She nudged me. “How do you pronounce that word?” she asked in a warm whisper, her index finger peeking out of the sleeve of the paper thin, over-sized turquoise robe to point at the pamphlet.
“Mastectomy,” I said. “Muh-steck-tummy.”
“Mah-steek-timmy. That sounds like such a scary word. All of these science words are so intimidating,” she said to me in Korean. “You know, surgical procedures should be named after flowers. Like daisy. Or lilac.”
She had trouble with English vowels—she never knew when to keep them short or long. Well, she had trouble with consonants too. All the rules were so arbitrary and counter-intuitive.Sometimes they were silent, like in pneumonia, and sometimes they came together strangely to create different sounds, like the “ph” in lymphoma. Although she had lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, she never fully grasped the language. She had spent those thirty years at home, taking care of her two daughters and her husband, getting up at dawn every day to prepare breakfast for them. On most days they were not in the mood to sit down and eat, so she devised a more portable breakfast system with yogurt and granola in plastic cups, mini-sandwiches in zip-lock bags, or hot chicken noodle soup in thermoses. When they left she would do the laundry, make the beds that her husband and children never bothered with, get all the toothpaste off the bathroom sinks, wipe the windows, and sew the little tear on the blue dress that her youngest daughter continued to nag her about.
When all the chores were done she would go outside. Dressed in her oversized pink T-shirt, her faded blue jeans, and those dirty black sneakers that she bought for only ten dollars, she would enter her haven: the garden. She couldn’t pronounce some of the more difficult names in her lush Eden—her tongue could never figure out the double l in tomatillo or the –tro in cilantro—but it didn’t matter. Just by placing her pinky in the dirt she knew precisely how much water her precious plants needed, she knew by the smell of her mint whether it needed more shade, and she knew just by the color of her baby cucumbers whether or not they would grow to be small or large. She sang to them the Korean lullabies that her own mother had sung to her, and she was sure that the singing helped her plants grow. If she were gone, who would sing to them?
“Mrs. Bu?” a nurse called, her scrubs the same mold green of my mother’s robe. My mother and I abruptly looked up at the same time, our eyes meeting for a second before turning to face the nurse. “It’s time for your mammogram,” the blonde lady said.
I placed my hand on my mother’s left shoulder, the shoulder that had grown strong from all the weeding and watering, and gave her an empty smile, my eyes waiting expectantly. My mother reached out and squeezed my open hand, silently telling me that everything would be all right.
I devoured her warmth and held on to it. But then she got up in a moment that came too soon, in that robe that seemed to eat her whole, and followed the nurse into the examination room.
She was here because her preliminary screening for breast cancer had detected a small mass in her left breast a week ago, and she needed a more thorough examination. She closed her eyes and held her breath as the cold plastic plates compressed her bare breast, her fingers curling into a tight fist. Her oldest daughter, a current pre-med student, had told her not to worry. Earlier screenings make erroneous detections all the time. And even if she did have a lump, it just had to be taken out. She was going to be fine. Just fine. Really. She exhaled as she felt the plates separate from one another after a long moment, releasing her now aching breast. The doctor told her rapid words she couldn’t fully follow, but from the lady’s gestures she knew that she could put her robe back on. All she had to do now was wait.
I clenched the metal bars on the sidesof my chair, my right leg uncontrollably tapping on the floor, my front two teeth digging into my bottom lip. My sister had continued to assure me the night before that it was good that our mother had caught the mass in its earliest stages—if the lump even existed, that is. Except she reiterated it to me about thirty times over the phone in her quivering voice, as if she herself needed convincing,her pseudo-consoling ultimately ineffective. I could taste the blood on my lip as I thought about the times I had bothered my mother about petty things, like the tear in my favorite dress that just had to be sewn, or the carrots I hated in my chicken soup. God was definitely punishing me for being a revolting ingrate. He was teaching me a lesson; He was letting me know that—
No one wakes up one morning and thinks, you know, I just might have cancer.
That’s the thing about the disease. You always hear of great organizations or institutions that promote cancer awareness and research, and you consider how wonderful they are. Yet, unless you personally know someone who has suffered the horrors of the disease, you don’t actively think about the possibility of having it yourself. Cancer is something that seems to just happen, and of course you know it exists in this world and of course you know that, unfortunately, many people have it, but you never place yourself or a loved one and cancer in the same sentence. It just doesn’t work.
When I recall that waiting room two summers ago, all I can remember thinking about while fidgeting about in that metal chair is her damn garden. In that waiting room two summers ago, I was about to find out if my mother had breast cancer, if she had to get surgery, if she wouldn’t be able to attend my future wedding or babysit my children, and the entire time my mind was solely filled with thoughts of her tomatillos, the mint and cilantro, the baby cucumbers, and the persimmon tree in our yard.
Death itself isn’t all that scary. The scary part is what happens after death. What do you do with her possessions? Her gardening clothes that smell of mint, her black mud shoes that she bought on sale, her bright flower pot adorned with painted daisies, her tiny paper bags of tomatillo seeds that she kept closed with a thin string, her trake and cod weeder kept in a big red bucket on the deck outside? Are you supposed to throw them away? Bury them with her? Keep them in the house? What do you do?
It’s embarrassing. The moment the nurse told me that my mother was fine, that there was nothing detected in her left breast, my heart stopped for a moment. It was as if something struck me right at the middle of my chest, like when someone hits you in the stomach, hard, and the wind gets blown out of you. Then the only two words in your head are thank God, and you repeat that over and over and over again in your head. Just thank God.
Afterwards, everything becomes hazy and you begin to make these promises to yourself. You promise that you won’t be that revolting ingrate anymore. You will make your bed yourself; you will get up an hour earlier to make breakfast for your mother, not have it be the other way around; you will learn to sew your own tears, and you will sing to the tomatillos, the mint and cilantro, the baby cucumbers, and the persimmon tree in the yard because whatever is important to your mother is important to you.
Now, two years after my mother’s cancer scare, I walk by her garden every time I enter and exit the house without thinking a single thing. I smell the rich mint, I see the hanging cucumbers, I taste the cilantro that my mother uses to garnish so many of her dishes, yet I don’t think about my mother. I don’t think about her in her pink T-shirt with her black mud boots, singing her Korean lullabies to them; I don’t think about her fingernails covered in dirt as she pulls out the unrelenting weeds; I don’t think about the giant red bucket with her trake and cod weeder. And no matter how much I wish I did—how much I wish I were a new-leaf daughter who cherishes every bit of her mother—I’m not.
The spaces in our lives that we take for granted, my mother’s garden patch beside my house, are never static. There are those who water them, till them, and ultimately give life to them, and there are those who simple take the lush gardens for what they are. Without the care-takers, the lush gardens could very well turn into masses of withered perennials splayed across the dry earth.
The leaves of the cilantro a pale brown with hints of straw yellow, curling up and rolling in. The cucumbers fallen from their crisp stems. The mint of no clean, refreshing fragrance. A mass of relentless weeds woven through the garden patch, suffocating the tiny tomatillos.
Lindsay Bu, Age 16, Grade 11, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key