Week of the Wound
It’s okay, she said. It will be okay, she said. Don’t look so worried. I mean, I don’t want to tell you what to do. You can look worried if you want to, but really, it’s not a big deal.
The mother reexamined her daughter’s face.
Aiya, she said, mae you suh ma guan tsi. The child’s eyes, which lay in he rown hands, shifted to look at her. It does not matter all that much, the mother said, because we aer just glad that you are still alive. It is such a small thing really, the thing he took out. Not so small, but small when compared to your whole body, when compared to your whole living life.
The mother’s gaze rubbed against the girl’s hot cheeks. You are a pretty girl. Of course you are, don’t shake your head. You are my daughter, of course you are pretty. Besides you are only fifteen years old. By the time anybody sees it, maybe in ten years or so, the scar will have faded. You will be perfect again, by that time.
The girl began to cry at this point, but not because she was upset or mad. She was crying because she did not know what she was feeling or thinking at this point and did not know what else to do. She felt like someplace in her mind a lot of thinking and processing was going on, but she felt like she was not ready yet to go to that place and look at what was going on. She wanted there to be a lot of people around her talking to each other, making conversation, laughing, amusing themselves. But she did not want to join them just yet, just as she did not want to join her thoughts just yet. The child was barely fifteen, and she was at the awkward teary moment in her life when everything her mother said seemed an echo of her own fears. She did not like the idea that she was not perfect now. The girl looked over at her father grinning nervously, kindly, in the sky blue chair next to the bed.
The father looked at the child with his dark lashes, with his looks, and could not know what to feel. He had always thought of her as being kind of a boy. She was a good-looking girl, with brown eyes and pale cheeks, but she did take after him in looks, after all, and in other manners of thought and action. He had had only girls, three. She was the middle one of them. She was the most shy, the least afraid, with the most to prove. He did not know what she was thinking. Was she afraid that it would be breast cancer? How could she be? She was only fifteen after all. Cancer like that happened to women over forty with large breasts and a history of cigarettes and beer. He knew this. He watched Monday night television movies with the mother, and the stories usually went that way.
Do you think that too, ba?, she asked. He said, yes, it does not make that much of a difference. Mae yo suh ma. As long as you are healthy. I am happy. That is what is important, after all.
The girl wished her father had said, who says you are no longer perfect? You are and always will be. You will be all right. But he did not say any of that. He was Chinese and male, after all; but to be fair, he was a fairly decent father. He stood next to her bed right then fairly close. When he had first entered the room, he had faltered and then leanded awkwardly against the wall far off to the left near where the door was, just out of reach of being hit if the door were to open suddenly. He had then slowly made his way around the room, quietly and inchingly, so that no one would notice, and was finally next to her bed on the right side, by her head. He looked down kindly at her. He was still, and actually had never stopped, grinning. He was a gentle, good man. Several times the child noticed that his arm had flinched and then relaxed, as if he wanted to reach out and touch her arm or face, and had then thought better of it.
The biopsy to remove the fibroadenoma mass in her left breast, 2 o’clock, as the surgeon had said, had been twenty minutes long in length. It had been just as she thought it would be. The sterilizing iodine was orangish-black and warm. The anesthetic needle pierced and left quickly and the edge of the razor blade tingled as fear in her imagination, but resulted in no feeling describably as pain. The worst part of the operation was because of her imagination. She had not wanted to take general anesthesia because her older sister had said she might never wake up again. The thought of being cut and sown back together again was foreign enough. The girl did not want to do anything that might cause death.
But then, there were the voices of her physician. The surgeon was of middle-eastern origin with pretty dark eyes and an impatient tone. He did not think she was pretty, the girl thought. His eyes lingered but scarcely seconds on her, as he tried to explain her disease as quickly as possible. What do you want to do?, he had asked her. It is probably not cancer. You are too young for it. Your tumor is mobile and hard, not fluid-filled. At your age, it is probably fibrocystic disease. But I guess, to confirm that, we would need to do the biopsy. The needle biopsy came in inconclusive.
Inconclusive, she had thought, I don’t want to die. The mother, behind her new rose-shaded, magnifying eyeglasses, squinted at the doctor and said, you should take it out. You should get it over with. Having a rock in your body is not good. The child had stared at the mother blankly. Did she know how often in the past three months she had fingered the soft warm tissue of her left breast, feeling desperately, persistently for the absence of the small hard lump?, the child wondered. She had hoped beneath the motherly press of her own fingers, the lump would dissolve, disappear. She had hoped that one of those time, and despaired and then given up later on, her finger would be disappointed. There would be no lump.
The child was almost angry then. She felt hateful towards the mother and this doctor. She did not want to have surgery. She did not want the man with his embarrassed Greek smile and the hippie tie-dye rag wrapped around his head to cut into her chest. The doctor saw her expression and then thought he understood her, there will not be much of a scar. We will do our best to keep the scarring at a minimum. The scar will be tiny, and it will fade with time. Maybe it will be only two centimeters in a few months, he said, spreading his crooked brown fingers an inch wide to demonstrate. The girl felt even more upset. Who were “we”? How many embarrassed men were going to be working on her anyway? She remembered the feeling of the tumor underneath her probing fingers. It had felt hard and resolute. She thought of volleyball tryouts in the second week of August, thought of her favorite skinny red tank top, thought of her grades and college, thought of the upperclass boys who ran the volleyball clinic. How long do I have to keep the bandages on? she asked.
The girl had been awake through the procedure. Her face was covered with a translucent white cloth; the left side of her chest was bared. Clumsy (and fat, she thought) fingers brushed the warm orange-black iodine on and around her breast. She remembered the heart and smell, and imagined the color, of the stuff from the needle biopsy a few days previous. The needle delivering local anesthetic felt fat and purposeful. The cool metal slid in two inches, paused, and then slid out. The worst part of the surgery was listening to the two physicians discuss what they were going to do as they did it. The girl wished someone had given her ear plugs. Of the two, one was apparently a novice of some sort. The surgeon with the hippie rag wrapped around his head wanted the novice to make the first cut. He said, use this laser instead of the scalpel. It does not scar as much. It cuts the skin more smoothly. There was a pause of several seconds and silence before she felt the novice slit her skin. The novice did not say a word as he burned a thin wound into her chest. The girl smelled a thin unnatural smoke – burnt iron and other odd metals, the ill ionic trace of living tissue being burned. She felt sick. She hoped it would not last too long.
The surgery did not last long in minutes. It had been a mere twenty minutes. She imagined her parents had only just begun to hold their breaths and pray with comic desperation when she was rolled out of the small green operating room and back behind her gray outpatient curtain. Towards the end of the surgery, however, the anesthesia had begun to wear off, or at least she imagined it had, and she sweated dramatically in panic that the cutting and burning was not going to end soon. The nurses swatted her forehead with tissues when they noticed she was sweating and patted her head soothingly, saying, sweetie, they are almost done.
Later, when they had driven home, when the girl was sick of feeling like a heroine, and her parents had given up tending to her emotions for the time being, she sat up in her bed running her eyes over the pretty letters of a new book, not actually reading. She heard the clang and argument of her mother and father cooking dinner downstairs. She felt the blue breeze of early summer’s evening breathe in through her side window. Running her eyes over the letters and lines of one worn brown page, over and over, she head the pulse and felt the tremble of her body beneath the bandages. Her younger sister, sweaty and flushed from flying kites with the neighborhood boys, came into her room and sat on the edge of her bed. Are you okay?, she said, mom said you were a really brave person. Mom said you did not cry even after the surgery, and that you did not need anyone to take care of you. Are you really okay? The pretty younger sister with her warm pale forehead and pink cheeks paused as she looked with sudden inspiration at her older sister. Reaching out her fingers, tentatively and deliberately, the pretty child asked her wounded sister, was it very bad? Can I see it? Can I touch it?