A reprieve (of sorts)

The day before the biopsy; 1,453 days after the last inauguration and 8 days until the next one:

I wake up with the tightness on the right side of my skull that always means migraine is coming. I email my doctor to make sure that I can take my meds before the biopsy, if necessary. I’ve learned that I should always assume it could be a migraine day, rather than that it won’t be.

Still, the tightness is light. Maybe I slept wrong. Maybe it will go away. Maybe I just need to drink some water. Maybe if I stay off screens all morning.

As I open the bedroom door and enter into my day, I remind myself: It’s never if, it’s always when. There is nothing I can do to hold it off forever.

The biopsy will be in the morning, but I am going to take the whole day off work. I plan to get groceries and clean the house. I’m having a hard time getting these things done on the weekends. I’m having a hard time getting through the week days. The previous week, the first one back from winter break, I had a 3-day migraine following an emotional meltdown and the insurrection at the Capitol.

I’m trying to figure out how to finish this school year in one piece.

The day of the biopsy; 7 days after the insurrection at the Capitol, 7 days before the inauguration:

On the morning of the biopsy, I watch a short film in which 5 women at different stages of life reflect on their bodies.

I remember being a girl and loving my body. I was fast and strong. (In 4th grade, I ran faster than every boy on field day.) My body was me and I was it. I don’t remember feeling that way about my body at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I can see I felt that way about it. It was before I was aware of my body as an object.

As a teen-ager, I cleaved from my body. It was a thing admired by boys and men. It was a thing for me to fight against. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but it looked the way it was supposed to. I was supposed to be grateful for it, looking that way. I learned that I wasn’t allowed to complain about it to other women. I felt it separate me from some of those who should have been my compatriots, my allies. I tried to appreciate my luck that I could eat whatever I wanted and never get fat. I ate to kill hunger. I ate for the pleasure of taste. I did not feed my body.

I think about all of this on the morning of my third ultrasound and an aspiration biopsy. Regardless of the results, which are likely to be reassuring, something has already changed for me. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that my body can spontaneously grow something we think it shouldn’t. My body has been doing things we think it shouldn’t since adolescence, when endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome made their presence known. (Not that I knew, then, what they were or that anything was really there–as opposed to in my head, which was suggested as the source of my pain, cementing for me an idea that my head was, in some important sense, a thing separate from my body. I did not have those names, those diagnoses, those frames with which to understand my body’s experiences for more than a decade, when my inability to conceive finally made doctors take my body seriously.) Still, it is a surprise, and now I look at my body differently. I feel differently about it.

I remember a poem a woman shared in my poetry workshop, back in the mid-80s, about her newborn; she compared his body to that of a frog, listed all the ways in which his body was not the one she expected, making him not the baby she had dreamed of. The last line was, “your mother is trying to learn to love you.” Most of the poems from that workshop have left me now, but that one stays. After she shared hers, I wrote one about my body, the first time I admitted out loud that I thought of my body as an antagonist to the protagonist that is me.

My body has changed during the pandemic. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s my mid-50s. Maybe it’s living through four years of attempted autocratic takeover. Maybe it’s that my job has become toxic to me. Maybe it’s all of the above. My body feels like a foreign country these days, and I’m an expat who wants to go home. I’m trying to learn to love it.

On the morning of the biopsy, I think that maybe the metaphor I’ve just conjured is all wrong. Maybe my body isn’t a country, but a passport.

I start to think about Befores and Afters. I wonder if, the day I get the results, my life will cleave into a Before and After, and then I wonder if that will be the true beginning of an After or if the After has already begun without me knowing it. Maybe the beginning of After was the day in December when the second ultrasound results meant I needed a biopsy and a specialist. Maybe it was the day a few weeks before that when I saw myself swallowing in a mirror and it looked as if a golf ball were bobbing up and down inside my throat. Maybe it was the day in August when my doctor asked if I’d noticed the lump on my thyroid, a bump then so small I couldn’t see or feel it, even when she brushed my fingers over it.

The migraine I felt approaching the day before hits me in the hospital, in the middle of the aspiration. The doctor and nurse are talking about the wild storm we’d had the night before, which downed tree limbs and took out power all over the city.

“Before I realized there was a storm, I heard a loud noise, something hitting the side of my house,” the doctor, who is not white, says to her, who is. “I didn’t know what it was, so I got out my gun and went outside.”

She laughs, and he does, too, but I, with a needle stuck in my neck, feel tears rising along with the pain in my head and my understanding of the implications of his words and how he said them. How he said, “I got out my gun” as if it was just another useful object for his task, like, say, a pair of gloves or a flashlight.

I take my meds on the way to the parking lot, and it feels like it’s all I can do to get home. The day I planned is lost to fatigue and fog.

The day of results; inauguration day:

I finally receive a phone call from the doctor’s office. The doctor would like to go over the results of my biopsy; can I take a call in 10 minutes?

Yes, of course.

Why aren’t the results just posted in my online medical chart, like every other test result has been? Why can’t this nice-sounding Cory just tell me the results, if the results are benign? I don’t ask if he can just tell me; I know he can’t.

10 minutes become 20, and then Cory calls me again to ask if I can wait another 20 or so more.

Do I have a choice?

While waiting, I am watching everyone’s reactions to the presidential inauguration in my social media feeds. I did not get to see the inauguration because I had a work meeting. Maybe that is the reason I cannot feel the jubilation everyone else seems to be feeling. Maybe it is because I had another meeting right after the inauguration that is the latest in a series of meetings that have grown increasingly hard to tolerate. “It feels like they are just gaslighting us,” a colleague texts me during the meeting. I feel a jolt of recognition: Yes, it does. Yes, I know what gaslighting is. Yes, yes, yes.

I am watching everyone’s reactions because I am too agitated to work. I wish I could feel some simple joy and release, but I cannot. I am relieved but I am also angry and teary and so, so tired.

Finally, the doctor calls, and I take a deep breath. I want him to just spit it out, whatever it is.

“It’s benign,” he finally says. The solid parts of the nodule are benign. The nodule was mostly fluid.

“Are you feeling relief from the aspiration?” he asks. “Is it smaller now?”

Yes, I tell him, I am and it is. I tell him that the pressure on my throat is now gone.

He says some other things I won’t remember, and then I ask the question I need an answer to:

“What happens now?”

He tells me that we will monitor it now, and that there may be more ultrasounds and aspirations in my future if it grows back. It can continue to grow back.

I know I should feel happy. “You don’t have cancer!” he told me, and I could hear the exclamation point in his voice. (I bet he loves to say those words. I would, if I were him.) I do feel relief, but it is flat. (The odds of cancer were small, so the threat never felt real, but it could have been, and I did know that. I could be feeling something much, much worse than the small, sharp pinch of anxiety I felt over Cory not giving me the results himself.)

I want relief to make me feel the way I did Before–before I knew in a new way that my body can betray me and do things I cannot control and for which there are no readily available explanations. I wonder what it might be doing now, invisibly, and if it might, even in this moment of relief, be failing in ways that will not become apparent until much later. I miss my innocence, which I can see now wasn’t lost suddenly, all-at-once during the biopsy, but in layers over decades of living in a body that never worked as good as it looked. Nonetheless, the biopsy has taken me into some new territory of understanding, one from which there can be no true returning, and I long to feel once again, just once more, the way I did in fourth grade, Keds pounding into hard-packed dirt, hair rippling in wind of my own making, my strength and speed surprising myself as much as all those boys behind me.


A note: I have been reading, for the first time in years, about creative non-fiction. From Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant, I especially value this quotation from Annie Dillard, for reminding me of a realization I had once upon a very long time ago (thanks in large part to her essay “Living Like Weasels”):

I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.

I appreciate the reminders throughout the book that creative non-fiction is not just a relating of events (and thoughts are a kind of event), but of creating art from events by making purposeful choices about structure, narration, action, style, and language.

Today’s essay/post is an attempt to express artistically some of what I said in last week’s post, which was not art so much as a brain dump. (For a really great example of an essay reflecting on current events that is as much poem as essay and is gorgeous political art, I recommend “Inside the Blue Hole.”) Last week’s post content came not only from frustration and worry about what’s been happening for all of us, but also from frustration with the circumstances of my own life. Over break, I was able to write the beginnings of art. A whole book took shape in my head, and I started to capture it in notes and lists of books and essays, and in posts here. Within days of returning to work, I felt it slipping away from me (the cause of the meltdown referenced in the essay above). I tried my best to hold on, but I couldn’t. Last week I accepted that some weeks a dump is all I can manage, and that it will have to be good enough for now.

A post by Ally this week took me down a word-count rabbit hole, and at the bottom of it was realization that I’ve written the equivalent of, roughly, 2.5 full-length books in the past six years here. (Last year alone was 1 book.) Of course, there’s much more to writing a book than simply getting words out, but still. Just getting words out is something.

I have no grand conclusion here, no big pronouncements to make. I expect to keep showing up here as I have been–sometimes giving you the first drafts of something like art, and sometimes giving you a word dump. But rumination is happening. Change is afoot.

Sunrise, the day before Inauguration. Frosty and pink.

12 thoughts on “A reprieve (of sorts)

  1. Kate says:

    I am so sorry that you’ve been dealing with a growth. It’s a weird purgatory waiting and I’m glad yours came to an end in a mostly positive way. I’m glad it was benign. I am so sorry you’ve been struggling with migraine and work and just..not feeling the same as others. You aren’t alone. I just told a friend yesterday that I’ve never felt as alone as I have the last four years – until the day of the inauguration.

    I wonder if boys ever feel the betrayal that we girls do when our bodies stop being ourselves and also become things? Or if all girls feel that change as well.

    Finally, I’m grateful for the book you’ve shared here over the last year. It’s made me feel less alone. Xoxo

    • Rita says:

      The waiting really wasn’t something weighing on me much. It would pop up at odd moments, but I think there was so much else going on that felt like more of a real threat. I hope you’re feeling better than you did on inauguration day. I sort of am, I think. Sometimes I feel like we’re all being gaslit still, just in a different way. I am glad for some things that have happened since then, but I worry that everyone will think everything’s all OK now. Rebecca Solnit had a piece this morning that helped.

      As for boys and girls and bodies…I don’t know. Pretty sure boys my age and your age didn’t experience it the way we did. I’d like to think it’s different now. Maybe it is. Maybe there’s been progress.

  2. Marian says:

    I’m so sorry you’ve had health issues on top of the work issues on top of the wider world issues, Rita, but I’m glad to hear one worry has at least been resolved.

    “Just getting words out is something.” Ain’t that the truth…

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I am sitting in my chair breathing an enormous sigh of relief as if I went through this with you. This is the power of blogging and friendship, and if anyone says they don’t mean as much as IRL friends? They do not know.
    I am so glad you don’t have breast cancer, but I am so sorry you had to worry like that for a while. I have been through something similar, we can talk about it sometime. I wish we lived closer so we could ACTUALLY talk about it sometime.
    I am also sorry about your migraines. I know when I am worried, mine are horrible. Stress and pain go hand in hand, unfortunately.

    Once I have my shots, like a dog, I might do a tour of the USA and get out there. I would love to travel throughout our beautiful USA and visit all the coffee shops to meet all the bloggers. I might make it my next book.

    Sending you so much love.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…It’s Mid-January and Homemade Thin Mints Will Save UsMy Profile

    • Ally Bean says:

      Kari, I don’t know if you know this but years ago there was a blogger who did what you’re talking about. She got a car from Ford, then travelled around the country visiting with bloggers. It was lots of fun to travel along with her. Her online name was Bossy, but I don’t know her real life name.

  4. Ally Bean says:

    I’m glad this came out as well as it did, but I agree with Kate that there’s “a weird purgatory waiting” for the results, especially when juxtaposed against the events of this month. Life can be so difficult sometimes.

    Thanks for the shoutout in this post. 2 1/2 books, eh? Once I get thinking about how much I’d written, well– it made me feel good about what I’ve been doing on my blog.

    • Rita says:

      I’m glad, too. Honestly, the purgatory over what was going to happen with our country was far worse. I like your blog a lot–I’d feel good about it, too.

  5. TD says:

    I’m not quite sure what to say, Rita. It seems to me theses are the types of unpleasant experiences that every soul goes through from the day we are born throughout life as we age. Unfortunately I can completely relate to monitoring thyroid, checking my throat, looking and feeling for any changes. Monthly blood work drawn from my arm to the point that those that I don’t share my personal health with might assume that I could be a “junkie”. Our bodies do mysterious work. It’s all way over my comprehension. There’s so much that science just doesn’t know and human’s, even doctors just don’t know either. I suspect and wish that you will want to continue showing up here with your art and your words that assist you with understanding ourselves with compassion. Rest is the best medicine for myself. So I will wish rest for you too.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for your kind wishes and your empathy. Boy do I ever know about doctors not knowing about things! I’ve got a lot of diagnoses (4) that are mostly head-scratchers. It gets old.

      I hope you are doing well.

      • TD says:

        Four diagnoses would be extremely frustrating for me! Keeping my fingers crossed with hope that draining the growth not only gives you swallowing and breathing relief, but will decline its growth completely.

        At this moment I’m feeling well and Yorkie is really feeling good! Last week I had two estimates on work that needs to be done to this property. From last week through this week, I have been struggling with major decisions with what this property needs (versus my wants). You probably can relate. So I said no to one major need. Then my garage door opener broke! Which had me to say no to the second major need on Thursday. The garage door did not need replacing which was really good news today! The technician was able to correct the issue and do some maintenance at a very reasonable price.

        So that actually gave me good time to think through the two needs for this property and the estimates of last week. I called back the one I thought was most in need. And I have scheduled this major work to be done starting February 8th. It’s a major project that will help me feel more safe and improve the value of the property.

        It’s been a difficult decision, but I feel good about it!

        Hope your week was a bit easier with the health issue a bit resolved. Maybe this will help with your work responsibilities and less stress / migraines.

        Looking forward to your next blog post!

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