Vital Signs

Friday night, date night. However, my mother lay dying in the next room. No funny business, breast cancer.

Not to mention, she’d be so concerned to hear me still. What to wear? What to wear? My mother was always so afraid I’d never attract suitable dates. “No funny business,” she’d insist around the pins in her mouth as she tucked, hemmed, and altered clothes forever not quite right for me. With my whole being, there was once a time, I could not wait to escape the woman’s grasp.

My mother, I was told, found her lump while in the bath. Not that she, herself, had ever been encouraged to look. With fingers pressed together though, she’d evidently actually touched her own breasts and found something. My mother had probably stood before a mirror at some time, I suppose, as I’ve stood before my own, time and again. Such a challenge to make the angular look round, the round look angular. Wear something in, something thin. What to wear? What to wear? Something breezy, something cool. Friday night, date night. Who will I be tonight?

Back then, I was the face whose mother lay dying in the next room. Beauty takes work, she’d taught me. Begin with cleanliness, next to godliness, a shower. A splash of lavender. Pamphlets now actually advise a woman to search in the shower. The woman is then to lie back on a pillow and massage the breast with a circular motion. Work in toward the center. Then repeat. Squeeze gently.

There’s the possibility that a lump is only a lump. Unless it’s spread to the lymph nodes, that is. Beauty experts advised back then, and they advise now, a woman has to get serious about her skin. After bathing, she is to treat her skin with hot towels, and then apply slices of cucumber over her eyelids to take away under-eye circles. Antiseptic cream can get rid of any unwanted blemishes. Watch bumps disappear back into the skin. They vanish. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? When I was a teen, I looked forward to Friday nights, what I considered, always a date night. At least a “go out and have a good time with my friends” night.

In her final days, my mother, skin paper thin from radiation, came home from the hospital. She was released into the custody of her family. Momma who’d always chided me to take care of that “girlish figure.” To do stomach crunches every day, waist in. She’d told me about how her own ample mother had always advised her that “the bosoms” were at their “most attractive when forced up and out.” Why, the breasts should look like “grapefruits, full and voluptuous.”

Her lump, my mother swore later, seemed to turn red right under her hand. She didn’t know how she had not noticed it, not found it before. How long had it been, her own doctor admonished her sternly since my mother had called him to make an appointment to “get a check-up” for herself? I can imagine my mother just sitting there on the examining table, swinging her legs as if a girl herself. I think she would have been tempted to apologize for being both sick and stupid. And never mind this particular lump, the doctor had gone on to advise her, what about the one possibly in her other breast? Biopsies ordered. Biopsy everything. Biopsies all around.

As I remember, the daughter whose mother once lay dying in the next room argued with her own lump. I massaged it this way and that. I felt discouraged only when it would not give way, go away. And how had I as a young woman not guessed from my own mother’s distracted gaze that there could be such physical symptoms to fear? The shortness of breath, a real weakness in each step, a feeling that one is about to become lost in space. That bitter taste in my own mouth when one wakes in the middle of the night. The way the body turns to ice from the outside in, the chill finally reaching the heart.

“Cut it out,” my mother had demanded, her voice barely a whisper, then a cry. No lumpectomies back then anyway. The radical Halsted mastectomy, lifesaver or at least life-prolonger in its day, absolutely did remove everything. The breasts and the muscles underneath, the lymph and mammary nodes. No patient ever regained the full strength of her arm, but “I have a daughter,” my mother’s voice had grown louder. “Cut it all out.”

Friday nights, my date night. Meanwhile, my mother lay dying in the next room. The cancer had disappeared, reappeared, metastasized. One hundred brush strokes to the hair every night, smooth and silky. My mother had used a plastic brush on my head, the kind with hard bristles. Meanwhile, my mother’s fine hair turned even finer, thin and wispy. She and I had picked out a wig together. We’d played for a moment like two girls in front of the store mirror. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

These days, the medical staff encourages the patient to have a party. A head-shaving party. Fun and games. If the cancer metastasizes, it can spread to the bones, the lungs, the liver. “If worse comes to worse, we can consider breast reconstruction,” my modern oncologist reassures. My mother who once looked forward to my dates more than I did, told me that no matter what so many doctors swore, she could actually feel the cells growing. Cells multiplying, day by day.

Time to put on a face. Good makeup begins with the right foundation, a concealer for spots and worry lines. Apply just a touch of blush, then just a touch of shadow above the eyes. Mascara. Friday nights, date night. Now my own daughter twirls up lipstick after lipstick. Plum, cherry, strawberry, peach. Take an eternity to choose, the T.V. instructs, except that my child’s mother, just like her mother before her, does not have an eternity.

I have a margin of safety. These days, the doctor can so often just take away the diseased tissue and some small amount of the attached area. Or even the lymph nodes. They can go in for more later if need be. Plus radiation is so much safer. Chemotherapy, so many swear to me, is bearable. “One need not fear the cure,” magazine articles advise. My own daughter spoons cracked ice over my dry tongue, protesting she won’t be going anywhere tonight if I feel too ill. I struggle not to be nauseous.

Friday night, date night, who will my daughter be with tonight? Then what about tomorrow? And the next evening? I am grown into the mother resisting death in the next room. Though I sometimes fear my body will disappear into deep ground or gray sky, I will myself to attend classes. My daughter and I, we work on being positive. And we attend fundraisers. We march.

Finally, my mother was attached to an oxygen tank, large and green. Friday nights were once my own date nights, but back then, I’d taken to sitting on my hands and listening for the sound of every breath from the next room. The breath of she who’d been so pretty when she’d married my father, so lively. If my mother could not be protected from pain, I prayed desperately then, for her deliverance.

I can still picture my mother clapping before child after capricious child out playing games in the neighborhood. She’d round us all up, “Come on now, girls. This is no time to get lost. Pick a buddy and follow me.” In this day and age, at least my own daughter can be forewarned. She can know beforehand what is to be and what has to be done. She has a chance, a future grown full of possibilities.

Meanwhile, there is still time. My own daughter now twirls in front of me, ready to take on the night. Friday night, date night. The doorbell rings. He’s here. Your date is here.

My daughter and I stop breathing. We stop, and then we breathe together. In my Wellness Class, we so-far survivors sit in a circle and breathe as one. Together, we breathe deeply. Our breath opens into light as we can envision thousands of mothers and thousands upon thousands of daughters.

Your date is here. The doorbell rings again, and again, but moving as if into some long ocean wave, women’s bodies surge forward. What is born is a cure.