Finally, six months after getting the referral, I got myself a mammogram. I had been dreading turning 40 for so long—mostly because I had become convinced that the formal commencement of annually surveying my breasts would create unmanageable anxiety for the rest of my life.
Of course, the fear of breast cancer had already been consuming me. I think that this is very common for Ashkenazi Jewish American women like myself. Somehow I became sold on the idea that my breasts were just two ticking time bombs eagerly waiting to overproduce wild cells that would spread into my arm pits and lungs via lymph node transporters. But, I could just avoid the scans up until this point, ignorantly and anxiously blissful.
When I nursed my son, I would imagine that the pumping of milk created some sort of movement in my breasts that made the possibility of growing masses less possible. I nursed for as long as I could, partly inspired by this bizarre fantasy.
I am not totally crazy. My grandmother died of breast cancer at 42, when my mom was just 12. With every year past these numbers, 42 (death), 38 (diagnosis), 12 (my mom’s orphaning), I have held my breath, my breasts. And now 40, the debatable mammography age, became my new gasp.
So, with the onset of the Jewish New Year, I decided to try and enter through October’s chilly gates with information rather than paralyzing fear. I let them take their six pictures, carefully adjusting my polyester pink gown for each flattening shot, my breasts served up as pancakes for their hungry viewing pleasure. Before I got the formal results, I looked at the pictures on the computer screen myself. I saw detailed black and white scans of the inside of my two breast friends and I knew right away that they were both healthy. Their clarity was plain as day—two simple, boring pieces of muscle tissue, completely anomaly free.
Even though they told me that no news is good news, I somehow remained calm when they called the next day. And really, they called for no reason, just a quick insurance question while I remained on the shores of my own sanity. Oh, and they said everything was fine, which I had already come to let myself know.
With a newfound clean bill of health, somehow I could surrender to the unfolding year in front of us. I picked up my kids from school, lighter, yet more adult. I thought, this is me at 40.5. And yes, I still take my half birthday seriously.
The three of us drove home, my two boys and me. We drove past our seasonal ice cream shop, newly shuddered from an endlessly sticky summer. My younger one’s little chin quivered when he saw the shop locked up. Huge, salty, authentic tears formed in each eye. He tried to swallow each one as it fell. “I don’t want it to be closed. Why can’t it be open?”
I said, “It sounds like you are really missing summer. It is so hard for the seasons to change.” The tears fell with more ease and his little tongue couldn’t keep up with them, though he kept trying at this odd game of catch.
Before my scan, I might not have been able to conjure up this empathy or insight. Fear always hijacks both for me, particularly in my parenting efforts. Fear makes me literal and snappy. I fall deaf to the symbolism of my kids’ fears and disappointment. I had felt like the passage of time was only tied to death, not rebirth or simple hibernation. Now I could help all of us breathe and cry through it.
The next morning, Shabbat morning, I cleaned out our fridge and even our freezer. This is always an odd trip down memory lane. We have frozen meals from friends who stood by during the harder times this year. Over-ripened pears that were prematurely purchased in the hopes of fall, not in sync with it. Then they were forgotten, bruised, stinky, and battered at the bottom of the fruit drawer.
And now there is space for a New Year, for both the sweetness and the pain of change. The freezer has room for ice cream to heal the grieving tears over summer’s end, the fridge for perfectly ripened apples awaiting their tender honey, and the mind—my Jewish/mother/woman mind, tied to my Jewish/mother/woman’s breasts—is free and clear for pleasure and healthy growth.