The Comfort of Breasts

“PAX!!” I said, annoyed, as I pulled his arm out of my shirt for the third time. “Mummy doesn’tlike when you do that!!” He sits still for a moment, pouting, then lunges again. “GAH!!” I yell, running away. He chases me -of course I let him catch me - and we collapse, breathless withlaughter. I have only a few seconds reprieve and then he tries to plunge his hand down my shirt again. I remove his hand and look solemnly into his eyes. “Pax, honey, we’ve talked about this. Mummy really doesn’t like it when you put your hand down her shirt.” He takes my face in both of his hands, looking back into my eyes. “I know, Mum,” he says, matching, for the moment, my solemn tone. Then his face breaks into a wide grin. “PUT it jus’ feels sooo duuud.”

Good grief.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised. My youngest has always been...handsy. Even as an infant he’d nurse by slappin’ em (to get more milk? we never could figure that out), holding on and squeezing with both hands, or, my personal favorite, “tuning the dials” as my husband would call it: nursing on one, tweaking the other, and grunting the entire time. By this point I was a pretty fearless nurser, but nursing Pax in public was always a little bit of a gong show. “What a strong, healthy boy!!” the kinder mums would say, while my face burned red with embarrassment.

I thought weaning Handsy McGee would be this big, huge production, but to my surprise, it was rather anti-climatic. “No more nursing,” I told him. He shrugged, then hugged me around the neck and surreptitiously slid one hand down my shirt. BEEP BOOP BOOP Dials tuned. Life went on.

A few months later, as I sat in that doctor’s office, half-listening in shock and horror as they discussed lateral vs. bilateral mastectomies, I thought of my sweet Pax and the comforting he still needed, the comforting he craved. Of how he would pull down my shirt, put his face in my chest and just....inhale. Like I was his drug. So while words like “reconstruction” and “nipple sparing” hung in the stale air, the only thing I could focus on was the feeling of Pax, his chubby little self in my arms, face buried in my neck, one hand down my shirt, seeking comfort in the only way he knew how.

In the weeks leading up to my mastectomy, I tried to prep both boys, but especially Pax. “Pax, honey, mum’s....boobs....are going to go away.” I fumbled over the terminology. Given the seriousness of the situation I thought perhaps I should refer to them as “breasts”, but that felt strange. How do you talk about this - especially with a two-year-old? “There’s cancer in, uh,them, and the doctor is going to take them off so the bad stuff can’t hurt me. But that means you can’t touch mummy’s chest for a while. I’ll have a big boo-boo.”

His older brother, five at the time, caught on to what I wasn’t saying: “But what happens if they don’t take the cancer out, Mom? What happens then?” So we talked about cancer growing and spreading and other things a mum should never have to discuss with her two young boys. Raines cried, Pax stared. No words were left. I wrapped them both up in a hug; Pax plunged his hand down my shirt. Comforted.

The recovery was long. Hours stretched into days into weeks. I spent most of the initial recovery period lying on the couch. Pax would often climb up and lay next to me. He’d talk in his baby talk voice and stroke my cheek. And then, when he was done, he’d pull down my shirt and inspect the bandages oh-so-carefully, avoiding the tubes still coming out of my sides. “Boo-boo,” he’d say. And then kiss my bandages ever so gently. The comforted had become the comforter.

“MOM!! I GOTS MY JAMMIES ON ALL BY MYSELF!! NOW YOU NUGGLE ME???” Pax’s voice carries down the stairs. My husband groans as I hand him my glass of Scotch. “Don’t fall asleep in there,” he warns. “I’m starting the show in 20 min.”

As I climb the stairs, I can hear both boys giggling in their bedroom. I walk in to a seemingly empty room, two boy-shaped lumps under the covers. “AHHHH” I yawn. “I think I’ll lie down...right...here....” The bed erupts in boys. They are like puppies, climbing all over me. We read books, sing songs, rub backs. Raines, per usual, is asleep in minutes. Pax lies awake, large eyes gleaming in the dark. “You OK buddy?” I ask.

“Mom? I’m a wittle bit worried dat if you go to Heaven I won’t be able to find you,” he says. “Do you fink.....do you fink you could jus stay in one spot?” This is our discussed technique for finding each other when lost.

“Well....” I try my best to answer honestly. “I don’t know if there is a heaven, Pax. But if there is, I suspect that I will always know exactly where you are. I’ll find you, Buddy.”

“How will you know?” he asks.

“These are the things a mummy just knows, Sweetheart. Just like I know when you are sad, or when you need a hug, or, like now, when I know that your little body is so tired. Because I’m your mummy - who loves you so much - if there is a Heaven, I’ll know exactly where to find you, and you’ll know where to find me. We’ll just follow our love.”

His little body sags in relief. I curl up next to him in our usual pose. Both of his arms circle my neck, his face buried under my chin. Only his legs are longer now - down past my knees. Like clockwork, I feel him go still, then, ever-so-carefully, one hand starts to sneak down my shirt. “Pax....” I warn. He freezes. Waits. Then starts sliding his hand down once more.

“Babe? Did you fall asleep?” I hear my husband call.

“Ok fine, Pax. You win.” I whisper. “You can put your hand down there, but no grabbing!!” Victoriously, he slides his arm into my shirt, resting it between my two reconstructed breasts. My fake breasts are firm, cold, scarred, and tattooed. They cannot produce milk, they have virtually no sensation, and no movement. My fake (tattooed) nipples will never respond to the cold, or to touch. There is no part of these breasts that feel real. Yet somehow....they’re enough. Pax sighs the sigh of a happy little boy, his eyes flutter closed. Within minutes, he’s asleep. Comfort.