We’re missing a specimen bag.
That’s what my doctor’s fellow told me when I woke up the day after excision surgery for my endometriosis. Apparently, they also discovered my appendix had been pulled into my pelvis, so while they were in there, they took my appendix out too. And now it was … missing? Was it still inside me somewhere?
We don’t know. Probably not.
We think it accidentally got thrown away, but the bag won’t show up on X-ray or CT, so the only way to know for sure is to open you up again.
Open me up again? One would think I responded with anger about the need for a second surgery, fear of potential complications, or general shock at their carelessness.
As they rolled me back to the OR for the second time in 24 hours, the anesthesiologist told me I was officially a “VIP.”
But when the surgeon perched on the edge of my bed and asked me to sign more consent forms, the only thing I remember saying to him is, “This is the kind of thing that happens on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.'” Then I pulled out my phone to change my flight and text my husband that we’d need a babysitter for a few more days. As they rolled me back to the OR for the second time in 24 hours, the anesthesiologist told me I was officially a “VIP.” I heard Nora Ephron whispering, “Everything is copy.”
And it was a good story, made even better when I woke up in recovery and was informed that the plastic bag with my appendix had indeed been found inside me. It was sitting on top of your intestines; right where we left it. How could I be mad? The hospital’s checks and balances had worked well enough for them to realize their error. And, so far, I wasn’t experiencing any complications. Not to mention the fact that they gave me the kind of story that will forever make me a good dinner party guest, which is what my high school theater teacher had assured us was really the purpose of education (and life).
This story has livened up my conversations over the last four weeks. In fact, the only person it hasn’t amused is someone who had recently had an appendectomy themselves and became worried about the whereabouts of his own appendix. It’s hard for some people to embody what my mom used to call a “go with the flow” attitude about internal body parts, even ones that aren’t biologically necessary.
That wasn’t always easy for me, either. As a kid, when plans changed, I’d throw tantrums or refuse to participate. As I got older, I seized control at every opportunity, determined to create the “flow” I wanted in every area in my life. I was an eight-year-old with a closet organized meticulously by color. Every Sunday night in middle school, I’d call one of my best friends to make plans for the following weekend. In high school and college, I divided every assignment into smaller, scheduled deadlines. After graduation, I taught seventh grade and reveled in the orderly universe of my classroom with its weekly lesson plans and class routines and homework keys.
For 25 years, I believed I could backwards-plan my life in the same way that teachers scaffold instruction. I applied this method personally and professionally. If I wanted to get married, we needed to get engaged. Before that, we needed somewhere to live. If we were going to move in together, we needed to save money. If we needed to save money, we both needed to get jobs. And what would my job look like? I wanted it to look like someone who made a living with their writing. If I wanted to make a living as a writer, I decided I needed to get my MFA. To get my MFA, I needed to apply to graduate programs. To apply to schools, I needed to do research. Back then, my thinking was the reverse of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” I knew everything I wanted after the cookie, so I prepared obsessively to ensure those things would happen.
I have finally become the kind of child my mom always wanted me to be. The irony is that she is no longer around to see it.
Now, my approach to life is more “Bird by Bird.“ I have become the type of person who expects that there will always be a metaphorical specimen bag left somewhere, and I can deal with it. I have finally become the kind of child my mom always wanted me to be. The irony is that she is no longer around to see it. Now, as a mom myself, I understand this irony is a common theme of parenting—you rarely reap the rewards of the seeds you attempt to sow.
After college, I moved back in with my mom millennial-style to save money for the aforementioned house that I planned to buy and the graduate school I wanted to attend. In the morning, I’d drink my coffee perched on the edge of her bathtub, chatting with her as she dressed for work. Even after I moved out, I still dropped by most mornings for our ritual. But one November morning, exactly a month after my 25th birthday, I never made it to my spot. She was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed and her face squished. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She’d had an early-morning ultrasound to check for gallstones. They didn’t find them. Instead, they found a large mass in her liver.
A week later, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV cholangiocarcinoma, bile duct cancer. The five-year survival rate was only 2%. When my brother told me he’d Googled the question I couldn’t bear to ask, my first thought was that my mom wouldn’t be here when I turned 30. Suddenly, the idea of making plans became gut-wrenching. To support my mom in the time she had left, I had to learn how to stop living life by a checklist. I had to be present for the hours we spent sitting next to each other in waiting rooms, baking her oncologist’s office chocolate chip cookies, and venturing out of the house to get our nails done when her blood counts were high enough.
She died in December 2018, two years after she was diagnosed and four months after my daughter was born. Between grieving my mom and the logistical challenges of being a new mother, I found myself living in survival mode, responding to my unexpected meltdowns in inconvenient places like Target and cleaning up terribly timed poop explosions. Somehow time passed even though I didn’t make any plans for how I’d spend it.
By the time I gave birth to my son on March 27, 2020, as COVID lockdowns spread across the world, I was already an expert at taking things a day at a time, which, looking back, probably made isolating with a newborn baby, 19-month-old and a husband trying to work from home manageable. We rocked our son and fed our daughter and ran load after load of dishes until suddenly a year had passed, and still no one had held my son except for me and my husband. And despite the ungodly amount of stamina it required, my family found a way to be happy. While everyone else lamented their canceled plans, I focused on the daily moments we could control — mornings digging for worms in the backyard, afternoons sipping coffee on the couch, nights making pizza and watching my daughter watch her first movies. COVID became the ultimate test of what it means to be flexible.
So of course I didn’t freak out in the hospital. My missing appendix was simply that day’s spilt milk, and my mom’s cancer and a global pandemic had taught me to take life as it comes–organ by missing organ.
personal essays about grief and loss: