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Thanks for the Mammaries

By Kathy Y. Wilson · October 25th, 2001 · Your Negro Tour Guide
Exactly 15 years ago, I caught my late Aunt Dorothy's silicone prosthesis. "Kathy, you ever seen a prosthesis before?" she asked as the thing was whizzing through the air like a pregnant, waterlogged Frisbee.

I didn't have a choice. I was about to see and feel one.

It was high and outside, but I saw it coming, and the thought of it possibly exploding against the wall of the den in her home was far more frightening than catching the jelly bubble-cum-breast.

I used the left side of my body to catch it, smashing it against myself with my left hand. It hit me with a soft thump, sorta like a snowball without the disintegration. It slipped out of my hand and down into the Lazy Boy recliner I was sitting in.

It was still warm. She'd just slid it from the pouch in her special James Bond breast cancer bra.

It was smooth and squishy. The fake breast was flesh-colored like a white Barbie, or more the color of Oscar Meyer's Beef Bologna. It wasn't made specifically for Aunt Dorothy, this semi-brown black woman.

I balled my right hand into a fist, put it into the cup and let it rest there. The nipple was very faint. It danced from beneath my finger like mercury.

The prosthesis hardly duplicated the size and texture of her removed breast, but she was trying. Boy, was she trying.

By this time, October 1986, Aunt Dorothy was three years from death, but she wasn't going quietly into that dark night. Chemotherapy had zapped her hair, leaving her with wiry patches.

Cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She was hot, tired and uncomfortable most of the time. My Uncle John, a retired Hamilton city cop, ran himself into delirium caring for her.

I was in their den in that early October morning to ride shotgun to Columbus. No, not to some special cancer treatment center.

Aunt Dorothy had hit the Lottery. We were traipsing to Columbus to collect the new car she'd won. She'd dropped her ticket stub into a hopper at a Cincinnati Reds game and it was pulled. They called her name, and we were off to the capital.

I was to drive John's burgundy-and-white boat of a car back, and they'd cruise home in the 1986 Cougar. I was just back from Denver -- unemployed, bored and adrift. There was $45 in it for me.

"God, I bet this thing is hot," I finally said, still holding the silicone blob.

"You know it is," Aunt Dorothy said. "I burn up in it. And it's really hot when I just wear it inside the bra next to my skin without sliding it in that pocket. When I do that, I have to watch what I wear, because if something is low-cut it shows 'cause it can slide up and down, 'specially when I'm sweatin.' "

How do I remember the conversation verbatim? I wrote an essay, "A Day with Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy," as soon as I got back to my mother's house in Avondale.

I've always been compulsive about writing things down. I most fear forgetting the truth of things. But I also fear that, if I don't write things down, there'll be no record we were ever here.

The whole thing was surreal. It was a jolt. I was so self-involved then, pitying myself for dropping out of school, ashamed of myself for not having, at 21 years old, any concrete plans for what was turning out to be my sorry-ass life, and on and on.

Aunt Dorothy's cancer was mythic in our family. It was bad-mouthed like it was a person, but it struck me how few of us had actually gotten up on it.

I'd gotten all up on it, and I felt blessed that Aunt Dorothy trusted me with the information.

It was all like a dream: the prosthesis, the horrific scar where her breast had been, watching her massage her chest, my Uncle John talking at length about his tour in the military, falling asleep on the backseat en route and waking up to Lou Reed singing/speaking -- "And the colored girls sing doo da doo da doo doo da doo doo da doo da doo doo da doo doooh" -- on some radio station we'd picked up on the way.

But her cancer was a dream that not only morphed into a nightmare -- it was foreshadowing. By the time Aunt Dorothy died in 1989, she was to lead a literal funeral procession of family members to the grave.

Ed Hill, my maternal grandfather, died of brain cancer in 1990; Uncle Clarence Hill died of cancer of the gallbladder in 1991; Aunt Dorothy Saunders died of lung cancer in 1994; Mary Hill, my maternal grandmother, died from complications from Alzheimer's in 1998; and also that year Clarence's widow, Valerie, died from kidney failure.

Aunt Dorothy was an aunt by marriage, and I always loved how ribald and unapologetic she was. She knew many family members never liked her, and she never tried to court their favor. She was scrappy when she was alive, and she died fighting.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With the proliferation of cancer in my immediate family, it's my pleasure to get my mammaries mashed.

I want to live to talk about it.



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