by Lou Weiler
I. The untalked-about-thing
Wellborn removed bandage. O.K. Had bone scan, chest x-ray. Oxygen used only during scan. Dad working on garage. Seems to be coming along well. Cha and Mary helping out at home. Cha did nice job on lawn. Pam pitches in a little. She’s taken care of my nails & earrings. All children have been able to visit. Has been good to see Kev, Pam, Cha, Mary & Dearest Dad.
I don’t know when I’ll get out of here.—
I trace the line of my incision, the skin around it soft and bubbled from the surgeon’s cut. I hope it never leaves me.
In the three years five months one week and two hours since the scalpel sliced, left to right through my outermost layers, the deep gully of its wake has become my own. The tribe of my grandmother, and her mother before her, screams out from my lower abdomen. I read my grandmother’s words on the pages of her journal kept, forty years ago, and the untalked-about-thing creeps in—marking us, one-by-one, generation-by-generation.
II. For posterity’s sake
She told me she wrote for posterity’s sake. If she was going to go through all that treatment she sure as hell was going to leave a record of it. Maybe it’d be useful to someone else someday.
I write for my own sake—and yours, maybe—my mind moving evenly, back and forth across times, the threading of images. Avoiding knots.
III. Numbers are not what come to mind
She didn’t write about her suffering, she wrote about her pain.
Sometimes my fingers run along the scar unprompted. I feel nothing for an inch above the incision, even now. In the days following surgery I was told that the nerves grow bottom up, like roots—to sever their tops off is to fell a tree. Newly-formed ends forever and desperately reaching out to one another. In some cases their divided parts reunited. Every so often two catch hold, sending a sharp twinge. I sit up straight in the night.
And this—I never counted my stitches. Instead I counted my pain, instructed that it was never to exceed ten. I was made to stand in the hours after being taken apart. As I rose a waterfall of heat and energy rushed toward the floor, pulling, pulling, pulling my insides down and out through somewhere between nowhere and everywhere. With each step I felt a deep and hollow buzz—a thunder vibrating through, my organs rattled loose from their holds. Numbers are not what come to mind.
Like that time I stood in my kitchen holding bags of groceries when I suddenly felt urine running down my legs. Or the times I couldn’t pee after long car trips, or after sitting for too long in a chair, or sometimes just because. Because the secret mass in my abdomen had shifted, clogging all of my body’s escape routes. But I didn’t know that then, that’s how secrets work. Instead, I pushed dose after dose of AZO through the flaky backs of bubble packs while curled in the fetal position in hot baths, on the phone with my mother for hours, begging her to make it stop. Or start. These nights spent willing myself to piss my bathwater, grateful as it turned the sickly orangey-purple of medical dye.
IV. What it is to lose
I knew because I helped her put on her bra. It was the right side, I remember that because she slept on her right side.
It was late at night when my mother brought me home. I could feel it was gone.
A slight tug on the left side, like a just-washed face, but inside-out and lower. When I concentrate I can feel the tiny empty space. I know what it is to lose an ovary. I do not know what it is to lose a breast.
V. With the falsie
I never saw the weak side of mom. Her kids were not who she asked for help from. At least not at that stage. I can remember after she had her mastectomy and going with her to get fitted for a bra with the falsie, and I just couldn’t believe it seeing the scar, where the breast was removed, and it was like the whole lymph node where the breast was, so the whole breast was gone and into her arm, and it just was, well it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever seen in my life.
My mother stayed with me for six weeks. I was angry when she threatened to leave at five—unhinged, abandoned, a child.
The first time I went out on my own, a stranger approached me, offering congratulations for my pregnancy. My distended stomach betrayed me to the world, my extended laugh betrayed me to the stranger. She responded by lifting up her shirt to show me the scar of a botched tummy-tuck.
When people look at me they can’t see what’s missing. My loss is buried deep, an almond. There is no such thing as a prosthetic ovary, no falsie, no alternate. And yet—and yet. I don’t know when I’m going to get out of here.—
VI. And yet: I hope it never leaves me.
Lou Weiler is a graduate of Bennington College and holds a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. Her writing examines the intersection of inheritance of trauma and lives-lived. She resides in Vermont with her cat, Ella Fitzgerald.