“Mastectomy?” Joe, my husband of forty-four years, says robotically. Dr. Robeson, the oncologist, describes to Joe how my breast cancer works, and I watch as Joe tries to uphold his Baptist deacon stature. I remember the day he said, “I do,” there was a similar wave of stiff astonishment in his voice. To outsiders, his tone might seem unfeeling, but I know Joe and I can tell by his timbre that he is trying to focus and learn everything there is to know about breast cancer on the spot. As the frequencies change in Joe’s questions, I can tell my husband, whom I love with every fiber of my being, is hurt by this appointment.
“I recommend a double mastectomy. Yes,” Dr. Robeson answered.
Our daughters—both grown up and living on the West coast—are with me in spirit for the consultation: I’d chosen to wear the purple Calvin Klein notched-collar vest they got me for my seventieth birthday. Not only does this vest make me feel royal, but it also has an open front just in case the oncologist needs to check me, though I knew it was cancer weeks ago. I’d been in agony for months, maybe, before I went to see Dr. Robeson. It hurt when the shower water touched my chest and putting on a bra first thing in the morning was an insufferable act. The pain I felt when my Vanity Fair retired at the end of the day was enough to bring tears to my honey brown eyes. Then I noticed the discharge at the nipple. When I went in for the diagnostic mammogram, I trembled like my entire being was captured in black and white images and displayed on a computer screen. Seems that women are constantly baring their souls to machines and men.
Oddly though, when Dr. Robeson says double mastectomy, my first worry isn’t that I’ll lose both of my breasts. I’m not thinking about the impending pain or even wondering about the stage of my cancer. Right now, I’m thinking past that procedure to chemotherapy, which he said would be the most effective post-op treatment plan. I’m thinking how that will rob me of my crowning glory: my hair.
Hair matters a lot to Black women. Mama always told me that a head full of hair was the most virtuous thing about a woman. I remember finishing my senior year in college when Angela Davis was arrested. To show my solidarity, I started rocking a lush, political afro. I maintained that style all through graduate school. According to Mama, I couldn’t have political hair and teach white kids.
But I wasn’t at all interested in teaching white kids. I received my Teaching Master’s in 1971 from Ole Miss and instantly signed a contract to teach in my home school district, which was predominantly Black. I can clearly recall her exploding at me over the phone one time, “You can’t be going to teach at somebody’s school with your hair all over your head!”
I disagreed with her stance on political hair, but I respected her opinion. She was Mama. I took her advice and let an Ultra Sheen relaxer dissolve my ‘fro. Back then, Black women didn’t care that perms were straight hell on the hair. Ironically, chemotherapy—not a chemical relaxer—will burn my coal-colored, illustrious mane to ashes. I’ll have to cope with it all disappearing like stars at the crack of dawn. Just like that, a symbol of righteousness becomes a sign of struggle.
With my French tip, I pick a piece of lint from my pants and make eye contact with my Joe, who’s fixating on pictures of the large mass in my left breast. He’s crammed into a nondescript chair in the exam room, staring at the images. I stretch back my neck and notice the half-vaulted subtle blue ceiling with Sistine Chapel detail. It’s angled just right so the figures appear to be leaping down into the room. What’s the point of fine art in hospitals? Perhaps it is a reminder that health insurance is a privilege and not a right. Sitting here in this renaissance room in my Calvin Klein outfit, with my medicare coverage, and these J. Renee heels that belonged to Mama, I do feel privileged in a way. I am reminded of my own ancestral and religious upbringing and the people I hold sacred. I think about my struggles in life and how my anatomy aims to betray me. The human body is so inconsistent; I am comforted in knowing that the church body is not. I can expect a spectacle every Sunday: Poetry and parables from a man in a Geneva gown with velvet trims and threads. Parishioners wearing embellished outfits to match the enhanced riffs of Amazing Grace. Mama used to wear a hat every time she went to worship. During devotional time, she’d stretch her arms out just like Jesus did. When Mama went on to Glory, I added an extension to my closet to accommodate all of her luxurious crowns. Some of the hats require a certain boldness I have yet to welcome.
I’m sitting on an examination table—my ankles crossed like I was taught—and with well-nourished hands. I smooth out my royal vest our daughters gave me. I glance at Joe’s feet in his favorite caramel loafers. Forty years I put into teaching ELA in the public school system—I was the teacher of the year twelve times—and I wore heels through every decade of it, five days a week, with the only exception being outdoor field days. With flipped-ended straight hair and cracked, burning feet, I taught reading comprehension and came up with catchy songs to help my students retain root words and their meanings. I used to keep my heels on for a while once I made it home in the afternoons. My Joe loved to hear me click around in the kitchen.
“Click, baby.” He’d gush, and then we’d fool around until it was time to pick the girls up from band practice and tutoring.
In my heels, I learned to shift my weight away from the bunions and corns when I presented in school board meetings about achievement gaps and why test-based teaching didn’t work. I remember investing a whole paycheck into a thirty-volume set of Britannica encyclopedias because black children had a right to explore the world, too. All of that, in three-inch heels. Because Mama did have a point: respect is given when you look the part.
One thing I did not inherit from Mama was her preference for a white male doctor, but Mama’s intra-racial prejudice did have a way of rubbing off on me, which is why I eventually made my way to Dr. Robeson, a white man who, I’m sure, cares more about pink breasts than umber-colored ones. Mama thought white doctors were such experts and professionals, but I don’t trust them with my body. Knowing I’ll be examined by a white man always makes my blood pressure rise. When they check my levels, I know they assume it’s a matter of fatty foods. Race aside, I do not feel safe around any male doctors. I feel vulnerable and imposed upon. Most man doctors have a tendency of glaring into your eyes. I guess to avoid looking at your body and getting in trouble with his female nurses, always standing in the corner.
As Dr. Robeson approaches me, I feel my ankles become more constricted. He smiles from his cobalt eyes and it doesn’t seem so malicious, but a Black woman must always be on guard.
“You okay? You’re mighty quiet. What are you thinking?” Dr. Robeson queries.
“I’m taking it all in,” I say. It’s the best response I can offer.
I know I need to be paying closer attention, but the saudade has kicked in. I’m in another realm. Unable to synthesize information, I nod my head. I imagine my husband’s mind at work. No breasts? Grappling, he bats his eyes. I wonder what he might be feeling. Fear: that I might leave my earthly body before him. Concern: that he’ll no longer find me sexy being breast-less and possibly hair-less. Hunger: we’d only had oatmeal that morning.
Dr. Robeson checks his smartwatch for the second time during our consultation. It’s lunch; I’m sure he’s eager to get a hot plate from the cafeteria.
“Okay, then, what now?” I say.
He begins going over my options, emphasizing the procedure and possible reconstruction, explaining a simple process of “removing tissue.” That’s what he called my breasts: tissue. I slouch a bit and rotate my ankles.
I don’t expect him to understand that this “tissue” is a part of my adornment. This “tissue” cushions my golden heart and nursed two baby girls. Skin-to-skin with them in the midnight hour, I closed my eyes. Now I’m trying not to fantasize that the pain and soreness from breastfeeding was really the disease lurking in my body. My cancer isn’t merely a matter of breasts or “tissue.” It’s a matter of being. Being a daughter. Being a mother. Being in the will of God. I realize that everything about my life is predestined.
Regaining strength and posture, I look at Joe. I touch the garment given to me by my daughters.
“Let’s do the double mastectomy,” I say with a quiver to Dr. Robeson.
He says someone in scheduling will call to set up an appointment for the surgery and other necessary procedures. My ankles release themselves from bondage. My numb feet dangle in the J. Renee’s and the moisture from my inner thighs cements me to the table.
“Help me down,” I whisper to Joe, who takes my hand and makes my landing soft.
With a bag full of brochures, we walk from the exam room, take the elevator, and head out of the dark hallway toward daylight.
“Just so you know, I am with you. I’m not going anywhere,” Joe breathes out.
I smile and give a subdued nod.
“Want to call the girls?”
“Not right now, I still—” I gather my thoughts. “They’re young, but I need them to get their mammograms.”
“Better safe than sorry,” he says. My loving robot goes on his mission to bring the Buick around.
I wait under the office awning. The spring breeze cools my sweat stains. I pull out a cosmetic sponge and dab the oil from my face, realizing quickly by its smell that it’s time to replace the thing. I take a deep breath, which seems to open up my ears and nasal passages. Everything suddenly feels exfoliated. Getting hungry, I smell French fries cooking from the nearby Hardee’s. I deserve that burger and fries, and I don’t care what any white man doctor has to say about it having no nutritional value. I will rest all day tomorrow. Come Sunday, I think I’ll put on Mama’s marbled patent pumps and her magenta hat with the rhinestones. I’ll be at the front of the sanctuary with my arms stretched in abundance, and I’ll sing Amazing Grace as fully as my body will allow.