Building Lop-Sided Bridges —by Jinny Batterson
About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally.
As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming.
Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…” Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work.
A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.
The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.
“How did you know Beth?” I asked.
“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore.
I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.
Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.