Courage Comes in All Colors

Courage Comes in All Colors

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Courage Comes in All Colors

There is more here than meets the eye.

Lady Murasaki

Two weeks after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, there was a silent auction at our church. I’d been on the committee that was putting the party together, and I knew what a great event it was going to be: great music, great food, and a room full of people feeling festive and spending money for a good cause. Our theme was “Black and White, Starry Night” and, like the famed Black and White Ball, everyone would wear either black or white. For months, while working on the invitations and soliciting donations, I’d envisioned myself wearing my favorite black-tie outfit. My husband loved it, and I always felt grown-up when I wore it—wise and worldly and sexy— and it was black as night.

But I was scheduled to have a lumpectomy five days after the event—a procedure where a breast surgeon takes a slice of tissue from your breast, as if from an orange or an apple pie—and somehow a black dress didn’t feel right. I realized this would be the last public and formal event I’d ever attend with both breasts still intact.

I have, over the years, grown rather attached to my breasts. When I was in high school and college, I didn’t think much about them—they were average B-cup breasts, so what was there to think? They didn’t bounce too much when I played tennis, they filled out any dress or shirt I chose to wear, became marginally tender once a month, and were two of the primary reasons my boyfriend was able to say he liked my curves. The process of pregnancy, breastfeeding and motherhood, however, gave my breasts a whole new level of value. It made them, for one thing, a cup size bigger. They were plump and full, which made that same boyfriend—now my husband—pay even more attention, which was flattering and fun. Making babies also made my breasts functional. I breastfed both children for nine months each and was proud I could produce all those antibodies, all that concentrated protein.

I was three years past breastfeeding when cancer was diagnosed, and down a breast size from finally losing the weight of childbearing, so my breasts were, in some ways, past their prime. I didn’t need them to please a man because Rob now knew there was far more to me than just my curves. For all practical intents and purposes, I didn’t need my breasts to go on living a happy and healthy life, but the lumpectomy was still going to do them damage— and damage to your own flesh isn’t something you can just offhandedly accept.

The night of the party started out at a frantic pace—I was left with just ten minutes to get dressed. I ran into the house, went to pull out the dress and stopped. Hanging next to the black velvet was a long, luxurious raspberry-red gown with a deep V-neck in front and a deeper V in back. I’d never worn it.

I bought the dress with my sister, for no good reason, on sale at a little boutique. I had put on the Nicole Miller gown just for fun, stepped out of the dressing room to preen in front of the mirror and was met with the stares of every woman in the shop.

“That dress was made for you,” one woman said.

“You’re buying it,” my sister declared.

The dress was perfect—a simple forties movie-star dress that was curvy in exactly the same places I was. I had absolutely nowhere to wear such a dress, but bought it and stuck it in the back of my closet for two years.

I made a split-second decision: I was going to wear the red dress. Because of its deep Vs, I couldn’t wear a regular bra, but I thought, Why wear one?

I slipped the dress over my bare body and felt the cool glide of the satin lining fall from my shoulders to my ankles. I felt the fabric brush against my breasts. I pinned up my hair, put on some bright red lipstick and took off— to be the only woman wearing a colored dress in a room full of black and white.

I’ve never been a woman who turned heads. I have never felt confident enough in my looks to carry myself in such a way that I would. That night, however, I felt like the most beautiful woman in the world. I felt wholly alive in that red dress, and people must have picked up on the electricity, as if it were a fragrance. Men and women alike, people I knew and people I didn’t know, came up to me to tell me how spectacular I looked, what a gorgeous dress I had on.

“You seem to glow,“ they said, and I loved the feeling of swishing around the room, feeling the weight of that dress as it draped to the floor, feeling it cool and clean on my bare breasts, which for that one last night, anyway, were still mine.

Many in that room were aware of my diagnosis and fear. The Sunday before, every hymn we sang in church made me cry, so I’d had to walk out of the service every ten minutes. But not one of my fellow parishioners mentioned my diagnosis the night of the party. It wasn’t as if they were afraid or being sensitive or polite. It was as if my wearing the red dress prohibited the very idea of breast cancer, like a shield of armor.

A few days later, I got a call from the head of the party committee, thanking me for my help—which I’d abruptly stopped giving two weeks before. “We finally got everything cleaned up,” she said, “and you were the hottest topic of discussion around the dish-drying rack.”

“Me?” I said, thinking of the way church ladies chatter and gossip, and wondering what I could possibly have done.

“You were the most beautiful woman in the room that night, Jennie, and the most courageous. A lot of women in your shoes wouldn’t have even shown up, let alone worn that dress.”

Courageous? I thought. Courageous? So that was what courage felt like—that rush of judgment to know just what to do—or wear—that sense of satisfaction that nothing— not even cancer—was going to stand in the way of feeling utterly confident, that sweet perfume of feeling completely and totally alive. If that was courage, it suited me as well as the red dress.

I’d like to frame it.

Jennie Nash

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