Nuns, Breast Cancer, and Advice at Nineteen; Surviving the In Between

Lolo had breast cancer. Twice.

I was little the first time and it is the only time I remember my mother crying behind a locked bathroom door. My grandmother had a mastectomy and then spent the next two decades wearing a stuffed, lopsided bra. Her neighbor, a few houses down, a pistol of an Italian woman who chain smoked, had birds, high heels, and Prego tomato sauce and Twinkies lining her pantry, also had breast cancer. I remember taking car rides to the grocery store, sitting in the middle spot of my grandmother’s front seat (no seatbelt, of course) listening to Jo give Lolo a hard time about not having reconstructive surgery. My grandma, quiet, would shrug and say, “What for?”

I slept at Grandma Lois’s frequently. I would sleep in her bed, under sheets that smelled like Tide and bleach, under an oil painting of Jesus on the crucifix, while my grandma changed into her faded and sleeveless, knee length, nylon, nightgown. She would keep her back to me, but I could see the scar that wove itself to her mid-back, and when she crawled in next to me, she only had one breast and the top of her scar peeped out like misplaced cleavage.

She was much older for the second mastectomy. I was in high school, sixteen, working as a receptionist at a hair salon on North Avenue next to George Webb’s, a place where no one ever came in, except for one time, when the owner accidentally waxed off her client’s entire eyebrow and then offered her a free brow pencil as consolation. I sat at Lolo’s knee watching the ten o’clock news the night before her surgery and her hand rested on my head. It was heavy and felt like bundled up tears in a chest, except maybe those were mine. It’s hard to recall. She survived that surgery and my mom joked with her that now she could finally be the enviable size B cup we all dreamed of (on both sides now).

Last year, I skipped my mammogram. This week I went to the dentist and the receptionist was crying because her best friend had just died from breast cancer. I went home and made my appointment. As usual, I was called back to repeat the test because there was a suspicious shadow (there always is). I wasn’t too worried about it because my astrologer told me that my health looked good this year and seeing that she predicted Greta’s passing, I just trusted that. So I repeated the test today, still not really worried … worried a little bit I guess, when two technicians showed up instead of one, and kept trying to hide their knit brows behind their machine while I waited, holding my breath, and trying not to stare at my white breast, squished between two glass plates like rolled out pizza dough waiting to rise.

I kept getting sent back into the waiting room in between consultations with the radiologist. It was starting to get long and so then I started to worry for real. A tiny T.V. was blasting Wendy Williams. I reached for the remote to silence her. I looked up and a nun, in a full floor length habit walked toward me.

My heart stopped completely and all I could think of was that Jesus painting and that the hospital had quickly summoned up a nun to break the news to me, the mother of a four year old boy who WILL NOT REMEMBER ME IF I DIED TODAY, that I was surely dying. Just then, another nurse popped from behind the old nun and said, “This way, Sister,” and instructed her to take everything off from the waist up. A nun getting a mammogram will certainly weave its way into a future painting. I just never thought…

I continued to wait, now next to the nun, who, in the absence of her veil, looked just like every other nun I have ever seen in my life. Together we watched a commercial about a woman who was exercising and fell of her Bosu ball unexpectedly. The nun giggled. I giggled. We exchanged worried, “maybe this is it for me,” glances, and then it was silent.

My nurses came back and kicked the little old nun out of the room they needed for me. They explained that they were going to need to roll my breast and take pictures all at once, the Olympic sport of mammography. The one nurse lifted by breast as if it was a twenty-pound turkey and then started pulling it like pasta, while the other one smashed it between plates, like a game of whack-a-mole. I was instructed to hold my breath until they both technicians lit up like little Emoji’s, simultaneously saying, “Ah, that’s better. You are fine.”

Minutes later I was told the Wizard of Oz radiologist (heard from, but never seen) cleared me and I could go. I was still a little bit dizzy from being Silly Putty, reeling from flashing thoughts of how my whole life was going to change on this sunny, too hot day in July, a Tuesday unlike any other Tuesday, and they just shrugged and said, “See you in a year.”

It made me think about my Grandmother and about whether or not she had anyone to really talk to about how scared she was. She didn’t have a husband, a confidant … anybody, really, to crash into. She certainly didn’t blog or keep a diary of any kind. She didn’t start suddenly painting peaches or taking up meditation classes. She was just still about it.

I am not very good at sitting still for much of anything. I always was in awe of those women who could wait until the second trimester to tell people they were pregnant. I practically blurted the news out to the whole world before the pregnancy pee stick had time to dry up.

Yet, in the wake of this summer, one mixed with so much emotional weight and change, I have found myself unable to write or talk, and the idea of drawing or painting is actually a turn off all together. I don’t want to go to the beach or sit by a pool. I just want to sit, to be still. I want to slow time in order to digest all of the very real changes. I want to be left alone because I am really quite sure that no one in the entire world can understand what it’s like to lose a dog, send a kid 2500 miles away from home, send another kid to 4K, another kid off to high school, and to not feel guilt about whichever kid I am forgetting, and in the back of my mind feeling broke and panicking about the weeds out front. It’s a shit storm here. It’s like one long, bad teenage angsty poem entitled, It’s a Shit Storm in my Heart, and here I am, spending my summer replacing all of the dotted letter “i’s” with hearts.
But I am not dying. Not today anyway. Not that I know of anyway. Not a death that I can hear with the ticking of a hospital clock. Tonight, Luke, who is away with Haley, texted me the lyrics to the song In Between, by Bear Tooth. He texted, “In the in between, I won’t let pain get in my way/I can’t have silence claiming me/We have strength in numbers.”

Maybe God sent the nun as a messenger and I just missed it, so this time He sent Luke. Luke, who shares my worry in the form of a knotted up stomach, but who is brave enough to leap and intuitive enough to let his mother know that now is not the time for silence (well, maybe a little silence … like I should stop emailing the 4K teachers that I am freaking out about the idea of a nap for my kid … in that case, a muzzle might be helpful). Now is not the time for the kind of silence that creates distance. Now is the time to love loudly, to read Quinn books about dying and heaven, to plop into bed next to Lizzie and beg her to be my Snapchat friend, to remind William that Axe is not a good smell …

A few days ago I drove Lizzie and four of her friends to the beach. They were wearing bikinis and sunglasses and we played bad music at full volume and rolled all the windows down. I was excited for her youth and envious of it and also inspired to find that part of myself (I never wore a bikini at fifteen). It’s time to roll my own windows down because in my own in-between, I can’t have silence claiming me either.

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About kellyinrepeat

mom, wife, artist, writer, teacher, dog lover, pie maker, who believes that all things are possible
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6 Responses to Nuns, Breast Cancer, and Advice at Nineteen; Surviving the In Between

  1. jgroeber says:

    I am so glad you found these words today. Wishing you the inspiration that comes with finding the images in your mind that go with this in- between, too.
    I think this will be the best thing I’ll read this week, maybe this month.
    Now I need to go schedule my mammogram. (It’s been 2 years. Eek!)

  2. Ruth Messnick says:

    Kelly, such beautiful words. I am always so touched when I read your entries. You have such a gift.
    I am SO happy that all is well. You know that I know the other outcome and it truly is shitty. Of course Rebecca was 10, not 4, but it is so unfair to the babies no matter how old they are. I also know the feeling of having no one to tell, no one to sit with you as you wait for the verdict, for the words which will change you forever regardless of the outcome, because I had a scare this summer. I felt a lump and had to go through the mammograms, ultrasound and biopsy because I am alone. I never worried about myself, I just thought of Rebecca and how I was going to ruin her senior year, how we had college visits planned, how unfair it was that at the ripe old age of 17 she would have lost both her parents. Thank God all was well, but the fear never goes away, waiting for the other shoe to drop never goes away. So yes, all of this is shitty and this parenting thing is so tough (and I only have 1, you are supermodel with 4), but we love every minute of it and pray that it goes on forever.
    Good luck with all the changes. I know Luke will do great!

  3. Wow. Once again Kelly! You perfectly capture so many things that so many people feel but can’t express. You are a beautiful person and a beautiful writer.

  4. Lori says:

    You are so good Kellybean! I just have to mention that though Jo had Prego in her cupboards she also made incredible sauce from scratch. . . I remember waiting all day- the smell permeating the air and every pore of my body. She always brought enough for our family. I miss her…
    Thanks for the memory! Love you…

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