My Girls Will Be Fine

My Girls Will Be Fine

By Francie Arenson Dickman


When it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.


I’d planned to refurbish our house this summer. Not a little nip and tuck but an overhaul. Picking up floors. Wrecking walls. Reconstruction. We’ve lived in our home for almost a decade, our home needed to be tended to. I don’t like decorating. I don’t like any activity that pulls me away from my daily routine. So you can imagine my reaction when, a week before my kids left for eight weeks of overnight camp, I was diagnosed with breast cancer (from an annual mammogram, so please, girls, go get your mammograms). I kept the news mostly to myself, but back-burnered appointments with the architect and scheduled them with a surgeon instead. There was a biopsy. An MRI. An opinion. A second. A lumpectomy. A second one of those, too. And lots of waiting. The worst part is the waiting. All the while I went through the motions of summer and watched the online camp pictures, my children in blissful ignorance. Then, timed with their return, I was told I needed a mastectomy. The wrecking and rebuilding would be mine.

“You are going to be fine, you will not die from this,” my breast surgeon told me so many times over the next 8 weeks that he offered to voice record himself into my phone because his words have a 2 second half-life in my head. There’s nothing like a little case of cancer to trigger the ultimate case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to right your perspective, to realize that when it comes to mothering, getting to do it is the only thing that matters.

An older, wiser friend had tried to teach me this lesson a long time ago, when my kids were little, when my husband was on the road and I was doing what I do best, complaining about being buried in a mother’s mundane and demanding tasks. She told me to spin the way I looked at the tasks. “You don’t have to give them baths, you get to. You don’t have to clean their spills, you get to.” I laughed as one would at any preposterous suggestion. Over the years, my girlfriend and I would joke about it. “We don’t have to drive 5 hours to sit on the floor of a convention center for days while our daughters’ dance, we get to.” I’m not laughing now. Well, certainly not as much. At least I get to say that it seems I have a “good” kind of cancer. It hasn’t spread. It’s noninvasive.

Nonetheless, how it’s invaded. I put my girls, oblivious to my circumstances, on a bus in late June, with the expectation that by the time they returned 8 weeks later, I’d be able to speak to them about what happened in past tense. A blip on the radar, a bump in the road. I’d get it treated. I’d go on redecorating as planned. But plans, especially when microscopic cells are involved, do not always go as such. I didn’t plan to write my kids 8 weeks’ worth of letters filled with half-truths, but I did. “I didn’t go to the concert because I had a migraine.” “We didn’t go to Michigan because a tornado hit our condo.” (Ironically, a tornado actually did hit the condo, so technically, it wasn’t a lie, but that wasn’t the reason we didn’t go.) I didn’t plan to keep my life a secret from friends I speak to regularly. But, in order to prevent the same type of disaster that happened in grade school, when my classmate found out her mother had breast cancer from another kid on the playground, I did. And I definitely didn’t plan for them to return in the eye of the storm, their mother’s major surgery coinciding with the start of school, and even worse, the start of dance. (You know something’s really out of whack when you are checking your surgery date against your daughter’s performance schedule.)

So, for the first and I pray only time in their camp careers, I anticipated their August return with a touch of dread. The waiting is the worst. I wondered if they would be angry with me for lying to them. I’ve never lied to them. I’m a stickler for telling it like it is, a habit left over from my lawyering days. “Lying by omission is nonetheless a lie,” is one of my favorite parenting lines. Is there an exception if the lying was in the best interests of the children? And since I’d already lied, would the children then believe me when I told them as the doctors told me, “I’ll be okay?”

Would the daughter with anxiety, the fear of bodily disfunction and disease, spin out of control? Or would she have matured enough over the years to keep it together, to perhaps even (dare I say it) rise to the occasion during my recovery, and take care of things, like the dog or maybe her mother, that fall outside the purview of her typical adolescent concerns (i.e. herself). I hoped that my speech would go as planned, that when I told them as I’d rehearsed—something involving the words Stage 0 and Angelina Jolie—and they saw that I seemed fine, that they’d be fine, too. They would take me at my word and turn their attention towards their bedrooms, which I did manage to redo under the wire, the paint fully dry only minutes before the buses arrived. As for the rest of the house, I’d get to it later.

Or should I say, I get to get to it later. Just as, I keep reminding myself, I get to show my kids their new rooms, and see my daughter’s face fall because I painted hers a darker shade of lavender than she’d requested. I get to watch them panic when I deliver my news, I even get to have them angry with me for not telling them sooner. Then, I get to unpack their bags. I get to do their laundry. I get to drive them around again and dole out cash. In a month’s time, their new bedrooms will be a mess, as will be the rest of the house, but God willing, when I write next, I will at least get to say that the girls in the house, all 3 of us (along with the fresh ones on my chest) are fine.

Author’s Note: A month has now passed, and I am grateful to get to say that thanks to my fabulous doctors and my extraordinary family and friends who I am so lucky to have, we are, in fact, all fine. I could write a whole essay about the conversation I had with my girls and the way they handled themselves throughout, but I will summarize by saying that the experience taught me that my kids are braver, stronger and more mature than I knew. And actually, I am, too.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.



By Lorri Barrier

Dandelion in the wind“Okay, the doctor will look at these pictures and be in to talk with you in just a bit.”

The table is comfortable, lights low, it’s blissfully quiet. In any other circumstance, I’d drift to sleep. But this is my second mammogram in two weeks, and I’m on edge. The first one was easy, but then I got the call about the spot, “the area of concern.”

I look around the room, notice fancy drop ceiling tiles that would look nice in our basement, if we ever get around to remodeling it. I close my eyes, become aware of Steve Perry’s familiar voice singing “Faithfully” ever so softly, coming from somewhere in the room.

Faithfully. I was in middle school when that song came out. I was already a C-cup by then. I remember the boy sitting behind me in history class reaching around me, trying to cop a feel. I turned and punched him twice in the shoulder—hard. He never bothered me again.

But later that day I remembered where his hands had been, and they left a sense of shame. Something’s not right about these breasts, announcing to the world that I’m a woman. Because I’m not. I’m still a little girl.

I spent the rest of that year hiding under sweaters and jackets, waiting to grow up.

I look at my watch. 1:22 pm. I take a deep breath and tell myself not to worry. I put my hand to the breast with the spot, try to feel something. I don’t.

A boy I loved touched my breasts when I was sixteen. I remember feeling shocked awake, electrified. I gasped when he kissed me, his hand still under my bra. My breasts were alive for the first time. Sexy.

Sexy, when I lean down to kiss my husband, and he whispers, “Nice view.” This is what I will miss, if I had to lose one or both. How will I feel that way without them?

A knock on the door and the doctor and nurse come in. The doctor is youngish, red-haired, wearing a plaid scarf and coat, as if he just got here. He reminds me of Doctor Who. I smile a little.

“I’m just going to take another look with the ultrasound wand,” he says.

I have to roll on my left side facing the wall, to give this stranger full access to my right breast. I put my arm above my head. His hands move my breast to the desired position. “This gel might be a little cold.”

There’s a picture on the wall, right at eye level, for all of us forced to look this direction. It’s a lone dandelion magnified, a few seeds caught in flight, pulling away from the center, weightless. I think of blowing dandelions into my daughter’s face, her eyes closed, laughing.

It’s odd having an ultrasound on my breast and not my belly, though the connection is unmistakable. All my children preferred to nurse on the right side. Even now at age seven, Morgan often rests her hand there while we read a story or if I lie with her as she goes to sleep. Her hands remember. For the first part of her life, my breasts were food, comfort, home.

I look back at the dandelion, and I see the similarity to the image they took earlier, my ducts and veins aglow with radiation, like strands of Christmas lights, like fragile white dandelion fluff clustered around a nucleus. Not like my breast at all—a cross section in a textbook. From my angle I had to look askance at the image, my untrained eyes searching for the spot.

“I think it looks okay,” the doctor says after a few minutes. “I’m happy with this. The same spot on the second mammogram doesn’t look like something we need to be concerned about. We’ll see you in a year for your annual.”

I exhale the breath I’ve been holding all week. I practically jump off the table.

I wore my pretty bra, pink with black lace, and I look at myself in the mirror as I pull it back over my shoulders.

In the hallway to the lobby, I see exam room doors closed, and I know there is a woman behind each one. A woman with a life, a woman holding her breath, another woman releasing hers, another still waiting to take the next step of a difficult journey.

Outside, the sky is a perfect Carolina blue. I inhale. It’s warm; it feels like spring in February. It feels like a new day. It feels like a second chance at everything.

The radio says tomorrow we might get snow. It will probably just be a little bit, but the kids will be excited.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

About the Author: Lorri Barrier is a teacher at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  She married with three children, and lives in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She has always enjoyed writing, and  finds her  inspiration from nature, daily life, and childhood memories.  She feels lucky to live on farmland that has been in her  family for over 100 years, and much of what she writes is tied to her rural upbringing.

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