A gallery flourishes beneath my skin. My breasts are lighted globes, constellations branching from the nipple. My remaining lung, a copper etching of an inverted tree, roots extending into the sky. Were I allowed into my past, I’d salvage my discarded x-rays. Name them “Variations of a Lung: Tumour in Bloom” and “Clouds Choking Buried Roots.” A cautionary tale insisting that art, like science, varies upon interpretation.
Kelly, the technician, lifts my right breast and prods it into the proper position. I tell her about the sensitive area at the outer edge of my breast, how it’s probably just muscle strain from pottery. Push-ups. Maybe shoveling. She tells me to relax my shoulder, keep my chin high. I take a few deep breaths and allow myself to melt beneath the warmth of her palms. I tell her about my lung cancer twenty years ago. Agree that, yes, I was so young. And no, no chemo. No radiation. Just a simple removal. The machine purrs as it presses my breast like a flower between sturdy pages. Kelly scoots to her computer to capture the image.
I close my eyes—my mind conjures prairie fields in times of need—watch my girl self, white sundress swirling, pirouette across the screen of my lids. Billowing grasses shush beneath a cloudless sky. Russian thistle, like burgundy flames, lick the horizon.
The machine whines and releases its grip. I open my eyes. Tell Kelly about how I stopped wearing underwire bras this summer. How I started using a deodorant crystal when my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. She manoeuvres my left breast into place. I lean in. She captures more images on her computer. I hear myself telling Kelly about my half-sister’s double mastectomy in December. How she just turned thirty-two and has two little boys. How Mom had a mastectomy the month before, but the cancer’s spread to her lymph nodes, to the skin on her chest. I’m surprised that my voice is calm and steady. I haven’t been able to utter these truths, but with Kelly my family history is an open book.
When he was young, my son loved my stories. His favorite was the one about the doctor who chopped out my “rotten spot.” I’d recount it as we drew maps with X-marks-the-spot leading to buried treasures. One day, we discovered a treasure chest filled with glittering jewels in our living room. We battled pirates and avoided capture. It was close, but we hauled away the spoils to our twin bed ship and set sail. Tidal waves crashed around us, yet, as my son tended to my battle wounds, I knew he’d get us home. His fingertips—feathers caressing my still-healing surgical scar—stitched up the sword swipe curving from my shoulder blade to just above the waist.
Seated in a curtained cubby, I wait to be called. My calm grows jagged around the edges, so my mind intervenes. Whisks me away to a summer pasture splotched with bluebells and blushing prairie roses where I bask in the sun until Kelly fetches me. She leads me through a labyrinth to the radiologist, a tiny woman with sapphire eyes and a string of pearls. When Kelly leaves, I expect my heart to flutter, my vision to blur, my mind to call up a field of flowers. To my surprise, I remain rooted in my body while she gestures to the screen. I focus on my breathing, press my toes into the carpet until I feel the corrugated surface through my thick wool socks. Together, we compare a double set of my breasts, 2019 versus 2021. There’s nothing visible, she says, but because of your family history, we’ll do an ultrasound. My senses have been numb since I woke. As I exhale, my fingertips tingle. Tears sting the back of my nose.
In my mind, Mom’s disembodied breast sprouts tumors budding in brilliant shades of turquoise, crimson and magenta. My brain refuses to fathom that, when I see her again, she will not be exactly the same as she was the night before surgery. I understand the reality—her breast has been removed. The wound is healing. There will be a scar. But I’m not ready to accept that the cancer has spread. For now, I allow the lights to flicker and dance behind my eyelids.
In the dim ultrasound room, the technician, a slender woman in a sunny mask, sits at her computer. Tells me to open my gown then squeezes lukewarm gel onto my chest. With her left hand she works the wand. Her right hovers over the keyboard. Glitter-tipped gel nails. Large diamond engagement ring and wedding band. Click-click-clack. The wand pauses when it reaches the tender spot at the side of my breast. It circles, presses deeper, changes angles. The clicks slow down. My heart speeds up. I close my eyes and the technician’s screen becomes a sunny patch of dandelions in full bloom.
When the radiologist enters, my pulse doesn’t jump. My heart doesn’t clog my throat. I close my eyes, see the dandelions have gone to seed. A few deep breaths to center myself. She says, The tenderness at the side of your right breast is a cluster of tiny cysts. I inhale. Open my eyes. Press fingernails into my palms. Hold my breath. Which means they’re benign. I exhale. We also found a fibroid at 2 o’clock in your left breast. My eyebrows shoot up, but my pulse thrums steadily. I fill my lung to capacity. It’s nothing to worry about. But we’ll order another ultrasound in 6 months to ensure there’s no change. As she heads for the door, I close my eyes. My breath, a gentle chinook, scatters the dandelion seeds, like wishes, into the sky. When I reopen my eyes, the last bits of fluff trail the doctor out of the room.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Barren Magazine, a CNF reader for Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s words in journals such as Atlas and Alice, Lunch Ticket, Anti-Heroin Chic and Pithead Chapel. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.