I try to find my balance as I kneel in the ocean. The sand beneath the water is warm, but the chilled wind runs over me. My hair covers my eyes and gets in my mouth.
“Be free,” says Kevin, the photographer. I’m staying at his farm in South Africa. His knees are bent, the camera pushed to his face as he leans toward me. His cotton t-shirt blows steadily in the wind. He’s had this idea for a while—to do a photo shoot in the water. He said I’d be just right.
“You are a woman of the earth,” he says in his bright South African accent, side-stepping to his right. “You belong to this water.”
I try to believe him. I want to be the earth—solid and confident and hard. I breathe and close my eyes then move my arms through the water, making sleek tracks on its surface. The sun sets behind me. Every color reflects off the ocean. I sneak glances over my shoulder and feel my bones rotate each time, feel the goose bumps on my arms and on my breasts. I’m topless and just starting to get used to the sensation. I’ve never been topless in front of a camera before.
I think about what my mother would say.
Mags, why? What will you do with the photos? Did it give you what you needed?
She is the reason I’m in South Africa. She died five months ago from breast cancer, when I was twenty-two. I left my family’s home in the US afterward because I didn’t know how to stay in the same place where everything had changed. My hope was that leaving would distract me, or bring me clarity, or—in one whirlwind of a year—take me in, rough me up, and spit me out with eyes that no longer see the world by what it doesn’t have instead of what it does.
But, that’s not what’s happening. That’s not how missing works.
I splash water into the air and roll my head in circles. My hair mimics the waves as Kevin points the camera at me.
“Good,” he says. “Now, pretend you’re a shadow on the water. Bend back. Now reach. That’s right.”
When I was a baby, my relatives were afraid to hold me, afraid I could break from being touched. I was born two weeks premature and came out four pounds, fourteen ounces. When the nurses tried to get my footprints on a pad of paper for my parents to take home, my feet shot back towards me, and I inked my own face instead. I came into the world breech—butt first, feet to face, folded in half. And that was how I made Lauren Beth Pahos a mother. I was backwards and inky and far too small, yet she was in love.
My mother loved my younger sister, brother, and me with every part of her. It was the kind of love that doesn’t leave easily. The kind that smudges fingerprints on all it touches. When she got diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time, she was thirty-five years old. I was four, my sister was three, and my brother, one. My mother had a mastectomy less than twenty-four hours after the biopsy came back positive.
“She couldn’t get it out of her fast enough,” my dad said.
Her lymph nodes showed up clean, which, in the early 1990s, indicated that the cancer hadn’t spread elsewhere from her breast. My mother went through chemotherapy treatment anyway, just in case.
She didn’t know then, even with the extra precaution and the encouraging lymph node test, that the cancer never fully left her body, that over the next fifteen years it would grow slowly back, showing up again in 2008, giving her less than three more years to live.
When I was in high school, my mom came to my school as a volunteer in the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization to teach young women about breast health. As a sophomore, I entered the classroom she was teaching in, my brown bag lunch in hand, and hugged her at the front of the room. Her familiar rose perfume made its way to my nose from her neck. I sat down with five other girls, none of whom I knew.
“Hi girls,” my mom said, smiling. It was fall and she wore brown corduroys with a red woolen sweater—a sweater that now sits on the top shelf of my closet, away from my box of incense and my own clothes, away from anything that will take her smell from me more quickly.
My mother stood at the front of the room as tall as her five-foot-two frame would let her, her hands clasped together loosely in front of her, her left foot turned slightly out from her right as it almost always did when she stood still.
Some of the girls smiled back at my mother and others stared into their laps.
“How’s everyone doing today?” she asked. “Ready to learn about your boobs?”
Kevin looks down to adjust something on the camera. The water lolls back and forth against his calves and laps at my thighs. The wind licks my arms, and I shake my hair. I feel more uncovered kneeling without the camera on me, with nowhere to focus. But the cliffs in the background feel like an anchor, and the saltwater backs me up.
Kevin finds the right setting and brings his attention back to my body. Just a body—flesh and bone and fat and blood. It holds me, but I can’t feel it: a grieving shell, no longer mine.
When Kevin asked me if I wanted to pose for a shoot he’d been dreaming up, “yes” seemed the only possible answer to give. I want to bring my body back to me, expose it into revival, move in new ways so it might breathe again.
I want the camera to keep my body alive forever.
At the gray classroom tables, the other high school girls and I sat still while my mother told us every breast is different.
“Most people’s breasts aren’t even the same size. Each woman is unique. Every body is individual.”
I wanted to reach up right then to feel if she was right, to see if I was mismatched or even. My body was still unmarked territory, still shifting and being learned.
“Feel for the lump,” my mom said next as she passed around a couple of flesh-colored, gelatinous fake boobs. “It’s a good idea to become familiar with your breasts,” she continued, “so you’ll be able to tell if a new lump shows up. It could save your life. My friend used to say she had three natural lumps in her right breast. She named them John, George, and Paul. When Ringo showed up, she knew something was wrong.”
A couple girls giggled quietly. One stayed stone-faced as we passed around the fake boobs, pushing our fingers into them, searching for hardness. The remaining two girls looked around uncomfortably. A small glimmer of fear entered their eyes, a recognition that this wasn’t necessarily a small, silly high school thing. The lump could be real. And it could be in them.
I was proud of my mom then. She’d had cancer and knew what she was talking about. She’d known enough to find her own lump all those years ago and to tell the doctor. She had survived. I didn’t know as my thumbs searched the soft, fluid cushiness that cancer wasn’t always a one-time thing. I had no idea that, in just a few years, it would be back in our lives.
I found the fake lump with my fingers, pushed against it hard, then passed the boob along.
I smiled at my mother, and she smiled back, a small wink from her right eye.
My mother’s cancer wasn’t genetic. Breast cancer grows no branch in her family tree. She got tested for the BRCA gene, and the results were negative.
With nothing to point to, I wonder where the cancer came from. I wonder if I’ll ever have that same moment of recognition, that same sensation of finger on hard matter—not in a model breast but in my own. Will I have the same entrance into the beginning of the end? What kind of exit will mine be?
I lean my head back in the South African air and try to look natural as I splash more water. My knees dig into the wet sand. I shiver as the sun falls deeper behind the edge of the ocean, my body braced forward trying to figure out what it’s doing. Because my mother’s body failed, I wonder, have I stopped trusting my own?
“You’re a woman of the earth. You’re the water and air,” Kevin tells me as he circles my body and talks against the wind.
I’m the water and air, I think. I’m the stars and rocks. I’m the bravest thing in the whole wide world.
I walked by my mom showering one day after she started chemo treatment, about two months before she died. I kept quiet as she sat in her plastic chair, her left hand holding the showerhead over her barren scalp, her right hand on her thigh. I saw the dark pink scar sliced across her back from her mastectomy. It had been part of her for as long as I could remember, peeking out from bathing suits and bras. Her body bulged then drew inward in unnatural places, the drugs and the disease pummeling her from all angles. Her eyes stared ahead, blank but intent. She was somewhere else—probably somewhere better, where the Kool-Aid red chemo poison didn’t float under her surface, in a place where her plushy, overfilled legs didn’t hurt when she moved. I watched the water fall easily off her misshapen body.
We went to the hospital a few weeks later when the fluids became a real problem. Her hard-to-maneuver legs failed her on a midnight trip to the bathroom. She hit her mouth on the floor, okay except for a couple bruises and a scab that formed on her upper lip.
At the doctor’s office to address the problem of the swollen legs, my mother laid in a hospital bed. She wore her street clothes, comfortable navy blue sweatpants with a matching zip-up jacket and her black geriatric Velcro sandals—the only shoes her swollen feet would fit into. She asked if there were any other drugs she could take to reduce the swelling.
“You’re already taking the drug we would administer in this situation,” her doctor said, all clown make-up and heels, as she pushed on my mother’s soft, cushy legs to get a feel for how much liquid there was. The doctor looked like a life-sized doll with her baby blue eye shadow and fuchsia cheeks, but I knew my mother loved her. She had given my mother extra days.
“I still want to be here, though,” my mother said, beginning to cry. “Mentally, I’m still all here.” It was as though all she had to do was convince her doctor and then she wouldn’t have to die just yet.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “You can keep taking the diuretics but a higher dosage won’t change anything.”
This is it, she was telling my mom. There’s nothing left to do.
My mom knew it was true. Her liver was failing, and the rest of her body would soon follow. I could feel her making the realization.
I could tell mostly from the way she was crying differently than she ever had—with her whole heart, from the inside of her bones, like she might never get to cry again.
I wanted to cry just like that.
The sun is about to disappear as I kneel in the ocean. Kevin has shot me from almost every angle. I’ve bent, turned, splashed, and reached. I’ve breathed in the salt, and my chest has heaved with it.
I think about my mother’s last breath, labored and slow, how her lips moved together then sank. How I willed another breath to come but all I heard was nothing.
I think about her body as I curl mine slowly in the shallow water. I think about the yellowing and shedding and shrinking that overtook her until she was gone.
“It was going to be good,” she said one day near the end as she sat gaunt and jaundiced on our living room couch. Her wig hung on her head. Her thin arms crossed over her knee. She was talking about the rest of her life.
As Kevin captures my body—young, healthy, and trying its best to be free—I know my mother’s is becoming earth, decaying and falling away into something new.
I wonder if she’d be proud of me or ashamed if she saw me now. I think she would understand. I think she would ask: Is it giving you what you need?
I am a woman of the earth, I’d say. I am the water and air. I am part of this body.
Rumpus original art by Melissa Gutierrez.