photo by Wilson Alvarez
Sometimes, somebody writes something so honest, so truthful, so from the heart,
that it speaks to all of our deepest feelings,
Sometimes, someone speaks about their experience,
and we all catch our breath in
in collective recognition,
in collective knowing.
This is one of those times.
Michelle, when I met you in the crowded supply tent,
of Art Park,
your blue eyes sparkled like the summer sky.
You are good, you are kind. You are a terrific friend.
You deserve only happiness.
I love you.
Please forgive me.
Please read Michelle’s piece.
Please share it far and wide.
So many families are touched by cancer at this time.
I lost my Aunt, and my grandmother to breast cancer.
Thank you Michelle, for putting words to our fears. To our love.
This is what civilization does.
This is why we need to find another way to live.
Our own cells are reacting to the craziness in the world.
Shell, my thoughts are with you and your family at this time. You are strong. You love each other very much. You will beat this thing.
We will all hold you, and your mother, and your family in our thoughts.
It will help.
That’s a promise.
I love you.
Thank you for listening,
Please take the time to read Michelle’s beautiful piece:
by Michelle Johnsen
All my life, on my birthday, I’ve heard this story (longer versions, shorter versions) from my beautiful mother’s lips. Her face shines with happiness telling it, even now. The next time I hear this story, I’ll be 30.
I was born on a Sunday.
The hot August sun was shining down on Chestnut Street. My mother sat sewing on the front porch of my parents’ house- the home she grew up in; the home I would grow up in.
“I think I’m having this baby today,” she calmly told my father.
So, he inexplicably shaved his beard. She finished her sewing. She packed a few things.
They drove the few blocks to the hospital where my mom worked- where she has now worked for over 45 years.
“I felt a little uncomfortable,” she said. “I felt like pushing, and then you were born.” Their small daughter, their first born.
I was so wanted. So, so loved. Still am.
A few days later, I came home for the first time. My father took a picture of me in my mom’s arms. It matches a photo of my Gram holding my mother, the day her parents brought HER home.
I’ve always looked forward to the day I could add my own photo to this tradition- myself and my newborn daughter, or my newborn son. Line it up right next to the others: my grandmother, my mother, and me. Each of us shining with motherhood. How wonderful a grandmother my mom will be, how proud.
This morning my mother called me, as she does often since I moved to Lancaster, an hour and a half away from my family.
“I wish I could tell you in person. I have breast cancer,” she said.
My head swam. I swayed where I was standing. My blood pounded in my ears. And I thought immediately of those photos, all three lined up. My grandmother, my mother, and me.
And I thought of another photo.
Me, newly born, in the arms of my mom’s older sister, my Aunt Linda, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. Who passed away at age 35, the very year my mother gave birth to me. Just a few short years between. In the photo, I am bundled up in a blanket, fresh and new. Aunt Linda is frail in a hospital bed, only floors from the room where I was born, in a plain gown, her hair short. Smiling, smiling. Her baby niece!
I cherish the photo as proof that she loved me, even if I can never know her. I came into the world just as she was leaving it.
Aunt Linda pregnant with my cousin Michael
Always, as I approach 30, I consider the risk that I, too, might someday be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Maybe so very young, like my mom’s sister. A tiny fear lurks deeply, reminding me of my beautiful aunt whom I never knew,
and the nudge of a suffering I have yet to encounter.
Now, the threat is closer: my sweet mother, the helper. Our family’s rock. My mom and her three remaining sisters debated being tested for the “breast cancer gene”, the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. One aunt was tested and was positive for the mutation. She underwent a voluntary, preemptive hysterectomy and double mastectomy. My mom was tested, has the mutated gene, and opted instead to get mammograms and MRIs every 6 months.
She doesn’t smoke. Barely has more than a drink at a time. Walks often, eats well, lives a very happy life with my dad. But she got it anyway.
6 months ago, the scans were clean.
Now they want me to be tested.
Do I want to be tested?
Find out no, I don’t have the gene mutation- but that doesn’t mean I won’t get it. Find out yes, I am positive for the mutation- also doesn’t mean I definitely will or won’t get it. If yes, I have access to free preventative resources. If no, those tests will have to come out of my pocket. I don’t even have health insurance. But will it consume me? Will I live in fear of the day I am potentially diagnosed?
Is it selfish to ask these things, when it’s my mother who needs the support?
So we’ll band together, take the short ride to the hospital where I was born, and learn about options in surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. About alopecia, anti-emetics, the TNM system of rating- tumor size, lymph nodes, and mets. A new vocabulary.
And in every thump of my heart, every breath waits the thing I’m most afraid to ask. Is she going to make it through this?
Mom, Thank you so, so much for raising me with your overflowing heart, and passing it along to me. I want to use it as often and as well as you do.
Please forgive me for all the ways I have strayed from you and the things you taught me.
I am so sorry we live in a world where 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer.
Where it is the second leading cause of death in women.
Where harmful, toxic carcinogens spoil us- in our air, our soil, our water, our food, in deodorant, a bar of soap, toothpaste, hair spray, detergent, in the material used to make carpets, in our insulation, rubber, batteries, house paints, preservatives.
I’m so so sorry Mom, that the gross excess of estrogen in our world may have caused you to have breast cancer,
in things like: hormone-injected meats and so many other foods; in hair gels, shampoos, and moisturizers marketed to enhance our beauty; in chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that mimic natural estrogen; in the lining of the familiar cans of soup we always ate with our grilled cheese; in all the plastic SHIT we have created including pink breast cancer bracelets, car tags, and water bottles;
in our water itself- from the millions of birth control pills consumed each year, excreted in urine naturally, flushed down with the toilet water, ineffectively “treated”, and returned to our flowing sink tap.
I love you so much, Mama.
I’m right here fighting next you.
To be continued.
my mom and dad