Grief on the morning of my pap smear

I had a pap smear today, the first in five years. My last one, done at a student health center when I was in graduate school, was bad. A medical student sprung on me without my consent, an exceptionally painful exam: I bled and limped and felt dirty the rest of the day. Not an experience I wanted to repeat.

At the same time, I know paps are important. So I had one.

It was uneventful, for the most part. A cold speculum, a little pressure, and it was done. Instead, it was the breast exam that lingered on my mind after I left.

I never properly grieved over my mother’s death. I was eight, my family was (and continues to be) emotionally repressed–healthy grieving wasn’t an option. After the funeral, my mother was swept into the corners like dust. Photos of her were taken down, her Precious Moments figurines boxed in the basement and eventually thrown away.

In grad school while I was teaching a class of undergrads about the difference between denotation and connotation, I discovered that I can’t say the word “mother” in even the most impersonal context without getting teary and choked up.

“You never completed the grieving process,” said my therapist when I told her. “You got stuck in one of the stages.”

“Is that bad?” I asked. It sounded bad.

To my surprise, her response was a one-shoulder shrug. “If it’s distressing to you or it’s impacting your quality of life, it is. We could do grief counseling.”

I was there because my anxiety was crippling. I had bigger things to worry about than not being able to say one word. I shook my head, and that was that. I continue to be perpetually stuck in one of the stages of grief.

Every breast exam brings questions about my mother. “How old was she when she died? How old was she when she was diagnosed?”

Young. She was young. And because she had fibrocystic breast disease and mistook the tumors for cysts, the cancer was caught too late.

“Have you had a mammogram?” my doctor asked today. “You should be having them yearly.”

I’m twenty-nine. The current recommendation is an annual mammogram beginning ten years before the age at which a first-generation relative was diagnosed. I had my first one last year, because my doctor said the same thing then, but even after multiple phone calls to multiple different people, my insurance refused to cover any of the cost. I’m under thirty-five: too young by their standards. So I paid it all myself and resigned myself to waiting seven years for another one.

I told this to my doctor. He was horrified. “That’s not right,” he kept saying. He had someone from his office call the radiology center. He talked to the billing department about special forms I would have to fill out. He said he could write a letter to the insurance company explaining it was medically necessary for someone with my family history.

The whole time I thought, This is how high my risk is. This is how likely I am to die like my mother. An entire doctor’s office is concerned that I might go a year without a mammogram.

Cancer is my heart-stopping creak on the stairway, my set of approaching footsteps in the hall outside my bedroom. I hide my head beneath my sheets and pray that it won’t find me.

After my appointment today, I went through the McDonald’s drive-through and got breakfast. A few tears leaked out; I’m still stuck in the grieving process, after all. I sat in my car at the first window, with lube leaking from my cunt and a sob swelling in my throat, and I offered the McDonald’s worker my credit card.

“I love your car,” she said as she swiped it. She meant the two-toned interior, how the dash is half black and half reddish brown. “Did it come like that?”

She handed me my card and receipt, and I felt silly as I accepted them, crying over a breast exam. I had to sniff snot back into my sinuses to answer. “Yeah,” I said, “it did.”

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