Post Road Magazine #30

A Vine of Rose

Mimi Schwartz

After my mastectomy, a friend gave me a gift that I shoved in the closet. It was a framed poster of a woman with one breast, her arms raised in victory to the sky. Across her scar is a vine tattoo. This was 1988 when the media was starting to write about breast cancer, but with titles such as "The Tragedy of Breast Cancer" and "The Terror of Mastectomy Victims." All hysteria and doom-and this before the doctor found my lump. Women were labeled victims or survivors, and I remember no images. That was too shameful.

Yet here was this woman, not tragic, but brazen, and I kept thinking about her when I took off my bandages and confronted the jagged red scar. And again when my husband Stu and I made love. And again when I started back to work. Within a month, the one-breasted woman was out of the closet and over my desk to look at every morning. I began saying, "I had breast cancer" instead of "I have breast cancer" even though I had no guarantees for anything.

I considered breast reconstruction, but then I heard of a neighbor ending up with uneven breasts and a cousin of someone having three surgeries because of a leaky saline implant. A tattoo fantasy, mine with a vine of tiny roses, seemed easier. I didn't seriously consider it because tattoos, back then, were for Hell's Angels and drunken sailors, done in sleazy parlors on dark, backstreets. But I did whisper to my husband one night, "Maybe I'll get a tattoo!"

"Do it if you want," he said, kissing what was no longer there, "but you don't need one."

It was the perfect answer, along with the one when I wept after misplacing my prosthesis, and he went off calling, "Here Titty,Titty!" Self-pity had no chance. Tears went to laughter and to trust. I didn't get a tattoo.

My scar has faded to white, along with another over my belly button after a GI bleed (too much Advil)--and I'm again thinking of tattoos to cover my scars. Stu died two years ago, and I'm trying to figure out my body without him. I've started to go to the movies and dinner with other men, but intimacy still seems like a leap. I miss curling around someone at night, but would I leave the lights on? Do I trust enough? The scars don't help.

I've reconsidered breast reconstruction again, but then I should really add liposuction, tummy tucks, neck lift, the works. And I still won't look as new the kitchen chairs I just reupholstered. I prefer sticking to my rule about medical procedures after Medicare: like the comma, if in doubt, leave them out.

Yesterday I found a half-dozen websites displaying tattoos over mastectomies. Most are enormous like the barn owl in pink and grey, its wings flying over half-hidden red leaves. And the blue artic fox with its paw on a saved nipple, its tail draped over a shoulder. And a toga of giant pink flowers set on emerald leaves that made their way from shoulder to scar to hip to butt. I would disappear in such designs, and I'd miss myself. Only one, a tattoo called "Bad Ass Chest Piece" done by Tina Bifaro, made me imagine possibilities. It's an Art Deco full brassiere in swirling reds, blues, and browns like you'd never find in Victoria's Secret. The tattoo went viral and Facebook shut it down, saying mastectomy tattoos are taboo. But it is back again; we've come that far.

This morning I passed a young woman in a scooped neck shirt with 'Brooklyn' tattooed like a banner on her chest. It's ironic how the generation that avoids commitment is fearless about such permanency. I, who lived with one man for fifty years, would worry: what if I moved to Queens or Tokyo? Would I want my Brooklyn past so prominent for life? I let the tattoo idea go, deciding I'm too old, too impatient. I can barely sit still for a manicure and pedicure; plus it would hurt, even a small tattoo like my vine.

Enter my four-year-old granddaughter with a tiny rose on her arm. It's temporary, her mother assures me, taken from a book of designs she found at the toy store. An hour later, I'm in the store buying one, no, actually two, books full of tiny flowers, stars, hearts, and other happy shapes of color no more than an inch big (including the princesses and white horses, which I ignore).

I choose a rainbow for my mastectomy scar and a blue rose above my belly button, and standing before the mirror, I peel, press with a damp towel for 30 seconds, and am tattooed. Three weeks later, when they fade, I switch to a peace sign over my belly button and two roses where my left breast was. I leave space in between, a pale scar of connection like a thin laundry line. History unhidden.

Maybe someday I will share my tattoos with someone. If not, let me peel and paste these shifting shapes of self-definition just for me.

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