If Thy Uterus Offend Thee

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Stella Fosse

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If Thy Uterus Offend Thee…

According to author Deborah Copaken, Nora Ephron had three rules for middle aged happiness: “Gather friends and feed them, laugh in the face of calamity, and cut out all the things––people, jobs, body parts––that no longer serve you.”

And by body parts, Ephron meant one in particular: “The only thing a uterus is good for after a certain point is causing pain and killing you.”

Amen, sister.

Have you reached that point yet? Has your uterus, which formerly gave you that crazy impossible gift of creating an actual human being, turned on you at last? Visited upon you the entire catastrophe: endometriosis, fibroids, polyps, yearlong menstruation, and maybe even cancer? Mine did.

I reached that point in 2015. We’re coming up on eight years since I had my uterus (and one remaining ovary) yanked out. But that happy event was preceded by ten years of minor surgeries to pull growths that kept springing back like pink weeds. “You don’t need a hysterectomy,” a gynecologist assured me. “Statistics show that in our sixties, polyps stop growing back.”

“Clearly my polyps haven’t read your statistics,” I said.

My mother had a hysterectomy because of a prolapsed uterus. Her mother had a hysterectomy because of cancer. My birth daughter is watching her back. My adopted daughter gives thanks every day that she’s from a different lane in the gene pool.

If you’ve had a hysterectomy, that story may be as dear to you as birth stories are to young mothers. Hatching one’s uterus is, in a sense, the final birth story in a woman’s life. And like all birth stories, it is a heroine’s journey.

First comes the fight to get a doctor to agree to the surgery. This stage has the valiant quality of all insurance-driven battles, where one woman faces down an entire bureaucracy. In my case the coup de grace came when I happened to tell my gynecologist that my identical twin sons had been misdiagnosed as a single baby and induced two months early. Turns out this doctor was an identical twin. Suddenly I was fully human to her. “When should we schedule your surgery?” was the next thing she said.

Then there is the surgery itself. Mine was an epic journey that turned out to involve untwisting a hidden ovarian tumor from neighboring organs. After hours of oblivion I swam up from anesthesia to the sound of three nurses gossiping near my bed.

“People always think I’m ten years younger than I am,” one of them bragged to the others.

“Yeah, I get that all the time,” I chimed in, as if I were part of the conversation. I don’t have much of a filter anyway; plus I was full of painkillers.

The three of them stared, perplexed, at my disheveled post-op self.

“Oh, give me a break,” I said. “How would you look if you’d just had your gonads ripped out by the roots?”

“Well, at least you’re amusing,” one of them said.

A brief six weeks later I was back in the office full time. My friend Mona, who at thirty was my daughter’s age, took me to lunch and wanted the lowdown. I told her the surgery had run four hours because my guts were tangled in unusual ways. And because I’d been under so long, it was a couple of weeks before I could follow a conversation. Friends would sit on my couch and chat with each other, and it sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher in the old Christmas special (Mwah-mwah-mwah). Plus I had no stamina.

“So how did you do things like laundry?” she asked.

“Well…” I said, “I had just started dating the most marvelous man. Every few days he came by and did my laundry. He even folded my socks.”

Mona’s jaw dropped. When she regained composure, she said, “That is so nice! And at your age, I’m sure relationships are all about companionship.”

Yeah, that “companionship” line. It means: You’re too old to screw. It means: I don’t even want to think about a woman my mother’s age getting it on.

Oh, girl, I could tell you stories… Fortunately I was done with painkillers and kept my mouth shut. This was a work lunch and I didn’t want to get fired.

Mona had no idea I was part of a monthly reading series called Dirty Old Women, a group of older women who wrote sexy stories and read them onstage. I got involved after reading an article by a middle-aged romance writer who advised her sister writers to create characters in their twenties if they wanted to get published. Although I was a tech writer who had never written a sexy story, that article ticked me off so much, I swore I would write tales of sexy sixty-year-olds. Then my friend Lynx Canon told me she had started the Dirty Old Women reading event, and off I went.

So when Mona mentioned “companionship,” I decided to write about its polar opposite, the cutting edge of desire. I know what it is to be with lover when a few sutures at the top of your vagina are all that keep your intestines from falling out, and your bliss is against medical advice.

I could not tell Mona about it, but I wrote the story and read it to an audience that included women her age: women who need to know that our sexual lives continue even when our health makes us vulnerable, and that bliss is our birthright throughout our lives. Eventually that story made its way into Aphrodite’s Pen: The Power of Writing Erotica after Midlife. 

There is something incredibly healthy and familiar about what is hidden and mysterious within the ordinary daily life of breakfast, lunch and dinner; the hysterectomy piece, who we are in our bodies in this life, in this neighborhood of scars and desires.

–Rene Johns (one of the Dirty Old Women), commenting on “The Scotsman’s Birthday,” a story from Aphrodite’s Pen: The Power of Writing Erotica after Midlife

In Spoon River Anthology, a favorite poetry collection from a century ago, is a poem about a woman who kills herself after a hysterectomy. “Only the shadow of a woman after the surgeon’s knife…” she says. A sad tale, and you might think it outmoded. But recently I’ve seen memes about abortion that say, “If you don’t have a uterus, STFU.” To the women who write these and pass them around, I want to say, someday you may have your own hysterectomy story. And the right to a hysterectomy when you need it may seem just as important to you then as the right to abortion.

My mother was for many years a delivery room nurse. She grew up conversant with the Bible. So when a gynecologist paraphrased “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” to replace “eye” with Nora Ephron’s least favorite body part, Mom got the joke. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, gynecologists were eager for women to have hysterectomies. Mom had her surgery one December and went Christmas shopping on the way home. That was her hysterectomy story.

What is yours?

One Response

  1. Love your blog. I’m finishing up my 7th decade this year and am happy seeing vibrant wild women talking!

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