Listen to an Excerpt
A Good Mom
“You have a three-month uterus,” my gynecologist tells me. He raises his head above my draped knees, above the cold stirrups holding my cold feet. Then he pats my knees and smiles, as though what he has said has explained everything. The pain. The bleeding that lasts for weeks. The anemia.
“I have what?”
“Because of the number and size of fibroid tumors in your uterus,” the doctor explains, “it is the size and distension equivalent to a woman three months into a normal pregnancy. We should talk about removing the uterus,” he says, as if it’s already not a part of me.
The first weeks home after surgery I lie in bed — not even my own bed, but the thin mattress of our sofa bed — and am acutely aware of the taut, jagged scar across my belly, a scar the length of my forearm. It hurts to move and so I just lie very still, imagining the new empty space beneath the scar. I sink into the bed, wish for sleep, that I might never wake up, that I might simply, and uneventfully, die.
I am married to my second husband. His given name is Richard, but he has chosen, quaintly, to go by “Dick.” When I am home from the hospital, Dick ignores me, sitting in the next room endlessly reading, drinking glass after glass of wine. Sometimes, he steps into the living room and dutifully asks if I want anything, asks how I am. Usually I say “I’m fine.” There’s not much point in saying anything else. Some men know how to be kind. Some do not. When you know the difference, you know where you are.
One night, when he comes in and asks how I am, I try to sit up, rolling first onto my side as I have been instructed to do these first few weeks. Everything hurts.
“Everything hurts,” I say.
Dick stands by the sofa bed, holding his book, a finger stuck between the pages, keeping his place.
“It’s bound to,” he says.
I wrestle myself to a sitting position. The effort is enormous, painful, exhausting. I put my head against the back of the couch. And then, I can’t help myself, I start to cry.
“I feel awful,” I say. “I feel as though I’ve been gutted, as though I’ve become some horrible thing.” I know I am getting dramatic, weeping for the loss of my uterus, for me as a woman, for everything that I can’t do anymore, ever again. And of course, that makes everything hurt even more. I cry even harder.
My state of mind is like that of a little kid who cries because of a bad dream, or a fright, and then begins to scare herself because she is crying, and then just cries harder, and harder, until she’s soaked with tears and snot, is hiccupping and hyperventilating. All you can do at that moment is hold her. You can’t fix anything. You just tell her you love her.
That night, as I sit there weeping, lamenting the loss of everything, Dick stands there watching. We have been married for nearly three years. He and I are twenty-five years apart. I was his brilliant student. His photography class brought us together. That was then. This is now. I suppose we both imagined something different. Now, as though he is chastising a difficult child, he shouts at me, words that even years in the future I will still be able to hear: “I can’t get your uterus back!”
He storms into his darkroom, and slams shut the door.
It is January. I walk to the mailbox at the end of our very long driveway, and then back. In a week, I will walk to the end of our road, a distance maybe three times further. In February I walk out a mile and then back. By March I walk a five-mile loop along the country roads.I walk alone. The land in rural Indiana in winter is bleak, empty. There isn’t much snow. The fields are wide stretches of brown earth stubbled with short bleached stalks, remnants of corn that in summer stood seven and eight feet high, green and glorious. The skies are overcast. The wind is harsh, unimpeded.
My body heals but my soul lags behind. I am, quite simply, sad. There is no one to talk to. A woman who calls herself my best friend finds every excuse in the world not to visit. The support groups I find, rudimentary listservs, only let me know that everyone else who has had a hysterectomy before the age of, say, forty, is just as sad as I am.
I think about a support group with real people, somewhere I can drive to. I can only imagine a circle of women just like me: thin, scarred, discussing in dark bloody detail the miseries before, during, and after surgery. The thought of that just makes me sadder. I consider therapy, but what is there to talk about? I was sick, the surgery was the cure, that is it. Never mind that there is the misery of the marriage to deconstruct. I don’t have the energy to take on that project.
I consider, briefly, mood-altering drugs — Prozac, morphine, pot, good old-fashioned liquor — but I don’t want to blur anything. If my life is a little hell, at least I want to see it clearly and remember it.
One day, I talk to my mother on the phone, sorry for myself, talking in circles. She listens, and then her crisp Yankee voice stops me.
“You know what you need to do,” she says.
“Listen,” she says, ignoring the dullness of my voice, the self-pity, the loneliness. “What you need to do is this: get out of the house and go help someone else.”
“Like who?” I’m on the verge of whining. Even I don’t want to be around me.
“Well,” she says. “I’m sure you can figure that out.”
I don’t remember how I choose it, maybe an advertisement in the local newspaper, maybe something on the radio. In March of 1995, I sign up to be a middle-school mentor. The standards are minimal: pass a background check, listen to a cheerful woman explain the rules: commit to lunch once a week with your “mentee,” wear your mentor badge at all times, enforce the rules of the school. You get a t-shirt and a profile of the sixth-grader chosen for you.
My sixth-grader is a girl named Aimee. She is, the profile notes, an “at-risk” child. She lives with her grandparents; her parents are divorced — the father has moved away, the mother is a recovering drug addict. There is no picture of Aimee in the folder. I imagine her: short, fat, a sullen child who probably likes a lot of TV, and won’t like me or this artificial mentor relationship or the stupid badge I have to wear which will tell everyone what they’ve always suspected: she is just another charity case.
A week after the orientation I meet the real kid. We are introduced in the hallway in front of the principal’s office. Aimee is not fat. She wears a simple purple sweater and new blue jeans. She has a beautiful mane of blond hair, wide blue eyes, and perfectly dimpled cheeks. She stares at me with the unmediated frankness of a child. I have no idea what she is thinking.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” she says back.
We pose while someone takes our picture, the two of us side by side, Aimee a full foot shorter than I, both of us dutifully smiling for the camera.
Every Wednesday, I meet eleven-year-old Aimee for lunch. I ask her how school is going, what she likes to do, what she wants to be when she grows up. I have no idea how to talk with an eleven-year-old. Aimee usually shrugs off my questions. School is fine. She doesn’t know what she likes — maybe TV, sometimes volleyball, maybe the mall. She hasn’t thought about what she wants. But there is this boy she likes. And she points, covertly, her finger low on the lunch table like a compass needle, directing my attention to a scrawny kid one table over, due North.
I look, nod, try to sound wise.
“There is more to life than boys,” I say.
Aimee gazes at me, pityingly. What do I know?
What I know is that week after week I keep coming back. We start our weekly lunches in March, enduring the racket of the school cafeteria. I eat whatever the cafeteria serves. Gooey cheese sandwiches. Chocolate milk. Piles of cardboardy chips with salsa that tastes exactly like ketchup. Brownies the size of a brick. Lasagna so dense it could be a doorstop.
By April, I start bringing my own lunch. So does Aimee. The weather warms up and we eat outdoors on the steps of the school away from the racket and hum of the school cafeteria.
Sitting on those steps, Aimee and I talk about ordinary things — her dogs and mine, the cats we know, the movies, music, what is on television. Sometimes we talk about Important Things. Birth control. College. Drugs and sex and alcohol. Sometimes Aimee tells me about her life. About her mother, mostly. The drugs. Heroin had been her mother’s drug of choice.
“She’s on methadone, now,” Aimee notes flatly.
Aimee tells me about the people who dealt the drugs. The boy who sold the drugs who married her mother. The new baby. The day Aimee was taking care of the new baby while her mother got high. That was the day Aimee snapped. Aimee the ten-year-old.
“What happened?” I ask.
Aimee and I are sitting on the steps of the school. It is a perfect April day. She looks out over the school yard, focusing on some middle space. She doesn’t say anything for a moment. I realize she is replaying the memory in her head. Her face is an expressionless mask. She is eleven, but she could just as well be fifty.
“I took a pair of scissors and held them to my throat.” Aimee makes a fist, and holds it to the hollow above her collarbone. “I told her if she didn’t quit, I was going to kill myself. Right here, like this, right now.”
We sit there, on the steps of the school, her story hanging before us. We give it a moment of silence. And then we let it go.
One day, the woman who calls herself my best friend phones. It is late April, three months after the surgery, four months since I have seen or heard from her.
I should ask her why she hasn’t bothered to visit, where she has been, what kind of friend she thinks she is. I don’t.
She shows up a day or two later. Hands me a card. Smiles as friends are supposed to smile.
The card is a funny cartoon of a horse, or maybe it is a flower, or a sunny day. Maybe it is a Get Well card, a Best Friend card. I don’t remember. I open the card, find inside it five slips of paper the size of grocery coupons. Five white pieces of paper, black-inked words handwritten on each one: Horseback riding One Lesson. I remember what little riding I have done. I remember watching foxhunts, a neighbor’s gentle stallion, a small herd of black horses in a green meadow. Horses in memory like tiny specks of light in a dark sky. I can almost touch them. I think about riding a horse. I think about the dull ache in my abdomen. I am in no shape to ride, not yet.
I look at the woman, this friend, who has handed me this gift. “Thanks,” I say. “I know exactly who to give this to.”
The next time I see Aimee, I give her the homemade coupons and she inspects them cautiously as if to determine whether in fact they are really real, or what she is supposed to do with them, or whether she will be allowed to do this at all. I can see the questions, and answer the most practical one I can think of before she can ask it.
“I’ll drive you,” I say.
“Cool,” she says.
The next Saturday, I pick Aimee up at her grandmother’s house. The house is small, with a single front window and a door; the whole house seems to be maybe thirty feet wide. The siding is a faded, peeling blue. A limp American flag hangs over the shallow front porch. I knock on the door and Aimee opens it. In the few seconds it takes for her to turn and call “Bye Gramma” I get my first glimpse of Aimee’s world. In the living room, a small older woman sits slumped in the corner of a wide couch, a blur of cigarette smoke hovering in the air. A TV blares. A dog yaps in the background. The room is dark, stuffy, almost airless.
“Let’s go,” Aimee says. And she shuts the door.
We drive west, into the country. The farm where the lessons are held belongs to a woman who teaches kids in 4-H, everything from leading a pony, to flatwork, to the basics of jumping. Everyone, it seems, knows her. There is a constant stream of parents dropping kids off, standing at the fence to watch kids ride, chatting with each other in the dirt parking lot, oblivious to the decay and chaos of the place. The farm has a herd of about two dozen horses, a few ponies, assorted mongrel dogs lounging about in the yard and the drive, litters of kittens scrambling in the hay loft, and one potbellied pig that wanders in and out of open stalls while the horses are in the pasture. The barn where the horses are kept might once have been a handsome building. Now, it is swaybacked, paint faded to a dingy yellow, the stalls dark and sour smelling, the center aisle littered with pieces of tack, tools, riding equipment. There is a small riding arena inside the barn, and a larger one outside. Everything is covered in the dust raised up by horses trotting in circles, inside and out of the barn, and the cars and trucks that come and go up and back the long dirt lane that leads from the road to the barn.
That first day, I watch while Aimee gets on a fat placid pony, is instructed on how to hold the reins, how to position her feet, her legs. And then she is riding. Around and around the small dusty outdoor arena. I still have a picture of her from that day. Her blond hair is completely hidden underneath a black riding helmet a size too big. She is sitting on the pony the way new riders do — curled in on herself, her hands clutched high toward her chest, her knees gripping the pony’s back. Her whole body is a visible declaration that she is completely unsure what will happen next. Yet. Her usual carefully neutral face is completely different. She is grinning.
That summer, I take Aimee back for a lesson every week. I watch her ride around the dirt corral, as she learns to sit the pony, all three gaits. The instructor gives the same lesson week after week: Walk, trot, canter; repeat and repeat. Heels down, shoulders back, head up. A lesson is an hour long, a small space of time, just enough to forget the rest of the world.
Each week, after her lesson, Aimee and I go to a small family-owned drive-in, get two vanilla Cokes, then drive home talking, sipping the sweet cold drinks. The radio plays, sometimes Aimee sings along. Sometimes, to her eye-rolling amusement, so do I. Years later she will tell me how she remembers these days, how she told the man who would become her husband about driving to riding lessons, once a week, just the two of us. This is the heart of the story that is us, the lessons and the drive, there and back again.
One day, on the way home, when I stop at a red light, Aimee turns down the radio. “You know what?”
“I don’t know, what?” I say back automatically, blithely. I am prepared for nothing more than yet another eleven-year-old-style riddle.
“You would be a good mom,” Aimee says.
“Oh.” I don’t quite know what to say to this. “Well, thanks.”
I am doing the ordinary things a parent, mother or father, will do — driving her to riding lessons, buying us Cokes, talking about whatever we want to talk about. The plain fact of me being there, being a normal adult, allows Aimee, for once, to be a kid. I know that, am glad of it.
Yet, I harshly remind myself often that I am no mother. Not me. This is not something I want to talk about. Aimee, however, does.
“How come you don’t have any kids?” she asks.
The truth is, the truth has layers. I don’t have kids because, by now, of course, I can’t. The hysterectomy. I don’t have kids, and I never tell her this, how I’d gotten pregnant by my husband and gave in to his wish to not have children. Just gave in. I don’t have kids from the years before that because my first husband and I had never gotten around to deciding yes or no, which became a good thing because just short of three years of that marriage I left him for the man I am with now. I don’t have kids because even before that, when I was barely twenty-something, I’d had a fling with a boy whose name I still remember but would rather not, and gotten pregnant then too and when I told him he showed up at the door of my apartment with a brand new hundred dollar bill which he handed to me, solemnly, and with great gravity.
“My half,” he’d said.
The light turns green. I accelerate carefully. “I don’t have kids,” I say, without looking at Aimee, “Because I don’t, I guess.”That is a lame answer and we both know it. She presses on with the singular persistence of an adolescent.
“You should have kids.”
Her small, serious, pale face is turned toward me; I know this, even though I carefully keep looking straight ahead, driving down the road, hands at ten and two.
“Really,” she says.
I relent. She might as well know at least a partial answer. So I explain the immediate circumstances. Tumors, surgery, here I am. Aimee listens. When I am finished, she doesn’t say anything. I glance at her. She is frowning. Staring at the road ahead just as I was. Intent. It is as though she is translating my story into something that makes sense for her.
Finally she says, “So it’s like you’re spayed, right?”
This is a damn better metaphor than anything my expensive doctor came up with. “Well,” I say. “I guess so. Yes. Exactly like that.”
“I get it,” she says. She bounces a little in her seat, then, almost involuntarily, then stops. I feel her gaze on me. “So,” she says. “I guess I’m your kid then.”
We pass the sign marking the city limits. I consider this, the weight of it, the gift, and the mystery. “I guess you are,” I say. “I guess you are.”
– Jean Harper’s writing has been supported by the Curtis Harnack Residency for Writers at Yaddo, the Goldfarb Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a residency at MacDowell, grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, and most recently a Prose Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which directly supported work on Still Life with Horses. Her first book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work (2005), won the Mid-List Press First Series Award in Nonfiction.