Back in July of 1975, when I was just ten, a nurse carted me into the operating room of West Jersey Hospital. My parents walked along at my gurney’s side, my dad, holding my hand. At the O.R. door, the gurney stopped, my parents kissed me, and I looked at them and said, “Don’t worry. God is going to take care of me.”
In May of 2009, a nurse rolled me into the operating room at Kettering Medical Center in southwest Ohio for my eighth surgery and the removal of my fourth organ. My faith, scarred as my abdomen by then, was no longer blind or simple but hard as a dog’s big rawhide bone. When it fell, it clattered as it hit the floor. It was also vulnerable, capable of being devoured in one sitting, if I let it, by the sharp teeth and strong jaws of pain. And it wasn’t the kind of faith you cuddled up with.
It’s fairly easy to talk about losing body parts. I’ve received phone calls from friends and emails from readers I don’t know who find themselves in my uncomfortable shoes:
I have an ovarian cyst. Didn’t you get an ovary removed because of this? I’m going crazy here. Can you help me?
I’m having all kinds of trouble after having had my gall bladder removed last year. I heard you had trouble, too . . .
And I answer them.
Some, too, have contacted me because they endure unimaginable pain, the kind of long and deep suffering I had no idea existed when I was just ten. The kind that digs into their bones, their backs, their bellies. And that, too, I have talked about.
But there is one area that, until now, I found to be unspeakable. I knew I wasn’t alone, that other women endured what I was experiencing. But write about it? That just seemed wrong. On many levels.
Level One: I’d embarrass my family and/or myself.
Level Two: I just shouldn’t talk about that. Some things should remain private.
Level Three: If my readers know that, they’ll focus only on that and not on my work. (Maybe that’s not a category of “wrong” but rather a category of “ego.” But still.)
So I wrote about enduring pain, about making sense of suffering. I was vivid in my descriptions and clear about the temptations intractable pain brings, like overdosing on medications from well-meaning doctors. When pain stabs, shoots, tears, claws, shocks, and yes, feels like “fifty pins embedded” in flesh, who can stand it?
Yet, I avoided describing all my medical conditions for a variety of reasons. One, I didn’t want readers getting distracted by terminology and two, the most important thing was never what went wrong in my body but how, and why, I endured it.
After I’d published poems about my experiences, however, there was still a voice, sounding an awful lot like Elizabeth Bishop, that kept saying, “Write it!”
And “Prayer Shawl” was born. “Confession,” a poem I’d written several years ago, was the only poem that came close to naming the body parts that hurt, the incredibly feminine nature of my pain. But that poem was cloaked in biblical narrative, the hemorrhaging woman whose labia throbbed.
How to say vagina in a poem. Or vulva. With the possessive pronoun my.
But there it is in “Prayer Shawl,” a poem wrapped in the story of others, dear friends, who have likewise suffered, felt the temptation to throw in the towel, experienced the unrelenting grief of permanent loss. Yet endure.
And my poem is wrapped in the story of my marriage, a husband who has also endured pain and anxiety and the threat of premature death. How terrifying to live through such experiences together in our early forties. This wasn’t the way our story was supposed to go.
And how agonizing to realize that the love we shared, and yes, the making of that love, could not heal me. That I experienced such tremendous pain off and on for six years stood to threaten the very fabric of our marriage. What’s a love story without good sex, after all?
Except that sex isn’t the only way spouses can express love. Except that love can transcend even suffering. Except that prayer to a God who hung himself on a cross, while nails, no less, simultaneously punctured his tender flesh, really has sustained me.
This is my story, pain and love on multiple levels, a story that, as I’ve lived it, has often struck me dumb.
Julie L. Moore's poem "Prayer Shawl" appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.