Excerpts From: Body of Mine: A Mother-Daughter Love Story (Memoir in Progress)

By Samuels, Ellen | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Excerpts From: Body of Mine: A Mother-Daughter Love Story (Memoir in Progress)


Samuels, Ellen, Women's Studies Quarterly


Diagnostic Imaging

The nurse presses me down on the steel table, unties the gown at my throat, as the technician wheels an enormous, ungainly bag of water close to my body. It feels soft, almost comforting, pressed against the side of my bare breast. My nipple hardens under its cool touch, which Peggy, the technician, explains uses water to transmit sound waves. If the waves encounter anything solid, flesh or bone, they will return to appear as white sparks and shadings on Peggy's monitor. I look at the screen, but can't tell anything from the blurred and occasional flashes of brightness across its dark grid. It looks like the satellite pictures television weathermen use, storm fronts spiraling across a dense and layered atmosphere.

If the lump in my breast is a cyst, fluid-filled and harmless, the sonic waves will pass right through, creating an area of total blackness. I will that hole to open like a black jelly bean among the swirling cotton candy strands that show the insides of my breasts, the different thicknesses of flesh and ducts and rib bone pressing against the skin.

I wanted it to be different, for the doctor to take my hand and tell me seriously that I would live or I would die, definitely. I sometimes craved the cancer simply because it would put an end to wondering when, to wondering how I would respond, whether I would withstand the treatment, or surrender.

Instead, I have doctors who listen, whose shoulders stiffen and whose eyes dart from their notes to my face and back again, as I reveal my secret, my family "history" that always seems to have the power, at any moment and without warning, to devour my present as well. The doctor who ordered the ultrasound was my mother's doctor as well; I am sure that is why, when I pointed out the thick little marble in my left breast, he sent me to the hospital for tests instead of being reassuring-or dismissive-or, somehow, both.

"I can't see anything." Peggy is frustrated, and I am apologetic. "We'll have to try the X-ray," she declares, and suddenly we are partners, a dynamic duo searching out villains hiding in my dense, too-young breast tissue.

In the mammography room, Peggy and a nurse struggle to sandwich my slippery breast into the machine's flat portals. With a tinge of embarrassment, I realize the device is not built to accommodate breasts as small as mine. In the back of my mind, indignation: My breasts aren't that small. Who designed these things, anyway? Finally, the nurse dons a lead apron and stands beside me while Peggy takes the films, holding me firmly in place against the machine's cold steel.

I call the next day for results: Nothing. Normal. Negative. All the answers you want from that kind of test. Why then do I feel almost disappointed?

Imagine you're setting out on a long journey, a journey that could last the rest of your life. You are packing your bags; you are saying good-bye to those you leave behind. Then suddenly you have a chance to skip to the end, to reach your destination in the blink of an eye. How do you measure the unknown, unfathomed journey against the destination, also unknown? How do you choose?

I took such a journey once at my mother's side; I came back with this knowledge: it doesn't matter what you wish for. If inside me lives the secret, shameful desire to be sick, to grow the cancer and get it over with, that changes nothing. It doesn't mean I will stop walking and speaking and writing and working.

Nor does it mean I relinquish my other secret, shameful desire. To live.

Biopsy, 1997

The surgeon spreads a blue cloth over my chest, riffling an end to conceal my breast, an oval cutout settling over the amber smear of betadine on skin. I watch as she lifts a silver blade in her forceps, fumbles it into a grooved handle. Curious, my head twisted sideways, I will her to find the correct fit. The anesthetic gels in my breast and shoulder, shushing the nerves, as the surgeon strokes my shoulder and asks me to feel a pinch. …

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