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My Left Breast- Chapter 5

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Author Babette Hughes continues to share her emotional breast cancer journey with us. You can read her past blog posts here.

After I was finally admitted to MD Anderson in Houston, a surgeon gave me a lumpectomy and assigned me to seven weeks of daily radiation back home in Austin.

The regular parking lot is a long hot walk to the hospital, but the radiation department has its own close-in parking spaces. You punch in the secret numbers that the receptionist gives you and the gate silently lifts, graciously allowing you in to get your breast fried. It is a very exclusive parking lot that no one wants in. To enter, you have to have cancer.

It is a daily 25-minute commute, slowed through school zones, stopped by traffic lights, speeded up on the freeway. Monday through Friday at four o'clock, rain or shine. In the reception room you wait your turn in the same plastic chair every day. Once or twice someone is already sitting there and you feel stolen from, insulted, furious. You want to upend that poor, sick, skinny little man, but you sit down in another chair. There is the usual old coffee that looks like ink, the water cooler, the TV spewing its insistent sales pitches. There are the other waiting patients, some in wheel chairs, others so healthy-looking you don't know if they are patients or relatives.

After a short wait you are summoned by a technician who greets you like a busy restaurant hostess. You meekly rise and follow her to another room as if she is leading you to your restaurant table. But it really is a table! Although it has no menus or wine glasses, and is covered with a sheet, it is indeed a table.

You are sent behind a screen to remove your blouse and bra. Now, topless as a pole dancer in a gentleman's club, you cover yourself with a waiting pillow case (why is it a pillow case?), walk over to the radiation table and lie down. The table is very hard. The technician is a man, which surprisingly doesn't surprise you. He looks like someone you might see shopping in the supermarket, or selling you insurance. He removes the pillowslip exposing your breasts. His hands are cold. This is not a real man and these are not breasts for babies or making love that he is touching. This is cancer. He lifts your right arm over your head, and pulls and pushes your body and your left breast into position, guided by the marks on your skin which were made on your first visit, when measuring numbers blinked on and off overhead on an exotic machine as if your life was flashing by in code.

You lie on the table, a body, with someone's tears drifting into your ears.

Now the huge radiation machine overhead is lowered, lowered, until it lands inches from my bare breast. The technicians -- usually three; two, plus a student -- now scurry out of the room like frightened cockroaches. A switch is turned on from somewhere. Now I'm alone, pinned under the machine, the buzzing going on and on like something in my head. I close my eyes and search my mind and memory for escape from this absurd moment. The hard table, my right arm raised like a stupid wave to no one. So I become an escape artist. I am on a beach, watching the surf. I am walking in the country on a perfect day; the air smells of apples so it must be autumn. I am my 8-year-old self, in the car with my mother.

Summers she took me to Aunt Mabel's in Rye, New York, or Aunt Lill's in Boston, driving the 500 miles over unpaved roads, gunning the accelerator with her high-heeled sandal as if the future stretched ahead as free and open-ended as the road, and the murderous past, receding in our rear view mirror, was left behind forever.

I caught the way the highway whispered to her of promise, and feeling blissful, feeling the warmth of her body, the vibration of the motor and my own utter contentment, I was saved. My mother was mine now, not mysteriously away somewhere, the two of us comrades on the road. Wrapped together in our little car, we were insulated and safe because my mother was brave and my father was watching out for us with his gun from the black sky overhead.

She would stop for coffee at some all-night diner or truck stop, a bright oasis of light in the dark, and I'd wake and stumble in with her, proud to be up so late with my mom on this grown-up night. There would be a few men scattered on the counter stools and she'd gulp the coffee from a thick white cup and hug her purse as if someone was about to snatch it away. Back in the car, riding with my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and sang to me in a thin soprano. "Mighty like a Rose," "Sleep Kentucky Babe," "Sweet and Low." Later, I wondered how she had learned lullabies in the orphanage where she had spent her childhood.

As we drove, beams of light on cars and trucks headed toward us and then vanished like the strange prehistoric creatures in my picture book. We slept in tourist homes, an adventure with the smiling host and strange bedroom, and arrived at my aunt's the next day, stiff and happy. My mother and her sister drank coffee at the kitchen table and talked; I'd hear their voices while my cousin Judy and I played.

Another time lying topless under the machine I am now my 11-year-old self in the library on the corner of Coventry and Mayfield Roads in Cleveland, Ohio. The books on the shelves are my friends, their stories waiting to take me out of my life. I love the long shiny tables. I love pulling down one of the lined-up encyclopedias and how its weighty pages transform my confusing, baffling world into the wonder of an orderly alphabetized universe. The walls of soft-colored volumes are windows of stained glass, and the reverent hush of the people around me, worshipers in the church I never got into. Miss Allen, the librarian, is my mother handing me a book she thought I'd like, or telling me to lower my voice, or that my books are overdue, or to go home because the library is closing. I like Miss Allen. I love Miss Allen. When she puts on her coat and turns out the lights I want to go home with her.