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What God Takes: Bris and Mastectomy

It is your eighth day of life and tine day of your brit milah, the covenant between every Jewish boy and his Creator. I lean against the wall like a broken fixture, propped up on either side by my best friends, Miriam and Judith.

Your father holds you in a football grip and gazes into your sleepy eyes. If I look at you I’ll cry. Instead I look at Judith, who squeezes my hand.

On the dining-room table are two unlit candles, a prayer book, a silver goblet. A small steel tray holds surgical instruments, covered under a sterile drape.

There was no equivalent tradition for your sister Leah. Now it has become fashionable to hold naming ceremonies for girls, but we didn’t think of it ten years ago, and I’m sorry. Leah, across the room, seems hurt; she’s jealous of the gifts and attention you’re receiving. You fuss, perhaps because the men are conversing so close to you. I ache at the sound of your voice, and bring my arms up to hug across my chest.

I remember those first few weeks after Leah’s birth when I was a reservoir for the waters of life. Leah squalled and my body rained milk. Leah squalled and I gave myself to her until her suckling brought physical release for us both. I can’t give you that, my son, because of the mastectomy. I do have feeling in my chest: of fullness, of tension, of something pent up inside. Perhaps a kind of essence of mother’s milk flows through my veins, if not my breasts. Perhaps it is nothing of the sort, only the phantom pain of an amputee who seeks to give a greater meaning to her suffering.

“What name have you given this child?” the mohel asks formally.

“Israel,” your father answers— meaning, ‘he who. struggles with God.’

“That should be your name,” my friend Miriam whispers and I smile. She and Judith, like me, are also in their late 30’s. Judith has recently started to darken her hair, while Miriam thinks the gray has given her status that she lacked before. I’ve avoided looking in the mirror since my surgery, and have forgotten whether my hair has grayed or not.

Judith married young and has three daughters. Miriam waited long after graduate school and now wants desperately to have a child, but she hasn’t been able to conceive. She looks to me, as if to reassure herself that I am strong enough to go through with this.

Watching Miriam, I see how we women feel tension in our upper bodies. We hug and press our shoulders to each other, we heave our chests, we sigh. Miriam moves away and hunches over her torso, diminishing the size of her breasts. Though she knows that one has nothing to do with the other, Miriam has said to me that she would sacrifice this part of herself if that would help her become a mother.

The men, even your father, hold themselves much lower while they contemplate the inevitable. They stand with their arms at their sides, hands brushing thighs as if poised to cup their groins the moment the first cut is made.

“Circumcision is an irrational act,” the mohel tells us, “performed because the Holy One has asked it of us.”

My husband nods in agreement, but he is trembling and I know his mind is elsewhere. As for me, I am not sure that I agree circumcision is irrational. Perhaps it is, but no more so than the fact that I had both breasts removed when only one was infected with a marble-sized clump of cells. I allowed it because I was deemed “high risk,” since my mother and a maternal aunt died young of breast cancer. There was no guarantee that a mastectomy would cure me, yet I listened to my doctor, a mere man whose only leap of faith may have been on his eighth day when he was circumcised.

“This new life is a miracle,” the mohel says, and I agree with him.

If you were planned, dear son, it was not by me. I expected to die after the surgery. The radiation and chemotherapy treatments stunted my will along with my cancer. But then I became pregnant, and once again I found strength to go on. I can’t explain where that strength came from—God? love? a universal consciousness? Whatever name you call this thing that exists beyond the physical self.

“Barbaric, isn’t it?” Judith, the mother of three girls, whispers, interrupting my thoughts.

“Why do you say that?” I argue, though I have often voiced Judith’s line myself.

“What gives us the right?” she adds, and I hear her words as if they were an accusation, as if this ceremony were all my idea.

But you must know, little son, that brit milah is not a choice we made for you. That decision was made long ago. You will bear a scar to show the promise made to God in your name. You will be bound by this covenant to follow God’s law.

Maimonides said that circumcision was prescribed to weaken man’s sex drive; Nachmanides said the covenant was a reminder—not for us—but for God, to remember us. I’m only your mother, but I say this: You will give a small piece of yourself back to God and that gift will help us all remember there is more in life than one individual’s desire. There are leaps of faith.

“Abraham received the first covenant of circumcision at age 99,” says the mohel. “God rewarded Abraham for his great faith, promising that Sarah would conceive their child.”

When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, how is it that his faith never faltered? Didn’t he wonder why God was making him go through such pain? I try to have faith, but I can’t stop worrying. I’m terrified, lamb, not knowing how badly my chemotherapy has harmed you.

“Baruch atah…,” the mohel says. He lights the candles, then dips a cotton ball into the wine and touches it to your lips.

You begin to suck lazily. It is customary to give the baby boy wine, in the hope of sweetening at least some of the pain. There is so much truth in this I tremble. I know so well how we can swallow bitterness when the promise of sweetness is offered at the same time.

“We are ready to begin.” The mohel watches your father, who coughs.

I have seen this before and I know, without looking, what happens next. Soon you scream.

Moments later, the mohel wraps you tightly in a blanket, then hands you to your father, who brings you to me to calm. I hurry from the room, passing Leah, who smiles anxiously. You have suffered so much that even your own sister now has sympathy for you.

I cradle you as I carry you to the bedroom. I sit upon the bed, cooing to you, nursing you with formula until your eyelids flutter and you intermittently suckle in sleep. I must nurse you with this bottle, for I too have given something back to God.

After a while, I will allow myself tears, but now I sit holding you, stroking the incredibly soft and wrinkled skin at the base of your head. You are so warm, so alive, so precious that I feel tremendous joy and release in being near you.

I drape a clean diaper on my shoulder, and hold you so your chin rests on that shoulder, so your tummy presses against my chest. I stroke your back with my fingertips, and gently kiss the side of your head.

“It’s all over now,” I tell you. I want so much for that to be true. I close my eyes and speak in a whisper. “Dear God,” I pray, wishing I had some concrete assurance that I was being heard.

“Please, God,” I say. “Please. Let this little piece you’ve taken today be all that you ever ask this child to give.”

Leslie What has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in regional and national magazines such as Hysteria, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction,and Fugue. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.