Judy’s Magic Wand

“Colorless Nipples” by Esther M. Pagan (2014. 21 x 8 in.).


Judy was my mother’s best friend
Even her name distinguished her
from the other friends
Elsie and Gertrude and Ann
with their short hair and Brooklyn voices
Judy lived in a midtown Manhattan high-rise
She worked in the garment district
and gave me clothes
like those other girls wore
Poor boy sweaters, striped tights,
little white boots
She had long black hair and she was very tall
When we visited she’d put her hands on my shoulders,
look me in the eye, ask about my life
Then she’d listen to my responses
When Judy died, my mother composed a eulogy
She said she it felt like Judy waved a magic wand
wherever she went
When Judy walked into the room, she wrote,
everything sparkled

My Aunt Reba was the other person
who liked to talk to me
She’d pick me up in her car and I’d keep her company
as she did her errands
She called me “her little passenger”
I was about nine when she died
I’d been told I couldn’t visit her because
she’d hurt her back
My parents went without me
When they came home they revealed
that they’d gone to her funeral
Every time my mother’s back hurt
I thought that she would die

Years later, I understood
why the women disappeared
Nobody ever said it loud
or used a normal tone of voice
Cancer they’d whisper
Or The Big C
Judy and Reba
and my friend Bonnie’s mother,
who let me eat lunch at her house every day
She always made My-T-Fine pudding
We’d eat it while it was still hot
The lady down the block
who sat by the window
one eye on her grandchildren,
the other on a pot
My pretty fourth grade teacher,
who was suddenly replaced
by a mean substitute with a mustache
Judy Holliday, my mother’s favorite actress,
who shared both a name and a disease
with her friend
Breast Cancer Breast Cancer Breast Cancer
Nobody talked above a whisper
Nobody said the name

Decades later, I went for my first mammogram
A natural density required me to return for further testing
Once I learned that it was routine I stopped panicking
Laura Nyro had died, Brigitte Bardot had survived
and Greta Garbo, Sheryl Crow, Marianne Faithfull,
my friend Susan’s sister and my downstairs neighbor
Melissa Etheridge, Betty Ford
Edie Falco, and several of my friends
Zoe, Alice, Ronnie, Esther
All have outlived breast cancer
Women are talking above a whisper
Some of my friends have had mastectomies
They help others, they make art, write poems
Live their lives above a whisper

I started an art project
Photographing women’s bodies
A reality collage
Nobody is perfect in these photos
but everyone is beautiful
Zoe lifted her shirt
in the bathroom of a club
A double mastectomy
and she was beautiful
In another club, another bathroom,
three of us compared breast shapes
in front of the mirror
One of us a breast cancer survivor
And we were all beautiful
I never finished the project
because there is no ending
Except to continue speaking
Above a whisper

Image courtesy the Perl family.