Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Left Breast – Chapter 1

May 7, 2013, The Huffington Post, Babette Hughes
We sit in a circle. The husbands, too. Both facilitators are breast cancer survivors. Everyone, except the husbands, takes turns talking. The stories are heartbreaking and boring. And routine, astonishing, terrifying and exhausting. But after the husbands are taken into another room (to talk about, ahem, their breastless feelings), the stories get more interesting. There is the boyfriend who ran away after the diagnosis, the husband whose insensitivity borders on sadism ("All he said after my diagnosis was, Can we still go skiing next week?") A mother cries because she doesn't want to wear a wig to her daughter's wedding. The woman who has already outlived by a year her prognosis of imminent death talks and talks as if her unbroken chain of outpouring words are keeping her alive. Fear, like a foul smell, permeates the air. Outside, there are the familiar sounds of cars heading to the office, supermarket, dry cleaners or daycare, as if we were not sitting here in a circle of surprised despair. The air is crisp out there, and you remember other autumns when you were growing up in Cleveland. The air was fragrant then, the trees brilliant with color, and you would not have been able to imagine sitting in Texas with a group of ladies soon to be maimed -- or to die.
I sit mute, listening to each sad story, as if it weren't my story, too, as if I had wandered into the wrong movie at the multiplex. Then it is my turn to speak and all eyes turn to me, waiting. I sit there. I have nothing to say to these strangers. I have no story to tell. All I can think to say is I'm angry.
When the facilitator says I should validate my anger, I want to hit her. I hate the psychobabble, the hard plastic chairs, the snacks, the outpourings, the shared misery. I hate the word "share." I feel patronized. But also strangely relieved. I didn't know until that moment how angry I was. I suddenly remember that in last night's dream, I was standing alone somewhere, surrounded by the fury of an enraged gale. And that I woke damp with perspiration and a pounding heart.
What am I angry at? My breast? How can you be mad at your own breast? At God? Please. God doesn't do breasts. At my kind, supportive, sensitive, frightened husband? Yes, you bet, for his health and breastless body.
I -- we -- are given platitudes. About mental imaging. Meditation. Optimism. Sharing feelings. About attitude. As if cancer gives a damn about attitude. Or about validating your anger, for that matter. Although Norman Mailer once wrote that if he hadn't stabbed his wife he would have got cancer, it is obviously too late for me to stab anyone. I want to go home.
At the end of the session, everyone hugs. I smell their face powder, feel their arms around me. One lady just wants to shake hands. Her skin is as soft as a baby's. I leave the support group feeling as if I have a "C" tattooed on my forehead.
But I don't want to be defined by cancer. What I really am is a mother and stepmother. What I really am is a grandparent, a wife, a writer, a friend. What I really am is a reader of books, a watcher of movies. A listener, a walker, a weight lifter! I never go back to the support group. I don't belong there. It is a case of mistaken identity.
But I am diagnosed. I don't even have to say "with cancer," because no one ever says I've been diagnosed with the flu, or I've been diagnosed with arthritis or I've been diagnosed with shingles. "Diagnosed" is the code word for cancer. It contains all the news.
The word slides off your brain like rain because you know your doctor is mistaken. Cancer is an abstraction, a ridiculous interruption of your life. You know it is out there with the criminals and rapists and hurricanes; of course you know that. It is what happens to your grandmother, or your friend's mother-in-law, or your neighbor. But surely not to you. Laboratories make mistakes like that all the time. Ask the experts, read the statistics: If you're slender, if you don't smoke, if you eat your vegetables and exercise and get mammograms and have no cancer in your family and take an aspirin every day, a cancer tumor doesn't just grow in your right breast like a weed. Obviously, my mammogram has been substituted for someone else's, some poor, sick woman. (You'll take her your tuna and mushroom casserole; you'll drive on her car pool days; you'll do her grocery shopping; only please, please, let this thing be hers.)
But I was sent for a sonogram. The lady doctor pushed a gadget over and over the suspicious breast like some crazy old scavenger with his metal detector mining for treasure at the beach. Her tone announcing cancer is as brisk and matter-of-fact as the plumber's who came to fix your shower last week. But you still don't get it. Your brain has shut down. The word coming out of this doctor's mouth could have been "lamp" or "tree" or "allergy." Baring your breast and having cancer is too embarrassing. Your mind has skittered away; it has looked elsewhere.
As I make my way to the dressing room, I think insanely that my breast and I would have been perfectly fine if it weren't for that stupid f*cking sonogram.

Friday, May 10, 2013


In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My husband, who didn’t like her, would say, Oh oh, here comes the Duchess, when he heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did she come by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
          She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor of the room after her last desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
          In life she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She was too young-looking, too chic. Back then mothers stayed home but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets; people thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious; how much like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like their apron-clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her office and stale perfume.
          She was a big talker. There didn’t seem room enough in her head and mouth for all she had to say. Her favorite subjects were politics and moral choice. Communism and capitalism Socialism. Suffrage. The New Deal. She pontificated on courage and independence and spoke about art and music as if she were raised in a palace instead of an orphanage.
          Reading everything and remembering everything she read she loved getting into political arguments with people because her head was stuffed with esoteric information just waiting to spring on some poor Republican. Who would soon find himself hopeless outmatched by her facts, her passion, her verbosity..
          In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she’s get in such a high mood. Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me. Other times I remember hearing a man’s voice from my bed at night, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger, prettier; even then I recognized the signs. The whisky glasses. The scent of a male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase; he was a sport, my mother said. She was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn’t let him stay overnight because of me--for her dignity and mine.
          Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been meet with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever had such a star.
          But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around to the relatives she didn’t like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My girlfriends’ complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, and I never did. The way I saw it the only thing that stood between me and total terrifying orphanhood was my flawed and fragile mother. Who somehow always managed to be there. Sort of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn’t about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn’t. I was too young for her neediness and fragility.
          So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart into a teenage marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment oozed from her pores, her moist eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn’t want to make, sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter, attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn’t know when or how to stop; people became restless; they looked away, they would leave if they could. I was ashamed of her. I was proud of her. But I didn’t know what I had learned from her. That is, until my divorce. Needing independence and courage, I discovered it within myself, put there by her spirit. Also, the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. Integrity of the self. Compassion, from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful mother never remarried. But deprived from birth of parental love and widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.

Monday, May 6, 2013


I have a blurred mental image of my mother coming home from my daddy’s funeral. She is wearing a veiled black hat that scares me. I am two years old and had been left at home, put to bed for my nap by a big colored lady. But I can’t sleep. The house feels too quiet. Something big is wrong. I stand up in my crib and scream. No one comes.
            Finally I am taken downstairs. Grown-ups in dark clothes are standing around whispering. There is the cloying smell of sweet pastries, the sound of china; ladies in aprons are busy in the kitchen. One of them gives me a cookie. She is crying. I have never seen a grown-up cry before and I start to wail. A man picks me up; his face feels scratchy. I scramble down and look for my mother.
            I see her sitting in a big chair and run to her. She pulls me onto her lap. I tug at the black veil knocking off her hat but, still, I cannot stop crying. “Babette, honey, shh, don’t cry, it’s all right,” she murmurs. I feel her heart pound through my dress and, weeping, hang onto her until someone wipes my runny nose and pulls me away.
My mother sits quietly in the big chair listening to the noises of the kitchen and the murmur of the mourners’ voices. Hearing a piercing screech she thinks it came from her own mouth. But no one turns to her and she realizes it was a screaming tea kettle. She stares at the mourners in their dark clothes and sorrowful faces as they move about the dining room table laden with platters of herring, smoked whitefish, smoked salmon, cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bagels and Kaiser rolls. Home- made sponge cake, macaroons and fig newtons, baked by the ladies in the kitchen that morning while her husband was being buried.
            Upstairs, my daddy’s suits hang limply with their empty sleeves, neatly arranged by color and season, the dark blues and grays giving way along the rack to the summer creams and whites. Shallow drawers hold rows of jeweled cuff links, a rainbow of ties stretches along a wall, and dozens of stiff-collared silk shirts hang neatly in whites and pastels.
             Now the mourners are filling the large, proud living room after first  washing their hands from the pitcher on the front stoop. (Someone had set up the ancient Jewish funeral ritual as if this were a benign death and you could wash off the wreckage.) My mother looks around for my brother, a tow-headed blue-eyed boy of six, but he has already escaped into the  backyard our daddy had equipped with swings, jungle gyms, even a child-sized car. Peering through the window she sees him riding his car on the hard, gray snow, his correct little tie off and already a rip in the scratchy suit jacket bought especially for his father’s funeral.
            Earlier, at the burial, he had dutifully thrown a small handful of dirt into the freshly dug grave as the rabbi muttered the Kaddish. I see him there in the shimmer of a dream and imagine heat rays emanating from the open grave like the disturbed air of hell. Suddenly my mother’s knees buckle under her. The funeral director with his neat, black suit and blank eyes reaches out and steadies her with the expressionless efficiency of his profession, corpses and collapsing widows as unremarkable to him as an accountant’s pencil and adding machine. Her dizziness is actually due to the pill given her by a Dr. Magio who is said to be kept on a retainer for the time a bullet or two has to be discretely removed, and who was called when my mother was unable to stop screaming. She feels shame in her near-collapse and extravagant sorrow -- mixed as it is with a curious and confusing measure of relief that Lou Rosen’s vitality and violence are now subdued six feet under. She is only 27 after all, her flesh still young, her thighs still slender and surely not meant never to open to a man again.
            But if she imagines freedom and options with a pounding heart she learns soon enough that the dead do not leave. Even without the lingering scent of his aftershave, the damp towel across the bed, the diamond stick pin and gold cuff links on the bedside table, Lou is an ongoing gauzy presence, everywhere and nowhere, hovering over her, over all of us.
             Now, sitting in the living room, my mother watches a group of three  men as they enter her house and hang up their coats and fedoras on the racks provided by the Berkowitz Funeral Home. She knows that the big man, the one with the drooping eyelids and heavy glasses, ordered her husband’s murder--she wonders if the two men with him were the actual killers. She also knows that the hundreds of white carnations and roses covering his casket were sent by their polite murdering hands. But she is not afraid; she has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to know that as long as they keep their silence widows and children are sacrosanct. She has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to understand the code; no one will harm her unless, of course, she breaks it and reveals his name, which she knows to be Joe Lonardo, the Cleveland Mafia boss who is now offering his clean hand to her in solemn-faced sympathy. She shakes his hand and feels her stomach rise to her throat. She is afraid she will vomit on his wingtips.
             The rabbi in his black suit and beard and woeful expression is standing with Marvin, brother of the deceased. Marvin has thick black hair that looks windblown, or mussed from making love. Talking to the rabbi, gesturing with his hands, he is smiling as if he’s at a wake with believers of an afterlife,  even for Lou Rosen. The rabbi is eating a wedge of sponge cake. He wipes his mouth with a dinky embroidered napkin. There are crumbs in his beard. He puts his empty plate down on the grand piano, straightens his yarmulke, and crosses the room to my mother. He leans over and kisses her on the cheek; she feels his beard brush her face and has an impulse to grab hold of it. She feels like laughing and has to duck her head and hold her handkerchief to her mouth.
            “Mrs. Rosen--Are you all right?” the rabbi asks. His voice is deep, concerned.
             She nods. She even smiles. She wonders if she is going crazy.                            
 Although the rabbi is older than she by at least a decade, she thinks he is too young to have anything to say to her. She wants him to go away, to leave her alone. But he sits down in a chair at her side, looks into her eyes and speaks. What? What did he say? She is too preoccupied to hear. She wants to ask him if her husband killed anyone before he was killed; if God had punished him, an eye for an eye. She wants to ask him if a bootlegger can get into heaven. Or a bootlegger’s wife, for that matter. She wants to ask him if there is a heaven. She wants to ask him if there is a God. Foolish woman! Not a question for a rabbi. But the truth is she receives little comfort from his respectful attendance or his pieties or from the funeral service or the Kaddish her son, a child of six, had dutifully repeated in a clear child’s voice at graveside, and has no hope of heavenly intervention into the life she has already found to be absurd. Sitting there, receiving condolences, she feels that God is unaware of her small mistaken existence and that it would be dangerous to get the attention of such a capricious deity who maybe has it in for orphan girls who get mixed up with gangsters. So she says nothing as the rabbi rises to leave, lowering her eyes and retreating into the hushed respect reserved for the newly widowed.

Read more of Lost & Found by author and model, Babette Rosen Hughes
OR read her novel, The Hat, a story of a bootlegger's wife.
Sequel, The Red Scarf, to be release in July 2013