I was swimming in the ocean yesterday and felt someone watching me. “Good,” I thought, “I’m glad someone sees me swimming. Glad someone knows I’m out here. Glad that a man still notices me.”
And I wonder, what it will be like to navigate a breast-centric world without breasts. I was so certain in the beginning, that I wanted a bilateral mastectomy. Having assisted my mother with hers at 84 years, I was sure I could not go through that. So I answered with clarity when they asked, “Yes, take both.” Never thinking I might waver. Never wondering until I met with my surgeon and he started talking about the possibility of taking healthy nodes with the resection. Then the doubts crowded in.
Folks marveled, “You’ll have to have what my friend had, she had a tummy tuck and they took the fat and used it to make her boobs.” “You’re too young, too beautiful not to have reconstruction, Julia.” “Who’s doing the remake?” And on and on go the questions about reconstruction until I’m glad that I can’t have it for one or two years. I start to doubt my certainty that flat is beautiful and wonder if I will change my mind.
I remember the first time an old man made a pass at me. I think it was more to impress his buddies at the voter registration table. I don’t think it had much to do with me, but it made a big impression nevertheless. I was probably 47 at the time, still considering myself beautiful and young. Not possible for an seventy plus year old to wink, tell me a joke and then lovingly place a hand on my shoulder or back. His joke was awful so I can’t tell you because I don’t remember. But what I do remember as I walked away was, “Oh MY! that old man was flirting with me.” And the shock of it left me reeling. I had passed from one generation to another in those brief seconds and wondered.
I found that after menopause men found a way to speak to me, be close to me and converse. I had often wondered at the many paintings created by the Masters, hanging on the walls of museums and churches in Europe. The older women with three rolls of belly hanging while they reclined resplendent, surrounded by images of love, lust and ripe fruit. Hmmmm, I pondered, perhaps the lack of fertility is liberating, seductive in it’s own way. And the flirting and posturing continued as I paid little heed.
But as I observed the man on the beach watching me jump waves and slide in and out of the surf, I thought about life after October 7th, after a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction.
“Grandaddy, why do girls have those big things on their chests?” a six year old asked. “Oh,” he pronounced, “those are breasts and they are for feeding babies.” “What happens after the baby is finished feeding? Are they just for decoration?” And the grandfather of course roared and repeated the joke to everyone he knew. He was a friend of mine, a child psychologist and behaviorist, we ran the Treatment Center together. Even then, twenty years before this malady struck and I consider life without breasts, I thought this amazing. What genetic response, what nurturing moment led this small boy to know his attraction, his lifelong instinctive over-focused reaction to breasts? I was amazed at his intuition and his curiosity.
So now as I skim over the waves, watching the fisherman watch me, I wonder what life will be like without these moments of appreciation. Wonder if after two years I will succumb to the knife and redecorate myself or if flat will be the new Julia and that will be sufficient.
This column is dedicated to the many brave women who sleep while surgeons, mostly male, draw a line around their cancers and then cut and cut and cut away in hopes that they may live. Seeking our own garden of Eden, health where now there is none. That’s all we really hope for isn’t it, when we make this decision, unilateral or bilateral? And it’s all our families hope for too. Disappointment inevitably coming to the little boys who look at women’s chest for decoration or nourishment they find is not there for them anymore.