This week week we are highlighting the five stories that won prizes in this year’s short story contest. On our last day we showcase our first prize story, “The Scars,” by Olivia Barringer. The judges found this story touching and well-written, and praised it for its believability and verisimilitude.
Congratulations to all of our winners this year!
My little daughter Ella is honestly the best thing that has ever happened to me. Yes, I know many parents say that about their children, but Ella changed my life. Throughout my pregnancy with Ella I had a plan. The plan was that I was going to visit my doctor, do all the little superstitious things every mother blogs about, and get her nursery ready, painting it in shades of pink with an old wooden rocking chair in the corner where I could breastfeed. My mother had breastfed me and her mother breastfed her, and throughout my pregnancy I had decided that I would continue, not knowing that it would change my life.
Ella was born, just according to the plan, and it was the best day of my life. The doctors rushed around the hospital room, weighing her, measuring her, and doing all those doctorly things they do. When it had come time for the doctor to ask if I planned on breastfeeding, I looked at my husband and proudly said yes. Ella latched on right away and I never felt prouder.
In the weeks after Ella was born, my husband and I spent all our time in the nursery. Changing diapers, trying to put Ella to sleep, and feeding her in the rocking chair that sat in the corner of the room. As exhausting as it was, we loved having to get up at 2 a.m. and rock her back to sleep, guess what she wanted when she cried, and always carrying a diaper bag for all of life’s unexpected times. It was all great until one day I noticed something different.
Breastfeeding can be painful, only imagine a newborn sucking off your chest. But this pain was different, something else that I hadn’t felt before when feeding Ella. The pain continued for a couple of days. I thought it would just blow over, but it became unbearable, so we took a trip to the doctor. I walked into the office and sat down in the waiting room. The nurse called my name, “Joanne Thompson”. I walked back and had my bloodwork taken, height and weight measured, and then sat in a room and waited. We waited and waited and finally a doctor came in. I could tell something was not right. The look on his face made my stomach drop, like when you were a kid and rode one of those amusement park rides that drops you 500 feet from the sky. The expression on his face was so disheartening, I wanted to just tune out what he was about to say. “Joanne, we have found traces of Stage 3 breast cancer cells in your blood work.” At that moment my heart broke in two. My immediate thoughts went to Ella. Then my thoughts spread to my husband, Christian. “Joanne, honey,” Christian put his hand in mine and asked if I heard the doctor. I heard him, I wish I hadn’t, but I did. Tears started to swell in my eyes and I couldn’t stop thinking about Ella. The doctor continued to talk about treatment plans and chemotherapy and my head just wouldn’t stop spinning. How could you continue to talk and go on with your day after you had just been told you have cancer? It took me a minute or so after being told I had a terminal illness to come back to my senses. We continued to talk about decisions, plans and strategies, but the world around me just became fuzzy. I felt as if I had nothing else to live for and there was no purpose for me, but then my fuzziness turned into tunnel vision and all I could see was Ella.
I had followed the doctors orders and had gone through the chemotherapy. I simply became a different person. I could see my body changing within just days and weeks. Clumps of hair falling out in the shower, bruises, I even became too fatigued to hold my own daughter. To think that just weeks ago I was happy, excited to welcome my daughter into the world and now I was too weak to even hold her. It was extremely hard for me to make the decision as I had my whole life to put into perspective, but something urged me to go through with it.
The doctor’s office just became another place to me like work, the gym or the grocery store. The route there had become muscle memory and everyone in the office knew who I was. It gave me some sense of comfort, but at the same time I walked in there and the only thought that ran through my mind was that everyone was staring at me. It made me nauseous, not just the medications but the nerves of it all. The nerves were especially high the day I got my midway report from the doctors about my treatment. The doctor came in and that same gut wrenching look was strung across his face. I felt like my world had just been toppled over again, like I‘m was a tree and I’ve had whacks of an axe taken to my trunk and this would be the last blow. He said, “Joanne I’m sorry to tell you that the chemo has not been treating the cancer they way we had hoped and it has spread to your lymph nodes.” I went to go open my mouth but nothing came out. What was I supposed to say? We went in for a biopsy the next day and it was clarified that my cancer was now a 3a in both breasts. My only option was a double mastectomy.
It truly frightened me, cutting off my breasts. How would Christian see me? How would I see me? Then the thought came into my mind, I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed Ella. My plan, gone. The one thing I’d alwats wanted was out of my grasp. Although the plan was gone I knew that this would be the best option, for me, my health, my husband, and Ella.
Leading up to the surgery I kept thinking about what the surgery would do to my confidence, my esteem. I was filled with so many emotions, good and bad. I knew that this was the most effective way of getting rid of the cancer, but I was terrified. I was getting rid of the things that I valued most in raising my daughter. I had watched my mother growing up and idolized her. Would Ella think that way of me?
“I promise I’ll be right here when you wake up,” Christian said to me as they wheeled me away into the operating room. The lights were so bright, almost blinding. Everyone was wearing blue scrubs and the air was stuffy and smelled of Clorox. I began to panic, my stomach twisted, my heart racing, and my palms sweating. I began regretting my decision, worried it would be too much for me to bear. But like the sun parting the clouds, Ella came into my mind. I calmed down and told myself that I was doing this for my daughter. I was doing this so that Ella would have a mother growing up, one that she could look up to like I did with mine.
As he promised I woke up to Christian by my side. I was still groggy from the anesthesia, most likely talking like a teenager who had just gotten their wisdom teeth taken out. The couple of hours that I had gone without seeing Ella had felt like days. I wasn’t quite ready to see her yet, as I thought things would be different. I would have wanted to just jump right in and continue the plan, but things would have to change. The doctor came in a little while after the procedure and he had a different look to this face, one that wasn’t heart stopping, gut wrenching, or breath taking. It was a small underlying smile. “Joanne I am happy to say that the surgery went well and we removed as much of the cancer as we could,” Although the words weren’t a guarantee or a surety, his words gave me a sense of reassurance.
When I was finally feeling up to pace, Christian brought Ella in and I don’t think I could have felt any more joy. Hesitant at first, I brought her close to my chest, like I had the day she was born. I could feel her warmth as her portly rounded cheeks touched my skin. It was at that moment I knew that I would be okay. I was able to hold my daughter and feel like I wasn’t disappointing her. I was able to hold her and know that I would be able to make a new plan. A plan that I could pass down to her when she had her first child.
The journey I have had has been fearful, emotional, and hectic, but as I look back on my story I am proud to say that I survived a battle. And in thinking about my story, what brought my cancer to my attention was my daughter. Without her in my life, I would have never noticed that pain that brought my world crashing down, but since then, I have done everything I can to build my world back up. I look in the mirror now and see two huge scars. These scars bring up many of those awful emotions, but they also show and represent the story that I have lived. These scars show what I went through to become cancer free and constitute the journey that I shared with my daughter to become strong.