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!"