“But Doctor, it’s true! I still feel life!”
The climax of the story of my mother’s birth is imprinted upon my DNA indelibly. It’s a story I heard over and over from the time I was old enough to understand human reproduction, and it’s a story that has had lasting ramifications for my entire family. If you know me well, you know this story. I’ve processed it for years. It’s time to write it down.
The facts are this. Unbeknownst to anyone, my grandmother had a double uterus. In 1934 she and my grandfather conceived two children, one in each uterus. She was unable to carry both children to term and miscarried a child very early in the pregnancy. As far as the medical establishment was concerned, the miscarriage was the end. But my grandmother knew differently. She knew she still was pregnant. When she finally convinced her doctor to look at her more carefully, he did a thorough internal exam and discovered that she was correct – and, a medical marvel.
At that time my grandparents were just starting out. They had very little money and none to spare for special medical care. The doctor, who worked at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, made them an offer. If my grandmother would consent to weekly examination by residents, she could stay in the hospital for free for the duration of her pregnancy (about 6 months). The decision they made to say “yes” affected everything that was to follow for the next 60+ years. The hospital, which was about 7 years old and state of the art for the time, had just purchased some amazing new equipment called the X-ray machine. Using this, the residents could actually see the baby developing and see both uteruses inside my grandmother without the trauma of repeated internal exams. My grandmother’s abdomen was x-rayed (without the benefit of lead shields) more times than she could remember. Yet, in the immediate, the extraordinary care she received resulted in her being able to carry my mother safely until she was born at about 8 months. My grandmother was strongly advised not to have any more children.
When my grandfather got his first look at the wizened little preemie that was my mother, he recoiled. All these months of worry and now, there was the ugliest child he’d ever seen. As the nurses cooed, “Isn’t she beautiful?” he fled. He ran out of the hospital and down the street to take solace in the barbershop. Outside the door, he simply panicked. He couldn’t breathe. How was he going to take care of his wife and this ugly child? What if he wasn’t strong enough? How could he go on? He told me that he walked for miles that day until he ended up at his mother’s house, where he broke down and cried. She comforted him and told him to be strong and go back to the hospital. From that day forward, he was. And he needed to be.
I spent much of my adult life with the fear of ovarian and breast cancer hanging over my head. Thanks to DNA testing I’ve known for about 15 years that my family’s cancers were environmentally caused and not hereditary. I still go for a pelvic ultrasound every year because logical knowing only goes so far in eradicating deep-seated fear. Losing my mother when I was just 26 changed my perspective on life. I miss her every day. The loss never gets easier, just different.
Of all the stories, of all my life experience, this one is the primary story. The story that accompanies my family from womb to womb. I feel it in my bones every day.