I was in my 20s, just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.
Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a small women's boutique in the college town where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.
For generations, the boutique's proprietor provided personal attention and service to the community. Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.
She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women of the town as if she were their personal dresser. They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special.
Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.
As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, sort of like telling their real ages.
So, when they would ask for a size 10 and were obviously a 14, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter.
They would be so delighted at how they looked and left satisfied customers.
I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid '60s and social mores were not very flexible.
Looking for a dress she could get married in, a teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother. There was a lot of tension between them; nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant. Eventually, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.
Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. Breast cancer then was not as understood or openly discussed as it is today.
She pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she had the bra to fill out her bosom. I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptablility after such a traumatic life event.
I wanted to console her, to give her a hug, but I didn't, though my heart ached for her. She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were "whole," just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn't know what else to say.
The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in her dazed state. She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier; she was in shock.
She lost two family members in a senseless crime, but she didn't want to wear black. I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn't stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.
So my summer of being a personal dresser in a small boutique gave me a new understanding of retail therapy and an appreciation for the owner's devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.
I don’t know, I can’t see me anymore…all I see is pain.
I see you. You are a survivor!
Survivor, ha! I am done surviving.
You are so strong.
Look at all you have come through.
You mean all I have survived.
Yes, I know I am a childhood SURVIVOR of sexual abuse. My marriage SURIVIVED an affair and now…
Now you have SURVIVED breast cancer.
But I don’t want to SURVIVE anymore, I want to LIVE!
You are so blessed!
Yes, I know.
You were lucky not to have chemo or radiation…
STOP!! I am blessed, BUT I AM NOT LUCKY! ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?
Yes, and I still see a strong young woman. A survivor!
Please stop saying that. I am standing here with no breasts. With medical tubes hanging where my round, supple femininity should be… How is that lucky?
Well what? You have nothing to say? You shouldn’t, because you do not know what this is like. Let me tell you, it is a horror amusement ride at one of those traveling carnivals.
Go on, tell me more…
Well I want to scream, “Let me off this ride!” Cancer, mastectomy, expanders…oh my! And yet there is more to come.
I hear your pain.
I don’t think you do. You can’t hear PAIN!
Tell me more about this ride.
December 31st was when the call came and the doors opened to the house of horrors. The doctor was on the line, and we all know doctor’s only call when it’s bad. He said, “The biopsy revealed cancer. The good news is we caught it early.”
Happy New Year!
After that call, everything is a whirlwind of shock, information overload and tough decisions. Dr. Cox, the breast cancer surgeon, was amazing and thorough in her presentation of options.
With the odds of recurrence lowest after full mastectomy, I made the choice to remove my breast and undergo reconstruction. My life, in one doctor’s visit, had changed forever.
I left the office with my husband and sister; all of us silent. It was a lot to take in, for everyone. Walking to the car felt surreal, nothing would ever be the same.
Fear of the unknown had left me numb. I had now become an attraction on the horror ride, a zombie driven aimlessly through the motions of the events that followed.
Day by day, minute by minute, I ceased to feel. After all, I had to put on a show to protect the ones I loved from the gruesomeness cancer displays.
Along the ride I appeared strong and fearless as I subjected my womanhood to the butcher’s knife. Then the ride appears to end as it comes to rest in front of these mirrors; mirrors reflecting before and after…
And now I ask you, who am I?
You are me…
No, I have changed. Where is the beautiful, confident woman I used to see?
I am still here and yours to claim.
I can’t see you in me anymore. I stand here, after the knife, angry, scarred and altered.
I still see beauty and confidence in you, look harder.
I look and I see beauty shattered with the absence of me and confidence lost in what has been left behind.
Maybe you should look at me.
I am looking and I am lost in my reflections.
I see you, you are the strong one.
Yes, nothing’s changed there.
Then you must not be looking, because everything has changed.
On the outside, yes, but you have always been a survivor and…
There it is again, SURVIVOR, why must this be my title? When can I say enough is enough?
The Lord has a purpose for your life and your strength in adversity is how He uses you.
I accept that, but when is it okay for me to just be? When can I just live? When can I stop SURVIVING?
Maybe the answer is in your voice.
My voice? I am sure He has heard my voice. When have you known me not to speak my mind?
No, not that voice. The voice that sang praises as a child with the belief of innocence. The voice that reached others in song through the pain of a struggling marriage, where is that voice?
Oh, that voice.
Why have you silenced it?
I am afraid to sing again. My voice is my soul and I feel I must hide my deepest, painful emotions from this cavalcade freak show.
You can try and hide them, but they are the key to living.
I know...but I feel that once I begin to sing, I just might fall apart.
Then fall apart and let Him pick up the pieces. He feels your pain, He sees your tears and He longs to hear your voice.
Ah, my voice…funny, but I long to hear it too. Can it be that simple? Can it be that this is how this frightful passage ends?
Karen Cross is a 40 year old mother and wife. She has three intelligent, sensitive and funny boys and a wonderfully amazing husband. Currently, Karen helps adult learners find their way down the educational path to graduation at University of Phoenix and is one year away from graduating herself with a bachelors in psychology.
As a student recovering from breast cancer, she was provided an outlet for her emotional struggles as she returned to school after her mastectomy to a cathartic course in creative writing.
In that class this piece was born, and Karen hopes it will inspire, touch and maybe evoke the healing sought by all who travel the breast cancer journey back to emotional health.
Returning to Florence, Italy, meant seeing Michelangelo's David again.
I remembered the impact he had on me at 25 and wondered how he would affect me this time, some 40 years later. I had kept him close to my heart since our first encounter.
I've always had a special place for David in my fantasy world of men I adore and admire, a celebrity crush on a man of stone, whose magnificence seems so alive and present as if he could turn at any moment to his throng of admirers like a rock star facing his fans.
Would David still inspire me with his beauty and grace after all these years? Would the proud, yet gentle young man, toned and muscular, fit for Goliath, still stir me with his restrained power and reflective, protective gaze?
Though many years have passed, I still am captivated and charmed by his elegance and beauty. He remains a prince preserved in marble as if the Gods had frozen him for us to behold, a monument to eternal youth and strength that exudes courage and confidence.
I no longer have a schoolgirl crush. Instead my wiser eyes perceive "a peaceful warrior," with immortalized energy, ready to do whatever is required of him.
At 25, it was love at first sight; at 67 I am totally smitten by his gentle, powerful figure and adore him all the more.
Next time I see him, I will place a "love is eternal padlock" (L'amore è eterno dei lucchetti) on a Ponte Vecchio bridge rail to symbolize my commitment to an Italian Idol who will never change, who is perfect just the way he is.
Erana Leiken, principal of Tiger Marketing, is a marketing and PR consultant and freelance writer. She also teaches communication courses at the University of Phoenix and Web marketing and interactive content for the Art Institute of Phoenix.
Formerly an NBC reporter, magazine editor, and Web business writer, she is writing creative nonfiction and doing Web consulting. See www.tigermarketing.com.