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“Writing about my feelings of loss was as important as keeping up with my medication schedule.”
In First Place
Lessons from a Hysterectomy
By Heather Sweeney
The woman congratulated me with a toothy grin as she placed the tray of food in front of me in my bed. Pain exploded through my belly like an electric current as I sat up in slow motion. I was so happy to be allowed to eat that I thought the praise was for my ability to stomach chicken broth.
“Have the new mom and dad decided on dinner yet?”
I stopped blowing on my steaming soup and looked at the woman with confusion as she waved what looked like a menu.
Her smile faded from my lack of response. “The special dinner we offer new parents,” she stuttered.
Only a few hours had passed since I was wheeled into this room, the haze of a cocktail of drugs still scrambling my thought process. But as the awkward staredown continued, I remembered bits of my dreamlike conversation with the woman who had transported me, particularly the part when she explained I was being moved from surgery to the maternity ward.
“I didn’t have a baby,” I said. “I had a hysterectomy.”
I almost pitied her as she backtracked out of the room with her embarrassment. She clearly had no idea that, despite my placement on a hospital floor dedicated to new mothers, I wasn’t among the ranks of ecstatic new parents. Sure, my boyfriend and I were both in our early forties, our features youthful enough that guessing we had a baby wasn’t such an outlandish assumption. Every other woman on the floor had indeed recently given birth so it could have been a fluke that this individual was unaware I was there not to bring a new life into this world, but to remove my ability to create one.
The interaction was jarring, but I told myself to let it go, focus on healing.
Then a nurse congratulated me. Then another nurse. By the fourth time I had to explain why I was in that hospital bed, I had to restrain myself from either crumbling into sobs or hurling a vase of get-well flowers across the room. Why didn’t these people know?
Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing, I thought as tears mixed with vomit from the medication that didn’t agree with me.
Maybe I should ask if it’s normal practice for a hysterectomy patient to recover on a maternity ward, I thought as the night shift nurses woke me up when the surgeon wanted me on my feet.
Maybe I should tell someone that being on this floor hurts my heart, I thought as I shuffled laps around the hallway, shooting disingenuous smiles at mothers rocking their newborns and visitors clutching balloons and teddy bears.
Maybe I should have spoken up, I thought as the pharmacist – the last person to see me before my boyfriend pushed my wheelchair to the hospital exit – handed me a white paper bag of prescriptions and congratulated me on the birth of my baby.
I expected the physical challenges of the surgery, but I was wholly unprepared for the emotional aftermath. The hormonal shock to my system combined with the immediate awareness of my infertility blindsided me. The grief I didn’t know how to label held an undercurrent of anger over the realization that no one – including myself – noticed that my mental health wasn’t included in my treatment plan.
My bereavement followed me home, where, once my thoughts sharpened enough from weaning off the heavy drugs, I faced it head on. I read through my discharge papers that instructed me how to physically progress through the six-week recovery and added my own.
Writing about my feelings of loss was as important as keeping up with my medication schedule. Meditating when the pain and night sweats jolted me from sleep was as essential as the gradual increase of my daily step count. Talking openly about my roller coaster of emotions with family and friends was as necessary as follow-up appointments with the surgeon. I knew I wouldn’t recuperate physically if I wasn’t recuperating mentally.
Soon enough, I returned to work and my surgeon cleared me to resume normal activities, my recovery complete. The memories of intense pain faded along with the scars on my abdomen, both leaving behind just enough pigmentation to remind me of the lesson I now bring with me to every doctor’s appointment. Mental health is an integral component of overall health. And the only person who can truly advocate for my mental health is me.
Heather Sweeney is a freelance essayist who writes about military discounts for her day job. She lives with her boyfriend and her two teenage kids in Virginia, where she’s currently working on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter at @WriterSweeney.
In Second Place
By Amber Carpenter
(life consists of these little touches of solitude)
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Open the bottle. Pinch your thumb and index finger together like tongs and pull out a pastel blue pill. Open your mouth, stick out your tongue and toss the tablet toward your uvula. Hard like candy. Tasteless. Tilt your head back and take a few swigs of water. Swallow. Your esophagus is now a slick tube slide that empties into a crescent pool. The small, oblong raft eventually dissolves. Its purpose: to stop recurring, intrusive thoughts––the cyclical nature of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Open the bathroom window. Watch as billows of steam slowly escape through the screen. They climb and tumble toward the sky while black phoebes perform an acrobatic display of snatching insects––beetles, crickets, bees, wasps, flies, moths, grasshoppers––in midair. A winged thief that stalks its prey in broad daylight. A swift abduction. Notice the shower curtain, a polyester version of Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote, I had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones. This mix of hues (pale lilac, faded red, chrome yellow, pale lemon green, orange, blue) offers an abstraction from these white walls, the same plastic toilet seat, the stainless steel faucet, an aging reflection.
Open the coffee canister. Medium roast. Smell its fruity, Ethiopian origins. Pour four scoops, accompanied by scalding hot water, into the French press. Wait. Look outside at the broad-tailed hummingbird; marvel at its rose-magenta throat and iridescent wings. It suddenly ascends in a straight line––an aerial performance that demands applause. How free the hummingbird must feel: to witness its surroundings from multiple angles and heights, to discover everything and nothing without a piece of fabric covering its face.
Inside the mind is a pastel pink carousel horse. Whimsical. Seemingly sturdy, built from aluminum and fiberglass. It circles its platform and shifts between three stances: standing prancing and jumping. Never releasing the child from its hard, ornate saddle. She shrieks with joy while the calliope plays and discovers similar images again and again as the ride moves counterclockwise: the same direction as the plastic lid of a pill bottle.
Amber Carpenter earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. She also received an MA in English from East Carolina University. Her essays, hybrids, and photographs have appeared in publications that include sPARKLE & bLINK, Sinister Wisdom, Two Hawks Quarterly, riverSedge, Camas Magazine, and others. She currently lives in the Bay Area with her wife, two dogs, and cat.
In Third Place
To Taste a Tomato
By Anne Ruflin
I want to taste a tomato.
And not just any tomato. This particular tomato – an organic beefsteak beauty fresh from the garden, still warm from today’s heavy sun. It’s the first one to ripen this year, one of the few to survive a strange summer of torrential rain and tropical heat, to resist all the various fungi and wilts and rots, to evade the greedy woodchuck that has been sneaking in to nibble the lettuces and beans. I know he’s been eyeing this tomato, too.
I want to taste this tomato. It sits warm and waiting in my hand. But a breakthrough Covid-19 infection wiped out my sense of taste and smell a month ago. There is a lot of information out there about this condition – anosmia. For some people it lasts just a few weeks, for others a few months, and some are still struggling even after a year. The only cure is time and putting in the effort to reawaken the ability to smell. The process of reawakening is deceptively simple. Pick something with a strong scent. Remember the scent. Then smell the item – quick sniffs like a bunny. Focus on the memory of the scent to hopefully trigger the actual sense of smell.
So, I’ve been working on it. The first few weeks were sad and unnerving. I could not smell or taste anything. Not fresh brewed coffee or sizzling bacon. Not just cut grass or rain-soaked earth. I could cut a big white onion, hold it to my nose, sniff, sniff, sniff, and detect nothing. Ditto with raw garlic. I could not sense the nearby skunk, the dog poo stuck to my shoe, or the crushed pine needles underfoot.
A month of practice has resulted in slow but steady progress. While stinky canned cat food is still nothing to me, I can detect the scent of lavender, basil, and mint. I can sense the difference between salty, sweet, and bitter. I can imagine the familiar taste of dark chocolate.
Now consider this tomato. Remember. To taste the first tomato of the season is to taste the flush of summer rain, the elements of ancient glaciers, the salty residue of hard work in the hot sun, the tender turn of last year’s leavings into soil. It is at once both sweet and dusky, acidic and mild, firm and giving. Its flavor blooms in the company of basil and a pinch of salt. It needs little to awaken its fullness.
Feel its heft in one hand then the other and sniff, sniff, sniff. Maybe detect a scent of green around the stem. Slice it open and lay the thick, red slabs on a pure white plate. Pale juices pool and drip. An eager wasp bounces at the kitchen window screen. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Take a taste and keep imagining. Add a little salt, a little basil. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Taste. A luscious summer day, the deep ripeness of late August. Take another bite and savor it. Then another, and another.
Can I taste this tomato? Maybe.
Anne Ruflin is a retired health care executive currently living on a small farm in the hills of Bristol, New York with her husband, several cats and dogs and horses.
Fracture By Lauren Meyer
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