*(The following is intended to garner me brickbats. I don’t mind. I think it needs saying – again.)
It’s sometime in early Fall of 1982. I motorcycle by my parents’ house en route to Mary Esther, Florida, hard by Pensacola, which is a long way from Sanford halfway down the state. Taking ‘the scooter’ will save me beau coup bucks in gas money. I go inside – the front door remains unlocked after near thirty years, though the street has been paved for a dozen years now – a shame that. Dad is just getting up from breakfast and mom turns around to see why he is wearing a big grin.
“Fish tomorrow?” he asks. I shake my head.
“Headed to Pensacola and won’t be back until Sunday. Can you take Monday off so we don’t have to put up with traffic while we murder specks?”
“Sure.” He puts on a light jacket over his Walt Disney World uniform and walks past me holding out a sheaf of Twenties. I have two C-notes in my hand as we make the silent exchange…he does not know that mom was gonna increase his “allowance” from 20- to 40-bucks a week soon, but I do. The folding money is from side jobs on small engines, pumps and other odd jobs. He jokes that he makes more now a couple years from retirement than he ever though possible. He does not know his bride of near 40 years has most of his pay and his Navy retired pay socked away in the credit union and when she dies in a near decade from now he will get the shock of his life when I hand him her checkbook and the bank and credit union passbooks.
When he finds out how much he asks me, “you knew?”
“Yup. You guys put me on the paperwork years ago and mom’s told me how much every couple years now.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to me,” he asked over a beer while we were fishing for maybe the last time ever a couple years after she died in ’91.
“‘Cause I never told her about our switching – your double-sawbuck exchanges with me for hundreds – and that you rarely went about with less than a grand and a half, Dad. You two kept such small secrets from each other. Why should I spoil your game?”
Well, mom sure spoiled my game later that day as I got handed a Tupperware box of friend chicken for the trip to Pensacola she just happened to have handy from last night’s supper…before she knew I was coming home. Witchy, that woman. I once wrote a poem about that: still my favorite and I can recite it entire after a double-decade and more: “My mother was a witch/ she’d say, catching me at breakfast play/ with her behind eyes/ Which witch?” would I reply./ Red shoes or none/ Dorothy’s done and run with the sun./ It rained the night my mother died./ ‘Twas well Earth cried.”
“J,” she began queerly. Her voice never quavered like that before. The soft hesitancy in her voice prickled like countless needles. I perked up my ears and sat back down at the table as she stood at her throneroom entrance – the galley kitchen from which she ruled manse Richards throughout most of my childhood ’till now. “I stayed up late to watch some television and saw an ad about self-examinations…”
The room spun out of control. The walls went gray and then black. I knew the words coming next.
“Which breast? Or was it both?”
I reached for the phone, hiding on its mahogany short stand right by my place at table. That heavy dark wood held the phone book, mom’s phone listing book and a pad and pen. That piece of furniture came from her Bronx home. I looked at her and said: “I ain’t gonna call that quack you call doctor, the one who tried to feed you five-milligram Valiums when I was in Vietnam and then when you told him they weren’t helping – Damn! Lady, did you even tell him you never took them! – so he upped the count to fifteen-milligrams instead? I ain’t gonna call him? Who’s next?”
When I had been medevacked back to The States Christmas of 1970, she later told me on a near weekly “swoop” in my new blue SuperBeetle VW back from Jacksonville Naval Hospital to Sanford that this local doctor was treating her “anxiety” over my Vietnam – she got and read the letters (and rarely shared them with dad because they were more a journal than a chatty everything’s fine kind of letter) and I blamed myself. She also did not tell me until years later and again when I read a letter to her brother in New York City that dad stayed glued to the evening news, fishing for word about the First Marine Division and maybe a glimpse of their combat correspondent son who had assured them he’d be safe back in Division Rear in Danang. He new better. He had spent a month with Marines on the line at Guadalcanal when his plane got shot down in 1942. He knew. I knew that mom didn’t need those valiums, so I had dumped them in the toilet after she showed me six or seven big bottles and a couple of smaller ones filled with the mommy-tranks. I wanted the number of the doctor who did not try to tranquilize my mother out of her worry that her goddamn stupid son would get his head blown off doing something foolhardy.
She gave me the name and number of a doctor whom I knew and respected. I dialed. Got the receptionist and told her who I was and asked her to ask the doctor to call me at Sally Richards’ number when he had a chance. I’d be by the phone until he did. She put me right through.
“Doc? Mom’s got a lump she says she just found under her left breast…When?…I’ll call a cab and we’ll be right down….No. I don’t think she’d enjoy the back of my bike. See you in 10. Thanks. Bye!”
We did and she quit shuddering. It was an early catch. Thank God for Late Nite TV and worrying mothers who pay attention to public service spots. And after nearly two years she was adjusted to the new symmetry and had been cancer free for 18 months and had her monthly (or so) checkups cut to twice-yearly. And then dad and she both got eyework done: hers glaucoma and his cataracts. They wanted to go out to Denver to see his sister and her kids and to Colorado Springs to visit his brother and their family before going on to the San Francisco Bay area where my older brother and his family resided. My younger brother and his bride were a bit behind on the granddaughter-route but would move back to Sanford and bring forth another star in both their worried eyes. But his eyesight put a crimp in his newly-bought near-thirty-foot recreational vehicle planned for that big swing Out West.
Not a problem. I resigned my position as sports editor and editorial columnist (and about three other sometime) jobs at a nearby newspaper and did most of the driving for more than three months. Mom had no problems and dad drove just enough in daylight conditions to give me sleep with the Siamese cat I brought through Feline Distemper just before I went to “Th’Nam” (I still can feel the clawmarks on my wrist from stuffing the pills down her throat and massaging them past her gag-reflex). We were a team.
Mom did not die of breast cancer, nor any other kind of cancer, but pneumonia she contracted in the hospital where she was sent because her blood gas numbers scared the doctor who was the same bastard who prescribed all those valiums two decades before.
And that is but a part of the reason I never will wear pink.
And I will tell you why.
More men – and remember, men are a minority in the United States of America, not by much but significant in several ways – die of prostate chancer than ever women die of breast cancer. Yet the National Football League dedicates not a whit of its attention nor its considerable high profile to that national concern. It’s all Breast Cancer awareness month in October where not just players and coaches – most but not all and not all the stars either – wearing pink socks, shoes, wristbands and all manner of accoutrement, and now the referees and the sidework people and even up in the booth and down on the field with microphones showing pink for the cause. It’s even found in college and high school football games.
Why not in basketball? Why not in wrestling? Cross Country? Swimming? Why not among teachers, administrators and staff? Beats me. Why is football – especially professional football, so all-fired fixed to wear pink? Why? The NFL Pink-Out in October is older than the Stand Up To Cancer movement in pro baseball and other sports-related activities. But why, oh, why just breast cancer?
Do you think – and I admit right up front my natural- and later professionally-honed bent towards cynicism – it has anything at all to do with the league’s absolute slavering over itself to get girls to watch men in tight pedal-pushers wearing now-form-fitting uniform jerseys for the most part? Do you think while it’s an admirable thing to raise breast cancer awareness – as if no one else is so doing? – why just that particular malady? Why not point to men’s poop-chutes and say: “here’s an even bigger problem!” to the gals and I don’t know, appeal to sisterly, loverly and motherly notions of protecting the dumber just-under-half of the species?
Besides, pink does not go well with too many teams’ colors.
Mom was more a figure skating, winter sports kind of gal. She went to both my brothers’ games with her boyfriend called Dad. And she respected my wishes not to have an audience – but I did let them come see me play in the first-ever State of Florida Club and University combined Rugby Championship Tournament, held just a mile or so from their home in Sanford. She, I feel confident, would find pink a poor color choice for boys or men. She was traditional that way. When she had a problem she couldn’t easily resolve she’d ask one of her sons.
So she did. And we all got almost another decade ’till something else killed her. I have no idea if she told dad the tale of The Left Breast. Wasn’t my place to need to know. I kinda doubt it – both of them were private people and showed the world only just so much. I praise God I raised her up right to ask the best question possible a son ever could hear from his mom.
You guys listening? Take off those damn pink socks and go talk to your women, guys!