“Just Breathe”: A Reflection
At this point, I’d been steadily picking at the idea of what a cancer patient is supposed to look like, how one is supposed to behave. I think about my newfound clinic friends. The one who stuffed her bra with socks when she came for her appointment, and the other who refused to take off her hat (far less her underwear), and the third who chose to let her beloved plants wither and die, because she didn’t want her neighbours to see her new form. None of them, I’m sure, would entertain the idea of posing naked for anything now. Naked? With wisps of barely-there hair clinging to a scalp?
Naked? After a double mastectomy? Please.
To be sure, that night would be nothing like my self-portraits, shot safely in my small unfinished bathroom, with the harsh fluorescent light, against the once-bright yellow wall. There would be no filters or designer frills, no covering or editing of my now flat chest. No apps or any other contortion of optics within my control. That night would be just me, in excruciating detail. My scars throbbing, lashed against my chest, taut and decidedly uncomfortable; my bloated belly clamoring for attention; an undercurrent of anxiety swirling and thrashing about, moving from my chest to my mind and back. My scars hurt all day that day. They do that sometimes. Tightening one minute, searing the next. Reminding me of what I’d lost. Trying to bully me into subjugation.
You’re fine. Just breathe.
I’ve always known cancer to be an inelegant, shady, boisterous, bitch of a disease. Indelicate. Crude. And in this liminal moment between recovery and preparation, any kind of pain was annoyingly inconvenient. This pain, however, felt a little too… eager. Too present. As if it wanted me to rethink why I would dare to experience joy, leisure, love… Power. As if it wanted to suggest that I was somehow less worthy, now, to have everyone see my cuh-cush.
I thought I heard someone gasp when I first removed my robe and ambled toward the low-laying makeshift bed. Was it shock? Delight? Surely I wasn’t the first person with a double mastectomy to pose. Or was I?
This is easy. Just lay down and read your book.
Don’t look up.
I pretended to care about whatever the hell Toni Morrison was talking about in the first few pages of Paradise, but really, I was desperate to know what they were thinking. Did they find me courageous? Less so, perhaps, given my decision to lay on my stomach, effectively hiding my one outstanding boon to bravery. But still, could they tell that I was being aggressively vulnerable right then and there? I have a hashtag and everything. Did they know about the hashtag?
It’s okay. You’re okay. Just breathe.
Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact. Fuck. Sundiata. Okay, okay… Find something to focus on.
Lord, meh belly big.
Over the years, my mother served as a template for the grace and openness with which she managed her illness. That this disease thrives on her family’s side – a family literally named ‘warrior’ – elicits a wry smile. Guerreros are warriors. What a delicious irony. Even now, as I find myself caught between my dogged unwillingness to play the role ‘cancer patient’ assigns, and my ongoing excavation of what it means (and how) to ‘hold space’ for myself as I navigate this very interesting life event – and there is life, I insist – I’m reminded that I am, indeed, my mother’s child. If I am brave, she was brave first. If I am amazing, she was the prototype. There would be no cowering. No shame. I wasn’t taught how.
In what has so far been a very singular experience, even the pretense of a strong, tender, unwavering partnership is the type of gentle emollience one can easily translate into joy. The intimacy of sharing and showcasing one’s body, now in its most flawed form, after months of living a contactless life, cannot be so easily dismissed. We decided to have his hand placed gingerly on my chest, our bodies turned to face each other, while our legs twisted and melded together like thick Banyan tree roots. My heart beat with exceptional enthusiasm, much closer to the surface now, its bashy energy in direct opposition with the discomfort I felt by the eventual weight of his arm. There was no breast there. No cushion. Just bare sternum. And it hurt. And it made me think of what else is to come. Soon, I would start rounds of chemotherapy. Rounds of weakness and dependency. Rounds of extreme contactless-ness. The angle of my head forced the tears to run off, each tributary taking its own course, depositing into my hairline and my ear.
Just breathe, baby.
Where my breasts used to be, there were now smudges of charcoal or blank spaces
Fitting, I suppose – surrounded by clouds of pastel pinks and blues, hovering just out of reach lest there be any unspoken suggestion of what should actually be there; or sharp lines, drawn with such finality that I had to put my hand on my chest, making sure that at least my heart was still there, while blinking back more tears.
Just breathe…Mel Gabriel | July 2021
Mel Gabriel is an entrepreneur, producer, and writer, living in Trinidad & Tobago. The founder and Chief Vision Officer of Caribbean Lookbook – the premier catalogue for Caribbean fashion and lifestyle – Mel has grown the digital platform to include content that shares and shapes the way audiences engage with culture, lifestyle, and creativity, across the diaspora. Born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago, Mel also leads the production + publishing company Middle Face, producing photoshoots, episodic content and live micro-events.