My silences have not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
From "The Transformation of Silence into Language
and Action" by Audre Lorde.
I was seventeen when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been twenty when her mother died from it...IT...that word; that sinister illness lurking in the future, quietly waiting until a doctor from the New England Medical Center itching to escape the confines of his cold white office, sits my mother...my sister...me down and simply states, The lump is malignant. You have breast cancer...cancer...CANCER. it can kill you. are you ready to die?

Was my grandmother ready to die? Was she prepared to leave her nine-year-old son alone to fight off the hurt of junior high without the comfort of her embrace? Was she ready to leave her daughters alone to walk down an aisle, not knowing who they chose to spend their lives with, not knowing the first grandchild, or the second or the third, or me?

My mother sometimes looks in the mirror at the tiny lines that smile around her eyes and says she looks like her mother. I know she is thinking the same when I catch her staring at her hands, thin bones pressing under thick blue veins slinking around big knuckles. I know because she tells me what my grandmother's hands looked like. She tells me how my grandmother was a dancer, graceful and quiet, and about the time she wouldn't allow my mother to take ballet lessons because her older sister had tried, but refusing to practice, embarrassed the entire family on recital night; giggling on stage while tripping over her tootoo like a drunk tulip. You would have really liked her, she whispers. But I never had the chance. I will never call her nana, or gram. In my imagination, she will forever be Nana Grant, the peaceful flower with knobby hands blushing in the dark of a recital hall.

In Cancer
the most fertile of skysigns
I shall build a house
that will stand forever.
From "Construction" by Audre Lorde

I was not prepared for the treatment my mother had to undergo. Even today, I often wonder, in awe, where she found the strength to return to Boston to be bombarded with chemicals. Invisible, I sank into the corners of our house and watched her struggle through the chemotherapy. If that treatment was an angel in disguise, it certainly had one hell of a costume. My mother returned from the hospital, her skin the color of a low moon. She rested motionless on the couch, and I stared severely at her chest to see the rise and fall of life. These times were the easiest, if there ever were such times. The fear inside me screamed when she shuffled to the bathroom and vomited violently; her pain seemed endless when I desperately wanted it to cease.

Lost in my invisibility, I battled with my feelings. Jealousy rose up, lost without a mom to make sure I ate fruit with my breakfast or who scolded me to make my bed before I scrambled out the door. I was alone, with no one to tell me things would be ok, it always ends up ok. Guilt engulfed my spirit, ashamed at my selfishness and helplessness. Why couldn't I think of her suffering instead of my longing for the way life used to be? Worst of all, thoughts of my own mortality clouded my mind. I'm next. Was this horror inside me just waiting for a ordinary day to explode into my life? My mother wanted us to be open throughout her ordeal, but I could never have told her that the fear I felt was for my own life and the pain inside was for her, but in my own selfish way.

Today things are ok. Maybe I believe that because my mother is around to tell me so. She survived the supposed "treatment" and was able to keep both breasts. Her hair grew back, slowly in fuzzy stages and she eventually had to get it cut. (amazing, the thrills of a hair salon). Her cancer...actually, I'm sure she wouldn't want to claim it...THE cancer is gone in principle, but we will truly know in five years. I am so caught up in papers, parties, and exams that I often forget these are her waiting years. I just don't want the waiting to end; for now the trauma is over. It can't begin again...at least not for her.

My first visit to the gynecologist dredged up my old feelings, stale with fear. The doctor simply asked me if I had breast cancer in my family. As I told her of the damage to my family tree, I watched her eyes grow concerned. She warned me about what I already knew, about the possible dangers to come. I let the words slip out my ears. Why shouldn't I? I can feel the insecurity of the future inside me, and I just want to ignore it while I can. I don't want to ask myself again why this happened to my grandmother, my mother; why it could happen to me, my sister, my daughters. On the bathroom wall of my dorm, the stickers instructing how to do a breast self-examination are a constant reminder of the uncertain years ahead for my family, and for thousands of women. I don't live my life shadowed by fear, but I am slightly more hesitant of the future than someone who escaped the gynecologist's question with a simple "no." I hated going through my mother's breast cancer alone and scared. I want to share my experience with one woman, daughter, granddaughter, so maybe in the future I will be able deal with the uncertainty through their understanding. Perhaps that's how my mother found her strength and I was just too invisible to see.

And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us
recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share
them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.
From "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" by Audre Lorde.

Susan Hesselbach

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Last updated: 2/5/96 Created and maintained by Sarah Borchers '96