The following piece is from a new collection of personal stories, Awakenings: Stories of Body & Consciousness, edited and curated by Diane Gottlieb. What happens when 49 authors sit down to craft their experiences of living in a body? You get a collection of short essays that are raw, honest, and truly magical about the bodies we inhabit. Filled with trauma and triumph; pleasures and pain; challenges, resilience, and growth, Awakenings will sometimes make you laugh, often make you cry, and will always spur a deep appreciation for the flesh and bones that carry us all through life.
When I stand, my left leg is slightly bent, to compensate for my right leg’s shortness, my hips askew. I was born breech, under five pounds. When the nurses tried to get my footprints on a pad of paper for my parents to take home, my feet shot back toward me, and I inked my own face instead. I came into the world all wrong—butt first, feet to face, folded in half. And that was how I made Lauren Beth Pahos a mother. I was backwards and inky and far too small, but my mom was completely in love.
“Everyone was afraid to hold you,” she used to tell me. “Afraid they would break you.”
But my mom was never afraid of me. She—who smelled like mint gum and cigarette smoke, who drew hearts on the napkins in my homemade lunches, whose angry, coal-hot whisper I can still hear. She loved my brother and sister and me as though she might never get another chance to. She mothered us as though tomorrow she’d be gone.
“I would have held you forever,” my mom said to me. “To me, you were perfect.”
I’m four the first time my mom is diagnosed with breast cancer. My mom is thirty-five. Lainie is three, Willie a newborn. I will remember almost nothing about this time except making a video for her that my dad will bring to the hospital. Lainie and I spin around the orange rug in our living room, creating a circle out of our bouncing selves. We make silly faces, jump up and down as my dad records us on the video camera.
I remember being dizzy. I remember laughing. I remember she smelled like calla lilies when she came home from the hospital. That smell still makes me queasy. The odor of bandages and sickness—of sterility, of medicine, of running in circles until I couldn’t see.
Every memory of my mom’s body includes the scar. Radiation, chemotherapy, a single mastectomy. The scar from breast reconstruction surgery sliced across her back in a deep purple line, a reminder that peeked from swimsuits, a shadow from another life, from a time I could barely remember. Sometimes, while my mom stood in her bathroom drying her hair in her bra and underwear, she’d let me run my finger over the scar, the dark ridge, a dry crack in her soft skin, a fissure in the landscape, her body perfect and then not.
In the summers, our family piles into an RV and visits different parts of the country, so we can “keep you close” my mom says in the voice she only uses for dogs and for us, her “love voice” we call it, and we make her say things in the high-pitched, adoring voice, things like “Bowflex” and “Frosted Flakes” and “parking ticket” because we find it hilarious. On an RV trip when I’m seventeen, we stop at Kohl’s. We’re always stopping at Kohl’s for the continuous sales.
“I don’t understand how they stay in business,” my dad says every time my mom tells him how much we got for how little.
“Because of our family,” I think.
We park in the adjoining lot where there is enough space for the RV. The four of us trudge to the store in the heat while my dad stays behind to plot the day’s route. While my mom helps Willie look for new school shoes, I want to try on bras. I find the junior’s section and pull colorful ones from the rack. I meander to the women’s section and pull more, sophisticated ones with lace and underwire, little stitched flowers. Following the signs to the changing rooms, I hustle my goods inside, lock the door.
I take one bra off and try on another, another, another. I make a pile for discards and a pile for keepers, the bras that make the curves of my breasts look full and even, that don’t scratch, that are soft and lovely. I look at myself from the front, from behind, at my butt that my mom calls “apple cheeks.” I try on the bras with my hair up and with my hair down.
When I’m done, I get dressed, take my keepers, and leave the dressing room for the checkout. I’m sure that’s where my siblings and mom will go too. And then I see my mom. She is running toward me, her face pinched. I stop where I am. She grabs my wrist in one hand, my keepers in the other. “Where have you been?” she yells. “We were about to call the cops!”
“In the dressing room,” I say, my face growing hot. My heart is pounding. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve been looking for you for a half hour,” my mom says. “Didn’t you hear your name on the loudspeaker?”
I hadn’t heard my name. There was staticky pop music in the dressing room. If I’d heard my name, of course I would have come out. My mom throws my keepers on a checkout counter, says to the clerk, voice cheery, “We found her. Thank you for your help, so sorry about that.” Instead of buying my bras, she pulls me to the door, out into the hot parking lot. My family is standing there, my brother and sister with a Kohl’s bag between them, my dad with his arms crossed. My dad, trying to cut the tension, says dramatically, “I walked all the way over here in my flip flops!” though he’s wearing multi-strapped Velcro Tevas, and my brother, sister, and I die with laughter.
For years, the three of us will quote this to each other: “I walked all the way over here in my flip flops!” But each time we do, I feel my stomach brace, hoping no one will bring up the bras, the way I admired myself all afternoon, the reason my mom almost had to call the cops—because I was too vain, too in awe of my own body to care about anyone else.
It is safer to hate yourself, I take it all to mean, to distance yourself from yourself. How conceited to love how you look. How selfish to feel alive in your own skin.
I’m standing with my mom in her bathroom. I’m twenty-two, a fresh college graduate. Her cancer has come back—hormone therapy, radiation, chemotherapy. Three years after the re-diagnosis, she’s on hospice. There’s nothing left to do. But that doesn’t stop us from going to Walgreens to pick up her prescriptions, and before we do, I help her put on her fake eyelashes. Though my hands are clumsy, not right for the job, I’ll do anything she asks of me, anything at all. I take a deep breath, concentrate. My mom’s eye quivers beneath my finger, and with my own eyes squinted, my hands steady, I press the lash against the lid. It sticks. I guide the rest of the lash across, press so it stays.
“Did you get it?” my mom asks, blinking. She opens her eyes. “I think so. What do you think?”
My mom leans toward the mirror.
“Looks good,” she says. “Now, the next one.”
When I’m finished, my mom stands back and takes her wig off the counter. She places it on her head, adjusts the wig, clips her hair to get it out of her eyes.
“I’m all smoke and mirrors,” she says, talking to my reflection. “Most women are, but I really am. You could look at me and never know.”
An hour later, my mom and I stand in front of Walgreens. Underneath her big jacket, her body has shrunk to nothing. Her fingertips are yellow from her failing liver. A bruise blooms on her knee from a middle-of-the- night fall. But from a distance, we look like any regular, healthy pair on a Wednesday afternoon. Her wig is straight and un-mussed. Her eyelashes have stayed on, her lipstick too. See? I’ll want to tell my seventeen-year-old self. It isn’t vain, but rebellious, to feel alive in your own skin. It’s an act of survival to show the world who you know yourself to be.
In the parking lot, my mom and I are talking about who will take care of me when she’s gone. We’re both crying, and she pulls me into her. What they don’t tell you is that grief is a thousand losses, packaged as one. What they don’t tell you is your body becomes a carrier ship for them all. My mom’s left breast, the one they reconstructed all those years ago, pushes against my chest, firm and stable. The right one has deflated along with the rest of her body. My left leg is bent, to straighten out my hips. We are both uneven, mismatched, intertwined. We are made up and broken down, wet faces to the world.
In seven days, she will be gone. Right now, we are perfect.
About the Author
Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brevity, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, with concentrations in Travel Writing and Pedagogy. She has taught in the Allegheny County Jail, the Orleans Parish work release program, Our Clubhouse cancer support center, for National Geographic Student Expeditions, the Stika Center for Art and Ecology, and is a founding teacher of the Midwest Artist Academy. Maggie writes the newsletter GOOD/GRIEF and can be found at www.maggiepahos.com.