I stare at an image of a young woman’s body on a magazine cover in the lobby of the clinic. I remember the way mine used to curve on similar paths. The softness of a belly that hasn’t yet stretched to the verge of splitting, no silvery tributaries of skin letting go beneath the surface. Her waist is narrow and her hips are round catching the orbit of a loose skirt. Gravity has not found her breasts. They stand ready to feed, either a baby or the desires of a lover. She radiates ripe fertility, the body that holds another, whether inside or outside of her own.
Today, I met with my gynecologist. She is a slight woman who just gave birth to her third child, though her slim jeans and trendy shoes betray this reality. Her high ponytail swings when she walks. I feel that we could be friends in an alternate universe. But in this one, well, she has seen way too much. Too much of me. She contacted me out of the blue to suggest we meet to discuss my age and the fact that I am still on a birth control pill. At 45, I seem to have backed my body into a corner, one where the hormones of my medication may be causing risks to other aspects of my middle-aged health. But the quandary lives in the little dormant uterus that slumbers in my pelvis. Without the pill, my uterus roars back to life, and becomes a torturer. She twists and heaves, spitting clots and resigning me to my bed for two days out of each month. She is vengeful, or at least that is what it feels like.
When I was younger, I was mesmerized by the prospect of the maternal systems that lived inside me, waiting to be used. Would my uterus really know how to implant an embryo and hold onto it? Did my cervix know to seal itself shut for nine months? Did I really have organs in my breasts that would magically activate and make enough milk to feed a living human out here in the world? It seemed so unlikely that I contained these powers. And yet, at 19, I felt them unexpectedly turn on, like a big metal lever powering up a rocket ship. And it was terrifying. My uterus was called to attention for the first time, and when I ended her assignment after just a few weeks, she held a mean, nasty grudge.
“I think we are at a place and time, with your blood pressure and how debilitating your periods are, that a hysterectomy is medically advisable,” Dr. Tsai said matter of factly.
This was what I suspected, and what I was prepared to hear, but having it confirmed by my longtime doctor suddenly made me want to hang on to my angry little organ. Dr. Tsai humored me by answering the ensuing 45 questions I asked. “Melissa will call you once we have insurance approval, and we’ll get you on the surgery schedule.”
On the way home, I thought of what my body went through with my pregnancies at 27 and 30. The hyperemesis, the weight loss, the preeclampsia, the bedrest, the being cut open in the middle of the night, the being stapled back together. The milk that shot across the room. The depression. It all found its roots in my womb. My babies, the joys of my existence, now nearly men, lived in this space with which I am preparing to part. My uterus did her job, overzealously, like a war general at times. But she held the lightning bolts of my life and set them free into the world.
I often fall asleep at night, pinching the excess mounds that have filled in around my equator. I once had a small waist, a flat tummy like the woman on the magazine cover. But time muddles all things, even our bodies, smudging the edges and flattening the roundness of it all. The woman in the photo doesn’t realize that it will happen to her too.
My fingertips trace the flesh above my ovaries, imagining the forthcoming incisions that will detach my fallopian tubes from the docks to which they’ve always been moored. I think of my son’s question upon my explanation of what is to come, that his former home will soon no longer be a part of me. “Will you still be a woman?” It is a stark inquisition, uncharacteristically direct from my often-distant teenager. Instinctively I retort that a uterus is not what makes a woman. I soften at his subsequent silence, seeing the gears grinding behind his turquoise eyes. “It just means that you won’t be getting any new brothers or sisters. I am too old for that anyway,” I say with a sigh.
For a moment, I remember the joy of learning an invisible speck had grabbed on to the inside of my womb, and another one again two years later. I also recall the fear and the loneliness of being a teenager staring at a pair of blue lines on a pregnancy test. My uterus has given me the most beautiful, and the most traumatic, moments of my life. As my surgery date creeps near, I rest my hands above her, and thank her for her service. I remember the cramps, the fetal kicks, the pain. And I honor all the ways she has forced me to grow. My uterus’s parting lesson is the untethering of the knot that ties my femininity to my fertility. When all is said and done, she will have given me the freedom to know life beyond the joy, and the risk, of carrying a baby—what an incredible gift, indeed.