Saturday, May 24, 2014

a moment in the day: mammogram

The radiologist chats as she works the controls of the upright, six-foot-tall vice clamped down on my naked, puny breast, trying for just the right degree of squish.

"When I had my first child, I was forty-two," she says. "And when I had my second? Forty seven."

She relaxes the grip of the vice, then brings it in tight again. Not tight. Tight-ish. I breathe and tell myself that. Not tight. Tight-ish. Don't worry. Stand up straight in front of this tall, gray hard-plastic device with its wide, boob-mashing clamps set dead center and its big, bulbous alien head hanging overhead, don't look down, look at the wall. I can handle this, my just-about-to-turn-forty-five birthday present to myself, my first mammogram.

"There's still time for you," she says, about the baby I never had and never will.

"Sure," I say, "except that my husband had a vasectomy."

"They don't always take," she says. Tightens it. More than tight-ish. "Tubes tied don't always take. I had two children and then had my tubes tied. I knew a woman with six children and her tubes tied. She was pregnant and she had six children and her tubes were tied."

"We have a dog," I say.

She relaxes the grip of the vice, uses her hands, gentle, to re-position me, then brings the mouth of the vice down again, harder. Not so much that it hurts. It's pressure, but it doesn't hurt. I breathe and tell myself it doesn't hurt.

"You look young for your age," she says. "Not me. I look so much older."

She's doing what women sometimes do. Telling another woman how much prettier, how much better, how much younger.

"Oh, no." I say it more to the tall plastic alien with the boob-mashing clamps than to her. "Not at all." I'm doing what women sometimes do. What I always do. Trying to make the other person feel reassured.

She says, "It's hard to tell Asian women's ages. We look young for a long time and then - boom - very old."

"Oh, now! You totally look young. I was surprised you said you had two children."

I'm downright bubbly. Reassuring her that she's young-looking and beautiful but also that I'm fine, I'm comfortable, I'm not daunted by what she's doing to me. The more I give her reassurance, the bubblier I get. This warm, clammy room, the flat slab of hard plastic cranked down over my tiny, helpless breast. Breast, a word I've always had a hard time saying about myself. I spent so many years feeling so, so small that I hardly have it in my vocabulary to give a name to that part of myself. Chest is what I've always thought - chest, the way a twelve-year-old boy has a chest - even in these last couple years when I've gained a little ground in the chest department, but you can't talk about a chest in two separate components, the left chest that's comfortable and the right chest that's clamped in the jaws of the mammogram machine.

Mammogram machine. I don't know the technical term. When I first walked in here, newly changed into the pink cotton robe, open in the front as per instructions, the radiologist pointed at the machine and said, "Here it is, the torture device."

And laughed. And I laughed because I always laugh when they're saying something that's supposed to be funny. That whole give-reassurance habit, that thing women sometimes do, or maybe it's everyone.

"If you're very small or very large," she says, now, "mammogram is more uncomfortable, but in between, like you? That's easier."

She cranks the vice a little more. OK, that hurts. But this woman who has seen me with my shirt off - and seen lots of women with their shirts off - has just called my breast size "in between." This is a fabulous day.

"Alright, ready to go," she says.

And now she really cranks it. It hurts more and less than I expected. The feeling is not just about pressure. It burns. A bright, shimmery burning pain, but something about it feels manageable, feels like oh-yes-i-guess-i-can-do-this, as the radiologist steps across the small room to work the controls to take the X-ray.

Pain. The swishing robot hum of the machine taking its picture. Rite of passage. That's what Stephen had said: "Your first mammogram. That's a rite of passage." Somehow, I hadn't been thinking about it that way until he said it. Passage to what? Old age? The inevitable accumulation of discomforts, aches and pains, more mammograms? All morning before the mammogram, I thought about rites of passage. First step. First kiss. First time asking a boy to a dance (and the forty minutes I sat in front of the phone trying to make myself dial - excruciating). Driver's license (and how I failed the first test, how my three-point turn turned into a six-point turn - the humiliation - excruciating).  Come to think of it, lots of rites of passage felt excruciating at the time, although they were probably actually just good old uncomfortable.

Maybe after a certain time, our rites of passage are all just little steps forward in the ability to be OK with the realness of life. With the fact that life is not all about comfort and that discomfort is something you can take.

The radiologist comes across the room and smiles at me. She unhinges the boob-mashing clamp.

"Alright, that's one down," she says. "Only five more to go."

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