I.
“Just look at those boobies,” my mother said.

I had never heard her utter the word “boob” before, let alone “boobies.” We were a missionary family, stopping to see relatives in Finland before moving permanently (terrifyingly) to the United States. I had known things would change when we left Kenya, but I hadn’t expected this. Boobies? Really, mom?

On my aunt’s small television set, Miss Universe contestants scissor stepped down a staircase. Their hair was starched, their legs shapely, their breasts large and buoyant. As each woman exited, a number flashed on the screen, revealing the judges’ score.

I had seen very little TV in my life and was starting to realize what I had missed. This. This glorious spectacle. I sat on the carpet between my cousin and sister. All summer, they had excluded me, but now we were together, eating ice cream and appraising beauty contestants. It was as perfect a moment as a nine year old could hope for, except for the exuberance of my mother. She was laughing so hard she had begun to cry. As she replaced her glasses, she caught me watching and began to speak to my aunt in Finnish, leaving me with my English thoughts and my uneasy feelings.

But there is only so much apprehension you can feel when you’re eating ice cream and watching your first Miss Universe Pageant. During the evening gown portion, the semi-finalists floated down the stage as a choir of girls sang, “You’re every woman in the world to me” and “You are so beautiful.” The contestants had selected their own gowns, giving us something, in addition to body parts, to judge. Miss Sweden’s dress was terrible, we all agreed. Though according to my mother, she did look “very natural,” and when she won, we were not opposed, despite the historic animosity between our country (Finland) and hers. The Miss Universe contest was about more than nationalism; it was about beauty and boobs.

For days afterward, my sister and cousin allowed me to play with them. We walked the length of the garden on the balls of our feet and practiced our interview skills. I love all people. I just want to see world peace. My aunt’s garden was lined with kale and when I wasn’t prancing past it, I was tearing off a piece to eat. I stood in the grass and chewed, my back arched, my bony chest protruding.
 
I didn’t think much about boobs again until the fifth grade. We had moved to Fort Worth, and I was too busy learning how to be a Texan and an American, in order of importance. My efforts involved watching a lot of Judge Wapner, playing flag football, and adopting a Cabbage Patch doll. And then, Priscilla showed up at school wearing a bra. We all noticed the straps through the fabric of her Esprit t-shirt, and while a few other girls were already wearing bras out of necessity, Priscilla’s was different: It was a declaration of womanhood. Cabbage Patch dolls were out. Boobs were in.

“Who does she think she’s fooling?” Jennifer asked me as we lined up for recess.

Jennifer and Priscilla were best friends, and even my sister, three grades ahead, knew of their popularity. I imagined scenarios in which either Jennifer or Priscilla would strike up a conversation with me and discover how fun I was. They would invite me to eat lunch with them, and I, too, would become popular. But this conversation?

I was the skinniest girl in class. Any response I gave would accentuate my concave chest and the years of undershirts that loomed before me. I stood on one foot like a flamingo and tried to think of something to say.

“You’re such a weirdo,” Jennifer said, walking away. Oh, how I envied the uncomplicated boys who settled disputes with wedgies and whose bodies had the good sense to develop in private.
 
I didn’t get my own bra until the summer before eighth grade. Our family had just moved to Atlanta and so Jennifer wasn’t there to wonder who I thought I was fooling. The three-pack of training bras appeared on my bed without explanation. I snatched them up and shoved them deep into my underwear drawer. I vaguely remember hand-washing them for a few months and hanging them to dry in my closet. I didn’t want anyone in the house to see them and know. Know what, I’m not sure. That I was changing, I suppose, or more accurately, that I was changing at a glacial pace. I found the whole process mortifying.

For a couple years, I made do with the bras that appeared on my bed. They were from Sears or JC Penney and were a sensible white, with plastic clasps on the back and small bows or roses on the front. They progressed from training bras to the real thing, but went no further than 32A. My mother didn’t need to ask my bra size because it was the same as hers. That she said nothing about the matter was a rare case of tact. “Why are you kicking me?” she would ask when my friends were over. “Am I embarrassing you?” Of course she was. Everything embarrassed me: classical music, our poodles, homemade bread, velour sweatpants, and most of all, my body.

On television, Victoria’s Secret advertised their newest product: the Miracle Bra. Breast positive models stomped down runways, pleased with themselves and with their glorious cleavage. I didn’t wonder what the miracle was and the models weren’t saying. If someone had pressed me, I would have guessed that the bras were miraculously comfortable.

I was too embarrassed, of course, to be seen in Victoria’s Secret. At the local mall, it was a pink box resting between department stores. Pandora’s box. I would give it a side-glance as I walked by. And so it went—me marching past, nobody caring—until one day, Christmas music wafted out of the store like courage. The world felt shiny and new, and anything was possible.

I stepped into Victoria’s Secret and circled the periphery, stopping frantically to check sizes. The smallest bra I could find was a B-cup. I moved from display to display, trying not to jostle the self-assured customers.

“Can I help you?” an employee asked.

“No. I’m just looking,” I nearly shouted.

I was about to leave when I spotted a clearance bin marked “A32-A34.” My boobs and I lurched toward it. Inside the bin, bras were tangled like snakes in the winter. As I unraveled them, my fingers sank into thick padding. These were not the Sears and JC Penney bras I knew; they were Miracle Bras, and the miracle, I realized with a jolt, was a booster seat for boobs. One’s inadequate bosom could sit on a foam shelf and observe the world at large.

I was too proud for the actual miracle, but my heart tapped at the possibility of a partial miracle. I found one bra with a subtle layer of padding and another with a more robust amount. In the changing room, I watched my silhouette transform. So this is what it felt like to have breasts. I turned and turned, amazed. Before my courage could escape, I carried the bras to the register and used my babysitting money to purchase both bras. I had never before spent so much money on myself.

During basketball season, while my teammates wrestled their boobs into sports bras, I laced up my Air Jordans, smoothed lotion over my legs, and reapplied my lip liner. No need to change bras: Victoria’s Secret was my basketball secret. During games, I sat on the bench and tapped my feet against the floor, telegraphing my desire to play. When the coach finally sent me in, my classmates screamed, “Be aggressive. B-E aggressive.” I couldn’t shoot or dribble, but I was famous for my ability to B-E aggressive. I ran down the opponent’s point guard, waved my arms, shouted “ball, ball, ball, ball, ball,” and when she jumped, I jumped. I did all this confident that beneath my jersey, my boobs (or at least the appearance of boobs) were genteelly outlined and were perhaps being ogled by someone in the stands. Maybe that nice boy from chemistry class was objectifying me.
 
When I began college, I made a concerted effort to leave my childhood insecurities behind and transform into a more confident woman. I made new friends, studied hard, became a feminist, and even spent a year living in Thailand. I no longer put on lipstick before playing basketball. How silly I had once been.

I didn’t think much about how my collection of gently (and moderately) padded Victoria’s Secret bras fit into this new version of me. Not only did I still wear the bras, but I had developed a system: newer bras for day-to-day use and older bras for exercise. It wasn’t until my senior year that a friend intervened. She noticed that I kept flicking up my bra straps when we were out jogging. “What’s this?” she asked. “Oh, you can’t be serious.” She drove me to Wal-Mart, handed me the cheapest sports bra on the rack, and demanded I try it on.

The bra was constructed of flat, white fabric and was reminiscent of the undershirts I had worn in elementary and middle school. In the changing room, I wiggled into it, and just as I suspected, my strapped down bosoms appeared even flatter than in their natural state. But I wasn’t appalled. On the contrary, there was something liberating about my androgynous torso. It looked like the torso of someone who had better things to do than to worry about boobs. I put on my t-shirt and tried running in place, and as I ran, it was as if the industrial ceiling tiles had cracked open and a choir of angels came down singing. Who knew such freedom of motion existed?

I ran toward the future, my breasts properly supported. I hiked and kayaked and cross- stitched. I appreciated my body for being strong and aerodynamic. No shame in the A-cup. If this story were a romance novel (one with discrete bosoms on the cover) this would be the lull in the narrative, the part where the protagonists appreciate and respect each other. This would be the honeymoon.
 
 

II.
“No more bottles or boobies,” the pediatrician said. I willed my daughter, who was sitting on my lap, not to stick an anxious hand down my shirt. It was her one-year Well-Baby appointment, and up until that moment, I had liked our pediatrician. She had always seemed delighted to see us, and she made my husband and me feel like reasonable parents, even after we took our daughter to Urgent Care for hiccups. In our defense, they sounded a lot like a YouTube video of whooping cough.

“The American Medical Association recommends nursing for up to one year, not stopping cold turkey at one,” I told my husband Bryan as we walked back to the car. “And the World Health Organization recommends nursing for up to two years. If she brings this up again, I’m totally asking how she feels about WHOs guidelines.”

“You don’t need the doctor’s permission to nurse Kai,” Bryan said.

“But she said boobies. What kind of doctor says boobies?”
 
When I was pregnant, I had been ambivalent about nursing. I was enough of a hippie that I mostly ate organic food, avoided Tupperware, and viewed receipts (which contained some horrible chemicals, I had read) with growing alarm. Nursing fit easily with my worldview. It was gentle on the environment and would nourish my daughter naturally.

But breastfeeding felt like one more metric that used boobs to rank women. The implication in the ‘breast is best’ movement was that mothers who didn’t nurse were deficient in something. Probably love. As my own breasts grew heavier, I read articles about how the benefits of nursing were overstated and how mothers shouldn’t feel guilty if they switched to formula. I became didactic on the subject, lecturing any audience I could find, usually Bryan. While I hoped to breastfeed for a year, I had taken an aggressive ‘wait and see’ approach. No guilt trips, people.

All of which is to say that I was not a natural candidate for a breastfeeding class. Yet when Bryan asked if I wanted to attend one, I was fully on board. Finally, I would uncover one of the great mysteries of modern motherhood: Why was nursing so complicated? For thousands of years women had done it without fuss. Now, there were classes and books and lactation specialists, and really smart women I knew used all these resources and still struggled. New moms spoke to each other in code. “Oh, man. The latching.” “I know. The worst.” It was mysterious, like the pioneer films of my childhood: “The baby’s coming. Quick, boil some water!”

As Bryan and I walked into the classroom, surrounded by women as round and anxious as me, the teacher handed me a clothespin. We were asked to introduce ourselves and hold up the item we had been given earlier. The group then guessed the connection between the object and nursing. A calculator? Our breastfed babies would be smarter. The clothespin? Diapers wouldn’t smell as bad. A tank top? Mothers would lose their baby weight faster. “A little incentive for the husbands,” the teacher said and smiled encouragingly at the men.

“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered to Bryan.

“I want to hear more about these husband incentives,” he whispered back.

“I’m serious,” I said.

“Let’s wait until break,” he said.

But there wasn’t a break. Instead, we heard an intriguing story about a lactating woman who breastfed her entire family while they were stranded in a blizzard. We learned that the instructor had breastfed most of her kids for two and a half years. (Not me, I thought.) We learned that breast milk is a super food, and when the teacher shared that her older children resented her attempts at giving them breast milk smoothies, I realized I liked this woman and her willingness to be vulnerable.

Near the end of the course, we selected plastic babies from a bin while the instructor and her assistant discussed which nursing holds they should teach us. They called some holds “basic” and others “more advanced.” Eventually, they decided to start with the “football hold” because it would interest the husbands.

“Hey! I play football,” I whispered to Bryan.

“Famously,” he whispered back.

“I used to play all the time.”

“Then you should be good at this.”

As I held the doll against my side, the teacher stressed that we shouldn’t just turn the baby’s mouth toward our bosom. We should turn the whole baby. “The mistake everyone makes is trying to turn the head. Babies can’t swallow when their necks are turned.”

Got it. Turn full baby. Not neck.
 
Two months later, I had given birth and was turning my full baby. Her mouth was agape because she was screaming. Each time I maneuvered my nipple into it, she jerked away. It was like trying to thread a bouncing needle. Bryan hovered over us, gently repeating the advice the lactation specialist had given us at the hospital. “Remember, not the cigarette hold. I know this is hard. Try the U hold.”

“I can’t do the U hold and also hold her,” I said, as I pinched my engorged breast between my index and middle fingers. With my other hand, I tried to hold Kai like a football while cradling her head. I needed seven arms and a more cooperative infant. “The only way I can do this is with the cigarette hold. It’s just going to have to work.” We had no formula in our apartment. It was nursing or nothing. Well, there was a grocery store across the street, but emotionally, that’s how it felt. My intellectual ambivalence had fallen away, revealing a deep and desperate need to breastfeed. My boobs were going to do this.

When Kai finally clamped down, it was only on my nipple. She was supposed to have the lower part of my boob in her mouth as well. I had learned that if the latch was wrong, I must detach the baby and try again. But that was the classroom; this was the field. I pressed the back of Kai’s head toward my breast and prayed she would stay on. I watched her lips move, watched her swallow. No points for style, but she was nursing.

I missed coffee. Missed sleep. I ached from the delivery and from sitting on my stitches. I was naked from the waist up. One breast was feeding this cranky stranger. The other was dribbling milk—a steady drip, drip, drip—which I sopped up with a kitchen towel. My jeans were unbuttoned, and my stomach bubbled over the waistband like rising dough. Treasure every moment, people said.

“Do you love her yet?” a friend wrote Bryan in a congratulatory email.

“What did you say?” I asked Bryan when told me.

“I haven’t answered yet,” he said. “I know I would do anything to protect her, but I don’t know if I love her yet.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” I said. “I don’t think I love her yet, either. What is wrong with us?”

I knew I should stare into Kai’s eyes as she nursed and wait for the oxytocin to sweep me away, but instead I asked Bryan to bring me the Marilynne Robinson novel I had been reading. The words were sturdy and familiar. I wasn’t just a leaking body. I was a person.
 
Once Kai learned to latch and my nipples stopped hurting, I came to appreciate the ease of breastfeeding. We didn’t have to buy formula or sterilize anything. The babysitter had to wrangle with frozen breast milk, but I only had to pop Kai onto my boob. I nursed her through her colds and through teething and throughout the long nights. I nursed her on camping trips and on hikes. When we flew, Kai didn’t cry as long as I kept her on my breast, which, on our trip to Finland, was about fifteen hours too long. After she began eating solids, she rejected the bottle entirely. She wanted milk only from me. My boobs were a phenomenal success.

I had transformed into my high school friends, the ones who complained about all the boys staring at their glorious breasts. When I came home from teaching, Kai would run toward me, screaming happily. I would scoop her up and kiss her and she would point at my breasts. “This. This.” And that was when she was being polite. More often, I would thank the babysitter, while maneuvering Kai’s hand out of my shirt. My breasts were ready to join the witness protection program.

One evening, after a particularly grabby day, I explained to Kai that my breasts belonged to me. I was happy to share them, but I was their ultimate owner. She watched my face carefully as I spoke and when I got to the end of my spiel, she let out a howl and wouldn’t stop crying. She clung to me—arms around my neck, legs around my waist—and wept. As I rocked her back and forth, tears rolled down my back. Oh, the extravagant sorrow of a toddler. Were these tears going to send her into therapy? Would she ever be weaned?

When I squatted to pull a weed, she would climb into my lap and toss up my shirt. When I blow-dried my hair, she would scurry over and pat the carpet. Do have a seat. When I took work calls at home, she would appear at my elbow, grappling with my bra.

After she fell asleep, I hustled to the computer like a lover planning a betrayal. “Weaning,” I typed into Google.

Night weaning
Toddler Weaning
Child-Led Weaning
Weaning Cold Turkey
Mother Wants to Stop Nursing
Get Your Breasts Back

“You’re still nursing?” friends or family would ask, and I would reply, “Yeah, yeah, but I’m totally cutting her off before she goes to college.”
 
 
III.
When I was twenty-four, my mother died of breast cancer. She had seen Sonja and me through the terrains of childhood and adolescence, but had been denied the Promised Land: the weddings, the grandchildren, the laughing together about boobs.

After she died, I was embarrassed about my grief the way I had once been embarrassed about my body. This time, I had an excess of something. Too much sorrow. In church, I stood like Cousin It, my head bent, my hair a curtain over my tears. Any hymn could start them, but I cried most reliably during “Nearer, Still Nearer.” I had no particular recollection of my mother singing that hymn, but the words pulled me back to her, or to the absence of her, surer than anything.

Nearer, Still Nearer, close to my heart
Draw me, my Savior—how precious Thou art
Fold me, O fold me close to thy breast;
Shelter me safe in that haven of rest.

 
Without my mother, I felt unsheltered, unmoored.
 
When I was forty-one, I got my first mammogram. I had put it off for many reasons: I was conflicted about the radiation, the American Cancer Society now recommended starting mammograms at 45, I had a toddler and was too busy for preventative care, getting your boobs squished between two plates didn’t inspire enthusiastic compliance. I might have floated along (“later, later”) until I was 45 or 50 if my cousin hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer. Alarmed, I made the appointment.

In a surprisingly large room, I stood in a hospital gown, my back demurely covered, my breast resting on a platter. Another plate came down and a technician adjusted the tension between the two. “Relax your fingers and we’ll get a better image,” she said. She wiggled my hand and lifted it above my head, and then, she tilted my chin and told me not to move. I could have been having my portrait taken at Olan Mills.

As I drove home from the Women’s Imaging Center, my cellphone rang. I heard the upbeat music, heard the voice mail ding, and just knew what it was about. I had cancer. At home, I listened as the nurse asked me to call her back. I hadn’t expected to actually be right, and now, since it was after business hours, I would have to wait until tomorrow to learn how right, or maybe wrong, I was. I drew Kai into my lap and offered to read her a book. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Bryan said. “It’s probably just a routine call.” I nodded and launched into Go, Dog. Go. All those dogs traveling to their inevitable destination.

The next morning, the babysitter came to watch Kai, and I drove to a coffee shop where I planned to grade papers.

In my parked car, I dialed the doctor’s office. As the nurse spoke, I wrote on the back of an envelope: architectural abnormality R-breast, mass L-breast. I vaguely wondered how to spell “architectural” and what the word might mean in this context. I assumed it was less serious than a mass, but I wasn’t sure. Having something in both breasts felt significant. Maybe the mass in the left breast had spread into the right one. I wrote down the numbers I needed for scheduling my next appointments. Then I called Bryan, crying.

If my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer at 69 and my mother died of breast cancer at 59, at what age could I expect to die of cancer? Before I got pregnant, I thought about this, calculating how old my child would be when I died, a number that kept decreasing as I kept not getting pregnant. I sternly told myself that I was being ridiculous. I wasn’t going to die at 49.

But after I received the mammogram results, the signs of my impending demise were everywhere. It was May, and May was Cancer Awareness Month. The television at the gym was set to the local news, and as I ran on the treadmill, there was a story about a woman with terminal cancer. She had just given birth. The next story was about spouses who die with the mortgage only in their names. Our mortgage was only in my name. On the drive home, the classical music station played O Magnum Mysterium, and while it wasn’t a requiem, it certainly sounded like one.

All along, Bryan had been saying I would be okay. “We don’t know that you have cancer. It could be a lot of things, right? But if you have cancer, you’re going to beat it.”

I didn’t tell Bryan about the almost-requiem or how I was thinking about funeral music. I did tell him about the news story on mortgages and that we needed to get his name on ours. It was an old conversation, and I expected it to follow the same lazy river of intent, but when I finished speaking, Bryan agreed that it was a good idea. For the first time, the possibility of my death sat between us, unopposed. I could really die, and then what?

Bryan would remarry, of course. I knew what a good catch he was. He was funny and sweet and smart. He would be snapped up within a year. Kai would keep a framed photograph of me in her room—a flattering one, no doubt—while someone else did the genuine work of raising her. Someone else would make her watch The Sound of Music. Someone else would embarrass her in front of her friends. Someone else would shop with her for bras.

No, I decided, the universe didn’t have a special interest in me. I wasn’t going to die. Bryan wasn’t going to remarry. Kai wasn’t going to be mothered by someone else.
 
I returned to the Women’s Image Center for a diagnostic mammogram and for breast ultrasounds. Bryan came with me. It felt luxurious to leave Kai with the sitter and to spend our childfree time together. As we waited, I read a book, another luxury, and Bryan worked on his laptop. I felt steady, even celebratory. Suspicious breasts were not the biggest news of the month; they weren’t even the biggest boob news. I had weaned Kai.

I had internally marked two and a half years as the outermost limits of my breastfeeding abilities, and while I knew it was an arbitrary deadline, it had felt useful to have a goal that prefaced college. Here I go, and no further. The number had come from an offhanded comment our nursing instructor had made about breastfeeding her own children and was, for me, the most influential moment of the class. It had given me the courage to nurse past a year and then the belief later on that weaning would one day be possible. And here we were. Kai was happy and confident, and I had my boobs back.

Or mostly back. During the mammogram, one of my breasts leaked. I hadn’t even realized it until the technician asked if I was still nursing. “No,” I said, “but I recently weaned my daughter.”

“How recently?”

“Two days ago.”

“I’m writing in your chart that you’re still breastfeeding,” she told me.
 
A doctor at the Women’s Cancer Center went over the test results with me. “Your breasts are extremely dense,” she said, “which makes it hard to see things on the mammogram.”

I leaned forward and nodded academically, while internally giving myself a high-five. Two and a half years of nursing and I still had dense breasts. It was a medical term, of course—it would be creepy, otherwise—but I would take that characterization. Sari Fordham has extremely dense breasts.

I assumed the disadvantage with dense breasts was strictly diagnostic, but the doctor explained that they also increased my chances of getting breast cancer. That, along with my family history, meant my bosom warranted monitoring.

The good news: The architectural abnormality in my right breast was duct ectasia, which the doctor said could be caused by nursing or aging, and she seemed to be leaning toward aging (so much for my breasts’ youthful density). In any event, it was nothing to worry about.

The mass on the left breast was a solid something, not the cyst I had been hoping for. It was oval and the size of a pencil eraser, and was either two centimeters from my nipple (ultrasound findings) or four centimeters from my nipple (mammogram findings), a discrepancy that caused a cautious someone to note on my chart that they were only “likely” the same mass. In the mammogram, the edges of the mass were obscured by my dense tissue, but in the ultrasound, the margins appeared “circumscribed.” Whatever the mass was, it didn’t look like an angry, emotional malignancy. The radiologist identified it as “probably benign.”

In six months, I would get another mammogram and ultrasound, and the radiologist would check in on it. If the mass didn’t change, she would reclassify it as benign, and it would become part of the geography of my body. I would be more vigilant about breast cancer, even as that attentiveness exposed me to more radiation.
 
To celebrate, we went camping on Santa Cruz, the largest island off the coast of California. We pitched our tent under a eucalyptus tree. The ground was covered with roly-poly bugs, which Kai collected and housed in a cardboard lid. She fed them bits of apple and oatmeal and clutched the lid to her chest, cooing “my babies.” Only the Island foxes could compete for her affection. They trotted through camp bold as Goldilocks. “Don’t chase them,” I reminded her again and again, “just watch.” High up in the eucalyptus tree, a raven scolded us all, and I felt as if we were living in a storybook.

After breakfast, we hiked to Potato Harbor. I carried Kai in a backpack and Bryan carried our sustenance. The bluffs were yellow, and the sea below was a deep blue-green. We told Kai to watch for whales. You just never knew. As the wind blew up from the ocean, I stooped and Bryan wrapped another jacket around Kai’s shoulders. We took photographs. We sang Old McDonald. And then we settled into silence.

“For a while there, I was really scared,” Bryan said.

My anxiety had been a fully examined part of our lives; I knew nothing about his. I walked behind him and waited, curious. Far below us, a group of kayakers paddled toward a sea cave. Their boats were needles of orange at the edge of the ocean.

“I had to think about what would happen if you died.”

“And?”

“And I decided that Kai and I would move to Tennessee. I’d want her to be near your family. And I’d need the help.”

A year after my mother died, my father remarried. “You’ll just love her,” my father told me. “Everyone does.”

Karen was younger than my mother, taller, blonder, and if I were honest, kinder, too. She had been good to all of us, particularly to the grandchildren who were now hers and not my mother’s. Strangers often commented on how much Karen and Kai resembled each other. “Wow, I sure can tell that she’s your granddaughter,” a woman in Cambria said, and we all smiled.

I imagined Kai and Bryan in Tennessee. All my immediate family lived there. Kai would be in and out of their houses. My father would teach her to swim in one of the nearby rivers, and Karen would teach her to cook. Kai would get a southern accent and her hair would curl in the humidity. Maybe she would play football.

“They would love that,” I said. “Wow. That’s just really, really nice.”

“You don’t have cancer,” he said.
 
My boobs, the source of all this anxiety, sit serenely on my chest. My doctor at the Women’s Cancer Center has recommended that I get tested for what is sometimes called the breast cancer gene. Really, there are five different genetic mutations and any one of them could make you more susceptible to breast cancer.

“What would you do if you had one of those genes?” Bryan asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

Cut my boobs off, I want to say. My breasts might be medically dense, but they are no longer as buoyant as they once were. When I step out of the shower and catch my reflection, I have to remind myself (and remind myself) that as a feminist, I don’t care about the shape of my boobs. And while I’m on the subject of not caring, I also don’t care about the circles under my eyes or my old lady hands.

Even as I’m rejecting my breasts, I want to gather them toward me and tell them that I appreciate them. They have done good work. I want to wear flirty bras and pretty dresses. I want to model total self-acceptance for Kai.

While my mother used to walk around the house naked, displaying a comfort with her body that her American daughters flinched at, we all knew how she felt. “Look at my big breasts,” she would say, dismissing her body.

Mostly, though, I want to be a mother. A prophylactic mastectomy might in theory seem like a violent response to what is only the possibility of cancer, but if I carried the gene, it would feel necessary. Here is what I know: most women who get the prophylactic mastectomy don’t get breast cancer. That is enough. I want to watch Kai grow into her own person. I want to be there when she is five and fifteen and I am greedy, because I even want to see her turn 30. I will choose whichever medical path allows me to be present.

Tonight, I sit by Kai’s bed and wait for her to fall asleep. Once she does, I have plans: a bowl of ice cream and an episode of Top Chef. She must sense my anticipation. Fun is coming and it doesn’t involve her. She throws the pillows off the bed. She burrows under her covers and says, “Kai hide.” I read the novel I have brought in with me and feign absolute indifference. Finally, finally, she closes her eyes. I decide to finish the page I’m reading and then sneak out, but when I glance over, her eyes pop open. “One more huggie, Mommy,” she says. This is clearly a diversion tactic, just like the glass of milk before it and her sudden need to practice counting and her concerns about Lucy the doll. “One big, big, big hug.”

She smiles up at me, and her smile is my mother’s smile. I bend down and wrap my arms around her neck. I rest my cheek against hers, close my eyes, and think, I am here, now.

 
 

Photo by Kevin Cortopassi

Sari Fordham

SARI FORDHAM grew up in Uganda and Kenya and is working on a memoir about her childhood. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Isthmus Review, Best of the Net Anthology, among others. She teaches writing at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.

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