What We Inherit: A Letter to My Daughter

By Nancy McCabe


When you asked where I was going this morning, I answered with a joke. “Remember when you were little and I told you that a machine squeezes you between two plates?” You laughed, recalling how you’d pictured white-coated sadists coming after me with the desert rose dinner plates I inherited from my mom. The ones you’ll inherit someday.

“It’s really more like getting your boobs stuck in an elevator door,” I clarified, and now 19, you laughed again, this time dubiously, at these rituals of womanhood. I didn’t tell you that today would actually be a repeat performance, this year, like every year, my dense tissue eliciting a callback.

Now, I slip on a pastel hospital gown and whisk aside the dressing room curtain. It’s like emerging from a department store fitting room into a combination living room-torture chamber. Half the room masquerades as an extension of home with its floral couch, oval rug, basket of magazines, and soft music. Over this looms an industrial metal machine, and tucked along the wall is a little control booth, shelves lined with x-ray images.

The technician directs me to bend at the waist, tilt, inch closer, turn my arm. A metal plate lowers to flatten me. “Is that too tight?” she asks.

“It’s OK,” I say through gritted teeth, unwittingly offering permission for the machine to squish me even tighter. She hastens to the corner and pushes a button.

A whir, a click, and the blessed release, even more glorious, if you can imagine, than that moment every night that you shuck off your bra.

Since you were adopted, you don’t have to worry about our family legacy of breast cancer. But we know nothing about your genetic heritage, and even if we did, someday you, too, will undergo this regular ritual. I feel like it’s one of those things I should prepare you for somehow, the same way my grandmother passed on knowledge and wisdom to my mother. Things like how to protect yourself or how to shop for produce, thumping a watermelon for its hollow sound or detecting the vinegary smell of an overripe pineapple.

Once, one of my students wrote about the “c-word disease.” During discussion, it became clear that some of them weren’t following. “You know what the c-word disease is, right?” I asked them. There was a long silence.

Someone finally spoke up tentatively. “Cunt?” Another looked confused and said, “Crap?”

“Those aren’t diseases,” someone else said.

Another long pause. And then another student said, “Chlamydia?”

You learned young about the c-word disease. You were there when your grandmother, dying, was addressed as “sir” by a doctor after a cursory glance at her ravaged body. She was too far gone to wince. May we both be spared her fate, or that of my great grandmother, given an experimental acid treatment that killed her before the cancer could. Or that of both my grandmothers, one too shy to see a doctor till too late, the other told her lump was “just” a milk duct.

“OK,” says the technician after rearranging then squishing me three times. “You can get dressed.”

I leave the gown in a wad on the dressing room bench, next to wipes and deodorant, then wait on the couch. In the booth, the mammogram technician confers with the ultrasound technician. “Right upper lateral,” I hear them say, tracing hazy images like planets in space.

Fifteen years ago, maybe my own mother perched on a similar couch before her life changed. Maybe she was thinking about her Bible Study lesson, her grocery list. Maybe she was fretting about one of her children or swelling with pride at something we’d done. It never took much to set off her worry or her pride. Once when I was your age, she was embarrassingly impressed watching me poke and prod apples in the produce section, amazed at how I knew to choose the ones that resisted the imprint of my finger. The firm, crisp ones.

I was proud to know something she didn’t.

But there is plenty I’m happy not to know, I think, following the ultrasound technician down the hall. Did my mother, my grandmothers, once lie in cool darkness, gel soothing their skin turned this way and that like apples being examined for bruises? I wonder if they distracted themselves with memories, like mine of you as a toddler explaining to your stuffed animals, “Bra-zil is a country with two large mountains.”

I wait for the doctor, but instead the ultrasound technician returns. “He says you can go,” she says. “Your primary will be in touch.”

The vise that held me in its grip releases. I am safe for another year. Otherwise, wouldn’t they keep me for more tests?

I board the elevator, briefly suspended between floors, between generations. I imagine our ancestors on elevators, in doorways, in waiting rooms, those in between places, between suspecting and knowing, between beginnings and endings. Marshaling their forces, what wisdom remained to be passed on to their daughters. About the elasticity of ripe eggplant, and what the husk reveals about the corn. About the imprints of fate’s fingers.

Maybe someday you too will leave behind dim corridors and that antiseptic hospital smell, elevator planting you firmly back on the ground, doors sliding open, releasing you into the rest of your life. Maybe planets will whirl above your head, invisible, as you step out into bright sunlight.

Nancy McCabe is the author of five books with a sixth, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, forthcoming from University of Missouri Press. Her work has appeared in magazines like Fourth Genre, Massachusetts Review, Gulf Coast, Newsweek, Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She has won a Pushcart, and has been recognized eight times on Best American notable lists.


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