exsanguination

exsanguination

exsanguination 1079 721 Courtney Elizabeth Young

CW: cancer, depression, suicidal ideation, dead animals

Excerpts from the forthcoming memoir, PANGAEA.

John is crossing a line that he has worn down over time, by the way he traces the elastic band compressing my skull, hiding a hairline that no longer exists, that is covered by the hair connected to my head.

“I’m sure you’re still beautiful without this on,” he smiles at me, and I smile back, but my mouth is dry, and my body is dry, and being in medically induced menopause is not good for business. Having breast cancer is not good for business.

John’s hands find their way to their usual place behind my neck, and do not startle when they wrap around not soft hair like a willow wisping in the wind, but the wiry mesh netting of my wig against my bald head — like a chain link fence against barren land.

He takes my face in his palms. I know what he wants. He wants to abolish the boundary I insist between us; the thin strap of latex that keeps us two separate worlds even while we are one.

I let him because I have nothing else to offer him — aside from a listening ear, which used to be enough, that is no longer enough. I let him because I cannot give him oral pleasure since my mouth has erupted in stinging sores from treatment. I let him because I cannot allow him to pump and huff as hard as he wants as if carving me cavernous, because my body is a desert dry land.

I let him, and when he tries, we are not our usual chorus of bathymetric measurements, echoing. When he tries, I emit low whale-like moans. When he tries, I yelp in pain.

When he keeps trying, I quiet.

***

I am awake with new information I do not know how to hold, in a body I do not know how to hold, in a life I do not know how to hold onto. Today I learned my precancer progressed, and what that means in terms of… is it still precancer? Or is it now cancer? I do not yet know. Today I get results. I read, ‘Integration frequency in invasive cancer is the highest for this genotype [positive] which varies between 100% and 92%’ and, ‘the earlier occurrence of invasive cervical cancers that are positive for your genotypes [both positive] are indicative of a short time of progression to invasive cancer.’ I do not know much. I do not know what my body holds, only that it holds too much.

When John leaves, I turn on my side and in the silence of the hotel room I strain to hear my own heart beating. It is soft, quiet. Lacking the baritone that beats in John’s chest. Lacking the impact that purpose carries — purpose like a mortgage and a marriage and kids and clients.

It is more like the bird wings that tremble outside the frost-covered window, the ones that sync with my pulse for a brief moment in time. Each of us, in our own way, pulling ourselves shallow gasp by shallow gasp, weakened grasp by weakened grasp bit by tiny bit further into the world.

More innate than learned, more impulse than earned, more treble than bass. Less like a drum and more like a flickering, less like a thrum and more of a ticking. Ticking, like a clock. Ticking, like a bomb.

***

I am 11. I am crying so hard I am going to ‘make myself sick,’ like Dad has warned me before.

I am not old enough to know that if you really want to die, you must cut yourself vertically. I am only 11. I do not know these things yet. And so I do not die. I am alive when Dad comes home, warm, calm, but sad. He holds my tiny wrist in his big hands and begins to wash off the blood in the bathroom sick. I cry and howl at the pain. “Dad please, please no, Dad, it hurts, Dad, please, please no, please stop,” I beg and I beg.

“I want to but I can’t, Courtney, I need to make sure it doesn’t get infected,” he says.

He kneels in front of me as I huff and puff reddened cheeks, trying to catch my breath as he wraps my throbbing wound.

“Why did you do this to yourself, sweetheart?” He asks.

***

In this moment, in this hospital, where my Dad is not here to wrap the bleeding wound I have become, I spill, I gush, I run, I flood. I bleed, I blubber, I beg. I beg as if my life depends on it — but it doesn’t — because I don’t have cancer.

“Please, please, Dad, please don’t make me do this, I don’t want to do this, please Dad…” I trail off into my hands.

My father does not answer me, he only stares through a screen.

“Do you want to live?” The doctor demands. My head jerks to my left, my face contorts as I look at hers — hers, looking the way people look at someone when they are holding a gun to their head.

“Do you want to live?” She orders again. Her eyes move back and forth and back and forth between mine, a jagged heartbeat. I stare at her. She is pushing the gun into my skull, she is asking me if I want her to pull the trigger. She is squeezing the hairpin, and all I smell is gunmetal, all I hear is a ticking deep inside of me.

I do not answer her, because I do not know the answer to her question.

There is a cloud, not just black, but pink. Looming, creeping. Stalking, reaping.

And then there is me: glowing, gleaming. Clawing, reaching.

I will always look at the course of my life much like I look at the moon. From far away, and with wonder, bemused. In glimpses, between clouds. Flashes of clarity between pink shrouds.

Hands, reaching for estranged mother. Hands that have always been reaching for estranged mother. Mother, holding a blade. Mother that has always been holding a blade. Daughter hangs her head in shame, mother raises hands to maim. This time by way of a shaver; lost continent found and conquered then cleared all the way away. Razor sharp ribbons falling into the lake.

Hands that then hold mother’s, mother’s that hold daughter’s, above a reaching, raging, rushing of water.

I will always look at the course of my life much like I look at the moon. From far away, and with wonder, bemused. In awe of the way her highlights look brighter against each bruise.

***

Our eyes land on each other meeting on something like a summit. A high point of relief. We sigh in the same breath, a convection current closes the space between us. A warm wind. One that erodes, that whittles me down to a memory. All is still, and all has stopped, and I remember.

My body remembers.

I am a monster with two heads. After all these years I still wonder: Will it be cancer or depression? Which one will take me out in the end?

Migration is usually triggered by the angle of sunlight. Dependent upon the way the world lets the light in is a cascade of contingencies that impact season, temperature, plant life, sustenance, and survival.

I do not know much about migration unless its about running away from home, running all over the world… or a slow, continental drift. I don’t know much about migration unless it’s about transforming all the pain that was never your fault into a beautiful life, and then being handed a life sentence.

I don’t know much about migration unless it’s about coming back… because I am always coming back.

I don’t know much about migration unless it’s about a rogue cell: one that crossed a boundary from a breast that no longer exists, then hid in a chest wall — that would by then by that definition be metastatic in its malignancy — then came back — nested right up against my heart.

I don’t know if my body learned from me or if I learned from it… and I don’t know much about having wings, but I know this:

This is the way I choose to let the light in: by the things I have time for now. And these are the things I have learned to make time for: when I see phenomena, I pull over, I watch. I smile. I push record or capture. These are the things I want to learn from. My body is still something I want to learn from. But I fear that the more I learn from it, the more it will learn from me, and we will just spiral in a tandem tangle, death-grip on the other while going down swinging.

I had a friend once. She had metastatic breast cancer. Her favorite animal was a bar-necked goose. When she saw my face, she answered a question I didn’t have to ask. She said, “they are the only birds that can migrate over the Himalayas.”

There is a needle on a monochrome screen. All is grey except the black hole they are trying to penetrate with this needle, that needle glowing and white. I am walking into another battle. I am lying on my side while the Others all hovered over me, the matronly at my feet, putting hands on the body of a daughter that doesn’t belong to them, trying to comfort me as the huge needle goes in. I see it stab the mass on the screen to my right, I see it come back out and go back in, I feel the numbing come through. I wait. I shouldn’t feel anything anyway. There are no nerves there anymore. The numbing kicks and bucks until it settles. Doctor takes another needle, something affixed to the end. I watch the screen, feel the tug of my breast from all sides of me. Feel it jabbing, jamming into me, out and then back again, out and then back again. These Others, they all wince. Like I’m in a horror movie they are watching, they cringe at the sight of it, of me, of what is happening and has happened to me. I feel something, but they tell me I cannot move. “Try to hold your breath, deep push,” the doctor says. Lockjaw in grimace, brows narrow at the seam in the screen, the one that cuts through the dark storm beneath my skin. My eyes clamp shut as I feel the shock. A tear betrays my grimace. “Pressure or sharp what do you feel? What do you feel? Tell me what you feel,” doctor demands. My eyes snap open to the black hole on the screen, the long white that rips this sky in half, that works to cut me open, but that does not fill my body with light. I know the answer to this question. Breath sucked through grit teeth I grunt, “nothing.”

November 25, 2006. I am at a drive-thru window for as long as it takes me to realize no one is going to answer me, for withdrawals to grow from impatience to rage, to gassing my car to a screeching skid before violently flinging her into park, muttering, ‘what the fuck is the problem? Why isn’t anyone answering me? Why doesn’t anyone ever fucking answer me?’

I am a freight train, derailed. I am banging near-frozen fists on the doors of a McDonald’s with a screaming, “HEY! I’m hungry! I’m fucking hungry!” that slowly turned to sobbing: “Please… please, I’m fucking hungry…” to a sliding, back against the glass onto the cold hard ground.

I am head-hung in tears walking back in my car. I have no one except men who don’t know my real name, who haven’t answered my calls.

I have nothing except a bunch of clothes I will pile on myself tonight when tonight gets very, very cold.

I have nowhere to go, until I do. Blowing heat into my hands I remember the dumpster at the Felpausch that must be stocked with food.

Looking before turning left down Northeast Capital I do a double-take, see the sign blinking: “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Never forget where you came from.

Always be thankful.

***

Give me winter
Give me blood in the snow.
Give me empty bird nests
frozen feathers
hollow bones.
Make of me the composed carnage
that swallows the world whole.

Give me white burial
Give me ominous fog
Give me iron and rifle
Make of me a cadaver dog.
Sick with the hunger
the hunt
the want.

Make of me the
rush
the hush
and the haunt.
Entrails to maim
innards to gnaw.

The wind-whips crack in the cold
rips the skin off my throat —
blood clot the shape of a cardinal
wings and all.

singing …
singing red and raw.

The following photo gallery is a stunning collection of travel across six continents.

 

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11 Comments
  • Theresa Bourassa 04/16/2022 at 3:59 am

    I’m such a fan. Not only of your writing but you as a human. You inspire the fighter in me to keep pushing on. ❤️

  • Nathalie Kramer 03/31/2022 at 12:43 am

    Fierce poetry in motion. Courage. Raw beauty. Truth. Fight. Coexistence of vulnerability and strength. This writer embodies all of it. I bow to you, dear Courtney.

    • Oh wow, Thank you so much my sweet friend. Your words always move me! I still can’t believe I know you! Thank you so much for your presence, your light in my life.

  • Michelle power 03/30/2022 at 9:31 pm

    I am not an author or a photographer but I am a therapist! This piece of art is provocative and thought provoking in many levels!! The emotions are palpable and the fear is raw! To be able to express oneself in this manner is incredibly cathartic! This author’s ability knows no boundaries! Keep writing, experiencing and living your truth! You are an inspiration and a special kind of a warrior!!

    • Call Michelle, I would not be here without you and that’s just a simple truth! You’ve done so much for me and Brad and I appreciate you endlessly. Thank you so much for being along for the ride, we love you!

  • Stephanie Henderson 03/30/2022 at 1:52 pm

    Absolutely beautiful read. Your words are unscathed through your journeys, the words you have matter most. Your photography brings them to life, you to life. I love this, I cannot wait to read the full version. This glimpse is a mere tease! I love it. I love you, always.

    • Oh Stephanie, you’re such a darling! We may not have met under the best circumstances, but I am so proud of you for how far you’ve come and all that you’ve accomplished! You are just as beautiful as the day I met you! I love you too 💛 <3

  • I love how your writing not only invites, but forces one to look at your experiences in a very real, organic and poetic way. How can one look away from the beautiful carnage when offered with the light hitting it ‘just so.’ It’s so captivating, raw, mature and compellingly tragic all at once. To see what your eyes have captured in concert with what your heart and mind have captured on the page, brings such a rich and deeper understanding of the concepts presented. Well done, Courtney! And, thank you for being the gift that you are!

    • Jenn, How blessed am I to know you. You are such a wonderful human being and extraordinary source of light in this world and in my life. I have so much respect for you and I hold you in the highest regard. Thank you so much for ingesting this, I know some of it is difficult to look at, but I am ever appreciative of anybody who dares to peek into my mind, especially you!

  • Mary Beth Rew Hicks 03/30/2022 at 9:05 am

    Knowing you a little bit, and having the honor of writing alongside you and becoming your friend this past year, this is such a compelling collage of your memoir, which I so look forward to holding in my hands. I am in awe. Your writing is exquisite and your incredible photos are the perfect accompaniment to these excerpts. So grateful for what you have shared here. Brava, my friend!

    • My dear… I wouldn’t say you only know me “a little bit“… We are so fortunate to know each other through writing, I feel that I have a more intimate relationship with you (and our squad!) Then even people I have known for 15 years just because of the simple fact that we occupy the same literary space. You have encouraged me beyond measure and giving me so much Support. I appreciate you so much, thank you so much for being so present in my life.

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