I don’t think you can really know a thing until you’ve gone through it. Before that, the thing only exists as an abstract thought that unfolds in theoretical space. And definitely not within you. But once the thing cuts into the realm of tangible objects and becomes your thing, then you must adapt, you must bend, or you will dissolve and be no more.
My thing started when I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that my right breast had lumps. This was about two months after my daughter Beatrix died. She’d lived the entirety of her short little life encased in a plastic box at Newark Beth Israel. I never got to hold her when she was alive—isn’t that horrible? I remember a lot of those two weeks, how I lived within a mess of grief so intense that I wanted to dissolve into air. How could anybody live like that? And how could our little girl? Needless to say, one day I arrived with my husband at the hospital pregnant and two weeks later we left without a baby.
Two months after, I looked in the bathroom mirror at our house in Newark and at first, I thought this thing was cancer. My breasts had just recovered from mastitis after screaming in pain for a dead baby’s touch. For many weeks, I could not look at the state of my body, its scars and pale ugliness. Doctors had sliced across that patch of skin above my mons pubis and pulled her from my womb. I remember distinctly the sensation of my skin being pulled, and that I could not see what they were doing but heard everything—the incisions, the pieces of gristle being yanked away. The doctors had hung a pale blue sheet below my breasts so I could not see the terrible things they were doing to me. I was white knuckling it, in disbelief that this was happening, and my husband was speechless as he held my hand in the cold operating room. We felt as small as children left behind during an air raid. The nurses said our daughter yelped like a red-faced squirrel when they took her out of my womb and performed their AGPAR checklist. My little squirrel, I am so sorry you were born so early. Three months early—three months early! That fact always takes my breath away.
But getting back to my right breast. It turned out not to be cancer. So, what was it? The doctors could not figure it out even after so many appointments and tests. When I got home from the last examination, I stared at my breast until it seemed to become even more lumpy with every minute. This was a bad time when this all started happening—everything was a bad time— everything was curdled and raw. I was holed up at home, weeping everyday as I healed from emergency surgery, and I was also doing the clerical, mundane business of DEATH: filing her birth and death certificates, picking out a gravestone, calling the Social Security office, emailing and calling the health insurance company, faxing medical claims, crying again and again. How do people function in the face of annihilation? You take one step and then another and then another.
So, about the lumps that were not cancer. They stayed but seemed to become smoother in appearance. But then other things started, and they would not stop.
First, my right breast and then the left started expanding like balloons, becoming as large as honey dew melons you could buy at the grocery store. I had to sleep with a body pillow between both breasts and walk around with them wrapped and cossetted up in the biggest bra I could find in the store. Bending down to do things became harder; I had to ask other people for help or use one of those trash pickers you buy at the hardware store to retrieve socks, underwear, and lint off our wooden floor.
A few weeks after the case of the honey dew melons, my legs grew so tall and large that my head started bumping against the eight-foot ceiling of our house. Before this thing, I used to be five feet and one inch tall, but suddenly I could not wear anything for pants except the largest beach towel I could find around my waist. I went to sleep one night short and petite and woke up the next morning stumbling out of our too small bed.
Later, my hands plumped up to the size of T-bone steaks, my fingers were like swollen hot dogs. Things became doubly harder to do. I was too tall to sleep in our bed, and I was useless around the kitchen with my pendulous, heavy breasts, and my meaty, large hands that were so clumsy. I broke every dish and glass in my futile quest to make Asian stir fries, cheese casseroles, turkey sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs. We ordered takeout and pizza because I could not cook; everything had become doll size. I could not take baths or do much of anything but watch TV and peer at the neighbors fighting across the street.
And finally, after a week when nothing happened, all the other parts of me caught up with the new, enlarged parts.
“What am I turning into?” I cried to my husband. We were both desolate after our daughter died; me more so because I was the one who carried her. I was the one who felt her flutter like a sea fish in my belly.
He tried to say things for comfort and hold my meaty hands in his now suddenly small palm, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. His voice sounded more like mouse squeaks. In fact, all people sounded like mice when they talked. I was growing bigger by then. All my parts were growing every day, enlarging in proportion as if the early stages of my transformation were phases where kinks were being worked out in fits and starts by an unknown machinery of biological processes until I reached a certain invisible line and things galloped to a steady pace.
One day, I stopped growing. By this time, I could not fit into our house at all without destroying it; I had already punched a hole in our roof by accident and crushed the wood back deck when I leaned against it. I had taken to living next to a very large oak tree near our street. I was naked because nothing fit—not even sail cloth; my leg and armpit hairs were long, my crown of hair tangled up with broken tree limbs, acorns, birds’ nests and stray trash that flew in from the street. I did not smell like a domesticated woman—I was beastly, feral in all my intimate parts. My patient husband looked sad whenever he came to visit my tree to drop off tiny baskets of food that I would eat in one massive gulp—large turkeys and stacks of pancakes were nothing. Down the hatch went steaks and apple pies as if they were delicate cocktail appetizers on a silver serving platter.
And all around him, people gathered and stared at me, the sad giantess. Some were mean. I could tell they were saying bad things because they contorted their mouths into nasty impressions and pointed and laughed.
I wanted to bellow: “Don’t you know my daughter is dead?”
There were other people there who came to visit, but I couldn’t stand their sad pitying faces looking at me like I was a specimen, a cautionary tale. I was their there but for the grace of God.
I was caught between strong, opposing emotions with this group—wanting comfort, wanting understanding but not wanting pity. I wanted to bellow: “Go away! I don’t want your pity.”
It became apparent after some time that it was untenable for a half-crazed, sad gigantic naked woman to live in the neighborhood. Too many people came to gawk and take pictures with traffic backing up all over the side streets and alleys; even buses of tourists all the way from Atlantic City and Washington, D.C. came to see me.
I decided to leave. I was tired of being stared at. I wanted quiet and a peaceful place to sleep. As a farewell, I gave my husband a kiss or as close as a kiss you can get between a tiny man and a giant. It was astonishing—the height of him was the full width of my face. One fat tear rolled down my massive cheek, the equivalent of a large rain barrel filled to the brim, and doused him salty wet from head to toe. I mouthed to him my sorrys; I could only mouth things because if I said anything in a normal register, my voice would carry forth like a great storm and knock down trees, utility poles, set off car alarms across the city and shatter the glass windows of the nearest buildings.
After our farewell, I asked myself: Where does a person like me go? Where is my home? When I came away from my tree and stretched to my full height, I looked west to the mountains and east to the ocean. I saw birds flying through clouds, and I imagined the soul of my daughter doing somersaults in the air with the lightness and grace of a brown sparrow.
I then made up my mind. I was going to the sea. I was going to swim to the Caribbean and live among the sharks, dolphins and birds of paradise and eat fish and plankton like a gulping blue whale. I was going to be alone, truly alone, and no one would stare.
My journey started with me taking massive strides over suburban tract housing and office parks that were now miniscule with my shadow blocking out the moon and the sky. I was careful not to crush highways into dust or mangle playgrounds with my powerful step. I did my walking at night when everybody was asleep. Perhaps people saw me from their windows and then went to bed, thinking they had merely dreamed of a titan walking as quietly as she could across a darkly lit landscape of strip malls, gas stations and car parks. I walked with massive strides. I walked, I walked, I walked.
When I got to the beach, I started wading through the salty waters as I let my feet kick away sandbars and the submerged, rusting ships down on the sea floor. In my wake, I disturbed whole ecosystems of coral reefs and kelp forests even as I tried to be careful with the placement of my feet. The fish came to watch and follow and sometimes they tickled my feet as they nibbled on the skin flaking off from my ankles and toes. The ocean water only reached the height of my knees as I walked. I towered over everything. I was the pale sea monster of a million bad dreams and legends.
The sun’s position at day and the stars at night guided me to the south; they were the only things that kept my mind off the state of things—my gigantic mournful self, my husband left behind, my daughter fresh in her baby grave. When I was especially sad, the atmosphere licked my hard weeping face and then the sky would become dark gray and cloudy and it would rain. When I was angry, perhaps the electricity and heat of my red mood, like a volcano, would gather energy, gather strength, gather bile, and let loose thunder bolts over the simmering ocean and for a moment I was an avenging goddess rising from a cloud of ozone, but avenging what exactly?
It was some days, I could not tell how many, until I made it to warmer waters; the air had become more humid, the sun hotter and the ocean bluer and clearer than my starting off point. I wasn’t alone when I came to my resting spot; tropical birds seeking shelter had hitchhiked in my waves of hair. They cooed and fed their babies in the folds and flaps of my ears. I shook them off when I neared a green mountainous island with pale blue water lapping the shore.
It was rough going to the island. As I walked closer, the waves became choppier and the ocean depth increased until I could not feel the sandy floor with my toes. I started to swim. I tried as best as I could to keep my head tilted up and to move my arms and legs hard towards the island, but the water became heavier and colder the closer I got to land. The sea slapped my face and limbs and then the troughs and crests, once so sedate and gentle, rapidly built up into menacing mountains and dark valleys. I became so tiny, so insignificant. A hard, cruel fist of sea water punched me down from the surface and I quickly sank. I was too tired by then to fight. My limbs and muscles ached with lactic acid and my lungs burned from exertion and I was in catatonic terror. Down I went into the darkling ocean to become nothing. The last thought I had as I closed my eyes—it appeared in my mind like a shooting star flashing across the sky—was the face of my daughter. Her eyes were large and black, and in her face, I saw a deep intelligence.
How did I survive that near drowning? What happened in that liminal space? I don’t know. One day I almost died and the next I woke up on the shores of the island.
It was at first strange when I woke up. Everything, from the trees to the smooth stones on the beach, was human-sized; I was no longer a giantess. I didn’t question it because I was grateful to have somehow made it here and later for what I found on the island; there was fresh water erupting from a black fissure in the earth—it flowed down from the top of a mountain and into a sluice of volcanic rock and emptied to a spot near the shore. And there was plenty of fruit growing in the bush and sweet coconuts in the trees, tasty fish I had to hunt with a wooden spear, and mussels, crabs and sea urchin I grabbed from the beach’s lagoons bursting with abundance.
At night, I cooked myself kelp soup in a conch shell that I warmed over a fire I made. Survival on the island occupied my thoughts instead of the things I had left behind and the thing I became. But between my counting of the tides, the exploration of the island, and my study of the constellations and the planets, I felt the ache of my daughter’s passing that would always be there, in my beating heart, in my every breath.
During the day, I perceived this pain to be a shadow, a shifting darkness beyond the periphery of my vision, and at night, while I slept, it would unfurl and become a spark of blue and white light. In my dreams, it hurt my eyes to look at this thing. Also, in my dreams, I saw myself growing bigger again until I ripped through my clothes and dwarfed my house. I had visions of myself walking, thundering against the land with my gigantic feet—my anger and despair reacting and charging at the level of molecules to become white hot plasma.
Sometimes, I dreamt of the bottom of the ocean. In a place so still and dark, I saw my body floating in that silent space. In those moments, I would suddenly wake up wanting to hold my husband.
For many weeks, it was like this—countless days of trooping through the island and surviving off the land. And when the sky darkened at dusk, I would make a nest of palm fronds and soft grass and sleep under the canopy of trees, readying myself for dreams, visions and impossibilities.
One day, I saw a moving speck in the horizon of my ocean. It was a dot in the sea in the morning and it became gradually larger as the sun trailed up the sky. It was a small boat and someone was in it, rowing towards my shore. I came to stand where it would land; I was tanned and naked except for a seaweed filigree about my waist and small shells woven into my hair. I held my well-worn spear in one hand and my catch of parrot fish in the other. I had become wild during my absence from civilization.
The boat’s details became clearer as it drew closer. I could make out its planks and trim and then the figure rowing came into focus. It was my husband. I yelped and jumped like a joyful coyote and he whooped in his booming voice when he saw me as the spray of the ocean leapt around his boat. I went running to him and he jumped from his seat and made for me with his outstretched arms.
How did he know to come here? I was too shocked to ask. But of course, he would come; of course! We embraced, we kissed, we wept like babies. We wept for our baby. Oh, how we’d missed each other, and how happy we were to be together—so different, so changed, but together—in this uncharted place.