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How To Grow Up MAG
I could not hear what was going on on the other end of the phone, but it was making her cry, and now it was making me cry too.
I had gone to take a shower that morning at the campsite. I was grumpy at the cost of the shower, the water running for much less time than I wanted it to, the soap scum on the bottoms of my feet. I was also grumpy at having been made to take the shower in the first place. If I wanted to run around grubby and salt-crusted, why shouldn’t I? While walking back from the showers, I prepared a list of complaints for my mother, stocking up on points to include in debate for the next time a shower was suggested. Instead of the playful argument I expected, I found my mother in a lawn chair facing the ocean, holding her phone to her ear and crying.
The day my mother got that call was three days after I got my first period. Three days after my mother’s mastectomy, I became a teenager.
My mother is a powerhouse of a woman. When I was younger, I used to watch her get ready for work in the morning, tracing the line of her lashes with eyeliner, putting on blouses and heels even though she was already tall. She said that she liked how it made her feel. As with most children, I saw her as a kind of superhero – somebody who would always be there to protect me, who was capable of anything. My mother was the picture of femininity and independence, and by far the most beautiful person I had ever seen.
The phone call in question was one that she had been waiting on for a few weeks: the results of a biopsy taken from a lump noticed on an MRI of her breasts. With proper treatment it seemed that she, like my grandmother, would recover. I was then naively confused as to why we were crying, if she was going to be okay.
The process started slowly, with a surgery to take out the lump and a sample of her lymph nodes to check for metastasis, a spread of cancer. My mother explained to my brother and me that this was no cause for alarm, that the lymph nodes were like coffee filters for the toxins in our body. This lead to a long-standing mental image of my mother with coffee filters folded into her armpits.
My mother bought a clear purple pill organizer and began to take handfuls of pills in the morning, washing them down with her coffee; lots of milk, no sugar. She would fill each pocket on Saturday, and tell me what each of her pills were for: fat pink and white pills for calcium and Vitamin D, a white pill called metformin to decrease insulin, a tiny brown one called an aromatase inhibitor, which shut down estrogen production in her cells. The kind of cancer that invaded my mother’s body was one with estrogen receptors, so although the pills aided her recovery, they are why she now insists that wearing too much makeup makes her look like a drag queen.
Next was radiation; a blip of blue tattooed on her sternum to indicate where the machine should point, directing electromagnetic waves through her body. One morning, I missed my first class of the day to go with her to the hospital for one of these appointments. I wasn’t allowed into the room with her, so I sat patiently outside and read fashion magazines, the kind that come with perfume samples inside; almost every waiting room smells faintly of them. The smell reminded me of the last time I had been to the hospital, when I had broken my arm. I remembered how scared I had been of the x-ray machine, and I became suddenly worried that there was nobody to stand with my mother while she got radiation; nobody to hold her hand like she had held mine.
We thought that radiation would be the end of major treatment. But the lab couldn’t decide what kind of cancer this most likely was: one that could be treated with just radiation, or a more aggressive kind that would require chemotherapy. After a sample was sent to the labs at Harvard, which only really led to more disagreement, my mother decided to start chemotherapy in January.
Chemotherapy is hellish. Every two weeks for four months, my mother had hours-long streams of medication they called the “red devil” fed into her veins through a port in her neck, ice packs Velcroed to her head to keep her hair from falling out. All her hair thinned, and she wore false eyelashes some days and penciled in the gaps in her eyebrows. My mother, a firm believer in science, bought cancer cookbooks and all-natural shampoo. My mother, who used to work night shifts at the hospital on two hours of sleep, who would run 10 kilometers before the rest of us meandered out of bed in the morning, who could never take naps or sleep past eight in the morning, was suddenly so exhausted by being awake that she would sometimes stay in bed for the whole day.
The last step of her treatment: bilateral mastectomy. The surgery removed all of my mother’s breast tissue. When my grandma later asked my mom how often she got mammograms, my mother replied, “I never get them anymore. There’s no mammo to gram.” The surgery also destroyed almost all muscle in her upper chest. My mother, who used to run laps of Beaver Lake pushing me in a stroller, could no longer lift a gallon of milk.
She once asked me if I was glad to be aware of everything that was going on. She had friends who couldn’t believe that she was so open about the details of her treatment with my younger brother and me. My grandmother developed breast cancer when my mom was 16 and my uncle was 10, and the night that my mom drove my grandma to the hospital, they didn’t even wake my uncle up to tell him where they were going. They didn’t want to worry him.
I spent the majority of the year of her treatment worrying. I told my mother that I didn’t, and she believed me. I would rather have been painfully aware of the situation than oblivious to it, regardless of the cost. I was glad to have had the privilege of worrying.
On my 13th birthday, I woke up, got ready for the day, and went to the hospital with the rest of my family to visit my mom before school. Before this, I’d always considered a birthday to be an untouchable day; nothing could happen to distract me from the joy of becoming a year older. Seeing my mom for the first time after surgery was the end of that. She sat, wilted by discomfort and fatigue, but smiling. I was afraid to hug her, because I thought I might hurt her, much like when I was first born and my uncle refused to hold me because he was scared he might break me. My mother looked smaller than I’d ever seen her before, and miles away from the woman who I once watched put on heels every morning. That isn’t to say that she had changed fundamentally; my mother was still beautiful and kind and incredibly strong, but the person that she was no longer tied to my ideas of her. Now, I could see the holes in the facade that I had created. I was no longer blind to the symptoms that made her human.
As a kid, your mother is just your mother. She exists to fill no other positions; her presence is uncontested and consistent. She does not take sick days, nor does she ever need to. She is perfect, a glimmering hologram of storybook proportions. She is beautiful before she puts on makeup, tall before the heels.
Growing up and beginning to see your parents as people are inseparable processes. That birthday was the turning point of a year that forced me to begin to see my mother as a person, someone whole and three-dimensional, instead of someone who existed only as I saw her.
I do not like coming of age stories. That said, this is mine.