Wendy J Fox
My father-in-law's girlfriend sends me flowers on the day after I come home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy. Objectively, it's a kind gesture but I find it personally annoying. I have met her only twice. She wants—desperately, it seems—to be integrated into the family, and it's an impulse that comes from a longing to belong, perhaps. I suppose she is of the generation where women ingratiate themselves to get what they think they want.
If she thinks I know something about getting into this family, she is very wrong. I am the one who didn't take the family name (I already had my own), declined to have children (because why), and the single time I hosted Christmas in the twelve years I have been married, spent the day deeply pissed (please, just go to Mass or something). Still, I love them and they love me. I know that. It's complicated but it works.
These are nice, my husband, Joel, says, taking the flowers from the stoop, even though he knows I hate them.
"Carnations?" I say. "Interesting choice."
We are headed out for a short walk, which is recommended for my surgery recovery plan. I'm a little unstable and I will grip my husband's elbow the entire time, have been gripping his elbow down the stairs to the front gate. I'm not used to this: before surgery I was easily logging twenty-five miles a week.
I think my husband might hate the flowers too, even though Joel is a much kinder person than I am and would never say that he thinks carnations or any flowers are stupid. He would think, Oh, it just comes from a service, it was not picked to actively annoy you. I struggle with any kind of gift because when I don't like it, I feel like it is evidence that no one understands me, even though I'm mostly wrong about this. A lot of my friends and family are deeply generous.
The taxonomy for carnations comes from the ancient Roman, when the Goddess Diana came upon a shepherd boy and took a liking to him. But the boy, for whatever reason—maybe, like, consent—turned her down. Diana ripped out his eyes and threw them to the ground, where they sprouted into the dianthus flower, or carnations in modern language.
That tracks, I think.
We are at the stoop after I have spent a day and night in hospital, where I complained of how painful the catheter was. Joel puts the flowers inside the gate for us to pick up on our return. I will make it only two blocks before I need to come back.
It is strange to have had an internal organ removed, and though I never wanted children, losing my uterus has brought up feelings I didn't expect. Not having kids was always a choice, and then the choice was taken from me. Not that I would want to get pregnant at forty-three, but in the consultation the male gynecological oncologist, Dr. J., did tell me: If you want a pregnancy, we can do it. He said it would be a bit risky, given my age and the size of the uterine fibroids, but not impossible. But just one, he said. It can only be one. He wanted me to be really sure. I appreciated that, even though I declined. It almost felt like he wanted me to say yes, just for him to show off his gynecological or surgical skills.
Later I became slightly obsessed with Dr. J. Maybe this is a normal feeling toward the last person who has been in your vagina when you are expressly prohibited from having sex for ten weeks, even if it was with a scalpel. Even if there have been many times where more than ten weeks have ticked off the clock with no sex. Maybe this is a normal feeling toward someone who has perhaps saved your life. Maybe this is a normal feeling from someone who was previously obsessed with the idea that she would not wake up from anesthesia.
I wondered, though. What kind of man goes into gynecological oncology? There must be a history. I wanted to ask him, but Dr. J. said he hoped to never see me again after the surgery and this is correct. Oncologists want to say goodbye to their patients while still alive. But, Dr. J., your mom? Your wife? Your sister? Your cousin? Your high school girlfriend? What woman died in your life that you'd go through medical school to specialize in crotches? There's a lot of pussy involved, but it's not some kind of sexy profession. A decade and a half earlier, when I had an abortion, I wondered the same thing. My termination procedure was delayed because the male doctor was caught up in an emergency C‑section. I took a second prescribed-by-the-clinic Ativan and waited. When the doctor apologized for the wait, he was so kind. Bring a new life into the world in one appointment, flush a bundle of unwanted cells out in the next. What woman in his life made this feel like all in a day's work?
Because it was a woman. I am sure of that.
I had only seen my hysterectomy surgeon, Dr. J., with a mask on in COVID times. When I found a YouTube video of him talking about the importance of getting young people vaccinated against HPV, I swooned. Just as handsome and smart as I thought. (I already said I was somewhat obsessed.)
Directly after surgery, at first I complained of how painful the catheter was. Honestly, it really hurt. Then I could not stop thinking about Sharon, my husband Joel's mother, who had a catheter at the end of her time on this material plane, and her passing is the reason that the new girlfriend exists. My mother-in-law had a catheter at the end of a long neurological illness; I had one for temporary care after a cancer-preventative hysterectomy. For twenty-four hours, not months.
Did it hurt Sharon so much? When I thought about it, I wished I would have said nothing about how uncomfortable the catheter was. Joel didn't need to hear that.
Sharon died in January of 2019. Part of the reason I am upset about Joel's father's girlfriend's flowers is that it doesn't seem like enough time has passed. It was September 2021 when I first started writing this. It's March 2022 when I am turning it in. Years and years, but what is time against grief.
Later I sent a thank-you card to the girlfriend. I'm good at things like that.
"You actually start to really get used to it," the overnight nurse, Mike, told me, referring to the catheter, when I was in the hospital. I was in tears because both pain and drugs make me emotional, and I'm telling him about Sharon and how much I miss her and saying something garbled about my own mother, and this is even before he gives me a second dose of Dilaudid for the night and says, "Hey, after about twenty-four hours, the cath settles, sort of like an IUD. You had an IUD, right?"
"Yes, I had an IUD, Dr. J. took it out. I don't need birth control now!"
Drug tears streamed at my happiness for not needing birth control.
"Okay," Mike said. "You're okay. You'll stop feeling the cath about when it is time to take it out. Hey, you're leaving here soon. Tomorrow."
I nodded a sleepy, dopey nod.
"So your mother-in-law," he says, "it might have been rough for her in the first days, but the cath would have gotten easier really fast."
"Okay!" I say. I needed to hear that. I tell him as much. I'm upset, though, thinking about Sharon being in pain.
There's a tiny blood clot in my IV, so the shot of Dilaudid is intense in the vein as it clears but smooth against the rest of the body. Mike takes some time to flush the IV very gently with saline. I tell him that he is so amazing and so kind, and he tells me his wife has to have a hysterectomy too, but he's going to be off shift because he's not sure if he can handle it.
"Because you love her and don't want to see her in pain," I say. I mean it, even though I am very high but still in pain.
"It's something like that," he says. "You're on the magic carpet right now. Try to sleep, though."
He is not high at all. He is on shift.
He returns two hours later, and I am thrilled to see him. I haven't slept at all.
"Oh," I say quietly, "you came to see me?"
"I came to check your blood pressure."
My blood pressure is perfect, and I am so proud and deeply hoping Mike will be impressed. He simply notes my numbers on his chart.
In the morning, when Mike hands me off to the day nurse and my husband, Joel, is with me in the room, I complain about the day nurse, even though I know nothing about her. I just liked Mike. I liked talking to him while I was high. He was patient and kind and tolerant.
My husband has brought me a large coffee, and I chug it, hoping the caffeine will make me shit. It doesn't. It will be another two days before I shit.
I say again that I want Mike, the night nurse, back, getting deep into the complaining, and Joel tells me that's the kind of thing Sharon used to do, and I realize how tissue-thin my husband's peace with being in a place like this is, a hospital, how hard it is for him to hold it together. How well he is doing with it. How the last time he talked catheters and opioid painkillers with a woman he loved, meaning his mother, the result was ash.
I didn't anticipate this. I didn't even think about it, really, until I was squirming under the pressure of a piece of tubing shoved up in my urethra. I try to remind myself not to complain so much. Okay, I think; big breath, I think. I think, maybe just stop talking?
"You also pretty shamelessly flirted with Mike," Joel says but he's not mad. He's laughing at me.
"Oh my God, I so need to poop," I say.
I remember, as the day nurse takes my vitals, that my husband rented a hotel room so he would be close to me in the overnight. The surgery center is not so far from our house, twenty minutes by car, but he wanted to be closer. The hotel was 1.2 miles. He could have walked it if I needed him. He would have.
When I am discharged one member of that side of the family, the side the new girlfriend seems to want to mesh with, offers to come by the house and hang out, just like they did with Sharon when she was dying at home, though of course the new girlfriend wasn't part of that. They don't offer to do something useful, like to vacuum or scrub blood out of the towels. They want to bring pans of food and chat, thinking that is support. I wonder where this idea comes from, that creating dishes to do and burning other people's time is a good idea.
I was not dying at home, just recovering. At home I do not soil or bleed onto the sheets, but I am still angry at a text message that asks me when I would be up for having visitors. I'm not, I tap back, & please do not put Joel in a place where he has to entertain, I don't say. And in terms of visitors, basically never. This person probably has a casserole. I won't stay long, she says. Last time you said that you were here for three hours, I don't say, even though it is true. This aunt comes through, though, dropping off a meal and then heading out.
My uterus was enlarged to 1700 grams, or three-and-three-quarter pounds. The average is sixty grams, a little over two ounces. Dr. J. removed it with a robot. He told me he was going to do this. We discussed the procedure extensively. Again, I had never seen his face. We had only met with masks on. When I was wheeled into the operating room, I saw the robot. The arms had the suspended quality of a marionette. What I tried to say, because I was curious, was, "Do you use all the arms at once?" I didn't know to ask this in consultation because I didn't know what the robot looked like. What came out was, "Why is there an octopus in here?" This is because I had already been given the beginning of the anesthesia, and I was lucid enough to know it but not lucid enough to keep my mouth shut.
When I am at home, I receive a text at the alley gate from the aunt and I ignore it. It is not my job to open the gate. I am in bed, lying flat in just underpants and a tank top. There are four holes in my abdomen. My job is to keep these incisions clean. My job is to have a daily bowel movement, which still, still has not come, and I'm starting to get a little desperate in that regard. My job is to not cry because crying could tear my internal stitches, and if I tear the internal stiches, it will take longer to heal, and there might also be a lot of blood.
The day nurse and the night nurse, Mike, said, "If you bleed through two regular pads, call. If it's more, go to the ER." This is not something that happens. I spot a little, wonder about it, slip another pain pill, and make a bunch of phone calls.
In one call I tell the story of the pain of the catheter and Joel to a close friend, and I lose it, thinking of Sharon. Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry, I say. I'm still really fucking high. I can't stop crying.
"You'd be crying about this even if you weren't high," she says. She's right.
The aunt who was at the back gate leaves a hot curry that has ridden in a cool car for forty minutes, sweating under the foil. Joel doesn't eat curry. I love curry but I am also the former holder of a food handler's card. I wait until later and scrape it into the compost. I'm vegetarian and the curry is veg, but still. Seems like too much time in the danger zone. I am just happy to be up and walking around, even if I'm cleaning.
It feels like something that happens all the time. One person tries to help, and the other person feels like they are, at a minimum, not paid attention to and at the most, not known. What I have learned about caregiving is that people are actually terrible at it.
The curry day is just three days after the flowers on the stoop. It feels like a lifetime, not just because of the pain pills but also because of my physical body.
I stop the pain pills when I realize over-the-counter, half-expired acetaminophen will cut the mustard, and I am just taking the hydrocodone—Tylenol with an opioid—for fun and to provide another high reason to not wash my hair or put on pants. What would Dr. J. say, I think. I get up, I propose another walk. I want to walk by myself, but Joel isn't okay with that. We strike a deal, which is I can walk two blocks from our front door. So I do that until I log a mile, pacing back and pacing forth. It feels good. I begrudgingly acknowledge he is right about not getting too far from the stoop.
In abdominal surgery your abdomen is puffed up with a climate-change gas, CO2. It is benign in the body and gives the surgeon room to work. Each step, on each walk, I burp and fart, and even though there are people on the street, I refuse to be embarrassed. I need to get the gas out. I think about growing up as a girl in the rural country, where I had a pony named Rainbow, and Rainbow had a GI disease. He walked along just passing gas like a motherfucker. Well, I loved him anyway. He wasn't embarrassed either.
When Sharon was dying we hired in-home care because of the uselessness of other people. Joel cleaning his own mother's cath lines. Before the catheter they had a bit where he used to snap the latex glove before he would wipe her. It made her laugh, the way he didn't try to hide how awkward it was to touch her asshole, her sex.
My husband was educated in caregiving in the worst way. When his mother died he was there, at the bedside. I had gone home for the night.
In that time, how angry I was about flowers—how rude it is to send a dying person flowers. It's not a get-well bouquet, so what, condolences? So sorry that you're dying. You wonder if the sender thinks the stems will last for the funeral. If they know that there will be no funeral.
Sharon was angry in her dying, and I think that Joel and I did our best to honor her in that.
I think about her a lot. How pissed she was. How she had a righteous anger. How there was a weird thing from both sides of the Catholic family that did not respect her. How I wanted so much to tell her but didn't know how: You are goddamn right, Sharon, this is absolute bullshit. She didn't actually like swearing, but she could tolerate it under the correct circumstances.
There were people who showed up after not having seen her for some years and wanted her time. They brought more food that had to go directly to the trash, like the curry. What does a dying women eat? Morphine, not casserole. The food people dropped off was not for her, it was for us, but in that time we also did not eat in front of someone who had lost the ability to easily swallow. I wondered what on earth people were actually thinking.
The linens were changed frequently. We tried to do dignity.
We actually worked really hard, and in the end it's also hard to know what mattered and what didn't.
One final Christmas, Sharon's last, she was wearing sparkly hose and a pretty dress. It was the kind of thing that mattered to her: appearances. That's not to trivialize. How difficult it must have been to pull up the stockings, to don the dress, to adjust herself in her wheelchair. The in-home heath aide helped with the outfit, put lipstick on Sharon's face, fluffed her hair.
She was beautiful, that last Christmas.
She was beautiful her entire life.
So forgive me when I toss the flowers from my father-in-law's new girlfriend into the trash to be covered by the curry. Forgive me if, even before that, I had snipped the heads off of the carnations as a gift to the compost. Forgive me if all I can think of is Sharon when the night nurse deftly pulled out my catheter. She died with hers in.
In America carnations are worn on Mother's Day, a symbol of this holiday's founder. Carnations are the birth flower of Capricorns, of which I am one, a January baby. In France carnations are traditional funeral flowers, offered in condolences of a loved one.
These flowers like alkaline soil, so don't cry on it. That's salt.
If you didn't already know about the pH of soil, Sharon would happily tell you.
When you're ill or dying, people want to know a lot. They have this idea that they are allowed to ask about anything.
One of the many things I loved about Sharon was that we both agreed that there are, in fact, many stupid questions.
As frequently happens with me, I started writing this having no idea what it was. The initial drafts were very angry. As I revised, though I was already starting to feel differently, I wanted to preserve some of the anger. Later, I considered if I should even sent it out; I mostly write fiction. Writing non-fiction feels like those terrible dreams of being naked on the playground.