Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to free their voice and write their memoir stories with craft and consciousness. Her writing appears in River Teeth, Literary Mama, and Under the Gum Tree, and her essay “Against Memory” was a finalist for AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Her work-in-progress about her experience with mastectomy explores the correlation between body, self, and voice, and exposes the body as keeper of emotional memory. She lives in Lynchburg, VA, with her husband and son.
Sweet Cream and Vanilla: A Breast Eulogy
Goodbye? No. I cannot imagine saying goodbye to you. As in, So long I’m going to sleep now and when I wake up you will be gone. Gone? Not because I don’t want you. Not because I am ashamed of you—no, those days are gone—but because the cells in your milk ducts have mutated into a cancer that is spilling out of your milk ducts. It is the cancer I am Dear Johning. Not you.
You. I woke up to you one morning in 1976. I was ten years old, asleep on my belly in my twin bed, and I felt the sweet ache of you pressed into the mattress. I rolled onto my back and barely touched you. The word caress comes to mind, though I wouldn’t have used it then. The word then was ache. It hurt. What was happening?
We were not the kind of 1970s family that talked about breasts and bodies and becoming a woman in this world. We were more versed in Hail Marys whispered on our knees in penance. Developing breasts was vaguely related to Eve and the sin of being born female in her wake.
“Mom,” I said when the ache did not subside. “I think I have the chicken pox.” She was pulling a pan of rolls out of the oven. It was a Saturday evening, my parents in the midst of a dinner party, adults seated in the dining room, off of the kitchen. Laughter. The clink of glasses. On the counter next to the stove, a punch bowl half empty of yellow punch, chunks of pineapples soaked in bourbon overnight. My siblings and I fished them from the bowl when the adults weren’t looking. They burned the back of my throat.
My mother set the rolls on the stove, took the oven mitts off her hands. “Let me see,” she said. I was wearing a polyester tank top, pale blue with a print of birds and bees, which seems surreal in hindsight. Birds and bees? I never got that talk. I pulled the neck of my shirt down. I showed her you, left breast. I said, “It hurts.”
“Oh, honey,” she said, hugging me. “That’s not the chickenpox. You’re getting breasts.”
No one told me that breasts would hurt. Neither the ache I could feel with my fingertips nor the other invisible pain I would not put my finger on for decades, the slow heat of shame that burned like those bourbon-soaked pineapples against the back of my throat.
A few minutes later, I heard my mother whisper my name in the dining room off the kitchen. Laughter. The clink of glasses. Did I reach for a pineapple then, or was the burn in my throat a shot of shame from within?
Over the coming months, I hunched my shoulders. I wore baggy shirts. I wrapped my chest in Saran Wrap and knelt at the side of my twin bed, my hands pressed in prayer. “Dear, God, please make them go away.”
Just for the record, God, I didn’t mean it, okay? That was shame talking through an adolescent girl growing up female in a world that gawks and grabs at breasts. I didn’t know this then. But you must have known, God, that I was trying to rid myself of a shame that was not mine in the first place? What kind of God sentences an adolescent girl to shame for becoming the woman she was born to be? My prayer, then, if you need me to translate it for you, now, God, was really, Please, make the shame go away.
A year or so after those bourbon pineapples burned my throat my older sister came into my bedroom one day after school. I was sitting on the end of my twin bed. She held out her old training bra balled in her hand. “I think you need this,” she said. “I mean, so you don’t embarrass yourself.”
My first bra. A dingy, white hand-me-down dotted with tiny nubs from so many washings. Remember flags? Before bras had plastic clasps to fasten the ends of the straps in place, those ends flew loose like flags. The flags on my first bra were as coiled as a pig’s tail. I tried the bra on, pulled my shirt over it. Those coiled flags bulged like two more budding breasts.
Heat spread from my throat to my shoulders, down my arms, across my chest.
I fetched the scotch tape from the kitchen drawer, flattened those flags to the straps, and wrapped the tape around and around.
Confession: I never did wash that bra for fear of washing off the tape and risking those flags springing back to life. I slept in it, too, because I didn’t know that wearing a bra was not a 24/7 penance Hail, Mary, full of grace. I didn’t know that developing breasts was in fact worthy of awe and reverence and thanks be to God.
That a woman could fall in love with her breasts.
The scotch tape did the trick. When I walked to the bus stop the next day I held my books close and stiffened my shoulders to keep the tape from crinkling. And still Shelley Feese noticed. “YOU’RE WEARING A BRA!” she said in all caps. Her words echoed off the metal walls of the school bus like the clink of glasses. Laughter.
Instead of turning toward you, left breast, and saying hello and welcome and fuck you Shelley Feese, I turned away as if you were the source of the burn on the back of my throat that spread to my fingers, my elbows, my knees, my toes.
What I’m trying to say, left breast, is that a cultural shame surrounding women’s bodies seeped into me and separated me from you for a long time and for that I am sorry. Shame, I have learned, is its own kind of bourbon that blots a body from her Self. The shame I am talking about was bigger than you or me or my mom. It is rooted (still) in the way the world sees women’s bodies through hungry eyes as things to be devoured by others rather than treasured as goddesses of wisdom and beauty and intuition and sensuality and givers of life.
Remember the time Sam bit your nipple in the apartment at 3 Storey Place? So came an abrupt end to a year of breastfeeding. But during that year you taught me how to be a mother. When he nursed, I tuned into the pull of milk through your ducts, a pull that returned me, again and again, to the present moment, moments of pure being with my son. He would rest his tiny hand on your flesh, fingers spread wide. Beads of sweat would form on his forehead as he suckled. His eyelids would flutter. Sometimes, he would smile mid-suckle, and as he grew—baby fat rippling his chin and pillowing his wrists—those smiles burst into giggles, as if your milk were nourishing him with joy. Other times, depending on the hour, he would fall asleep mid-suckle, your nipple in his round, pink mouth. After he nursed, his breath smelled like sweet cream and vanilla.
Cancer cannot touch the bond you gifted us. Surgery will not excise my memory of my baby’s lips on your nipple, milk pulling through your ducts, his spontaneous smile, that eternal giggle.
I am beginning—beginning—to think of this dreaded surgery as my wanting to live. Right now living means losing you. You, who have given so much life.
When Dr. Ploch said the word mastectomy I pleaded. Is there any other way? He shook his head slowly left right left right left right.
No! I howled in my kitchen grabbing onto the bar of the oven door as I went down to my knees. No! I shrieked as Steve reached for me. No no no! I pounded the linoleum floor with my fist.
A few days later, a Sunday, I crawled under my desk. I howled. This is not fucking okay with me! I shrieked. No no no! Bunny crawled under my desk with me, looped her arms around me, kept me from clawing myself. Oh god Bunny, I screamed, they’re going to cut off my left breast! No no no! When we finally crawled out from under my desk Bunny’s hair was matted with my snot and tears.
A week later, last Sunday, I collapsed on Bunny’s sofa. I reached for her hand. This will never be okay with me, I wailed into her neck, I will never ever ever want to say goodbye to my left breast. I sobbed and Bunny held me and I am here to tell you that snot and tears are hot, but they do not burn the back of the throat. They are not a turning away but a turning toward. A kind of greeting. Something like hello and welcome and fuck you cancer.
Twenty-five years ago Steve sprinkled rose petals on a blanket spread on the wooden floor of that weathered back porch in Glover Park. You were there. You know. The way you taught me how to arch my back in pleasure beneath his tender touch. We will both miss you. So damn much.
Forty years ago I woke to the ache of your budding. Nine days from now I will wake to the ache of your absence.
What I really want to say before we part is I’m sorry and I love you and thank you and hello.
Thank you and hello.