It always starts with a question from a doctor, unlocking the cascade of nothingness. Now all the doctors are younger than me, something that sounds inconsequential until it happens and you think: "a child prodigy who went to med school and his mother drives him to work." No matter. The doctor asks about my health, then about a particular organ. A child's guessing game.
If I speak of stomach pain, the doctor will examine me, pressing on my abdomen. "Does it hurt here? It could be your appendix."
"Yes it hurts here," I answer. (My appendix was already removed.)
If I complain of a sore throat, the doctor will rub the glands on the outside of my neck. "Did you get strep throat as a child? It could be your tonsils are infected."
"I did have lots of strep throats as a child," I answer. (My tonsils were removed when I was 20.)
None of these things are there anymore. And yet I do get pains where they used to be. They say that amputees feel sensations like itching or throbbing where the limb once was, phantom limbs they're called. I sometimes think I have a phantom appendix. Your body remembers all the big events on a cellular level. Every year on my daughter's birthday I feel an abdominal sensation I take to be my body's memory of giving birth. But she's certainly not in there anymore. She's in the next room, playing guitar, practicing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day.
The guessing game intensifies if I go to a gynecologist. She will ask me to tell her the dates of any surgeries, pregnancies, or miscarriages. She will be looking at her computer screen, ready to take notes.
"That would take a long time to recite," I say, winning my own personal award for massive understatement. "Several different surgeries, a bunch of pregnancies, a couple of tubular pregnancies, numerous miscarriages, and the one pregnancy that went full term with a delivery, my daughter."
The youngest doctors stop momentarily and look up to meet my eyes.
"Everything you want to know about isn't inside me anymore."
"Any scar tissue or lumps in your breasts?" they ask.
"Surgically removed." (The lump I had isn't there anymore.)
I am many things because of what's not there anymore. Whatever led up to the removal has slipped into past-tense, and now, after all those removals, I am healthy, even thriving. Would I have wanted my appendix to burst? To have my tube burst from a tubal pregnancy? To have cancer spread from a lump? Each surgery came at the height of a crisis, but today I am the healthy person sitting on the table in a paper gown answering a doctor's questions. From the world of categories their questions come. From my life experiences my answers come. There's an entire universe in between those two perspectives: long nights, groggy mornings, itchy stitches, hushed phone calls, hours lost in waiting rooms, 35 laser-guided radiation treatments, pages of journal entries. Many of these are things this doctor's visit is not set up to witness or contain, and many aren't written in the file. If you read my medical file to find the story of my body over time, you can't find it because chunks of it aren't there.
At the end of the doctor's visit I get dressed, looking at the tissue on the examining table where I sat. It is creased with ghostly traces of my crossed legs, translucent in spots from the almond body oil I wear. The nurse hurries in, rips off the tissue, balls up the paper gown inside it and deposits the lump into the trash can. She washes her hands, rinsing away any residual bits of me. The doctor in the hallway shakes my hand to say good-bye. I'm ready to tell the story of my survival. She won't ask, but I will tell her anyway because life will bring her more patients like me. And they'll ask some questions that only experience, not a printed handout, can answer. Life on the other side, the part left unsaid.
This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine.
Nancy Devine, who writes fiction and essays, recently graduated with an MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. She is editing her recently-finished first draft of a novel, and writing personal essays, much like this one, plus short stories.