Given John Oliver’s discussion of American medical bias against women and people of color, this story about an elderly woman’s medical journey is poignant.
She knows something is wrong. Every time she visits the toilet, she sees the evidence in the bowl. But it doesn’t mean anything. An anomaly. It will pass.
People do not want to hear about her shit.
She knows this. So she keeps the blood to herself. After all, she only noticed a little smear. Once. Okay, several times, but still. If she doesn’t tell anyone, never says the words, what she thinks she sees won’t ever be real.
To build confidence in her story, she broadcasts reports about the status of her bowels. My bowels moved today! I had a good bowel movement! Oh, look in the toilet! She almost levitates above the padded toilet seat. She knows her niece wishes she were anywhere else. Because who wants to stand off to the side while someone takes a dump, waiting to pull up a pair of depends? So she piles on the melodrama. Waving her hands above her head, she yells My bowels are moving right now!
Once, she tries to talk to a professional about her shit.
But she doesn’t get very far. Americans are fixated on youth and beauty. The older a woman gets, the more invisible she becomes. And by the time one gets to her age, they may as well not exist. The nurse won’t look at her during her intake interview. Cuts her off mid-sentence every time she tries to gather the courage to mention what’s wrong.
The doctor treats her like getting her from wheelchair to examining table is more trouble than it’s worth. Acknowledging her will give him leprosy, like he’ll instantly be as old as she is, like she’s an affront for reminding him that he will someday die.
Everyone wants to ignore her shit, even when they’re paid to examine it.
She goes home. Concocts her detailed bowel-casts for everyone who calls. Blames an inability to shit on constipation. Any blood is just a side effect of how hard it was, the effort required.
She tries to talk about what’s wrong again. Not an admission. No, saying the words gives darkness power. So she clings to anyone who crosses her path, becomes needy in her longing to spin her shit-laden stories until she feels normal. She sucks at vulnerability. When her husband was alive, she never had to ask for help. Not once. She’s too old to know what to do now, but she keeps trying. And failing.
Nobody wants to help her deal with her shit.
They won’t look at it. Or smell it. Or drag it from the potty chair in her bedroom to the toilet. They won’t flush it. Or evaluate it. Or touch it. Not even a glance. The only way she can speak the damning words is for someone else to see the truth. But she doesn’t know how to ask for what she needs. Can’t make anyone understand. Bungles it time and time and time again.
She always thought she’d die in the little house she shared with her husband. He’d sit at her bedside, holding her hand, because he was always strong enough for both of them. Part of the reason she married a man eight years her junior is because she wanted to die first. She wove this order into years and decades like believing a thing would make it so.
But her husband dies first. Leaves her to deal with her bloody shit. Gone is the shorthand of a soul who always knows what to do without her ever having to ask. It’s been almost fifty years since she was alone. Finally, she agrees to move. Not because she wants to. She’s not happy with what’s offered. Honestly, she’d prefer anyone, even a stranger she has to pay hundreds of dollars a day for company, over her niece. But she’s not in a position to bargain.
The day is coming when she won’t be able to handle her shit, no matter how she tries.
She knows what’s gnawing at her insides even if she cannot bring herself to say the word. No, she continues her bowel-splaining because she knows everyone will look the other way.
The actual diagnosis is a relief. Now no one can unsee her shit. But rather than linger to revel in their attention or enjoy what she’s gained, she turns her face to the wall. Smiles. Closes her eyes. And lets go in ten days.
Her last conscious thought as her husband and sisters come to claim her soul?
The shit that killed me made me stronger, too.
Originally published at https://andrawatkins.com on August 12, 2019.