A Little Stranger
By Kate Haas
I had just finished mediating a Lego dispute when the nurse called with the results of my ultrasound. Not that kind of ultrasound. This was the sort you get for persistent gastric pain, the kind your doctor orders to make sure your gallbladder is okay. The sort of thing that makes you wonder if you’re contributing to the high cost of healthcare by getting some fancy-pants test that will likely show nothing at all.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that my gallbladder was healthily doing whatever it is gallbladders do. My pain was probably an ulcer that could be fixed with medication. But, added the nurse, her tone subtly changing, there was also an incidental finding, something they just happened to spot. “There’s a mass on your lower left quadrant,” she told me.
Simon, my nine-year-old, burst into the kitchen brandishing a Lego ship studded with weapons. His little brother followed, roaring in outrage. “Give that back to him right now!” I hissed to Simon, my hand over the receiver. “And then go to your room, both of you. And close the door.”
“Sorry,” I said to the nurse. “A mass? What does that mean?”
Anyone who has ever read Death Be Not Proud or watched the Lifetime channel knows damn well what a mass means. At that moment, I didn’t want to be someone who had done either of those things, not ever. I wanted to forget the teenager I used to be, the one who devoured not only the wrenching account of Johnny Gunther’s fatal brain tumor but also books like Eric, A Summer to Die, and May I Cross Your Golden River? Even though, to be honest, I still read books like that. These days they tend to be about dying spouses or young children instead of teens, and I find them just as morbidly compelling. There but for fortune, I think, turning each page to the inevitable, devastating end.
Those books generally contain a scene in which someone receives the Phone Call of Doom. Could it actually be that I was getting that phone call?
It was hard to tell if the nurse was trying to be evasive or honestly didn’t have any information. “You know, it could be a cyst, but I really can’t say,” she told me. “Your doctor will probably want to order a CT scan.”
My doctor agreed. “It’s likely what we call a ‘chocolate’ cyst on your ovary,” she told me the next day. “Happens all the time. Do about it? You don’t do anything about them; they’re weird-looking, but perfectly benign. We’ll send you for the CT, because there’s always the chance—but I really doubt it. And I don’t want you to worry.”
Dr. Roberts was fifty-ish, brisk and sensible, the mother of a teenager. I trusted her. I liked the enthusiasm with which she launched into explanations of obscure medical phenomena. A benign chocolate cyst didn’t sound bad. I pictured a lumpy object the color of Valrhona Dark Bittersweet 71%. I told her I wouldn’t worry.
And I didn’t, not until the Friday afternoon after my CT scan, when I received another phone call. This time the nurse informed me that what I had on my ovary was not a cyst, but a tumor. “Your doctor will be calling you on Monday,” she said, kindly.
My stay-at-home friends and I have always enjoyed mocking the peppy advice in old-fashioned marriage manuals: Clean the house, slip into a pair of heels, apply fresh lipstick before your husband returns at night! Still, I recognize that it’s difficult to transition from work to fatherhood. No matter how reprehensibly the kids have behaved, I mostly restrain myself from unloading the day’s frustrations while the poor guy is still putting away his bike. I knew it would be a bad idea to hit a tired, sweaty man with the word “tumor” as he walked in the kitchen door.
I did it anyway. My husband and I have been together fifteen years; all he had to do was look at my face. “What’s wrong?” he asked quickly.
I couldn’t quite keep the wobble out of my voice. “I have a tumor on my ovary.”
For the briefest few seconds, his face fell. “That doesn’t sound good.” Then the boys rushed in, each competing to register his presence in the loudest possible fashion. The enchiladas were ready to serve anyway. This would wait. A surprising number of things can wait, it turns out, when you have children.
After supper I sat with my husband on the front porch. The kids were playing Robber with their friends from down the street, a game involving high-speed, round-the-block bike chases and a lot of yelling. My husband took my hand. “If it was serious, they wouldn’t have you wait all weekend,” he said. “You’re going to be fine. Really, you are.”
It did not escape me that all this was happening during the Yamim Noraim, the ten Days of Awe between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of introspection and repentance. This is the period when, according to traditional belief, God decides who will be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. I’m not sure what I believe about God, exactly, and have always considered the Book of Life simply a metaphor for the unknown future, a way of making sense out of the arbitrary nature of who lives or dies. This year the whole thing felt a little less metaphorical.
That weekend we made French toast for breakfast and took the kids to the video store to choose their weekly movie. I doled out the maple syrup, helped evaluate the merits of Howl’s Moving Castle vs. The Court Jester. But there was a pressure at the edges of things, as if small, heavy objects—like the nuts and bolts I use as pie weights—were pressing on the borders of my consciousness. I avoided the computer, afraid I might be tempted to google “ovary + tumor.”
When Dr. Roberts finally called on Monday afternoon she was indignant. “They told you you had a tumor? Well, technically, sure. But my goodness! And you’ve been terrified all weekend, haven’t you? Bless your heart.” I let out a breath. This was obviously not the Phone Call of Doom. “What you have on your ovary is called a teratoma,” Dr. Roberts continued. Before I could say Sounds like melanoma! she added, “and these things are benign.”
When I was ten, I fell off my bicycle and broke a wrist. When the cast came off six weeks later, I had become so accustomed to its extra heft that my naked arm felt untethered and almost weightless, as if it might drift upward unless pressed firmly against my side. Now, with the word “benign,” I was experiencing a similarly buoyant sensation, this one seeming to encompass my entire body. I clutched the phone for ballast and closed my eyes in relief.
“A teratoma?” I tried out the word. “And what is that, exactly?”
A teratoma, as it turns out, is an egg that has decided to grow on its own. “Now, this isn’t an embryo or a fetus, since it was never fertilized. But teratomas do grow genetic material—skin cells, hair,” Dr. Roberts explained. “Yours has a tooth,” she added helpfully.
“There’s a tooth on my ovary?” I repeated. It sounded appalling, but I wanted to laugh. For days I’d been envisioning two narratives: one that I’d experienced vicariously through all those sad, sad books; or another, in which I re-entered my mundane life, more appreciative, for a time, of its very ordinariness, though that would doubtless fade as Lego disputes and meal planning took precedence again. Now, in my state of giddy relief, the existence of a third possibility—albeit one including an ovarian tooth—struck me as delightfully goofy. “How did this happen?” I asked.
Dr. Roberts couldn’t tell me that. “But eggs are powerful little things,” she said. “They’re programmed to grow, and that’s what they want to do.” My particular teratoma had grown to five centimeters, she informed me, and would need to be removed by laparoscopic surgery in case it ruptured. After that, I’d be absolutely fine.
A renegade egg, not a death sentence. “Well. Gosh,” I said at last. “That’s … actually, it’s kind of fascinating.”
“I’m so glad you feel that way,” enthused Dr. Roberts. “Of course, we doctors find them fascinating. But to be honest, not everyone else does.”
This didn’t surprise me. The word teratoma comes from the Greek for “monster tumor,” I learned later that night at the computer. Linguistically speaking, there was a monster inside me. And since no sperm was involved, this could, I supposed, be considered a girl monster, of a sort. I thought about the egg it had grown from, that powerful little force. It had been inside me since before I was born, waiting its turn to slide down my fallopian tube and take a chance on becoming a baby. Instead, it had become a monster. A girl monster. With a tooth.
It was the tooth that freaked people out the most.
“Get out!” gasped one friend.
“Is it, like, a baby tooth? Or full grown?” asked another, gingerly.
“Please don’t tell me any more,” begged my sister, Megan.
“Oh, put away your smelling salts,” I told her, crossly. “And not a word of this to Mom. You know what she’d say.”
There was a pause. “She wouldn’t.”
“Oh, yes, she would.”
Megan giggled. “Why, Kate,” she said, in pitch-perfect imitation of our mother—a woman whose name belongs in the dictionary under grandchildren, agitating for more of—”Don’t you see? This is nature’s way of telling you to have another baby!”
“I mean it,” I warned her. “Not a word.”
“I’ll be as silent as the tomb,” Megan assured me. “Or should I say, the tooth?”
The tooth didn’t disturb me. It was the egg I couldn’t stop thinking about. Except during the four months it took to conceive each of my sons, I had never really considered those tiny orbs of genetic potential that slid out of me every month. The first one made its exit on the trip home from a family vacation on Cape Cod in 1978, a month after my thirteenth birthday. My mother wanted to break out the champagne that night; embarrassed, I wouldn’t let her. After that, it was the agonizing cramps, not the unnoticed eggs, that occupied me every month and had me doubled over with a heating pad, waiting for the Midol to take effect. In college, after I started having sex, I faithfully studied the relevant chapters in Our Bodies, Ourselves. I knew exactly when my period was due, recognized the signs of ovulation. Years later, seeking to become pregnant, I applied the same information to that process. I felt a quiet pride in understanding the rhythms of my body so well. After my husband’s vasectomy, however, my awareness of these matters evaporated. Suddenly, my period caught me by surprise each month, and I no longer noticed signs of fertility. Ruefully, I realized that the hyper-consciousness I used to possess had little to do with me as a groovy earth mama and everything to do with the now-vanished fear of pregnancy.
And yet, no matter my level of awareness, those eggs had been there, all along. The two that became my children, the hundreds more that were flushed away. And this one, the monster egg, that evaded both those fates and lit out for the territory. How, I wondered, could this have happened without any sign or symptom?
That was the other thing I couldn’t forget. This was an incidental finding. In the online teratoma forums (oh, yes), I learned that most women experience pain, often longstanding and severe. They know something is amiss. Yet I had felt nothing. How could part of my body attempt—even unsuccessfully—to grow a human being, get as far as skin cells, hair, and a tooth, without me being aware that something was happening? What else didn’t I know? The whole thing made me profoundly uneasy. I felt like one of those parents you read about whose teenager’s drug addiction comes as a complete surprise. Shouldn’t we sense these things?
In the end, it was other people who put the experience in perspective for me. My sister took to calling the teratoma “Terry” or “The Little Stranger” and inquiring solicitously after its well-being. “How’s the monster?” my friends asked when they saw me. “Still got your toothy pal?” There was a collective relief that what could have been a very different story had turned out to be harmlessly bizarre, something we could laugh about.
“I found out what’s going on with my ovary,” I announced when my husband came home on the day of my diagnosis.
“Let me guess: You’re pregnant,” he joked.
I grinned. “In a way.”
His face assumed the alarmed expression of a man who has never questioned the efficacy of his vasectomy.
When I explained, my husband did not say, See? I told you everything would be fine. He did not express deep relief. Or maybe he did. What he said was, “Cool! Can I have it to keep in a jar?”
“Absolutely,” I told him.
I would slip back into my life’s familiar narrative after all. I would be there to watch my children grow. Unseen inside us, cells would grow, too, and divide, regenerate and die. And sometimes, maybe, ordinary life would take a benign turn toward the odd. What’s benign isn’t always normal, but then, we don’t always face those two familiar poles: normal or deadly. Sometimes, between hope and dread, a third possibility emerges, something that—for a time—turns an ordinary narrative into something more complicated, something profoundly strange.
Author’s Note: To her lasting credit, my surgeon did not crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow when I half-jokingly mentioned that my husband wanted the teratoma to keep in a jar. (Some context: He’s a biologist. They like things in jars.) She explained that by the time Pathology was through with it, there wouldn’t be much left to see. But after the surgery, she presented me with a set of color pictures. They won’t be going in the family album anytime soon.
Brain, Child (Summer 2010)
About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is www.katehaas.com.
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