We sit side by side on padded chairs next to the exam table, my husband and I. He’s there for emotional support but that part is easy. Physically, he’s not sure where to be, so when the nurse practitioner enters the room, he retreats behind the paper-covered table. It’s endearing, how he tries to stuff himself into the corner, like whatever is about to happen will require lots of room. He’s making space, yet again, for me.
I stay in my chair. I’m here for a post-op check-up – so routine that my plastic surgeon doesn’t even need to be there for it. His nurse is kind and cheerful. She invites me to change into a gown if I want or I can just push my shirt up. I opt for the latter, because it’s a week out from my breast reconstruction and my cut-up muscles, which are holding the silicone implants in place, are still healing. My insides are trying to mend in more ways than one. I have T-Rex arms, currently. Pulling off shirts, reaching for the second shelf in the kitchen cabinet, standing up without first carefully thinking about how to brace my core and keep my weight in my heels – these are all wild, madcap activities of the past. At least for now. So is modesty. I unhook the surgical bra I’m wearing underneath the loose-fitting tee, push the two halves apart, slip my arms out of the sleeves and pull the shirt up and to the side, throwing it over my shoulder like a jaunty scarf. My husband, who is hyper-attuned to me after this year of anxious care-giving, is the only one who notices my tiny grimace of pain. Maybe the nurse notices, too, but she’s done so many of these that she knows it’s no big deal.
“So, how do you think it’s healing up? Do you think it looks okay?” she asks. I don’t know the answer to this. “I’m not sure,” I say. “I haven’t looked.” For seven days, I realize. I’ve avoided looking at my chest even once since the surgery. Her eyebrows twitch upward but she just smiles and says, “Well, then. Let’s see what’s going on.”
I keep my eyes trained on the stack of pamphlets on the wall. My husband’s gaze skitters away like someone who has happened upon a terrible accident and is trying not to stare. It’s not because he finds me repulsive; the sight of my wounds is hard for him to bear. The new ridges of my body mark the seismic disturbances in our landscape. He was there with me in the epicenter. This is the man who stoically daubed ointment on the raw, oozing flesh of my armpit after the radiation burnt all the skin off. I have inflicted this vicarious suffering on him, I think but don’t say, because that just makes him roll his eyes. The nurse examines the incisions. No stitches to worry about – the parts of me have been Krazy Glued back together. Eventually, I will become unglued, I am told. I’m allowed to shower now (hallelujah) and over time, the seal will peel off.
I have always loved long, luxuriously hot showers and baths. Those, too, are a thing of the past. Soaking in hot, hot water would cause my right arm to plump up like a Ball Park frank. Lymphedema risk. These days, I don’t need long showers, though. My newly grown hair is still short enough that it takes about a minute to lather, rinse, and repeat. And the rest of my body hair is thin and sparse after the chemo. Showers aren’t about relaxing anymore. Just getting clean. Lukewarm, fast, efficient. While the water runs, I peel off my clothes and then, I make myself look.
After a double mastectomy that happened so swiftly (diagnosed one month, breasts removed the next), and then over a year of sloshing around with hard, saline-filled chest expanders, this is my final physical reconstruction. The chest expanders have been swapped out for soft, squishy silicone – I held them in my hands in the surgeon’s office and they reminded me of the moon jellies my friends and I used to scoop out of ocean. They’re rounder and more forgiving. More like the breasts that were lopped off.
The wave of grief that hits me is completely unexpected.
I’m prepared to age, for the lines of my body to soften. But this is not the slow, inevitable weathering I expected. This is a ruin, still fresh in the wake of unexpected calamity. What looks normal under clothing is, in fact, puckered, scarred, misshapen flesh. This is it? I’m done now? (No. Never.) My chest is “reconstructed” but it looks like wreckage. (Who cares? Superficial.) I care. I don’t want to care but I do. Reconstructed is not restored. (You’re alive, aren’t you? No tumors in your bones and your liver. Not yet, anyway.) I look like what I am: the disfigured result of successful treatment. (Be grateful.) I can be grateful and still pissed off at broken promises.
By bending my head and ducking, I’m able to shampoo my greasy hair with my moderately ineffectual T-Rex arms. There’s a dicey moment when I drop the razor and have to figure out how to pick it up (back straight, core locked, bend the knees and squat). The voice in my head is loving. Maternal, even. “Oh, you poor thing. You poor, poor thing.” I don’t even know where that came from. It’s an instinctual urge to comfort that I am unaccustomed to feeling toward myself. I realize that I am going to cry, and I’m being weirdly observational about it. Am I going to cry? Yes. That seems like the right thing to do. Right, then. I cry into the running water – tears and water mixing as they stream down my face across my limbs and down my torso and swirl at the drain at my feet. I run the soap over my body. The more my hands connect with this tired and battle-worn body, the more I allow myself to feel everything else. I sob. Soundlessly and with surprising violence. Of course, I’ve cried over the past year, but this body-shaking sorrow is new. It’s full of acknowledgment. This pain is valid.
In three minutes, my room temperature shower is over, and so is my crying jag. It reminds me of the mercurial thunderstorms of my childhood in Hawaii. Once, I started across a street on a sunny day and was caught in a drenching downpour while in the crosswalk. By the time I got to the other side, the sun was out again and the rain had stopped. Only I was different, soaked through.
I pull a towel from the bar and wrap it around myself like a bandage. The tempest has passed – at least for the moment. I am left once again, changed – different – soaked through and through.
I am clean. I am healing. I am floating on an uncharted ocean. What has been lost is lost. What is changed is changed. What remains, remains.
What remains is me.