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Chère Maman: Ode to a One-Boob Woman

My mother is dying.  She’s 94, has congestive heart failure, and is under hospice care.

Back in January, my sister moved our mother from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles. It hasn’t been easy watching her slow and steady decline over the past few months. But the greater burden has been carried by my sister and brother-in-law, with whom she lives. I’m glad I’ve had this time with her and want to share a bit about her with you.

Edith was born in Paris, France, although her family was Swiss. She was an Army “war bride,” leaving her own country to take a long plane ride across the Atlantic Ocean and landing in the deep south of Kentucky. That is where she married my father on New Year’s Day. They had met when he was stationed in France. After numerous trips back and forth to Europe, my mother chose Seattle as her family’s new hometown.

My mother was a musician. She told me she mastered the piano out of boredom; having nothing better to do than sight-read each piece from a random book of hymns. Thanks to my father, she later became an organist. (He paid for her lessons in the post-war currency of cigarettes). She played in church every Sunday morning for years. But she wasn’t religious. She was moved by the music, not the gospel.

Somewhere around my 10th or 11th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had found a lump in her breast and waited as long as she could before seeing a doctor. They wheeled her into surgery, sliced her open, and performed a radical mastectomy on the spot. They cut away most of her chest, and left her with a 36-inch jagged scar. Chemo and radiation weren’t options in those days, and neither was breast reconstruction.

I knew she was in a lot of pain at the time. But she was diligent about performing her exercises each and every day. She would stand in our family dining room and slowly inch her left arm up and down the wall. She regained her strength because she was determined to play her beloved organ music again.

She rarely talks about her cancer. She’s never walked “for the cure,” wore or bought pink products. (Her favorite color is purple.) She doesn’t call herself a “survivor.” She does remind her daughters to have annual mammograms. She told us that our cancer risk was greater, even though 80% of women diagnosed have no family history of the disease. She went on with her life; wore a heavy prosthetic breast form up until a few years ago, and only complained about the cost of special mastectomy bras.

She once told me she was lucky because her cancer was diagnosed after she had her children. This seemed ironic, since she never breastfed. She said she had no support or encouragement to breastfeed. But she loved watching her daughters nurse all her grandchildren. She was very proud of us for succeeding at something she was not able to do.

My mother is first and foremost French, and despite decades in America, never lost her accent. She will tell you if your shoes don’t match your outfit, if what you’re wearing is dirty, or if she thinks you should lose weight. These comments seem less harsh when accompanied by the sound of adorable rolling “r’s.” Her honesty may be brutal or funny, but it is never cruel. She despises “blue jeans,” finding them less than appropriate or stylish attire. She has always been a picky eater, but never prepared fancy French cuisine. I recall dinners consisting of store bought chicken pot pies or her famous Fish Stick Fridays.

My mother hates the title of my book. She tells me that she dislikes the word “boobs” and thinks it is a crass term. I doubt she ever opened the copy I gave and dedicated to her. But in this past year, when I took her to endless doctors’ appointments, she’d get undressed and call herself  “a one-boob woman.” She’d laugh, finding her own words hilarious and entertaining.

And that is my Chère Maman.

*Update: My dear mother passed away peacefully October 5, 2013.

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