Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Laughing All the Way

Angela DePriest

I spent a strange two weeks with my mother in September 2006. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a right mastectomy within a few weeks of her diagnosis. Since my mom and dad are divorced and my brothers both have jobs and rugrats that require their daily attention, I drove from Nashville to Lawton, Oklahoma, and planned to stay as long as Mom needed me.

Now don't get me wrong—I'm not the golden child, the darling favorite, always there to lend a helping hand, the dutiful daughter, giving and loving. Au contraire! Frankly, I've been a huge pain to my folks. They should both be worried into early graves. It's amazing they still talk to me. And taking care of Mom was not some altruistic act to get me a larger hunk of her amassed fortune, which is comprised mostly of her collection of odd doilies and placemats that have sprouted on top of every piece of her furniture over the last couple of years.

I’ve just realized that my parents are aging and their care will eventually rest on the shoulders of their three children. I believe I can safely speak for my brothers when I say we would do anything for them. We’d take them both into our homes at a moment’s notice (probably not together, since they’ve been divorced for nearly twenty years…although that would be an interesting family dynamic, wouldn’t it? Having Mom and Dad living together again in their final days on earth? Yeah, good luck on that happening!).

Fortunately for my brothers and me, the days of finding a place for the walker and oxygen tank and wiping wrinkly butts are a long way off. Despite the fact that Mom is an unbelievable 64 and my dad just hit 70, both parents are very healthy.

But then there was this thing about Mom’s breast cancer. There is no history of breast cancer or any other kind of cancer in our family. I suspected (and her doctors actually agreed) that Mom’s cancer was likely caused by something more environmental (like her sedentary lifestyle and bad eating habits) combined with a twenty-year stint on post-hysterectomy Premarin. Her doctors and I both agreed that she wouldn’t likely get cancer again…IF she started taking care of herself.

So when I arrived at Mom’s house I bought her a good juicer and went through her kitchen on a stealthy reconnaissance mission to rid the place of everything that was high in sodium, sugar, fat, preservatives, and excessive carbohydrates.

She was not happy.

She hated the fresh vegetable and fruit juice, she missed her nachos and quick, canned soups, and every time I tried to talk to her about good eating habits and exercise, she gave me this…I don’t know what to call it…this attitude…this thing that told me she wasn’t listening to me. She flipped through channels on her remote control and deliberately avoided eye contact, saying “uh huh” and “oh” like a bored teenager. Suddenly I remembered all the times I didn’t call home when she was waiting up for me at midnight. And I thought when the heck did this happen? Our roles are now reversed!

At one point I snatched away the remote control and snapped, “Listen to me! This is not how I want to spend my time with you! I don’t want to have to drive all the way over here every time you have a piece of yourself cut off!”

That got her attention.

“Mom, we love you, but you have to take care of yourself. This cancer business is serious, and it didn’t have to happen. You can live to be a very old woman, but you won’t if you don’t stop abusing your body.”

Tears welled in her eyes and I think she was very serious when she said, “Okay, I promise.”

Her surgery went very well. The entire right breast was removed, and the doctor said he didn’t have to take any lymph nodes and all the cancer was gone. He said she wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. This was all amazing news. But the recovery was difficult for her…and for me. It was hard to see my mother in that condition—her gaping wound stapled shut like a giant, closed eye. Cancer is an evil destroyer of everything beautiful. I hated it for what it did to my mother’s body. The depth of its destructive powers leveled me.

But what shocked me the most were the attitudes of other people. My aunt, Mom’s own sister, was distraught over Mom’s mastectomy. She acted like the death knell was loudly tolling and she was the only one who could see the tall figure in black, holding a scythe over Mom's shoulder and pointing a long boney finger toward the River Styx. She said Mom was only pretending to be okay about her cancer and that it was a sure sign of a mental problem. (I love my aunt, but I was ready to give her the smackdown.)

Other people, Mom’s friends, came to visit and sat on her couch like they were at a wake. They gingerly avoided talking about the cancer or the absent breast, instead choosing to talk about the seasonably hot weather and the Channel 7 news lady who had another face lift. I just wanted to shout MY MOTHER HAD HER BOOB CUT OFF! SHE DIDN’T HAVE HER SENSE OF HUMOR SLICED AWAY! STOP TALKING TO HER LIKE SHE'S HAD A PERSONALITY TRANSPLANT!

Mom was the same crazy, zany, nutty, funny, smiling, laughing, joking goofball woman on the day of her surgery as she was the day before and the day after her surgery. She told people, “I had a boob cut off eighteen years ago, a boob cut off last week, and I still have one left!” (She was, of course, referring to her divorce eighteen years ago from my father. I’m not offended by that and you shouldn’t be either because my dad is kind of a boob. If you knew him you’d agree.) Most people didn’t get the joke, and when she explained it to them, they were horrified. They looked at me as if to ask, “Is she still on pain medication? The poor dear. When will the effects wear off?”

About a week after I left my mom and returned to Nashville, she sent me these words in an email:

“I guess if I was wringing my hands and crying about it they’d think I was okay…I was upset when I first got the news that the biopsy came back showing cancer, but after I got home that day and was able to think and pray about it, I accepted my powerlessness over the situation and just asked for courage to face whatever it was. And I was given that. When I told my sister that I had to have the biopsy, she started right in with the tears and the ‘what if’ game. I told her, ‘It is what it is and it's out of my control, so I'm not going to worry myself sick about something I can't do anything about.’ I know that no matter what happens to me or around me, I'm going to be okay because God loves me and will take care of me. I still feel that way, and I just don't understand why those who have voiced their opinions think I'm supposed to be devastated by this.

“A friend I've known for twenty-three years came by yesterday and said she couldn't believe how well I was handling losing a breast. I told her, ‘I didn't lose it. It didn't just happen to fall off and then I couldn't find it. I know what happened to it. The surgeon removed it because I told him to remove it in order to get rid of the cancerous tissue. I don't think of it as losing something but rather think of it as gaining more time to spend with my kids and grandkids.’

“Also, next year when I go for my mammogram again, I should get it for half price since they'll only be smashing one next time.”

Have I mentioned why I love my mom so much? She has the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever known.

When I hauled Mom down to an “old lady” gym in her town to check it out and see if it would help her get into shape, she put up a bit of a fight. But I didn't have to drag her through the doorway; she followed gamely, even joking around with the girls that worked there. It’s a gym for women only, with range of motion machines specifically suited for older women and women with health limitations. After asking all the right questions and going through the paperwork, I paid for Mom’s membership.

Nothing like a little guilt to get your mom in shape. If she failed to use the membership, I planned to tell her, “I can’t come see you at Christmas because I wasted all that money on your gym membership you didn’t use.” Boy! Something about that just makes me feel so good inside. (See? I told you I’m not a very nice daughter.)

But to my great surprise, Mom is still using that gym membership. And she even went to the “boobtique” to get her new prosthesis. In fact, she sent me another email that made me laugh so hard I started crying. It goes something like this:

“I got my prosthesis yesterday. I'm so glad the insurance is paying for most of it. It was $267 and the bra with the place to insert the prosthesis to hold it in place is $43. Now that's a mighty expensive boob! It is flesh colored and feels like a real one, even has a hint of a nipple. If I ever get really smashed, I guess I could have a ‘feel’ contest and see how many people can guess which one is real.

“Wearing it is going to take some getting used to. It weighs more than the one I have left, but it looks like the same size. I wore it yesterday when I went to my session at the gym and I found out that was a mistake. I wore it in a sports bra (and not one of the bras with the slot to insert it in). The lady at the ‘boobtique’ said it could be worn in a regular bra. WRONG! She and the other lady there were super nice and so helpful, but someone with two itty bitty titties really should not be advising someone with one big real one and one big fake one that it will work in a regular bra. There was nothing in the regular bra to hold it in place and all the movement of the machine made it work up and almost out of the bra. Under my shirt it looked like I had a boob on my collar bone. I kept pushing it back down so it wouldn't come out completely. It might have been fun to see the young girl's face if it had fallen out and hit the floor. I could have told her she had set the speed too fast and it caused my implant to come out.

“I went to my first session at the gym on Saturday, and I was so sore I could hardly walk on Sunday, so stayed home and groaned all day. I went back on Monday and again today, though, and the soreness is gone and I do feel better.

“There's one of those machines where you lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet in some stirrups (I had flashbacks of when all you kids were born. I expected someone to stand at my feet and holler ‘PUSH!’). Anyway, the machine pushes your butt up as your legs come apart. It can go slow or fast. A friend was with me at the first session and I told her I wish I'd had that machine at home when I was married to your dad. It would have made having sex with a drunk so much easier.

“I'll see how it goes wearing the prosthesis all day long when I start back to work on Monday. It should be okay since I only work my fingers on the keyboard all day and that shouldn't make it work loose.”

How do I love this woman? Let me count the ways!

It’s been one year since Mom’s battle with breast cancer. She went back for her one-year checkup and is cancer free!

My mom is my hero. She is everything I’m not but hope to be; everything I want to become. I think I could die tomorrow and be happy with the idea that I was never as great as she is, but that she was my mother.

That would be enough.


Angela DePriest and her husband, Dan, are literary agents in Franklin, Tennessee. Her publishing background is in corporate publishing as a managing editor. They also own Scribe Book Company, which provides publishing services to ministries and nonprofit organizations.


© Angela DePriest

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012