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Life after breast cancer

The Best Light

I stood in the dressing room in front of the mirror. The flowy autumn-print romper had a bohemian vibe with an off-the-shoulder neckline and tiered, ruffled sleeves. It cinched at the waist and hit me mid-thigh, which was flattering for someone with my height challenge.

It would have been a perfect fit, save the upper half, which was too blousy. It wouldn’t lay on my shoulders because I don’t have two full breasts to support it. And when I pulled it up to cup my shoulders, it accentuated my lopsided breasts. Maybe I’m the only one who can see it, but my chest is the first thing I notice when I try on clothes.

Tears pulled at the corners of my eyes. I had my first book signing scheduled in Eugene, Oregon, and I had hoped to wear something summery. In the last hour, I had tried on more than 50 outfits and nothing had worked. Nothing. This was the closest and cutest, but as I looked at myself, I saw everything wrong with it.

I stepped out of the room to find her sitting on a chair by the entrance to the dressing rooms. Emotions caught in my throat. Her hands were folded in her lap and lay on top of her purse. For a moment, I had a flashback to my mom, who would sit waiting for me when she took me clothes shopping.

She even sounded like my mom, who always found the good and saw me in the best light. I nodded because I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I walked toward her and stood in front of three mirrors that revealed every flaw – including the open back, which was less than flattering with my thick, strapless bra. She stood behind me and gently pulled the sides of the romper.

“It just needs a little tuck here,” she said. “We can add a lace-up back and it’ll be perfect.”

My mother-in-law, Ann Gullberg, is old enough to be my mom, and until we went shopping in Portland together, I never realized how much I miss having a mom in my life.

One of my dearest friends, Ruth Putnam, is like a second mom to me. I adore Ruth, but she’s not someone I’d go clothes shopping with for the simple fact Ruth is a minimalist. She dresses well and keeps things simple – pocket pants and a pullover. Pocket pants is what she calls her slacks because they contain a lot of pockets. I wouldn’t look good in pocket pants, but Ruth rocks them.

So, having Ann, who wears vibrant colors and pretty little tops, want to shop with me was an unexpected treat. When she told me she could seamstress the heck out of the romper, I felt like I had won the lottery. I can barely sew on a button. And her patience reminded me of my mom.

Ann studied the styles and colors I leaned toward and then went throughout the department store to find dresses, rompers and skirts she thought I’d like. She found the one I ended up buying.

We returned to her home, where she got to work on my romper. I sat in her sewing room beside her while she moved the romper across her sewing machine with the ease of a seasoned seamstress.

Again, I thought of my mom, who kept her sewing machine in a cedar chest. Whenever my school uniform slacks and skirts needed hemming, which was always, she would place her sewing machine on the kitchen table. I’d sit beside her. I was always curious how she knew how to make my clothes fit better.

I tease that I have one and a half breasts, but the joking doesn’t always hide the pain. My mom used to compliment my “healthy bosom.” Turns out, my 34-C breasts, which remained ample and even attractive after breastfeeding four children, weren’t so healthy. So, when I lost more than half of my right breast to cancer, it changed how I saw myself as a woman. And it completely changed the clothes I could and couldn’t wear.

I’ve always liked sundresses, but most are off the shoulder. I can’t pull that off. T-shirts work only if they don’t cling. It doesn’t matter how great Victoria’s Secret padded bras are — and they are amazing — they can fill in only so much. Trying to find a swimsuit that works or covers my scars is nearly impossible. Yet I love the water, so I work with what I have and pray people don’t stare.

Today, it’s about the little wins and the people God places in my life. I see his hand in everything. Ann’s encouragement, love and kindness to transform my outfit reconnected me to my mom in a way I never imagined. I left Oregon with a new outfit and a better understanding of what makes me feel whole.

Mary Billiter

Originally published at trib.com

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