every girl needs a greek chorus

a blog about hope


The Condensed Version of Me

photo (3)

Me – c. 1956

[This is my first-ever blog post, published July 22, 2014.  I like to think of it as a measuring stick of the past year.  My surgery sites were still raw; my abs were a flabby mess; I hadn’t started exploring online dating; and I had no idea why I was telling my story.  People tell me that I’m brave for being honest and that they share many of my frustrations with modern life, which has lost so much graciousness, despite technology and political correctness.  If nothing else, I make most of you laugh, so, who am I to complain?  Thanks for joining me on my spiritual journey!]

Last night, I did something with my daughter that I never would have done with my mother.  We stood in front of my bathroom mirror comparing our naked breasts.  Stay with me.

Did you ever do that with your mother?  Neither did I.  I’m 62, raised in the 1950’s & ’60’s by a mom of the 1930’s and ’40’s.  Her most damning phrase was “That’s tacky.” Until I was nearly 40, I worried about being dirty, wrinkled, mismatched, frizzy, and tacky.  My two earliest childhood memories are learning to tie the laces of my white high-topped, leather shoes into tidy bows and being fitted for white cotton gloves.  I couldn’t have been older than four, but I was mesmerized by the little drawers of gloves in the girls’ department at the J.L. Hudson, Company in downtown Detroit.  Plain or bows?  Are you kidding me?  I wanted the ones with the shiny pearl buttons!

Maybe your parents were “progressive.”  Mine came from that pragmatic, Depression-Era generation of hardworking blue collar-to-middle-class families with what are currently called “traditional values.”   My father, a first-generation Italian-American and proud Marine Corps veteran, leaned toward the conservative.  My mother’s family was from the fearless stock of English-Scots-Irish who settled Kentucky in the 18th century.  No whining allowed.  Have a problem?  Figure out how to solve it or climb over it and move on.  My sister and I were expected to go to college and graduate.  I learned to sew, cook, manage money, mow the lawn, change a tire, check the oil, mix concrete, and lay bricks.  Before feminism took hold in the 1960’s, we were learning to survive.

Mom was a minor progressive on matters of feminine independence.  When I begged for one of the newly-marketed “training” bras that my girlfriends proudly wore, my mother scoffed, “What are they training?  You don’t want to wear a bra.   They’re uncomfortable, and besides, you don’t have anything to put in one.”   [Be careful what you wish for.]

In the 5th grade, the girls in my class, accompanied by their mothers or a female guardian, were treated to the Disney-produced and Kotex-sponsored The Story of Menstruation.  (Sex education in the mid-20th century.) On the walk home after the screening, armed with pamphlets, Mom’s only comment was, “When your ‘time’ comes, they’re in the linen closet.”  Well, yes, I saw a small box of Kotex pads, but what were those mysterious paper-wrapped sticks in the Tampax box that was replaced much more frequently than the Kotex box?

Two years later, my ‘time’ arrived.  Mom showed me how to loop the gauzy ends of the bulky Kotex pad through the metal teeth in the “Sanitary Belt” yet encouraged me to use tampons.  At the age of 12, I was squeamish, more by the idea of having such a conversation with my mother than the actual process.  Well, I lie.  Probably more by the process.

She rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”  Huh?  I’m going to put that hulking dry, cardboard thing where?  [Listen to your mother.]

By the time I was 17 and desperate to wear a bathing suit for my waterskiing boyfriend, she had the last laugh.  “I can’t help you with this.  You have to go into the bathroom and do it yourself.  Here’s the hand mirror.”

She was right, of course.  They were waaay better than the monthly bulkiness, the shifting, and the inevitable leakage.  She-who-claims-to-know-everything suddenly turned into a font of wisdom.

Seven years later, at age 24, I was recovering from a complete hysterectomy.  (No, it wasn’t due to the tampons.)  I had a raging case of endometriosis.  Cysts as large as volleyballs and baseballs, according to my doctors, pulsated in my ovaries, and others were exploding like tiny time-bombs, gumming up my insides.  In her droll and always honest way, my mother asked, “What are you going to do with all the money you save on tampons?”

Now, my own daughter is 22 and has little knowledge of and no use for white cotton gloves, but,  I am proud to say, she recognizes “tacky” when she sees it.    I’m not going to embarrass her by discussing her introduction to tampons, but let’s just say that it involved a mirror, a wet suit, and sharks.  Well, no, there were no actual sharks in the bathroom with us, just a discussion about their olfactory sensitivity.  There was also no dry, hulking cardboard in sight, just marvelous, smooth, modern plastic.

The Daughter and I, pre-op, May, 2012.

The Daughter and I, pre-op, May, 2012.

Two-and-a-half months ago, I had reduction mammoplasty (google it—I’m still my mother’s somewhat-squeamish daughter).  You see, my five foot-tall frame appeared to be on the verge of toppling over at any moment, as I could no longer straighten my shoulders.  I stuffed myself into minimizer bras and swathed myself in baggy sweaters.  What seems like a glamorous blessing really is a pain in the neck—and the spine and the shoulders and the self-esteem.  Turns out, I was carrying over two pounds of extra weight on my chest, like strapping a Yellow Pages directory between my armpits.

My daughter, the critical care nurse, was a great caregiver.  You know.  What we hope our children will be for us in our old age?  During the three-and-a-half hour outpatient (!) surgery, she returned to her nearby apartment to play with her cats and to catch something on Xfinity On Demand (which, to me, means it can be watched at any time other than when your dearly beloved is in surgery).

In fairness, I easily survived the surgery; she drove me home, stayed overnight, changed my massive ice packs, expertly stripped, emptied, and measured my bloody drain tubes every four hours, and force fed me oxycodone.   OK, OK.  She didn’t shove it down my throat, but she gave me the Nurse Ratched routine and insisted I swallow it.  [Note to self: Revisit that mirror/wet suit incident and a caregiver who is my sole heir.]

Last night, there we were, looking at our naked breasts, noticing how different they are.  My rehabbed pair appear to have been transplanted from a stranger and are oddly and happily perky for a 62-year old woman.  They are also subtly scarred, bruised, and lumpy and will be for at least another year.  Just like my hysterectomy scar, traces of this recent surgery will always remain.  But, I figure, the boy for whom I was willing to experiment with tampons has been gone for three years, and I don’t expect anyone other than a medical professional will ever get close enough to notice.

Oh, come on!  Put your tiny violins away!  Insurance paid for most of the surgery.  I feel fabulous and can see my feet for the first time in years.  My girlfriends say I look 20 years younger.  My new, youthful bustline (as Jane Russell would say in the old Playtex commercials) has inspired me to work on my abs, now that I can see how flabby they are.

My mother, at 86, still knows everything and feels free to dole out advice.  These days, she rarely tells me

Playing with a selfie stick, July, 2015.

Playing with a selfie stick, July, 2015.

that I look tacky, but I still wouldn’t dream of sharing my breasts with her in a mirror.  My daughter isn’t embarrassed to discuss anything with me, although I have learned to text “TMI” to her when she makes me squeamish.  I am easily old enough to be her grandmother, so the generational chasm between us is often profound.  And, yes, both she and my mother approved this post, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo gloria!


The New and Improved Me – Part III

Another day and night of oxycodone, the third day.

I awoke to a large spot of pinkish sera seeping through my surgical bra where one of the drain tubes had been removed.  It wasn’t bright red, so I wasn’t especially worried about bleeding to death, but I was concerned about it leaking through to my clothes. Everything was wet, and I felt gross, not smelly, just cold and wet.  Again, the Daughter carted me to the doctor.

“That’s looking better,” he pronounced, as he removed the bandages.  “You’ve got a long way to go, but it’s healing.”  He prodded the left nipple with the stainless steel probe.  “Can you feel anything yet?”  I shook my head “no.”

“Well, it takes time for all the nerves to reconnect.”

Cold & wet

Cold & wet

He handed me a mirror, and, for the first time, I had a look.  It was pretty grim.  There were little oozing raw spots, here and there, on my left breast, and a half-dollar-sized wound on the lower half of the right breast that looked like fresh ground sirloin.  I could see that the edges were starting to granulate and heal, but the rest was what I’d heard the Veterinarian call “pink and healthy.”  Maybe another woman would have swooned, but I had seen worse.

“Again,” said my doctor, “this is a rare complication, as I explained, but —“

“I understand,” I interrupted him.  “I can deal with it.  It is what it is.”

He stopped, looked me directly in the eye, and considered me for a few seconds.  Maybe he thought I was going to cry.  Maybe he thought I was going to sue for malpractice.  Maybe he just didn’t know how to respond.  He changed the bandages, hooked and zipped me up, and helped me sit up.

“So, I’ll be ok to travel in about three weeks?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.  He looked from the Daughter to me.  “Where are you planning on going?”

“Well, we’re going to Cancún, Memorial Day weekend.”

“No,” he laughed.  “You’re not going anywhere, especially not on a plane to Mexico.”

“But I’ll be with her,” the Daughter replied.  “It’s just a plane ride and sitting on a beach drinking Margaritas.”

“No,” he said.  “Think about the air pressure on the plane and all the unhygienic places you’d be exposed to.”  My spirits sank.

“I want to see you again on Monday.  Over the weekend, change the bandages once a day.  Cover the wounds with antibiotic cream or Vaseline and new gauze pads.  Call the office, if you have any questions.”  He shook our hands and stopped at the door.  “You really don’t look like a woman who’s had surgery.”

So lucky to have my own nurse

So lucky to have my own nurse

“Why does he keep saying that?”  I whispered to the Daughter, when he left.  “Is he trying to cheer me up?  I have these awful blisters.  Isn’t that bad?  And, if I look so great, why can’t we go to Cancún?”

“I don’t know, Mom,” she sighed.  “He’s worried about complications, plus you have those huge open wounds. Just get dressed, and let’s go.”  She drove me home and settled me on the sofa with the dog.  I ate some soup and slept for several hours, until around 3 pm.

When I awoke, I felt a little warm, with sun streaming through my living room windows.  60 pounds of hot Golden Retriever weren’t helping.  My icepacks were sloshing.  I refilled them and laid back down, shivering under my blankets.

I texted the Daughter.

“Did you take your temp?” she replied.

“I don’t have a thermometer that hasn’t been used in the Dog.”

“Put some ice on your head and take Tylenol.”

“It’s on my chest.”


“The ice is on my chest, not my head.  I don’t use Tylenol.”

“What are you feeling, exactly?”

              “Chills.  My forehead feels warm.  Hey!  I can clean the thermometer with that surgical scrub.”

My temperature was exactly 100°.  Normal people wouldn’t worry too much, but I have always had one of those body temperatures that is subnormal and sort of dyslexic.  It’s 96.8°.  I am always cold.  People at church anticipate my icy grip when we “pass the peace.”  Consequently, when my fingers feel warm, I assume that something is wrong.

“You have a low grade fever.  Let me know how you feel in 30 min.”

30 minutes later, I dutifully texted my temperature, 101.3°.

“Uhm…call the doctor?” she texted, along with his emergency number.

“No, I don’t want to bother him.”

“It’s Friday afternoon.  You don’t want to end up at Patient First.”

“Should I take Motrin?”

“You should call the doctor.”

“It’s almost 5, and they’ll be closing.”

“Call the doctor, Mom.  That’s why he has an emergency number.”

Sure enough, they had closed for the weekend, but I left a message on the answering device.  I felt worse bothering the doctor after hours than I did about the fever.  I’ve been on the other end of an after-hours phone call.  You understand that it’s part of the job, but there’s always a big sigh when you see a message.  Still, it was only 10 minutes after closing, so I knew I wasn’t ruining his night.  Within three minutes, he returned my call.  I apologized profusely for bothering him after hours.  He was most cordial and approved my request to discontinue the oxycodone and start Motrin.  Again, I apologized profusely for bothering him.

Within a few hours, after taking the Motrin, my temperature started dropping.  Without the oxycodone, I was comfortable and, once again, slept like a baby, on my back.  When I awoke, I made first attempt at changing my dressing, smearing the wounds with Vaseline (which, I discovered, leaked through my clothes), covering them with gauze pads, and securing the whole thing with bandage tape).  At 8, my phone rang.  It was my doctor calling to check up on me.  I was enormously impressed and, once again, felt stupid for bothering him with my insignificant little fever.  In fact, I wished that it had been worse so that I could justify his concern.

Two more nights and days without oxycodone, and, on Monday, I was back in his office.

“Hey, Suzanne, how’re you feeling?”  He shook my hand, and we went through our routine; he did the unzipping and unhooking and prodding, and I did the jokes.

“So, guess what?”  I asked.  “My left breast came back online.”

“What?” He looked at me warily, probably wondering what I was babbling about now.

“My left nipple,” I explained. “It has feeling again.  Little electrical jolts.  It seems to be entertaining itself at the most inopportune moments, like when I’m sitting quietly in church.”

He smiled and shook his head, hooking and zipping me back up.  I felt short, childlike, and completely ridiculous.  It occurred to me to keep my mouth shut.  But…naw…

“It’s sort of like dressing a baby doll, isn’t it?”  I laughed.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it really is.”  This time, he laughed with me.

By my last visit, in mid-July, after two months of frequent exams, prodding, poking, and joking, my doctor declared that I was healed, except for some “rigid fat necrosis.”  (Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?)  I told him that I was regaling my friends with stories about my surgery, which stopped him in his tracks, but I reassured him that he was never the butt of my humor.  I left him my latest motto: “I am not always happy, but I always try to be cheerful.  Sometimes, that’s the best I can do.”  As usual, he nodded his head.  I hope I’ve spread a little sunshine his way.

Next week, I return for my final visit, and, possibly, the dreaded “after” photos.  This time, I’m prepared.  I’m preparing my witty repartee to ward off visions of Victorian England, and, as I told him on the morning of surgery that I would, I’ve gotten rid of the “armpit fat” and flabby abs (although, they remain glaringly white).

When I look down at my chest, I still marvel at how different my new breasts look.  From that view, they look perfect.  When I look in the mirror, they look like something attached by Dr. Frankenstein.  It’s not the scarring.  It’s the strangeness of them. We’re still becoming acquainted.  My neck and backaches are a thing of the past, and I’ve treated myself to some cute lingerie, of course.  Once again, I fit into some of my favorite clothes, including a gorgeous Italian wool gabardine suit that I had tailored in Hong Kong almost 20 years ago, an Armani knock-off that spans the vagaries of fashion.  So, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

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The New and Improved Me – Part II

“You’ll vomit in the car,” the Daughter said bluntly, as she drove us away from the hospital.  I was starving.

Modern anesthetics are amazing.  Five hours after my breast reduction surgery began, I awoke with a nurse by my side and mounds of ice on my chest, zipped into a surgical bra, and starving. Thankfully, I felt no pain.  Surgery had taken 3-1/2 hours.  My Daughter, the critical care nurse, exchanged go-home instructions with the nurses, as only one professional to another can do, and helped me dress in my comfy hoodie, long knit skirt, and best panties (I am my mother’s daughter, after all).  Did I mention that I was starving?  I desperately wanted to stop at McDonald’s for fries and a Coke.

“Daddy bought McDonald’s for me after my colonoscopy, and I was fine.”

“No, Mom.”  Oh, how painful it is when the child becomes the mother!

“You know, your doctor was nice for a surgeon,” she continued, “He came out after surgery and talked to me and asked if I know a surgeon at my hospital that he trained with.  Like, I see him and his patients in the CCU, but why would a famous surgeon know me?”

“What did my doctor say about me, the patient?”

“Oh, not much, the usual,” she shrugged.

“Were you terribly bored while I was in surgery?”  The waiting room television had been tuned to CNN.

[Sudden thought:  Why do airports and hospitals show breaking emergencies?  I guess it’s better than the Maury Show, which was playing at the hospital the day I had my nuclear stress test for high blood pressure.]

“Naw,” she replied, “I went home and watched Xfinity on Demand with my cats.”


“Well, Mom, I only live 10 minutes away, and there wasn’t anything I could do, sitting there for five hours.”

I sighed.  Practical Me understood her point, but Mommy Me envisioned her waiting prayerfully.

By 2 pm, we were home.  I crashed in the living room, flat on my back on the sofa, nestled into my favorite pillows and blankets with 60 pounds of Golden Retriever at my feet, the best comfort of all.  I picked up my cellphone.

“What are you doing?”  The Daughter asked.  “You’re supposed to rest.”

“I can see my feet for the first time in decades,” I emailed my nearest and dearest.

Nurse's Aide

Nurse’s Aide

The Daughter fixed herself a sandwich and settled in a big armchair and ottoman.  We were all soon fast asleep, rousing ourselves enough to replenish my icepacks, empty my drains every four hours, eat leftover pizza (which tasted so good), and feed and walk the dog.  I woke again at midnight with a crick in my neck and throbbing throughout my chest.  I changed my ice and woke the Daughter.

“It’s time to empty my drains and go to bed.”  We went into my bathroom, where I had my first look at what I had done to myself. I lowered the zipper of the surgical bra and tried to examine the top of my breasts.  Alas, they were swathed in gauze padding and bandage tape, although I spied a little bruising. The surgeon’s purple star still marked the base of my throat, and I was stained orange with Betadine scrub from my shoulders to my waist.

“Wait!”  I pushed the Daughter’s hand away.   “Why are you stretching these drains?  You’re going to break the lines or pull them out.”

Mom!  I do this dozens of times every night at the hospital.  I think I can do yours.”  I was chastened. She efficiently emptied the drains, professionally measuring and recording their contents.  I would have been lost without her.

“You need to take your oxycodone and Ambien.”

“No, I was already sleeping.  I’m not taking the Ambien.  I hear people sleepwalk on that stuff.”

“The security alarm is on.  If you open the door, it will go off and wake you up.”

“Let’s just go to bed.  I’ll take the oxycodone, if the pain gets too bad.  Put it next to the bed with my water bottle.”

“No, Mom.  You take the oxycodone before you feel the pain, or it doesn’t work.”

“I wonder what the street value is of all that oxycodone and Ambien.”


“It’s like having a gold mine in the closet.”

“Take your oxycodone.  We have to be at the doctor’s for the post-op exam at 10 to have the drains removed, and you don’t want to be in pain.”

From the Veterinarian, I learned that there is pain that kills you, and everything else is tolerable, unless excessive blood loss is involved.  Yes, I’m the woman who spent two hours in the oral surgeon’s chair having her wisdom teeth removed with Novocaine only.  I’d rather be in pain than risk opiate addiction, but bossy Nurse Ratched was right.  I swallowed the oxycodone and slept like a baby on my back, chest covered in icepacks.  Hmmm…I could get used to this stuff.

Night and day, the second day.

I was unconscious until the Dog woke me at 6:45 to eat.  I ate my tea and toast and obediently swallowed my oxycodone.  Since I couldn’t lift my arms over my head, I wrestled my bandaged self into a button-up-the-front shirtdress.  Easy in, easy out, I thought.  I settled in the car, reclined, with the icepacks tucked into the front of my dress, for the 30 minute drive to the surgeon’s office.

In the exam room, the Daughter helped me wrestle back out of my dress and into a soft cotton gown.  I was still pain-free and hopped onto the exam table, shivering under a draft of cooled air.  She took a seat by the door with a good view of the table.

“Good morning, ladies,” the surgeon greeted us.  “You don’t look like a woman who just had surgery.”  He shook our hands, helped me lay back on the table, and snapped on a pair of latex gloves.

“What should I look like?”

“A lot worse than you do.  So, let’s see what we have here.”  He unzipped and unhooked the bra, cut away the gauze bandages, and removed the drains.  “Well, the incisions look fine, but I see we have some blistering.”  He pulled out a stainless probe.

“Can you feel this?”  He touched my right nipple.

“Yes.”  He touched the left one.  “Um, no.”

“That’s ok.  It takes a little time for all the nerves to reconnect.”


“Now, I’m going to open these blisters.”  I glanced up at the Daughter, who was stretching her neck for a better view and suddenly grinning maniacally.  He picked up forceps and a scalpel and then swiftly clipped away the dead skin on my right breast.  My Daughter the nurse grimaced.

“Hmm…” he studied the wound.  “That’s pretty deep, but it should heal.  The dressing will need to be changed once a day, so you’ll need to come back tomorrow.  Let’s look at the other one…OK, this one’s not as bad.  The blisters are on the areola and underneath.”  He stood up and looked at me seriously.

“Now, I explained that this happens rarely, when circulation slows during the procedure, but it does happen and has happened here.”  He seemed apologetic.  “It should heal just fine, but the scarring may be more obvious.”

“OK, I get that,” I answered.  “Just tell me how to deal with it.”

Having spent over 30 years in veterinary medicine, I have acquired more than a little knowledge of how medicine works, even human medicine.  Sometimes, sh*t happens.  He rebandaged the wounds, hooked and zipped me back into the bra, gave us instructions, and told me to return the next day for a dressing change.

“You really don’t look like a woman who just had surgery,” he shook his head and left us in the exam room.

“So, how bad does it look to you?” I asked the Daughter, when we were back in the car and headed to her apartment to check on her cats.

“It looks pretty bad, Mom.”  She sees a lot of patients after breast reconstruction surgery in the critical care unit.

“Bad, as in life-threatening bad?”

“No, but it’s serious.”

“Oh.”  We waited in silence at a stoplight.  OK.  Of late, everything else in my life was complicated, why should this be any different?  Minor detail, relatively speaking.

“Just get on with it,” the Shrew in my head hissed.

“Lunch.  Today, I want McDonald’s.  I need a Big Mac, I think,” I demanded.  “A Big Mac Meal.  I need fries.”  You can’t keep a tough girl down, especially when tasty, salty, greasy food makes her feel so much better.

“And a large, real Coke.”

Just get on with it.

[To be continued.]