Jews don’t get tattoos, I was always told. Whether fact or fiction, it was a Jewish rule ingrained in my psyche at a young age. (And then further cemented by Larry David in that hilarious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. ) Which made it all the more ironic that I would find myself in the waiting room on Yom Kippur at age 39, about to get not one, but two tattoos.
When my name was called, I proceeded into the room. This was hardly one of the hip studios on the streets of my hometown of Austin. This was a sterile surgical room at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I knew the drill. Check vitals, rate pain, get naked from the top up and put on cozy robe. Then my doctor came in. I gave her a hug. “Wow — you look great!” she said. It was surreal to be here at this moment with her. I remember a year and a half prior, meeting her for the first time and her saying, “I will be with you until the very end.” And here, we were: the end.
At that time, the extent of my disease and treatment protocol were still unknown beyond the scheduled bilateral mastectomy. For many breast-cancer survivors, reconstruction, specifically the nipple tattooing, is typically the last step on the surgical journey. But many women are so tired at this point, they simply opt out, go on without ’em: at peace with living a nipple-less existence.
My own expectation was that this would be the easiest part. After all, technically it was the smallest. But the truth is, those final surgeries that I completed just over a year ago, were some of the most difficult physically, emotionally and spiritually of my whole cancer experience.
I thought completing chemo would be the bookend and launch me into this “new normal” I had heard so much about. It was naive of me, I realize now, but I didn’t anticipate that ultimately humpty-dumpty had to physically be put back together again.
Then the nurse practitioner/tattoo artist arrived. “Are you excited?” she said. “I’m actually a little nervous,” I responded. “Oh, honey — this is the fun part.” Fun? OK. I appreciated her passion as she started blending the many shades of nude-colored ink. We proceeded to test out different sizes and shapes. It was cold and awkward. “Oh, this looks really nice,” she would say after a specific color combo. I didn’t really care. Pale pink buttons or tanned wide spheres? Whatever. I just wanted it done.
I sat in the chair with the tediousness of the needle prick for four hours. I wasn’t experiencing any pain since technically I don’t have feeling in my breasts — yet another harsh reminder of what I was here for. But as I heard the constant buzz of the needle, it felt as if I was reliving all the random moments of my year-plus-long “cancer journey”:
— Valentine’s Day, the day of my diagnosis. I still remember the look on my doctor’s face as she reviewed my ultrasound.
— Waking up from my surgery still groggy and asking if it had spread. It had — they removed 28 lymph nodes.
— The first day of chemo and that taste, that goddamn metallic taste.
— Sixteen treatments later, the last day of chemo. Now what?
When the needling procedure finished, I felt physically complete (and they did look fantastic). But emotionally and spiritually, I was depleted. There was nothing more to hold out for. Nothing more to stay strong for.
As I Ubered to the airport, I could feel it, the tears welling up. Going through security, the line felt like it was moving slower than ever. (Or was it me?) I arrived at the gate and sat down and checked in with my family. All good, I told them.
And then: I lost it. Guttural cries at Gate 26B. I couldn’t fake it anymore. All the fear and emotion of the last 19 months, and for some reason, now? — nipples on? — I could finally let go.
No one sitting around me had any idea of what had just happened under my shirt, but still I was met with the kindness of strangers. “Are you OK?” they asked. Even the gate attendant came up, put her arm around me and said, ”Is there anything I can do for you?” A blubbering mess, I took off my glasses and wiped my eyes. She handed me a tissue — and I asked what every non-first-class, non–new parent always wishes they could: Can I pre-board?
I know that, for many people, tattoos have a bigger, metaphorical significance. While I didn’t go into the day looking for it, I realized my perky little tattoos did too. As the plane took off, soaring through the air back to Austin, I realized this was it: the culmination of one stage of my journey and the embarking on another. It was a perfect full-circle moment — just like my brand-new areolas.