Don’t be so negative, says the cab driver. You’re young, you can still have children. I have five!
How did this conversation happen, again? As he drives, he shows me pictures of his kids on his phone, holding it back over his shoulder.
It’s rather difficult, I say, Without a uterus.
It is not polite to say that I have no uterus. People react as though I’ve bullied them, stepped over a line. But they are the ones who pushed themselves into my body to begin with, assessing its suitability as habitation for an embryo. I’m only pointing out that, no matter how nice the curtains, how lovely the paint scheme, there’s no actual house there at all. No place to put a potential human.
I try to picture my insides now, without a womb. After the surgery, the doctor held up her fingers to illustrate how tiny mine was. The size of a peach pit, or a walnut. Tiny, pink, and healthy, she said, shaking her head. Nothing to explain the havoc it caused.
People I meet now are often surprised to know that I wanted kids. It doesn’t fit with the picture I make. I love my solitude, my independence. No obvious maternal qualities. But this is who I’ve made myself. I chose a part that was always there, and amplified it.
I come from a family of six, and we often had an extra kid or two staying with us. Two of them stayed so long and fit so well I call them my brothers. We were a crowd. All boys except me at the bottom and my sister at the top. We were loud, chaotic, rambunctious, Mormon.
I wanted eight kids of my own.
It doesn’t always hurt when I see a mother with a baby.
I’ve been taking tango lessons with a woman who has three children, in their teens and twenties. Her figure is that perfect, graceful maternal shape. Broad, round hips, narrow waist, full breasts. I watch her dance and the way she moves pulls hard where my womb used to live. Beside her, I feel dry and unwomanly.
I don’t particularly mind this. Or, I feel that pain like love. It gives a bass note to my crush on her.
In Greece, a village priest seemed to be flirting with me. He didn’t speak English, and I spoke little Greek, but we managed to communicate in French. He asked if I was married. I meant to say, Not anymore, but it came out, Not yet. He beamed. The most important thing a woman can do with her life, he said, Is bear children.
Strangers seem to think it’s their right, or duty, to enjoin me to breed. Children are life’s greatest joy, and greatest challenge. You learn selflessness. It’s not too late, you’re young.
Even as my hair turns white, I hear this. It’s not too late. I’m young.
One of the several doctors I saw said, So young! This was when I described to her the months of hemorrhaging, the days I couldn’t leave the toilet, clots as big as a peach pit, or a walnut, or a golf ball, that passed from my body.
So young! As though this sort of grand guignol was to be expected at some point in a woman’s life. But only when she was older, when – the implication is – it didn’t matter.
It is absurdly recently that women were included in health studies. For a long time researchers proceeded on the assumption that women were just penisless men with breasts and a uterus. I learned this during my Year of Surgeries, the Year My Body Broke, although it was closer to two years. I had a lot of time on my hands.
Women’s bodies remain comparatively mysterious to medical science. There’s some catching up to do.
I had a roommate, when I was in college, whose mother died of a vaginal hemorrhage. His father had refused to take her to a doctor, although she pleaded with him. Please, she said, please. My roommate showed me her diary, the breakdown of her handwriting as she grew weaker. The last entry was a single word, barely legible: Gush.
He was only a kid when she died.
I was a rebellious teenager, and grew to pack away my ideas of a large family. I left the Mormons and lived in sin with a man. My friend Belle sent me a book. I’m not sure why she chose that book, exactly. It was called The Continuum Concept, and was about attachment parenting, where the baby sleeps with the parents for the first few years, where the baby is never out of contact with human flesh until it signals it is ready to start crawling. I was twenty-three.
It was the book, my age, the timing. A switch flipped in my brain, and I felt a gargantuan, roaring, atavistic appetite wake up inside me. It took me over like a demon, like Legion possessing the man in the country of the Gadarenes. I remember waves of passion passing through my body, I literally shook with baby hunger.
After several years waiting for a marriage proposal, I left that boyfriend, and he married another woman named Caitlin. They have two sons.
I can see that other road, the one I was on for so long, I can look back and place my finger on the spot where I veered onto this new one, this trackless path I’m making as I go.
Eight years ago, I was still firmly on that broad road. I was married to a man I loved like life. We had moved to San Francisco, we both had jobs, for the first time in our marriage we had some financial stability. It was time for us to make a baby. He had assured me before we married that he wanted kids with me, and I know he did, I know he believed this.
His daughter from a previous marriage came to stay with us, for just a couple of weeks. She was growing up, twelve years old, coming into her own as a person, sliding down that terrifying slope into adolescence. I loved her visits.
My husband was petrified. On edge like I’d never seen him. If his daughter seemed the slightest bit bored, if things didn’t go perfectly, I saw his face, I saw a certainty that he had taken the first step into midair off a cliff. One evening, I dropped a bottle of red nail polish and shattered it on the kitchen floor, painting bright red across our white tiles. O foreshadowing! My husband lost it. His face went red, he yelled and stomped. I got the mop and led him out of the kitchen. I cleaned the tiles while he sat on the couch in full panic mode, gesticulating to himself. My stepdaughter drew her feet up, tucked her knees under her chin, and went quiet.
Maybe, maybe, maybe it was a bad idea to have children with this man. Maybe it would kill him. Kill us.
It was only a week or so after she left that I started my period, and it didn’t stop.
My finger lands on the map right here. Did my body do this to protect him, protect us? Or was it just coincidence?
I bled out all my energy, all my resistance, all my concentration. For months I bled. I overflowed tampons and pads and silicon cups in moments. You think you are friends with blood, it comes every month, but I learned there is always more, there can always be more blood, more than you thought your body could contain. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t write. I read teen fiction and surfed the Internet. I Googled symptoms, certain I had cancer. One night I stood up and the floor seemed to breathe me off balance. My husband rushed me to the ER and held my hand all night while I was given a transfusion. It was just one of too many hospital trips.
I don’t know how many days after the hysterectomy it was before I was able to take a shower, could pull one leg after the other up and over the edge of the tub. The water thawed, softened me. I held the place where my womb used to be and sobbed. I curled into a corner of the tub and opened my mouth to scream, but I didn’t want my husband to hear, didn’t want him to worry. I stopped my mouth with my knee, my fist. I grieved the babies I would never bear, I grieved the woman I had been. I grieved my mother, who died suddenly one week before my surgery, who had half-jokingly asked, every time we talked, when I was going to start having babies.
It was a moral failing on my part. I was sure of this. We tried so many things to stop the bleeding. I remember vomiting violently after an emergency D&C in one of those attempts, vomiting until I brought up bile. My arms were bruised black from stab after stab at my veins. I was given a shot that mimicked menopause and everything irritated me, like sandpaper on an open wound. I had been bleeding, and bleeding, and bleeding, for months. But I hadn’t tried hard enough. I read comments on the HysterSisters website from women who bled even longer and heavier than me, women who were unable to leave the toilet for weeks.
One day, my husband and I sat in the office of another doctor. She told us we could try an IUD. It had a less than 50% chance of working. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t be able to do anything else for six months. So, there was a better than 50% chance that I would have to live with this bleeding for another six months. Or, I could get a hysterectomy.
She left the office so we could talk. I looked at my husband, and saw the panic on his face. Or was the panic mine? Six more months of bleeding. Six more months of websites with sticky, condescending names like HysterSisters. Six months of teen fiction and my husband’s non-existent cooking skills.
I couldn’t miss six months of work. I’d already missed far too much. We needed my income; his was unstable, and his job disappeared later that year, when I was going in for yet another surgery.
I blamed my husband. I divined what he wanted me, desperately, to say, and I said it, thinking I would save him, save us.
I blamed myself, too. If I had been a stronger person, a better person, I would have said, We’ll try anything. One must make sacrifices for a child. Children teach you selflessness. I could have started in that moment.
She came back, and I said, Hysterectomy.
I can smell the turn in fiction a hundred pages ahead of time, the woman who doesn’t realize she’s acting out of character, who can’t understand her emotional swoops, of course she’s pregnant, of course that brings to her a whole new way of letting in the world. The unexpected pregnancy, always a happy ending, in fiction.
I want to be rude to people who ask about children. I want them to feel what I felt. I want to give them a hint of the violence that was done to my body, to my life. I want to see them flinch. But none of them seem touched. They glide easily to the next question, the one about adoption, and I can’t begin to answer that. If a baby we made together terrified my husband, someone else’s child was unimaginable to him, to us together.
There is a part of me that is made to mother, but it’s dormant right now. I meet children and don’t know what to say to them. I’ve forgotten everything I knew. I go to the store and don’t know what people cook. It’s simpler to go to a restaurant, look at a menu, point at what I want.
When I was a kid, I made bread from scratch. I ground wheat for the flour. This is what I did. I was seven years old and poured wheat into the grinder and flipped the switch and it made a hell of a racket, roaring and jittering along the counter, and when it was done I pulled out the metal drawer and steam came off the soft flour, I dove my hands in and it smelled like fresh bread. I baked pies and made beef stew for my family. The first time I made spaghetti, my mother was too sick to tell me what spices to put in the sauce, so I smelled all the spices that were in the cupboard and put in the ones that smelled like spaghetti. My brothers loved my spaghetti, and my lasagna. I knew, then, how to nurture. I babysat my nieces and countless neighbor kids, and never wondered what to say to them.
My life now is a whole other story. I can’t even have a cat or a fish, because I don’t actually live anywhere. I live out of a suitcase. In the past year I’ve been in five different countries, have adventures I could not have imagined when I was living that other life, the one where I was married and had a full-time job and cooked and cleaned and lusted after new curtains. Back then, I was busy imagining the little being who would grow from the love between my husband and me, the person who would come into this quiet place in San Francisco, the person who would know they were loved always.
I insisted on new curtains for the bedroom window before my surgery. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time in that room and was happy to look over and see those long green curtains with vines embroidered on them. I loved my little nest with green curtains and books and cats who wanted to be close to me, and my husband who was stricken at seeing me so close to death, who kept me laughing as often as possible, though it hurt my stitches to laugh. I loved it and kept myself from knowing about the woman who broke down in the shower, the woman who felt amputated and guilty, the woman whose sins had made her unworthy of motherhood, the woman who would never again be a real woman, moving so soon into that sexless territory, a crone already, at thirty-six.
My mom was thirty-six when she had me. It was preposterous that she should die, suddenly, at that moment. My niece called Friday morning to tell me Mom’s kidneys were failing, that she wasn’t expected to live out the day. My doctor gave me a prescription for five different contraceptives to slow the bleeding enough for my husband and me to fly Utah. She died when we were in the airport, waiting to get on the plane.
The family went to church on Sunday. I told them I didn’t feel up to it, and lay with my husband in the basement room that had been mine when I was in college. We had tender, bloody, guilty sex.
We had to have the funeral quickly, so I could get back to San Francisco. My sister and I made the arrangements with the mortician. We picked out a simple poplar coffin. Dad asked me to say something at the funeral on Monday. I tried to write something, but my brain spun. In the end, I read one of my mother’s poems. We flew home and I went in for surgery on Friday.
This coincidence wouldn’t fly in a novel, too freighted with too much meaning, and I didn’t know if I’d make it out of that year. I wanted to crawl under the covers and stay there forever.
For a long time after the surgery, I was terrified that I would begin bleeding again. I bled in my dreams, black, shining clots of blood passing out of me like living creatures.
Being sick freed me from responsibility, and here I can confess: I was grateful that my body took this decision – whether or not to have a child with my husband – away from me, my body rendered me blameless. There is something indulgent in this, a submission to the crisp medical world. It couldn’t be my fault.
Except, of course, my brain is too well-tuned to guilt to let such a fat plum go. I was so anxious to refuse responsibility that I broke my own body. The mind-body link is strong, and I will never know for sure. Did I do it to myself? Is this thinking just another way to claim responsibility, and guilt, for something I couldn’t control?
Does it matter?
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes to Mr. Kappus about great sadness:
“And this is the reason the sadness passes: the something new within us, the thing that has joined us, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer there either – it is already in the blood. […] One could easily make us believe that nothing happened; and yet we have been changed, as a house is changed when a guest has entered it.”
So my life turned on that moment in the doctor’s office, the moment I said the word Hysterectomy. Today, I’m in Buenos Aires. This morning I decided to stay an extra day. I can do that. Nobody suffers. Maybe, nobody cares. I am as unencumbered as a bullet.
The story is supposed to work the other way around. Rebellious girl goes through crisis, finds Right Man, settles down, has kids. I’m kicking down the walls of that story. I’m forty-four years old, I left the Right Man, and I’m pleased to wake up alone every morning.
The grief lives inside me, in the space where my womb used to be. It is twinned with the hard joy of my life as it is now. There are days when I can’t look at parents with their children, when I fear the grief will spill over and poison everyone. And there are days when moments of beauty are scattered everywhere, only waiting for me to see and know them.
Caitlin Myer completed a residency in spring of 2012 at MacDowell Colony, where she was recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation for her in-progress novel, Red Wagon. Her short stories and poems have been published in charming literary magazines. Myer has a deadly groin kick.