Editor's note: In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we present this column by David Fitzsimmons that originally ran Aug. 12, 2017. He remembers his mother's struggle with breast cancer as he praises the men who help women in the fight.
At a recent Real Men Wear Pink cancer event I met a tattoo artist who told me his name was “Tony Four Fingers.”
I asked the big guy, “Why the name?”
“I lost my pinkie, but almost lost my left leg. I was working as a Private Security Agent for the State Department in Iraq. We were working in Baiji, Iraq, and basically had a bad day— when the insurgents launched a few mortars on our position. One of them landed within 2 feet of me. I was riddled with shrapnel on the left side of my body.”
Tony Stannard had a ponytail, sweet tats and a Channing Tatum heart-of-gold vibe.
Tony, along with other local artists are part of the “INDIGO Tattoo Project.” A truly gifted tattoo artist, Tony inks remarkably lifelike nipples onto the chests of breast cancer survivors who lost theirs to the surgeon’s blade.
He showed me a mesmerizing video. In it he is consulting with a breast cancer survivor. He studies her blank reconstructed chest. “I can match any skin color. It has to fool the eye.” When he finishes Emily Bateman looks in a mirror at his astonishing artistry. The look on her face is powerful and unforgettable. Emily weeps for joy. She is reborn. She looks (I hate this word) normal.
As soon as my uninhibited mom could walk she showed the Master Sergeant and me her mastectomy. I concealed my horror. She said, “Bride of Frankenstein has nothin’ on me.” Her devastated sense of femininity was the collateral damage. The Master Sergeant assured her he loved her. Love heals. Or at least it tries.
Tony transforms women for nothing, in tribute to his grandmother, a breast cancer survivor. Tony “Four Fingers” Stannard makes me proud of my gender.
The purpose of the Real Men Wear Pink gathering was to welcome guys who are helping with the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, coming up Oct. 22.
With Komen gone, Making Strides is the game in town. Teams are signing up. We going to turn downtown pink.
Speaking of dates, the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer kickoff breakfast at Skyline Country Club is on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 16. If you’re curious, RSVP and show up.
Nearly 40 years ago, on a different Aug. 16, my mother died after a brutal five-year struggle with breast cancer.
The day her war with breast cancer began I was 19. I recall visiting her in the hospital the night before her surgery. She laughed at her backless gown, whispered about her somber roommate, joked about her cruel circumstances and then told me — “for the umpteenth time—are you listening?” — what to expect. “Your poor father is freaked out by this.”
We all were freaked out. What did I know? I knew too much. I knew what to expect. That afternoon the surgeon took me aside and explained to me what a radical mastectomy entailed. With his delicate hand he traced the path of his scalpel on my own chest, down around and under my arms. Chilled me so much I shivered. I didn’t hear a word he said.
A nurse announced that visiting hours were over.
In the hall outside her room we put on cheerful fronts.
“Good night, John Boy.” She loved that show.
“Night, Mom. Love you.”
I pirouetted away from our hug and walked through the swinging doors. And then I felt a “tug.” I turned for one final look through the thick glass window, expecting to watch her disappear into her room at the end of the hall. Instead I saw an exhausted woman leaning against the wall, her hand over her trembling mouth, quietly sobbing. My mother was completely alone with her grief and fear.
A few years back I was walking around downtown on a winter’s day when I came upon a huge procession shuffling up “A” Mountain. Pink ribbons everywhere. These women were not alone with their grief and their fear. These modern-age women, men and children were united in a time of war, rejecting fear and transforming their grief into joyful action. Somewhere in the cosmic ether my mom was pleased.
I’ll bet my mom knows Tony’s grandmother.
It was a war rally and heroes were everywhere. That sunny morning the city looked beautiful from “A” Mountain.
So I’m going to the breakfast. I’m going to remember my mom, to cheer on the teams, to embrace the survivors and to hear their war stories. And to meet more amazing people like Tony or my friend, a survivor and a petite beast of a realtor named Deb Camsew. “This is my 12th year. It’s informative, inspiring, and humbling. Especially if you are a survivor.”
Or loved one.