by Natalie Serber
I was home alone on a Tuesday morning when my breast surgeon called with the results of my biopsy. I’m sorry, she said. As soon as we hung up, I called a close friend and asked her—in what must have been the tiny, frightened voice of a child—to please come over and sit with me. Of course, she said, but who is this?
That’s what my bad diagnosis did to me. It terrified me and made me unrecognizable. I was not the person meant to be ill. I was the hand holder, the meal deliverer, the person who sat at a friend’s side playing scrabble while the chemo dripped.
My bad diagnosis also made me feel terribly alone. Which is a paradox isn’t it? For yes, of course in the dark corners of our minds we dwell in fear, and uncertainty, and suffer alone. But sorrow, like joy, is part of our human experience. Our singular grief connects us, brings us closer to compassionate understanding of all suffering and thus should make us feel less alone.
My friend rushed over right away, in her nightgown, she stumbled up the front porch steps and sat beside me. She was one of many friends and family members who shared their stories, held my hand and helped to see me through.
If you’ve received your own bad diagnosis, I hope my story makes you feel less alone. I hope reading about how I made it through makes you feel a little bit stronger. I hope you feel me beside you, seeing you through.
A couple months before I received the breast cancer diagnosis, before I was forced to accept in the deepest possible way that I am not in charge, my daughter came home on break from college and showed me in her particular way that I am not in charge. The morning was chilly and I’d decided to bring her coffee. I stood by her bed in the weak winter sunlight, coffee mug in hand. She opened her eyes and smiled. She’s always been a cheerful riser (aside from a brief period of my unhappiness when her hair was pink and she was pocket-calling me from the beer line at a keg parties). As she propped herself up on her elbow, her nightgown, a spring green acetate shift she’d bought at the Brooklyn Flea Market, the kind of sleepwear pediatricians advise new parents to never, ever let a baby sleep in due to fire safety, slid from her shoulder revealing . . . a pierced nipple.
I might have had an irrational reaction. I withheld the coffee. “You pierced your nipple?”
She yanked the nightgown up.
“You pierced your nipple!?!” Thus began my apoplectic rant. In a voice spiraling ever upward I wondered did she realize she was a poster child for violence against women? Did she know she might never be able to nurse her babies? Did she know what kind of message she might be sending to her intimate partner? That she liked it rough? Oh. My. God. My voice hit its apex. Did she like it rough? I ran down the stairs, yelling
out to my husband, “She’s pierced her nipple!?!”
He trudged in. Uncertainty, shock, and discouragement scrolled across his face.
He was neither upset nor happy with our daughter’s choice. He was responding to my reaction. “What am I supposed to do with that information?” He asked.
I ran back upstairs. My daughter calmly told me that she’d used her own money and it was her body. I cried out, “Flagrant Fucking Foul!” As long as we were paying her tuition, as far as we were concerned (and I may have been using the royal we at this point, as my husband was already over it), no money was truly “hers.” Moreover, until she was old enough to rent a car, 25, the age of full prefrontal cortex development, her body was only on loan to her. I may have gone a little crazy. I told her that her breast, with the silver spear through it, looked like a canapé at a cannibal cocktail party. I might have yelled this.
“You’re insane,” she said with excruciating calm as she closed her bedroom door and went back to bed.
Was I? Why had this piercing upset me so much? She hadn’t pierced her face again (her nose is pierced and I think it looks great). Her ears are pierced. My ears are pierced, multiple times; well, twice in each ear. But her nipple . . . ? Wikipedia says many things about nipple piercing, but the two I glommed on to: “deaths have occurred” and “sexual arousal is enhanced.” There you have it . . . sex and death. I wasn’t irrational enough to believe she might die from this, but my extreme reaction probably had a bit to do with the fact that her piercing put me face to face with her sexuality, which can be hard for parents, though not for me, I used to think. I have friends who plug their ears and chant hummana, hummana, hummana whenever teens and sex are linked in a sentence. Not a healthy reaction, but an honest one. Face it; sexual activity has psychic and physical ramifications. We cannot follow our children down that baggage-strewn, pothole-ridden highway. Sure, sure we can talk about condoms and STDs and emotional impact, but at some point we have to let go.
I saw my daughter’s piercing as an act of violence against her breast. Against all breasts. Breasts, for me, represent femininity, a soft sexuality, womanhood, motherhood. I remember how this cherished child of mine once nursed. How she would completely relax, her blue eyes staring up at me until they rolled back as she drifted off into ecstatic slumber.
Of course, breasts can also represent power. When a man claims to be “a breastman,” he relinquishes a bit of power to the bearer of those breasts that make him go weak in the knees. But one needn’t pierce the breasts to claim the power.
Obviously my feelings are complicated, but at the bottom of it all, I felt assaulted by the violence inherent in the act of piercing. How could she not see that? Maybe what I was really upset about was the possibility that I didn’t know my girl. Not in the angry, lashing-out I don’t even know you way, but in the potentially heartbreaking how could we have grown so far apart way.
The next day, we took a walk. I asked her why she’d done it. She rolled her eyes. I thought that if she had a strong reason—an homage to Robert Mapplethorpe, a “take back the breast” political statement, an interest in aboriginal body art, I might be able to accept the barbell bisecting her nipple—not like it, but at least be able to grudgingly nod my head.
Here’s what she said. “I’ve wanted to for a long time. It is more interesting than a belly button piercing. I don’t know.”
Here’s what I said. “You are 19. Your breasts are at their peak. The last thing they need is enhancement.”
Here’s what she said. “I’m walking home if you keep talking.”
Here’s what I said. “If it’s just a whim, a lark, why not take it out?”
Here’s what she said. “No.”
What had I done to my body on a lark as a young woman? I’d spritzed on far toomuch Super Sun In, turning my brown hair a shocking orange. I endured a frizzled perm. I quit shaving my legs. I once plucked my eyebrows nearly to extinction, leaving a terrible arched tightrope over each eye. My mother’s garbled outburst was half-laugh and half-gasp: “What the hell were you thinking?” A good friend of hers, who happened to be in the room with us, said, “They look terrific, honey.” They didn’t look terrific, but I appreciated the compliment. Could I tell my daughter her nipple looked terrific? For a nanosecond I searched within and came to, No. To me, it looked barbaric. But, guess what? She didn’t pierce for my approval. All she wants is for me to get off her back (or her breast) about her choice. What I could do is ask her if it hurt. I could recognize thather choice to pierce isn’t a character flaw. I could calm down and accept that she’ll be making many choices that don’t involve me. I could just be quiet and give her a hug. I love her.
And then came my diagnosis with breast cancer and the piercing issue became, well, huge. On top of everything else I believed about breasts, turns out they do have the potential to kill you. I was suddenly not just looking at piercing, I was facing a bilateral mastectomy and then enduring the reconstruction, which would involve expanders, giant syringes, and a second surgery. An experience I would wish on absolutely no one.
The next time my daughter came home from college and I saw the outline of her piercing through her T-shirt, I took it as a full body slam, as if she had betrayed me and pierced my very heart. Why would she choose to mutilate (my word, not hers) her breast? I begged her to take it out, in solidarity with my struggle. Her piercing became a line of demarcation between us. I’m not saying I was rational, or that cancer-free breasts are too sacred for piercings, but I just felt insulted. The piercing felt flip, cavalier; a dangerous act. My response was part mother hen, as in don’t do anything potentially hazardous likestore your cell phone in your bra, and part incredulous and lonely, as in, look how much you can lose; treat your body with the respect it deserves.
My relationship with my own breasts is now far more complicated than before mydiagnosis and surgeries. After having babies and nursing, I preferred that they not be touched, so losing them was not losing a giant part of my sexuality. I was lucky to have nipple-sparing surgery and a great surgeon. Aside from scars, they look pretty good. The weird results are my feelings of detachment toward my body parts, numbness across my chest and down one arm, as well as the fact that my nipples no longer respond to heat or cold. Basically they’re like two pink pencil erasers attached to my body. At the post operative visit I complained to my plastic surgeon that I felt like a Victoria’s Secret mannequin with my semi-erect nipples, he said, “Isn’t that the last thing you’d expect tosay after a bilateral mastectomy.”
Ouch . . . and, though callous, he’s partially right. I am grateful, but I also have the right to grieve. I miss sensations, the jostling when I run, the tightening across my chest, the softening in the tub.
My daughter claimed that her piercing was a metaphor, which piqued my interest. I love metaphors, but she refused to tell me what it meant. I pondered what a bilateral mastectomy could be a metaphor for . . . giving up the very part of my body that once nourished my children in order to beat back a disease and live my life. In order to claim my life, my body as my own terrain, I had to sacrifice part of it, change its borders. My breasts are gone and I miss them. When I sleep on my stomach at night, I feel a hardness, an inflexibility beneath me. I don’t want to hide my heart beneath a shield.
Ultimately, because I ceaselessly pressured her, she took the piercing out. And I felt better, though I think she felt as if she was visiting a police state. If her piercing was a way to claim her body as her own territory, then I was a Viking laying my opinions and values on her.
Writing this all down, I do feel silly about my extreme reaction and I’m stillasking myself why the piercing bothers me so. A friend suggested I might be a bit provincial and should interrogate my prejudices. She said that feigning acceptance of the piercing was a milquetoast response. Yet with our adult children we have to at least halfway accept things, because as I said at the start of this exploration, we love them and we are not in charge. Not of our lives or our children’s lives. My daughter left home without her piercing; whether or not she put it back, I don’t want to know. It doesn’t really matter. I want to be open and honor my girl’s choices.
In the months after my surgery I thought I should do something bold, to reclaimmy body from the cancer scare, similar to planting a flag on the moon. Of course now that I have no sensation in my breasts a pierced nipple seems the perfect gesture, right? Much as I like the irony, I can’t do it. Maybe I’ll settle for a tattoo.
Natalie Serber’s fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Bellingham Review, Gulf Coast, Inkwell, Hunger Mountain, The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Huffington Post, among others. Natalie has been the recipient of the John Steinbeck Award, Tobias Wolff Award, and H.E. Francis Award, and her work was short listed in Best American Short Stories. She teaches fiction and the personal essay at Marylhurst University, the Attic Institute and at various conferences including Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Natalie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
The year Natalie Serber turned 50, she published her first book—the linked-story collection Shout Her Lovely Name, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, a summer reading selection from O, the Oprah Magazine, and an Oregonian Top 10 Book of the Pacific Northwest—then settled her daughter at college and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Community Chest is her fierce and funny memoir about fear and family, treatment decisions, and the changed landscape of her body; and her discovery that, after all, we are all bald underneath.
Homepage image courtesy Caraballo-farman via mumora
What a gorgeous essay. I intend to order your short stories from Amazon immediately. As someone who had both breasts removed and no reconstruction (I was in my sixties, sickened by pain meds and thought enough was enough) I can say that I do understand how a daughter with a pierced breast would become a big thing at the time. And maybe still is. Breasts are so magnified in their importance. Still, magnified or not, one hates to say goodbye to them. Or see them treated badly even if it is only in our own estimation. Anyway, thanks for such beautiful and honest writing. What a rare treat.
Thanks, Hildy, for your kind words and for reaching out to me. I’m glad you are well and I do hope you like the COMMUNITY CHEST. My girl so wanted her life to be just about her, and the piercing was a thing she did for no reason or for many reasons, either way it was hers alone. The curious thing for me is that it bothered me so. Maybe she was just being badass! My essay is meant to process my own notions and fears and the changing landscape of my body due to breast cancer. Take good care! xNatalie