“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
She was unwavering in her grief. I sat there, naked under the hospital gown, never in my post-cancer state allowed to undress just from the waist down even for an annual exam, feeling even more naked by my own interest in her words. I had never heard anything like it.
OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO
Her high pitched voice choked with sobs, screaming the same refrain over and over. She broke the pattern only twice, once to implore "What did I do?" the other to exclaim "No heartbeat! But the baby was fine!"
OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO
My gynecologist came in and greeted me as he always does, by calling me sweetie and slamming the door. He rubbed his eyes. I had heard his booming voice minutes before, saying Get her to the hospital. not here. FIX IT.
How are you? I said fine, which is never the right thing to say, because he wants me to say something else, something more. How're the kids, how's work. He always asks the questions one after the other and doesn't wait for an answer. He talks and I talk and we hear each other, but they are separate conversations. I like it. It's like family. I told him I needed to know if now was the time to get rid of that uterine polyp, because my husband is changing jobs and our insurance will be different and I think I should do it now.
He looked at me blankly. What are you talking about? He didn't remember. He started scouring my chart and he couldn't find any record of it. I didn't even remember when I had come in for that ultrasound (April). We never figured it out, not until later. He was too distracted; he never found the record. He examined me as he always does, without explaining anything the way some doctors do as if you are a child, he did it quickly, efficiently, and with enormous hands. He felt my breasts for full minutes. He is the doctor who found my cancer first, after I had found it, both times. He says things like this breast is perfect and touches my right breast one last time and I don't confuse his meaning.
OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO
You hear that? I feel terrible. You hear that screaming. Yes, I said. It's sad. She is so sad. She is fourteen weeks. It happens, I feel terrible, but it happens. Nature gives us gifts and it takes them away. He rubbed his eyes again.
We were talking around each other but my mind was elsewhere too. I could not stop listening to her. I had never heard someone be so honest in their grief so immediately. I thought of my various experiences with grief, especially the crushing grief I felt at my first cancer diagnosis, and I remember how I responded. "I'm sorry, but I have to tell you that we found abnormal cells. Specifically, we found cancer cells." I felt nervous and shocked and floored and grieved and I nodded to my husband and said "Okay." I could no more cry or scream than fly. Not then, not ever.
I think about all the women I've known who have suffered similar grief to this woman's grief. I thought about all of everyone's suffering, how it expresses itself. The swearing, anger, crying, collapsing, stoicism, misplaced humor, the silence. Grief manifests itself as it does. And yet, we seem to know how to manage it. We grieve in a way that makes it easier for others to witness. We suffer in a way that alleviates the specter of our suffering. People say things like "it will be ok," "it is for the best," people tell us so many different kinds of lies. Even when people say the right thing, when they simply say "I'm sorry," "I feel terrible for you," "I can only imagine how hard this is," it isn't quite right, at least I never feel that it is. What do we want from others when we grieve?
I think what we want is to not have to worry about what they have to give. We want to not have to respond, to not have to make it easier for them, but we have learned to behave otherwise. It is rare indeed to see someone or hear someone so completely unconcerned with anyone else's notion of her grief.
OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO
She could not be stopped or convinced otherwise. She heard nothing that was said to her. It was not all right and it was not for the best and everyone knew it and I found myself wondering if her immersion in her grief would be a blessing or a curse, and then I realized that was the wrong question.
The grief and suffering is real, regardless of how we respond to it. My stoicism does not make my suffering any less. My lack of tears, my quiet and my order and my going for a walk does not denote a different level of grief. The grief is still true. It is the same with love, and how we express it. There are conventions, to be sure, but acting outside of them does not take away from the love itself.
I thought of the only time I have ever seen myself, my mothering, expressed in someone else's description of parenting. I have many friends who write blogs about motherhood, I have stood in front of hundreds of people and read an essay about motherhood, but I never see myself in any story about motherhood that there is, and sometimes, I feel like I am wrong, like there is something missing or askew with me. But when Tina Fey wrote about her father's reaction to her getting slashed in the face by a stranger with a knife, I was supposed to laugh, or be horrified by the situation. I was not supposed to gasp and look around the room when I read that he threw her in the car to go to the emergency room, braced his arm over her chest and said "don't speak."
Oh my God, I thought. That's me.
And then I thought, how he must have loved her.
I stopped thinking about grief and Bossypants. I was still sitting in the exam room. I had to come back to reality, to talk to him. He was angry with himself. This doesn't make any sense. I remember everything that has happened with you. I remember everything I have said to you. I don't understand this. Where is that goddamned record!
OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO
At one point, he walked out of the room without saying anything to me. I am used to that by now. He went to talk to her. He brought his booming voice down. When he came back, he just switched gears. A lifetime of practice, I suppose. By the way, sweetheart. We don't even do this anymore, these paps, you don't need to come every year except you do because you are Kathleen Jacob and you are different after everything that has happened. Anything else? Um, I've gained some weight. Where is it? You look fantastic. Um I don't know. You just decided to eat then. Doc I always ate I just don't work out as much. You probably need it less now, need it less for your mind and your sleep. This polyp, what the hell. I'll do the ultrasound myself. He left in a huff, came back with a machine, did the ultrasound, found something but wasn't convinced. Problems? he asked. Well sometimes I have bleeding after sex, not much. It's not like I'm bleeding in the middle of the day. It's not like at the end of 2013 during chemo when I was hemorraghing for 10 days. It doesn't bother me. What did I tell you about this? Well, you didn't tell me much. You were trying to convince me it wasn't cancer. I wasn't worried that it was cancer, but you wanted to make sure I understood that. Of course I did. Think about all the shit that's happened. OK, get dressed. Come talk to me.
I got dressed and opened the door. There was silence in the hall. She had left. I went into his office, the same office I have visited for the last ten years. He talked to me about what we should do, he asked me how long it's been (cancer, of course I know what he means), he said it's been a hell of a ride, he told me about his daughter's internship at my company. I talked to him but I was thinking about him doing pushups on the wall while I labored with my daughter, I remembered all the times he called me from home, how I never spoke to a nurse, I remembered him crying on the phone the night before I was diagnosed the second time because he already knew, I remembered him visiting me in the hospital on his day off to meet my son, who was born three weeks early so he wasn't there to see it, I could recall the sadness in his face when he visited me in the operating room right before my mastectomy and how he looked from my husband to my brother and then down at the floor.
I remember everything I've ever said to you.
It was time to go and I knew what else it was time for, the enormous bear hug. I have never been good at hugging. I can do the casual quick greeting a friend hug perfectly. But the meaningful hug? I feel wrong, again, I feel amiss. My mother hugs me and I stand there. I hug my children awkwardly. The men in my life have always been more affectionate than me. I don't know how to hug them either. Boyfriends, lovers, my husband--their hugs are so complete, that I forget what to do with my hands, or maybe I never knew. At some point, around 15, I came up with a solution: I still just stand there, but with my hands on their chest. They never seem to notice my deficiency.
One time, I didn't hug my gynecologist correctly. His voice is always booming. What the hell! That's all I get?
One time, he said that he loved me. It wasn't even inappropriate.
I got up.
Sweetheart. You are doing great. I want you to know that I think about you all the time.
The birth and the death and everything in between, the sadness and joy of a decade. His arms surrounded me and he patted my hair and I stood there wondering how to hug him back and then it came to me. There are conventions, to be sure, but I could do it my way. And so I knew how to fix it.
I think about you and your family.
I stood on my tiptoes.
You keep doing what you're doing. Just keep going.
I put my hand on his shoulder.
I'll find that record, sweetheart. I'll call you. We'll make a plan. Say hi to the big guy for me.
I kissed my gynecologist on the cheek.