Rae Henry grew up in a small town in Maryland and now lives in Atlanta with her pet snake, Theseus. She fell in love with storytelling at a young age and hasn’t stopped creating her own fictional worlds since. Rae hopes to one day publish her novels that explore not just magic and science, but analyses of the world we live in today and the idea that everyone’s story involves something worth telling.
It’s hot and hard to breathe. I’m wading through a body of black water, choking on crimson smoke. Ahead of me, onshore, my mother swings her hands in the air, screaming something I can’t make out. She points at the water just as seaweed tangles around my knees. I can’t move. The sky is fire. I begin to burn.
At some point, everyone learns the same lesson about life: it isn’t fair, and it doesn’t care what you want. That moment could come to a recently motherless child; to a woman battling her own fragmented brain; or to an old man sick with regret, inhaling for the last time. We’re all eaten whole by it eventually. For me, that lesson began to take root when I was seventeen, the morning I woke up from a nightmare.
It was strange to have such a high pain tolerance growing up. Ignoring discomfort turned my senses into a muddled, cloudy mess. I could spend three days under the crushing weight of my head aching, but only take medication for it when it evolved into a migraine. I still do that. Perhaps this gives insight as to why I smothered any reaction toward the sensation of singeing coals in my abdomen, a hot poker stirring them up. That night, when I gave up on falling back to sleep, it settled in me that something was wrong.
Dislodging myself from my snarled sheets was an endeavor. I managed to get my body into a sitting position and waddled my way out of my bedroom, down the creaky stairs, across the spotless kitchen. Maybe it was the dream, or instinct, but I went to my mother. I hadn’t sought her comfort over something like that in a decade, but the moment I opened her door, it was as if she felt my off-ness. She wrenched herself out of bed before I said a single word.
It only took one appointment with my doctor to recognize the glaring problem in my body. After an ultrasound and a round of uncomfortable prodding, I was led into a lavish sitting room by a soft-spoken nurse and directed into a mahogany chair with velvet cushions. There was a desk to my side, a twin chair in front of me, and tinny jazz music trickling from overhead speakers. The office embodied a peculiar atmosphere of apprehension. By the time my doctor entered, I was drowning in it.
“Well,” she said, her face carefully blank, “the scans show a mass on your left ovary.” I didn’t feel much of anything, only a tingling in my throat as I swallowed the news. The doctor crossed her legs and told me we wouldn’t know if it was benign or not until it came out. Out, meaning surgery. Pronto. She graced me with a professional smile that was probably meant to be pleasant and spoke about possible dates for the operation. I nodded along. This is fine, I told myself.
Even when my surgeon explained exactly what numbers made up my chances of having cancer, I tried not to mind. The operation came and went. Recovery sucked, but when the tests for the mass came back clear, I was relieved. It was worth it. No more pain or weird symptoms. The kids at my lunch table at school buzzed over how cool it was that I got cut open. I told them I didn’t like the hospital socks they gave me, the little buds on the bottom like suction cups sticking to the stark vinyl floors. That was less cool to them. I shifted in my seat, my uniform skirt digging into my stomach the wrong way, causing the puckered scars there to ache. This is fine.
Two years later, I was dealing with acute nausea every day, fatigued to the point of passing out after simple walks to class, and sweating for hours while stagnant. I wasn’t upset when they found the next mass on my other ovary. I was numb. Okay, I thought as my surgeon chattered on about the best time to operate. I’ve done this before, it’ll be fine. Leading up to that surgery, I had to be careful. No working out, no straining myself, and lots of bedrest, because on the off chance that the tumor burst, I’d bleed internally. What an absolute joy. That operation and recovery period came and went the same as the first. I still hated the hospital socks and begged my nurse to not wear them, to which she responded, “You’ve got to deal with having sticky feet, Sweetie.”
After, I had to juggle school work on top of not being able to stand up on my own, but I held it together, even when my surgeon told me, “We need to acknowledge that this might keep happening to you. Considering the rate at which this one grew, and with how things are going… Try to stay as healthy as you can in the meantime.” I nodded along and followed through with what she suggested. I was still me, but with more scars, and that was okay.
The third time, everything became very, very real. I was as healthy as I could be, but that didn’t matter. The coals were back. I ignored them. My anxiety went from an annoying side-character to a sack of bricks I carried on my shoulders everywhere I went. Buried memories slithered their way to the surface of my mind. I started having flashbacks of bright lights and being unable to swallow past something overwhelmingly bitter in my dry mouth. The thought of hospitals made my eyes sting and the back of my throat grow wet. One day, while I was in the middle of a yoga session, my vision left me and I collapsed. As I laid on the floor waiting for a semblance of strength to return to me, I chewed over what I already knew to be the truth—I had another one. I gathered the courage to look in the mirror and saw my stomach was distended and hard, as if I was a few weeks into my second trimester of a pregnancy. I imagined a pulsing alien fetus sitting in there, soft tendrils wrapping around my organs and draining the life from them, leaving them gray and shriveled.
After my surgeon confirmed the news, she told me she didn’t understand what was wrong with my body. She folded her nimble fingers together and told me three is a pattern. “This is unheard of.” Yes, I know. “At this point, we don’t have a name for whatever is happening to you.” Yes, I know. “Statistically, the chances of cancer…” I let her words fade, my thoughts slipping into a different space. It wasn’t until I got home that my panic attack started. That day, I allowed myself to ask the question I knew would probably drive me to a breaking point if I focused too much on it: Why is this happening to me?
That surgery was different. I let myself dread what was coming, and no, that didn’t make it worse than the other times—it was always bad. For those who don’t know what a major surgery is like, let me tell you how mine went: The hospital was freezing. My nurse gave me a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She supervised me rubbing myself down with the exciting new disinfectant wipes. I stood there waiting for the substance to dry. It felt like glue, and my bare feet stuck to the floor as I shifted. My sandpaper blankets grated my skin raw. They wheeled my bed down hallways to the operating room. I kept my eyes on the ceiling tiles and thought of anything but reality. Frank Herbert’s Dune came to mind. I silently recited the Litany Against Fear. People lifted me without a care for where I fell, like I was a sack of meat. A nurse dropped my limbs as if they stung. Grabbed them, did it all over again, and strapped them into place on the operating table. I didn’t have time to care about the twinge in my hip because gloved hands pulled my neck taught, angling my chin up for the oxygen mask. Large, bobbing lights blinded me. Someone tapped my wrist, my left arm flooded with something chilly, and my blinks became heavy. I thought, Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I was told to count backward from fifteen. At seven, I dissolved.
These moments in my life have left me scrambled. I’ve forced myself to be okay with them otherwise I would be a wreck. Here is the reality: I was bothered at every moment of this journey, even before my first surgery. I was bothered when I realized I had never been coping well, and I am bothered now. It turns out I’m a master of kicking my own feelings to the ground and stomping on them until they’re bent and lifeless in the mud. I wasn’t fine—I was juggling so much that I ran out of hands and my brain had to shut down for safety purposes. Eventually everything came crashing down on me.
I’ve been living my life in a topsy-turvy limbo, thoughts of bloated bellies and new scars lurking behind my shaky smiles. I’m stuck in the in-between. I don’t allow myself to ponder because it is too much, but not mulling over everything makes me quick to emotions. I snap from zero to one hundred. Every day, I wake up thinking about next time. I am unsure of my future. I wonder if I did something incorrigible in a past life, and this is karma’s kiss on my cheek.
People tell me, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” then turn around and go about their day. That makes sense because there’s nothing they can do to help me. Yet whenever I experience it, I’m angry. Why do I feel the need to blame others though they have no power over my ailments, just as I have no power over theirs? Who am I really angry at, and why can’t I let myself be?
I’ve come to understand when people offer me a gentle touch or kind words, it feels like proof I’ve been ruined, that I am indeed not okay. These are facts, of course, but my days are easier spent not acknowledging what’s wrong. I debate myself about being allowed to wallow in self-pity on occasion. I mean, I’m not even dying, currently. In the end, I’m frustrated with my own body. No matter what, I can’t make it succeed in being normal. There are people whose meat suits work perfectly fine, but mine doesn’t, and I can’t change that. I can shake my fists at the sky all I want, scream until thunder roars back at me. But when everything crumbles, I’m left with the shadowy awareness that I’m simply along for the ride my body takes, however long that lasts. As therapy has taught me—this is how it is, this is how it will be.
Still, I have a fickle relationship with true acceptance. Last week, when my new doctor found another tumor growing inside me, I left my appointment and went right into a date with my dear friend, Existentialism. Since then, days have seemed shorter. I feel as if I’m running and I can’t keep up. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be tired. But I keep going, even when my brain feels like it can’t handle any more thoughts, or when something terrible—that doesn’t really exist—feels like it’s hanging just on the horizon. I pack dirt onto the sheaths of my nerves and settle into unpleasant normalcy. Sometimes I’ll spill and stain the carpet, throwing around morbid jokes about the lawless sickness rummaging through me until discomfort settles on others’ faces. They don’t like the ease in which I speak regarding this lesson I’m learning about life. Perhaps that’s on me.
In my experience with mystery conditions and uncertainties, I could play at being a philosopher and make claims about life vague enough that they’re neither true nor false, but I don’t want to be dishonest. That’s boring. And I’m not that dramatic. So, when I can’t take not knowing anymore, I carry on. That’s all I can do.