How funny, as I sit here waiting, not quite breathing, that I can smell the first days of my daughter’s life: sweet and soapy, but a bitterness underneath.
At first, I can’t name it, this smell—soft baby hair laced with cradle cap? Maybe her first newborn onesie washed in boiling water with organic all-natural soap? No… inhale, exhale, and there it is, that smell: glass bottles, rubber nipples, and the pump that squeezed my aching breasts for flowing liquid.
(Warm the bottle, shake it, squeeze a drop on your wrist, then taste. Shake and squeeze and taste again. And there it is—the taste of rubber, the taste of glass, all around the taste of you—Mother. Bittersweet.)
How funny I should smell this here—the smells of those early days when the world was upside down and nothing worked the way I thought it should, when we salted the sweetness of those first weeks with new tears—hers, the tears of a baby newly born, and mine, the tears of a newborn mother.
READ: My Breast Cancer Scare Changed My Life and Made Me Appreciate My Blessings
How funny I should smell this here—the smells of moments lost in sleepless stupor, then pinched to jagged peaks of uncertainty, despair, and then fear: Did she eat enough? Is she sleeping too long? Is that a normal cry or is she sick?
How funny I should smell this here in the room where my breasts are compressed again, this time in a doctor’s office behind glass screens, a pedal to metal and down they go, squeezing, aching.
(No milk this time.)
All empty, soft beneath the glass, except for the lump on the left side.
And then the waiting—nine long months for my baby girl; nine long days for a call from my doctor:
“No unusual findings.”
The first year of my daughter’s life was measured in what-ifs. I would stand over her crib, watching her chest rise and fall and rise and fall, waking up in the middle of the night, even when she slept sound and sweet, to look for proof of life (rise and fall, rise and fall) because I knew how fast it all can change.
I knew the stories, and I watched my mother’s life eke out in one breath. But still, I never stopped to simply smile and look up at the clear blue sky in quiet thanks. Because with each day my daughter grew older marked yet another day further from that last breath my mother drew.
(Cancer makes it hard to breathe. Even when you don’t have it.)
So, I never took that deep, deep breath to marvel that the universe knows what it’s doing (rise and fall), that things will be OK one way or another. Instead, I watched life pass through compressed glass, watched myself feeding her, rocking her, holding her, and that smell, always that smell: sterile soap and boiling water, rubber, glass, and my own skin. Bittersweet.
I wasted that first year, so afraid.
And she was fine.
READ: Eight Things to Know About Breast & Ovarian Cancer
And now, even though the results are in, and I am fine, there was that lump—I felt it! That ache and prickle of fear spread through my breasts (and it’s still there! I still feel it—changing shape with the moon each month).
“That’s fine. You’re fine. Just keep an eye on it,” my doctor says, just like another doctor would tell me that’s fine, she’s fine, but keep an eye on my daughter’s temperature, or her cough, or the fact she walks on her tippy-toes (she’s fine, she’s fine, she’s fine). But the world narrows, and all I feel is that fear, that lump.
“We will check again next year.”
(I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.)
READ: My Sister-in-Law Died From Breast Cancer And Her Words of Advice Still Haunt Me
And I will not lose this year to fear while waiting for the next. I did that once, and what a waste.
Yes, life changes in a moment. Yes, each breath is precious. But all it takes IS one moment—and one deep breath—to realize the air is actually quite sweet.