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

Ladyparts: A Story of Near Death

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, four of them have shot out of my vagina like shells from a canon.

Altogether eighteen of these projectiles will erupt from my body. “A chai,” I apparently joked, after the last one shot out, although I have only a vague memory of this. For now, there are only four, I’m still conscious, it’s just after midnight, and my 20-year-old middle child, Sasha, the only other human in the apartment — added bonus, I’m mid-divorce — is fast asleep after having arrived home only a few hours earlier from her Birthright trip to Israel.

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 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 even 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.

With the masses 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 fancy name for cervix removal — performed in the U.S., only 0.24% result in “vaginal cuff dehiscence,” which is the fancy name for “holy Jesus fuck, the stitches where they sewed up the top of your vaginal canal have come undone, and now you’re a blood clot howitzer.”

At this point, however, I know none of this. I just know I’m exhausted and bleeding profusely. That I’m still deep in the weeds of recovering from major surgery. That I’m in no mood for further dissections of my ladyparts. That the super-sized pads I’ve been wearing are about as useful during this exorcism as paper towels during a tsunami. That I’d already gone to the emergency room near family court, six days after surgery, when I nearly passed out from pain in the courtroom where I was representing myself to maintain primary custody of my third and youngest child, but the hospital had sent me home, after having checked only the six incisions on my torso, saying everything looked fine. That I am loathe to cry wolf again. That my bathroom looks like a crime scene. That I will never have sex again. That no one from the hospital is calling me back. That it would be bad form to wake up a child who has slept only four hours over the past forty-eight and who’s starting her summer internship the following day. That it’s now 1:30 in the morning. That though I’m grateful for my escape from a toxic, lonely marriage, I am as alone as I’ve ever felt. That part of me can’t help but wonder if all of these bloody chunks shooting out of me are, in fact, metaphor: the expulsion of decades of marital sludge. That with my older son teaching English in Bangkok, and my younger son away at camp, and my boyfriend of six months not up for the task of caretaker (“Hospitals aren’t my thing”), I’ve been walking the dog and doing the dishes and lifting the trash and sorting the laundry and fighting a custody battle on my own. That none of these tasks are on the list of acceptable activities on the hospital handout they give you when they kick you out the next morning after surgery. That though my COBRA premiums are a whopping $2,314.20 a month — added bonus number two, I’m recently out of a job — they do not cover the cost of a home healthcare aid. That homemade 4th of July fireworks are going off in my neighborhood, Inwood, famous for launching both them and Lin-Manuel Miranda. That emergency rooms are often jam-packed on holiday weekends featuring celebrations that result in immolations. That ambulances are expensive. That my retirement savings, prematurely drawn down, are dwindling. That I’m concerned this new medical wrinkle will render my children and me homeless. That had I stayed in Paris, where I was based as a war photographer in my twenties, I would have already called an ambulance by now. That Lucas, my dog, is shaking profusely from the explosions and squatting, for comfort, on my face. That I don’t want to leave him alone. That two more pieces of myself just shot out of me like so many Roman candles.

And the rocket’s red glare, indeed! Happy Independence Day to me. A thought amidst the gore: my hemorrhaging body — in all of its bursting red, turning white, and blue-faced glory — is a far more accurate representation of bootstrap-worshipping America than all of those fireworks exploding over on Dyckman Street. This is what you get, I think, when the Founding Mothers are forbidden a quill: a bloody handprint on a wall, 241 years later, 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 in which I think they occurred. This is not me trying to sound post-modern. It’s just the jump-cut way I recall them, devoid of the normal transitions that streamline a narrative. Think Maya Deren, only real.

“Sweetie, I think something’s wrong.” I finally wake my sleeping daughter, feeling wretched about it. “I might have to go to the hospital. But you stay here with Lucas and walk him in the morning.”

Sasha’s widened eyes, staring at the contents of my Tupperware container.

The crack of fireworks. The world spinning.

“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 would 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, but my profession has been imploding under the strain of free content, social media, and lost advertising for years, and right now we’re at the breaking point. In a few months, the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of #MeToo will uncover the abuse and harassment every woman in my industry has always known to be true but dared not speak out loud, for fear of job loss and retribution. In fact, had I not been sexually harassed out of my beloved column at the Observer — a monthly first-person accounting of the humorous indignities of middle-aged womanhood — I’d probably be taking notes on this bloodletting right now.

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

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

Pools of blood on the bathroom floor. In my bed. Down the hallway. In the kitchen near the Tupperware shelf and refrigerator. What’s happening?

Sasha, assessing: “Are you kidding me? Let’s go. I’m coming with you.”

I remain firm. “No, you have to stay here with the dog!”

She doesn’t listen. I am being pulled outside.

Streetlamps. Darkness. I smell pot.

“Nobody says pot anymore,” says Sasha. “It’s weed.” That’s it. My turn on this planet is over. The numbers 1:43 AM atop the smiles of my three sun-kissed children on the face of my phone. Uber pool. I actually order Uber pool to go to the emergency room.

More fireworks.

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

Warm blood. Under me. On the seat of the Uber, down my legs, in my shoes. An apology to the driver. “Don’t worry. Just go. God bless.” Two decades earlier, when my water had broken in a taxi, the driver had spoken those exact words. Don’t worry. Just go. God bless. The 20-foot distance between car and emergency room seems as unbridgeable as it had for that birth. 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 I’m told I did.]

Emergency room receptionist, asking Sasha for my name. All of the words are outside me now. Others have taken over the task of speaking them. My name?

My name! A brief snap back from the post-verbal abyss. My name: something that should be so simple but isn’t. Because my DIY divorce is taking longer than I’d 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-husband’s signed and notarized permission to do so.

“Give them Daddy’s last name!” I say, one last gasp of cogent strength before everything goes dark. It had 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, not unlike a dime-bag drug deal in which the drug was my name and the price was my dignity. He had yet to get them 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.

Darkness.

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

Overhead lights. Florescent green glow. Scared 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 and sadness as the nurse removes my green yoga pants, now soaked red. “No, please! Don’t throw them out! They’re my favorites!” Too late. They’re in the trash. Relief at having a tangible object outside of myself on which to misdirect my feelings.

Darkness. Beeping.

The constant gush of liquid underneath me. How much blood does a body hold? Tiny droplets of sweat on my upper lip. A warm trickle of tears down my cheeks. I am salt. On its return to the sea. I can actually feel my body dying. My brain’s less scared of this than I’d always assumed it would be. I take comfort in this, in case brain and body have a future.

Darkness. Beeping.

More clots flying out. A thousand more. No. Not a thousand, says my daughter. 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!”

Darkness. Beeping.

The eighteenth clot emerges. My daughter’s face, the one she puts on when she’s trying too hard not to be afraid. I see your fake composure, young lady, and I raise you fake levity. “A chai!” I say. She laughs. Success.

Darkness. Beeping.

A nurse shoves massive hunks of gauze up me: “This is not going to stop it, but we have no other solution until the surgeon gets here.” I am trying hard to remain literal — I have a concave body part, it’s bleeding — but my brain keeps dipping into the figurative delusion of rape by cotton. I say this out loud. I don’t mean to, but I do. It gets a laugh. As if it’s open mic night in triage and I’m testing out new material. Take my vagina. Please!

Darkness. Beeping.

Pressure. So much mounting pressure. Ow! Ow! Eject! Eject!

I stand up to relieve the pressure. Voices are yelling at me to lie back down. The blood-soaked gauze shoots halfway across the room, where it lands with a splash in a bedpan held out 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 but is unusually in New York this holiday weekend 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 aptitude. 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

Lisa, my literary agent and friend, is now in the room. Cool. How did she get here? My daughter texted her. Oh. That’s smart. Lisa’s my rock. She hosted a 50th birthday lunch for me the previous year, against my self-pitying 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.

Jen has arrived. After Lisa, I think, but I can’t be sure. The soothing chatter of women at my feet. Beautiful women, all three of whom look as if they come from the same shtetl. Even Lisa, who’s not related to us. I have a team. My team: daughter, sister, friend. I’ve been alone all my life, in ways large and small. Now, not. Relief! I have a team! Their laughter masks worry. I hear its undertones. What time is it? What are we waiting for?

The surgeon’s flip flops. I’ve interrupted her beach vacation, oh, god. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “Don’t be,” she says. “It’s my job.” My only memory is of her legs, moving around my stretcher.

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. They closed fast. Four months exactly, from diagnosis to death. He was 67. Pancreatic cancer. Atheism has many parents.

“I wish Dad were here,” I say. Out loud? Maybe not. I’ll ask Jen if she remembers.

[Jen says she doesn’t remember. But I said a lot of weird things that night, so maybe. “What things?” I ask. “Crazy things. Like, you were upset about them throwing away your yoga pants.”]

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

Liars, all of them.

An operating room. Frigid air. Overhead lights. Blinding circle above, symbol of life. Legs spread below, symbol of life #2. I wonder what it looks like, dying? Things become disembodied now, like on my first acid trip, when money became work, and cops became human aggression, and doorknobs stood for the problem of egress. I’m watching myself 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, and you know it. 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.” Hahahahaha! You urged 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, 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’m writing, LADYPARTS, about life (and near death) after marital rupture.