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Chapter 2 Second chances by Beth Ritter

September 16, 2015


Standing in the lobby of the airport, Justine is filled with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Seeing her sister for almost any reason is pure joy, but for this particular reason, she’d take a pass. Justine knows this is going to be a tough visit and she is already struggling to keep the tears at bay. There is an unspoken understanding between women, let alone sisters who have had breast cancer, and even though she has always wanted to be just like her big sister, this is one time when she would rather not take after her. Southwest airlines has always been their airline of choice. It seemed to be the cheapest and since there are no seat assignments, they could try to find a seat close to the front and to be the first one off. They were always looking down the escalator, around the corner, up the stairs, whatever it took to see each other as quickly as possible. Running into each other’s arms, they would literally be smiling for the next 45 minutes, catching up and reminiscing about whatever they hadn’t discussed in the numerous phone calls exchanged that week. Even though Ginny lived on the West coast and Justine was on the East, there was rarely a day that went by when they didn’t talk to each other at least once.

Knowing that the plane has landed, Justine is craning her neck to see her sister, as she comes barreling past the “Do not enter” sign at the end of the terminal and past the security guards. Ginny is already sobbing and Justine begins to cry as well as that unspoken understanding crests to the surface. Through the tears Justine can still see Ginny running towards her. Her carryon luggage swinging from around her neck, her purse over her shoulder, magazines under her one arm, and snacks under the other when suddenly out of nowhere and almost as if in slow motion, Ginny stumbles. Knowing this is not going to end well, Justine braces herself for the worst. Growing up Ginny was often breaking, spraining, fracturing, tearing, bruising or bleeding somewhere on her person on a regular basis. Their mom used to say they kept Ginny’s medical charts on the counter at the dispensary on the naval base in town. They even knew her by name, well add another one to the scrapbook, Justine finds herself thinking. As she watches helplessly, the contents of Ginny’s purse scatter everywhere as she’s falling. The magazines she had been cradling under her arm shoot across the terminal like some wild hockey puck. And then she is prostrate on the floor with her face buried in her now open carryon bag. As Justine rushes to her, horrified that she may be hurt, Ginny lifts her head, revealing two Cheetos and an Emory board that are stuck to her face.

“I’m okay!” she shouts with satirical humor.

Justine tries with everything in her not to smile but it’s beyond her control. As she bends down to help her sister, laughter bellows out of her.

“Are you okay?” Justine stammers. By now Ginny is also roaring with laughter and it is turning into coughs and gasps for air. Ginny rolls over onto her back and just lets the humor of the situation take over. Lowering herself onto the floor to join her they are no longer in the middle of the airport being stared at from every angle. It’s as if they are transported to a place where only the two of them exist. No one is running for planes, no one is leaving or picking up loved ones, no one is asking them if they’re okay. There is just Justine and her big sister wrapped around each other like two best friends on the playground, laughing and trying desperately to catch their breath. It felt so good, so normal, so like sisters.

The next few days are a bit of a cluster, visiting family, preparing meals, taking care of pre-ops and of course, “exercising”, (code word for shopping). After all, Justine had to have something cute to wear home from the hospital. They found a comfy terry cloth jumpsuit, with elastic in the waistband and a zipper down the front for easy access and removability. Now all that was left to do was wait. Ginny saw an opportunity that afternoon while sitting outside to ask some sensitive questions.

“Have you thought about reconstruction?” “I have” Justine replies, smiling broadly and saying, “I’ll take some C’s please.” “Well, what are you now?” “Now, I am a “low C”, she says and motions in the vicinity of her navel, “not quite as perky as I once was.” “But when all is said and done, I’ll be a “high C”, as she motions with her hands in the vicinity of her collar bone, “way more perky than I have ever been!” “Well you go girl!”

“I know right!? I might as well get something out of this.”

As Justine goes into the detail about the lengthy procedure, it’s as if she is talking about someone else, it’s all so clinical, and she is completely disconnected, no emotion whatsoever. She explains that she discussed several options with her plastic surgeon, some more invasive than others, but ultimately opting for expanders, a slow process where they insert an empty thick plastic implant behind the muscle of your breast and over a period of a few months, they add small amounts of saline. It’s done directly through your skin but isn’t felt because all of the nerves have been removed. Once your desired size has been reached they reopen through the same incisions, take out the expanders and replace them with the silicone implants. “They make it all sound so easy, but I’ve been told it can be quite uncomfortable.” “Wow, it sounds amazing though. Things sure have come a long way since I had my surgery!” Recognizing the sadness in Ginny’s voice, Justine is careful to be sensitive. She has known for a long time that Ginny had hoped for better results then she had received.

“Maybe you can talk to my plastic surgeon?” “No”, she says with a heavy sigh. “I’ve talked to several doctors and they’ve all said there is nothing more they can do for me. It is what it is and honestly, I’m just happy to be here.” “I’m very happy for that too,” Justine says as she reaches over and squeezes Ginny’s hand.

Surgery is scheduled for early the next morning and Justine is amazed that she actually sleeps the night before. She had long been a believer in the power of prayer but as she went on this journey, she was getting unusual opportunities to experience it. Sleeping the night before surgery was just another example of that power. She knew her church family, her own family and her best friend had been praying for her since her diagnosis. Praying for peace, for healing, for everything she would need. And she could really feel their prayers.

The drive into the hospital was predominantly quiet and Justine was surprised that her anxiety level was inconceivably low. There was small conversation about things she and Ginny wanted to do before she returned home and up until Justine was called back into the pre-op area she had been remarkably brave. However as she sat down next to the admitting nurse, a large African American man who would set up her I.V line, all that began to change when he asked,

“What brings you in today young lady?” It was almost as if his question catapulted her into a reality check, and the reality of why she was here. Justine looked down at her hands folded in her lap, felt that familiar stinging in the back of her throat and eyes and quietly said,

“A double mastectomy.”

He took her hands from her lap and cradled them in his big strong hands, patting them and saying, “It’s all going to be alright.”

How do all these people know that it’s going to be alright, or is that just the phrase of the day to pacify someone?

Regardless, she found comfort in his words and his touch gave her a sense of security and humanity.

He finished what was needed to prep Justine and handed her a hospital gown to change into. When she emerged from the changing area in the short gown and slip resistant socks, he helped her settle on the hospital bed, placing a warm blanket over her now-chilled legs.

Abruptly the curtain that was used to create a false sense of privacy was flung open, screeching on the metal rod that supported it, the noise was so jarring it caused Justine to clutch her chest in fear as if someone had come at her before she was ready. “Hey now, said the anesthesiologist, I didn’t mean to startle you so bad.” Her entrance created a lasting first impression in Justine’s mind. A no nonsense kind of woman in a brightly colored scrub top and black patent leather nursing shoes. Loving people that lived and enjoyed life were right up Justine’s alley, and she seemed like that kind of person. Justine decided she was just the kind of gal she would want taking care of her. On her head she wore an outrageous surgical cap, gesturing towards the cap with the pen in her hand she says, “take a good look sweetie, this is the last thing you’re gonna see before I knock you out.” Realizing her patient was not seeing the humor in her statements, she quickly adjusted her approach. Kneeling next to the chair and placing her hand on Justine’s knee she asked, “How you doing doll?”

“I’m a little nervous, but I think you’ll do just fine.”

Laughing deeply the anesthesiologist replied, “well that’s a first, no one has ever told me that I’d do just fine, but as for those nerves, well were gonna take care of that right now. I’m gonna give you a little something to cool your jets.”

“Ok, bring it on”, Justine said through a ragged sigh and it was the last thing she remembered stuttering as she slipped into the most restful sleep she was likely to have for next few days, or even weeks.

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