All the Gifts

All the Gifts

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

All the Gifts

The flight to Honolulu is a long one, and I lean my forehead against the cool, soothing window of the plane. I haven’t been able to cry yet. The call came a few days ago; Mom has breast cancer and is going to have a mastectomy. I will be there for her, and I need to be there for me, too.

Plane time is strange time; you’re in another place, and yet somehow you are nowhere. I let my thoughts wander to a time when I might lose her, not have her loving presence in my life and children who may never get to know her, and hot tears burn my cheeks. The morbid thoughts are shaken from my mind as the islands of Hawaii appear in the blue water below—it is beautiful and lush even from 10,000 feet, and my heart lightens.

The glorious aroma of Hawaii enfolds me as I leave the plane. My brother Jimmy places a plumeria lei around my shoulders. Common in Hawaii, this beautiful, fragrant gift from my mother is an appreciation of things done by hand, a gift of someone’s time, a loving thought put into action.

Back at the house, Mom has made my favorite Hawaiian foods and lots of poi. She looks happy and relieved to see me.

The next day we see the surgeon. My mother seems to trust him and asks no questions. I like him, too, but ask many questions. He answers them all, and we feel that together we’re making the right decision. Mastectomy has been the “gold standard” so far, in conjunction with adjunct chemotherapy. We talk about a lumpectomy, but my mother seems more secure with the mastectomy, so the decision is finalized.

A few days later we walk into the Queens Medical Center in downtown Honolulu. My brother and I are joking and teasing her to keep up all our spirits, but the gravity of the situation is etched on our faces. We dissolve into small talk to pass the time, the big talk too painful to say aloud.

I kiss her good-bye as she is wheeled into surgery and tell her, “I’ll see you in a little while.” I remind her to hurry up or Jimmy will eat her delicious hospital lunch. She doesn’t laugh. I see fear creeping into her face—and sadness, too.

Three endless hours pass. Finally, the surgeon comes in and tells us everything went fine, and she is in recovery, able to see us. She opens her eyes and tears fall. “I didn’t think it would hurt so much, Pamela; it’s all pain.” She squeezes her eyes shut.

Ten days later, we get the first full look at her scar. It is huge. It runs from the middle of her chest, around to her back, stopping just before her shoulder blade. It is red and angry, but the doctor says it will get better and starts to talk about reconstruction. Mom doesn’t want to hear it.

“I’m too old and don’t care how I look.” She never has the reconstruction, partially because she doesn’t want to have to worry about self-exams on the new breast. “I am happy to be alive; I will survive.”

Survive she does. I make her a fake boob out of a Nerf ball and eventually convince her to buy a real prosthetic. Her ability to continue and thrive is amazing and inspiring to everyone who knows her.

Fast-forward eighteen years and my mother is still going strong at eighty-two. My sister asked her on her eightieth birthday how she keeps going. “I feel like that bunny with the drum. You know, I just keep on going.”

She is visiting me in Connecticut, and I have a mammogram appointment. I’m running late as usual, and she waits in the car with my two boys, eight and twelve years old. They have their lunches and GameBoys, and since my appointments usually take no more than twenty minutes, I figure it will be fine as always.

In five minutes, I have my mammogram. “Wait a minute, the doctor will be right in to see you.”

The technician comes back fifteen minutes later and says, “We need another close-up.”

Now I’m waiting in another area; it’s been forty minutes, and I’m worried about my kids and mother in the car—and about my boob. The radiologist comes in. “We need to do a sonogram; there is a shadow we can’t quite make out.”

After the sonogram, the doctor looks upset as I try to remain calm. What is bugging him is the fact that he can’t find the shadow, whatever that is. They ask me to wait in another room. Then they hand me my X-rays and tell me, “Please call your gynecologist and have her recommend a surgeon.”

I walk out to the car. My mother takes one look at me, and she knows.

Two weeks later, I’m at the hospital to deal with the lump. This means a surgical biopsy, and I’m being prepped. The only other time I’ve been in a hospital was to have babies, so it’s bizarre to be in for any other reason.

My husband waits with me. “Small talk” again; “big talk” is too painful. Steve has always been there for me, his big blue eyes shining, not always saying anything, but always there. Our marriage is another one of life’s gifts to me.

As I’m put on a gurney and wheeled away, he kisses me good-bye and says, “I’ll see you later.” The anesthesiologist puts something into my IV, and everything takes on a dream-like feel. I hear them talking, I hear scissors cutting thread, but it is all so far away. I find myself in the recovery room, no pain, slowly coming back to Earth. I go home and wait some more. Mom calls every day, but there is still no word. A few more days, and the biopsy is negative. It is a benign lymph node!

At my check-up I see my scar for the first time. It is angry and red, about an inch long, running on the same axis as my mother’s. I have a tiny version of her scar, a tiny reminder of our connection. We are bound, my mother and me, by birth and family, by blood and pain, by humor and sorrow, by determination and survival, by love and spirit—all the gifts we share.

And we have the scars to prove it.

Pam Arciero

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