I pull into the Elizabeth Wende Breast Care facility in Brighton, shut off my car and walk in the doors. This place is a women’s health Mecca. The line is long and there is a greeter ensuring all women are cattled in accordingly. A young girl with a clipboard says hello and asks about my visit.
“I’m here to see the genetic counselor,” I say.
She leads me to a separate stairway and tells me to check in with the receptionist.
I walk up the stairs and find myself in a small, seasonally decorated waiting room. There is a fall holiday tree. It is similar to a Christmas tree, but the garland is full of autumn leaves, a sunflower acts as the star. I take a picture with my phone. The room is quiet compared to the hustle going on downstairs. I think about the lack of funding for genetic testing compared to mammography and reason this can explain my solitude in this upstairs office suite.
After a few minutes, a woman emerges to introduce herself as the genetic counselor. She guides me into her office and motions to the chair on the opposite side of her desk.
“So what brings you here today?” she asks.
“I lost my mother to breast cancer when she was fifty. She was diagnosed at 48. I’m 42. When I came in several months ago for my mammogram, the technician mentioned, with my history, that I would qualify for testing. She said with my insurance, the cost would be the same as a lab fee,” I answer.
“That may be true, depending on your insurance and your family history,” she explains.
She pulls out a piece of paper and starts drawing circles and squares. “So, you lost your mother; is your father still alive?” she asks.
We carefully go over the lives and deaths of the people closest to me, their health, and their different genetic quirks. When you have your family history laid out so formally, without the personalities and the acts of kindness and betrayal, it is jolting. I don’t know what I expected. I feel vulnerable. My mother’s diagnosis. Her crazy mother who had drowned my two aunts in the bathtub before slicing her wrists. My own bi-polar. My father’s toxic iron retention that means he needs to have his blood drawn every six weeks. Aunt Helen’s late breast cancer diagnosis. My nephew’s fatal heart defect. I just hadn’t expected this level of intrusion, so by the end, I’m reeling from the conversation.
The counselor shows me a black and white paper filled with diagrams of differently paired genes. The two largest at the top, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are the most deadly. When Angelina Jolie discovered she had one of those types, she had her breasts removed and a full hysterectomy. I know I have neither. The tests for those had been available the year my mother was diagnosed. My mother was so grateful when she tested negative. She couldn’t pass them on. She took us aside and said: “You are safe.”
Now they have discovered 26 more genes to test across eight different cancers. The counselor circles one pair and explains that this set has a 60% chance of cancer development, but is highly treatable. She circles another, this set has a 52% chance of cancer development, but is highly aggressive. My mother’s cancer was aggressive. I am horrified by the numbers. The counselor asks me what I would consider if I test positive. I force my thoughts away from my own two daughters. I laugh uncomfortably.
“I guess I would need to determine the number. I suppose if the number was high, I’d have them removed,” I say.
“You would qualify for reconstruction,” she says.
“I guess a tune up isn’t all bad. Can I have a tummy tuck too?” I ask. She looks at me oddly then lets out a chuckle.
I qualify for the test. My cost should be $40. The fact that my mother was premenopausal when diagnosed at 48 is the deciding consideration. I remember that when she started chemo, they had also induced menopause. Two birds with one stone. I have the blood test and take a picture for Facebook. I guess I’m trying to advocate. I have four sisters and I am the oldest. I’m also the first to undergo the test. My results will take two to three weeks.
I walk out to my car, turn the ignition and suddenly feel the heaviness of memory in my chest. An emotion that my good meds usually suppress in me escapes and my eyes well. I think of my mother. I try not to most times. Most times I tell myself I wouldn’t be as strong now if I hadn’t had that break. The break triggered by her death. I tell myself I don’t miss her. I’ve told myself this so many times I no longer know if it is a lie. I think of the last time I held her before she got sick and how the smell of Folgers coffee, Merit ultralights and Elizabeth Taylor’s Opium filled my nose. I remember telling her to switch perfumes because Opium was for old ladies and she was still good looking.
I remember the time she sent me a six-foot stuffed toad at college with a note that said, “Quit kissing toads.”
I remember she showed up in a convertible with fifty Mylar balloons because my one-year-old was obsessed with them.
I remember when she left us, broken and afraid, to try her hand at a new life.
I remember her laugh was too big and it filled a room.
I try to stop remembering.
When I arrive home, I look at my phone. I posted my little blurb about the testing an hour before and there are already a hundred “likes” and lots of words about how strong and brave I am. I find this ironic because I should have had the testing fifteen years ago, but I wouldn’t pay. The cost was too high for a young mother and her family. Forty dollars is nothing. I cannot stop thinking about pairs and numbers and percentages. What is my magic number?
That night, I dream of my mother. Not as she was when she died, ravaged by chemo and radiation. I dream she and I are in a large warehouse, I’m pregnant with my first child and she is deciding on a house warming gift. We don’t speak. I sense her calm. I sense her release of all the disappointments: a homicidal/suicidal mother, two failed marriages, the loss of raising us to my father. She is at peace. She chooses the strangest gift to warm my home, a large ostrich feather fashioned into a quill. We walk away without paying. I mean to stop her, but she just smiles. I understand she is not restricted by our worldly ways. There must not be Groupons in heaven.
I wake up, confused but serene. Could I find that peace? Could I find the strength to accept all my parents’ imperfections and bad decisions? Could I forgive her second husband’s grabby hands and her complacency? Would I be asking my own children for grace one day?
I reach out to my illustrator friend. If I have to have my breasts removed and have replacements surgically installed, would he design my post-mastectomy tattoos? He answers with an enthusiastic yes. We discuss possible designs: Venus and Athena, something rural from my childhood, some fierce animal. I like to talk to artists. They think differently than writers. He mentions his latest illustrating project: a tell-all from a bikini waxer. We laugh as he discusses this somewhat odd project.
“I get to draw lady parts all night. It’s fantastic,” he says.
The next day in my email, a Groupon pops up for a Brazilian Wax – $40. It seems serendipitous that this opportunity has wound up in my inbox. I’m on the edge and need to do something barbaric to myself. I call my sister and ask if she wants to go with me, but she’s broke. As a single mom with three kids, she is often broke. But I’m okay if she doesn’t go.
I book my appointment for Saturday. The location is deep downtown, not the nicest area. I tell my husband where I’m going and what I’m doing and instead of the schoolboy excitement I half expected, he just says, “That’s in the hood.” We argue. We’ve been arguing a lot. He’s Trump, I’m Hillary. My belief in Hillary has caused many heated arguments with my husband, my father-in-law, my father. They all think my liberal education has ruined me. I feel the same about their faith in the GOP. But they all enjoy my cooking; we just need to stop drinking wine after glass two, or things get out of control.
I pop a mint in my mouth. I’m overly concerned about odors. I enter the shop on South Avenue. The building is old, but there is fresh paint. The furniture is new, but cheap. When I called to make the appointment, and mentioned Groupon, a girl with a foreign accent answered.
“Have you already purchased the coupon?” she asks. I own a business and know what she’s after. I’m ready to comply.
“No, I’d rather you get all the money,” I say.
We understand each other. Groupon is a way to get them in, but they take a cut. Screw Groupon, right!?
I am nervous, a virgin to the waxing scene. She asks if I need to use the restroom. I hesitate and then ask for directions. When I return, she’s in the room, guides me in and locks the door. She asks me to remove everything below the waist and tells me how to lie on the table. The soles of my feet touching, my knees dangling opposite one another, completely exposed.
She examines. “Nice,” she says in her exotic accent. I’m too seasoned to think this is a come on. She’s glad I don’t have jungle hair down there. My regular grooming makes her job easier. I tell her I’ve never done this, and she, in turn, looks nervous. She probably hopes I don’t make a scene.
The first soft wax is layered gently on my skin. It’s almost sensual and soothing until the strips and the yanking start. I’m so caught off guard because each time she yanks, she then applies pressure directly with her gloved hand to ease the pain of my screaming vagina.
“You are very sensitive,” she says. “Me too, first time.”
The outer perimeter is completed, and then she introduces me to hard wax. The hard wax goes on the area closest to the vagina where many hairs go in opposite directions. It takes longer because it needs to set. She yanks, I wince. She applies direct pressure. My legs are shaking harder than the time I lost my virginity. Shock and awe as we said in the military. When she is doing the final oil down, I feel her hands as they calm the fire between my legs. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being with a woman. I don’t really feel weird about it. Her touch is comforting.
She asks if I would like water.
She asks would I like my eyebrows threaded.
The eyebrows are easy compared to the Brazilian. She tells me she is originally from Nepal, but just recently moved from San Francisco. I tell her I’m from Kendall, and she looks confused. Forty-five minutes away. On the far west side of the city. In the woods.
She tells me $35, which is less expensive than the Groupon. I leave her $50. She’s selling herself cheap, and there’s no need. She does good work.
I call my sister. We laugh as I recall my Brazilian.
“I think I was just violated by a sweet little girl from Nepal,” I kid.
My sister is beside herself. She can’t get over the fact that my anus is presently hairless. I have four sisters, but only one I can laugh with about this.
I go home and make dinner. I console my eldest about her recent heartbreak. She’s sensitive and in the rebuilding process. She has fallen hard.
I sit on a cold day and watch soccer. My friend on the sidelines sits with me, and we banter about work, the kids, the unknown and upcoming freedom of our approaching empty nests.
I think how my mother left the nest too early for me. I wasn’t ready. But our need of her was too great.
We win the game. I walk into the house cold and put my “I’m with her” T-shirt on. I do this to annoy my husband, but I drink his bad “Trump, Pence” white wine. We wander downstairs to bed, half-tipsy. I push my lazy Labrador off the bed and rub my feet against my husband’s feet, our intimate indication to each other since the kids were little. He’s annoyed with my shirt, so he pulls it over my head and struggles with my bra. I help to speed things up. He grazes his hand against my wax and laughs. He’s a little less tender than usual…the shirt. But we still enjoy the moment. He squeezes roughly at times, but that’s not too bad. We finish, and he gets up for a towel. He always says thank you. We sleep.
It has been two weeks and six days. I call Elizabeth Wende, and no one in genetic testing answers. I leave a message. It’s 3 o’clock. I call the next day at 10 am, and again no one answers. I leave another message. At noon, I call again and press zero for the main number. I explain that I’ve left a few messages and haven’t been able to get a hold of anyone. A very determined receptionist flies into action. She, personally, will make sure someone calls me. She takes my number.
The genetic counselor calls at 3 pm. She wants to know who I called and where I left the voicemails. She’s taking notes. She is holding my results hostage because she wants to cover her ass. I answer her questions and explain I was never rude, or concerned, just restless. She had indicated the results would take three weeks. She calms a bit. I work in an office, I explain. I understand. She relaxes more and says, “I have good news.” She explains that I tested negative for 27 of 28 genetic malformations. There was a slight variance in one gene which could indicate potential colon polyps. This is good news. I’m a little disappointed that I will never have designer mastectomy tattoos, but that was a fantasy I can quickly squelch.
I text my sisters. I feel a complicated relief, but a weight is lifted.
I pray. I pray for the future of my daughters. I cannot pass it on. I pray that my children grant me grace.
CHERISE OAKLEY is a graduate student at The College at Brockport in Western New York. She lives with her husband, her two daughters, and her three dogs. Hard Wax is her first published piece and is dedicated to her mother, Dema Marie.