Twenty-three days still to go till I have my uterine surgery and I’m beyond ready for it be April. I’m ready to have my wound be healed up, I’m ready to not look pregnant any more, I’m ready to be exercising again and working toward my weight loss goals, I’m ready to not be worrying about where I sit for 10 days of every month and having to cancel engagements at the last minute cause I’m woozy from menorraghia, and I’m definitely ready to buy new sheets and have my only worry be that they’ll become ink-stained because I insist on writing long-hand in bed. I’m also ready to have my brain back. Currently it’s abuzz not only with my usual to-do lists for work, but also “write down French Press instructions for Mom” and “schedule someone to help with laundry and making the bed” and “make an e-mail blast list for people who’ll want to know how surgery went.” I’m also ready to be rid of the low-grade anxiety that starts my heart racing at the oddest of times, like when I’m trying to enjoy an episode of Bones and one of the characters whips out a scalpel.
In other words, I’m ready for life to return to normal. I keep cautioning myself, however, that I won’t actually feel normal, or more precisely, that, for me, normal doesn’t mean asymptomatic. I’ll have lighter periods if all goes well (and maybe no periods at all if the only option once I’m on the table is a hysterectomy), I’ll be slimmer, and I won’t be chronically exhausted. But I’ll still have trouble breathing on warm moist days, I’ll still occasionally have trouble not breathing heavily while walking uphill no matter how diligently I’m working out, and I’ll still occasionally get dizzy on those days when both my allergies and my asthma are conspiring a to keep my intake of oxygen to a minimum.
I wish I could say I am ready to just accept my battered body the way is, but I’m still struggling with that one. Even before the fibroids became an issue, I found myself frustrated and angry whenever I had an asthma attack. Sure I knew I was incredibly blessed to still even be breathing and above-ground. Sure I knew that an exacerbation of my lung issues were par for the course during pollen-heavy or humid times of the year. But still, I’d convince myself, on the long stretches of days that I felt great that I was finally well. That the next time I went back to the doctor, she was going to tell me to ditch my inhalers and stop taking the laundry list of medications that is usually way too long to fit on the “what medications do you take” part of any medical intake form.
I wish I could tell you that after the surgery, I’m going to return to living with grace. And maybe some days—hopefully most of them—I will. And as for the other ones, I’ll just keep limping through them till grace kicks in again… as it always does.
My relationship with my mom is difficult. She left me with my grandmother in Guyana when I was just three months old so that she could move to New York City, where the public hospital system was heavily recruiting foreign nurses in the early 1970s and through the 80s. True, she did leave so she could give me a better life. And I can’t imagine how she had to steel her heart to leave her newborn behind, an infant she wouldn’t see again except in photographs for nearly three years. It’s not really an unusual immigrant story. And it’s the story that has formed who I am as an artist—I am always excavating that loss, how it has informed every relationship I’ve had since, how it accounts for relationships I cannot seem to start or maintain. Even after four decades, I’m not sure my mother really understands quite how to love me, or even what to make of me. I’m sure I still seem like a foreign object to her. But sometimes, we do connect, and it is clear she is my mother and I am her daughter. When we’re talking about jewelry or perfume, when we’re being smart alecky and making each other laugh on the phone. She’s coming to stay with me for a few days after my surgery, and I’m somewhat anxious. Will this be one of our good times, or will I be counting down the days till she heads home? What follows is a piece I’ve been working on for several years now, about my mother and me in the wake of my hospitalization for pneumonia.
“I saw what a child must love/I saw what love might have done/had we loved in time.” — Mary Oliver
The comb moves in fits and starts through the tangled inches of hair, preceded by the moist shhh of detangler. I sit: my hands have forgotten how to weave braids and even the plastic comb’s weight is too much for the needle-bruised forearms. It is early February. I have been 36 for a month. I have been sick with pneumonia since Thanksgiving, falling from not feeling quite right to walking pneumonia to eight days of a ventilator doing the work my lungs forgot or were too tired or simply didn’t want to do. Even now, the nasal canula leaks oxygen slowly down my nasal cavities to the tender airways to the weary lungs.
After weeks of not eating and not moving, after weeks of lab tests that have bruised my arms the color of eggplant, after consultations by a clown car’s worth of doctors, my muscles no longer work. I can sit up only with the mechanical, imperfect help of the hospital bed. Despite this, the latest nurse has announced that if I don’t comb my hair, she will cut it off.
In a photo from early December, my face glazed with the happiness of my first published book of poetry, my hair hangs past my shoulders, blanketing my neck in loose, glossy ringlets. My mother has stayed out of my hair since I was in second grade, when she discovered that half a thick braid was gone, lopped off in a panic after my awkward attempts at coming my own hair like big girls had left it in what seemed an untamable knot.
My mother’s hands have always seemed to me the hands of a nurse, firm but distant. Now they rake the comb through my sloppy skein of hair, untangling, before weaving the weary strands into several small braids. I sit mutely, comforted by the insistent tugging and scraping. In my mother’s sure fingers there is an antidote to the callousness and carelessness of nurses and aides. “Why can’t you walk?” they ask suspiciously, resentfully even, as I call for assistance in using the bedpan or need my diaper changed.
I have written about my mother and me and illness before, an essay about the cornea transplant in my left eye, a dear friend taking the role of mother. That time, everyone asked, “Is your mother coming for the surgery?” She did not offer, and I did not ask: I didn’t know how to ask those things.
But now, she is here. As her nurse’s fingers have bathed me, rubbed lotion into my steroid-swollen fingers, we have relearned the clumsy language of need. We are back to the beginning—baby powder, sponge baths, a daughter literally reborn. That conversation continues even after I am moved to a rehabilitation center where the occupational therapist insists I comb my own hair to regain the strength in my arms, the dexterity in my fingers. I will roll from side to side, inching my sweat pants up my thickened legs. I will struggle to put on my shirt without getting tangled in the cord that still connects me to oxygen. I also will ask my mother to comb my hair every day, let her mow new paths into my scalp. My mother will braid my hair. I will relax into her hands. We will see what love might do, and we will love in time.
Full disclosure: My bedroom doesn’t actually look like this anymore. But someone’s too lazy to go finish making the bed and take a photo. That someone may—or may not—be yours truly.
Several years ago I was hospitalized with a case of pneumonia so bad that I ended up on a ventilator, only slightly conscious, as one of my lungs decided to simply stop working. The rebellious lung did ultimately decide to get back to work, but after a couple months of being bedridden and hardly eating anything,* my muscles were so atrophied that I had to go to rehabilitation to learn to walk again and dress myself and all those basic movements we take for granted. Though I made fairly rapid improvement, it was pretty easy to tell which of my muscles didn’t get used very often because they were the ones that continued to ache long after I stopped using a walker and a cane. One set of such muscles were the ones in my wrists. I could carry things, but changing the sheets on my bed became quite a painful task with the consequence that I just didn’t do it very often.
This morning as I was changing my sheets I realized that my wrists didn’t hurt at all, and the mattress didn’t feel like the dead weight it did seven years ago. I also realized that it had probably been a couple of years since I’d felt that particular ache, yet I continued to stick to my lax sheet-changing schedule. Though my reality had changed, I kept responding to the situation from a perspective of how it used to be.
It makes me wonder—how many actions do we take or not take or which situations do we avoid because of how we used to react? Is it possible that our emotional/spiritual/intellectual muscles have gained—or regained—their strength in that particular area but we just haven’t noticed? To borrow from Mr. Arsenio Hall, that’s what’s making me say “hmmmmm” today.
*I have no memory of what transpired after I asked the ICU docs to put me on the ventilator because I couldn’t “make myself breathe” but I think I was intubated for about a week. I had, however, been on a downward spiral for a few months before that moment of crisis.