We’re missing a bag of specimens.
That’s what my doctor’s colleague told me when I woke up the day after the surgical excision of my endometriosis. Apparently they also discovered that my appendix had been pulled into my pelvis, so while they were there they removed my appendix as well. And now it was…missing? Was it still in me somewhere?
We do not know. Probably not.
We believe it was thrown away accidentally, but the bag won’t show up on X-rays or CT, so the only way to know for sure is to open yourself up again.
Open me up again? You would think I reacted with anger at the need for a second surgery, fear of potential complications, or general shock at their neglect.
As they were taking me back to the operating room for the second time in 24 hours, the anesthesiologist told me that I was officially a “VIP”.
But when the surgeon perched on the edge of my bed and asked me to sign more consent forms, the only thing I remember saying to him was, “That’s the kind of thing that happens in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’.” Then I withdrew. my phone to change my flight and text my husband saying we would need a babysitter for a few more days. As they were taking me back to the operating room for the second time in 24 hours, the anesthesiologist told me that I was officially a “VIP”. I heard Nora Ephron whisper, “Everything is copy.”
And it was a good story, made even better when I woke up recovering and was informed that the plastic bag with my appendix had indeed been found inside of me. It rested on your intestines; where we left it. How could I be crazy? The hospital’s checks and balances had worked enough for them to realize their mistake. And, until now, I had no complications. Not to mention the fact that they gave me the kind of story that will forever make me a good dinner guest, which my high school drama teacher assured us was really the point of the education (and life).
This story has animated my conversations for the past four weeks. In fact, the only person this didn’t amuse was someone who recently had an appendectomy and was worried about where their own appendix was. It’s hard for some people to embody what my mother used to call a “go with the flow” attitude about internal body parts, even those that aren’t biologically necessary.
It hasn’t always been easy for me either. When I was a child, when plans changed, I threw tantrums or refused to participate. As I got older, I took control at every opportunity, determined to create the “flow” I wanted in all areas of my life. I was an eight-year-old with a closet meticulously organized by color. Every Sunday night in college, I would call one of my best friends to make plans for the following weekend. In high school and college, I divided each assignment into smaller, scheduled deadlines. After graduation, I taught seventh grade and reveled in the ordered universe of my classroom with its weekly lesson plans, class routines, and homework keys.
For 25 years, I believed that I could plan my life backwards the way teachers plan teaching. I have applied this method personally and professionally. If I wanted to get married, we had to get engaged. Before that, we needed a place to live. If we were to move in together, we had to save money. If we needed to save money, we both needed to find jobs. And what would my job look like? I wanted him to look like someone who lives from his writing. If I wanted to make a living as a writer, I decided I had to get my MFA. To get my MFA, I had to apply to graduate programs. To apply to the schools, I needed to do some research. At the time, my thinking was the reverse of “If you give a mouse a cookie.” I knew everything I wanted after the cookie, so I obsessively prepared to make sure those things would happen.
I finally became the kind of child my mother always wanted me to be. The irony is that she is no longer there to see it.
Now my approach to life is more bird by bird.“ I’ve become the kind of person who expects there’s always a bag of metaphorical specimens somewhere, and I can take care of it. I finally became the kind of child my mother always wanted me to be. The irony is that she is no longer there to see it. Now, as a mum myself, I understand this irony is a common theme of parenting – you rarely reap the rewards of the seeds you try to sow.
After college, I moved back in with my mom millennial-style to save money for the aforementioned house I planned to buy and the graduate school I wanted to attend. In the morning, I drank my coffee perched on the edge of her tub, chatting with her while she got dressed for work. Even after moving, I still came by most mornings for our ritual. But one morning in November, exactly a month after my 25th birthday, I never got where I belonged. She was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed and her face crushed. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She had had an early morning ultrasound to check for gallstones. They didn’t find them. Instead, they found a large lump in his liver.
A week later, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts. The five-year survival rate was only 2%. When my brother told me he had googled the question I couldn’t bear to ask, my first thought was that my mom wouldn’t be here when I turned 30. Suddenly the thought of making plans became heartbreaking. To support my mother for her remaining time, I had to learn to stop living by a checklist. I had to be there for the hours we spent sitting next to each other in waiting rooms, baking chocolate chip cookies from her oncologist’s office, and venturing out of the house to get us nails done when his blood count was high enough.
She passed away in December 2018, two years after her diagnosis and four months after the birth of my daughter. Between grieving my mother and the logistical challenges of being a new mother, I found myself living in survival mode, responding to my unexpected meltdowns at inconvenient places like Target, and cleaning up terribly timed poop explosions. Somehow the time passed even though I had made no plans on how I would spend it.
By the time I gave birth to my son on March 27, 2020, as COVID lockdowns spread across the world, I was already an expert at taking things day by day, which, in hindsight, probably made isolation with a newborn, 19 months and a husband trying to work from home manageable. We cradled our son and fed our daughter and ran load after load of dishes until a year passed and no one still held my son but me and my husband. And despite the ungodly amount of endurance it took, my family found a way to be happy. While everyone lamented their canceled plans, I focused on the daily moments we could control – the mornings looking for worms in the garden, the afternoons sipping coffee on the couch, the nights making pizza and watching my daughter watch her first movies. COVID has become the ultimate test of what it means to be flexible.
So of course, I didn’t panic in the hospital. My missing appendix was just spilled milk that day, and my mother’s cancer and a global pandemic had taught me to take life as it comes – missing organ by organ.
personal essays on grief and loss: