer-fingers milk the drainage tubes that protrude from your sides and chest, coaxing the blood-tinged orangish-yellow discharge down the tube and into the grenade-like bulb at the end. You have glanced at his face, peering for any signs of revulsion as he carefully unscrews each bulb and dumps the body fluid, one grenade at a time, into a measuring cup to record the cc’s. He says everything will be all right and he is not going anywhere. You wonder if he should.
Maybe you shouldn’t have opted for reconstruction. Two more surgeries, two more times to be under anesthesia. You can opt to go sizes beyond what genetics and nature had supplied you, but you’ve decided you want to be as close to your original size as possible, to feel as normal as possible. A muscle from your back was moved internally to the front to support fragile radiated skin. Will it survive the move? You recall horror stories of post-surgery infections. The goosebumps nip at you again from the inside, as if they are trying to fight their way out, and the heat follows like an obedient dog. Breathe in and out…concentrate on your breath…in and out.
Will people stare when you are wearing a T-shirt, a tank top? Will it be obvious?
Lying inside your cocoon feels claustrophobic. You try to remember what life was like before you heard the dreaded words, and realize that is getting harder to do. You berate yourself for taking those days for granted. You were so damn cavalier. With no family history, no smoking, minimal alcohol, this certainly would never happen to you. You slide your legs back and forth again. What if insurance companies are again allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? Your breath comes fast and shallow.
Should you have opted for a single side? The other side, except for some calcifications being monitored over the years, was unaffected—so far. You whisper an apology into the air for the collateral damage. You rarely appreciated your breasts—in your youth, feeling envious of fuller-busted girls when you were just starting to sprout your own, fearful yours would never get anywhere near the level of the ones boys seemed to really like. When you got past the teen years, you were often self-deprecating, making jokes about your size, when, truth be told, not having a super-abundance was fine. Less to carry around, less back problems, less to droop. You whisper another apology to your breasts—wherever they are—for not honoring them.
Did they get it all? What does he really think? Will the reconstruction go smoothly? Will you get an infection? Will it return? The damn prickles are overpowering. Do caterpillars sweat like this in their cocoons? Please, God, let sleep come. Breathe deep—in and out, in and out. You doze.
Through the bedroom window, you see the beginnings of daybreak in the early morning sky. As you watch the darkness evaporate, you thank God for another day. You are not going to let this beat you down. You were strong and healthy, and you will be again. Moving aside an arm pillow, you bring your legs over the side of the bed and gaze out the window for a long minute after you sit up. The leafless limbs and branches of the maple tree shelter pockets of pristine snow in their crooks. The yard lies quiet under its white blanket with dried heads of sedum masquerading as royalty with their snowy crowns. The sky brightens.
When something is trying to kill you, you fight back. What was discarded was simply a mass of tissue. You are not defined by a hunk of tissue or by a disease. Getting stronger is your job today, plus getting in a long nap. Family and friends have rallied to support you. How lucky you are. You will be just fine. Rising to your feet, you decide to shop for some new spring clothes in a few weeks. Padding into the closet for your slippers, you bury the dread that when darkness comes tonight and you’re settled in your cocoon, you will once again have to battle demons that attack you in the dead of the night.
For some of Kim’s middle of the night post-mastectomy thoughts – A Little Farther
Jane DeShaw, a former college science textbook editor, now pursues her love of playing with words. She has had works published in Julien’s Journal and the Dubuque Area Writers Guild Gallery. She is an empty nester, residing in Dyersville, Iowa, with her husband and a diva cat who grudgingly allows them to live with her.