Incomplete Combustion: Crohn’s, Motherhood, a New NormalJune 14, 2013
April Gibson is an essayist, poet, and ostomate. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chicago State University. In her writing she seeks to address and renegotiate societal beliefs about motherhood, illness as alienation, beauty as a shell. Her work is published or forthcoming in Tidal Basin Review, Reverie, The New Sound, Aunt Chloe, AsUs and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her two sons.
Twenty-one days pass. I am a 90-pound bag of skin. Legs like peanut butter drapes thrown over femur bones, no muscle, no pronounced curve. A lover would look past me quickly in the street. I do not want these scars, or this strange body. I want to wear a red bikini. I want a kiss on my belly.
Three weeks felt like spans of small forevers. I didn’t believe my legs and arms were mine. My abdomen sunk to a cave, save for the rustling bag. My aunt hurled the word “unconscionable” on each visit, until the hospital knew her voice. My mother, grandmother, aunts, they stayed in mornings, my little brother stayed through late nights, nodding off once the drugs snatched my eyes to sleep. So many people, one could’ve mistaken my bed for a box. I can’t remember them all, or even all the days.
The nurses were there everyday, same ones. This is their wing. The doctors came in swarms, always hanging heads to pens unless speaking. I wore lipstick when we passed the vomit days, gave laughs to friends. My big sister gave me big twists in my hair.
A disease that had already stolen my youth, at 27 I lost my colon to Crohn’s. When they removed the sick parts, cut away the damaged pieces, they also took the one feeling my body understood. Pain is a tricky thing, illness a confusion of sense. A piercing touch, the sight of blood, a smell can make you puke. A sound can make your head bang. The metallic taste of medication can make you want to quit. I never knew what healthy felt like. It was all so strange.
The functions of me were foreign. I would never work the same.
At first I looked for clothes with ruffles and flares. I cried at the sight of a middriff top I’d purchased the summer before. I would never again wear low-rise jeans, or bikinis, or mesh articles of any kind. I would never undress myself with pride. There were vows to celibacy, thoughts of a hermit life—all sorts of ridiculous ideas. My best friend reminded me I never really wore middriffs much, anyhow. Old pictures reminded me a decade had passed since I’d worn a two-piece swimsuit, then there was the recollection that I couldn’t actually swim. A small step to recovery.
The same Band-aid stuck to my body for a lifetime. This is what permanency feels like. On the right side of belly, I carry the burden of desperation, the things we humans do to stay alive. My caramel skin sticky with adhesive and the color of someone else’s nude. The beige bag flattened under all that I wear, who could ever guess my unbalanced geometry. No one ever had to see the off parts of me, unless there was a man to love me despite, and still, there are ways to hide from the world. Wraps and lace, pockets of all kind. I can never truly be a naked girl. I live in a time warp of constant repair, fixing. Never fixed. My body working its way around the darkness that knows to fill a space.
There are days I long for my missing parts. There are nights I want to rip this flimsy device, this thin plastic velcro glue Band-aid separating me from embarrassment, from fragility. Shame can feel stronger than love tries to be.
My family said it would be okay, that I am a pretty girl, and young, and there are people who would want me even if I am not whole. The little ones pretended not to notice when I walked through the house in sports bras and yoga pants. My son was confused, fearing small plastic grocery bags were my new toilet. Only the girl was bold enough to ask why my body was different. I answered in truthfulness, enough detail to make a small child squirm, but not afraid.
Children need to understand that people sometimes live with holes inside themselves, real holes, or holes that only they can feel. Her brother called me an alien, weird but super cool. I laughed and let my hands tell the story, pointing to skin, making gestures and waving with the scientific words. They all gathered in a circle and listened. They wanted to touch me. I let them touch me.
Then there was awe and question. Searching for shame in the lines of my face, they found none.
They looked at their own bellies. The girl excitedly shouted how we are the same, small brown fingers pointing to tiny nicks in her skin.
I like this new body some days, though not all days, neither is it love or hate. It holds together my bones and blood, and for this I am grateful, for understanding the nature of body through the form of my own, realizing just how much it fights and chooses, how much it wants to live.