When Granny was 82, she showed me the cavernous space where her breast had been removed.
"Wanna see the ugly?”
"No," I said, flinching.
She lifted her nightshirt anyway. A black jagged line sliced across the concave, saggy skin where half her womanhood had been erased. No nipple, nothing.
I sucked air through my teeth.
"Oh, Granny, that hurts. Are they going to take the stitches out, or…"
"They already did."
She had been holding her sore side all afternoon, rubbing her phantom breast in concentric circles with one hand, concealing her lopsidedness.
"I wish they would have just taken both of 'em," she said.
Her other hand grasped a bottomless red plastic cup of dessert wine against her healthy, voluptuous side.
"It's better than pills," she said, taking a sip.
My grandmother's large breasts were one of her greatest traits next to her crackly laugh, ability to spin wool like Rumpelstiltskin, and predilection for making outlandish remarks that silence rooms.
Her half-chest disturbed me at first, a reminder of her imminent mortality. Her mistrust of doctors got her there in the first place. She’d let the cancer fester until someone told her she wouldn’t just die; the cancer would burst through the skin if she didn’t take care of it.
After surgery, she refused radiation. We waited for the cancer to return. It didn’t.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm ready to check out, but then I walk outside and it's so beautiful, and I don't want to go," she said, not long after surgery.
She doesn’t say that anymore.
"It's so hot," she changed the subject.
"Go in the pool with me."
"No, I'm ugly. I look terrible in a bathing suit."
"You'd feel so much better, and no one is going to see you. Who cares?"
“No, I’m fine.”
Instead, she said she wanted to show me something. She led me off her porch into the forested duplex down the sidewalk to a frightened, hissing mother cat lying in a fern. Five kittens were nestled against the mom's lactating breasts. I couldn’t tell where the babies ended and the mom began. They were a blob of white cotton fur with tiny heads. They whimpered and stared at the looming spectators standing above them.
"They'll turn into wild cats just like their mom. It's just so sad. There's nothing we can do," she said, clutching her hollow chest.
“I know," I said. "It’s really sad."
Now, at 88, Granny is past the vanity of her half-chest. The constant pain of her bony, cartilage-free hip eclipses her worry about how she might look in a bathing suit. She uses a walker and wears a night gown all day, waiting for something worse than breast cancer to take her.
Her body is crumbling like her dusty 19th century house, where her agoraphobia has grown like suffocating ivy for 50 years. She hobbles among her creations: woven rugs, hand-crafted Santa Claus sculptures made of Sculpey and colorful glass eyes; a large, intricate doll house she built from scratch; a half-finished painting of a little boy that looks like an Ansel Adams portrait, and a wood staircase she stenciled herself.
The world never saw most of her talents, and she never saw most of the world. She kept indoors out of fear. She’s anxious and angry. I fight the genetic propensity to be just like her.
“All my friends are dead,” she says now. “How do people die so easy?”
She’s jealous of them. They are the lucky ones.
She doesn't want us to fuss over her when she's gone.
"Just bury me in a pine box out back with the dogs."
That’s her grand post-mortem plan. I don’t tell her that plan is illegal.
She stares at the antique clutter that will take us years to dust and sell or give away.
“What are you guys going to do?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I don’t.