“I can’t quit staring at my daughter’s boobs,” my friend says. I laugh in solidarity. Lately I haven’t been able to stop staring at my daughter’s everything: the changing body, the willowy arms, the jaw becoming more angular, the eyebrows raised in self-assurance. I compare the smooth, soft skin of her legs with mine—dimpled with fat and sagging around my knees. Her veins are blue and lacy. Mine are purple and black and mottled at the backs of my knees. Her new body fascinates me.
I wake up one morning and in a misty-headed state thinking about my breasts. One is bigger; one is smaller. When they were breastfeeding, my children preferred the smaller one. It must have produced more milk. Which one is it? I put my hands to my chest. I can’t remember.
In quarantine, I watch both my daughter and my son far more than I was able to when they were running to drama rehearsals and karate class and field trips and cross-country ski practice. Here, in my very own house, every day, I’m watching two children grow into young adults. It’s a slow unfolding, but one I might not have caught if I weren’t here watching. I see underarm hair and hear deeper, more resonant voices. I smell more pungent laundry.
We were isolated when they were very small. We lived in a tiny trailer on a good-sized parcel of land in a town of about 300 residents, and I worked from home as a freelancer. I would go for days without seeing anyone but my family. One of the things I knew in my heart when I left my office job was that I wanted to be at home to see them grow. I didn’t want a daycare worker to see their first steps or hear their first words. I wanted it to be me. As frustrating as it was to try to concentrate on work in between changing diapers and settling tantrums, I relished being able to scoop them up and kiss them whenever I wanted.
One of those hazy, exhausting years, I got the call. The one where the doctor asks first, “Is someone there with you?” But no one is ever really there with you. After the appointments began, I agonized over my options. I chose the one that would take me away from my children the least: bilateral mastectomy with no reconstruction. Get the cancer out in the most invasive way possible. The surgeon told me about women farmers in the Midwest who choose this route because they’re a half-day’s drive from a hospital and can’t spend the time driving back and forth to have implants inflated, or they’re nowhere near the surgeons who do masterful work using your own post-childbearing abdominal fat, or they can’t spare a muscle they might need to build a fake breast. I felt a kinship with them.
The oncologist swished back the curtain on my first visit to her office and declared, “You don’t have to do this, you know.” I knew. My survival rate wouldn’t be any better, she said, than if I chose a less radical surgery. Everyone kept saying radical. Is it radical to get rid of something you’re not using anymore?
The intern sat quietly next to the nurse as we scheduled my surgery. “How long will I have to be in the hospital?” I asked. “Usually one to three nights,” the nurse answered. “I’ll make it one,” I said. The nurse hugged me. The intern finally spoke: “But what about your daughter? Have you thought about how this will affect her?” I signed the papers.
Bra-shopping when I was 13 was a miserable experience. My mother taught me how to turn the bra backward and hook it in front of me where I could see it, then spin it around my torso. I would have raw, scraped skin by the time we were done. I was an A on one side and a B on the other, impossible to fit. I perfected a certain hunch with folded arms so no one would notice. I chose shirts with one pocket. I would stare and stare at myself in the mirror and wish I could change my body. Mom said I was lopsided. She said she was a little bit uneven herself, but not as bad as me. She didn’t have to tell me that being asymmetrical was undesirable.
When I first took my daughter bra-shopping, she didn’t see the point. I told her she didn’t have to wear a bra. It’s not a law. But I explained that it can be more comfortable when you’re active. She put one on and jumped up and down in front of the mirror. “See?” I said. “You’re right,” she said. But last year, she told me she had been lying to make me happy.
I stood alone in the hospital bathroom and opened my gown after surgery. They’d put a compression garment on me like the smocked stretchy halters I used to wear when I was a child. So much of me was gone. It wasn’t just my breasts: it was all of the slope sliding down toward them, the fullness next to my armpits, the rising over my ribs. I had a sunken hole on one side where a tumor in my lymph nodes was removed. My stomach pooched out below. I looked like one of those little old men in Speedos I’d seen at the beach with spindly legs and potbellies. Until that moment, I had planned to go without a bra for the rest of my life. The freedom.
“I’m part of your club,” said a radiology technician as she leaned in to place a warm bolus on my flat chest. She had one breast. We talked about reconstruction. “I might do it one day,” she said. “I’m tired of my neighbor staring at my chest while I’m gardening.” It was such a simple thing to want, a neighbor not staring. She counted my scars. “What are those from?” she asked. “An old boyfriend,” I said.
A few days ago, my daughter shuffled out of her room and into the kitchen for breakfast. She hunched when she saw me. She stood with her arms folded across her chest. I panicked.
I met a guy when I was in my early twenties who had great admiration for female bodies. He noticed my lopsidedness after we began dating. He pointed it out and suggested I see someone about it. He scheduled an appointment with a plastic surgeon for me. I told the surgeon I would be happy if he reduced the larger breast to match the smaller one. He said it would be much easier to make the smaller one larger. And in fact, it would be easier still to bring them both up to a C cup. I agreed. “Why not D?” my boyfriend asked.
I went to my mother’s house not long after getting the implants done. My chest was wrapped in a wide bandage. I hadn’t told her I was having plastic surgery because I knew she would talk me out of it. I thought she wouldn’t notice the change.
I didn’t need my breasts once I’d weaned my children. I didn’t need my uterus or ovaries after babies were no longer an option and had them taken out when abnormal cells showed up. “Now you can wear white pants whenever you want,” the oncologist said. Today it seems as pointless to worry about these missing pieces as it does to fret over my long-gone tonsils from second grade. Aging sneaks up on me. I don’t hate all of it. I’m shedding things as I run for the finish line, getting lighter.
“But what about your daughter? Have you thought about how this will affect her?” I can’t conjure up the intern’s face anymore. I thought I was going to die back then. I couldn’t imagine surviving long enough to have a teenage daughter. I only wanted to go home, to relish my children’s sweet hugs, to watch them growing, to catch every second. What did a couple of mounds of fat matter to me then? Now, it’s hard to explain why I pretend I have them. A few years ago, when we were having a facts-of-life talk, I told my daughter that I wear fake breasts. I figured she knew already, that she would have noticed the difference between my nightgowned self and my going-out self. She was surprised.
It goes so slowly, this day-by-day quarantine. We are extra careful. We don’t go anywhere. My daughter’s hair grows long and thick. She makes amazing art while singing along with songs I don’t know. I watch her graceful hands moving the pencil. When we walk the dog in the evenings, I notice how close the top of her head is to mine. She bends over to take a picture of a mushroom with her phone, and the most gorgeous line emerges from her hip to her ankle. “Your friends won’t recognize you whenever you finally get to go back to school,” I say. “They see me on Zoom,” she says. Not like this, I think. I see her in time-lapse photography. I am watching and waiting. This is better than her first steps. Bigger.
One day, I will see her go. I have known that all along. I want so much for her to be folded back into her friends’ lives and the mayhem of school. Yet I flinch every time I hear about schools restarting. No. I want to keep staring. There isn’t much time.
We are always so close to the end.
I can’t remember if I answered the intern out loud. I think I said, “I hope she sees a strong woman who’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive for her children.” Maybe I said nothing. My answer has changed in the last ten years. Now I would say this: I hope she understands that everything about her own body is beautiful. I hope she sees that she has choices to make, and no one else can tell her if they’re right or wrong. I hope she lives from the inside out and doesn’t let anything stop her from loving with all her heart—not even fear of grief. I hope she knows that one day her beautiful body will change again, and it will seem as fast and as slow as it does now, and it will happen at exactly the right time, and the final result will have its own remarkable, magical beauty as it carries her to the end. I hope she keeps watching.