Mammary Memories?

“What do you suppose they did with my left breast?” My mother’s question was a bit daunting to my sister Liz and me.   We were visiting with our 83 year old mother, who was a resident at an assisted living facility. Mom had a funny expression on her face and we were not sure if she was joking with us or if this was a serious question.

My sister has just recently had breast cancer surgery, a radical mastectomy in fact. Her recent bout with cancer has obviously triggered a stroll down “mammary lane” for our Mom and the question elicited responses from us on several levels.

We’d waited until Liz had the surgical drains removed; knowing Mom would want to “see” how she looked. And as expected she’d asked Liz to show her incisions and she had complied.  After inspecting her daughter’s skin and noting that both of her breasts were indeed removed, she commented that she looked pretty “normal”. This was due to the fact that saline bags had already been inserted to start the reconstructive process. My sister was a very small breasted woman and the insertion of the saline bags surpassed her previous AA cup sized tissue.

I lived in Seattle, Washington and I was visiting in Phoenix to give some post surgical support and TLC to my little sister during her recovery.  I’d arrived the day of her surgery and was playing nursemaid, chauffeur and chief moral officer.  I’d driven us to this visit as Liz was not yet cleared to do the physical task of wrangling a steering wheel so soon after her procedure. The reconstruction process and implanting of the saline bags involved stretching some major chest muscle tissue to get ready for her final implant placements after her surgery.

Liz had decided not to burden our mother with her recent medical condition, until after the surgery was completed.  The discovery of cancer cells in both breasts and diagnosis that this was in the early stages prompted her decision to have both breasts removed and have reconstruction with implants.  Hopefully this step would put an end to any future growth.  Our first response to our Mom’s question was one of practicality, appropriate only if this was indeed a serious question.

“They probably threw it in the waste disposal at the hospital, Mom. Back then they probably didn’t have medical waste containers and saving the breast tissue after surgeries, beyond the testing to confirm that it was indeed cancerous, was not the normal proceedure. Your breast probably went into the trash and into the local land fill. That was a long time ago, Mom.”

“No, it was just here and now it is gone”. Our Mom is patting herself on her left side where over 50 years ago she’d had surgery to remove her breast tissue and lymph nodes to prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of her body. Her surgery was a success! She often commented that her doctor “got it all” as she never had a re-occurrence of cancer anywhere else in her body.

Mom had been dipping into the fog of dementia during the past year or two.  She’d be clear and appropriate with her comments one moment and off in left field the next. Liz and I exchanged winks. “Mom, are you talking about your mastectomy bra? You have not worn that for a while and without your prosthesis you may feel that you are missing a breast.”

Back in 1962 when she had her breast removed there were no such things as prosthetic under garments for women breast cancer patients. She’d not been a particularly well endowed woman and so was content to make do with cotton balls filling the A cup of her brassiere on the left side. In the early 1970’s she’d had her first visit to “Barbara’s Mastectomy Boutique”.  Mom discovered that as a breast cancer survivor she was entitled to two free prosthetic bras every year on her health plan. She looked forward to the excursions across town to get new underwear each year. She was amazed that she could get a variety of colors and even a swimming insert.

More recently, her tolerance for anything that was binding, meant her choice was to not wear any close fitting clothing, including her prosthetic brassiere. But it was clearly not her prosthesis she was missing.  She yanked up her top and showed us the scar that ran vertically from her sternum and under her left arm, still red and angry looking after 50 years.  “It was just here the other day and now it is gone” she said sadly.

“Mom, don’t you remember when you had your breast cancer? It was in 1962. It was before Jonathan was born.”  She looked at us both, in a fog of confusion. We tried again.

“Mom, how old is your son, Jon?”  We hoped that her memory of his recent 50th birthday would jog her back into the present and give her perspective in time of the events.

She brightened up at the mention of our brother. He is clearly the favorite child and we do not begrudge this at all. Mom was divorced by the time her youngest, our baby brother, was 5 years old. She had a different relationship with him than she did with us girls. She allowed him to climb into her bed when he had nightmares. Rather than risk him getting sick, drove him around to deliver his paper route on cold mornings. In his early high school Thespian club days, Mom served as the wheel man to drive Jon and his friends to the prank missions played on various cast members! This involved midnight drive-bys like toilet papering of the trees in friend’s yards or sprinkling computer punch card discs into the grass before sprinklers came on the next morning.  They were buddies more than Mother and Son.

We verbally walked her through the chronology of her having Jon and not breastfeeding, due to the breast cancer surgery. She still didn’t seem to follow.

We changed the subject but Mom circled around and back to the subject of breasts again. This time she was worried that she needed a mammogram. She could not remember the last time she’d had a visit to her “GYN Doctor”. Mom had named all of her various medical practitioners by their specialty. So she had her “Kidney Man” who was actually her Urologist whose bi annual treatments helped keep her bladder infections at bay. Her primary care physician was simply “Griff”.

As she continued to fret about the lack of mammograms, we decided that scheduling a rather thorough exam with her current visiting practitioner at the facility would probably help put her fears at rest.  “Mom, we will have the nurse schedule a visit and get a breast exam done real soon”.  She seemed to accept this and smiled.

On our next visit she informed us that her “doc” had done a real good job. Later she commented that there still was no Mammogram but that was a fleeting thought and she quickly moved on to more important topics like getting my sister to pluck chin hairs.

One of my Mom’s fixations was chin hairs. The family lore was that her Aunt Mary was displayed at her funeral, in her casket, with her chin hairs sticking out.  This was a family scandal. There was apparently some bad blood between this Aunt’s last husband and her remaining sisters. They were not “allowed” to attend to their sister’s body and rectify this whisker issue. So the family shame was that Mary was on view chin hairs and all for the whole world to see at the visitation.

Our mother lived with a fixation that started in her early 30’s. There were potions of some sort of foaming bleach that were regularly applied to her upper lip.  On more than one occasion I got scolded for screaming “Mad Dog” when I would observe her “home bleaching treatments. Mostly because when I’d tease her she’d laugh causing the hardened bleach application to crack open.

When she was more financially well off, she engaged in a series of “electrolysis treatments”. This involved some sort of shocking device, a needle that zapped the offending hairs at their very roots and was guaranteed to get rid of these stubborn barbs once and for all.  Indeed for many years the plucking and bleaching treatments were not needed.

But in her older years those little black barbs fought their way back. So each visit from my sister was an opportunity to be groomed. One never knew…she could die the next day and she wanted to be ready.  The fact was that Mom had already requested to be cremated.  No one was going to see her chin or any other part of her body, post mortem for that matter, didn’t seem to deter her fear about a possible chin hair viewing.

After a few tries with ordinary tweezers, which were tedious to use for extended periods of time, Liz saw on TV an item called the “Tweeze®”.  This was a marvel. A battery operated facial hair epilator, similar to the Epilady® Electric Hair Remover that somewhat painfully denuded the legs of many a brave woman. This little gadget latched onto the offending follicle with a death grip that prevented any slip up in its removal, roots and all.  Mom was enthralled by this device.  So now all upcoming visits were preceded by a phone call request to bring the “chin plucker thingie”.

My sister has the patience of Job!  I was along one day to observe the ritualistic dance between Mom and my sister.  Mom would ask, as soon as we entered the room for her chin hairs to be removed. Liz would comply. Thinking they were finished, she would wrap up the device and put it away. Mom would sit in her chair, stroking her chin and sure enough she’d feel a barb.

“Oops! Here is one you missed”. Sighing, Liz would get the Tweeze® back out and continue with the plucking ritual. Mom would continue to feel her chin, her cheeks, and anywhere else she suspected there were little hairs lurking. Several more time the Tweeze® would be in and out of Liz’s handbag before Mom was finally satisfied that they were all eradicated.

Not too long after my sister’s surgery and recovery Mom did die very peacefully and painlessly.  Mom’s sister and her first cousin, a woman was almost as close as a sister, were keeping vigil with us.  Unconscious and not responding to our touch or words, Mom’s shallow breathing was the only proof that her life force still was present.

We were comforted by the fact that there was not a chin hair in sight.

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