Twenty years after the not-cancer, my mother died of cancer. Maybe that’s why when they tell me it’s a fibroid I’m so afraid.
When I think of my mother, of our life between one hospital bed and the next, I think of sitting beside her on the piano bench while she played and I sang. Sometimes it’s all I can remember of her, the two of us sitting hip to hip inside the music, in a place where my teenage temper was forgotten, where neither of us could do each other harm. For a teenager, I cared a lot about classical music, partly because my mother was a musician and it made me feel close to her. She saw and loved the parts of me that resembled her most, while the rest of me felt nearly invisible. So I learned to care about the music she loved, the books she read, like I was living inside her again. Itwas only in losing her that I was forced to venture out on my own, when I no longer had any choice.
They grew together, fetus and fibroid. They got in each other’s way. I imagined it like a tether ball, my child’s first toy. Then my baby surpassed it, pushing it up under my ribs to make space for her twining limbs. Its growth slackened, then stopped. At its peak it was the size of an apple, and toward the end of my pregnancy it protruded visibly, like an irregularly placed third breast. At each of my prenatal visits I asked about Fabio, though the answers were always the same. Mostly I wanted to know what would happen after the baby was born. I wanted a prescription for the future, but all the midwife could offer me were possibilities. Maybe it would shrink into nothing. Maybe it would twist on its stalk, causing me, as she put it, unbearable pain. Will I know what’s happening? I asked. You’ll know, she answered grimly. You’ll be dialing 911.
I was so nervous about it that she sent me to an OB for a second opinion, who then passed us off to a resident. I’d never met the doctor—never would—and listening to the resident’s bright, too-young voice I was suddenly cold with an anger I didn’t understand. When the resident asked me questions and reassured me that I’d be all right, I could barely force myself to meet her eyes. I felt my partner’s surprise and the doctor’s hesitation, but the whole time I thought about the pain.
It would happen, the midwife had explained, if the stalk that attached it to the outside of my uterus twisted, cutting off blood flow to the fibroid. The pain I would feel would be Fabio’s pain, starved of the nutrition my body provided. No need to worry, the doctor said, smiling uncertainly at my forehead as I glared into my lap. That would be very, very rare. But I felt she wasn’t taking the pain seriously. I didn’t want that pain to be possible at all. I rejected what it meant, that Fabio was part of me, that hurting one was the same as hurting us both.
By the time we left the clinic I wasn’t angry anymore. The emotion left me with no explanation, only tiredness. I slumped against the window as we drove home in silence, pressing the tips of my fingers over my belly, waiting for a sign that my baby was awake. I wished I could do the appointment over. This time I’d smile at the doctor, who was just doing her job. I’d believe her when she promised me that I would be fine. I’d tell her I wasn’t angry with her, I was angry with my body for betraying me and slipping back into my mother’s again.
When my baby lived inside me, I would imagine that despite the breathing exercises, despite the yoga, despite everything, I would have to have a C-section. I imagined that during the surgery, the doctor would see the fibroid and cut it off easily: Here we go, might as well get rid of that. No complications, no decisions. Gone in the time it would take to stitch me up. The threat of pain would disappear, my link with Fabio severed. But having a C-section was also my greatest fear. During those months I tried to only read about births that were gentle, where things went as planned. Like both my mother’s births, easy. I was out in half an hour. Her body was up to the task and had not failed her just yet. Mine felt like it was failing already.
When I gave birth to my daughter, the fibroid was left behind—it recoiled, disappeared into the obscurity of the pelvis. In those first months after the birth, Fabio kept quiet. I had more pressing things to worry about, and I assumed the midwife and the doctor had been right. On my last ultrasound, it had dwindled to half its former size. It might disappear entirely, the midwife said. Or it might stay where it is and you’ll forget it’s even there. But its stalk must be long, because it doesn’t stay put. At night it wanders.
About ten months into parenthood, I stopped nursing at night, and soon after, the dreams began. I dreamed there was a man standing beside my bed. I dreamed of a people who communicate through touch, and of a plague that they pass wordlessly from skin to skin. Along with the dreams, Fabio started moving. At night while I lay quiet, I felt a familiar nudge as it inched its way to the surface. Like my baby used to, it waited until I was still to wake up, to drift. My baby was by then a toddler who slept through the night, but I could hardly get any rest. I had changed rooms to be farther away from her; my partner was the one who got up in the early mornings when she called. I should have been enjoying some well-earned sleep, stretching out in the big bed alone, but instead I would dream and wake in fear.
In the mornings my family would arrive with toddler kisses and demands on my breasts; she fairly ripped off my shirt to get to them. As she drank I would tell my partner about everything I dreamed in the night, that I couldn’t find our child, she was being cared for by someone else. That a friend birthed her baby in my dream and died, her body cut open, her insides out. He listened, sometimes falling asleep, his head grazing my shoulder. In that warm morning bed the fibroid was quiet, and retelling my dreams seemed to drain the fear away. The sun shone in, my baby was in my arms, and soon enough we got up and went on with our day. This was our daily routine: nursing while telling him my dreams and then letting the blur of parenthood take over.
I could see myself growing into a version of my mother’s life, loving my baby with a version of her love, dying a version of her death.
The next night around 3:00 a.m. I’d wake again, staring into the dark. In my dreams, my mother had not left me; I could feel her reaching out to contain me again. Like the set of nesting dolls my daughter played with, each one smaller than the next, each mother a living tomb. In daylight I would watch her unpack them, heads and bodies scattered on the living room floor, then carefully put them away: the tiny baby, the big baby, the girl, and the mama, her painted smile like the cat who got the cream. I could see myself growing into a version of my mother’s life, loving my baby with a version of her love, dying a version of her death. And passing everything on.
My mother called the disease that killed her my cancer. My cancer, like it belonged to her; a pet—or, closer, an arm, an organ. Saying my baby is easy, it slides right off the tongue. My fibroid is harder. When I was pregnant I would mention it with a forced laugh, an eye roll, pointing it out so people wouldn’t ask. Both the fibroid and the placenta were part of my body, mine to control. I avoided taking ownership of my fibroid like my mother took ownership of hers, but I kept my placenta. I had it dried and powdered and poured into capsules, and I swallowed those capsules every day until they ran out. Sometimes I wonder, What’s the difference, anyway? Both were made of my flesh, both a keepsake of my maternity, but one terrified me, while the other one I welcomed back inside.
As I watch my daughter grow, I’m trying to piece together a new form of belonging, different from the one I learned as a child. I don’t have it all figured out. Mostly I stay alert for the differences between us, as well as the things we share. I listen to the rhythms between us as we take turns needing space, needing to be close. I remind myself she has her own life ahead, her own body to grow into. But some nights when I hold her before bed, singing our song while she hums in my ear, I feel the urge to hold her all night, to keep for myself. I can understand, now, how it must have been for my mother. I, too, am afraid to let my baby go.
I dream that my daughter goes missing in a movie theater. When I find her, she’s covered in chocolate and smells like popcorn butter. I hug her and want to eat her alive. This time when I wake up, my heart doesn’t race. My belly feels quiet and I rest a palm there, waiting for Fabio to rise to the surface again. Like the doctor promised, the fibroid, living its invisible life somewhere inside, has not hurt me. And I have not hurt it.
Every time I wake up in the darkness, I remind myself not to live inside my mother any longer. Not to be the little wooden doll with the littler wooden doll tucked inside. It takes practice, but Fabio is there to remind me. If I want to be a different kind of mother to my baby, I need to be a different mother to myself, the kind who loves and still knows how to let go. My mother is made of ash and my daughter and I are flesh, separate, perfect, together. The fibroid belongs to me, but the baby doesn’t. She is free.