I swallow the Xanax like I could swallow truth with it, gulp down the reality of my missing organs, digest it in the vacancy of my belly, where two children began, where my husband’s seed found, sometimes, too much purchase, where the tumor swelled me like the babies before it.
Lifting my shirt hem, tugging down the rim of my skirt, I reveal again to the mirror the staples marching crooked from my navel to my pubic bone, pinched skin protruding between the metal clamps like puckered lips, crusted blood caked between them.
Something more to swallow.
Take as needed for anxiety. Bottled calm, issued at the hospital, where I earned no favor from nurses with my frenzied terror, my writhing and my squealing. Though younger by half than most of the white-haired women on the female cancer ward, mine was not a unique tragedy. This is standard, happens all the time. I am not an individual; I am a chart. Nurse Unit: MM A7 West. Encounter type: Inpatient. Diagnosis: Ovarian tumor, borderline. Procedures: Bilateral Salpingo-Oophorectomy; total abdominal hysterectomy. DOB: 04/12/1982. Age: 32 years.
What they mean, all those big words, is that it’s all gone. Everything is gone: ovaries, both; fallopian tubes, both; uterus, including cervix. In its place, they sewed shut the top of my vagina, left a tidy cul-de-sac for my husband, after six weeks pelvic rest, of course. I’m no longer a highway for life, the road triumphant; I am a dead end.
“You have to stop thinking like you lost something,” my mother says. “You need to think, ‘Good, the cancer is gone.’” But the cancer was not my reality. There was no knowing it was cancer anyhow; they called it a cyst, said those happen all the time, that I would wake missing just the one ovary, that cancer was “unlikely,” that my odds were good.
I should know better than to trust odds.
After five hours, groggy and retching, a faraway attendant voice mumbled “the total hyst” into the phone, to whom I didn’t know, didn’t care. So when Leif appeared at my side, held the curved pink bowl beneath my mouth, and told me it had been borderline cancer, that there would be no more periods, no more babies, I was not surprised. I was not devastated. I pressed my morphine button, and slept.
When I woke, I told my husband not to bring the children to see me. I did not want to see myself, tubed and draped and sallow. I hunted, through the fog, in my sheets, for the clicker the nurse showed me. I pressed the morphine button, and slept again.
When I woke, Leif was gone. Caring for our children, presumably. A nurse swept in, fiddled with some knobs, and swept out, sealing the door behind her. Thoughts of Egyptian tombs, of sarcophagi, swelled in my head. I pressed the morphine drip button, and slept again.
When I woke, I swivelled my head, craning to see out a narrow window situated inconveniently behind my gurney. A window that revealed a stone gray sky and the brownstone of more hospital. I pressed the morphine button, and slept again.
All that evening, I woke and clicked and slept. I kept myself as drugged as possible. Later, deeper into that night, alone in the narrow hospital room, with its smudgy, placid wall art and its beige, inoffensive walls, an alert from one of the several machines in my tiny room roused me from my drugged stupor.
I pressed the call button; an intercommed voice told me to wait patiently. When I felt I had been patient, the incessant loud beeping of the machine careening through my tiny cell, I pressed the call again. This time, the tinny voice was terse, irritated at this second bother. “I told you, someone will be with you shortly!”
“But please, can it just be turned off? I’m feeling kind of panicky, and…” Click. This nurse was having none of my irrational fears or impatient needs. My breath came in shorter bursts. The innocuous walls closed in, shrinking the tomb, pressing on me. A landslide of tears and terror, an unstoppable avalanche, clogged my throat. My heaving threatened to tear open the slice in my abdomen through which all my womanhood had so recently been evacuated, and I clutched it, holding the rubble of my guts in place.
A face atop a suit of scrubs pulled open the door. “Get a hold of yourself,” she ordered me, demanding the unattainable, shaking the trembling knee I’d drawn up as far to my chest as the pain allowed. How could she know there was nothing left to hold on to?
“Your nurse will be in to change the monitor soon.” Turning, she strode out the door.
“Please! Can’t you turn on off the noise? Please! Don’t shut me in here!” I shouted this after her, but the door slammed anyway.
I pressed the call button, pressed it again and again when no nurse materialized to silence the loud insistence of the machine. Pushing my hands to my ears, I began to wail in time to the tune of the monitor’s alert signal, crying out and on and on, until my breath came too fast, too hectic, and the heaves of hyperventilation set in.
“You need to get yourself under control.” This stern reproof was from, evidently, my nurse, but no possessing fondness issued from either of us toward the other.
“Please,” I heaved, “don’t–gasp–yell–gasp–at me.” More heaving. “Please!”
“Ma’am, you need to cool it. Just take some deep breaths.” These words, far away now, the space between us filled by the crashing of blood in my ears, by the siren of the monitor, by the new tintabulations of alerts based on my pulse and heart rate.
“You–gasp–make it–gasp–sound so–gasp–easy.”
“Listen, there are two of us here, and I can’t help you unless you help yourself.”
“Don’t you get it?–gasp–This isn’t fair!” I was shouting, wailing, making a commotion. “I don’t choose this!”
The nurse stared at me, face hard, willing me quiet, tired by the trial of me. Not another good patient, not like the other subdued matrons in the cancer ward, but a noisy, spastic one, one entitled to ring the call button on a whim, one who wouldn’t wait patiently for meds, one who refused to endure the beeping of machines needing attention and receiving none.
“I have no choice!” I shrieked, sobbing now, needle-bruised hands over my face trailing IV tubes. “I don’t choose this!”
Over me, she and a second nurse exchanged eyebrow arches. One refilled the morphine drip. The other finger-flicked a syringe, then pumped liquid directly into the foundational tubing laid under the skin of my left arm. I remember feeling grateful for the black envelope that followed, remember sinking beneath the weight.
This must be what my funeral will feel like.
I don’t remember eating, don’t remember speaking, don’t remember being. Though I had been erased, the world of my small family orbited around me. People were hovering, present for me, and yet I wasn’t there. I had evaporated, had curled, in smoky tendrils, into the ether.
Shrouded in white–white sheets, white blanket, white gown–and seated between two close beige walls, I was informed that I’d be moved off the morphine and onto Dilaudid. The obvious subtext was that I was too handy with my clicker; a few hours prior, I’d overheard two nurses in the hallway, one appalled voice announcing, “She pressed the morphine button nineteen times in ten minutes!” This nurse’s sneer was audible, even through the door.
I leaned my head on the flat pillow–white, too–and recalled the explanation I’d received on the clicker’s functionality: doses were issued every ten minutes, despite the number of times the button was pressed. There was a green light on the machine to indicate ten minutes had passed; a red light indicated a dose was still in progress, that it would be no use to press the button anyway.
The morphine machine, situated parallel to my hips, blinked its lights and blips out the door, in easy view of the nursing station, facing away from me. Head wobbly on my neck, I surveyed the room, eyes sliding over the beige door, the dormant television, the sink and mirror. No clock. I dropped my eyes to my undecorated hands, where my rings and watch, each one a gift from Leif, were absent. It did not surprise me that, in the timelessness of solitude, I could not tell when ten minutes had passed. I observed the nurses silently, watched as they traded one IV bag for another. The bags were indistinguishable.
That was, until the door began dripping.
Perhaps I angered those nurses with my ingratitude. After all, I won’t need chemo, like like most of the women who shared that ward. I’ll get to keep my hair, and the nerve endings in my fingers, and my appetite, supposedly. Or perhaps it’s the nurses exhaustion that renders each emotionless and hard. They are twelve hour shifts, after all, the clients are a revolving door, the coffee water flavored black. Or, perhaps childless, she envied me for my own two sons, thinking I deserved to lose the harbor that sung them into the world. Or maybe she just hates her period, and wishes that, like mine, hers could early cease.
I never hated menstruation, never cursed it the way some women did. I thought it magical, a new chance every month, a clean house, a little ovulatory rollercoaster of my own, riding giddy up the swelling urges mid month and careening back down to earth in a splash of blood between times. Now, next to the vial brimming with Xanax, a jar full of tampons sits: a mockery of fate balanced on the bathroom sink. What to do with these, now the house is twenty years too soon empty of women’s most euphemized visitor?
It seems silly to throw them out. Perfectly good, for someone. Although who wants a weeping woman’s cotton castoffs? I yank up my skirt rim, tug down the shirt hem, cover the jagged ladder of future scar. I meet my own eyes in the mirror, blued beneath by sleepless nights, full with pain no oxycodone can remedy.
All the weeping in the world won’t bring back my womb.
Push, then turn. The child-safe bottle lid pops off, and out spring the tiny blue ovals, tumbling into my hand like lost friends. Select one, scoop the rest back into the vial. Fill the toothbrush cup with cold tap water. Taste the bitter pill, the salt of tears, the iron of the tap. Swallow.
Swallow it all.
Krista Christensen writes poetry and nonfiction, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Word Riot, and rawboned. She is an MFA candidate at Ashland University, and is drafting a memoir tentatively titled Hysterics: Pelvic Truths from a Nervous Wreck. Find her at kristachristensen.com