Four Questions and a Scar

by Adrienne Ross

     The scar is almost gone.  Softened, pink, once a crimson line atop my pubic hair, much of it has slipped under my skin. It was through this opening that a murky mass seen in sonogram tests was revealed as endometriosis.  I was 38, and believed myself healthy until a routine examination led weeks later to surgery.  What was cut away was the shreds of my left ovary and fallopian tube.  What remained was a desire to have a child that expanded into its own fullness as my chances of becoming a mother dissipated.

     Almost three years to the day of my surgery, I stroke my finger lightly across my scar’s knotted flesh.  Saturday morning. Rain outside.  A mug of Earl Grey tea steams on the pine table.  I lie naked on the futon, the purple bunting scratching my hips and thighs, my feet buried under my blue robe.  How soft my scar feels. How flexible as my scar folds into my belly’s curves.  Scar tissue marks where an opening was forced and knit back, where the body is strongest, least likely to break again.  My scar is no longer an unnaturally straight line cutting then from now, a reminder of the six months of artificially induced menopause used to clear away residual endometrial tissue and restore as much of my fertility as possible. 

     I rest my hand above where hollowness and remaining ovary are in balance.  To mother a child.  What would it be like to get under the skin of those words?  Now that age, illness, and my reluctance to pursue single motherhood have made my chances of pregnancy remote I yearn for a child without my usual ambivalence.  Infertility.  I chew that word.  Infertility.  Not a wall.  A border.  Not an ending.  A boundary.  Infertility.  A word so full of stresses and soft valleys of sound should be about something lush, and it is.  My wounded fertility has been a landscape ripe with unexpected questions sunk into my body’s ground.  My life has revolved around those questions for the past three years.  Never quite answered, they unfold again and again.

     One question came a week after surgery.  My body recovered fast from the operation.  Protected by mega-doses of Ibuprofen, I was walking 2 1/2 mile circles around Green Lake every day.  Yet illness is as much a crisis of faith in our bodies as it is a manifestation of physical harm. While I felt solid and strong after the operation, I felt too a mental hovering over my scar.  I was all too aware of the tight stitches holding me in place.  Often, I felt a sharp fear that the stitches would tear apart, and I would split open. 

     A week after the surgery, I was sitting under the slanting eves of my attic writing office reading my old notebooks.  So many essays, poems, stories, memoirs.  In the narrow room of old books and rejection letters, alongside tufts of white spotted feathers taken from a hawk’s kill site, were my dearest efforts of the past three years.  The pages shone in the silver light before twilight.  I couldn’t find myself in what I’d written.  In the omissions, the emptiness between words was the endometriosis.  My illness had been a story all its own, a secret narrative that, now revealed, would write the story of my life in ways I couldn’t then imagine.  With my painfully heightened sensitivity, it was only natural that a question forced its way forward:  what other stories don’t I know about myself?

     That question cut like a pebble in my boot as I spent the next six weeks walking and wandering in New Zealand.  Years later, I rub my hand in slow circles over my belly, sink into memories.  My stomach was bloated then. My scar cut a sharp reminder with each step.  The artificially induced menopause with its sudden flashes of heat was a too early rite of passage burning away who I was, what I knew about myself.  I spent days walking trails, wandering through lush forests and tangled thoughts.  I was strong.  My endurance was steady.  Yet I no longer trusted my body.   It had harbored a secret illness that had destroyed the comforting expectation of a partner and a child…sometime later, at a time of my choosing. 

     One evening, as I was walking along a beach, the jagged Kaikora Mountains behind me and the Pacific looming before me, my feet sinking ankle deep along the wave smooth stones, my second question arose.  If I can’t have children, am I still a woman?  Once I would have shrugged off the question: of course I’m a woman, what does that have to do with having a child?  Yet on that twilight beach, as I passed playgrounds and ship captain’s houses resting on the vertebrae of the whales they’d hunted, it was no longer a question with an answer.  My thoughts hit a brick wall of silence. I felt a thud in my brain and somewhere in my mind was a dark place waiting for the light. 

     A child, of course, is one way to forestall any such question.  Particularly in a time of changing sex roles, having a child provides a profoundly basic reassurance:  see, this proves it, I really am a woman.  (Or a man, as the case may be.)  This need for confirmation is understandable given the social attitudes surrounding infertility.  I’ve seen infertility described as a disability or worse, portrayed as an elemental maiming of a woman’s primary capacity.  Old, unspoken attitudes hold: a woman is a real woman, a true woman, if she can bear a child.  Little wonder the frantic rush for high-tech fertility treatments.  Motherhood and fatherhood, after all, comes as genuinely with adoption as with a biological birth.  Before, when I assumed I was fertile, being childless didn’t cause me to doubt myself.  I could have a child or not as I choose.  I was a woman without having to give it much thought.  Now that I no longer had that handy fallback, I had to find other, deeper ways of knowing the woman I am. 

     Remembering that, I rise from my couch, wrap myself in my robe, hold myself tight as the first hint of winter comes slipping through the window crack. Canada geese call to each other through the rain.  I remember that artificial menopause and the months that followed when I knew I had to somehow trust my body.  How could I function if my body was forever poised like an enemy at my back?  For years, I had accepted our culture’s assumption of the supremacy of mind over body.  I had hauled my body around after me, telling it – it – to wait when the desire for love or lust, lindy hop, children or French toast was not according to plan. 

     Yet in the flesh is written every story, every desire we have held and forgotten, every moment of life. Body is our first lover, first friend, first self.  Body is the text behind every dream, every desire.  In retrospect, I should not have been so astonished that my body had her stories. Stunned by surgery and medication, my body staggered like a freed prisoner.   She cried over grief long forgotten, craved sunlight and cinnamon and touch.  She needed with a fierceness that astonished me. I could no longer hold her back.  Nor did I want to.  If I wanted to go on with my life I had to uncover and share her stories.  Slowly, she came to relax her rigid stance as she learned I would say not those pills, not that touch.  With mutual trust came a new vocabulary of needs and desires, an essential if still unknown self.

     Through the discovery of a hidden chronic illness, I learned the extent of secrets I kept from myself and more complicated, forgiving standards of truth.  My wounded fertility wove a healing balance between mind and body, body and soul.  It is ironic, then, that the traditional language of infertility brooks no such compassion.   To be infertile is to be barren, without issue, unproductive, meager, poor.  By that definition, I am neither barren nor infertile for I have a greater fecundity of spirit than ever before.  I take little lightly now, not the rain against my windows nor the sweet heft of my breasts.  I am more able to break the habits of daily life with startled joy at sunlight gracing irises, the sharp, sweet taste of cinnamon curled in a vanilla frozen yogurt cone, my lover’s kiss stinging from his mustache’s gray stubble. 

     Three years later, I can find no single key that turned the lock, no epiphany that clarified the past, illuminated the future.  I learned to let my body write the story, and so came to a deeper, more joyful sense of myself as a woman independent of my ability to have children.  My journey homeward brought me to this moment, my hand pressed against my belly, feeling my own yin curled to yang, loss and remaining ovary, a dark luminous pulse under my palm.

 

     Some questions run from answers.  Without a child, how will I live after I die?   Hungry ghosts surround that question.  My sister and I are childless. When we die, a small branch of humanity will snap and fall away.  The hungry ghosts are the ancestors in my genes: so many voices I never heard, eyes that have never looked into mine and yet are mine.  As a Jew, I know the obligation I failed to meet: be fruitful and multiply, and keep the covenant made thousands of generations before my birth. 

     How long does biological immortality last?  Far less than imagination.  The math is simple.  A child has 1/2 your genes, a grandchild has 1/4, a great-grandchild 1/8, and a great-great grandchild 1/16.  By now you have begun slipping out of memory, out of the gene pool.  How many people know the names of their great-grandparents?  Thousands of years after Sappho’s genetic self disappeared from humanity, there is still this:  “My words just breath, and yet immortal.”

     As a writer, my words, the small, sudden ripples they send out will outlast any child I could have.  Yet who will recite the prayer for the dead on the High Holy Days? Light yahrzit candles to mark my passage?  The fear of being forgotten haunts me.  Even if I adopt, I will still drop out of humanity’s biological future.  No gift of imagination silences that fear.

     Sometimes I feel a grief that goes beyond my own. My ancestors are crying out, crying out for all their lost lives entangled in my curling strands of DNA.  Sometimes my childlessness feels like silence after a slaughter.  I never believed children should be born from guilt or obligation.  For me, having a child means a culmination of love and joy between my partner and me.  Yet being childless is not just the end of the future, but the end of the past. 

 

      On my writing desk I keep a figurine small enough to fit into my palm.  Oblong, almost flat, a woman’s face is carved into the pale, red surface.  Her eyes are closed.  She is singing.  There, in the center’s slight swell, a hole is cut.  Resting there is a child’s face, eyes closed, mouth round in song. 

      I walk to my old wooden desk and place the figurine in my hand, feeling its rough texture, its heft.  Three years, three questions: the archetypal number.  Jews and storytellers keep a fourth question, the unexpected one that leads to an unexpected truth.  In truth, none of my questions have answers.  Each is a journey of its own, only now the path is slightly clearer, and I can feel my feet as I walk.  Except for this last question:  How can I be grateful for all my illness has given me, yet still wish it had never occurred?

      I try to feel at once the rising joy at the thought of a child, the ever-present grief.  In the end, pain is no more a feeling than joy, and no less.  My illness opened my heart and body more to motherhood than if the endometriosis had not occurred.  My wounded fertility is now as much a part of my beloved body as my muscular legs, my green eyes and the freckles scattered across my arms.  Whether I want to or not, I have to love the wounds left by the endometriosis even if I can’t be grateful for them.  Free will, as Jung said, is the ability to do gladly that which I must do. 

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Adrienne Ross’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Earth Light, An Intricate Weave: Women Write on Girls and Girlhood, the American Nature Writing anthology series (1996, 1997 and 2000 volumes), The Literature of Spirituality-Many Mountains Moving, Cezanne’s Carrot, Slow Trains and many other print or online publications. She received a 1996 Literary Arts Award from the Seattle Arts Commission and the 2001 Artist Trust Literature Fellowship.

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