Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue
I find out I probably can’t get pregnant during the worst month of my life.
Those are two half-lies, only because the actual words my doctor used were “your uterus is a tricky environment,” and the month in question instead spanned over late April and early May. I had returned to school in a haze after spring break, verging towards the cusp of multiple, paralyzing changes. I often ticked off those changes on my fingers: My boyfriend was moving away from New England. My grandfather had stage IV lung cancer. I had my first gynecology appointment while I was home. I was going abroad in the fall. I just kept getting sicker. Everything was chaotic and unanchored, and I felt every day like I was drowning in something dark and guttural.
Each part of my body was becoming a constant question mark, and I had in turn become obsessed with slapping on a fresh one every time a new diagnosis pulsed in front of me. Anything untouched was a fresh roadmap for God—or me—to curse and strike with something new and awful.
I am no stranger to doctors’ offices. I am a self-proclaimed expert in them.
When I was a baby, and my father was half a world away, I had three febrile seizures. My mother, panicked, rushed me to the hospital. The doctors said I would be okay. I don’t remember what it was like when the whites of my eyes hit the light, when I started shaking uncontrollably. I do remember that jolting, panicked feeling, something I probably inherited through my mother’s memories. I do know that I may have been stabilized since then, but I was never okay.
When I turned thirteen, I started getting the hiccups ten to fifteen times per day. They would interrupt everything—My breathing patterns, my dancing, my entire life. I went to so many doctors that I lost count. My mother and I became careful participants of what we called the doctor’s room dance. I videotaped my stomach to send the tiny unconsented thrusts of my upper abdomen to a creepy male neurologist. I went to another doctor and reluctantly agreed to having a boxy contraption on my head for a few days. The wires poked down and attached to different pressure points on my body, monitoring the invisible. I got stared at during school but attached to those eyes was a twisted since of pride. Someone was mapping the places where my body was faltering. I accepted the strange feeling of being alien.
When I was fifteen, I got cramps so badly my entire stomach became immobilized. I would writhe on the couch late at night, watching as the worry lines deepened in my parents’ faces. I felt an earthquake traveling up and inside my belly, reaching and gnarling deep down to where a pouch of fat covered my uterus. My dad told me this kind of pain happened to his sister, his cousin. The concern in his face fractured me even further. I knew I was experiencing something he could never quite quantify.
When I was sixteen, I had a ruptured ovarian cyst that slowly leaked out into my stomach. I was in insurmountable, agonizing pain. The ultrasounds were painful against my war-torn stomach, and they trapped me down on the table. Everyone who looked at me claimed they saw nothing. It was here that I realized that I would always remain something invisible, no matter how loud my words. Three weeks later, a surgeon agreed to laparoscopically open me up and poke around inside. He sucked the burst cyst and seeping blood out, like it was simple. Like it was easy. When I woke up, I felt like someone else was clenching a fist around my insides. I threw up violently and continuously on the bathroom tile. They say you can’t remember pain of that caliber, but I do. I still get nightmares of being apostrophed and atrophied on the hospital floor. I still feel the trauma my body has wrecked itself against, like a ship moorless and wild against rocky cliffs. This is the time I realized that pain sticks to you, wet and hot, a sacrosanct muscle memory. This is also the time I started growing fearful and panicked about having children, about them inheriting my sick and weakened body. About me not surviving a pregnancy. About my children not surviving me.
When I was weeks from turning eighteen, I had spent the last three months in bed. I can pinpoint exactly when this faltering happened. I was up until four in the morning on January 1st, numb and exhausted because of pain. A week earlier, I had come down with something, but I had just grown leaden and cold instead of arching towards feeling better. When I woke up the next day, something was catalyzed permanently in my body. The pain stuck to me like hot glue. After we had traveled home from our lake house, I fell into bed and didn’t wake until fifteen hours later. I said I couldn’t go to school, my dad told me I had to, and then held me up to the light. I couldn’t bear it. I sat right down on the floor. My dad relented. I went back to sleep. Weeks passed, and I would wake up enough to eat something, for my mother to wash my hair clean in the shower, and then I would go back to bed. I couldn’t graduate on time. I didn’t even have the energy to classify falling back into depression. We adopted my lifesaver of a cat, Tiger, in March of that year. We saw buckets of doctors, all of which either told me I was exaggerating, or simply told me there was nothing visibly wrong. All of which meant they were electing to choose a blind eye to the unfathomable. I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome by a Harvard medical graduate with awful bedside manner two weeks away from April 3rd, my eighteenth birthday. I didn’t even have the energy to ask what to do next, or what my prognosis was. She just stared at me, and I read through those blank, cold lines: I would have to live with this for the rest of my life.
When I was in my last month of being twenty-one, I had my first gynecology appointment. I was terrified and exhausted. My mother, preoccupied with work, couldn’t practice our perfected doctor’s room dance with me. I had to fly solo. I went into the office, nervousness roiling in the pit of my stomach. My periods had worsened over the last year. I bled out full moon cycles every month, and the pain was relentless. This latter one was something that had become a weary constant, not exclusive to my lower abdomen. I told the nurse probably seven times I was on my period before she left me alone to wait in the sterilized room. She was warm and comforting, and I wanted to cry. I saw the stirrups on the bed, and I wanted to cry. I shifted from side to side on the scratchy paper to see where I had left it bloody, and I wanted to cry. There was a poster with photographed doors of Boston on it, and I wanted to cry. The doctor came in, and she was nice enough, but I still wanted to cry. I blurted out all my symptoms, and she countered with an internal exam. I stopped compartmentalizing things in my head. I said, stupidly, “But I’m on my period.” She nodded, and told me it was okay, and I shook my head. Again, I said, stupidly, “But it will hurt.” She gave me a sad smile. I teared up. I stopped resisting.
After the gynecologist stuck the cold wand inside me, I was shaky, and bile kept rising in my stomach. Ever since then, the thought of something unnatural inside of me frenzied in my mind. I would get dizzied and my head would pound, my already Richter-scaled body writhing.
I sat blankly in the parking lot for full minutes before I collected myself and drove all the way to the other side of the state, where both of my parents worked. None of my usual music soothed me from this riled, frantic state of nausea. I put on an old Adele album, her voice quiet and pulsing. I picked up my dad, and he rode shotgun as I practiced the familiar but distant route home.
“So, I’m working on this essay,” I chanced, and he gave me a dazzling smile.
“What’s it about?” His voice carried over the battle of the engine and the rocky road. I took a minute before I answered, wanting to get it exactly right. Something about the appointment had startled me into a place of precision.
“It’s about us,” I said finally. “And about me. It’s sort of this mash-up of how illness follows family lines, and the…the roadmaps that overlap but don’t always connect.”
“That’s awesome, honey,” he answered, and I know he meant it. I use it as an excuse to interview him about his life before me, and he tells the story about how he and Mom fell in love. It’s slow, and syrupy, and I listened to the familiar stories before he drops the bombshell that my mother struggled to get pregnant.
“She did?” I asked, but my voice caught dangerously in my throat. “I didn’t know that.”
“That’s why it took so long to have you,” he said, and his head is tilted back against the headrest. His voice is slow but distant, like it’s a hazy memory he’s repeated countless times beforehand. “There were so many tries.”
I listened, shell-shocked. All the while my heart beat arrhythmic, taking everything in me not to drive us off the road.
It’s three weeks after I come back from spring break, in the throes of that worst month of my life, where I fear I’m pregnant. My period isn’t late, but panic is still rising in my stomach. I tell my boyfriend as if I’m joking, and he still reassures me it isn’t possible, because I take my birth control exactly at ten o’clock every night, and we’re protected every time. He catches my mania and tries, ever patient, to wrestle it back. I tell one of my best friends I’m late, and she counters with firmly reminding me I’m not, and that again, there’s no way I could be pregnant. Still, another few days pass with symptoms raging fitfully in my stomach, and no blood appears when I pull down my underwear. I remember hazily that my gynecologist said that she was doing a few tests, so I fight the fear clawing away deep inside me to call her shakily and ask if she had any results.
“Well, you seem relatively healthy. I still don’t know if you have endometriosis; you’d have to come back for exploratory surgery. Is there anything else you’re worried about?”
“No,” I lie. And then, immediately after, “Yes. My period isn’t here yet, and I’m scared.”
She listens to me explain my symptoms and asks where I am on my birth control. I tell her I’m a day away from the placebo pills, and that I’ve had sex twice since my last period, but my boyfriend and I use condoms without fail. She laughs quietly, and something angry rages terrible against my stomach lining. I know she’s going to tell me that I’m not pregnant, which has suddenly and furiously become the most invalidating statement. I swallow before I can snap, and she starts talking again. I have to remind myself to listen before my brain fully filters her words back in.
“…I wouldn’t worry too much about pregnancy,” she says, “because you seem to be fine. Between your constant usage of the birth control and the condoms, you’re covered. Also, the tests aren’t all back yet, but it seems like your uterus is a tricky environment.” She stops, and her voice is glassy, nonchalant. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
I’m so stunned at her words, I don’t ask any further questions. What I manage through the stupor is that because of the intensity of my pain, the cysts that bubble up, burn, and dissipate, and because there’s lineage of malfunctioning reproductive organs in the women of my family, I shouldn’t have to worry about unexpectedly having a baby in college. Or, probably, ever.
I hang up and everything seems apocalyptic. In the back of my mind, I know this is just one opinion. I know it’s hardly the end of the world. I know I had been saying for three years that I never wanted to go through a childbirth. Still, I stutter through the next few days on the verge of tears, and when I do get my period, as promised, I sit ajar on the toilet and cry my eyes out. It seems to hurt worse this time, which I suppose is to be expected when your uterus is actively rioting against you. And also to be expected when you’ve had a lifetime of your body ripping your autonomy completely away from you.
I’m probably thirteen or fourteen when my mom pays me ten bucks to clean out her linen closet. I settle in, splaying across her bedroom floor, headphones in as I focus on folding pillowcases and sheets. I dig all the way down to the bottom, ensuring I don’t leave anything untouched.
It’s there somewhere between a forgotten facecloth and a Kim Possible beach towel. My mom’s pregnancy test. I pick it up, stunned. In my mother’s handwriting, there’s one word written in black Sharpie on the weathered box. Amy.
She calls my name from the kitchen, and I feel an unwarranted strike of fear, so I bury the box in the bowels of the closet. It stays on my mind for years after that, touching the first indication that said I was going to exist. When my dad tells me that my mother fought to conceive me, my mind drifts back during sleepless nights to that little box. I wonder how my mom felt, when she found out she would struggle to have a hospitable womb. I wonder how she felt when I started wriggling to life in the basin of her belly, that she had beaten the odds. I wonder if I would ever feel that same way, if something slivered open to life inside of my own. If I would ever see a pregnancy as hopeful instead of the panic that plagued me when I thought about my tricky womb and my disease-riddled body. If something better could even survive that.
My friends and I are nestled in my basement, one sticky July night. One window is opened wide, and the stars positively dance. I tip my head back occasionally to watch them shine.
“I can’t wait to get pregnant,” one says happily, and I feel a jolt. This is before I go to the gynecologist. Now, retrospectively, I split those times up in my head. On one side of the bisection, I am terrified of becoming pregnant, and want nothing more than to adopt a child that gets my love but not my genes. On the other, I am still terrified of becoming pregnant, but my heart is awful and torrential in mourning for the child I won’t have that I thought I never even wanted.
“I can,” I whisper lowly, and my friends brush it off. This has become sort of a running joke, that my body is shipwrecked and violent. I laugh along with everyone, until That Day. Tonight, after we discuss potential families, I stare out the window at the stars. They heed my subconscious prayers, and fill my head, dazzling in place of the usual nightmares.
Last year, I re-obsessed with the idea of hope. It’s been a constant desire, something I’m permanently ricocheted upwards reaching for. I find wishes in unturned stones and the way the river always runs parallel to where I sleep at night. I write poems filled with imagery of the planet, and the promise that resides in growth. I tell myself fertile earth will counteract my barren body.
My mom picks me up from my boyfriend’s house in Connecticut a few days after the tumultuous semester ends. I am laden with grief, a culmination of worry about my grandfather’s health, the sudden death of our beloved family cat, my question-marked womb, and how I’ve been fraught with new, paralyzing dizzy spells for the last week. I tell her I passed clean out on Liam’s kitchen floor, and that he caught me after I crumpled, but before my head smacked dangerously against it. Her eyes are as torrential as my heart feels.
“We’ll go to the doctor next week,” she says, and just the admission of the word we brings tears. I sniffle, and nod. A few minutes pass before she tells me we have to bury Tiger tonight. “I’m so sad, honey. I know you are too. But we’ll get through this together.”
“I know,” I finally manage, and I wrench with this feeling of awful finality.
Miles pass, and we’re back in Rhode Island before she starts talking about the map of our family. I can’t remember if I guided the conversation towards my birth, or if we just naturally ended up there.
“How did you feel?” I ask, and carefully keep my eyes on the horizon.
“Terrified,” she admits, and laughs. “But so happy.” She reaches over again to squeeze my hand. “I hope you’ll maybe have that someday.”
I swallow. I don’t shed more tears. I don’t tell her that my uterus has decided to follow in her footsteps. I don’t let that crack down my heart out of my mouth, because for my whole life, telling my mom something makes it real.
“Maybe,” I finally say, my whole body leaden and fractured. It’s not hopeful. She still smiles over at me, and I am jolted with the reminder that she was once fallow ground, too. I keep my eye firmly on the darkening horizon, knowing it’s allowed to hurt right now. But tomorrow, against all odds, the sun will still stretch over fresh earth.
Amy Jarvis majors in creative writing at Susquehanna University and originally hails from Rhode Island. Her words have been published across campus magazines as well as a few online. She’s a poet, a lover of light, and a hopeless romantic, although not necessarily in that order.