Tag Archive for 'cancer'

4 Poems by Laura Thompson

Outgrown

The pet store owner hates me.
The bags of skittering crickets
I buy can’t make up for the sales
he’s lost. Releasing swarms of doubt
among his customers, I tell them
how big those babies behind glass will get.
The sulcata tortoise that fits
in your child’s mouth will be 200 pounds.
The frog sitting on your thumb eats fruit flies
now, rats later. In a year, that iguana will need
his own room. Caiman is just another
word for Crocodile. Is it animal welfare
that makes me speak up, or my own
fear of a life that will outgrow
the space I leave for it? When my eight-months
pregnant friend says how much she wants
this baby out, I don’t tell her
about my embryo, just another word
for a baby so small I didn’t know I’d brought
it home, how my deformed
uterus ran out of room at eight weeks,
and the tissue meant to cushion crushed.

My Boyfriend’s Miscarriage

On a Harley Davidson notepad, I draw
a normal uterus: pear-shaped, adorned on either side

with ovaries, and then mine, upside down, toppled
by a mass of eggs on one side, nothing

on the other, fallopian tubes
a gnarled ball of yarn.

The perspective father of my children
still isn’t convinced: Wouldn’t a child

 from your own body mean
more? Wouldn’t that be worth

the risk? I find him sobbing, face down
on our mattress, clutching

a Christmas photo—his niece’s bald head
covered by a Santa hat, smiling despite

chemo and swollen cheeks—he flinches
when I brush against his hip where a drill

pierced his femur, drawing rich red marrow
from the hollows of his pelvis to patch holes

in a child’s blood, the only relative whose genes
matched. Nine months later, the cells he donated

have died inside her. I was wrong
he says. That’s the last part of us
I want to lose.

“Inappropriate” Lactation After a Miscarriage

To not “take possession of.”
To not “set apart for a particular use.”
Not “fitting, suitable, apt.”
Not milk, but milky,
meant for a baby never
truly possessed.
Not white, but bluish gray,
insinuating itself into a bra’s
lace when someone else’s baby cries.

Set apart but not useful,
twin tumors the heart beats against–
ignore the pressure, refuse to release it,
and it will go away.
“Express” it and it will never
stop. Soothe with frozen
cabbage leaves, brittle green reminders
that babies are not found
where they were thought to be.
The only cure: to become
fertile again. What is natural
can also be wrong.

Heat

Inside a freshly laid egg, a gecko
begins female, but temperature
changes everything. Incubators
set at 75 guard oviducts, but
crank to 80 and androgen pools
in hemipenal pores. A simple formula, unless
a thermostat malfunctions and temps
reach 90, for an egg just shy of omelet
hatches “hot female.” Sterile, chunky,
aggressive, they savage males who try
to mount them, dance a slithering samba
when “normal” females approach.

Off her meds because of me, my mother
hid in closets and crawl spaces
in June, heat stroke less threatening
than life. Were those prenatal summer
months the reason the dress shop calls
my waist a “size other?” Did it make
me throw a desk at the teacher who said
I’d never find a husband peering
through a microscope? Is that
why I sizzle in a woman’s
arms like butter
beneath scrambled egg?

Laura Thompson earned her MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in English and Comparative Literature, with a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Tributary, The Rectangle, and Tiger’s Eye. She is also a part-time English and Creative Writing instructor and serves on the editorial staff at the Cincinnati Review.

Read our interview with Laura Thompson conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Male Miscarriage, Reptilian vs. Human Mating Rituals and Inappropriate Lactation.

Gone

Fiction by Ethel Rohan

         My fingers traced the diagonal scars that ran from my armpits and across the memory of my breasts, the stitches long dissolved and the red, angry skin faded to pink. My other hand moved to my stomach and traveled up and down its long vertical scar, this one more purplish than pink. All the scars dry and flaky. Fish spines.

          I listened to the birdsong outside my bedroom window and decided to put off going to the hospital until the afternoon. I was no longer a patient, but sometimes returned to volunteer. I liked to hold the babies that didn’t have visitors, to breathe in their freshness and sing them to smiles. I had my first Friday off in months from the diner and felt glad to be free of the customers’ small-talk, of their complaints and ogles. One thing I was never free of was the diner’s deep-fried air. It hung all around me and wouldn’t wash away. Still, I liked my job well enough and could do it robot-like while I day-dreamed. Jason, a handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed regular who wasn’t coy about his wish to have me on the menu, would be disappointed by my absence. I smiled into my pillow. Sometimes, while I carried the trays and wiped down the tables, I fantasized about Jason and me going out together, to a movie or a nice restaurant. I wouldn’t let myself think beyond that. I couldn’t imagine the two of us alone together.

My neighbor’s colicky baby wailed. Their back door smacked closed. I moved from my warm bed to the window. My neighbor stood in her dark pajamas and bare feet in the grass, her hands on her hips and dark head turned up to the sky. I tried to remember her name. The baby’s cries climbed and my neighbor’s hands covered her ears. Months back, her husband had deployed to Iraq. He had yet to meet his son. She was always polite, but distant, and seemed to want to keep to herself. That suited me. In addition to the fussy newborn, she had two little girls. Her name came to me, Nancy. I dressed quickly, tried not to look at my too-big bed.

Just as I reached my front door, the kitchen phone shrilled. It was likely my dad, and if I didn’t answer, he’d worry. It turned out to be Jason. His voice sent me bobbing in warm, shiny water. He had bribed the new busboy for my number, said he never again wanted to have breakfast without me. He’d never had breakfast with me, I corrected, just delivered by me. The sneaky, small-eyed busboy had also given him my address. Jason asked to come over. I warned him not to dare. He chuckled. I pictured his thick, shiny-with-maple-syrup lips and again felt a rush of pleasure.

“I want to show you my latest drawing,” he said.

The next door baby continued to cry. “I have to go, seriously.”

“I drew you.”

My insides recoiled, and I rushed the receiver down.

Jason sometimes brought his sketches to the diner, mostly of hawks, trees, the ocean, and everyday people. Gifted, he managed to bring out in his subjects something I’d never have noticed: the hawks’ intelligent eyes and the blue in their black talons; green leaves so smooth, shiny, and thick I wanted to pet them; and emotions in people’s faces that lifted right off the page. He was gifted, yes, but he’d no right to draw me without my permission, to take from me like that.

I walked along the side of Nancy’s house and called out over her wooden fence. The baby wailed. Moments later, Nancy pulled open her front door. She stood tall and thin and appeared ill. Her face was pale, and she had greenish circles under her eyes. Her long gray-black hair was messed and unwashed. I tried not to react to her body odor, and followed the baby’s cries upstairs. The unclean smell pervaded the house and yet everything, the carpet, wallpaper, and furnishings, looked washed-out. There was also the smell of burnt toast.

The baby lay on his side in his crib, his face a dangerous red. His eyes were scrunched shut and his mouth was open wide. His colorless fingers gripped the bars on his crib, and I had to peel the spongy digits free. I lifted him, and he roared. I hugged him to my shoulder and shushed at his damp ear. Nancy apologized, explained. She had tried everything. I urged her to take a shower and to nap. I would stay. Nancy protested. She couldn’t, she shouldn’t. I insisted. His mother gone, the baby kicked his legs inside his yellow pajamas and jerked his fists. He cried harder. His large bald head pushed and rooted at my prosthetic bra and his greedy grunts turned frantic. I had only my baby finger to offer. The force of his suck hurt and frightened me, could rip my finger right off.

I carried him outside to the garden, the sky boy-blue and the sun hidden behind clouds. The cool breeze startled him into silence. I bounced him in my arms and praised and cooed. He started-up again. I sang to him, soft and low. Overhead, the plovers circled and seemed to listen, to sing back. The baby quieted and closed his eyes. We returned inside. I cradled him in his rocking chair and breathed-in his sweet-and-sour milky smell. My thoughts returned to Jason. I wondered how he’d drawn me.

For sure, at thirty-two, he would never have depicted me as scarred, breastless, and barren. I had chosen to hedge my bets and allowed the surgeons to get ahead of the white spots in my breasts and lymph nodes, to cut away at me.

On the street, a car slowed and stopped. Its door closed. I held the baby and my breath and strained to hear.

Jason waited on my front porch for over an hour. Twice, I’d signaled from the baby’s window and indicated he should go. He waved away my gestures and leaned back against my front door, his black artist’s case by his hip. I left Nancy recharged and her baby still asleep. At the end of her front path, I almost turned left instead of right, but pressed on to my house and Jason. His easy smile almost made me bolt. He wore faded, ripped jeans and a tight red t-shirt. Red, despite everything, was still my favorite color. We sat on the barstools at my messy kitchen island, there junk mail and other bits of me scattered about. I wished everything was more in order.

I followed his gaze to the reproduction Frida Kahlo on the opposite wall. He scrutinized Kahlo’s naked breasts, open torso, shattered spine, body harness, and the nails that punctured her flesh. He turned back to me with an uncertain smile. I offered coffee, but he refused. His attention turned to the single pine chair at my tiny kitchen table. I’d put its mate in the garage. He reached for his artist’s case. I jumped at the coffeemaker.

I put a mug of steaming coffee in front of him, and told him about the baby next door, the babies in the hospital. In the end, I was the one who reached for his portfolio. He’d captured me in profile, as I scribbled a customer’s order, the obligatory smile on my face. My dark hair was tied up and its loose strands caught behind my ear, curling toward my throat. My prosthetic breasts pushed against my pink uniform, smaller than my real breasts. He’d shaded my face, trapped me in shadow.

I pushed the drawing aside. “It’s not me.”

He looked from me to the drawing and back again, perplexed.

I reappeared in the kitchen, my shirt and bra removed and the black camisole clinging to my small boy chest. I dropped my hands to my sides. He searched my face, swallowing. I told him how much was gone. He held my gaze.

“You want to try again?” I asked, my face hot.

He nodded. I tried to slow my breath, to stop shaking. He moved the pine chair to the window. Seated, the sun warmed my head and shoulder. I peeled off the camisole and dropped it to the floor. I looked straight at him. His pencil danced over the paper.

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in The Good Men Project, The Chattahoochee Review, Los Angeles Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan is now a resident of San Francisco, California. Visit her at ethelrohan.com  and read her most recent work here.

Rohan’s “Gone” was featured in this post and lively discussion (replete with additional story and poem suggestions for further reading) here at The Lit Pub.

Read our interview with Ethel Rohan conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz: The Power of Domestic Realism, Male Protagonists and the Dual Degree: Mills and Motherhood.

 

Missing an Umbilical and Cancer Sex

Poems by Timothy Black

Missing an Umbilical

I am under water, and my son
is underwater. His hair floats like snakes,
like a tombed medusa’s. The plunge in
erased air from every inch of him.
He tilts back, under the water, and he floats
with his belly to the bright sky. I think,
This is amazing. He looks just like an embryo.
I want to reach out and touch him,
feel his skin wrapped in water
to make sure he’s real and still mine.
His father could come at any time.
Could plunge his hand
beneath the surface and grab
for his hair, grab a handful of snakes.
My son pushes off the bottom
and breaks the surface before me.
I stay submerged,
imagining a world without him.

Cancer Sex

 On most nights we lay there
swaddled in doubt,
but not delusions.
The dark
would press in at us,
or float at the end of day
like a question mark.
On most
nights, need would still be counted
as need, met only with the clasp
of sweaty hands. I
with my penis
and she with vagina and clit
we would lie, trying to ignore
marriage’s only real mandate.
On other nights
we would cover up with quilts
and ignore the fueling
locomotive with its black,
thick smoke and iron
wanting to be released
from its sooty black birth.
I would kiss her then,
and she would kiss back-
becoming more than cancer,
at long last mindless and carnal.
At the end I would always
withdraw. Terrified
of pumping
sickness into
my barren wife.

 

 

Timothy Black’s first poetic novella, Connecticut Shade, is in its second printing through WSC Press. He teaches poetry at Wayne State College, and is a Cave Canem Fellow. He lives in Wakefield, Nebraska with his wife and two sons.

Timothy’s work has appeared in the anthologies The Logan House Anthology of 21st Century American Poetry, The Great American Roadshow, and Words Like Rain. He has been published in The Platte Valley Review and at bringtheink.com, has poems forthcoming in Breadcrumb Scabs, Clean Sheets and Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and has won an Academy of American Poets prize for his poem “Heavy Freight.”

Please check out what poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz calls a “freakin’ awesome” interview with Timothy Black on She Writes.

Incompatible with Life

Essay by Cara Holman

My miscarriage happened so long ago, that I rarely think about it consciously anymore. But when my gynecologist recently informed me that she needed to perform a uterine biopsy on me “just to be on the safe side”, memories and feelings that I thought I had safely buried, came flooding back to me.

It took me back to the time when I had a lively three-year-old at home, and was expecting my second child. I had just passed the second trimester mark, and now that the morning sickness was starting to subside, I was basking in the glow of my pregnancy. My life seemed picture perfect- I was happily married, had an active, healthy young son, and lived in the house of my dreams high up on a hill in Seattle, overlooking the lights of downtown at night. On a really clear day, you could even see Mt. Ranier through the window of our breakfast nook.

Motherhood was everything I had hoped it would be, and then some, in spite of the occasional temper tantrums- my son’s that is, not mine. I could hardly wait for the day when I would hold my second child in my arms, a day that I believed would cement us as a family, rather than merely a couple with a young child. I was one of the last of my circle of friends to get pregnant with a second child, believing that a three to four year spacing between children would be ideal. Jeff would be almost exactly three and a half years old when his new sibling was born in the spring, and I envisioned long days in the park nursing my newborn while I watched Jeff and his friends running around on the playground.

I woke that morning with a feeling of foreboding, but it had nothing to do with my pregnancy, or me either, for that matter. Today was the day my husband was scheduled to have arthroscopic knee surgery. Although his surgeon had assured us that it was a very straightforward procedure, with every expectation of success, still it weighed heavily on my mind as I slowly dressed for the day. I had made arrangements to drop Jeff off at a friend’s house, thinking that a hospital was no place for a restless young child.

“Don’t worry about what time you’re done,” Diane says cheerfully. “I’ll take the boys to the playground this morning so they can release a little energy, then I’ll give them lunch and they can play in our playroom or watch a video. He’ll be fine,” she assures me, nodding her head at Jeff who is already running around the house with Tyler.

As Tom and I head for the hospital, I notice the fall color by the side of the road, and relax just a bit. The muted October sunlight raises my spirits and I can’t help but think what a shame it is that we aren’t taking advantage of this nice weather. We should be heading out to watch the boats in the ship canal, or spending the day at the zoo instead of the hospital. Still, I have every expectation that in a few short weeks, things will be completely back to normal again, and maybe the nice weather will hold out for just a bit longer.

While we wait nervously for Tom to be wheeled into surgery, I suddenly remember that I have a prenatal visit scheduled for that morning, and in the flurry of activity with the pre-op and all, I had forgotten to cancel it. “Go ahead and keep your appointment,” he tells me. “I’ll be in surgery for several hours and it won’t take you long. Forty-five minutes at the outside.” He was right. Erica’s house is just up the road, and I could be there and back in almost less than the amount of time it takes to talk about it. We had thrilled at the sound of the first fetal heartbeat at the last visit, so this would just be a routine check, nothing to get too excited about.

I pause on the front steps of Erica’s house to once again take in the beauty of the day. There are some chrysanthemums blooming in her garden, in all shades of yellow and orange, and I am admiring them when Erica comes to the door. “Where’s Jeff?” is her first question, as she shows me into the upstairs room she uses to see her patients. While most other nurse-midwifes practice out of traditional offices, Erica prefers to see patients in her own house, and I fully appreciate the homey, non-antiseptic atmosphere. I look over at the toy bin in the corner, and smile as I remember how delighted Jeff was to discover it on our last visit.

I explain that I have left Jeff with a friend while my Tom has knee surgery. “I’m kind of in a hurry to get back to the hospital,” I conclude. “Anyway, I’ve been feeling fine. Great, in fact, now that the morning sickness is over. I guess it’s still too early to feel the baby moving?”

Erica does a quick calculation in her head. “Let’s see, you’re 15, no almost 16 weeks along. You could feel the baby move at any time now.” She works briskly and efficiently, all the while keeping up a conversation. It is when she pauses mid-sentence to listen for the fetal heart tones, that I see an expression of concern cross her face, and then just as quickly disappear.

“You know,” she says, in a carefully measured voice, “I’m not picking up the fetal heartbeat.” She glances at her clock on the wall. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time today. I know you’re in a hurry to get back to the hospital. I’ve been having a little bit of trouble with my equipment lately. Why don’t you just come back on Thursday and we’ll check again. I’m sure everything is okay,” she hastens to assure me.

I suddenly get a feeling of déjà vu. Everyone seems to be assuring me things will be just fine: first my husband’s surgeon, then Diane and now Erica. Still, I’m not overly concerned at this point. If Erica isn’t worried, why should I be?

I hardly give the matter another thought in the ensuing days, something highly unusual for a chronic worrier like me, to be sure, but my mind is on my husband’s recovery, and after all, hadn’t Erica assured me everything would be okay? Between taking care of Tom, and keeping Jeff busy, the next three days pass rapidly, until I am once again back at Erica’s to listen for the fetal heart tones.

It is when she still can’t pick them up, for the second time now, that the first inklings of fear begin to seep into my mind. With Tom well on his way to recovery, I begin to focus again on my pregnancy. Why isn’t Erica picking up the fetal heart tones? Is it still too early? No, that doesn’t make sense. We heard them clearly at my twelve week visit. Was her equipment really on the fritz last time, or was that just an excuse she made to make me feel better?

As I look up at her, I see at once that this time she is concerned, though she still keeps her air of brisk efficiency about her. “I think we should schedule you for an ultrasound this afternoon,” she says, “just to be on the safe side.” I notice she is not so quick to reassure me everything will be fine this time.

She steps out of the room to make the arrangements. I take a deep breath and try not to focus on the fear that is slowly threatening to engulf me. What possible logical explanation is there for her not being able to hear the fetal heartbeat this time around? If it is not her equipment that is at fault… But here my mind clearly draws a line. I will not think about the other possibility. What could possibly have gone wrong? Wouldn’t I have known it if there was a problem with my pregnancy?

An hour later, I am in a darkened room, while a young woman whose nametag reads “Jessie” runs a probe over my abdomen. I am not really in any discomfort, except perhaps a little from having a full bladder. As this is my first ultrasound ever, never having had the occasion to need one during my first pregnancy, I don’t really know what to expect. The grainy picture on the screen is quite frankly a disappointment. I have no idea what I’m seeing. I try squinting to see if I can almost make out the baby’s features, and I think I can see a head and body emerge from the black and white image. However, try as I might, I can’t seem to detect any movement.

I glance over at Jessie again. Her eyes are glued to the computer screen as she continues to move the probe around. “Can you see the baby moving?” I ask her hopefully.

“Well,” Jessie says, in the carefully measured tones that I have since learned to equate with bad news, “it’s difficult to say. The radiologist will read it this afternoon and call your doctor with the results.”

“Midwife,” I correct her. I try one more time. “If the heart was beating, would you be able to tell?”

Jessie’s face remains impassive. I notice she still studiously avoids eye contact with me. “The radiologist will read it,” she reiterates firmly, and chastened, I lapse into silence. Although it will be a full two more hours before Erica calls me at home with the news, in my heart I have already read the writing on the wall. I know not how, I know not why, but apparently my baby has died. I am only 31 years old. I have had one non-eventful full-term pregnancy. I have a healthy young son. I myself have always enjoyed good health, and now with no rhyme or reason, they tell me my baby has died.

I feel full of grief, heartbroken, bewildered and inconsolable. Why me? I keep asking myself. Why me? I quite honestly don’t understand. If the baby died, why didn’t I miscarry spontaneously? Why should I believe what they tell me? What if they’re wrong and there’s nothing wrong with the baby? My head is swirling with questions. It is all I can do to get through the rest of the day. Erica drives over and leaves me with some inspirational books about miscarriages and I try to make sense of them. I cry a lot, being careful not to do so in front of Jeff. Still, he senses something is wrong and he is very clingy and insecure that night, adding a layer of guilt on top of my grief.

I am scheduled for a pre-op the next day, and Tom accompanies me to the visit. Somehow, the irony of the situation strikes me. A week ago I was accompanying him to his surgery. Now it will be my turn. When we spoke our wedding vows a mere six years ago, who would have imagined that we would reach the “in sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” so soon? How can this be?

A very pregnant woman checks me in, chattering away about how she only has one more week of work left before she takes her maternity leave. It is her first child, she tells me, and she is very excited. I manage a weak smile. Here she is just bursting with life and vitality. She has a live baby kicking and turning inside of her, while my womb has become a tomb. A place of death. In a week or two, she will hold her baby in her arms. I never will. What went wrong?

As she checks my chart to see what lab work I am scheduled for, she breaks off suddenly, and a look of pity crosses her face. “I am so sorry,” she says in a low voice. “I had no idea what you were in for, and here I am chattering away about my baby…”

“You couldn’t have known,” I reassure her. Is everyone going to pity me now, I wonder. Be afraid to talk about babies in front of me? I am to find out later that the answer is yes, at least initially.

We finish with the financial office, the lab, the anesthesiologist, and now there only remains to meet with the surgeon, a Dr. Olson. He is a very young man and I feel almost sorry for him. Clearly he is in the awkward position of having to break bad news to a woman he has never laid eyes on before. Funny, I already seem to be in the pattern of trying to make others feel less uncomfortable, when shouldn’t they be comforting me?

Dr. Olson is talking to us in a calm voice, a tone I have since learned to be suspicious of. It seems that the calmness of a physician’s voice is in inverse proportion to the severity of the situation, and Dr. Olson is very calm. Too calm. He tells us he is sorry, that these things happen more often than one supposes, that there was nothing I did to cause it. In his way, he is trying to make me feel better I guess, but all I want to do right now is to curl up in a little ball and cry my pain to the universe.

He is still talking, and I struggle to keep up with him. He is saying something about some grape-like structures the radiologist saw in my uterus. I note that Dr. Olson is speaking very earnestly now, and searching my face as if there is something terribly important that I am to comprehend. Why would I care about these grape clusters in my uterus and why is he telling me this now? Does he think making small talk will cheer me up? If so, it’s not working. His words continue to wash over me, not fully penetrating until a single word lurches out at me. Chemotherapy.

I am stunned. I look around the room, searching for clues. Is he talking to me? Wrong patient, I want to tell him, but my lips won’t form the words. I’m the one whose baby died, remember? You’re confusing me with some cancer patient. But he goes on speaking. Apparently I have something called a molar pregnancy. A partial mole, he amends, since at one point there was a viable fetus. Well, maybe not so viable after all. He continues to tell me that the fetus had a condition which made it “incompatible with life”. There was nothing I could have done to save my pregnancy. Is this consolation? I hardly know.

What I do know, or least come to understand as I relive his words in my mind that weekend, awaiting Monday’s surgery, is that not only has my baby died, but my levels of  hCG, the pregnancy hormone, are seriously elevated and this is considered a pre-cancerous condition. A week ago I was living in blissful ignorance, still believing I was carrying a healthy baby, when really all the while, some pre-cancerous cells were multiplying inside of me, and my baby had already died.

Cancer! Okay, pre-cancer, but still! I fluctuate between disbelief and horror. Except for fiery car crashes, there is scarcely anything else in this world that brings the same level of dread and horror to my mind. Cancer! This all seems like a bad dream. I wildly consider doing nothing, but how could the doctors be wrong? They do this everyday for a living. Surely they know what they’re doing.

Monday I check into the hospital for a D & C, and go home hours later. It is a long journey to recovery. There is of course the physical healing, which in a funny kind of way is the least of my immediate problems. A week after my surgery, I am back on my feet and more or less my old self. The emotional recovery is much more difficult.

I beg my friends to tell all of our mutual acquaintances about my miscarriage, so I don’t have to repeat seeing the shock on everyone’s face when I inform them that I am no longer pregnant. I still encounter pity, and it is wearying. Everyone means well, though. I keep reminding myself of that. The cards and flowers and meals come pouring in. Almost like someone just died. Wait, I guess someone did just die, but it’s hard for me to know how to think about my miscarriage. Was it a baby? A fetus? The words “incompatible with life” come back many times to haunt me. Was it ever a baby? I finally decide yes.

I also decide not to ask what gender the fetus/baby was, and consequently, I never name it. It is never to become “he” or “she”. It will always remain “it”. It hurts less that way. And because inducing labor was considered too dangerous and I ended up having a D & C instead, I never laid eyes on my child. In fact, the only tangible proof I have that I was ever pregnant in the first place, besides the mounting hospital bills of course, is the ultrasound. I ask Erica if she can get me a copy of the ultrasound picture as a keepsake of sorts, and she obliges. So now, all I have left of the pregnancy is the grainy picture.

But I understand, even as I grieve for the loss of my baby and the loss of my dreams, that I have far greater immediate problems to deal with. I myself am not out of the woods, with the risk of cancer looming over me. I learn at my post-op that I will have to have my hCG blood levels monitored for a year. If they don’t decline, and eventually go down to zero, I will have to repeat the D & C. And if that is not successful in eradicating the residue of these “grape-like” structures, then we will talk about chemo. Dr. Olson hastens to assure me though, that even if this worst case scenario comes to pass, this type of pre-cancer (or would it be considered full-fledged cancer at that point?) is highly susceptible to chemotherapy and very curable. This is like a bad dream. I simply cannot believe that Dr. Olson is sitting here calmly discussing chemo with me as if it was an everyday occurrence.

It is amazing however, what the mind can get used to. As the next few weeks pass, my life begins to return to normal. In the first place, I have a demanding three-year-old to care for and a husband also recovering from recent surgery, and knowing I am needed helps ground me back in reality. The frequency of my hCG tests decreases, and I start to tolerate being poked constantly by a needle, without feeling like I need to pass out. The trick, I soon discover, is not to watch the needle go in or to look at the vials of blood after they are drawn.

The much harder part is the waiting, between when I have my blood drawn and when my results are available. The uncertainty is almost worse than receiving bad new. I try so hard to put it out of my mind, telling myself that worrying about it won’t make things any better, but worrying is not a rational emotion and I am only moderately successful in talking myself out of my fears. The day at last arrives, three months later, when my hCG level is almost zero, and I finally let myself believe that I will soon be able to put this pre-cancer business behind me.

Friends and family have been tremendously supportive, and people finally stop treating me with kid gloves, and begin talking about babies in front of me again. I watch four women I know from Jeff’s co-op preschool, and then my own sister, go on to deliver healthy babies. I am happy for them, I really am, although inside I still feel a twinge of pain, and yes, some jealousy when I see someone with their newborn.

I also finally allow myself to think about what I will do when my twelve months of hCG level monitoring are up, if my test results are still clean. Will I still try for another pregnancy? I think yes, but defer making the decision until I am actually faced with it. I am seeing an ob/gyn now. Erica has sadly informed me that since I am now considered “high-risk”, she can no longer provide my care. It is a label that I never asked for, and have a hard time dealing with. How can I be high-risk when all my life I’ve been healthy? Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do, or not do, to deserve it?

There are two things that cause me to re-evaluate my life and contribute to making me feel less sorry for myself, and aid in my healing. In the first place, I find out that I am not alone. It turns out that when others learn of my miscarriage, it makes it okay for them to share their own miscarriage stories with me. I am simply amazed to learn how many women I know have experienced miscarriages in the past, and yet I never had any idea. I can’t decide if this is due to the taboo about talking about death in general, or if it simply doesn’t come up in the course of everyday conversation.

In any event, it gives me a tremendous sense of relief to be able to share my feelings with other women who have gone through a similar experience, because by now, most of my friends have made it clear that they think it is time for me to move on, and they are tired of hearing about my miscarriage. In a way I can hardly blame them, but should there really be an arbitrary time limit for grief? Eventually, I do arrive at the point where I can talk conversationally about my miscarriage without my eyes welling up with tears, and the need to discuss it all the time diminishes.

But I said that there were two things that caused me to re-examine all my belief systems. The second is that the day my hCG level finally drops to zero, and I am cautiously optimistic for the future, no, make that joyous, I call my mother to share the good news. After congratulating me, Mom, it seems has news of her own to share, and not such good news at that, although she tells it so matter-of-factly that I am momentarily caught off guard. She has been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and needs to undergo surgery. Brain surgery. Oh, Mom! I am absolute convinced that this is a death sentence for her, and the thought of losing my beloved mother is unbearable. My own problems pale in comparison to hers.

I am to learn that day that problems are only relative, and that no matter how bad things seem, they can always be worse. Mom’s situation is hands-down worse. But not hopeless. I also learn that where there’s life, there’s hope, and that while time may not exactly heal all wounds, it at least it softens them and makes them easier to bear. I discover that contained within us, humans have an almost limitless capacity for physical, emotional, and also spiritual healing. It is not an easy process though. It takes time and patience to live life courageously in the face of adversity, and sometimes, just when you think things are getting better, bam! You are knocked down again by another crisis.

Life seems to be all about the process of reaching the pinnacle, being knocked off of it, and working your way back up slowly and painstakingly. I once believed that there was a point in everyone’s life when things kind of came together for them, and then they would ride off into the sunset without a backward glance. Now I know better. There are no happily-ever-afters. There are just happy-for-nows.

Although I never would have believed it the day Erica told me my baby had died, I did in time recover from my miscarriage, which is to say, I sometimes remember the time with sadness, but I have moved on with my life. Yes, it has helped that I was fortunate enough to be able to give birth to a healthy baby girl eighteen months later, and a second son, also healthy, five years after that. And that my mother recovered from her surgery and went on to live another nineteen years. There have been ups and downs over the years to be sure. One of the biggest “downs” was being diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2006. But I have to quickly look on the bright side even of that. My cancer was caught early, and I was given an excellent prognosis, as good as anyone can get, although I understand now even more completely than I did 21 years ago when I had the miscarriage that there are no guarantees in life. Life is completely what you make it, and if my mother taught me one thing in life (and she taught me plenty!) it is always to look on the bright side and count your blessings. My mother’s cup was always full to the brim, never half-empty or even half-full. I strive every day to emulate her.

Which brings me around to the beginning of the story. Six months ago when I was told I had to have a uterine biopsy, all I could think about was that this was somehow related to my molar pregnancy/miscarriage, and that I had been unwittingly harboring some kind of insidious slow-growing cancer inside my uterus for the past two decades. I was relieved to eventually receive a clean pathology report, along with the assurance from my gynecological oncologist that benign fibroids were the culprit this time.

I know this isn’t necessarily the end of the story, and that there will in all likelihood be other challenges in my life, possibly more cancer, and almost certainly more biopsies. The label “high risk” has stuck to me permanently now. I also know though, that I contain within me the capability for dealing with adversity, and for living life fully, and with courage. And perhaps that’s the most lasting legacy of all from my miscarriage.

Cara Holman joined The Women with Cancer Writing Group at Oregon Health & Science University after a cancer diagnosis three years ago. Since then she has had over three dozen personal essays, creative nonfiction stories and short form poetry published both online and in print anthologies. She blogs about books and writing at her blog Prose Posies .




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