Bandages, post-trachelectomy, pre-bleed out ©Deborah Copaken

Ladyparts: A Story of Near Death

Deborah Copaken
Jun 27, 2018 · 14 min read

I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not metaphor. They are actual pieces. Plum-sized, beet-colored, with the consistency and sheen of chicken liver, three of them have shot out of me like shells from a canon.

I am bleeding out. But my brain, starved of blood and in shock at the sight of so much of it, cannot process this information. Instead, I’ve become convinced that the ordnance sliding around my bathroom floor are my internal organs, which I must rescue so someone can put them back inside me.

I then proceed to do what anyone in my position might do: I head straight to the kitchen to hunt for Tupperware. Not just any Tupperware. The glass kind. Heaven forbid my liver and kidney should come into contact with BPA’s. It does not occur to me, in my befuddled state, that had my internal organs actually fallen from my body, I would not be rummaging in my kitchen cabinet searching for a container to store them.

It is just after midnight, July 4th weekend, 2017. Pads and underwear have become useless against these pyrotechnics, so it’s just me and my bathrobe. Another palm-sized chunk erupts. Splat, on the kitchen floor. And the rocket’s red glare, indeed: Happy Independence Day to me! (Added bonus, I’m mid-divorce.) I scoop up the large mass and put it in the glass container with the others.

With the blobs now safely ensconced in carcinogen-free glass on the top shelf of my fridge — I’ve seen enough medical procedurals to know about the importance, when transporting human organs, of picnic coolers — I call the answering service for my surgeon, who three weeks earlier had removed my cervix. This post-op emergency, which I’m not yet prepared to call an emergency, is highly unusual. In fact, of all trachelectomies — that’s the clinical name for cervix removal — performed in the U.S., only a small percentage result in “vaginal cuff dehiscence”: the clinical name for uh oh, the stitches where they sewed up the top of your vaginal canal have come undone, and now you’re a blood clot howitzer.

I am approximately five hours, without medical intervention, from my own death.

At this point, however, I know none of this. Neither the number of hours I have left nor the technical name of what’s happening. I just know I’m exhausted and bleeding profusely. That I’m still deep in the weeds of recovering from major surgery. That I’d already gone to the emergency room near family court, after nearly passing out from pain while representing myself to maintain custody of my third and youngest child, but the hospital had sent me home, six days after surgery, saying everything looked fine.

I am loathe to cry wolf again. But my apartment looks like a crime scene. So I’m crying medium-sized dog, possibly rabid. Alas, no one from the hospital is calling me back, so I’m crying dog into the void anyway. I call the answering service again. I text them photos of the masses. Nada. I feel like medicine’s needy girlfriend, ghosted by the hospital. At least my current boyfriend, soon to be ex-boyfriend, has the decency to text me back whenever he’s with his other girlfriend. Not that I know about her either. Yet.

It has now magically jumped from midnight to 1:30 in the morning. Like a Truffaut film. Qu’est-ce que c’est, degueulasse? What is disgusting? I mean, for starters, the bathroom floor.

Part of me can’t help but wonder if all of these bloody missiles are, in fact, metaphor: the expulsion of decades of marital sludge. But while I am grateful for my escape from a toxic, lonely marriage, I’ve recently been as alone and as lonely as I’ve ever felt. My eldest has been living with his girlfriend in Bangkok, where he’s teaching English. My youngest is away at summer camp. My middle one has been in the Middle East, so I’ve been walking the dog and doing the dishes and taking out the trash and lugging laundry back and forth from the communal laundry room in the basement on my own.

None of these tasks, suffice it to say, are on the list of acceptable activities on the hospital handout they give you when they kick you out the next morning after surgery and tell you to rest. But having been recently downsized, I can’t afford the added cost of a home health aid. Or, frankly, food or shelter. Aside from the few freelance gigs I’ve been able to cobble together from bed, I now have zero income combined with an extra $2,314.20 a month in COBRA fees, which has always struck me as one of the more insulting cosmic ironies of losing a job in America: Bye! Have a nice life! Here’s zero months of severance plus an extra rent’s worth of healthcare costs.

Homemade 4th of July fireworks are going off in my northern Manhattan neighborhood, famous for launching both them and Lin-Manuel Miranda. A thought amid cacophony: my bleeding body — in all of its bursting red, turning white, and blue-lipped glory — is a more accurate representation of bootstrap-worshipping America than all of those fireworks exploding over on Dyckman Street. This is what you get when the Founding Mothers are forbidden a quill: a bloody handprint on a wall as a broken woman tries to pull herself up.

The rest of the night becomes fuzzy, as I slip in and out of consciousness, so I’ll just mention the scenes I do remember in the order I think they occurred. This is not me trying to sound post-modern. It’s just the jump-cut way in which I recall them, devoid of the normal transitions that streamline a narrative.

“Sweetie, I think something’s wrong.” I finally wake my sleeping daughter, feeling guilty about so doing. She’s just arrived home from Tel Aviv, after many layovers and no sleep. Birthright wasn’t around when I was her age, so my first trip to Israel was also my first assignment as a photojournalist, to cover the intifada. Rocks and CNN trucks. McLuhan was right. The medium is always the message. What are these blobs trying to transmit to me? “I might have to go to the hospital. But you stay here with Lucas and walk him in the morning.” Lucas is our dog. Like all dogs, he hates fireworks. To self-soothe, he’s been sitting on my face.

My daughter’s eyes widen. She is staring at the contents of my Tupperware container.

The crack of fireworks. Technicolor bursts outside the window. The dog barks. The world spins.

“Mom! Oh, my god! That’s not your kidney. If it were your kidney, you’d be dead.” She pokes it with her finger, un-squeamish. She’s pre-med, studying neuroscience. If I could go back in time, I think, watching her poke, I’d study medicine, too. The laws of chemistry elude me, but I’ve always liked biology. And doctors will always be needed. Journalists, too, I once thought.

“I think they’re giant blood clots,” says my daughter. “We have to get to the hospital. Now.”

“I’m so tired. And no one’s calling me back. Maybe we should wait until tomorrow.”

She notes the pools of blood on the bathroom floor. In my bed. Down the hallway. In the kitchen near the refrigerator. I did my best to clean up the mess until I ran out of paper towels. “Are you kidding me? Let’s go. I’m calling 911.”

“No! Absolutely not. We can’t afford it.” I’m currently living off the remains of my meager 401K, facing a huge tax penalty for its early withdrawal. I’ve read too many cautionary tales of surprise bills as high as $8000 for ambulance transport. I’m hemorrhaging enough already.

“Fine,” she says, “Call an Uber.”

I remain firm. “No. I’ll take the subway. And you’re not coming with me. You have to stay here with the dog.”

She doesn’t listen. I am being pulled outside by the arm.

Streetlamps. Darkness. I smell pot.

“No one says pot anymore,” says my daughter. “It’s weed. Call an Uber.” The numbers 1:43 AM atop the smiles of my three sun-kissed children on the face of my phone. I search for the white U inside the little black square, remembering that 143, according to Mr. Rogers, equals I love you. Funny how that stuff stays. I=1; love=4; you=3. It took me awhile to figure out the code.

“I love you,” I tell my daughter. UberPool is half the price of UberX, so I choose that. Your driver will be Faraj. How many other passengers could Faraj possibly have at 1:43 in the morning? None, as it will turn out. If I live, I can use the money I’ll save to replenish our supply of paper towels. And Faraj’s.

My daughter squeezes my hand. “I love you, too.”

More fireworks. It feels like we’re in a movie. I’d much rather be in bed.

My daughter to the driver: “Yes, it’s an emergency!”

Warm blood. Lots of it. Under me. On the seat of the Uber, down my legs, pooling in my shoes. An uber pool in an UberPool. I feel awful for the mess my body has unleashed. An apology to Faraj.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Just go. God bless.” Two decades earlier, when my water had broken all over the floor of a taxi, the driver had spoken those exact words. Don’t worry. Just go. God bless.

I empty my wallet of bills and try to hand them to Faraj. He won’t accept them. I try and fail again.

He brings his hand to his heart.

Salaam aleikum,” I say. Words learned in Ramallah, while living for a week with a Palestinian family on lockdown.

Alaikum salaam,” he says.

The 20-foot distance between car and emergency room seems as unbridgeable as it had after my water broke. My daughter offers me her shoulder to lean on as we exit. I am both grateful and ashamed. How, in the twenty years between soiled taxis, have our roles reversed?

[I have absolutely no memory of entering the hospital, but a trail of blood says I did.]

Emergency room receptionist, asking my daughter for my name. All of the words are outside me now. Other voices have taken over the task of speaking them. My name? It’s unretrievable.

My name! A brief snap back from the post-verbal abyss. My name: something that should be simple but isn’t. Because my divorce is taking longer than expected — nearly four years at this point — I’ve petitioned the court to revert to my birth name pre-divorce, only to be told by a desk clerk that I need my ex’s signed and notarized permission to do so.

“Permission?” I’d said. “That’s sexist.”

“No,” said the clerk, “Men have to do it, too.”

“You must be flooded with such cases.”

I had not wanted to change my name when I got married, so I didn’t. But then a postal clerk refused to give me the baby gift I’d come to pick up because my infant son’s last name did not match mine. In a pique of postpartum insanity, I’d scurried down to the Social Security Administration office that same afternoon to change it: an act as easy to rationalize as it was to effectuate. For the sake of bureaucratic convenience, I was trading one man’s surname for another’s. But reverting back to my original name, now that I’m getting divorced, is proving much more difficult.

“Give them Daddy’s last name!” I say to my daughter, one last gasp of cogency before everything goes dark. It has been over a month since I’d handed my ex the name change permission paperwork, on a bench between our two apartments. The exchange had felt tawdry, like a dime-bag drug deal. He has yet to get the papers notarized. I wonder if they’ll insist on using my married name on my death certificate, should it come to that. If nothing else, I must stay alive to avoid that.

The world tilts. My body falls, seemingly in slow motion. This is a thing, backed by science: a perception of time expanding and slowing down during a moment of trauma. Upon contact with the hospital floor, my rib breaks.

[The glass Tupperware container flies out of my hand, splattering on the ground, and drenches the sleeve of my daughter’s flannel shirt. I have no memory of this.]

Overhead lights. Green, fluorescent glow. Voices shouting. What’s happening?

“We have to move her to another stretcher. There’s too much blood.” How long have I been here?

Hands under me. A sleepover levitation: light as a feather, stiff as a board. Air underneath, then, boom, solid stretcher below. The antiseptic stench of the prior one being hosed down with bleach. I peek. Bad idea. A voice: “Get her into a room! Now!”

Darkness.

Irrational anger as the nurse uses scissors to cut off my green yoga pants, now soaked red. “No, please! They’re my favorites!” Too late. They’re in the trash. Relief at having a tangible object outside of myself onto which to misdirect my feelings.

Beeping.

The constant gush of liquid underneath me. Imagine a gallon milk carton turned on its side. Glug, glug, glug. How much blood does a body hold? Tiny droplets of sweat on my upper lip. I am salt. On its return to the sea. I can actually feel my body dying. My brain is less scared of this than I’d always assumed it would be. I feel more like an observer of my decay rather than its participant. I take comfort in this, in case I have a future in which that information might be useful.

Darkness. Beeping.

More enormous clots flying out. No. Not a thousand, my daughter corrects me. She’s been counting. We’re up to sixteen. Her voice: “Oh god, oh my god…” Then, into the hallway: “Someone please get in here! Now!” She’s five foot zero. Her voice sounds taller.

The eighteenth giant clot emerges. My daughter’s face, the one she puts on when she’s trying too hard to seem okay. I see your fake composure, young lady, and I raise you fake levity. “A chai!” I say. Chai is the Hebrew word for eighteen. But also for life. It’s one of the first things they teach you in Hebrew school. My daughter laughs. Victory.

Religious Jews don’t believe in cremation. They bury the body the next day. I’m not a religious Jew. I’m more of a bagel Jew. I want to remind my daughter to cremate my body and sprinkle the ashes into the Seine if I die, but now’s not the right time. Plus we’ve talked about this already. She knows my wishes. And I’ll be dead so what do I care if she actually carries them out? It was just a plan, to have one. Seems silly, now that it’s real.

Darkness. Beeping.

A nurse shoves hunks of gauze up me: “This is not going to stop it, but we have no other solution until the surgeon gets here.”

Pressure. So much mounting pressure from the gauze plugging up the hole where my viscera are trying to escape. Ow! Ow! Eject!

I leap off the bed to relieve the pressure. Voices are yelling at me to lie back down, but I can’t. The cork is already halfway out of the bottle. The blood-soaked gauze shoots across the room, where it lands with a splash in a bedpan held out by a nurse like a catcher’s mitt. “Score!” I shout, with a fist pump. Levity is all we have.

Darkness. Beeping.

My child’s voice, finally breaking, as she leaves the room and whispers into her phone. “Jen? Jen? Oh my god, Jen! It’s awful. When can you get here?” Jen is my sister, a choreographer who lives in the Bay Area. She is in New York this holiday weekend, unusually, for some R&R with her family but also to research footage from the original Fiddler on the Roof in the Lincoln Center archives.

A Fiddler ear worm: Is this the little girl I carried? Horror, once again, at the thought of putting my 20-year-old daughter through this ordeal. Simultaneous gratitude for her poise and ferocity. I gave birth to my own savior out of the canal trying to kill me. My brain bends in on itself, pondering this.

Daughter and mother, 1997; daughter and mother, post-emergency surgery, 2017

One time, when she was thirteen, she lied and said she was going to hang out with a friend. In truth, she met two friends, who’d shared an entire bottle of vodka and had called her in a panic. She got there just in time. Contacted both of their parents and an ambulance. Spoke to the paramedics. Saved two lives.

The girls’ parents were furious. At their daughters, sure, but also at the cost of the ambulance.

Lisa, my friend and literary agent, is now in the room. Cool. How did that happen? My daughter texted her, after having searched through my phone, via my thumbprint, looking for allies. Huh. That was clever. Lisa’s my rock. She hosted a 50th birthday lunch for me the previous year, against my protestations. Lots of talk about what to do with the dog. There’s an app on the phone. WAG? No, I don’t have it. Another problem I can’t solve.

Darkness. Beeping.

My sister has arrived. After Lisa, I think, but I’m not sure. The soothing chatter of three women at my feet. Beautiful women, all of whom look as if they come from the same shtetl. Even Lisa, who’s not related to us. I half expect them to break out into “Matchmaker.” I have a team! I’ve been alone all my life, in ways large and small. In marriage, most of all. A bad match, that’s all. Nobody’s fault but my own. No wonder Tevye’s daughters were singing. Matchless matches matter.

My team’s laughter masks worry. I hear its undertones. What time is it? What are we waiting for?

The surgeon’s flip flops. Tiny grains of sand. I’ve interrupted her beach vacation. “I’m so sorry,” I say.

“Don’t be,” she says. “It’s my job.” She’s faceless. My only memory is of her legs, moving around the stretcher, and of her voice, after she does the pelvic exam and gasps: “We need to get her into the OR now. I don’t care. Bump someone if you have to. Yes, now!”

Hallway lights rush by, a tracking shot. As does my life. Jump cuts within jump cuts, in no particular order: preschool apple juice; pumpkin patch; red Schwinn; blue eyes. Dad’s. Gone too soon.

“I wish my Dad were here,” I say. Out loud? Later, I’ll ask my sister: did I cry out for Dad?

“No, just your yoga pants.”

My shtetl, halted by a double door. Team Deb is not allowed to go through. “You’re going to be fine,” they say, unconvincingly, growing smaller.

Liars. They have to say that. Where’s the surgeon?

There she is. Masked. Now I’ll never know what she looks like. She’ll be forever embalmed in my memory as sandy toes.

An operating room. Frigid air. Overhead lights. Blinding circle above. Legs spread below. I was just here. Three weeks ago. Five incisions, as yet unhealed. Things become disambiguated now, like on my first acid trip, when money became work, and cops became human aggression, and doorknobs stood for the problem of egress. The circle above is obviously life. So are my spread legs below, which thrice produced life, but now expose the viscera trying to escape into the birth canal and kill me.

I’m watching this all from above, a bleeding body on a slab, arms spread, wrists bound. We are all Christ under the knife. The speculum goes in. L’chaim! Dear Science: I will not die for your sins. That cervix should have been removed years ago, when you took out my uterus. Back then you claimed it played a role in sexual pleasure. In the passive tense: “It is believed to play a role in sexual pleasure.” You told me to keep it in, when I could have told you — any woman could have — that the clitoris is the only game in that town. That a cervix, unmoored, has no role in a body other than wreaking havoc. This havoc. These masks. This clattering of metal scalpels.

Gas. A voice. “Count backwards from ten.” Ten. Nine. Eight…

Fade to black.

Jukebox the Ghost’s Tommy Siegel plays an “Answer Song” to this story on 6/21/18 in New York City. (The audio on the guitar is a bit funky, but the heart and soul of it are beautifully intact.)

Author’s note: On June 21st, 2018, I performed this story on the New York City stage as part of Ben Arthur’s “Answer Songs” series. It’s the first chapter of the new memoir I wrote, LADYPARTS, about life (and near death) after marital rupture. It will be published by Random House in 2021.

An earlier spoken version of this story, with a produced version of Siegel’s song, is now available on the SongWriter podcast.

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