I still have nightmares about getting my period.
Now that your laughter has died down… I am actually serious. Last time I got my period, it was a nightmare.
It was two years ago. I had packed my car to go to grad school in Arizona and planned to leave the next day, when I began bleeding. I had just finished my period. I was on the pill. It shouldn’t have been happening. But it was.
I put down my boxed dishes, books, towels and sheets, all destined for an apartment that I only ever set foot in once, and instead of hitting the road for Arizona, the next day I went to the clinic with my mom. After I almost passed out having my blood drawn, and found myself being tucked in heated blankets for the second time in three months, we began to suspect that maybe something more was wrong than just hormonal fluctuations.
When I went in to have an ultrasound, and the joking and convivial technician suddenly fell silent and expressionless, I should have known.
As my mom tells it, she knew when we went back up to see the physician’s assistant, Dr. J, and Dr. J gave her “the look that no parent ever wants to get.”
I, however, remained clueless and fretted about getting to Flagstaff for my training as a teaching assistant. Doctors! I thought. Periods! Hormones! All delaying my inevitable (second) transition from the family nest, to the moment when I took possession of my first apartment. I was eager to get to World Market and spend my gift card on furniture, and to buy a toaster oven at Target. I was eager to meet new people.
I was scheduled to get in for some minor surgical procedures as soon as possible, a Thursday, four days after my initial appointment. They would perform a D&C, a hysteroscopy, and an endometrial biopsy.
Perhaps, if I had known what these words meant, I would have felt some appropriate anxiety. Instead I lived in a comfortable world where my period came once a month and I rarely contemplated my reproductive organs, much less what operations could be done upon them. In the interim, I made calls to the English department in Flagstaff. I’d had an “emergency” (read: rain of blood) and needed to go in for a minor surgery before I headed out to Arizona. I’d arrive a day, maybe two, into the training. My supervising teachers assured me that it was no problem, and wished me luck on my surgery.
Luck, I thought. I don’t need luck. Nothing will be wrong. Didn’t they know that I hadn’t been in a hospital since my birth? Didn’t they know that I ate an organic vegetarian diet, exercised regularly and did not smoke?
Nothing could possibly be wrong with me.
My parents and I went into the ambulatory surgery at some grueling hour on that Thursday morning. It was all new to me: figuring myself into a hospital gown, tucking myself into white sheets, remembering that I could leave my socks on. Being wheeled, on the bed, into the operating room.
I remember it being cold in there. I had to scoot myself from the bed onto the operating table. The cold soaked through the thin hospital gown. I had to wriggle my bottom into the proper place. The nurses were sweet and told me, I think, how young I was, how pretty, how easy it would all be. Of course, I thought, of course it will be. They got ready to administer anesthetic. Anesthetic: another one of those foreign words. I wondered what it would be like.
I came to myself being wheeled from surgery into a curtained alcove in the main nurses’ station. A nurse named Darcy took care of me, fetching crackers and ginger ale, producing my clothes – voila! – in their white basket from beneath the wheeled bed. After a while they let my parents come in. Darcy read Dad’s naturalist articles in the paper, and there was some talk about ecological matters.
The operating surgeon, a Dr. T, arrived shortly thereafter. I studied his shirt while he talked to me. It had fish on it, and different kinds of tackle. Only in the Northwoods, I thought, would a surgeon operate in a short-sleeved shirt with fish on it.
“I understand you’re leaving for Arizona tomorrow,” he said.
I drew my eyes away from the fish. “Yes.”
“We’ll get the biopsy samples to the pathologist right away, and call you in the morning. Let you know the results before you leave. Don’t leave before we call. OK?”
I wish I knew more about fish, I thought as he walked away, so I could tell what kinds were on his shirt.
The gynecologist called the next morning and reintroduced himself to me over the phone. He was making sure I hadn’t left for Arizona yet.
“Nope,” I chirruped, glad that he had called early. I wanted to get on the road. “I’m still home.”
“Good. I think you’d better put your parents on the phone.”
Completely mystified, I signaled my parents to get on another line. We sat on opposite couches in our living room. It was a clear morning: blue sky above the pine trees.
Dr. T sighed over the phone. I wondered, irrelevantly, what kind of shirt he was wearing today. Did it have fish on it again? Maybe, on Fridays, he preferred fish fry? (A Wisconsin tradition.)
“Well,” he said, “I’m afraid it’s not good news. It looks like uterine cancer.”
I went a little deaf for a moment.
When my hearing returned, he was saying that the biopsy sample had not looked good. “I looked at it, and I said, this doesn’t look good. So I walked it over to the lab myself. And the pathologist said it didn’t look good either. It looks like uterine cancer.”
He said we should go to Marshfield Center, the main hospital of our sparsely populated area, for an official appointment with a gynecologic oncologist. Another word whose meaning did not fully impress itself on my mind. Dad asked about getting a second opinion from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and Dr. T said that Mayo was overrated and that we had perfectly good surgeons in the Marshfield system. His defensiveness proved to be ironic.
We hung up.
“Uterine cancer?” I said to my parents.
We didn’t know what to think.
We were inclined to think that he was crazy. He was wrong. How could he be right? Didn’t he know that I was a healthy twenty three year old college graduate with a largely irreproachable health track record? Sure, maybe I indulged in a few too many gin and tonics senior year of college, but who hasn’t done that? I had already gotten a lecture from Peggy, our family physician, about that. Granted, there had been that spell in May where I hemorrhaged and passed out in the dorm bathroom. But the gynecologist in the middle of the summer had said nothing was wrong. And Doctor A, in Appleton, had also said that it was just hormones.
But just in case he was right, we cried.
Just in case he was right, Dad called the faculty in Flagstaff and told them that I needed to have some more tests the next week.
Just in case he was right, we made an appointment for a second opinion at Mayo.
I remember walking into my mom’s studio. We sat on the floor and held each other and wept.
Uterine cancer. Cancer? Me? The two words seemed hardly to fit in the same sentence together. I knew, of course, that I had a uterus. A uterus is, of course, a woman’s womb. But when I thought of utero, I thought of Vergil. I thought of Greek soldiers crammed together, sweating, in the belly of a wooden horse (in uterum legnum equiis) on the beach before Troy while the priest Laocoön cried out to the Trojans that it was a trap—
…Stetit illa tremens, uteroque recusso
insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae. (Vergil 2.52)
Laocoön was eaten by a sea monster.
But he was right.
Later in the morning, I realized I had overlooked a very important matter. “If I really have cancer,” I said to my parents, “and if I’m really going to be staying here for an unknown period of time, can we get a dog now?”