Mortal Flesh

My mother went under the knife last summer, sacrificing her left breast to the unkind god of cancer. The uncontrolled dividing by abnormal cells, which raised a tightened, angry welt on her breast that her doctor had recommended watching for over a year, turned out to be an aggressive tumor. After the mastectomy and the removal of lymph nodes, which fortunately were cancer-free, her oncologist recommended intense chemotherapy. Otherwise, he said, this cancer would definitely be back.

My mother decided to heed his advice. She also reached the age of 72 this summer, the age of her own mother at her death. I know the coincidence haunts my mother. She finds herself eye-to-eye with her own mortality, fighting the urge to blink. I think she is afraid.


As am I. I am afraid to be motherless, afraid to assume the role of matriarch, afraid to be next. I have too often sat in judgment on my mother, with a degree of self-righteousness that now fills me with guilt and regret—especially now that I have adult children, and it is my turn to need a good defense lawyer. With panic in my heart, I would like to go back to being a child, green and unripe, hoping to age. And yet I am gripped, as we all are, by the process of becoming, by the near certainty of turning into someone I do not yet recognize. I will look into a mirror and see someone’s grandmother. I will face my own mortality more closely. I will sleep with an old man.

A phrase struck me recently as I was lurching through a Spanish translation of a prayer. It still has me thinking: carne mortal. When I first read it, my college-Spanish mind translated it as “mortal meat.” Although the more correct translation is “mortal flesh,” I like the first one better. Perhaps it is the vegetarian in me that responds to equating vitality with what is “meaty,” real and firm and edible. Our bodies are but mortal meat, slowly eaten up by life on earth. When our flesh is fully consumed, only the immortal, the soul, remains.

After only one chemotherapy session, my mother began to go bald. Her hair fell out rapidly, strand by loosened strand. Fortunately, through years of dedication to the best hair possible, my mother has made a good friend in her stylist. Not only did he take her wig-shopping and cut and style the wig, he clipped the remainder of her disappearing hair to a shiny smoothness. He did this in the privacy of her home, to spare her the humiliation of a public shearing. Then he would not accept any payment. He is a lovely man.

My mother’s cancer has brought out the best in friends and family. They have blessed her in a hundred small ways, from cards to flowers to errands. It has brought out the caregiver in my father. “Let your father make you a sandwich,” my mother urged me on a recent visit. “I’m not hungry at all, and he’s offering me soup every five minutes.”

My mother showed me her bald head. “I look like a cross between Uncle Fester and Bruce Willis,” she said ruefully as she pulled the scarf from her head. While I was glad she had not lost her sense of humor, I was not ready to see my mother bald. I was amazed, while looking at her pink head, at how much the missing halo of salt-and-pepper hair had defined her face. She looked unfinished in her shorn state and, worse, defenseless. It was scary. We come into the world bald and helpless; now I pray this is not how she exits. I told her that maybe her hair will grow back in curly and red, the way she always wanted it to be.

I should be used to bald heads. My husband has very little hair, but his baldness has been natural and gradual. He wears it well. I find his lack of a hairline sexy in a smoldering-intellectual way. But the sight of a bald woman, especially a woman who is not in a punk band but is your mother, is jarring. My mother maintains that the hair loss has been her hardest hurdle.

Going bald has disheartened her more than the needle stickings and blood testings and wound drainings and phantom pains and the dozen other indignities associated with her illness and treatment. It seems that she weathers the big storms and stresses over the scattered sprinkles. Her hair will grow back; her breast will not. I pray that the cancer also does not.

I tell my mother that losing her hair is but a side effect, a temporary inconvenience, no big deal. I say her head is nicely shaped, that her scarves and hats are fetching, that her wig is completely convincing. But I am realizing that it is a huge deal: that maybe to her, her lost hair foreshadows her life as fleeting, shrinking, falling away. Maybe as the months pass, it feels final. There is an erasability to aging that is somehow unfair and too soon in coming, even though we know it surely is neither.

The prayer utterance “Thy will be done” sticks in my throat these days. It is an easier prayer to embrace when the road ahead seems to stretch endlessly, when the smell of mortal meat does not waft on the breeze. I pray that my mother will live to see a beehive of great-grandchildren and the dawning of more decades. But God’s will is around each bend of the road we travel, and we had best be on our way.

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11 years 11 months ago
I was deeply touched by Valerie Schultz’s article “Mortal Flesh” (3/1), in which she described her emotions at the news of her mother’s breast cancer, because my eldest sister was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and is now undergoing the Via Crucis of cancer therapy. I sense that all Valerie’s articles in America well up from a heart that prays and meditates deeply.


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