After my first surgery but before my second, I sit with my dead grandmothers and my dead aunt at the county park under the picnic pavilion. The sun is going down, and a breeze blows in from the north and ripples the polluted lake water in front of us.
The lake is vast and there is an asphalt walking trail around its shores, and a dock, oaks, views.
We sit formally on the edge of the benches of the brown picnic table, feet pressed to the ground, spines straight, hands in our laps. How people would sit among strangers, which in most ways we are, having not seen each other for a decade or decades in some cases.
My dead grandmothers are wearing day dresses in ornate floral prints. My dead aunt is also wearing a dress though hers is a solid color with puffed sleeves and neckline detailing.
I know about the styles of their dresses because I looked up on the internet what women like my dead grandmothers or my dead aunt wore when leaving the house in the 1950s or 1970s respectively.
They are the age they were when they died: sixty-one, fifty-eight, fifty-nine. They are also barefoot. I don’t know what happened to their shoes.
Surely they were buried or, in my aunt’s case, cremated while wearing shoes.
One of the differences between my three dead relatives and me is that they are not wearing shoes. Another difference is they are translucent, meaning if I look through them I can see the complicated surface of the lake. Translucent ghosts are somewhat of a cliché; I wish they weren’t. They are wearing dresses. I am not wearing a dress. Another difference is they’re dead and I am not dead.
Perhaps it would be more interesting to focus on our similarities.
None of us have our uteruses anymore.
None of us have our ovaries, fallopian tubes or cervixes.
Lately I have been around a lot of women who still possess their fertility, their quickened metabolisms, their natural estrogen, their vaginal lubrication and their eggs. I am tired of being around such women.
Three of us, my dead grandma Stella, my dead aunt Mary and myself, share the pathogenic variant c.4035delA of the BRCA1 gene. This variant, the cause of their gynecological cancers, killed them. If I follow none of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s management recommendations for what is known as Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome, chances are I will get cancer, and perhaps that cancer will also kill me.
My dead grandmother Helen, on my mother’s side, does not share this variant; she had unlucky ovaries.
Though one might argue we are all unlucky.
One might also argue that my three dead relatives are unlucky while I, with my fancy-pants DNA testing and prophylactic surgeries, am lucky and haunted.
So here we are, lucky, unlucky, haunted, all of us in menopause, me a few months in, they for decades.
If dead women are still in menopause.
‘Yes we are still indeed in menopause,’ clarifies my dead grandma Stella, baring her teeth, which appear for a moment to be sharpened.
I thank them for coming, comparing one’s family to a compass.
‘Like I had a choice,’ says my dead grandma Stella.
‘Like you had other things to do,’ says my dead aunt Mary.
My dead grandma Helen questions whether this conversation need happen at this particular part of the day when the sun is going down and the dark arriving. Why not chat at sunrise or the following high noon?
‘To avoid the inevitable clichés,’ she advises.
I don’t think she would have used a phrase like the inevitable clichés when she was alive.
My dead grandma Stella laughs and says not to worry. She says, motioning to me, ‘This is already one big cliché.’ The gilded child with a destiny summoning forth, from a place of guilt, privilege and safety, her ghostly ancestors, to ask for counsel and closure –
But she is wrong about my motivation.
‘I’m not a child,’ I insist.
Unless my lack of reproductive organs has made me childlike.
Though even little girls have uteruses.
I want to discuss what my dead relatives and I have in common.
When I lift my shirt, scars ring my abdomen like little pink hyphens.
‘Oh they removed much more than that in my debulking!’ chuckles my dead grandma Helen, who, in addition to losing her ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and uterus, also lost parts of her colon, and small intestine, and the layer of fatty tissue known as the omentum that once wrapped around her abdominal organs. She lifts her dress.
Her scar, much larger than mine, rises vertically from her pubic bones up around her navel.
‘My first surgery felt like I was in the hospital and I was never going home. My second surgery felt like doctors cut a hole in my trachea, inserted a plastic endotracheal tube and connected me to a ventilator,’ she says.
After my grandma’s second surgery, she couldn’t talk. Instead of talking, she wrote on a pad of paper. She wrote, a shot for pain. She wrote, I WANT. Seven weeks later she died from acute gastrointestinal bleeding due to or as a consequence of erosive gastritis due to or as a consequence of cancer of the ovaries with other significant conditions of liver and pulmonary failure.
My own doctors should not cut a hole in my throat for my second surgery, she assures me.
‘My God, Helen, pull your dress down already!’ chides my dead grandma Stella.
I unpack the hot-water carafe and the cups and saucers and metal infusers from the willow picnic basket I brought from home and brew four cups of a honey-bush peppermint blend.
‘The funny thing is,’ I say, ‘for so many years, I wanted to die. Depression and so on. But you were the ones who died. Then here I am, trying very hard not to die!’
‘That’s not really funny,’ says my dead grandmother Stella.
My dead relatives sip their tea.
I can only get little glimpses of them, like they’re in the corner of the camera frame, flashing in and out of the frame.
I have been wondering what will happen to my breasts when, a week from today, they are removed from my body.
Do breasts get incinerated? Or thrown into the garbage? Or into a burial pit, or compost bin –
I would rather my breasts not be reduced to garbage and ash.
Perhaps, after the pathology tests, they’ll allow me take the tissue home.
‘Do you think the doctors will ask me if I want to take my breast tissue home?’ I ask.
My dead aunt says, ‘No. I don’t think they’ll ask you that.’
I tell them, ‘After my first surgery, my left leg went numb. My gynecological oncologist surgeon said yes, that does happen. Things are so close together down there, she said. Sometimes the nerve will come back or sometimes not. I miss feeling the upper part of my leg.’
A man in a wooden boat rows away from the shore. He is rowing west toward another shore. Above him the sky balances between darkness and light. This isn’t the type of lake one would swim in due to the industrial pollution, particularly the heavy metals. But the water in such light – in such darkness? – looks golden or honeyed as the sun flashes light as it –
My dead grandmother Stella interrupts. ‘Please do not say that we are watching the sun sink below the horizon. Do not say the sun disappears in a wash of color. Do not talk about the sun’s serious reflection in the water or the fading sun’s light in the clouds. Please, do not mention the sun again today. We’ve had more than enough melodrama for one day.’
Okay, I will not mention the sun.
The light is fading anyway.
‘I always thought horror stories were supposed to be scary,’ I say.
I motion to them. ‘Ghosts and so on.’
‘Oh, honey. We’re not what you should be afraid of.’
The weeks and months of their collective suffering condense around us causing the air to glisten, and for a little while it becomes hard to see the lake.
‘This is the last Tuesday that I’ll have breasts,’ I tell my dead grandmothers and my dead aunt.
Again during sunset we are sitting at the picnic pavilion, the one with the vast lake views that is popular for weddings in the warmer months.
I had intended to arrive earlier in the day when the sun was in the center of the sky and radiating its life-giving yet destructive energy but my son had refused to do his chores, and my daughter disappeared from the house in a flood of prepubescent hormones.
I had to find my daughter and convince my son to put away his clothes.
Hence the lateness of my arrival.
My dead relatives have been waiting for me.
My dead aunt Mary says that she spent the time frightening the ducks.
They are wearing more casual dresses today, what my mom calls house dresses, even my dead aunt who is of a different generation.
House dresses generally weren’t worn outside, to, say, a park.
There must be different rules when one is dead.
To identify the patterns of their dresses, I googled 1950s common house dresses patterns fabrics: polka dots and fun checkered prints.
The water hits the rocks along the shore.
The water hits the rocks along the shore again.
On the way to the picnic pavilion I had stopped at an independent coffee shop to purchase four medium steamed milks flavored with vanilla syrup and topped with grated nutmeg, which I now set onto the weathered picnic table. Beside the cups I place Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer.
‘Another one?’ sighs my dead aunt Mary.
I have read many cancer books this year: The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness; The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer; Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions; Confronting Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Identify Your Risk, Understand Your Options, Change Your Destiny; and The Breast Reconstruction Guidebook: Issues and Answers from Research to Recovery. This most recent memoir, the memoir of a debulked woman, is the first to focus solely on ovarian cancer.
‘The cancer that killed you,’ I add knowingly, nodding toward my dead grandma Helen and my dead aunt Mary.
My grandma Stella died of uterine cancer, my guess is uterine papillary serous carcinoma, a particularly aggressive and deadly type more common in BRCA1 mutation carriers.
My dead aunt Mary asks why am I so interested all of a sudden in them and their cancers. ‘Is it because you don’t have your ovaries anymore? And you think women who don’t have their ovaries are automatically connected?’
I haven’t yet mentioned that I am writing an essay about them.
Or, rather, an essay about me, and they are in the essay.
Their role in this essay is to illuminate me and my year of surgeries.
It is a narcissistic essay but it has been a narcissistic year.
I explain, ‘When author Susan Gubar was told she had advanced ovarian cancer and would likely die, she felt “a moment of extraordinary calm . . . a spontaneous and weird sense of liberation.” How did you feel when you found out that you had cancer and that you were dying? Were you calm or extraordinarily calm?’
My dead grandma Helen sips from her insulated cup.
She crosses her legs above the knee and gazes across the lake, where the sun is descending toward the trees on the far shore. The lake water moves; this has always been a windy place.
She says, ‘Oh my, you are prying.’
I had planned on taking notes so I write down what my dead grandmother said. I write down, You are prying.
In addition to how it feels to die of cancer, I am also trying to understand treatments for ovarian cancer and how those treatments felt.
Again, Susan Gubar: ‘Current remedies do not cure the disease.Instead, they debilitate the person dealing with it until she barely recognizes her mind, spirit, or body as her own. Enduring ovarian cancer mires patients in treatments more patently hideous than the symptoms originally produced by the disease.’
I ask my dead relatives, ‘Is that also how you felt? How much did your treatments hurt?’
My dead aunt Mary says, ‘I was fifty-one at the time of my first diagnosis.’ That is all she says.
These dead women are not giving me much to work with.
I write down what my dead aunt said, word for word, wanting to be accurate.
‘Also,’ I say, ‘Gubar writes, “It is hard to find happily-ever-after stories about ovarian cancer; it is hard to read stories without happily-ever-after endings.” Do you agree with that statement?’
‘Are you going to quote us the entire book?’ asks my dead grandma Stella. She tugs at the front of her dress lowering the hem, an efficient and modest motion using both her hands.
It is a gesture that a woman in a home movie I found on YouTube does with her hands.
In the evenings I have been watching old home movies on YouTube, other people’s, backyard cookouts, birthday celebrations, women walking in and out of kitchens, holidays, dancing, to get specific ideas for character movement in this essay. Otherwise my dead grandmothers are just sitting there beside the picnic table and my dead aunt is just sitting there, out of focus, hazy.
‘I don’t think legally I’m allowed to quote the entire book,’ I say. ‘Still, I recommend you read it. There are some very lyrical and moving sections. For instance, after the author’s formal diagnosis, she writes about telling her daughters, “I will love you beyond my death. I will love you from another space that you will palpably feel, and feel to be me loving you.” Did you tell anyone that or do you want to tell me that now?’
My dead aunt Mary laughs. Not because anything is funny but because that is the only gesture of hers I can remember.
She stops laughing.
She used to own a sailboat. Once a year, she would invite my family to sail on her boat around Lake Michigan.
I try to remember how she moved around the deck of the boat but I can’t remember.
I told my mom I remember my aunt Mary dressed in beiges and whites and she said no, no, your aunt wore black, although she decorated her house in neutrals.
I return to YouTube and watch, again, the home movies of strangers.
A woman from California stands in the sun beside a black car and brushes her hair using long efficient strokes.
My dead aunt Mary in the setting sun beside the polluted lake brushes her hair – I think it is her real hair – in the same fashion. She doesn’t mind the mimicry.
‘Oh, I mind, dear,’ she says.
She wore a wig to my wedding.
One’s real hair must return when one becomes a ghost.
My dead aunt Mary puts the brush away. ‘I know – let’s play a game!’ she exclaims. The game is called What Does This Granddaughter (Or Niece) Want From Us.
‘Some kind of wisdom?’
‘Or direct quotes?’
‘Or a spell book?’
‘Or a looking glass?’
The game ends when the sun sets.
The sun sets.
Later in the evening, my mom sends me some photographs of my dead relatives. The photographs were taken at different people’s weddings, my mother’s, my older sister’s. In some of these pictures my dead relatives are younger than me. In others, they are around my age, and in these later pictures, their cancer must have already begun inside of them, a single damaged cell or a small group of damaged cells that no one is going to pay any attention to for years. My impulse is to describe the infancy of their cancers as a form of visible light gathered around their abdomens, something otherworldly and destructive smeared across the fronts of their dresses.
‘This is the last Wednesday I’ll have breasts,’ I tell my dead relatives.
‘Oh my God, are we going to do this every day?’ asks my dead grandma Stella, rolling her eyes, her hair swept up in wide unmoving curls.
Once again we are sitting at the picnic pavilion beside the lake in the setting light of the sun, although today my dead grandmothers and my dead aunt are dressed for a wedding. Their outfits are from the photos my mom texted me the previous night.
My dead grandmothers are wearing their shiny mother-of-the-bride dresses, white corsages pinned above their hearts, above their breasts.
My dead aunt is in a scoop-neck sweater-dress and hoop earrings, what she wore to my sister’s first wedding, glitter in her hair.
For a while they pose contentedly on the sheltered concrete slab, smiling and flickering.
My dead grandma Helen raises her hand into what’s left of the day’s light and shows us how the light shines through her hand. My mom said maybe later she could find some pictures of my dead relatives not taken at a wedding. I didn’t feel like bringing refreshments to the picnic pavilion today.
That morning I had spent attempting to track down medical records for my dead grandmothers beginning with my dead grandma Stella, thinking such primary documents would help them appear more real to me and less flickering.
I spent most of that time on hold, pressing 1 or pressing 2.
In addition to my grandma Stella herself being dead, her husband is dead, her siblings are dead, and her two daughters (including my aunt Mary) are dead. Her doctor is also dead.
Eventually I learned my dead grandmother’s medical records had been destroyed, more specifically they were burned, shredded, pulped or pulverized. This feels like an enormous and physical loss to me.
My dead grandma Stella offers sarcastic applause. ‘I do love a wild goose chase,’ she snickers.
I have noticed my dead relatives are sounding like me or at least a part of me, the part of me in frequent disagreement with myself and annoyed with my tendency toward dramatics and histrionics, the eager inner critic –
‘And whose fault is that, dear? Whose sloppy characterization and imaginative shortcomings are we really talking about?’
I propose a different question: what if one of them were kind?
The kind relative could smooth my hair and tell me everything is going to be all right.
‘She thinks everything is going to be all right!’ cackles my dead grandma Helen. The others join in, laughing. When they stop laughing, my dead aunt volunteers. She had, after all, when alive, been a grade-school science teacher. From what I remember she had, in fact, been kind.
Her face softens as she reaches toward me to smooth my hair.
‘Everything is going to be all right,’ she tells me. Her touch feels like a change in temperature. When she removes her hand, I notice her fingernails are bleeding.
‘I’m scared of pain,’ I confess.
‘You are a brave person,’ she says, bleeding.
‘I’m scared of the surgery as well,’ I confess.
‘I know you can do this,’ she says.
‘I feel like I’m putting words into your mouth,’ I confess.
She nods in agreement, bleeding. ‘You are making the right decision.’
My dead grandma Stella offers my dead aunt Mary a vintage handkerchief for her blood then asks me what size replacement breasts I plan to get during my reconstruction. I tell her I am not getting reconstructed, rather I am planning a chest tattoo after my flat-closure mastectomy scars heal. I am considering a tattoo of three migratory yet symbolic and ascending birds. The birds would represent my dead grandmothers and my dead aunt flying away from me. The birds could also represent my uterus, my breasts and my ovaries flying away from me.
I expect my dead relatives to be grateful for this proposed tribute and proud.
My dead grandma Stella isn’t grateful or proud. She is angry. ‘What about all your other dead relatives?’ she asks. I didn’t think so many birds would be as meaningful. ‘Excuses,’ she mutters, stomping her left foot significantly onto the damp September ground.
There is the illogical sound of shattering. The lake fills with dead women in patterned dresses.
My dead grandmother explains to me, as if I didn’t know, that these dead women are the sixty-two generations of dead women who died of female cancers because of my family’s pathogenic variant which has been traced back to fifth-century Lithuania.
‘I know, Grandma,’ I say.
The dead women’s heads emerge from beneath the water, their hair writhing with silver fish, their fingernails silvery and cold like the insides of oyster shells, their crinolines swelling.
The geese in the lake squawk warnings. Boat motors stall.
The men in the boats panic as they drift away in an undulation of unbraided hair.
‘You need to memorialize them all,’ orders my dead grandma Stella. Or does she say memorize?
At first I think the dead women are swimming or at least treading in place.
The dead women can’t swim. Their arms are flailing, the hems of their wet dresses clinging to their open mouths. The lake is sixty-three feet deep and swimming is not allowed.
I tell my dead grandmother to send them back. She accuses me of silencing or forgetting. ‘If we don’t send them back, what do we do with them?’ I ask.
The dead women in the lake tilt back their heads as if they are studying the sky. They are not studying the sky, they are drowning. The silver fish are eating their toes.
I run toward the lake and kneel on a boulder near the shore.
‘You will need thousands of birds on your body!’ shouts my dead grandma Stella.
I promise to get thousands.
I’m lying. My body isn’t large enough.
Nonetheless I extend my arm.
The dead women don’t notice my arm.
They continue drowning.
They all drown, sinking below the water, their hair tangling in the currents.
I retch onto the tiny white clam shells that make up the shore.
I didn’t know ghosts could drown.
‘Of course we can drown,’ scoffs my dead grandma Stella.
The lake is full of bodies and dresses; the wind blows our shadows long.
I trudge back to the picnic pavilion.
‘See you tomorrow,’ I say, leaving my dead aunt and my dead grandmothers behind me at the park. I do not want to drive home with ghosts in my car. So many of the stories that terrified me as a child begin with the ghost of an unfortunate woman in the passenger seat of a car.
‘See you tomorrow,’ echo my dead relatives.
‘You know what I remembered?’ I ask my dead grandma Helen at the picnic pavilion beside the lake as the sun sets undramatically without color, more falling than setting today. ‘You used to speak to me years ago when I was planning my wedding. You spoke to me in poetry! Here, I looked up one of the poems. What a weird coincidence. There you were, talking to me back then. And here you are, talking to me now!’
My dead grandmother Helen is still wearing her wedding outfit from the day before, they all are.
‘So lazy,’ my dead grandma mutters as she skims through my poem. The multitude of dead women’s bodies are no longer visible in the water. This doesn’t mean the women’s bodies are no longer there; all it means is I can’t see them right now.
‘I don’t believe that was me talking,’ decides my dead grandmother Helen.
I tell her how some of the poems from this series, the series in which she talked to me, were published in well-respected literary journals. I share the names of the well-respected journals.
‘Haven’t heard of them,’ she says.
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