Last week on June 21st we entered the astrological sign of Cancer, and don’t I know it. Ever since then I’ve been overly-emotional, a bit withdrawn, and constantly want to be in the water. I was born a Virgo, but my rising sign is in Cancer, as are my moon and Jupiter, so it comes pretty naturally I suppose. My best friend from college is a Cancer. So is my first yoga instructor, my first real love, and a host of colleagues and little ones I adore. It’s time to celebrate, and yet whenever late-June/early July rolls around, I remind myself to go with the flow. To let my emotions rise and fall with the moon.
To know that, like all things, this too shall pass.
Here’s an excerpt from my memoir for all the Cancers in my life…and for everyone who knows the miracle of letting go of the life they have planned in order to embrace the beautiful life that’s here right now.
I’m thirty-one years old as I sit by myself on the exam table, dressed in a paper gown, waiting for the gynecologist who is twenty minutes late. The nurse has already taken my medical history. She glances through the notes faxed from my doctor’s office and asks me the obligatory questions. “How long since your last period?” “Do you suffer from painful PMS?” Then she asks, “Are you currently sexually active?”
Do I give her the socially acceptable answer which is, “I’m still a virgin.” But I’m not a virgin and I can never be one again, no matter how much therapy I sit through, how many tree poses or seated meditations I practice. No matter what anyone says, it was stolen from me long before I can remember.
I clear my throat and calmly tell the nurse, “I was assaulted a long time ago and haven't been sexually active since then.”
Her face registers no change as she makes a notation in my chart. “The doctor will be here in a moment. Lie back and relax.”
When I’m alone, I lie down on the paper-covered exam table. The stirrups are hidden beneath it, but I know all too well what’s coming. I’m here for a uterine biopsy. My periods were always sporadic. In the last year or so, they've been uncharacteristically heavy, a red sea in the midst of my personal exodus from everything I thought was true about my history. With a heavy heart I've discovered there is no Moses to lead me to the promised land of a husband and children.
Now...finally...here comes the doctor, her eyes scanning my chart. “So, your GP says you’re here because you want to figure out what’s going on with your periods?”
“Are you on the pill?”
“On any kind of medications?”
I think, "Read the chart, dumb ass, I’ve already told the nurse all of this.” Instead I say, “No…just ibuprofen for headaches sometimes.”
Once the biopsy is over, I sit up and refuse the pain pill she offers for later. She doesn’t need to know that since I began living a healthier lifestyle, I no longer drink coffee or take the over-the-counter speed I used to ingest in order to stay awake at school after long, sleepless nights. I don’t want to take any medication that’s not absolutely necessary.
“What were you doing during the procedure?” the nurse asks.
“Yoga,” I tell her. “Relaxation.”
“We could all use a little of that,” Dr. Willamont says. “Now go home and get some rest. You may feel crampy for the next few days.”
“When will you have the results?” I ask, pulling the paper gown over my legs.
“Next week,” she replies. “We’ll give you a call.”
As I leave the office, I’m careful to divert my eyes away from the women in the waiting room who are in various stages of pregnancy. I don’t want to be reminded of what I so desperately want and am no closer to having.
Ten days later, on a Tuesday afternoon, the phone rings. It’s been a long day at school and I’m vegging on the couch watching television.
“This is Jackie from Dr. Willamont’s office,” the woman says. “We have your test results, but I can’t give them to you over the phone. You’ll have to come in for a consult with the doctor.”
“Why?” I ask, sitting up.
“Um…I can’t answer that,” Jackie says. “You’ll have to talk with the doctor. We’d like to get you in as soon as possible.”
I schedule an appointment for later in the week and spend the next few days scared out of my mind. What if I have cancer? What if they have to take my uterus? What if I can never have children of my own?
What if…what if…what if.
By the time I meet with Dr. Willamont on Thursday, I’m a basket case. She sits across from me at her messy desk littered with files and pamphlets and tablets with pharmaceutical names printed on them. Glancing at my test results she says nonchalantly, “You have a precancerous condition and I’d like to do a D and C to make sure we clean you out.”
“A what?” I ask, leaning forward. She makes me sound like a dirty refrigerator.
“A D and C…it’s a pretty straightforward procedure. You’ll be outpatient.”
“What kind of cancer do I have?”
Dr. Willamont shakes her head. “You don’t have cancer…you have a precancerous condition. When I do the D and C, we may find some cancer cells which is why we want to do this now before they have a chance to grow.”
I wrinkle my brow. “Can you give me some more information?”
The doctor digs in one of her drawers and pulls out a small pamphlet. “Here…read this and I’ll talk to you in pre-op.” She gets up to leave. I feel like I’ve been an inconvenience to her. An interruption in her overly busy day. “See my receptionist on the way out to schedule the surgery. I’ll see you at the hospital.”
When the door closes, I sit there for a moment in silence. Terrified that I might really be sick, I finally rise and walk on shaky legs toward the receptionist. As I search through my purse for a pen, I notice the waiting room is once again full of women, all sitting with their hands propped on their round tummies, some with a newborn in tow blissfully sleeping in a car seat next to them. I can barely schedule the surgery without crying. Then I hurry to my car where I sit and sob for what seems like an hour.
I don’t remember the drive home or the phone call to my mother. I don’t recall anything that happens for the next two weeks except for enduring the overwhelming fear of what my future may hold.
The night before the surgery, I lie in bed and make myself a promise. If I do have cancer, I’ll stay in the classroom. I’ll need the salary, the benefits and the support of my friends who have become like family. If I don’t, I’ll save money and prepare to quit teaching at the end of the following school year. In fourteen days I’ll know whether I have to endure a long, painful illness, or make plans to set myself free. Either way, I’m on the road to a completely new way of being.
Two weeks later I’m sitting in an exam room at Dr. Willamont’s office. I’ve been waiting for nearly half an hour. She breezes in barefoot and swiftly examines my cervix for signs of healing.
“Everything looks good,” she says. “We got it all. You should have normal periods for the rest of your life.” And with that, she closes the file and walks out of the room.
I notice the bottoms of her feet are filthy. I feel my skin crawl and can't wait to get the hell out of her office.
In 1999 I leave the classroom.
Three years go by.
I get massages, Rolfing, and reflexology treatments. I hope that one of the modalities will give me the normal periods I've longed for since my second puberty at sixteen. Still, my body can’t find its rhythm and I wonder if I ruined my ovaries when I was anorexic. If there’s no hope for me.
Finally, I try homeopathic remedies and after three months, they work. For the next thirteen years, my periods will be like clockwork even during intense periods of stress and transition. For those one hundred and fifty-six cycles, I bleed every month…right on time. But there will never be a baby growing inside of me. I will never hold a child of my own. I don’t know how I am ever going to be able to reconcile this reality with myself -- with the part of me that longs to be a mother.
My arms ache with emptiness and I wonder if I'll always carry this heavy stone of sorrow.
My friends’ children call me Aunt Katie and I’ve been present at some of their births and many of their birthday parties. I’ve witnessed lost teeth and skinned knees, chocolate covered cheeks and chins, and have delighted in watching them learn how to read. I’ve knitted countless toys they love to play with, as well as numerous sweaters, hats, and mittens. The back of my car is equipped with a booster seat and a basket of books, journals, pens, and dry erase boards. The kids love to see which Beanie Babies I’ve tossed in for good measure.
Yes, I’m a great aunt.
And I imagine I would have been a great mother as well.
I was born a Virgo. My mother is a Virgo, as was her mother. My little sister, Greta, and many of my dear friends are Virgos. My Granddaddy was a Virgo as well. However, my father and sister, Patricia, are Cancers. So are most of the men I’ve loved over the years, as well as a few significant women in my life.
Around the time of my surgery, I began to notice the patterns of people coming in and out of my life. Virgos and Cancers. Cancers and Virgos. While visiting a friend who is a professional astrologer, I discovered that half of the planets in my natal chart are in the sign of Virgo. My moon and Jupiter are in Cancer and Cancer was also on the horizon the moment I took my first breath…so I have Cancer rising.
So what does all of that mean? I wondered.
Sue explained that my true nature is Virgo: chatty, organized, and able to bring clarity out of chaos. But the way I appear to the world is more like a Cancer: loving, nurturing, home-centered, and mothering. With a Cancer rising sign, I have a propensity to be focused on creating a family of my own.
No wonder my home is welcoming and peaceful. No wonder the gardens are lush and well maintained. No wonder that, for most of my life, in some capacity, I’ve taken care of children. No wonder I’ve had to learn some pretty harsh lessons in reframing the fulfillment of my hopes and wishes.
The decision to leave teaching was not an easy one. After eleven years in the classroom, my body was a complicated roadmap of the stress and tension endured while working in a high pressure job for less pay than my older sister had earned during her first year out of college. I needed to make some serious changes or risk further illness and disease.
Exceptionally heavy periods had dogged me for over a year. Dr. Willamont’s cavalier attitude, both before and after the D and C, made it that much worse. She acted as if I was another cow in the long cattle drive of her patients. While she was impeccable as a surgeon, her professionalism in the office left much to be desired, so I never went back. Twelve months later, I walked out of Greenwood and never went back there either.
In the summer of 1999, time passed slowly with no real prospects for work. Nevertheless, I decided to take September off and for the first time since I was four, reveled in the joys of not having to go back to school. On my birthday I drove to the park and hopped on one of the swings, gleefully gliding back and forth. I wondered what my friends were doing at school. How the new first grade teacher was faring. How long it would take until I found work that would allow me enough money to live, as well as enough time to finish writing the novel I had set aside so many years ago.
“Show me what You want me to do,” I kept praying. “Show me and I’ll do it.”
I finished my yoga certification in October of that year, and not long after was approached by one of my neighbors. “Would you consider teaching yoga out of your house?” she asked.
“Where would I teach?” I asked her.
“In the basement or upstairs,” Karole replied.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I told her honestly. “But I've been trying to find some classes to teach on the side.”
“Well, if you do decide you want to teach here at home, let me know,” Karole said. “I know another neighbor who’d like to join us.”
And so, three weeks later, I taught my first adult class in the dormer. For the past seventeen years, I have opened my home to students from all over the Toledo area. Never needing to advertise, classes seem to fill magically via word of mouth. My house has been a haven for a host of people who have blessed me with their presence while I share with them my love of yoga during our weekly sessions. I only enroll five or six students at a time, so every class is different, every session personally tailored to their needs.
Like the rest of my house, the yoga studio has undergone several renovations. First it was white with multi-colored spirals stamped on the walls. Then it was a soft pink with hand-painted tendrils of violets curling along the chair rail. Now it is a warm, comforting brown with accents of green. My dear friend, Barb, calls it “the womb room” where she can relax and feel reborn after every class. I often enter the comfort of this sacred space, this room that I had once hoped would be my own children's bedroom, to find my center of peace, hope, and tranquility. From now on, wherever I might live, I will always create another “womb room” to celebrate the joy of yoga and to embrace the serenity of silence.
Of course, I would have welcomed, nurtured, and loved a child of my own. But it has been a comfort to appreciate and utilize the energy of my natal Cancer rising in other ways. Not only have I been able to heal myself through the re-creation and transformation of my home, I have also provided a place where everyone who enters can feel welcomed, nurtured, and loved for who they are.
As I enter the second half of my life, I am joyfully embracing all the children along my path. The ones who call me Aunt Katie. The ones who join me for yoga. And even the little girls who walk by while I sit on the front porch swing and write these words.
“Hello, nice lady,” they say to me, grinning and waving.
I love them all. For in many ways, they are my children for that moment in time…and I am blessed.