Thursday, August 16, 2018

Letters to no one: frayed at summer's end



Dear Self,

Summer is fleeting.
Your uterus now absent.
Your heart spins like a record at the groove's end.
Find yourself, doll. Hasn't that been the plan?
Another season gone; another family anthem sown and tilled into the earth.

Your therapist is retiring. You are one of her favorite clients—if not "the"—and she's spent seven, eight years toiling to convince you that you can find your worth. You evaporate in solitude, you bloom. But your worth is always tagged to your care for someone else: the homeless, your children, your lovers. I don't know how to help you, except to give you the reassurance that both solo flight and piloting a passenger ship are worthy as long as you know who you are once you disembark. And you are allowed, no matter the fuss you put up, to ultimately disembark.

Have you learned? Will you ever? 

This is your crazy lot. This, indicative of your starting point. This, the unspooling and resolution, or merely an empty bobbin in the end. Thread and needle. Cloth. Piece it together. A quilt is long in the making.

Stitch away, child. Stitch away.

Undeniably yours,
Your worst critic

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Today is the first day of my last period

Thirty-two years ago, during the summer after fifth grade, after hearing the Broadway cast of Annie tell me how great it was to grow up, I stood from a crouching position next to the dog kibble, and it started. A gush in my underwear that came out wet, brown, and sticky on my fingers after quick inspection. I went to my mother at the breakfast table and whispered the news. She immediately rose from her chair and hurried the staircase to her bathroom where she kept the maxi pads. I think I eventually got around to feeding my dog, the lumpy cotton rubbing against the inside of my thighs.

I believe I remember feeling thrilled. Eleven, and already a woman. As if my femaleness had not truly existed prior to this event. My mother checked on me at midday. I bent over her Bernina sewing machine at work on a 4-H project, an aqua drop-waisted dress meant for entry in the county fair.

Was I fine? How did I feel? Did I have questions?

That afternoon, like today, I was fine. But there was a weirdness to menarche. Any questions had long been answered by my parents' desk copy of the American Medical Association's encyclopedia to family health. I didn't have much to share with my mother, but I called the girls who lived next door to announce the first blood's arrival. They were not nearly as thrilled with the news.
_________________

Menses starts like an old windup Jack-In-The-Box. You're told it's a regular occurrence every twenty-eight days, and then it's not. Sometimes the crank pops the lever before you're ready and the grinning clown breaks through during second hour math class. Sometimes you wait two or three months, and the grinning fiend shows up in 7th hour English. You carry maxi pads, because you're a Mormon girl in the 80s, and for some unexplained reason tampons are considered illicit, like sex before marriage, birth control, or marijuana.

Cramps get you out of a vast array of activities: mowing the lawn, going to bed on time, going to church. And you notice—the stronger the cramping, the larger the clumps of tissue you pass. You take an old cleaned out cottage cheese carton from your mother's collection of not-quite-Tupperware in the kitchen cupboard. At night, when you feel the strong clenching of your uterus, you climb from bed, slip off your panties, and squat oven the empty carton to catch the clumps and blood. You know this would be considered bizarre by just about anyone else, but you are fascinated by the gelatinous consistency of the endometrium. You poke at it, spread it out gently with a sewing pin so that the deckled edge where it broke away from your uterus resembles a giant red amoeba, only not single-celled, and lifeless. A discarded baby blanket that likely consumed your egg somewhere around day eighteen of your cycle. Depending on the thickness of the clots, most dry up, taking on the shape of the bottom of the carton within a day or two. These crumble into powder when you hide them in a drawstring pouch you made your first year in 4-H. You imagine it is dragon dust, because eleven-year-old girls, whether menstruating or not, are still children. You don't feel any real shame until your mother goes through your room while you are at school that she finds the carton with fresh tissue lining the bottom. You don't know how to explain to her your fascination with your body and its monthly process before she's already told you that you are sick and disgusting.
_________________

By the time I was in seventh grade it seemed all the girls had blossomed. For a few weeks at the beginning of the year, we clanned up at lunchtime to talk shop about breasts and periods. The group must have included ten girls, all eager to compare notes and crack jokes that we knew couldn't be shared outside our circle. Once the talk dried up, the clan fizzled. Okay, we figured. This was our lot from here on out. The cattiness returned.

I ruined more pairs of pants and underwear in middle school than in the rest of my life combined. Or perhaps I stopped caring. My mother showed me how to soak panties in Biz bleach water to take stains out, but it was a hassle. So there were brown spots left behind after washing. It wasn't as though I was planning to parade around in just my skivvies. When I had a bleed through at school I got crafty with sweaters and jackets tied round my waist. It wasn't just a fashion statement; it was a survival tool.

Because of my dance training I graduated from maxis to tampons at thirteen, to the misgivings of my mother. I'd tried using pads inside my tights, but they never stayed in place. Although I could live with stained panties, tights and leotards were another matter. I never went back. I also had pre-marital sex, used birth control, and smoked my share of pot. Slippery slope, you know.

As for periods and sexual partners, here's my rule: If they mind, they're not worth your time. In my experience, sex is incredibly good for relieving cramps, and while most women see a jump in libido near ovulation, I enjoyed a second wind beginning a couple of days before Aunt Flow arrived until she departed. Blood is a natural lubricant, and while it may be messy towels and baby wipes are your friend. 
___________________

Eggs are startlingly long-lived. They're formed in the XX human fetus by twenty weeks gestation. This means before children are born one half of their zygotic material is housed both within their mother and their grandmother. During my body's gestational career I've released around 340 eggs, give or take. I've had five pregnancies, four live births, and one miscarriage of twins. My mother, on the other hand, struggled with infertility. After three years of prayers, I arrived two weeks late on December 31st, 1974—a Clomid baby. Following my birth, my mother miscarried a number of times, including a five-month gestated male fetus. Her reproductive organs, riddled with endometriosis, refused to fill their function. I hurt for her lost expectations more than I think she knows. I don't know if I've even told her.
_____________________

My first year in college I took Great American Lit from a professor whose name escapes me, at Utah State University. Outside of class he participated in poetry circles in Northern Utah. One morning, before commencing lecture, he told us about a woman who'd written a poem bemoaning her period. I think this was the moment I realized that college was far beyond cool. He said he'd written a poem in response that he'd like to share with us. It was entitled, "The Red Butterfly." Mind you, it's been twenty-five years since I took this class, and I've forgotten not only the name of the professor, but also the basic content of that poem, except for the fact that it was movingly beautiful. He obviously adored the natural biological function of cis-women, and wasn't afraid to write about it intimately.

I was living with my mother and her new husband during this first semester, and as I had in elementary school, I wanted to tell my mother the best thing about my day on arriving home. "The Red Butterfly" had changed me, I said. I bubbled over his praise of menstruation, the feminine body, the cycle, the lack of shame. I believe I understand now why she responded as she did. At the time, however, my mother's fierce anger that anyone would think a period was beautiful, let alone a man, knocked the wind from my sails.
_______________________

My mother's uterus was removed about eighteen years ago; she was forty-eight. Aside from the ongoing pain of endometriosis she'd developed uterine fibroids, a common genetic condition that affects women by the time they reach the ages of fifty. These benign tumors may take over the inside, walls, and outside of the uterus, expanding it to uncomfortable size and interfering with normal function of surrounding organs. A few days after surgery I visited her. She crawled to the edge of the stairs and sat on the floor; not at all typical behavior for my mother. Did she feel different? Was she fine? I had so many questions.

Her answer: Not really. This was a relief after long years of blood and pain. She'd never stopped menstruation, and now it was all over.
_____________________

I urinate several times an hour, but it's a struggle. Constipation comes and goes. I've gained significant belly weight surrounding my enlarged uterus, which my doctor tells me could house a second trimester fetus. I have hip pain from ovarian cysts, back pain from the fibroids. I have hot flashes and mood swings. I've been miserable on and off for months.

On the 25th of July, except for my right ovary, it's all coming out. That means today is the beginning of the last period I'll ever have. I've been asked if I'll be glad. I've been asked if I'm doing okay. This relationship with blood, tissue, cramps, eggs, and the births and deaths of children has been life encompassing. I don't believe it sums up my femininity, but it has been a wonder. It has been fascinating. If I thought my doctor would allow it, I'd ask him to save my uterus and left ovary for me to take home. I'd love to examine what's left in the way of gametes, to stroke the bloody velvet that first wrapped my babies in warmth. I want to explore the toughness of that organ, turn it inside out, use it as a boxing glove for team Intersectional Feminism. I am more than the sum of my parts. I am no less woman for what I have, or for what I don't have.

I'll be glad when the pain is over, but I'll miss the familiar face of menstrual blood. But I really am, I'm doing okay. I'm ready to say, "Farewell, my beautiful Red Butterfly! Goodbye!"

Monday, June 11, 2018

And so the organs are removed


Not dying. At least that's the general conclusion of my OBGYN. But my uterus has met the end of its purpose, as has my left ovary. Surgery is still yet to be scheduled, but I've been told to expect a date with the scalpel within the next four to six weeks, and then an anticipated four to six weeks recovery.

I take bike rides, hikes, long walks, lift light weights. Prepare, so as not to backslide too significantly during my bedrest. I pushed the doctor for how soon I could start moving again, and was told a week at the earliest as long as no bleeding occurs. 

My baby son is now a teen. Although I've long felt a deep, subjective belief that I should have borne two more, the four wonderful humans I did bring into the world are enough. I'm too old and too lacking in energy to think of more children anyway. At least not my own. Sometimes I think those two others comprise humanity at large, and I stretch myself to mother everyone in need. But perhaps those two are the child I was and the woman I am, who are both still completely hungered for nurturing. Who's to say? The truth is, this removal of blighted organs is welcome relief. I've battled the black box of my body for months wondering what was wrong, why I was changing, not myself. Sometimes we must root out the disease to be our best possible selves. 

And by "sometimes" I mean always.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Life gets real

Two large cysts on my left ovary, a separated wall, and increased vascularity. It breathes on its own.

Peeing is a trip. Initiating a stream is a feat, as is keeping it going. Toward the end I have to bear down.

I've been exhausted for weeks.

My second ca-125 blood test came back elevated. 50. The safe range is 1-35, anything above is considered a tumor marker. Results came back today and the nurse scheduled an immediate consult this afternoon at 2:30. 

I haven't told anyone. Kelli is in SLC for therapy until 4:30 p.m. I said I'd call her then. I tried to keep our phone call nonchalant. I'll have more information at that time anyway. L— is recovering from wisdom teeth extraction. B— turns 13 tomorrow. M— is in Alaska on a summer vacation with her boyfriend. E— is somewhere in Provo, hopefully neither high nor drunk. I've been overseeing his psychiatric care for three months after a diagnosis of delusional disorder, not far removed from schizophrenia. My plate floweth o'er.

My nurse practitioner hasn't been shy about using the "C" word as a possibility. The nurse I spoke to said she didn't want to get my hopes up even though she's seen elevated ca-125 results turn up nada. 

Looks like a biopsy at the very least for diagnosis sake. From there, we'll see.

I'm not sure what else to write.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I have ideas. Dozens. Tail ends and beginnings. I would like to lie and tell you I don't know why I am scared. I would like to lie and tell you I am fearless.

Sometimes when I reach for her waist, rest my palm on the small of her back, trace the structure of her wrist with my thumb, or sweep a silver strand of hair behind her ear all is certain and assured. These are the times during which I have no reservation.

Look, I probably won't have the guts to publish this telling, but I want to tell it. It's not as though the current pattern of events is one of ease. I am wrapped up in ambiguous loss over a man who lives in an assisted living center four blocks from my house. Every visit is heartbreaking; a kind of sadness I don't think words will adequately convey. I love my husband. I've never stopped, and likely never will. I've been told that, had the stroke not occurred, we'd have tired of each other by now, might squabble regularly, or find ourselves pressed with the daily decision to make the marriage work. I've also been told to cast guilt aside. He asked me yesterday if I'd managed to recover myself yet. I took myself by surprise, answered no so quickly that even in my haste I believe myself. My self before is as irredeemable, irrecoverable as his before self. I think this is the source of my fear; being compared with someone I once was, who is gone.

I've taken to task the chore of explaining this fact repeatedly. The words are always defensive, protective of the newborn person struggling for breath.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Letters to no one: 2017, a descrption in future tense


Dear Self,

Sum up the past year in two words?


Free fall...Disco lights. 
Billiard ball...Kite string. 
Tempering heat...Temptress nights. 
Fitful sleep...Doves sing.

Clever. Alright, a few more, perhaps, in future tense.

You will stop caring for your husband in order to care about yourself, but drop by weekly, or often enough so that at the end of the year he will count you his most regular visitor still—his "Buddy." These conversations will be both pained and delightful. And though, unanticipated, you will not care about yourself and depression will fill those remaining holes too. 

Your glittering miracle of a girlfriend will appear when you least expect it, and offer dopamine in the darkness. This will not be an easy first year, but you will fall madly in love with her. You will go through the motions, attempting to establish a new routine. You will want to both live and die, and when the true death-scare comes you will have no regrets, only the desire to write your own obituary. Your children will worry; your girlfriend too. And you'll eventually care enough about them to seek medication help for yourself. It won't come until early next year, but you'll continue to stroke toward that shore in hope of remembering how it felt to be yourself. 

You won't climb a single peak, but you will peddle just behind your lover until your lungs ache. The two of you will explore nakedness hiking in the forest, and when she isn't with you, you'll try it on for yourself. You will spend less time restricted by fabric, more time strung up in smoke. You'll pick flowers and paint, write a handful of poems, take road trips, practice the art of confronting your fears in rational terms.

Your children will grow more deeply entwined in the veins of your heart and you'll continue the practice of parenting like you've never seen it done. You'll look at your own childhood problems in new ways, listen to the demon tales your girlfriend has told no one else, and you'll hold each other in the stillness once the secrets are uttered. 

You will revel in her friendship, philosophical discussion over sushi, defining thrifting fashion, hopping art galleries and museums, and listening to metal and jazz, all the while tugging her along toward folk. You will visit the North Country together and return to the Snake's frigid waters; then venture as far east as you have ever been to walk the streets of Boston and cross the bridge over the dark Mystic gripping each other's hands. You will hold her hand, cup the small of her back, stroke her delicate cheek, and kiss the soft line of her perfect lips whenever and wherever she will allow. You will march with her at SLC Pride. You will visit LDS Temple Square to see the Christmas lights and kiss her amidst throngs of Mormons. You will find yourself holding her body the way the ground holds your feet. Step by step, and the path will seem more sure.

That is how the year will unfold.

Undeniably yours,
Your worst critic