The Black Box

During my mother’s week-long hospital stay in late summer 1973, my father distracted us kids by easing the household embargo on what we called “good cereal”: the brightly packaged, sugary stuff that all my friends seemed to eat, but was strictly forbidden in our health-conscious home. That itself should have been a clue of something extraordinary taking place, but I don’t remember being sad or worried about my mother’s hospital stay. Her absence from home felt like an adventure, an exciting break from routine, like the time we had slept over our cousins’ house for a few days between the sale of our old house and the closing on our new one. My sister Ellen remembers that during the week my mother was away, all of us kids kept house and made meals. She remembers baking a lemon meringue pie that came out perfectly, a feat she has never repeated.

Aside from pouring out bowlfuls of good cereal, I have no memories of preparing meals, and the idea of contributing in any meaningful way to such an enterprise seems highly improbable. I was about to start 6th grade; Home Ec class would not be for another year. My only memory of cooking from that era was the time my mother had volunteered to host an event at our house for members of my Junior Girl Scout troop, all of whom were working toward fulfillment of the Cook badge. In our kitchen she taught five or six giggling girls to make spaghetti and meatballs from scratch, salad, and chocolate cake from a mix. She was a thoughtful teacher, demonstrating basic cooking skills such as how to measure liquid versus solid ingredients, and gently encouraging all of her pupils to participate. That experience had been a one-time event, however. I imagine that during my mother’s hospital stay a year or so later, the extent of my help around the kitchen was upping my game on chores such as setting and clearing the table, loading the dishwasher, and cleaning out the cooking pots.

My mother’s surgery was like a black box with a question mark painted on it, a mystery of the grown-up realm that was off-limits to us kids. Perhaps that is why for decades I have thought about it with detachment, as merely the first landmark in my mother’s heroic journey through cancer. In reality the surgery — a mastectomy— was a physical and emotional ordeal endured by a woman of flesh and bone, who likely faced her own mortality while worrying about the welfare of her five children. To this day we know so little of the details that I can’t even say the exact procedure she had. My sister Ellen thinks it may have been a radical mastectomy, one in which the breast tissue, lymph nodes, and part of the pectoral muscles of the chest were removed. My own research points to a modified radical mastectomy, where only the breast tissue and lymph nodes were removed. The only person who may know for sure is my father, but I can’t enquire about it. When I recently asked him about the dates of my mother’s illness, I couldn’t even bring myself to say “mastectomy”; instead I asked about the year of her “surgery.” It’s an unspoken rule in my family never to talk about the details.

In the previous post I speculated as to why my mother described her procedure as removal of a cyst “between her legs.” Ellen remembers being told the more precise diagnosis of bartholin cyst; years later in nursing school Ellen learned of this painless glandular ailment that is so minor it can sometimes be treated by home remedy. I found more answers in the book First, You Cry, a contemporaneous account of breast cancer by Betty Rollin, who had her first mastectomy a year or so after my mother had hers. In the description of her ordeal, I was surprised to read that Rollin’s surgeon didn’t know what her procedure would entail prior to the actual surgery. Apparently in those days biopsies were not done on an outpatient basis, so many women diagnosed with a suspicious lump in their breast chose to have everything—biopsy and mastectomy—done in one procedure. Imagine going into surgery today without knowing what was going to be performed! Rollin describes coming out of anesthesia after her 9am surgery ended and having the presence of mind to ask the nurse what time it was. When the nurse responded “3:15,” Rollin knew that her cyst had been malignant and her breast had been removed. Rollin’s account has led me to wonder whether my mother faced similar circumstances. Perhaps prior to surgery she downplayed the procedure—substituting the removal of one cyst for another, less-serious one—because at the time she simply didn’t know whether her cyst was cancerous and whether she was a candidate for mastectomy. In the end, of course, both things came to pass.

As far as I know, my mother never shared her hospital experience with any of us kids. Was her mother, my grandmother, there to help her through it? Was her sister Irene? Did friends drop by to lend support while us kids naively went about our daily routines? The black box with question mark is all but sealed shut at this point. The most I can do is extrapolate common experiences from Betty Rollin’s book that my mother might have gone through. In the aftermath of her surgery, Rollin describes the burning pain of the incision, the revolting sac placed near her side for drainage of the wound for the first few days, the numbness under her “bad” arm that would last for months, the feelings of deformity she grappled with for even longer. From my vantage point as an adult I can now recalibrate my understanding of what my mother endured and even attempt to send waves of sympathy back through the decades; however, at the time of her surgery I was hopelessly ignorant of it all.

My memory picks up at the end of the week, when we visited my mother in her hospital room. Seeing her in such a fluorescent, institutionalized setting caught me off guard. Her appearance was transformed, and I remember experiencing the first wisp of vulnerability. A plain hospital gown replaced her usual polished attire. Her eyes were tired. Her uncoiffured black hair, with the side curls ebbing at low tide, looked somber against the stark white linens of the bulky hospital bed. She seemed slightly smaller in contrast. Amidst this frail tableau we kids trouped in, single file, maneuvering around the bed’s angular frame and exchanging nervous pleasantries. My mother’s warmth and vibrant smile soon reclaimed the space, but she could not quite conceal the restricted mobility of her left arm, which rested on a pillow. Even so, my 11-year-old brain didn’t register the discrepancy between that location and the location on her upper thigh where I thought the wound would be. Ellen, older by three years, was more observant. During the visit she noticed bandages around my mother’s chest region peeking from underneath the hospital gown. Taking a cue from my parents’ own reticence, however, she kept this observation to herself, at least for the time being.

I have no memories of my mother’s convalescence at home; she hid whatever pain or discomfort she experienced in an attempt to resume normal family life. My older brother Bill, who was sixteen at the time, remembers that someone eventually told him of the correct nature of my mother’s surgery, but he doesn’t remember who it was. He also remembers some of the post-op exercises my mother did after being discharged from the hospital, which sound quaint by modern standards of physical therapy. One regimen entailed holding onto the kitchen curtains and pulling upward to regain upper arm strength. Betty Rollins described a similar low-tech exercise that made her feel as if her chest would split open.

A week or so after my mother’s homecoming, Ellen confronted her privately with the suspicion that the surgery had been a mastectomy. My mother admitted the deception and showed her the bandage. As my sister tells it, they cried together and hugged. But even in such a candid moment, my ever-protective mother downplayed her diagnosis. She quickly followed her revelation with a curious misdirect, telling Ellen about a woman she knew who had contracted breast cancer but then died by another fate: an accidental fall down the stairs. She seemed to be implying that her chances of dying from breast cancer were as improbable as her dying from a freak accident. Or maybe the point was that life is full of unexpected events, so you might as well not worry. Whether this story was an attempt to allay any fears my sister might have, a reflection of my mother’s own denial, or a combination of both is another unknown for the black box.

8 thoughts on “The Black Box

  1. Ellen Wraga Boyle

    That was sad and painful to read even after all these decades. Yes our mother was stoic, I hope she wasn’t really alone and had good support from some adults. When I go through difficult times whether health or life related, I do not discuss them either, but focus all my energy inward to get through it. Mom saved her dessert from her hospital meal tray for us to share; I still like hospital food. I remember her being in the hospital for 2 weeks not one. And I still remember that perfect lemon meringue pie…

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    1. Thanks, El. It is a painful topic. If you remember the hospitalization as two weeks, then maybe the surgery was a radical mastectomy after all. It’s nice to hear that she saved the desserts for us. The other day I was reminded of her frugal ways when I opened a new jar of vitamins. Remember how she used to save the cotton packed in the top of the bottle so she wouldn’t have to buy cotton balls?

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      1. Ellen Wraga Boyle

        As a matter of fact MJ just the other day I opened a new bottle of vitamins, pulled out the cotton, declared to Kevin that my mother always saved the cotton !! So in her memory I made a pillow for the dollhouse and stuffed it with the vitamin cotton….

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  2. Jean Schoenlank

    I love reading these recollections you have MJ and am almost ashamed that I was so ignorant of what you had gone through when we were friends in high school. I knew your mother had died but why, how, and other details were also in a black box. Having been through something similar with my own mother when I was in college your story is so touching to me.

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    1. Thank you, Jean. When we were in high school, no one ever talked about these things, so no need to feel bad about it! I’m sorry to hear that you lost your mother under similar circumstances. I remember her as a kind woman with a great sense of humor.

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      1. Ellen Wraga Boyle

        That is absolutely true MJ, everything was hush hush and a big secret back in those days. How foolish that was, and painful for everyone involved, then and now. I have had several friends express regret that they did not know.

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