Three hundred and forty-one years is a little late for the diagnosis of breast cancer to reach you. It's in your left breast, Hendrickje Stoffels, the doctors say.
The signs are there! The dimpling under your left nipple. The doctors debate. Research papers are written in medical journals. You have become an historical case, Hendrickje, more easily recognised by most Australian women than Rembrandt himself. There you sit, preserved for eternity, with the cells malignant and reproducing in your nubile left breast.
Saint Valentine's Day 1990 was the last day I had two breasts. I was forty-seven years old. Far past the prime of fecund womanhood you exude as Bathsheba, the desired of King David. I had already outlived you by ten years. I now live on borrowed time. We can do that in the twentieth century. My biological time clock has well and truly exploded.
"You’re not supposed to be here at all. It's all been a gorgeous mistake."
sings Sinead O'Connor in her Irish brogue. And that's how I feel about my fate. A gorgeous mistake.
I, as you, am preserved. Me, for the moment; you, for posterity. There were no lumps in my left breast. Simply sickly yellow ooze that dripped from my nipple. No life from this poisonous milk but rather death. So the doctors sliced it off to give me life.
I now wear my breast replacement, my prosthesis, to fill in the concave scar where my left breast used to be. It wobbles, jelly like, more resembling some distorted alien flesh coloured eye than a breast. But I choose not to have reconstructive surgery.
As you sit modelling for old Rembrandt, you feel no physical pain as yet. I could not believe that you were to live another nine years. Not with advanced breast cancer.
You sit there, Hendrickje, absorbed in your thoughts... questioning why Rembrandt, some twenty years your senior, won’t marry you, concerned that the church has already summoned you twice to appear before the ecclesiastical court for ‘whoredom’. Rembrandt has refused to become involved.
You came into his household as the nurserymaid, a simple soul only able to sign her name with a cross. But you are now pregnant; his child about to be born even as, invisible the cancer cells have long since been born and continue to silently divide, redivide, redivide.
I wonder if you are conscious of the change in your left breast. Have you simply put it down to being pregnant? I still find it hard to believe that you will live another nine years. You so publicly have breast cancer. A warning for all women but also a sign that hope is not lost, that we must struggle on.
There you sit as Bathsheba, contemplating your future, totally immersed in thought as the servant washes your feet.
You will always live as Bathsheba, resigned wife of Uriah, whom the lustful King David is about to send to his death in battle so that he, David, may lay with you. You have read the letter. You understand your fate has been decided. You have received the diagnosis. We suffer with you but we can not give up hope.
I was once obsessed with my mortality. I am comforted by yours.
I wrote this in 1997 for the Victorian Daffodil Day competition...and I won!!! the prize was to go to Melbourne (from Brisbane) and read out my prize winning essay to a crowd in the old Victorian national Library. (I could never understand how a Victorian library could be National. But there it goes)