A Cautionary Measure

by Peggy Duffy Read author interview September 15, 2003

My fingers wander, probe, examine. Beneath my armpit alongside my left breast, I find it again. The lump is the size of a pea, moveable, pliable, floating on a layer of fat.

My breasts are still firm, especially for a sixty-eight-year-old woman who’s borne three children. The rest of my figure is just adequate, my waist thicker and my stomach softer than they should be. I eat well and exercise at the gym five mornings a week, but age has a way of creeping up despite all one does to hold it at bay.

I move my fingers from underneath the armpit to the front of my breast. I reach my other hand up and cup both breasts in my palms to compare them, trying to discern any difference. Except for the little pea, there is none. They are both round and high, haven’t fallen flat like some of the other women I see in the locker room. Always I am surprised at the sight of these women with bodies far younger and better than mine, their stomachs flat, their thighs hard with muscle, not a drip of fat hanging beneath their upper arms, but when they come out of the shower their breasts, especially if they are large-breasted like me, lie flat against the skin of their upper stomach.

It was my breasts that saved me, years ago, and somehow they have preserved themselves as if to mark the memory. Now the doctors want to take one away. We can begin reconstruction at the same time, the surgeon told me.

Have the surgery, my daughter urges from five states away. She offers to come and help me; I tell her stay, you have three young children of your own. I’ll be fine.

I don’t tell her that the surgeon has already done a biopsy. That the news is bad. I tell her only that he suggests I have it removed. A cautionary measure. I want to spare her the way my mother spared me years ago. Only my mother was a wiser woman than I, for what she knew, she figured out all on her own that day when we stepped off the transport. No one told her.

The order was made clear, men to one side, women and children to the other. My mother was thirty-four years old, the age my daughter is today. She was a big breasted woman, as was her sister. So it was no surprise when at ten I started to blossom and a year later had the breasts of a woman. I was tall for my age too, the same height I am now.

I still see her, shoving the last of the food into my empty arms, pulling my two brothers close to her on the overcrowded platform as we were shuffled forward between the chaos and the noise. We marched, bodies pressed to bodies, amidst the screaming and crying, the shouting of orders, the barking of dogs. The soldier at the front of our line was young and handsome, with deep blue eyes. He looked me up and down and I thrust forth my breasts, stupid girl that I was. Then he ordered me, in German, to go to the right. My mother, holding onto my brothers’ hands behind me, he sent to the left.

“No.” I ran to her side, tried to shove one of my brothers aside and grab onto her arm. “No. I want to stay with you.”

She shook my arm from hers. “Go where they send you.”

Another soldier came and pushed me, hard, to the right. Still I ran to the left.

“How old are you?” It was the first soldier, the handsome one with blue eyes. The one who made the selections. I know who he was now, but I did not know then.

I did not feel so proud of my breasts anymore. I used the smallest voice I had. “Eleven.”

“She is fifteen,” my mother said.

“Eleven,” I said defiant.

“Look at her. That is not the body of a child. She is old enough to work.”

“Unbutton your shirt,” he ordered. “Let me see you.”

I slipped each button through its buttonhole, not looking at my mother or my brothers, avoiding the handsome soldier’s probing eyes, stripped and stood before him, naked from the waist up, the same way I stood before my surgeon at my last examination.

I shouldn’t be here today. Neither should my daughter or my two sons. And what about the seven grandchildren I have between the three of them? They shouldn’t be here either. Yet we all are. The last fifty-six years have been a gift, a gift built on a lie.

I pick up the phone and call my daughter. I ask her to come.

About the Author:

Peggy Duffy's short stories and essays have appeared and are forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brevity, Octavo, Drexel Online Journal, Whole Terrain, So To Speak, Pierian Springs, Flashquake and elsewhere. Her fiction was recognized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts as a finalist in the Individual Artist Fellowship program for literary artists. She lives in Centreville, Virginia and maintains a website at http://www.authorsden.com/peggyduffy.