I’m half-crouched on grass at the base of a wood pile. As an eleven-year-old, I take care of the chickens in the nearby coop. I’m sucking in breaths, and so is my little sister as we stumble over the knobs of black walnuts fallen from the tree above and make occasional lunges at the pile. At the same time, we make a run up toward my twin brother at the top who crows, “I’m king!” He shoves us down, our feet scraping wood against wood.
“Heather, come here!”
I hustle to the house. Mom must have been watching from the kitchen window. She tells me I’m no longer allowed to play king of the mountain. I protest, but it does no good—I’m getting breasts and my brother can’t be shoving me anymore. My changing body is keeping me from having fun with my siblings.
She buys me an “A” cup bra at Wal-mart, stretchy with no lift. What was the big deal? I don’t feel better about them, and it itches. If I think no one’s looking, I tug it at my sternum. She tries to cheer me up by informing me that if I have little ones like hers instead of big ones like Grandma’s, then I won’t get the groove that crosses each of Grandma’s shoulders next to the purple straps of her nightie.
Breasts were an inconvenience.
If I walked into the living room in a nightshirt draped over my shallow peaks, my brother shouted for me to put a bra on. When I returned to my room, my sister shrieked and ducked for cover if she was changing. She didn’t want me to see hers.
Breasts were also serious business, not only cumbersome but even dangerous.
It was in the November of my sophomore year that my mom kneaded a large lump under the surface of her right breast. Family conferences other than the dinner table were rare, and we were solemn after Mom and Dad began to speak. They explained each step: her mastectomy, weeks of radiation, and months of chemotherapy.
My strongest memories from those first weeks were sensory, not visual. There was a certain inflexibility to one’s body when one’s mom is in danger. Even if I was lying down, my soul was standing up, always viewing the horizon, so it could yank up my body to join it.
As a young adult, every so often I fingered a new lump in my breasts or the lymph nodes in my arm pit. A fear of more than cancer slithered out when I found a lump during a season of questioning God. Silent on the floor of my apartment, I waited to hear from God before my ultrasound appointment. The refrigerator hummed, debris scattered before a car on the road out front, footsteps shuffled down the apartment complex hall. Inside myself I heard:
If this is malignant, this is my rejection of your body.
My chest goes rigid. It’s not God’s voice. It’s too ugly, a counterfeit. I push past it. I say, “That’s not true!” But I don’t forget. Doubt where I attended church was equated with a lack of faith. By questioning my faith, I was rejecting God. Was he in turn rejecting me?
Like so many other evangelicals, I had lived as if my mind was what mattered.
What I said I believed was important. Cultivating “right thinking” to respond to culture’s pluralism was important. My body was not important. But when faced with potential physical harm, I jumped to blame God. I was suddenly tempted to see my body as so important to God that he would punish me through it. I was aware I was embodied after all.
At the clinic later, I skim the magazine next to me. The same straw-thin actress who played a housewife on TV was featured on multiple covers. The writers were worried she was anorexic. I thought about her when I read Mark 5 where the woman touches Jesus’s robe to be healed of her issue of blood. It occurred to me that maybe the woman wasn’t only healed to be a symbol of spiritual recovery for us readers to point to—a nice, safe, literary idea. Maybe she was healed because in loving her, Jesus loved her body—like he loved the actress’s too, a woman who may not have known how to love it herself. A woman like me with breasts like my mother’s.