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"It's truly powerful, and acrid, and barbed, and filled with wonderful, and unexpected, turns of phrase and above all it's shocking in its directness and understated anger and sadness and fear? it's an amazing piece of writing."?Cynthia Ozick
Imagine being told before the age of forty that because you have an ovarian cyst, the surgeon wants to take out the "whole kit and caboodle." Imagine being told that "because you already have your children, "who needs all that?" Why not "keep the playground but get rid of ...
"It's truly powerful, and acrid, and barbed, and filled with wonderful, and unexpected, turns of phrase and above all it's shocking in its directness and understated anger and sadness and fear it's an amazing piece of writing."—Cynthia Ozick
Imagine being told before the age of forty that because you have an ovarian cyst, the surgeon wants to take out the "whole kit and caboodle." Imagine being told that "because you already have your children, "who needs all that?" Why not "keep the playground but get rid of the plumbing?" Imagine watching a film strip at the hospital which assures you that though you will no longer have your female organs, you will still have romance in your life and will be "able to waltz the night away with your husband."
The Hysterectomy Waltz is a sharp and cynical, funny and tragic comedy, a story of marriage and motherhood under the threat of the knife, a tale of friendship and betrayal.
Three babies were born to me in five years. It seemed, when I was young, the only worthwhile thing to do, making those sturdy, -designed pieces of merchandise, quality merchandise, not an open seam, not a shoddy bolt of material evident in the bunch. Each one exactly six pounds, stamped out by the same machine. A neat, well-executed birth every time. I could tell the doctors appreciated me: I was thin, young, my skin was tight and smooth and my body hair grew exactly where it was supposed to, none heavy on my thighs, none between my breasts, none around my navel.
I saw other women in those waiting rooms—loose, flabby women past forty, with six children leashed to the chairs, with mustaches on their upper lips, with wild, graying hair. The doctors were respectful to all of us, but when they parted my thighs on the table, I could tell they were appreciative.
"Today you will take the measurement from the pubic bone to the coccyx, am I right?" I would ask, all boned up and ready. "Furthermore the fetus is now acquiring the buds of fingers and toes."
"This is a sharp one," the doctors said to their nurses about me.
One doctor, my first for personal matters, stuttered. He was the only man other than my husband who had taken such intimacies with me. In fact, he coached me at my premarital exam.
"Everything gets better with practice." As if that weren't bad enough, he stuck three fingers inside me and said, "If you have your boyfriend stretch you like this for the next week or so, you won't have much trouble on your wedding night."
Did he think there were still such things as wedding nights? And if so, did he really think a refined girl like me would allow such a prenuptial maneuver? No matter with what ambiguity I might look him in the eye and murmur, "Thank you," I was afraid he would have a low opinion of me.
"You've waited a long time," he said, and he seemed to think he was in a position to know. "I hope you find it was worth the inconvenience."
His stutter made him heroic to me. His eyes, when he was stuck puffing explosively on a consonant, were sorrowful, like a defecating dog's. Whenever I dream about him, he is in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to just under his elbows. We are embracing in his office, standing up, and his nurse is saying, "Feel his heartbeat. If it's fast, he's a boy."
The obstetrician for my second baby was a Catholic, information I didn't learn till six weeks after the baby was born when I asked him about birth control. In actual fact, I knew everything there was to know about birth control, but I also knew from experience that none of the methods I had used were effective because both my babies had been conceived during moments I had observed all the rules immaculately.
I felt it might be appropriate now to discuss some new, more radical retardant. My doctor said he couldn't in good conscience talk to me about it, but would refer me to a very pleasant MD down the street.
I bowed my head, hurt to the quick. You, I thought. How can you just send me down the street? You, the man who cut the cord around the baby's neck just in time; you, the man who let me keep my pubic hair while all about me were losing theirs, you, the man who used a milk pump on my tender breast when infection set in. You, the man who said "Hug the pillow tight, love," as you injected the anesthetic into my spine!
He pointed down the street, however. Later, I confided to my husband: "He wasn't such a nice guy after all." My husband admitted what he had kept to himself till then: when our daughter was born, the doctor had come over to him in the waiting room and cried jovially, "You have a boy!" When my husband had leaped up from his chair in joy, wild to shake his hand in thanks, the doctor had said, "Only kidding. It's another girl."
Him I don't dream about.
The third baby I decided to have intentionally. I willed it to be a son. I remember there were purple flowers on the pillowcase the night I decided I was going to take a hand in deciding the future and I distinctly remember the position—me on top—and the sound of a cow mooing coming in the open window.
Arriving home on the day I learned the pregnancy test was positive, I found a bouquet of wildflowers resting against the screen door of my house, although I had made no friends in that city.
I became very fat. I felt the constant pressure of perpetual company. I cried once about the magnitude of creating new life when I thought I felt my son move for the first time as I lay on the ratty green couch, wearing a maroon flannel maternity dress.
I vomited merely twice a day until skunks came to live under the house. Then the slightest whiff would send me into violent spasms that took my breath away and made my heart stop. I felt abused and victimized, gagging and retching in the middle of a meal, in the middle of sleep, in the middle of stirring oatmeal for the other babies.
"Kill the skunks," I said to my husband, who never got leg cramps or vomited.
I stopped whomever I could to tell them that I loved labor pains. Actually, I hated pain of all kinds, but I wasn't afraid of labor pains, and I hated fear much more than I hated pain. It happened we lived in an orange grove then, near a mountain and next to a farm. I was a sister to the cows nearby. When their calves pulled at their teats, my breasts oozed. Ripe, and right in the scheme of things, I got fatter and picked oranges right off the trees.
My mother had often told me how wildly she had screamed while she was giving birth to me, and the nurse had said, "Scream all you want, it won't get you anywhere."
I knew that even if SS men had strung me up on barbed wire during my deliveries, my daughters would never hear of it. I was convinced childbirth should be got through in a manly way.
With my third baby I had the worst doctor of all. He never even laid eyes on me till I was ten centimeters dilated and seeing double in the labor room. Since he had never consulted with me at the clinic, he thought I must be stupid, as no doubt he thought all women were. When I told the nurse, "The baby is coming," she ran out into the hall to call the doctor, and he said, "Oh shit, that's impossible, she just walked in the door, I'm going to get some coffee." The nurse didn't investigate, just started dumping boiling water between my legs, her razor held high.
"You're burning me," I screamed, while in fact the baby was barreling through my flesh like a cannonball.
"The water's not hot," she said indignantly. "Here, stick your finger in it."
"That's not my finger you're pouring it on," I cried. "God! Will you get my husband for me?" He heard me sobbing from where he stood banished in the hall, and ordered her fiercely out. I shrieked, and they both dashed away and left me alone with only The New Yorker in the bed with me.
In the delivery room, the doctor couldn't find my spine, so he said to hell with the injection. "What do you want, a boy or a girl?" he asked, standing by, sipping a Coke and chatting idly while I humped around on the table. "I have two girls already," I gasped.
After a long pause, he said, "You have three." I started to cry.
"Don't be a fool," he said, sewing my flesh with long, careless stitches. "I had a son who died when he was two. Boys are defective."
The nurse brought me the baby, still wet and slippery, and laid her across my breasts. "Kiss her," she said.
I had not yet come to terms with her being female and I refused. "What did I have?" I asked the nurse, starting all over, thinking maybe we could begin again and end differently. "And tell me the truth. This is my last baby."
"It's a girl, a girl, a girl, my dear," the nurse said.
Thus, when I seemed to be pregnant again at age forty, I went to consult an old sage. "Will I have a boy?" I asked, crossing her palm with coupons cut out from the food section of the Times.
"Have a girl," she said. "Girls stay close to their mothers. They take care of you in your old age."
"I can feel my old age already upon me," I admitted. "Is there any other reason to have a girl?"
"Girls don't miss the pot when they pee," she said.
"But a girl has to wait all her life," I pleaded. "A girl has to wait for breasts, wait for periods, wait for dates, for proposals, for labor pains.
"What else is there to do?" said the old sage, who in truth was my Jewish aunt. "You can always make a pot holder while you wait."CHAPTER 2
I went to see a gynecologist. He was young and cocky. He did not stutter and he had six assistants to shield him from his patients. With his mind on his Porsche and his golf appointment, he was not impressed when he parted my thighs. I was no longer thin or young. My skin was full of stretch marks and I had hair on my chest.
"I am a multipara," I told him. "I have given birth to three daughters and there are reasons now that I would like to have a son. For one thing, I need a man around the house to mow the lawn because my husband is not young anymore, and is allergic to greenery. Furthermore, I have always yearned for a son who will become six foot two and tower affectionately above me. In the Freudian tradition, I have always ascribed to the notion of penis envy, and carrying a male child would allow me to have a penis in my body for a time. Finally, I want a son who can grow up to be a doctor and deliver other women's babies, rather than a daughter who will have to have her babies delivered by men like you."
The doctor did not know if this was a joke or not, and seemed confused by my conversation. No longer modest, I could talk without embarrassment while he felt unfeelingly for my reproductive organs.
"I would give a great deal to have a son this time," I said, as if he had the power to load the dice. "My girls are all women now themselves, and I am tired of the concerns of females."
"Girls these days become obstetricians and deliver babies, too," he said ominously, his eyes narrowing as he pressed my abdomen with the force men use to shake apart something stuck together. He thrust a finger inside me and added, "But it so happens this is no baby. Something is socked in here that feels like a tumor on the ovary, and it's got to come out."
"It's not a baby?"
"Not only is it not a baby," he said meanly, for I had clearly angered him. "There's an excellent chance, in a woman your age, that it's cancer."
I sat upright on the table in astonishment and nearly broke his finger.
"You really like to lay it on the line, don't you?" I said.
"Get a woman doctor if you want hearts and flowers and beating around the bush."
He rang for his female assistants, who came in their white uniforms and tried to coax me off his table.
"I'm through having babies for the propagation of the species!" I cried, losing hot tears. "I'm through taking care of my organs of reproduction, listening for their monthly messages, knocked flat on my back with cramps while they have their way with me! Why should I soothe them with heating pads if this is what they do to me?"
"Women and their difficulties," he smirked. "Where would I be without them?"
"I wouldn't have a son now if you gave me one," I informed him.
"And I feel pity for your mother!"
"Don't worry about her," he said as his nurses ushered me into the dressing room and tried to close the door on me. "She lives in a condominium that I bought her in Florida—on the ocean!"CHAPTER 3
No one was at home when I arrived there. I went into the bedroom of my youngest daughter and dropped on my knees before the finches' cage, as at an altar. Seeds on the rug dimpled my knees. My daughter had declared the vacuum cleaner a hazard until the nestlings were flown from the nest. There were two baby birds—blind, peeping, primeval creatures, bleating and begging for substance to be thrust into their bobbing beaks. Bold patterns shone from inside their mouths, like beacons. The female, calling a danger cry at my presence, made her way from the cocoon of her nest to a perch where she scooped some seed in her orange beak, and flew back in a rush of wind to the nestlings. I studied the shuddering, locking contact of beak into beak, like spaceships docking in the void. The peeping stopped. The male, on an adjoining perch, watched with assertive pride, his chest puffed. He had a red patch on each cheek, like the rouge of a clown, a robust assertion of his flowing juice—his fertility. Weeks ago I had watched them mate; a hundred times a day he crowed, flew across the cage and lit atop her, the act of love a fluttering balancing act. My daughter had told me she'd read that mating could be accomplished in as little as one second.
The female had a perpetual black tear beneath each eye—two streaks of grief. Now she sat atop the two baby birds as she had sat upon the tiny opal eggs, fluffing her feathers to keep them warm, her orange legs spread so as not to step on their delicate heads, her droppings glued against the side of the nest so she would not foul the living area. At night the male entered the nest and jostled her to the side, and together they sat on the baby birds, keeping them warm, keeping vigil. During the days, the male, nervous and with nothing to do—his mating call extraneous for the moment—kept re-building the nest. When the last of the dryer lint had been used for nesting material, he began plucking feathers from the female. Then, as the nestlings developed tufts of feathers at the tops of their heads, the male tried to pull them out.
"He wants to make a nest out of the babies!" my daughter said in disgust one day. "He's trying to stuff them into the sides of the nest. Idiot father bird," she said. "Poor India, to have to live with him."
On my knees, I studied the microcosm—drawn to it, embarrassed at what privacies the birds were showing me in their ignorance. In another cage, my daughter's buttonquail was huffing like a windstorm. In yet another, the starling was practicing his escape techniques on the cage latch. And from the house next door Macbeth, the old woman Aroona's idiot dog, was howling his misery.
Everything was living, vibrating, quivering, and surviving. The earth was a hothouse of life. I rose, my shoes crunching over the seeds as I left my daughter's room, and went to stretch out on my bed.
Lying there, I listened to the dog bark. A lunatic creature, insane with the fear of abandonment, incensed at the rustle of a leaf, frantic at passing footsteps, there was nothing he didn't bark at, bark for, bark about. And not just a bark, but rather a vibrato of anguish, a series of screams with a quarter-note rest, a harmony of pain and misery so intense that at times I wanted to go and hold the animal in my arms and soothe and comfort him. I wasn't without feeling—I had once loved a dog. As a child I had told my troubles to a dog. I knew about dogs and their sad, kind eyes.
I lay there imagining the position of my tumor, trying to graph it in my mind: so many inches below the belly button, hanging like a black hammock between the pubis and the hip bone. I imagined that when Aroona returned home she would huddle in a corner of a dark room and cast a spell that would make me just like her, old as a witch. I believed she would sew a voodoo doll of me, complete with deadly tumor, a black pod from her garden. I considered the three stages of a woman's life: maiden, wife and crone. I had been a maiden, now I was a wife, soon I would be a crone. A crone was withered, dehydrated, and hollow. But I might soon be even less than a crone, be dead, be nothing.
Like the music of my mind, Macbeth's mindless howl continued. The dog never tired, never changed his pitch or position, but stood imprisoned inside Aroona's front door while she was on a crone's errand, visiting her palsied husband in the charnel house called a rest home. The frames that ran through my mind were those of a horror movie when I thought of her, or her husband, or the quivering dog who was locked inside that house where sat tall bookshelves filled with rows of antique dolls leaning against one another like madwomen with cracked heads. I pictured them as they must be now, staring down at the desperate animal with their unfocused china-blue eyes. Trapped there myself, I would surely howl for deliverance.
Excerpted from The Hysterectomy Waltz by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 2013 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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