They stare as I shuffle out of the hospital, gripping my aching belly with a Hello Kitty pillow under my arm. It's the same cheerful pink pillowcase I've used twice before, when each of my babies was born.
Michael carries a small suitcase -- one he'd packed hastily, in a panic before I'd woken up from surgery -- but his other arm is free. He isn't holding an infant car-seat, like the other glowing moms and dads leaving the hospital. Ours was donated almost two years ago.
It's too bright outside, and we don't talk much during the drive. Back at home, I lower myself into bed and curl up as best I can -- cradling the surgical staples that won't come out until Tuesday. Tears roll down my cheeks in the darkness of the bedroom, as real life resumes downstairs for everyone else.
Michael drags up the glider and ottoman from the basement -- the matching set with the perfect gender-neutral "butter" yellow cushions that had taken me two weeks to select for our son's first nursery -- and I sink back into the familiar seat. He lays an oblong green pillow across my lap -- the nursing pillow I'd forgotten I still had -- and suggests it will be good for supporting my stomach.
He means well, but I'm stroking the nubby green pillow and sobbing. It's like there's a giant blinking arrow pointing to where a squishy newborn baby should be nestled. But there won't be a baby ever again. Even though it's something I had already decided I didn't want, I'm longing for the weight and the warmth of a tiny person I'll never meet.
I had gone into the hospital for a minor day procedure, expecting to stroll back out again in a couple of hours.
Four days later, I was still there.
After two and a half years of period problems following the birth of our daughter, I was finally going to get some answers about the state of my "ute" via a small camera expedition. But the numerous ultrasounds and tests leading up to the procedure hadn't revealed that I had a massive uterine polyp living rent-free in there.
While I was still under anaesthesia, my OB broke the news to Michael, and told him they had to make a decision on my behalf: I needed a hysterectomy, and it was either now or a few months down the road.
Since Michael was already on the waiting list for a vasectomy, he and my OB agreed it was best to do it immediately. An hour and a half later, I woke up in the recovery room feeling much more pain than I'd expected from my "minor" camera procedure.
"Ugh, it feels like you sliced me open," I moaned to a nurse. Her eyes darted around a bit, and she nervously told me that that's exactly what they'd done. The doctor came along shortly and explained in more detail what had happened.
It took me days to process the information. No more babies, we'd already decided. So no big deal, right? But having the option ripped away, without warning, left me feeling hollowed-out and middle-aged. Would I go into menopause at 31, and start fanning myself with napkins like my aunt? No, they assured me, because I still had my ovaries. Parts of my body that I'd used monthly since the age of 13 were suddenly superfluous.
Although I bounced back quickly from my two C-sections -- at 26 and 28 -- I credit that mostly to the distraction of having a cuddly little newborn to fuss over and photograph, not to mention the fantastic oxytocin high you get from breastfeeding.
When you're recovering from what is essentially a baby-less C-section, you spend a lot of time in the dark watching the final two seasons of "Full House" on Netflix. You get emails and texts with videos of your kids playing, and snippets of their giggles drift up the stairs. Instead of your usual routine of stories, songs, and prayers in their little beds, they come into your bedroom and perch on the arms of your glider to kiss you good night.
"Ohh, I know your poor tummy is sick," our two-year-old repeats every few hours, very sympathetically. Our four-year-old takes pride in helping me by making his own bed -- a complicated system of about eight quilts of his choosing -- and waving me down the stairs with pretend wands, "like Daddy does for the airplanes."
Although I feel guilty over essentially missing these weeks of their lives, they will probably have few memories of The Time When Mommy Had a Hurt Tummy. They may remember getting extra treats and spending special time with all five of their grandparents, but that's probably it. This is merely a blip in our lives, and I cling to that thought when I'm lying here in the bedroom with the shades drawn.
"You're going to have a very energetic summer," my OB tells me after taking out my surgical staples, as he scribbles out an order for iron injections at the hospital. The chronic anemia I've had since my early twenties is finally going to be cured, thanks to some tiny vials and weekly hospital visits.
An energetic summer. I like the sound of that. The east coast has been pounded with snow for the last two months, and all anyone talks about any more is the 10-foot snowbanks, narrow streets, and which storm is striking next. I close my eyes and think about running around in the warm grass with the kids, and setting up the Slip'n'Slide.
I'll have a sacrificial burning of tampons and remaining birth control pill packets. I'll buy a pair of crisp white shorts and replace my entire drawer of underwear, because what's stopping me now? We'll go camping and swimming and out for ice cream, and I'll have more energy than ever before.
I will do all of it without a uterus, and I won't even miss it.
But right now, it's still hard.
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