Frida Kahlo, "Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)" (1932)

Frida Kahlo, “Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)” (1932)

an essay by Chloe Livaudais

THE LUMP I find in the shower feels like nothing at all on the first day. A small bit of tissue against my fingertips, insignificant and ordinary, like a button you happen across on a new jacket. I continue prodding as the hot water turns cold above me, and learn that this thing–this packet of tissue or cells or fat–is only on one breast, which I know is bad. How strange, I think, that the first sign of alarm is that it is present only in half of you. I turn off the water and have the sudden desire to sit down, not because I am anxious but because I feel unbalanced, like the lump is growing in size even as my other breast struggles to keep me upright. I look in the mirror and am startled to find that the lump is indistinguishable from the rest of my 16-year-old body, that there is no evidence at all beyond the tiny markings of my fingertips.

This discovery excites me. I could keep this quiet if I wanted, a secret that no one else knows. I could go swimming, my suit top stretched across my skin while underneath grew something bad and powerful and mine. And when I got sick enough that I faded into a beautiful translucent white and the blood stained my lips red, I would confess that I’d kept it quiet because I didn’t want attention. Or pity. That I’d been brave, like the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus beneath her clothes as the world moved on around her, not knowing that her sacrifice would rock the earth beneath their feet. I imagine all of this as I stand bare in front of the mirror. These fantasies do not compare, however, to the image of my grandmother Bonnie, the first saint, reaching out to me, to my mother, our bodies now attached by a thread of pain. I shake with anticipation.

I know that this lump could be very bad because my mother had been forced to separate herself from just such a badness, cutting her breasts off and leaving scars that I have never seen up close, that she had lost her own mother to it. But there is also the thrill of being chosen. Here I am, a young girl with a boy’s haircut, asked to carry this heavy thing. I stand in the bathroom and remember spraining my ankle at softball camp–too short a jump rope, too low a jump–and lying on the ground as the other girls hovered around me, their hands ghosting over my ankle to feel the swelling, to appraise my pain. And beyond the stretching of my skin, I could feel their worry enveloping me. There was a caring that was being laid upon my body, cool and cleansing like the sweat that had begun to wrap around my arms and my forehead. I wanted this outpouring of attention again.

It is only when I tell my mother about the lump that I realize how wrong this want is. How an ankle can heal but a lump–a bad lump–does not belong in the body, to be scooped out of you like leaves from a gutter. I learn this because my mother does not pull me to her when I say the word lump. She does not glance down at my breasts but rather away from them, an unblinking focus on the phone that hangs behind me in the kitchen. She moves toward it, and I feel nothing of her body as she walks past me, the dial tone of the phone loud in the space between us before she dials her doctor to make an appointment. I bite my lip and stand staring at the couch where my mother was sitting moments ago, and the crowd of girls dissipates from my memory. They leave me cringing on the wet grass alone, the pain in my ankle rising upwards and wrapping around my body like a rope. When she finishes her call, I have the desire to groan, to grasp my breast in pain and force some response. But the lump does not hurt. It is secreted away behind smooth skin, and my mother is already back on the couch. I think she is reading, but her eyes do not move across the page. Her cheeks are pink in the lamplight.

Three days later, when I am lying on the doctor’s table, and I feel the doctor’s fingertips prodding my breasts, I close my eyes against the harsh fluorescents above me. The white sheet has been folded away from my body, and the crinkle of sterile paper fills the room as the doctor moves from one breast to the next. Yes, I feel it, she says. Most likely benign, but we’ll want to be sure. A few tests, given your family history. I nod, but I feel myself floating away. I can see the outline of the lights when I close my eyes, and I squeeze them tighter until there is only blackness. My fingertips stick to the table, and I dry them on my jeans.

Somewhere in the room, my mother shuffles papers in her hands. She has not made a sound except to answer the doctor’s questions. Her answers are warm, as though she is speaking about anything else, anywhere else. Yes, cancer twice. Double mastectomy. First time at 38. Yes, very uncommon. My mother, at 36. Yes, chemo. No, didn’t lose my hair. Thank you, the salon downtown.

I want to stand up, to hold the sheet away from my body and rip until it’s nothing but shreds of white. I want to grasp my mother’s face until her eyes are open and unblinking beneath me. This is coming from you, I want to scream. Here I am with a stranger squeezing my breasts, and you hide away your prosthetics in a drawer but sometimes I open it and lay my hands across the cold gel. And I’ve never seen your scars because you hide them away. Is that because they are ugly? Will I be ugly too?

But I do not do this. I have stopped trying to dry my hands off on my jeans, and my skin is glued to the table. I want my mother to go away, to sit in the waiting room. I want her to forget I am here, that the doctor is even now preparing a needle to pierce my breast and grab a section of the lump to study, to place in a dish like an extracted tooth. I have bitten through the inner lining of my cheek, and the blood stays lodged in the back of my mouth.

The doctor is still speaking. Family history, it’s hard to know. Usually nothing, but I understand the worry. I do the same with my daughters.

She smiles and glances over at my mother. And you’ve probably felt the lump yourself, right? To be sure?

There’s a clock ticking somewhere when I turn my head and find my mother. She is smiling up at the doctor, but she is not responding to her most recent question. Is, perhaps, pretending that she somehow missed it. There’s a lot going on just beyond the door–phones ring, a woman is talking about her insurance, an intercom muffles some announcement. It’s possible. But as I search her eyes, I know she heard it, and the space between us is brimming with her silent response. No, I did not. I did not touch my daughter’s breasts. I did not look at her. My mother was dead when the lumps came. She was not there to feel them growing inside of me. I do not know the words to comfort my daughter.

The needle stabs, and I squeeze my eyes shut. It is a great pinpoint of pain, as though all the feelings of my body have turned red and are culminating in this one small space of skin. The needle reaches the lump ,and the pain pauses long enough for me to open my eyes. I find my mother, and she is leaning forward in her chair, her fingers white where they grip the papers in her lap. She meets my eyes and says something that I cannot hear past the needle digging through my skin, the pain ricocheting through my body in waves. My head feels disconnected from my body, and I shake it to hear her, but my ears feel packed and heavy. The doctor pulls the needle from my breast and places the bit of something or nothing in a jar. She spreads a band-aid across my skin, and I look up at my mother. She has sits silent. The papers in her lap are crinkled and wet from her grip.

The doctor leaves the room so I can change, her pink fingernails tapping against the jar as she slides it into her pocket. I clutch the clean white sheet against my chest as my mother stands up, and if she notices, she doesn’t say anything. I want to pull her forward and push her away and place her hands against my skin. I know you didn’t learn the language, I want to say. But is there a language for the fear your daughter has of her own body? Of a pretty doctor walking away with a piece of her in her dry hands? Teach me the language. Or make one up. I will whisper it and not tell anyone. I will not look at your scar. I will not place my palms against the cool inner lining of your breasts.


Four weeks later, a nurse walks in to draw a curved line where the scalpel will go, and I am shaking so badly that she has to stretch the skin between her fingers to keep it clean. In a few hours, I will be wheeled back into surgery, and they will peel my right nipple back like the lid of a paint can. But I do not think about the biopsy. I sit in my hospital gown and think about the fact that I am on my period, and that at some point I am going to have to take my underwear off and bleed all over the exam table.

I wake up after the surgery beneath soft fluorescents. I have the sudden desire to lift the sheet and check my bleeding, but I wait because my mother is standing beside me. I cannot risk the possibility of her seeing my nakedness. I ask to use the restroom so I can put my underwear on, and I am relieved that there is only a little blood. Perhaps no one saw. It is not until I am about to turn and leave the restroom that I remember the wrappings.

Five inches of clean white gauze are taped across my breast. I touch the wrappings with my fingertips, wondering what is under there. The line the nurse had made was only three inches long, a dash of green marker no longer than my finger, but this is much larger. Had something happened during the surgery? I imagined that underneath the fabric resided a patchwork of splinters, deep and yawning as the doctors tried and failed to find the cyst. I rest my open palm on the wrappings, and am stunned to discover how flat it feels. I place my other hand on my other breast and attempt to weigh them together, but it is difficult to decide what is the gauze and what is still me. I breathe through my nose several times and cover the wrappings with both hands, then I squint until the skin of my hands matches that of my breasts. I close my eyes and pull my shirt over my head, and try to ignore the strange non-feeling of my shirt falling over the wrappings. I turn and walk out the door, where my mother stands holding my pants and shoes.

It is two weeks before I can take the gauze off, and by that time we’ve learned from the sample that the cyst is benign. A small sac of fluid, they say over the phone. Nothing to be concerned about. Keep us posted. I have spent every night of these two weeks trailing my fingertips over the gauze, counting the pieces of tape over and over until I fall asleep to the image of men creeping into my bedroom and slicing through my skin. I cannot sleep on my chest yet, but in the morning I wake up with my palms flat against my breasts, protecting them. I sit hunched over in class in fear that someone will notice the layers of fabric beneath my bra, and when I get out of the shower, I stare hard at the wrappings, dreading the moment they will need to come off because of the unknown beneath. Then I stand sideways until the gauze is obscured by my healthy left breast.

My mother and I do not talk about any of this, but she does wake me up in the middle of the night to give me my pain medication, and she rolls me over on my side if I have moved onto my chest. Her hand is soft and cool on my forehead as I drink the water she has poured for me, and the covers are pulled up to my chin moments before she pulls the door closed quietly behind her. Every night. But in the morning these memories are like those of a dream, because we do not speak of them. And I want to remind her of them as much as I want to keep them buried, because there is a kind of nakedness that has to happen in order to bring this thing into the daylight, a recognition of the body that we are not prepared to face. And in the night, there is a warm space where words like family history and fear and cyst are softened like the edges of an old eraser.

I do not know what my mother looks like naked when I finally peel back the gauze from my breast, but years later I will look up images of double mastectomy procedures and think back to this moment. Stripping the tape away from my skin is painful, and it takes several small tugs before it is free from my body. Beneath the wrapping, an angry red scar outlines my nipple like some discarded thread, the half-moon shape like some bizarre “C” on my skin. The rest of my skin looks the same, the creases from the tape smooth and pale, but I am transfixed by the gash at the center. I stand staring at my breasts and am filled with anger towards my mother for making the appointment, for insisting upon the surgery even when the doctor had shrugged her shoulders and said that there probably wasn’t a need, she’s sixteen, far below the average age for biopsies. But my mother had insisted on aggressive treatment, and because of that I stare at a scarred piece of myself that will always feel a bit too sensitive, always a reminder that this three-inch incision is actually nothing compared to what could happen. What might one day still happen.

The scar will fade white over time, and the anger I feel for my mother will dissipate. But it is not until I see those images of the double mastectomies and imagine my mother staring at herself naked in the mirror, her breasts not just scarred but scars themselves, that I will relinquish my anger towards her wholly. I will fill the silences between us with the understanding that her silence was born not from shame or modesty, but from the fear that she was passing on to me the very worst part of herself. To her, there was little power in words. After all, what had words done to save her mother? But in actions–in the aggressive slicing up a young girl’s body, in the tattooing upon her skin the very fragility of her own existence–there was, perhaps, some power. My mother’s distance was not an ignorance of what was happening with my body, but an acknowledgement that it would most likely happen again. You are a jar in a stranger’s pocket, the hand on my forehead whispers. Your body is pocked with evil things, the water murmurs as it slides down my throat. But you are also my daughter, sighs the door as it clasps shut. And like me, you are more than your skin.

Chloe Livaudais is a recent alum of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has been published in ReCap and Qu Literary Journal, and is forthcoming in Blue River. She is originally from Auburn, Alabama and currently lives in Iowa City with her husband.