Faye Rapoport DesPres holds an M.F.A. from the Solstice Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Her personal essays, interviews, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Ascent, damselfly press, Eleven Eleven, Fourth Genre, Hamilton Stone Review, Prime Number Magazine, Writer Advice, the Writers Chronicle, and other publications. Faye was born in New York City, has lived in England, Israel, and Colorado, and currently resides in the Boston area.
The tulips I planted last fall, in a small patch of dirt behind our house near the back deck, started poking through the soil this week. I didn't realize the shoots would emerge so early. It is only mid-April, and cold winds still whistle through the back yard at night, shaking the bare tree branches. The sky remains interminably gray. When I step outside I pull on a fleece jacket, and when I look up at the sky, I rarely see stars.
I developed an interest in gardening two years ago, when my husband and I moved into our old, run-down house in a working-class suburb of Boston. Jean-Paul's mother purchased the house as an investment and then became ill, so we bought the place from her. It was the only way we could afford to own our own home. Built in 1837, the house has an ancient, patched stone foundation. The thick support beams in the basement resemble trees, and the crooked wooden floors creak underfoot. I am certain the house was once lovely and new, but structurally it no longer is what it was. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I'd call the house "broken."
When the house became ours, I was determined to spruce it up. With a limited budget we couldn't do much to fix the interior, so I cast around for ways to cheer up the property. We enclosed the back yard in a new, white fence, but couldn't afford to do any serious landscaping, or to remove what is left of an old garage near the back, a cracked cement floor and the first three rows of gray cinderblock walls. Sometimes I wonder, as I wrestle our lawnmower over the weeds that grow through the cracks in that floor, what the garage might have looked like when it was new, and whole, and had a purpose for being here.
Planting flowers was one thing I could do. I knew nothing about gardens, but hoped I could learn. How difficult, I thought, could gardening be? Living things tend to thrive in my care. So I strode through the garden center at a nearby Home Depot as Jean-Paul pushed a large cart behind me. We piled bags of red mulch into the cart, and I added trays of colorful marigolds and two small trowels for digging.
The next day we pulled on jeans, T-shirts and gardening gloves, and dug trenches near the front door and in back of the house, next to the old wooden deck. The marigolds caused an immediate effect—suddenly, there was color everywhere. I wandered around the house, admiring our handiwork, and over the days and weeks that followed I weeded, watered and watched the flowers bloom and spread, as the beds thickened throughout July and into August.
Then the cold air of fall blew in. My marigolds withered, turned brown, and died. The sight of their dried leaves and stems was depressing. To cheer me up, my friend Kathy, an expert gardener, suggested that I plant tulip bulbs. They would sleep all winter under the ground, she explained, and then break through the dirt and bloom in the spring. Tulips don't just die and disappear; they come back year after year. It sounded too good to be true.
I drove back to Home Depot and grabbed a few bags of tulip bulbs off the shelves. Once home I hurried to the backyard with the bags, a trowel, and my dirt-stained gardening gloves. I laid everything out on the ground, and read the planting instructions on the side of the bags. I started digging holes in two separate areas near the deck, and placed the bulbs a few inches apart inside the holes. Then I covered them with the misplaced dirt, and watered the whole area with the gardening hose.
When the job was finished, I surveyed the patches of sloppy wet dirt, envisioning what would be my new gardens next spring. The hardest part would be waiting all winter to see if the tulips would grow.
Fall came and went. The ground cooled and hardened, and the leaves of the maple, cherry, and crabapple trees turned orange, red, and brown. Eventually they fell off the branches. We raked the leaves and stuffed them into lawn bags for the town to cart away. Everything froze. December arrived and snow began to fall, and neighbors decorated their houses with holiday lights. The New Year arrived, followed by a long, dark January, and a frigid February. Snow fell, melted, then fell again. February turned into March. Through it all the ground was solid, frozen, and silent.
When April arrived, I finally allowed myself to hope for the end of winter. Kathy called a few days ago and suggested I check to see if my tulips were pushing up through the ground. Excited, I hung up the phone, hurried out to the yard, and crouched down to examine the earth, forgetting to throw something warm over my sweatshirt. I shivered in the cold, and hugged my arms against my chest. Scanning the area I had planted in the fall, I searched for any evidence of new life. Then I saw them—tiny green leaves peeking up through the dirt.
I reached out a hand and brushed away some old, dried leaves that had settled in the dirt. I stared at the tulip shoots for a very long time. And then, without warning, I started to cry.
By the time Dr. Kleiner called me into his office, I had been struggling with health issues for nearly a year, and had been through two other doctors. I was just twenty-nine when fibroid tumors, assumed to be benign, were discovered in my abdomen. The first doctor, a gynecologist in Westchester County, NY, insisted I could live with the fibroids. She almost rolled her eyes when I returned several months later and insisted that something was very wrong. But she changed her tune after my blood tests came back and revealed extreme anemia. By the time I was rushed into my first surgery, a myomectomy that would remove the growing fibroids but keep the uterus intact, I needed two blood transfusions.
I should have been all right after that. I was weak and in pain, but on the road to recovery, my hope to have children in the future preserved. But unexpectedly, the pathology lab flagged one of the tumors. Something about the cells looked suspicious.
I had been told that fibroid tumors are benign more than ninety-nine percent of the time. My doctor and the surgeon who had performed the myomectomy considered this development very odd. Without informing either me or my parents, they sent the slides with my tissue samples to five different pathologists. Finally the slides landed in a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the world's foremost expert on this type of tumor declared a diagnosis: "a smooth muscle tumor of unknown malignant potential."
Three months had passed since the myomectomy. I had progressed from initially being able to move only gingerly, to walking for five minutes at a time on the treadmill, then ten. I was slowly rebuilding my life. This new diagnosis confused me and my parents, who had opened their house to me, and Aaron, the man I had been dating since we had met in Israel a year before my health problems started. What did "unknown malignant potential" mean? Did I have cancer?
No one could say for certain if I did have cancer, or if this news meant, in fact, that I soon would. So I made an appointment with Dr. Kleiner, a leading gynecological surgeon at Montefiore Hospital in New York City. After reviewing my case, he called a group of specialists together to discuss treatment options. One of the major concerns was how to preserve a young, unmarried woman's ability to have children.
Now Dr. Kleiner was ready to share the doctors' opinions. My parents accompanied me to his office. As soon I walked into the room and sat down in a chair near his desk, I could tell from the somber look on his face that the news would not be good. His manner was fatherly; in fact, he was a Holocaust survivor from Poland like my own father. The two men spoke to each other in Polish, which I don't understand. Then Dr. Kleiner sat down in a chair facing mine and leaned toward me. He looked me steadily in the eye and explained the situation as gently as he could. The doctors could not agree about whether or not I already had cancer, or about my chances of developing cancer if I did not have a hysterectomy. One specialist was convinced that I was all right, and thought my chance of developing cancer with no surgery was as small as five percent. Another said the chance was as high as twenty-five percent. I had a choice about whether or not to have the surgery, Dr. Kleiner explained. But if I didn't, he wanted me to understand that I would have to have an x-ray and ultrasound every three months for the rest of my life, so they could watch for signs of disease. And by the time the evidence presented itself—by the time they found cancer—it would probably be too late to save my life.
"If you were my daughter," Dr. Kleiner said to me, "I would tell you to get that thing out of there right now."
That thing was my uterus, something that once, what seemed like a long time ago, had been a private part of my body. Before I got sick I had never discussed my body with anyone, not even my mother. I had kissed only two boys before age sixteen, and one of those was during a game of "spin the bottle." I had been painfully shy with the few men I dated in college and in my twenties. But since I'd gotten sick, my privacy had been wrenched away from me. My body had been laid out under glaring hot lights for the entire world to see. I had been touched, roughly and mechanically, by the hands of doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, all strangers. They had examined me and prodded my most private parts in ways that filled me with shame and embarrassment. What I didn't recognize for many months was that the shame was obscuring a deepening rage. I began having nightmares and anxiety attacks, and was put on anti-anxiety medication. All medical tests caused me to shake and panic. I was advised to listen to music through headphones during tests, to avoid looking at the technologists' faces so I wouldn't read anything into their worried frowns. I was supposed to treat myself to something special after every appointment, even if it was just an ice cream. Meanwhile, my ultrasound films and tissue samples were being passed around the hospital, the city, the country.
It was not common for doctors to recommend a hysterectomy to a childless woman of my age. Before the appointment, I had sought comfort in any information I could find about my condition and a possible hysterectomy. Once, I picked up a feminist medical book titled Our Body, Our Selves, which had been written, supposedly, to help empower women. The book decried hysterectomies and adoption as misogynistic. Now, as Dr. Kleiner spoke to me, I felt the eyes of the women who'd written that book fixed on me in hot disapproval. In the end, they were laying as much claim to my body as the doctors. Everyone wanted a piece of me.
By the time Dr. Kleiner stopped speaking, I was staring straight at the floor. Something tasted bitter at the back of my mouth. My throat constricted. I told myself, silently, that the doctors had done all they could. I had tried to get through this thing whole. I had prayed to God every night that they would not have to cut me open again. It just wasn't meant to be.
Dr. Kleiner and I both knew that one thing he had told me wasn't true. I did not have a choice. I had just turned thirty; I could not spend whatever time I had left waiting for cancer and death. As for having a child, for all anyone knew, I couldn't have one by now anyway.
My hands, white in their own tight grip, blurred as tears dripped off my face, onto my shoes and the floor. I nodded, giving my consent.
Aaron stood by me through the hysterectomy. We got married two years later, but I was still too damaged to make a marriage work. Within two years we filed for divorce, as amicably as two people can. He remarried a year later, when his girlfriend became pregnant.
Jean-Paul and I met at forty-one, and married at forty-four. We're forty-five now. We have talked about adoption, but the timing has never seemed right. My guess is it never will.
Still, sometimes I picture my little girl in my mind (for some reason, she has always been a little girl). I imagine her with brown eyes and dark curly hair, like mine, or with pale eyes like my father's and Jean-Paul's. She is lively and precocious, sensitive and full of laughter. She hugs goats and kisses kittens and runs in circles in the yard, her arms flung up in the air. She loves chocolate, and gets it all over her face. She is talented at music like Jean-Paul, and she sings like an angel. She is full of life.
But I will never know her. So I fuss over Jean-Paul, and I fuss over our cats. The truth is, I like to love things.
Every day since Kathy called, I go outside to look at my tulips. I kneel in the dirt and reach toward them, gently feel their soft, green leaves between my fingers. Every time I visit they are a little bigger. Their leaves are wider, spreading up and out toward the sky. The tulips are undisturbed by the rain that comes and goes, or by the cold breeze that still picks up at night.
As April advances, the sun appears more often in the sky. The temperature has climbed out of the forties and into the fifties. It will hit sixty soon. When I sit outside, I hear neighborhood children behind our back fence, enjoying the sunshine in nearby backyards. They laugh, bounce basketballs in their driveways, call out to each other. Sometimes they blare music from car radios or boom boxes. They stand nearby while their parents cook hamburgers and hot dogs on outdoor barbecues. I smell the propane and barbecue sauce, and watch the pale gray smoke as it rises into the twilight.
I am waiting, now, for my tulips to flower. If I remember the pictures on the bags correctly, some will be red, some yellow, some orange, some pink. It is possible there will be other colors too.
It doesn't matter, when I am with my flowers, if the rest of the yard is beautiful. It doesn't matter if the inside of the house still needs work. It doesn't even matter if I, myself, will ever feel truly whole. The tulips don't care about all that. They just need me to water them and watch them grow. Just by existing, they give me a kind of uncomplicated delight. It is a precious thing to still be here, to still be able to feel that. So I let it in, and stay with it for as long as I can.