I am spending the week in Georgia. It is the first week of July and the midday temperature here hangs at around 100 degrees. The air is thick and sweet and wet and the black roads reflect the intense heat like a searing griddle.
I'm here in Georgia because I'm visiting my younger sister. She is a Ph.D. student in literature at the University of Georgia and lives with her fiancée who is also a student at the university. She has lived here for four years and this is the first time I've come here to see her. We see each other during the holidays in New York and we've seen each other at other times and other places but this is the first time I've come to her home. Her home is lovely. Athens is a charming, comfortable, and friendly college town. I'm here now because just over a week ago my sister had a bi-lateral mastectomy. I'm here now because I want to be helpful. I'm here to cook and to clean and to wait on her if she needs me to. I'm here to do what I can even though I feel helpless. I'm here because I love her.
Yesterday my sister asked if I would like to see her scars. She was lying in bed propped up on pillows, she opened her special, zip-up-the-front "mastectomy bra" and showed me where they’d removed her breasts. Her fiancée was in the room and he turned away, not because he hasn't seen them or because they're hard to look at, he has bathed her and cared for her since her surgery, but because there was an awkward intimacy, a sharing of something that has been lost, an acknowledgment of the passing of youth, of innocence, an admittance that she, I, we, have all been changed.
Her scars are not mean or gruesome – not red or angry. She has two clean horizontal incisions, 8 or 10 inches long, across each side of her chest. She has no nipples; only the healing slash crossed with steri-strips at about half inch intervals, like tracks. She is not flat chested, as I was expecting. She’s planning on having breast reconstruction surgery and she already has small implants, called expanders, that were put in before she was closed up from the mastectomy. She was a D cup and now she is, maybe, an A cup. As I understand it, the plastic surgeon will slowly increase the amount of saline in the expanders at various intervals until they have reached the desired size. The stretching of the tissue and skin is supposed to be a painful process.
She asked me to take pictures of her scars. She said that looking at pictures of other women’s procedures had helped her so she'd like to be able to share pictures of her procedure with other women in the hopes that it may, in turn, help them.
There is no manual or guideline of appropriate response or behavior for this type of thing. No one is prepared for the physical, emotional, or spiritual challenges that accompany a life threatening diagnosis. Having had my own experience with a scary diagnosis I understand, to some extent, the personal trauma, fear, loss, the wondering if the illness will return, the helplessness, and the delicate balance one must maintain so as not to be seen as a victim. I don't, however, have any idea or understanding of what it must feel like to have parts removed, parts that relate directly to one's gender identity, self esteem, and sexuality.
If there is any good in all of this, and I have to believe that there is, it is that the cancer is gone, she is being cared for, and she is safe. What is, for me, perhaps the most significant outcome of this tragedy is that I have not felt this close to my sister since we were children. My sister and I have had a difficult relationship in recent years; we’ve disagreed, argued, and avoided each other. Through her recent ordeal; the diagnosis, the chemo and now the mastectomy, we've gotten closer and I’ve come to realize that I have a bond with her than I was, till now, unaware of. As siblings, we share something that no one else can.
I’m glad she’s going to be ok. I’m glad that I’m able to be here for her, however inadequate my help may be. I’m glad that I now realize how much I really do love my sister.