On Wednesday, I got my yearly mammogram. I've been getting them pretty much every year since I turned 30. But this one was different.
It wasn't so much fear of something showing up. I've had bad mammograms in the past. I've had a needle biopsy in one breast and a lumpectomy in the other. The lumpectomy was a lesson in doctors talking you into unnecessary surgeries. I could have had a needle biopsy that time, too, but the doctor convinced me to operate. He showed me a very basic line drawing of a woman's breast with a dotted line on the side of it and said, "this is what your scar will look like."
It was an innocuous-looking dotted line, so I signed up for surgery. In reality, though, the dotted line was meant to signify a thick, red scar and a pucker from where they remove the flesh. They didn't tell me that part. I call it my Frankenboob. It was very traumatic for me to see the size and extent of it, especially since I was born with a gene for horribly visible, overly dramatic scarring. I wasn't prepared and I still remember the shock of removing that dressing for the first time and seeing it. When I confronted the doctor, he pulled out the line drawing of the boob and showed me how my scar looked just like the dotted line on the picture. Doctors. They see funny.
No, this time was different because I am 51 years old. And 51 is the age my mother was when she had a mammogram that came up showing a small lump. She died five years later. I've missed her ever since.
I'm confident that if I "fail" this mammogram I'll be able to beat whatever cancer may be in there. Things have changed a lot in the 30 years since my mother died. This isn't about that. This is actually more about a thing we do to ourselves when we lose our parents at a young age. I've been silently, secretly dreading this particular mammogram for 30 years. It's a milestone, of sorts. Both my sisters went through it before me. And now I move toward another sad milestone just five years away—the day I live longer than my mother did.
So all day Wednesday, I was a slowly deteriorating mess. By the time I got to the radiologist, I had already cried twice. I cried again during the mammogram. Then I cried again when I got home. I cried when I spoke to my sister on the phone. Then again when I spoke to my brother. And, finally, I cried in bed that night as I listened to my mother's voice from a recording made 40-some years ago. I had no idea how much fear, grief...whatever...I had been holding inside regarding this matter.
At 51 I feel like I still have a lifetime ahead of me. I have dreams I want to fulfill. I want to be an author. I want to live someplace cold. I want even more dogs than I have today. When my mom was 51, she could see the finish line. I was her youngest child and a junior in high school. Soon I'd be going off to college and, after raising six kids (largely on her own as the wife of a man who worked and traveled a lot) she would have been practically free. Maybe she wanted to be a writer. Maybe she had dreams to pursue. I don't know because I never got to have those kinds of adult conversations with her. But as it turned out, all that was ahead of her was chemotherapy, surgeries, pain, sorrow and then, finally death.
Granted, my mother lived a lot of life in her 56 years. She was the oldest of five children. She was born in India and blessed by Ghandi. How many people can say that? She also lived in Egypt before returning to her native home in England. Then WWII came and she was in charge of her siblings. Because her mother worked and food was rationed, she was the one who decided who would eat that day and who wouldn't. Then she met a soldier and moved to America. He abused her and locked her up in the basement. She managed to escape him, then lived a few years, I guess, relatively carefree. She even went on a double date with Joe Garagiola once (he was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals at the time, then became a famous sportscaster.) Then she met my dad and had six kids and, occasionally, a career running congressional offices.
I'm sure she didn't feel too short-changed. But I feel short changed from losing her so young. And I feel short-changed for her for not having the advantages I have. If this mammogram shows something, I will likely live. I've had a lifetime of freedom and the following of dreams. All at her hands.
They say you can never know someone until you walk in their shoes. In some ways, I can't walk in my mother's shoes. I have no idea what it's like to want a family, raise kids or see them grown. But I do finally know what 51 feels like. I have a good sense of all that's behind me, as well as all I have to look forward to ahead. My brother told me my mother knew from the moment of her diagnosis where it would it lead. I can't imagine being 51 and feeling so young inside and then hitting upon the realization it would all be over soon. As with everything in life, she wore her fate gracefully.
I wonder if any the tears I cried on Wednesday were the tears she never shed. I wonder if any of my still unmet dreams are the dreams she never got to live. I will never be the woman she was. I just don't have her class...haha. But I can still be the woman she might have become.
There's a bit of a mission you take on when your parents die young. Because my parents (my dad died a few years later) didn't live long enough to see me grow up, I want to do things I know would make them proud, because I will never hear that from their lips. I want to make their early departure somehow worth it. I'm fortunate to be very much my mother's daughter. And I just hope, whenever I get to see her again, I will have done her proud.