My mother waited more than 1,000 days for her organ transplant. She went from 39 to 40 to 41 while she waited. On her hip, she wore a black pager that would beep when her organs “were ready.” This was the expression she used, as if her organs were a steak sitting in the oven, not quite pink enough to eat. I realize that’s a gross image, but it’s what occurs to me when I remember the absurdity that was, at the time, so very normal for all of us.
Her organs were ready on June 6, 1994, the tail-end of my seventh grade year. That summer, I listened to Nirvana nonstop and wore a flannel that belonged to my best male friend. I wore the flannel as we drove to the hospital – no school for me that day! – and the chorus of “Heart-Shaped Box” rattled around inside my head. Hey! Wait!
I barely understood the song. What was the “broken hymen of your Highness?” But Hey! Wait! I got that. Those two words meant exactly what I felt as we raced toward Baltimore.
They meant a thing and its opposite could be true at the same time. Hey! Wait! And I was stuck between a thing I wanted, which was also the very thing I didn’t want.
Hey! I did want my mother to have an organ transplant because she’d die without one.
Wait! What if she died in surgery or right after?
I’d seen “Steel Magnolias.” I knew the organ rejection drill. My mother’s match wasn’t perfect. Anything could happen. I could have a mother in the morning and be motherless by nightfall. This knowledge was the one true fact of my girlhood.
Hey! Wait! Don’t feel bad for me. I don’t feel bad for me.
A few weeks ago, I drove past the hospital where my mother had (and survived) her organ transplant. Each time I drive past this hospital, I go back to June 6, 1994, to Nirvana, to the flannel scented with Polo cologne, to the wild ambivalence of those moments.
Ambivalence. I used that word incorrectly for years. I used to think ambivalence meant not caring enough. Do you know most people use ambivalence incorrectly?
But “ambivalence” comes from two Latin words. The first, ambi, means “both or on both sides.” The second, valentia, means “strength.”
Put those words together and you have ambivalence. It means caring too much on either side of an issue, and being unable to choose because feelings are equal on both sides. You want and don’t want the same thing.
That’s where I was on the day of my mother’s organ transplant. That’s where I am now, nearly a year after my miscarriage and seven months into antibiotic treatment for late-stage Lyme disease.
If you asked me last summer whether I wanted a baby, I’d have screamed YES. I was so ready, so certain, so sure by the time I got pregnant, incidentally the first time I tried. At 36.
What great luck I had! How dumb my doctors had been! So glad I’d used birth control pills and insisted on condoms all those years! Phew.
The gynecologist who did my first ultrasound raved about my uterus. She used the word luscious. I did everything I could in that moment not to laugh until I peed the pants I was not wearing. But I also took pride in her comment. Despite how mysteriously ill I had been, despite the sudden autoimmune thyroid disease that depleted my once boundless energy, my body could do something right.
Until it couldn’t.
I did three things when I realized I was miscarrying. I apologized profusely to my husband, who was asleep because it was 1:19 a.m. He did not think I had anything to apologize for and did his best to console me in his half-sleep, half-shock state.
But my body had failed in the worst way it could fail. And I was guilty, because it was my uncontrollable body that had rejected a pregnancy we both wanted. So I said I’m sorry over and over again, until I finally went downstairs and did the second thing. I made myself a cup of peppermint tea because that was all I could do to keep myself from screaming.
The third thing I did was call my mother-in-law once the sun came up. I told her my miscarriage made me realize how very much I wanted to be a mother. No more second guessing. No more doubt.
Why wouldn’t I want a child? I had an incredible mother who mothered me in lasting ways that allow me to be generous and patient and kind. My students even tell me I’d be a great mother. I know I should hear that comment as sexist, but I take it as a compliment. Because they’re right. I have all the qualities needed for masterful mothering. Anyone can see it.
And yet, there’s another side of the choice.
There’s the body that doesn’t seem to work the way it used to.
There’s seven months of antibiotics and no end in sight and arthritis in my hands.
There’s the 30 pills I take per day.
There’s my thirty-seventh birthday that passed in February.
There’s thirty-eight on the horizon.
There’s the choice to wait.
The thing about waiting is that it’s the closest thing we have to purgatory on earth. Torture, and not quite torture. When we’re waiting, we want the waiting to be over, and we focus our attention on an end. We believe the end will be better than the waiting. But after an end is reached, another waiting will come, and the next waiting after that. And on and on.
Our lives are thousands of days of waitings.
And yet, I’ve chosen to wait. I’ve chosen to be ambivalent. I’ve chosen to say the word I now understand at the core of my heart: ambivalence.
I take the word the apart. Let it enter me. Leave me.
I’ve told all my doctors not to discuss pregnancy with me, and I’ve found an endocrinologist who will treat me during pregnancy with the medications I need, but that no other endocrinologist will prescribe in pregnancy. Incidentally, he is the endocrinologist who treated my mother and recommended her for an organ transplant.
The day I sat across from him at his desk, I was all grown up. A college professor. A woman with health insurance and a home of her own. He didn’t remember me as the little girl who used to wait in his lobby or run down the hallways.
He remembered my mother. Of course he did. How could anyone forget her? I saw him on June 6, 2018, a detail that was coincidence but felt like magic.
I am happy as a childless woman just as I could be happy as a mother. How fortunate I am that happiness awaits me on either side of my most difficult choice. Hey! Wait! Two opposite things ring true. Like on the day of my mother’s organ transplant. Like right this minute.