I hadn’t met this nurse before and I didn’t warm to her.
“First day of last menstrual period?” she enquired.
I made a face, “I mean, about a week ago …”
“I need a date,” she said. “Do you want to look it up?”
“Uh, no,” I said, smirking mirthlessly at the idea that she thought that I had a place where I could look up such information.
“Let’s just say May 1st,” I said.
I thought I saw her roll her eyes slightly when she wrote the date down.
In the examining room, she stood in front of the monitor updating my information.
“Any new medications?”
“Yeah … it’s … actually I can’t remember what it’s called but I have the container right here.”
I fished it out of my purse. As she took it from me she caught sight of my face. It was the first time we’d made sustained eye-contact. I noticed her long, beautiful eyelashes. She noticed, I’m guessing, my puffy eyelids and contorted expression. Her face softened.
“Oh my God, are you OK?”
I started to sob.
“I’m … I’m just having kind of a bad day,” I said.
“Oh my dear!”
Before she had seemed impassive and now she seemed the opposite: almost anguished at my distress.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “Yes, please.” She gathered me in her arms and stroked my back.
“Thank you,” I mumbled into her shoulder.
“You give really good hugs,” I said as she released me from her embrace.
She still had to finish updating my information, so at first I thought I’d misheard her when she asked, “What makes you happy?”
“What makes me what?” I asked.
“What makes you happy?” she repeated, more softly and slowly, still staring at the monitor.
I thought for a second. “Dancing,” I replied. “Dancing … and writing.”
“What makes you happy?” I asked.
She considered. “Well I like dancing too, and, I mean, I can dance,” she declared, and I believed her. “And listening to music. And napping in the sun.”
“Those are all good things,” I agreed.
When my doctor—whom I adore—swept into the room a minute later, I duly explained to her, too, after she expressed concern upon catching sight of my face (which is apparently quite alarming looking, if measured by the number of strangers who’ve expressed concern for me today), that I was having a bad day,
I was beginning to feel that it was not only my body that was stark naked—I was having both a pelvic exam and a breast exam, so all clothes were off—but also my soul.
My beautiful doctor hesitated after I explained that I was having a bad day.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that … I just feel bad that I’m about to give you a pelvic exam, which I doubt will make you feel any better.”
I shrugged. “You never know!”
I actually think that combatting one kind of pain with a different sort can be quite effective. I pinched myself very hard when I was in labor. Recently, for the first time in over a year, I started running again; and not because I’ve rediscovered a love for running, but, on the contrary, because I find it quite relentlessly awful. It’s only something that’s relentlessly awful that can take you out of another sort of pain.
Luckily for me, I had a mammogram scheduled right after my pelvic exam!
The mammogram technician was especially lovely.
“Do you have a hair band to tie your hair back?” she asked, adding, “if not, it’s OK.”
I shook my head.
She nodded and gently guided me into position close to the machine. It felt intimate, as if she were a dance instructor correcting my positioning with a new partner. She draped my right arm more tightly around the machine. My body was tilted but also leaning in. She tenderly pulled my hair back over my shoulders. I almost started crying again because it felt so good, the way my Mum would adjust my hair.
“Ouch!” I exclaimed, as she clamped my right breast between the plates.
Having nursed two infants, my breasts at this point are not especially sensitive. But I also have an inverted sternum—a sternum that protrudes outwards. I like to think of this aspect of my anatomy as a feature rather than a bug, but it makes getting a mammogram rather awkward.
“It’s not my breast,” I explained, “it’s because I have this weird sternum.”
She nodded, “yes, I can see you have a protruding sternum,” she said, trying to angle me to avoid pressing on the bone.
“Now throw your head back!” she commanded, sounding even more like a dance instructor.
When it came to my left breast, the machine dug even more painfully into my sternum. I flinched in pain.
“You can yell at me!” she suggested. “Go on, take your chance!” she urged me.
I laughed uncomfortably in my constricted position.
“I don’t feel like yelling at you,” I said. “There are some other people I could yell at, but …”
“Boys,” she interrupted, knowingly. “This machine,” she added, “was designed by a man, I’m sure of it. Now throw your head up again,” she commanded.
A machine that images breasts. Now in 3D! Not perhaps quite what Sterne had in mind when he imagined “the fixture of Momus’s glass in the human breast.”
No, this here, this duck-rabbit hole: this is the dioptrical bee-hive, is it not? Have you pulled up a chair? Hush! You must move softly if you wish to see the maggots gamboling.
Today, however, the maggots are sluggish (can maggots be said to be sluggish?). And I did not have the heart to dance. So I wrote instead.