Nowadays sexual harassment on the job is grounds for legal action and could bring financial advantage to the woman who wants early retirement. But when I worked for Doc such options were still on the horizon. The incident with the doctor made me wonder again just exactly what was “wrong” with me.
I was friendly with my neighbor across the street, and she noticed I was home during the day and not going to work. So she dropped in for coffee. When I told her about Doc, her eyes got big and round. “Aren’t you flattered that he wanted you?” she asked in breathless amazement. “What would it have hurt to go along with him? I mean, he’s a doctor, right? He’s rich, right? Are you crazy? You could have been fixed for life!”
She thought I was hopelessly old-fashioned if not downright prudish. People my age looked on sexual relations as natural and uncomplicated. They thought women were entitled to orgasms, “the more, the better”. For good health a person ought to have proper portions of the major food groups every day, a daily bowel movement, and, most definitely, regular orgasms. If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. In this case, love meant sex.
I simply did not feel the urge to have sex for the sake of having sex. For me, sex was far and away more significant than “satisfying” a bodily urge to maintain good “physical balance” or “sexual hygienic homeostasis”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t explain why. I had no counter-arguments to stand up to the mechanistic view of the human being. Maybe I was just not “normal”.
Finding a job was my top priority at the moment, but again, it seems the universe had other plans. Not too long after my neighbor’s visit, I awakened to face a new day of reading employment ads only to discover that I felt unusually tired. I dragged myself out of bed and ran a bath to wake up and get going. I sank down into the hot water and reached up to rub my stiff neck. I was horrified to feel what seemed like hundreds of knots.
Well, maybe not hundreds, but there sure were a lot of them! I had Rubella. German measles.
Ordinarily, Rubella runs a fairly mild course in a few days, but for some reason this particular case was extremely hard. I was alone in the house, truly sick and barely able to get myself a drink of water or make it to the bathroom.
When Eva’s son Alex discovered how sick I was, even though I protested that Rubella was contagious, he came to help me. He moved into the house and took over the nursing, just as I had helped him during his own illness. More than that, he helped me pay the bills and generally took on the role of knight in armor rescuing damsel in distress.
He wanted the relationship to be more permanent. I wasn’t so sure.
In my weakened and desperate state, I wanted Alex to “stand up for himself” and, by default, for me. But Alex needed to confront his own conflicts with his father and his own self-abnegation before he felt ready to provide a protective framework for a relationship between us. In short, he wanted to be with me, but he wanted it to be kept a secret.
This created such severe anxiety that I became paralyzed with guilt and feelings of worthlessness. And so, I ended the not-really-there relationship.
My neighbor across the street began to try to set me up with different men by inviting me to dinner along with a selection of her husbands friends and co-workers (she and her husband both worked for a major airline). One night, there was a hit with enough synchronicity to rivet my attention. The man in question was Cuban-American and had been born on the same day I was, in the same hospital; in other words, we had been in the same nursery together when we were born, and here we were, 25 years later, meeting over the dinner table in my neighbor’s house. Though I initially thought that it was a destined thing, my relationship with Alfredo couldn’t last. I just couldn’t deal with the Latin male complex. Heck, I had enough problems dealing with a Southern, French-English-Welsh set of complexes of my own. I broke it off after a very short time, and we parted friends. Not long after, I discovered that I was pregnant.
Being pregnant changed everything and nothing. When Alex learned I was determined to have the baby he pressed me to allow him to take on the responsibility. I put him off. If Alex and Eva were drawn in, I could see only heartbreak and suffering and, above all things, I loved them too much to allow that. By whatever means necessary, I needed to save them from a fate worse than death – a life with me.
Finally Alex joined the Air Force in desperation and left for basic training, leaving me in a fantasy world of dreams that a baby would bring nothing but love and harmony into my life, all wounds magically healed.
But this pregnancy, following so soon after a serious illness, was taking its toll. I realized I was not going to be able to work at all. I wanted my mother and grandmother to help and advise me. I called Mother and told her I was sick and needed her. She and Grandma arrived a few days later.
I was terrified to be roundly criticized when I revealed the true situation. Surprisingly, Mother and Grandma seemed quite in agreement that I was handling the situation in the best way. Both seemed just as happy to welcome a new baby as I was. They agreed with my decision not to marry Alex and understood the need to conceal the fact that he was to become a father (or so I thought).
Mother and Grandma decided to close up the Tampa house and go to the Farm to save on expenses. Mother didn’t seem particularly anxious to return to her husband on the East Coast. Grandma told me privately that Buck was not doing as well in business as he had claimed. Mother felt increasingly cranky because he had nothing but excuses, the world was “out to get him,” and he did little to change his situation.
So, the three of us went to the Farm.
For the first time in my life, in the presence of my mother, I began to feel a sort of contentment. She was loving and attentive. All the years of emotional and psychic neglect seemed to fade into the background. After all, a baby was on the way! It never occurred to me that she had an agenda: that she was already planning to live vicariously through my child since I had turned out to be such a disappointment.
The three of us settled down to make baby clothes in great quantity and variety. We focused on layettes for either a boy or a girl, but I was certain that the baby would be a girl. It was several weeks before I decided to visit an obstetrician. When I gave the doctor the estimated date of conception, he looked at my swelling abdomen and lifted his eyebrows. During the exam, he seemed concerned and grave, and told me to see him in his office. He didn’t sound very optimistic, and my heart began beating in terror that something was wrong with the baby.
He told me that I was not pregnant. He suspected instead a pre-cancerous condition called a hydatidiform mole. To confirm this, he ordered a sonogram.
I drove to the hospital in a complete daze. How could it be that my precious little baby, whom I already loved, did not exist? What had I done wrong to be struck with such a blow? Was it because I had lied to Alex and Eva? Was it because I was being selfish to want a baby to love?
The next day I presented myself to the doctor again. The sonogram had confirmed his diagnosis. My uterus was rapidly swelling because it was filling with fluid in reaction to the presence of this “mole,” which was, as he explained, possibly a fetus that had died and had never been expelled. He ordered an immediate and complete hysterectomy. In fact, he was free tomorrow. Yes, it most definitely needed to be done that soon. Who knows? It might already be cancer!
I was completely in a state of shock. I didn’t have health insurance. The nurse informed me that, to schedule the surgery, I had to give a payment of two thousand dollars up front, and make arrangements with the hospital to pay the rest later.
Well, I didn’t happen to have two thousand dollars in either my pocket or my bank account. In terror of dying right there on the spot, I mumbled that I was sure I’d be able to get the money from my family. I was desperate, but the nurse was firm. No money, no surgery. Never mind that I was supposed to be dying of cancer here!
At home, my mother and grandmother agreed that we would all just have to do the best we could and grandma would dip into her savings. After all, my life was at stake. It was too late to do anything that day, but we planned to go to the bank and then to the doctor’s office the next day to pay the deposit and schedule the surgery.
The universe had other plans for the next day.
I called Eva to tell her the news and explained that I was soon to have a hysterectomy and there would be no baby now or ever. She was completely aghast at this turn of events and not as willing to accept the diagnosis as I was. A second opinion was in order when one is contemplating such a serious, life changing move as a complete hysterectomy at the age of twenty-five.
As it happened, Eva had recently obtained her degree in nuclear medicine and was now working for the head of the nuclear medicine department at the medical school in Tampa. Her idea was that her boss should be the one to give this “second opinion”. She would make the arrangements and call me back.
It turned out that this doctor professor was quite gracious and willing to use all the up-to-date equipment of his department to verify that I’d received a correct diagnosis. At lunch time the next day he would handle everything himself – gratis.
The doctor spent several hours with me, taking a history, asking many questions, examining, and doing sonograms. In the end, he pronounced that with my history, something was definitely amiss, and it certainly did look as though it could be a hydatidiform mole. But he was not convinced the uterus was full of fluid. It looked like a semi-solid mass on the outside, something growing in the abdominal cavity in front of the uterus. He wanted colleagues to have a look and sent me right over to the teaching hospital to meet with this other professor and his entourage of star residents who were “doing rounds” at that very moment.
I drove to the hospital and, sure enough, I was expected. It seemed the cachet of Eva’s boss cast a long shadow. I met with 6 or 7 doctors and their professor. All the same questions I had already been asked were asked again, and dozens more. Then it was time for the exam.
Now, having a gynecological exam done by a single doctor with a nurse present is one thing. Having one done by a team is something else altogether. I was fighting to keep my emotions under control and humor seemed to be the best defense. As they took turns poking, prodding, pushing, and invading my private parts, I kept up a dialogue with them, answering their questions with dry one-liners that soon had them all laughing. Finally, it was over and the professor asked them: Well, what’s the verdict? All of them described their technical observations and the standard teachings of what those observations must suggest. Finally, one of them said: “I don’t think it’s that simple. What if she actually is pregnant?” And they all looked at each other.
“Only one way to find out,” the professor said. He described a new type of sonography that employed real time moving pictures. And only one doctor in the area had such an advanced piece of equipment in his office. In the same building as the doctor I had worked for! It gave me a very funny feeling to be there, and I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I lucked out and slipped in unnoticed.
Again, I was taken right in with no waiting. The exam was handled by the doctor himself rather than the tech. The nurses and technicians gathered around, aware of the details of the case. As soon as the wand was applied to my abdomen, moved and shifted around, suddenly, there on the monitor, in real time, real life pictures, was a baby.
And, what’s more, the baby was alive and well and had a beautiful, strong heart. Everyone in the room burst into cheers and applause. I cried tears of relief.
But, at the same time, based on the NEW age of development of the baby, given by accurate measurements of the sonogram, I knew it was not Alex’s… it was Alfredo’s. That solved one problem. It also made me aware of the bizarre synchronicity of two people, born on the same day, in the same hospital, coming together just long enough to conceive a child.
But there was still a problem: the rapidly growing semi-solid mass that was apparently somewhat frightening in terms of the rate of its expansion. I was sent back to the hospital and the team of doctors with the results of the sonogram in hand. They very much wanted to supervise the situation because it was, as they put it, such an interesting and challenging case.
This meant, of course, that I needed to be in Tampa to be close to the doctors and the hospital. Mother and Grandma didn’t want to leave the farm, but, as it happened, my brother was sent to a special school by the Navy, worried about his wife left alone during his duty assignment. The solution seemed obvious: his wife and baby would come to Tampa to live in the house. We could look after each other.
It promised to be an ideal situation.
I had to go to the hospital for a sonogram every week for two months for the medical team to monitor the growth of both the baby and the mass. At a certain point, it was decided that the mass had to be removed because it was expanding frighteningly fast. When the baby was mature enough to survive the surgery, it was scheduled.
The day before surgery, the bed across from me had been occupied by a young girl in great pain who began to stir and moan and cry out for relief. Since she was barely conscious, I pressed the call button and the nurse came to give her an injection. The nurse resented the summon to relieve this girl’s pain and muttered balefully about girls who “dance to the music” and then cry when they have to “pay the piper”. I wasn’t too sure what she was talking about.
A man came to visit this young girl. I had never seen a pimp up close before, but they’d been pointed out to me by a friend as we drove down a street in a certain neighborhood once. This guy was obviously a pimp. I now began to understand the attitude of the nurse who had been so uncaring earlier in the day. I overheard some muffled, disjointed and somewhat incoherent conversation between this girl and the man who came to visit her. He was very anxious for her to “get well and back to work” because she had “customers” asking for her. She, on the other hand, was just crying for relief and begging him to not expect her to do anything soon because she needed to rest. She began to cry in the pain again, and the man went to summon the nurse.
Again, there was an “attitude” from the nurse toward the girl, and most especially toward the man. She was not just rude to him, she actually snapped at him that it was men like him that put women in such conditions. He told her to “be cool, mama!” and she snarled back that he’d better not call her “mama” again or she would have security come and remove him. “I’m leaving anyway!” he said, throwing up his hands and laughing as he strolled out the door.
The next morning, the girl was gone. When I asked about her I was told she had died during the night. When I asked what in the world did she die from, the answer was that a gynecological infection had invaded her entire system and that was what happened to prostitutes.
What a terrible way to die. Surely, she was someone’s daughter, someone had loved her. Where were they when she died? Did they know she was sick? Did that horrible man who just wanted her to get well so she could make more money for him care at all about her suffering and dying alone in the care of nurses who looked on her with disdain?
I never forgot that poor girl and her suffering.
My own surgery was scheduled for early that morning. Despite the drugs given to me to relax me before I was taken to the operating room, I was wide awake and sitting up on the stretcher when the doctor arrived: a woman, the star surgical resident of the medical school. We joked a little about how I was so curious that I would really like to be able to watch what was going on and how unfortunate that I had to be asleep through the whole thing.
I was wheeled in, my arm strapped out to the side, and the drug administered. Slam! I was gone! The next thing I knew, I was being moved to a stretcher from the operating table feeling pretty much like I had been hit by a truck. The surgeon had removed a very large mass that had apparently begun as a blister on my left ovary and weighed over eight pounds.
My first child would be born almost six months to the day later, but the rest of my pregnancy would prove to be stressful and eventful.
My grandmother’s cancer had come back. The doctors advised admitting her for radiation and chemotherapy where she could be constantly monitored. This was a terrible ordeal for her and for all of us. Her hair fell out and her skin peeled in thick sheets as though she had been horribly burned. She lost weight and became so frail that a strong gust of wind would have knocked her over.
Mother saw no need to join us at the house in Tampa. She could drive to the cancer center a couple of times a week to keep tabs on the situation. We didn’t realize there was an agenda behind this decision, but it soon became apparent. Left alone at the farm, Mother welcomed her erstwhile husband back into the fold. She probably had financial motives when she did so, because he had, again, come knocking at the door with claims of great prosperity.
Meanwhile, my brother finished training school in the Navy, and his wife rejoined him. Shortly afterward, Grandma’s cancer was “in remission” and came home to the house in Tampa.
Mother planned to come back to look after us, but she’d slipped and fallen on the steps while carrying a tub of peaches and hurt her back. Her husband brought her to Tampa anyway, and I was left to take care of both my mother and my grandmother while waiting out the last days before the baby came.
Pregnancy was a dreadful ordeal for me in many ways, mostly due to my weakened back. The pressure on my lower spine produced all kinds of strange effects from day to day. Some days I was fine, and others I just couldn’t walk at all from the pain in my left leg. On several occasions, when I felt okay and was just walking along in a normal way, something would suddenly shift, and it wasn’t just pain that hit me, but a sudden nerve impulse that caused my leg to collapse completely. I would find myself without support at all, falling to the floor.
It was a terrible, hot spring. There was a drought that lasted for an unusually long time, and I was beyond miserable in the heat. We didn’t have air conditioning, and the humidity hit daily record levels. It was a struggle to keep Grandma comfortable and Mother was cranky with pain. I was in the bathtub a half a dozen times a day just to rinse off the sweat. I watched the sky anxiously for rain and knew, somehow, that if it rained, the baby would come too.
And so it was. Finally, a day full of lowering clouds and a freshening breeze. When the first cold drops began to fall, labor began. As we drove to the hospital, the wipers on the car couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with the sheets of rain.
Before I even made it to the hospital door, my first “real” pain hit me. There was a mailbox in front of the building just waiting for someone like me, in that condition, to grab on for dear life until the contraction passed. As soon as it was over, I looked around quickly to make sure no one had seen me in my moment of extremity, and then I casually walked in the door in my straw hat and rope sandals.
I was terrified.
Yes, I had read a dozen books on baby and child care during my pregnancy. I had read uplifting books and listened only to classical music the entire time. I watched my diet carefully, faithfully swallowed vitamins and ate extra vegetables to ensure the baby had the absolute best possible nutrition. But I had never managed to get anyone to explain to me exactly how this process called “labor” actually worked.
I had visited with friends who already had children, and, without exception, I had listened to stories of unparalleled delivery room horrors. No one, however, would divulge the “secret”. I was told knowingly that when it was time, it would happen.
The books I had read all talked about “pushing” and “bearing down”. Dilation of the cervix I understood. But there was something elusive in the execution of this matter. I was most curious to find out what it was.
An orderly helped me to a wheelchair and made his way toward the Ob-Gyn section of the hospital when the most god-awful, blood-curdling scream I have ever heard in my life issued forth from behind a set of double doors.
Not a good sign.
The orderly pushed a button on the wall and, as it happened, my doctor came to “receive” me at the gates of what seemed to be Hell. As he took over the wheelchair and pushed me through the doors, another horrifying moan built rapidly to an ear-splitting shriek and I said: “I don’t think I want to do this. I think I want to go home!”
“Sorry,” he told me. “Once you start, there’s no way out but to do it!”
“There’s gotta be a better way,” I suggested as another scream drowned out all other sound.
“I wish,” he said.
I was set up in a labor room to “wait until I had dilated”. Well, I had no idea how long that was going to be, and I thought I knew what a labor pain was. I didn’t. I was soon to find out, though.
The poor girl in the next room was really having a rough time of it. I had some idea of what “labor” was, but I certainly didn’t think it was sufficiently painful to cause me to lose my dignity and start screaming like that poor soul. She was blubbering and crying over and over. “I’ll never do it again! As God is my witness, I’ll never do it again! Oh, Mama! Mama! Help me, help me!”
When the nurse came to check on my progress, I had to ask her what was going on next door, and she just shook her head sadly. The girl was only thirteen and had been in labor since the day before. “They need to do something for her,” she said. Doctors and nurses were coming and going from that room where the screams never let up and one had to wonder just how much strength a human being had to withstand that kind of suffering.
The next thing I knew, the screaming had stopped and the girl was being pushed across the hall into what I later learned was a surgical delivery room. Whatever was happening was going very fast because they didn’t shut the door. I leaned up on my elbow to see what I could. People in green outfits gathered around a table and somebody was rolling up a sheet that was completely saturated with blood and tossing it onto the floor in a hurry. This person looked up briefly and saw me watching and quickly shut the door.
The girl lived, but her baby died. She had been left too long before the decision was made to do a Caesarean.
But what would a thirteen year old do with a baby?
When my own turn came to be moved into the delivery room, I nearly had a heart attack. What, in the name of God, was that contraption in the middle of the room? It looked like some sort of medieval torture device.
It was the delivery table.
Not only that, but I was suddenly in the grip of a new pain – and I had barely taken a break since the last one! Gads! This was getting intense!
“Get on the table!” I was ordered.
What do you mean “get on the table?” I can’t move here! I’m having a pain here, can’t you see? It’s impossible to move. My whole body is in a state of tetany and you want me to move?! Get real!
Somehow, I was moved onto the table, though I can promise that it was with very little assistance from me!
I was shocked speechless to feel leather straps being closed over my wrists and ankles! Dear God! What kind of thing is going to happen that requires that I be restrained like some kind of wild beast?!
“Uh, what are those for?” I asked in a panic.
“That’s so you won’t hurt yourself or the baby,” was the reply.
“Well, how about so I don’t kill the doctor by kicking his teeth in?” I thought.
The next pain hit like a speeding train and the nurse urged “PUSH!”
“What, precisely, do you mean by push,” I asked in the most normal conversational tone that could be managed through clenched teeth. “Exactly what muscles do you wish for me to employ?”
The startled nurse looked at me with surprise and answered: “you know, just like having a bowel movement.”
Oh. So that was the big secret. “Bizarro!” I thought.
Okay, here comes the next one! I’m gonna push!
And I did. Well, that is until I ran out of air and stopped pushing to catch my breath.
“What are you doing?!” the nurse demanded.
“I’m breathing!” I replied with some resentment that she couldn’t realize that the human organism did require oxygen to function.
“Don’t breathe! PUSH!” she shouted.
Oh. Okay. So it’s like that, is it? Well, you asked for it. When the next one comes, get ready.
And the next one came almost immediately. And I took a deep breath and did the deed.
There she was. I had a brief glimpse before they popped her into a little heated box on a cart and whisked her away. I was so excited I wanted to jump up and follow the person pushing the cart.
When that beautiful, utterly perfect little being was placed in my arms for the first time, I was so overcome with emotion that I could hardly believe that I could feel so much love and still be in the world. It seemed to me that such transcendence could only be experienced in the heavenly spheres. She looked at me and I looked at her and I told her: “Oh, Sugar baby! Mommy’s here. Mommy will take care of you.”
I meant it with all my soul. And with all my soul now, I wish I could have fulfilled that promise.
My baby was so beautiful with her curls and perfect nose, lips and face, that in a nursery that was occupied by thirty or more babies, when visitors gathered at the big glass window to look at the babies, it was my baby they all oohed and aahed over. She was constantly held in the arms or laps of the nurses because she was so beautiful they could not bear to put her down. It was my baby who, when the clerk came to take orders for the newborn photographs, said “Oh! You’re the mother of that absolutely gorgeous baby!”
She was. And is.
Not only that, but she was perfect in every imaginable way. She was never fussy, she was contented; she began to sleep through the night when she was about two months old, and the older she got, the more beautiful she became. People on the street or in stores would stop and stare at her with their mouths open. Little children would point to her and say “Mommy, look at that beautiful baby!” Neighbors and friends vied to give her gifts of beautiful clothes and adorable toys, obviously pleased to see her dressed up in an outfit they had chosen, or holding a toy they had given her.
And to my mind, everything she did was perfect.
But I was perfect when I was born, too. And God help me, what was done to me, I did to her. And now I can understand my own mother. The only difference between us is that I woke up from the dream. Mother never did. And whether my daughter will overcome it, only time will tell.