When first I saw it, the thing growing deep inside me, an evil revealed, I screamed, “Get it out! Get it out of me!” The image on the doctor’s lightboard, the gray and black and white of it, was a mockery of my motherhood: no beginnings here. Stage IV is not at all like the last trimester of a pregnancy, except for being last.
The surgery over, they showed me another picture: see? It’s gone. Well, almost. Just a little bit left, stubborn thing, but we’ll zap it. Hang on. I did. Every week for six weeks – let’s do a few more, why not? – that hot, hot summer. I clung to the sides of the table at the cancer radiation center and conjured up armies to fight for me. “Smash! Kill! Annihilate!” I swore behind clenched lips. I was a pacifist no more.
My beautiful grownup daughters whispered together in another room. They were familiar with my uterus, after all.
“Come closer,” I hissed at them, the demon inside me impatiently twisting my tongue.
“What does this mean, genetically speaking?” asked the youngest, brightly ringed fingers hovering over her exposed navel. Her slim hips are from her father’s side.
“Will you go back to church?” wondered the middle one, believing that my goodness could be my redemption. She gets such logic from her mother’s side. I have always been good. A good child, still says my mother. A good wife, admits my husband when pressed. A good mother, my girls may someday agree – about that if nothing else.
But I had stopped going to church long before this. I felt freer afterward, as if I had learned a faster way. I thought I was letting God directly in, instead of picking my way through rules and around cassocked old men who smelled of incense and booze and didn’t know what to do with women anyway, only little boys. How could I imagine there might be room for something else inside me?
“Should I come home …yet?” was the only question the oldest asked, phoning in her worry from another country.
Then my sad allies in white showed me another picture. The alien had spawned, right under my skin, even as we were blasting away. Soon I could feel new fingers gouging under my ribcage, a foot kicking in my back, a balling fist in my stomach. Sometimes it takes more weapons, they said. And we have more. Don’t give up. As if that was a choice I could live with.
The chemotherapy began. “Take that!” I told my bruising veins. My girls took turns driving me to another hospital in another city, driving me crazy.
“Should I drop out of school?”
“Should I move back home for good?”
“What about Dad?”
What about Dad?
I went organic. He bought me everything I asked for, vitamins E and D, B, K. A whole alphabet of supplements. Herbal extracts. Cheerfully, he read the labels to me. My Sherpa, until I mentioned marijuana.
“Just get it for me, Dan. Please.”
He sighed. This was the man who always kissed me goodbye when I marched off to protest the war, the last war, the one before that, any war – then yelled after me with a warning to call someone else if I got myself arrested.
But he got the dope. It was a buttery, green-flecked spread and I saw him sniff at it while filling the nooks and crannies of my English muffin. I lay in his arms afterward, stoned, pain-free for the first time in weeks. I laughed, he cried.
“Have some,” I said.
“Maybe later,” Dan said. I didn’t ask what later was.
Autumn took over. My hair fell out: I looked younger! My cheeks puffed: I could be a tall bald ten year old! I’ll be a child again, I wished, and I will start all over. This time around, as soon as the last baby is born, I’ll get rid of my uterus. I will also never, ever complain about the weather.
By Christmas I didn’t need to see more pictures.
“Try something else!” I begged my despairing generals. “Don’t give up on me!”
They put their expert heads together, the oncologist, the radiation oncologist, the research oncologist, the oncologists’ oncologist. How about a clinical trial, a last-ditch idea for long shots like me?
“Okay, sure. Let’s do it.”
More poison. More pictures of more enemies. Then: no more insurance coverage. Lifetime limit reached, so sorry.
“It’s the new year, dammit!” I yelled at my crotch, where all the troubles had started, with bleeding that wouldn’t stop.
“It’s menopause,” my good old doctor had said at first. “Relax!”
I did, while the thing grew.
Come March I cancelled my dentist checkup and yearly mammogram. Every cloud has a silver lining. I took a scissors to my credit cards. But I kept my library card, just in case.
“Listen,” I told my enemy, “You can’t take over yet. I want a few good days. Give me three. Or two. Okay, one, you bastard.”
Just one more good day. A day in the time before, when I was my own country and my borders were intact. I was hiking up a mountain, or reading at the beach. I was complaining about the weather. I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
“Find a place where you remember feeling safe and happy,” the therapist told me.
There was a porch, in the back of my parents’ big old house. Screens and shade trees and breezes, and the smell of pine. Birdsong. I was six years old. I was only, all myself with no parts given away yet to husband or children, no pieces left behind in operating rooms, no non-negotiable takeovers of the ruined remainders.
“What colors do you see?” She was trying to help me get there.
“Everything is blue, blue, blue,” I said. “I love blue. That’s why I’m so happy here.”
“Then stay there as long as you like,” she whispered.
Easy for her to say. I was on the run by April. The invisible invasion was going on everywhere, infantries of pain invading my lungs, my brain, my bladder.
The priest showed up at my door. I hadn’t called him. Was he a vulture, I almost asked. I said instead, “I haven’t been to church in years, Father. Would you still pray for me?”
He bowed his gray head, and I knew he was embarrassed to see it was he who would grow old. He offered me the host from his white hands. But I couldn’t swallow anymore.
“What god would do this to my mother?” wailed the oldest. She had come home. She was always good at wailing.
“No god,” I began, gasping and stroking her hair as it lay across my heaving chest.
“No god?” Her clenched hand tightened on my wig. It slid sideways toward my ear. She looked sicker than me. It wasn’t what I meant, I wanted to tell her, but my tongue was too tired to move.
“All your protests, Mom,” she used to lecture me as a teenager, watching me punch holes through my cardboard “NO WAR” sign for where the string encircling my neck would go (because using a stick to carry your sign was considered a weapon by the police, watching us all so carefully as they sat astride their huge, beautiful horses). “And all your bus rides and petitions and vigils and there’s still war. Still the death penalty. Still nuclear arms.” She grew up too fast.
“And still people who can’t just sit there and let it happen,” I would answer back.
When my picture showed up on the front page of the town newspaper, “Local Anti-War Woman Holds Vigil In the Rain,” the girls all groaned. They were blossoming beauties betrayed by a crazy mother.
“It looks like you were the only one there!”
“Why can’t you just write letters or something? Why do you have to be so, so…obvious?”
“And what are you proving, anyway?”
They weren’t always like this, I reminded myself. They used to like the peace days we held on the town common, where their faces got painted with hearts and flowers and the guitar players in the gazebo sang songs about love while we danced on the grass.
“I’m proving you are still paying attention,” I said.
By May, the enemy, my very own foreign occupier, was laughing – cackling in my ears! – while I hobbled to the bathroom on the arms of my daughters. Their tears, my bloody pee: we were quite a confluence.
Then my hands and feet began to turn purple.
“Do you surrender?” it demanded, gurgling up from my throat.
“Never!” I willed my lips to move, to form a battle cry.
My daughters leaped to my bedside. “What, Mom? What did you say?” they begged. I opened my eyes, or I thought I did. I saw my children and my children’s children. The room was full. My great-great-great grandson looked straight at me and said, “Thanks for the short legs, whoever you were.” He had a wondrous smile and Dan’s blue eyes. Full of something. Hope.
“Dad!” the girls clung to their father. “What is she saying? Please!”
“She says, ‘I win!'” Dan whispered, and with his soft wet fingertips he closed my triumphant eyes.