by Carol Smallwood
“This is Denise from Dr. Jenkins’ office. The lab work came back on your Pap Test and doctor wants you to come in again.”
As soon as Dr. Jenkins closed the door, he nodded, rolled the stool from under the counter, studied my chart, and asked, “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” thinking what a silly question—and what a sillier answer. He got a pen from his pocket, made a few notations, turned to me and began reeling numbers and terms that meant nothing until the word surgery.
“Surgery?” I asked.
And when he said, “A hysterectomy,” things blurred.
“I’ve done hundreds of them; it’s a standard, common procedure as your husband well knows,” focusing on me for the first time. “But first I want to try something new that just came out,” turning to write a prescription.
After handing it to me he put his hand on my arm, saying with one of his rare smiles, “It’s going to be fine. If you need a hysterectomy it’d just mean a few days in the hospital and you’d be back home again.” He rubbed the back of his neck, stretched his arms in front of him and said, “In these cases aggressive action is necessary so it’s best to be prepared about what may happen.” Then I saw the back of his white coat.
I saw my insides spilling out in a bright red river on a white operating table and this time it’d be different from having appendix or tonsils out. An office girl in white figured my professional courtesy discount—Cal never saw me because he said relatives made the worst patients.
When making dinner, my mind kept returning to Barb, a woman I’d worked with who’d had a hysterectomy. Barb wound her hair around her fingers and talked like a little girl whenever men were around; women rolled their eyes when her name was mentioned.
Why was I upset? I didn’t really want any more children, but I now realized what the ability to become pregnant meant—how much of my identity was connected with it. It’d begun with the attention men gave me when I’d turned that certain age. With some men, that is. With Uncle Walt it’d always been there like Aunt Hester’s jealousy. But wasn’t it the only game in town? and whenever I put on nylons I heard: “You Can Tell She’s Sheer Woman! She Wears Godiva Nylons.”
Dr. Jenkins said, ”If you don’t get a hysterectomy, you’ll have to get off the pill.” But I’d get something because I’d gone through the fear of pregnancy after being date raped–the awful waiting, swallowing the small, bitter, white pills from an out-of-town doctor to make my period start. At least after you’re married, there was no stigma when the husband did the raping.
When the kids sat down for dinner, I looked at them with extra appreciation, hunger, and love. Mark had my blond hair that parted on the same side as mine; Jenny had my nose and green eyes. They were the part of me that’d continue and I was very proud of them. They must’ve sensed the tension because after dinner they asked to go out to play as soon as they’d carried their plates, glasses, and silverware to the kitchen, rinsed and separated them the way Cal required.
After telling Cal about my “high number of abnormal cells,” he shook his head like shaking off sand, keeping his arms flat on the captain’s chair. His resemblance to the Sphinx was interrupted when he snapped on his cigarette lighter, then resumed when the smoke narrowed his eyes. The screen he’d put over them remained shut like the pulls had been broken; lines formed on his forehead as if recalling a trying surgical procedure. When I tried to see his expression through the smoke, he looked down to locate his ashtray, and when he looked up there was that odd expression I’d been noticing lately. As if guessing I’d seen it, he exhaled smoke and said, “A hysterectomy would help level out your moods.” He picked up his knife and studied it as it balanced evenly on his index finger, and in the professional tone he must have used many times that day, he diagnosed with a deepening frown: “It would help end your romantic dreams, make you satisfied with your roles of a wife and mother. When your hormones are stabilized it’d make my life a hell of a lot easier instead of you wandering around like a ghost in a B Movie.”
I sighed and nodded apologetically. A respected surgeon must know what he’s talking about and I’d let him down. Why couldn’t my dissatisfaction be removed and 000 silk (I didn’t want catgut) sew me back up? I thought my dissatisfaction would look like balled mesh the size of a grapefruit—but perhaps Dr. Jenkins would find the dissatisfaction so pervasive he’d just close me back up.
When I began to wash dishes I felt myself meld with the sink. I once was desirable, but if I had the operation, I’d be like one of those women people talked about whose life was over. Cal grabbed a towel and surprised me by wiping dishes while he watched the evening news and I smiled my gratitude—I could go through anything if he cared. Wasn’t it true like what Uncle Walt had said: “Dolly, you’ve everything you could want and should be damn grateful Cal isn’t a husband that beats you and stays out all hours of the night.”
When Cal snoozed in front of the television, I watched Jenny and Mark playing and thought that if I had a hysterectomy I’d escape going through monthly cramps that were sometimes so severe all I could do was stretch on my stomach sweating and moaning while warm blood spurted. When each cramp began, I’d hoped it’d be the last, and I wouldn’t have to drag myself to the bathroom to throw up: while they lasted it felt I just existed as a host for pain, staring through narrowed eyes at the curtains willing myself elsewhere, gathering my grandmother’s quilt between my fingers, curling in a ball to ease the spasms thinking of all the other women who’d gone through this without “letting it get them down” like Cal said.
But it did no good to think at such times.
It must be what a tree concluded in a storm—it had no choice but to give itself up to being buffeted and tossed, because if it didn’t, it’d break. The dark clots of blood resembling wobbly pieces of raw liver carried by bright blood from my very middle scared me; they came from that part of me that swung moods and controlled more of me than I’d like. I always felt no matter how much I learned, that that part didn’t care at all.
Midol helped dull the pain sometimes. Aunt Hester had said that women, as descendants of Eve, were doomed to suffer and to offer it up for my sins; the doctor had said they wouldn’t be so bad after having a baby. Mary Elizabeth had given me a pamphlet by the makers of Kotex when I hinted I wanted to know what was happening but she wouldn’t talk about it.
When the cramps eased, I’d feel weak and only able to eat soup or toast, grateful it wouldn’t be until another month that I’d be as powerless as a body of water against the pull of the moon.
But if I had a hysterectomy, would I grow a mustache, lose my figure? I wished I knew more about it but all I could remember was what Uncle Walt said about Aunt Hester: “She went around like a bat out of hell making me damn glad I could stay at hunting camp.” It probably was one of those things that couldn’t be explained unless you experienced it—like falling in love, giving birth, or getting old.
After a few days the initial shock lessened. It was true what Cal said about not having to worry about getting back to a real job if surgery was necessary.
One night I got up after being unable to sleep and turned on the television. I was able to follow the program with the sound off: a man saw a woman (probably wearing Godiva nylons) and saved her. When I put on Avon Honeysuckle Body Powder, some of it drifted to the bathroom rug and I knew I’d hear about it the next day. I slid into bed noiselessly and watched the shadows on the wall.
A week later, after I dropped Jenny off at nursery school, I got another test at Dr. Jenkins’ office, and went to the C & C. Some days when I pushed a cart between aisles it was like having subjects lined to see me and I nodded graciously—when no one was looking I waved my hand slightly to both the right and left, my head inclined slightly like I’d seen Queen Elizabeth do. The tile floor spread before me like alabaster marble, the recessed lighting became chandeliers, and the forced air vents ladies-in-waiting with fans, the piped in music my own ensemble.
My exquisite crown was heavy and I walked slowly. When my shadow fell on bottles of extra pure virgin olive oil their labels blanched; when I passed purple grapes they turned green with envy. In the spring I wore a tiara of seed pearls and in the fall, multi-faceted rubies. Some days my train was ermine, other days crackling taffeta. I wore diamonds the size of robin eggs on both hands and the size of lima beans as buttons; samples extended to me in paper cups were not Wisconsin cider but French champagne in thinnest long stem crystal handed out not by gum chewing Babs or Trudi in uniforms with slips showing, but by titled ladies in flowing velvet. I imagined what they (my subjects) were saying about my beauty and clothes, how they bragged about me and would die for me. Tears filled my eyes imagining my funeral procession stretching as far as the eye could see of grief stricken subjects tossing rose petals.
When I turned a corner, I saw a big display of carefully stacked boxes of fortune cookies. Removing just one bottom box would probably bring the whole thing crashing down, but the urge was interrupted when an attractive man in shorts passed me. I followed him until a low hanging banner showing chickens wearing straw hats and hiking boots, turkeys in top hats and tails, obstructed my view. After a hysterectomy did they package your remains in a paper sack like the gizzard, heart, liver, neck, inside a roasting chicken?
Excerpt from Lily’s Odyssey (print novel 2010) published with permission by All Things That Matter Press. Its first chapter was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in Best New Writing.