From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

The Clinic

Mami was not a small woman. But that day, sitting up in her hospital bed, she looked tiny. It had been only six months since the diagnosis. I looked at her sitting there, all smiles, busy making plans. The only signs of her struggle with the disease were the deepened creases around her eyes, her bald head, now carefully wrapped in a colorful scarf, and the acrid smell of antibiotics that permeated the room. She had tried to camouflage it with perfume, but the odor of the medicine oozed from her pores, sank into the bedclothes and hung in the air like an evil spirit.

I was doing her nails. In place of the usual clear polish, she asked me to apply the third coat of a scandalously red nail polish, Apasionada. I looked up at her questioningly.

“I just love the name, so full of love and life,” she said. She leaned forward and took my hand, giving it a long squeeze. She looked into my eyes and held me. There were so many ways that she could do that—hold me when all I wanted was to move on. And in the past, she had let me. There had been so many things I didn’t want said. Now, the intensity in her eyes made me uncomfortable. I tried to pull my hand away, get back to the business of grooming, but she wouldn’t let go.

“Nena, when death is near,” she said, “you’ve got to hang on hard, real hard, any way you can. You’ve got to savor each day, roll it around in your mouth before swallowing it. And each day, each minute will nourish and sustain. You’ve got to learn to hang on to the good and even the not-so-good. It’s the hanging on that counts, the relishing the moment.” Then she looked down at our hands and added almost inaudibly, “and I’m trying to hang on, to every single moment, in every way I can.” When she looked up again, her face was rigid with effort. But the tears sitting in her eyes made their way down, carving agonizingly slow paths down her cheeks.

She was fifty-eight years old. She never saw fifty-nine.

The nurse touches my shoulder. I jump, upsetting the vase full of flowers. I look at her and notice that she, too, wears white. My eyes wander down to her breasts. I understand the compassion in her voice. It shelters her own fear. My body rises, pushes into the heavy air, legs leaden, and goes through the door. I’ve lost the room. Breathe in.

“I’m sorry to have to press so hard, but we must get a good picture.”

The nurse adjusts the lever. I hold on as the vise closes down on one breast. Hold your breath. I look away from the machine. My flesh clings to the glass plate even though my torso wants to back away. The cold at the bottom of my stomach has become a solid block of ice. One more time, hold it . . . breathe. The technician releases the levers, slides my breast off the shelf and disappears. I pull the robe around my shoulders, hoping to find warmth to counteract what is going on inside. Breathe out.

Then come the fingers, the poking and prodding and squeezing. The doctor wants to be thorough. I look at her mouth moving. I hear only the sounds of the technician in the developing room behind her. Any questions? Back in the waiting room, I hold on and wait some more. Breathe in.

Seemingly hours later, the doctor calls me into a glass-enclosed alcove. She looks once again at my old X-rays and then the new. She puts them down in the center of her desk and begins to speak. Quietly, she gives me the results, squeezing my shaking hand. My shoulders release. The block in my stomach begins to melt. Breathe out.

The women in the room look at me through the glass. I smile as the words wash over me. The eyes of the women outside go over me like searchlights. They are happy for my relief. One woman in the corner stares at me, darkness playing on her face. What’s that all about . . . ? The thought plays in a distant part of my mind. I revisit my own fear of this afternoon, and I understand. She doesn’t know yet, and it takes so much strength to just sit and wait. She cannot afford kindness, not yet. In truth, it is only now that I can be generous.

It takes me a few moments to get up and collect my things at the desk. When I am alone in the paneled dressing room again, I let my weight fall against the wall. Breathe in. I close my eyes and go within. The ice continues to melt. The pressure has slackened. The fireworks come more slowly now. Their colors are beginning to fade. I take in a gulp of air and try to find my normal breathing again. I have a reprieve. Breathe out.

I stand naked before the mirror and examine the sight of my breasts. They are misshapen, tender and pendulous, certainly not as firm or smoothly round as they used to be. But they are whole, intact. And I am thankful for that.

I look at myself in the mirror as I begin to dress. My fingers follow the length and trace the depth of the old scar. I search for temperature changes and feel the textures. I look at the shades of pink and purple. I stay with it, know it. There will be no repeat of this on my chest, not yet, maybe never.

But I know this place will become familiar. The doctor had said, “Clean bill of health. See you next spring.”

I dress quickly.

Before leaving the room, I catch sight of my face reflected in the mirror. I stop for a moment before digging in my purse. I fish out my lipstick tube, Apasionada. My mother flashes through my mind. Mom, who didn’t have another spring, and still she hung on. I stare at the tube of red for a long time and let myself listen for my mother’s voice and remember her struggle. I let her memory wash over me and feel it charge me with resolve.

I know that I will come here every year, and I will wait. I will fear the bad news and hope for the good each time. I will hang on. And I will be thankful for every additional year. I will take that thankfulness with me into the world and let it propel me through my life. And if one year the news is not so good, I will hang on anyway because it is all that I can do, because it is what she left me.

In the mirror, I seek out the lines of her face in mine. I fill in the contours of my broad lips. I look closely and find my mother’s superimposed on mine deep in the mirror. “We won,” her lips say. Slowly, they pull into a smile.

As I walk out, the woman behind the desk waves. “You have a good day, now.”

“I will,” I say. The ice in the pit of my stomach is gone now. I feel my face moving to accommodate my smile as I step into the elevator. I am still smiling as I walk out into the lush green of the busy street.

Dahlma Llanos Figueroa

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