By Ruth Arnold
Last night, my 13 year old son came in my room looking sad, a little sunburned in the face and worried. He had that need-to-cry look so I said, “If you need to cry, I’m here. We can talk while you cry or I can wait”. He said with tears, “I just need to cry a little so I can talk.” I was in my bed watching tv with my dog and also feeling somewhat nervous about an upcoming event that I was fairly sure was the source of his needing to “cry a little”.
In two weeks, I am going in for a full hysterectomy. I am told via ultrasound examination and gynecological review that I have dermoid cysts on my left ovary. Dermoid basically means yucky stuff but not cancer. I am a breast cancer survivor so it’s very hard for me to separate the matters as the same hospital for this surgery was where I got my radiation treatments for my cancer. So, my fear is here. My brain knows it is irrational but my emotions tell me that that is the cancer place where you go at 6:00 a.m. every day wearing a wig so that you can make it to work on time on the other side of town, stay alive and not scare your students with a bald head.
“I’m just scared a little bit”. I said, “Me too but not because I won’t get through this. I’ve had that kind of scare before and this isn’t that”.
“Will you be different?” Such a question and honestly, after taking estrogen suppressors for ten years, losing my hair, having so much done for a period of 8 months followed by white-knuckled follow-up exams for years, I hadn’t thought of the real stuff with a hysterectomy. I’ve been focused on the what-ifs that are far more daunting and also far less realistic than my son’s question. Will I be different?
I have heard of women mourning the loss of their female identity, their wombs, their estrogen. But, I hadn’t stopped to consider. I have approached this like I did my cancer with the agenda being only to keep me alive. But this, this is different. Still the agenda of staying alive but less urgent, less likely something to be put on prayer lists for. This is something to get through and not really something to survive. I hope. But, will I be different after?
Another from Toby. “Will you be sad?” That one I didn’t quite understand as readily as the question of feeling different. I asked, “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s where Isaac and I were a long time ago”, he said. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to have these poetic children. I hadn’t really thought of that either.
In my late twenties I had hideous dermoid cysts on both sides. I had to have very careful surgery as I knew I wanted children. The surgery scarred my fallopian tubes so later I had complicated IVF procedures to get these two boys in my life. Now, with this particular dermoid cysts surgery, I am asking that organs be removed in the name of future big problems being prevented and to address this current hopefully minor problem.
But, there was a time when these parts of me were so so important to me. My children still define me. They are both teens now. But they are also forever my little boys. And I am forever their mother. I have had to be their only parent for nearly eight years now and while it has been too much at times, it has also brought me meaning, identity and no doubt made me stand up when I wanted to just quit on so many occasions. Children don’t allow you to quit. If you’re lucky, you can catch a pause here and there but even that takes premeditation and doesn’t always work out. Maybe I will be a little sad to let these parts of me go. I knew I wanted to be a mother more than I ever knew I wanted anything else. But, that mission has been accomplished.
Just to be clear I asked, “What do you mean by ‘different’?” “Well, will you still be you? Will you look the same?” he asked. Damn. Why can’t we re-open the talk about the recent Ant Man movie and how I’d missed a truly great film when I passed on seeing it?
“I will look the same.” Won’t I? I guess so. I mean, it’s not plastic surgery. So, I got that one answered. Okay.
“Will you still be you?” I wish I’d seen Ant Man now. We could be discussing that.
Will I still be me? Hmmm. Does removing the organs that identify one’s gender make them different or are they still themselves? I took a moment as in my disconnected phobia of cancer, I had not considered these real concepts. I had decided that living and transcending were all there were to consider. But maybe not. Maybe this guy had some points.
But, when I looked at him looking up at me with my mother’s blue gray eyes, he was about five and not thirteen. He was that five year old boy whose father had died suddenly. He was afraid. He was afraid I might not return but that even when I returned, he’d somehow lose me or I’d be a different version of me. And I understood. Some loss is black and white. Your father goes on a trip and never returns. But what does it mean when your mother goes into surgery?
I thought of my mother’s hysterectomy and how we never discussed it. She had uterine cancer. She sucked it up and got through it but nobody asked me, “How are you? Are you scared?”
But here in this life I’ve created with my two boys, somebody is asking. Asking both for me and for himself. “Will you be different? Will you be sad?” Letting me know he is afraid and also trying to make sure that I’m okay at the same time. And that, is Toby.
So, Toby. Here’s my answer.
I’ll be myself. I will always be me. This will not affect my mind. I will still and always be your mother. I will continue to lose my keys and phone when this is over. I will freak out when we are running late. I will cry when you tell me lovely thoughts. I will hold you when you cry. We will still pretend that I’m in the CIA going on missions instead of boring errands. I will multiple times a day stop and marvel at how wonderful you are and how it’s magic that you have inside of you that I can’t claim as good mothering. I will stop and ponder that I have loved you more and differently than any other love and more than I could’ve ever imagined and now more and different than I can put to words. I will read with you. I will continue to use the Alexa you got for your birthday as if it were my own. I will listen to you tell me about your friends and how awesome they are some days and difficult on others. I will try to explain why I am upset at our current American culture and then I’ll stop when you ask why we can’t all just get along and in your naivete, you will remind me that you’re smarter than we are in our anger at one another. I will advocate for your braces when you’re too afraid to ask when they’ll come off. I’ll love your friends when they are in our house and notice that you have the best people to be friends with. I’ll be so glad that everyone tells me how kind and polite you are. I’ll miss you all the hours we are apart and feel I’m home again when we are together. I will lose pieces of my body but not pieces of my heart, my soul, my spirit, my mothering self.
You have given me such a gift in asking me these hard questions. You have brought me back to focus on the real, the here and now and taken me away from the what-ifs.
You and I still have many years together as we feel our home shifting with Isaac looking beyond the walls of our house. I will be here for you. And, I know you will check on me even when this is long over and I’ve just lost my keys again. And you will help me find them as you have helped me find so much.
It’ll just be another day and then I’ll come home because that’s where you are.
From Toby’s Mother,
Ruth Arnold is a 53 year old widowed mother of two boys ages 17 and 14. She is a preschool special education teacher who was an actor ages ago. She tries to play and does a bit of singing here and there. As a result of the hysterectomy, Ruth learned she again has breast cancer. She is still in very good shape but now my life is very different. Ruth plans to write about the experience and to address the general lack of knowledge women with a first diagnosis of breast cancer have with regard to returning (metastatic) breast cancer. Ruth lives in a suburb of Chicago, where she manages a lot of appointments, emotions and trying to stay engaged with friends, family, work and being herself once again