I flew back from New York a few days ago after ultrasound technicians couldn't trace the cause of my acute abdominal pain. Confused and extremely expensive American doctors recommended a cat-scan, a wait-and-see-what- happens, whilst I writhed in agony. I was back in England the very next day, where my British specialist diagnosed a torting ovary caused by adhesions: scar tissue. I have now undergone a laparotomy with ventro suspension, luckily escaping a hysterectomy.
My maternal family has been disastrous at reproduction. I am the only daughter of an only daughter. This is not for lack of trying. "Little Jane" was my aunt, she gazed down at me from the cluster of family photographs crowding my grandparents' mantelpiece. I never knew Jane, she died of pneumonia aged two. My grandmother stored the child's strawberry blonde curls in a tattered brown envelope. My own mother survived her older sister; she has mousy brown hair.
Between the ages of five and seven I lived with my grandmother, Nanny as I called her, even though Mum constantly reminded me this name was "common". My hair was baby blonde so Nanny loved me. Each Sunday we placed fresh flowers on Jane's grave. I knelt on the sponge-moss floor, stared up at the gaudy angel commemorating the dead girl, got bored and cold whilst my grandmother cried. Later I asked Mum why Nanny was so sad about Jane. She told me: "Because she is a drama queen."
Still my grandmother grieved: balancing on the arm of Granddad's huge hunting-pattern armchair, clutching her daily tipple of brandy and port, ("for Nanny's nerves, dear"), she silently wept. My mother left the room. My grandfather said nothing. He never did.
Mum's apparently callous behaviour confused me until I was ten and she told me about miscarriages: "I was at an extremely dull party, talking to some ghastly women who could only hold a conversation about village fetes and puddings, when I had a dreadful pain, thought 'uh-ho, here we go', and rushed to the bathroom. I couldn't bare to look, I just flushed. Then I pulled myself together, got drunk and said to those bloody women, 'sorry can't stop and chat, just had a miscarriage in your bathroom'. That shut them up."
It was then I realised "I pulled myself together" is my mother's favourite phrase. A single parent, unloved by her own mother because she wasn't pretty Jane, sent to boarding school at six with false teeth because her cousin bashed them out with a tin drum; my mother has always pulled herself together.
After this she told me about the dead babies. I was unaware I had two sisters and a brother. Full-term, presumably healthy babies who had died. The first was a girl. The birth was fine, the baby fine, mum fine. She took the child home. After a few weeks there were breathing problems. After a month the child was dead. Mum said the worst thing was being asked "how's your baby?", especially at parties. She asked: "what could I say but 'I'm afraid it died', and laugh?"
My mother's glibness was worrying, her survival methods ruthless. The second baby, a girl, was born dead. My mother was left in the delivery room for half an hour with this child on her stomach in order "to bond". The next day her gynaecologist asked her, "And how's your baby, Mrs Harris?" Unfazed she replied, "Oh I'm sure it's fine. It's in the hospital morgue." The doctor had no recollection of helping her give birth the day before. He was embarrassed and apologised. A week later he was found dead with a plastic bag taped over his head. Mum said: "I knew something was wrong, he was just somewhere else."
The third experience was worse."It was the bloody priest!" she told me. This man of God stood at the foot of my mother's bed and asked if the baby had been baptized. Drugged and exhausted she said she didn't know. He screamed: "You've condemned your child to limbo!" My mother went crazy, all stitched up she leapt out of bed shouting "bastard, bastard!" He replied "burn in Hell!" "You know what I did after all this?" she told me, "I tore up every photograph I had of those babies. Funny thing was, I never even thought about giving them a name. I knew something was wrong."
After this, Mum pulled herself together, became pregnant again, left my father and finally, at a premature 4lb, I was born. My father wanted to call me Jemima. Perhaps in a fit of spiteful panic, Mum chose Tiffany.
At 18 I was rushed to hospital with abdominal pains. Doctors discovered a huge ovarian cyst, so big it filled my whole pelvic girdle. I was told this monstrosity was so big it might require a hysterectomy. I was terrified. Even at 18 I desperately wanted kids. My specialist took cat-scans for malignancy, ultrasound for density, but all I cared about were my fallopian tubes. Mum was brilliant, kept me laughing; we made jokes about adopting a rainbow family. I would be Josephine Baker in a vast chateau in France, I would save orphan children, but she knew I wanted my own. The operation lasted five hours, I came round, my first taste of anaesthetic nauseating, and with the over-riding genes of a drama queen I asked my mother, "Can I have children?" She whispered, "Yes, darling, it's all right."
My cyst weighed 7lb. The size of a rugby ball, it had teeth, hair, bones, and freakishly, "some brain tissue". Thankfully it was a benign cystic teratoma, it had grown with me since my birth, my very own mutant twin. I made jokes with the nurses about "my cyster", saying, "matron, have you seen my cyster?" Worse things happen: I pulled myself together.
Two years later my remaining ovary formed another cyst. A smaller dermoid this time, the size of a cricket ball, but it was the same drama. Again I asked my mother, "Can I have children?" Miraculously she smiled: "Yes, darling." This time in that hospital room we laughed; it was too absurd, like the second and third times those penguin nuns said: "We're sorry Mrs. Harris, your baby is with Jesus now." In the middle of a giggling fit I pulled my stitches.
Since then I have suppressed ovulation with the pill, I have ultrasounds twice a year, and until now my half-ovary has grown, compensating for its loneliness. A little like me.
Last summer Mum was herself diagnosed with a cyst, not unusual in older women. She nearly died. Some idiotic anaesthetist ordered her, overweight, 53, a triple gin and tonic before theatre: "It will calm your nerves," he said. Her heart stopped beating half way through surgery, they revived her with electric shock. Her ribs were bruised and she wore an oxygen mask for three days, unable to catch her breath. The anaesthetist, like the priest, screamed at her: "If you weren't so fat this wouldn't have happened!" He said he hoped the experience would "teach her a lesson". My mother is not 26 any more. She didn't have the energy to leap out of her bed.
Mum isn't the same now; she gets tired, a little weepy. Calling me in New York at Christmas she told me, "I know I'm being stupid, but I'm just not right and I don't know why." She will be, I know her strength. She's not pulling herself together, at last.
I used to wonder if my mother cried silently like my grandmother, drink in hand, alone and perched on the arm of a chair, and if things didn't work out for me, if I was walled-up in my chateau in France with my rainbow children, if I would. I used to laugh and adhere to my mother's great advice: "Worse things happen, darling, just stay away from the bloody doctor and that damn priest."
Now, as I shuffle down the hospital corridor, after what I hope is my final operation on a bumpy road towards successful reproduction, I must reject this. I'm not quite ready for the priest yet, but I do need the doctor: to literally straighten me out, talk to me about IVF, about what they term my "options".
If I am functional after all this history, preparation, surgery, what has become the battle to have my own children, I am suddenly aware that I've overlooked the most important thing. I'm still single.Reuse content