When you enter my life, you're a mystery. I'm ten, slim and favor running. When I run, I feel like I'm flying. All the bad disappears, and all I feel is the wind in my hair. I'm not running away or toward, just running for the joy of it.
You appear overnight. A small lump, quite sore to the touch. I wait to see if you'll disappear, but you're persistent. I wear loose shirts so no one sees you. Finally, I go to my father. He's the one who tends injuries and bandages them. He'll know what you are. He touches you, and I flinch. He apologizes and says, "I don't know what it is. We need to make an appointment with the doctor." I go back to my room and lie on the bed. I don't like going to the doctor. My mother appears in the doorway and tells me that you are my breast forming. The other one will catch up soon. It does. Does this mean I cannot run with boys anymore? I've seen the way they look at girls with breasts. I hear them snicker. Now I'll be one of "those girls."
My father avoids eye contact for a few days.
You grow and grow until you far surpass many of my friends'. Your size makes me look heavier than I am. It's a challenge to find a bathing suit that covers modestly. No bikinis for us.
Running becomes a challenge. You and your sister flop up and down. Now when people ask me if I run, I say, "Only if someone is chasing me."
Boys are drawn to you like bees on sunflowers. I think it's my personality, but . . . it's all you. I never touch you, but that's all they want to do. Rub, squeeze, fondle, and pinch. Once they get to know you, they lose interest in me.
One of those boys, Hank, has a sleek, white convertible. He's a senior to my sophomore. When he pulls up in front of high school to drive me home, I float down the front steps. I imagine that other students are watching thinking, "Who's that girl? She's got it made." Little do they know that you are my ticket to ride. In a few months, unable to see beyond you, Hank moves on too.
As a young bride, I don't flaunt you or your sister. Sex is in the dark. The touching starts to make more sense. He likes you. What I wish is that he stroked other parts of my body as lovingly. But for him, you are the center of attention. Sometimes I resent you.
When I give birth, I can't imagine nursing. And it's not a big deal, because it's the time when nursing's not even encouraged. I don't know anyone who is nursing her infant. My mother tells me nursing will ruin my body. Ironic, because after the pregnancy, I don't think my body is in all that great shape. They have those Playtex bottles with nipples that are shaped to best represent you. That will do nicely as a replacement for the real thing.
One day, I am standing at the stove, boiling those nipples. It's a rare moment of reverie for this new mother. The telephone rings. An unfamiliar male voice on the other end of the line whispers, "How're your nipples?" The question begs consideration. I don't often think about them, unless they are being purposed. Compelled to answer, I look at the bubbling pot in front of me and say the first thing that comes to mind, "Well, right now they're in boiling water." He hangs up. Take that!
Years go by. You become low hanging fruit. And while I'm still modest, I guess because you are no longer in competition with others of your kind, I have reduced inhibition. I still won't completely undress at the YMCA in my hometown, but I strip down in other cities, brazened by anonymity.
Breast exams become an annual routine. I never gave you the gift of nursing, but I subject you to the squeezing pain of mammograms and mining of tissue for biopsies. All wrought with the anxiety of possibility. And it finally happens. You're invaded. Something evil infiltrated you and must be cut out. First my mother's, then my sister's, and now you. It's not as malevolent as some forms of it, but it cannot stay. And then we must do all we can to prevent it or something worse from returning to you. I want to run and run.
I tell my daughters and they sob. I know this scares them. We do, after all, have a history of breast cancer in our family - my mother and my sister. I reassure them that this is no big deal. I'll be fine. It's early stage and treatable. Some of my grandchildren are curious, and I answer any questions they have. One asks if my hair will fall out, and if it does wouldn't it be cool if it grew back purple. I say, "Yes, that would be cool." If I am an old woman, I will wear purple.
You and I begin the consultation circuit: the Surgeon, the Oncologist, the Radiologist. They all say we are lucky in that it's stage zero. Zero? That doesn't mean zero trepidation. I start a special cancer journal. At first, it's a record of doctor visits but soon becomes a dumping ground for all of the thoughts I don't want to say out loud.
You are subjected to surgery, and it's successful in that all of the evil is removed. There's no evidence of contamination anywhere else. Once you heal, we begin Radiation Therapy. Our first visit is a consultation with the doctor, nurse, and social worker. The doctor reassures us that the side effects will be minimal because you are an appendage. Connected to my body, but not a vital part of it. I guess that now your nursing years are over, you serve no practical purpose. Radiation begins. I walk into the room and expose you. With the cool air on your surface, the radiation therapists and I chit chat as if we are meeting for lunch. I lay on the table, hands above my head, clutching the metal handle. I'm cautioned not to move.
The therapists move me around by tugging on the sheet beneath me, calling out numbers like 92.5. You must be in an exact position. Those numbers light across you. They line up on your tattooed dot placed on your skin for precision. Radiation must enter you exactly where tissue was removed.
The round metal contraption with the square glass center rumbles into place above us. Inside are metal teeth that open, exposing the guts of the machine. When all is lined up properly, the therapists leave the room. The thick, protective door slides shut to contain what's about to take place. It wouldn't be good if the radiation leaked out of the room into anyone else.
In a few seconds a buzzing sound indicates that the radiation has been disbursed. The round machine moves over us and a square one takes its place. The round one is now aiming at the left side of you. I feel like I'm starring in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I wish I could float up and away, released from gravity. I'm looking at a ceiling filled with pinpricks of light. At first I think, "There must be constellations." But no. Just random specks. I attempt to make patterns. I see the letter S. My mind drifts: serendipity, solemn, surreal.
It's safe to enter now and the therapists return. Only a few minutes have passed, but I wonder what long term effects are happening within you. Did we get rid of one evil and invite in another? Will we be safe? "See you tomorrow." The therapists and I share one more pleasantry.
Eventually the radiation takes its toll. Your skin changes color, darkening. It burns. I am keenly aware of your existence. A rash develops across the top of you. I think of it as the Mason Dixon line because gravity is pulling you south. You are moving further away from my heart. Only a minor detail my dears, because we are in this together. Appendage or not, we are connected forever.
Or at least I hope so.
Linda McKenney is a personal wellness coach, motivational speaker, writer and storyteller. Creative nonfiction gives her the opportunity to explore life experiences on her never-ending journey of self-discovery. Linda is published in Silver Birch Press, 101 Word Short Stories, The Rush, Fiftiness, Number One 2017 and Helen: A Literary Magazine.