Breast Tissue

On a cool Friday night in August we stay up too late, singing and doing shots.  My cousin Veronica, even after the cancer, still has a beautiful body.  She is built like a dream, like our grandma, Cruzita.  Appropriately, on the day of her burial, our grandma's name means "the little cross."  Grandma Cruzita has just died of cancer, which started in her stomach and made its way up to breasts, but left her heart untouched we like to think. Now, the night of the funeral we gather around the fire in our uncle's backyard, so that we can practice being alive.  

I rub my burning eyes and work to clear the sting from my throat and wonder if it was a curse to be built so beautifully, like we were built to bear children.  The women in my family are graced with wide hips and full breasts, except for me.  I know that underneath my cousin's bra is flesh burned from radiation, patched together with stitches like shreds of shiny cotton. She is still glorious in her perfection but now a bit singed and scarred.  Her chest, a quilt of poorly approximated edges.

"How many more treatments," I ask Veronica when laugher and voices have stopped for just a moment.

"Two.  I think."  She pays little mind to my question and I understand that she doesn't want to discuss this from her short answer and lack of eye contact.

"Quit asking stupid questions," my sister Kathy says to me as Veronica walks away.  I don't respond to Kathy, because I always feel foolish, the younger cousin, the younger sister, always so curious, so different from my sister and cousins physically, but so similar in spirit and curiosity.

We all have many things in common, all of the women in the Quintanilla family.  We were all taught to sing about the lost black bird, about the same time we were taught our ABC's.  "Paloma Negra.  Paloma negra.  Donde? Donde andara?" The lyrics that tell of the search for a lost black bird run through my brain each time I lift my glass and remember my grandma's dark hair turned up into a French twist, and her tiny lips covered in magenta gloss.  When my grandma's thin lips were pursed together she sang like a bird, soft and sweet.  I am grateful that we were taught this song, and sing it loud with my mother in my Tio Chavy's backyard, standing over a table of empty beer cans and wedges of lime until all of the west side of El Paso can hear.  

As the night gets cooler we start slamming shots with our Tios and brothers, arms around each other as if we would never leave.

"Sing that one, you know it, you know you do," my mother calls to me.

"I haven't had enough to drink," I respond, but I sing anyway.
Our tias look on at us girls, like they are looking in the mirror. They sway back and forth on the lawn chairs while we perform around the fire with a mixed drink in one hand and the other securely wrapped around the waist of one of our cousins.  We don't smoke, because we know it causes cancer, but we drink. Our skin makes us undeniable as family.  We are the lightest family on Yandell Street and the neighbors know by looking at us, who we belong to. "You are a Quintanilla girl, aren't you?" they would ask as we ran through the corner grocery store as children.  The neighbors expect that a Quintanilla girl will have a small waist, light skin, mature hips and eyes that can speak volumes with just one glance. We all have a laugh that has extended through the ages and through my grandma's grave and through her pink and lavender suit which she was buried in.  When we laugh, her belly moves up and down as she laughs with us.

Sitting around the backyard fire our Tias feel responsible for telling us about our past, and where our grandmother came from, as if she looked on, rolling in the coils of smoke.

"You know mija, you look like her sometimes. Sometimes, when you are lost in thought, like right now. Everyone around you is singing, so sing.  Your life is so much more carefree than your grandma's was.  Celebrate it." my Tia Alma taking a deep breath, as if she will sing the next sentence that emerges from her mouth.  I understand that my grandma came from the earth of her father's San Elizario, Texas ranch.  We are told that the rich ranch soil fills our bodies.  In our nurturing ways, we can grow something from nothing, like our great grandpa did so many years ago.  In the most difficult times of uncertainty, I pull from this knowledge and remind myself that if I water that soil within me, I can continue to grow regardless of the devastation.  Whether devastated by life, or by the sting of chemotherapy, I know that my survival is inevitable. My grandma knew this and as she moved away from the ranch, she transformed into a paloma, a bird, always growing, always singing. The stories are a huge part of the drinking, singing and dancing because they act like sweet, sappy sugar that keeps our family stuck together through times like these or weigh us down when we work to emerge from what is expected of us.  

Like our cousin Veronica, all of the women in our family have edges of flesh that are not well approximated but come together so that we don't spill out all over the place, so we continue to survive.

"I can't maintain myself here," I said to me sister when we entered my grandma's life celebration this evening.

"You don't have a choice.  None of us lose our composure, you know this, you've been told so many times.  How could you forget it?"  She squeezed my hand before I turned the knob of the door to the home that once belonged to my grandma.  I know it has never been acceptable to let our emotions seep from our bodies in mixed company.  Maintenance of composure and security of self is what we are told makes a strong woman. I can't spill because I don't have the luxury of spilling onto the table in my uncle Chavy's kitchen in front of my family, then everyone else will have to set their grief aside and help me gather myself back to composure.  I don't want anyone to see my thoughts come out, from within, because I fear they may not understand.  I know this isn't true.  So, I let my edges hold me in as the sutures tug and flesh pokes out from between running stitches.  We are not unique in our wound.  I am certain that each woman has her own scar from which she fears she may spill. 

My cousin Veronica sits her daughter Alexis on her lap and leans into me, telling me in my ear,

"Be grateful. Look at your husband and your children, and thank God.

"Pass me Alexis," I smile at her awkwardly.  Somehow I refused to count my blessings.  Whether it is superstition or the knowledge that I have my husband and my cousin does not is not what is important to me on this night.  I still don't want to think about my husband or my children.  I don't want to be grateful.

"Don't change the subject mija, it's important that you understand that your health is in your hands.  You have a lot of time to take care of yourself, so be grateful that you don't have cancer.  Mija, you have a chance still."  I smile again, but say nothing. Because she is right.

She knows I will listen to her, because she is my older cousin, and I always do.  It is a reality that I sit amongst nine women who will never know the maternal act of giving milk again. Radical mastectomies and lumpectomies are a part of our stories now.  My Tia Aurora teases me and points at my flat chest saying, "The reason mija, our baby girl has not gotten cancer, is because she has no breasts.  Look at her, pobresita, you poor thing."  My breasts are small but they are still attached to me, unlike my aunt's and are smooth and unscarred.  I shrug off the laughter, sit straight up and stick out my chest, which is almost as flat as those of my aunts whom have already been through surgery.  I am grateful, because I have my breasts in the morning when I place them into my bra and know that the youngest of my cousins to suffer from the struggles of breast cancer was only three years older than I am today.  Veronica was only thirty-six when she was diagnosed.

It is a pleasure to be in a circle, around the fire, watching my aunts taking in shots like water. I see them letting go, laughing a little bit louder, dancing a little bit looser.  By midnight, my white, freckled chest is exposed and I am the only one of nine women not afflicted by the wounds from a scalpel but I am the most embarrassed to have my chest exposed.  My aunts and cousin wear their scars like badges of honor, like metals that tell the world that they have won a personal battle, and as a family we fight a war.

In the summer air our passion grew stronger but the fire began to go out.  Between adding more wood and fanning more oxygen to the fire, my Tia Alma would intermittently pull the white tissue from the cups of her bra to keep the fire going.  "Por favor, please Alma, before long, you will need to go for a refill," my mother says to her oldest sister, offering up Kleenex from her own bra.  White, thin tissue against the black of the sky, like white palomas, graceful birds flying above the fire, swaying down and swooping to the center, until they finally curl out of sight.  Our dark hair, our freckled shoulders and walnut colored eyes made us family, but the August picture of all of us, in our bras by the fire made us blood.  There is so much to be said about the fire. There is smoke in the hair, smoke on the skin, and burning red eyes the morning after. The morning after a family gathering fulfills promises of hangovers and chorizo.

Just a day since we buried my grandma, the morning after we built our fire we are tired and need to go home.  We know that we have to prepare for our jobs and school, the life we lead when we are away from the comfort of our family.  My invisible stitches hurt when I look at Veronica scoop up her breakfast beans with her tortilla.  This day, after the fire, and the songs, she doesn't wear her wig. She has her head hung uncomfortably low, tired from grief and company.  Her scalp is shining and pale against her mint colored pajamas that button over her sunken chest.  Her black bra from the night before, hangs on the door knob in aunt Chayo's bathroom no longer stuffed with tissue and she winces as she drinks down juice. She is no longer playing the part of my healthy cousin, but is now a victim of the disease.  She is no longer serving me advice or telling me to offer up thanks.  This morning I imagine that she is haunted by the black bird that drifted down to my grandmother and took up her breath in its beak.  She won't admit her fear or illness this morning as she eats with tired eyes, but we remind her that being weeks from finishing treatment, chemotherapy cocktails should be her only indulgence and she should not indulge in tequila on Friday nights.  She laughs, and as we laugh, my grandma's belly rises and falls in the cold earth, as she laughs too.

We eat our breakfast at the same table where my mother sorted beans as a girl.  My Tia Chayo's kitchen décor is the same as it has been since I was a child.  She has red linoleum, copper kettles hanging on black shelves, and a nice big round table where we can gather to eat my Tio's cooking.  "I have eighteen hours of driving ahead of me Tia," my sister says between bites.  We eat slowly because we know that soon we have to go back to New Mexico, to Las Cruces.  My sister is already tired from the eighteen hour drive ahead of her to Modesto, California.

My sister lives far from us and has forgotten how gratifying the feeling of family is.  She pokes fun at us because she says we need to be better Christians.  She can't believe she has been sitting in our uncle's jacket until all hours of the night, just as she did when she was a little girl and wanted to be part of the party, while the adults drank and sang. She comments on the liquor, the Tecate and chicharones that were all around us, just like she remembers from her childhood.  She says, "I can't believe the way our Tia Aurora belted out her best Linda Ronstadt between shots of Tequila but pinched me at church for crossing my legs.  We are horrible Catholics," and we all laugh.

At our dead grandma's table, my sister eats and smiles, recounting the fun from the night before, telling us that she does not regret driving from so far away.  She closes her eyes and makes a satisfied hum as she takes in the soft papas. She looks down and her eyes swell.  Too strong to cry, she throws her curly hair back out of her face.  I look up from my plate at my sister and get up from my chair to help her pull her hair back into a semi-ponytail and she smiles, and laughs. I know by looking at her that she is thinking about the song, the stories, and the warmth from the previous night's flames.  She relaxes back in her chair as if her mind is doing the backstroke through the smoke of the night before. This smoke she remembers is swirled in tales of my mother as a child and carried the words into the smoke that curled past my plump lips and into the black sky above our heads.

My sister reminds my mother that she needs to get back to California in time to go to church.  She sits and eats with cheeks that are burned from the night air of summer.  The radiation of the backyard flames has turned the tip of her nose the color of strawberry taffy. Her brown eyes are outlined in red and are glossed over with the tears that were cried at yesterday's funeral.  She sits quiet and I can tell it is because the food is so good and the fullness of family sits in her belly.  The love is so tasty that she craves for more.  She is warm from the chile, warm from the coffee and warm inside from a fire that has been burning for many years in our Tio's backyard on Yandell Street.

Tia Chayo comes by the table and stands between me and my sister. She carefully leans in and starts to pull her fingers through my sister's dense mess of curls.  Out of the corner of my eye I see the young girl I used to follow around, want to emulate, my only sister, as she leans sideways and rests her head on our Tia's belly and closes her eyes.  It is at this time that I acknowledge that my sister, like me does not have breast cancer.  I remember that once she told me, "Hey, I am nine years older than you and if you think you are ever frightened about something, remember that I have been frightened about it for nine years before you and I will always understand."  When she opens her brown eyes, they are filled, but not overflowing.  She says that when she goes away she will not wait so long to return, but she does not cry.

After the dishes, the cleanup, and the hugs we walk through the chain link gate in front of my Tio's home which is the home that my mother was also raised in, onto the uneven, cracked sidewalk and say our good-byes.  We wave good-bye to Veronica, Tio Chavy and Tia Chayo.  Like always, we promise to not stay away so long, promise to keep in touch, and promise that we won't forget all of the stories we were told.  I only live forty-five miles from my Tio and Tia but do not visit them unless there is a wedding or a funeral and I smile foolishly when they remind me of this.

I look to the side of the old adobe house and smile at my grandma as she sits on the wooden rocker under the patio.  There is a thin ribbon of smoke rising up toward the afternoon sky and the breast tissues are white ash at the bottom of the pit now. Before I close the car door, I smile and wave at my grandma.  She sits in her pink and lavender suit, her right hand pressed gently across her heart laughing heartily as we drive away.