Until I read Susan Gubar’s Memoirs of a Debulked Woman, I’d never heard the word “debulked.” I did not know it was the standard surgical treatment for late-stage ovarian cancer. I did not know that it entailed the evisceration of the patient: in Gubar’s case, the removal of her ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, appendix and a portion of her colon — with the cut ends then re-attached, a reattachment that failed in miserable fashion. Surgeons even removed Gubar’s omentum, described in medical literature as “the apron-like flap of tissue that lies under the belly muscles and blankets the intestines.”
Pause for a moment with the word “blankets” and consider how Gubar was stripped, emptied, uncovered and shorn.
But worse is to come. Because the reattachments done during the colectomy leak, Gubar has yet another surgery. The doctors create an ileostomy, a stoma, or opening, from her ileum through her abdomen. Bypassing the lower intestine while it heals, fecal matter drips directly from the small intestine into a bag Gubar must wear at all times and clean and change frequently.
Reading her book, I was reminded — again, always and ever, again — of the deep grace and goodness, the mercy, of the Incarnation.
And here Gubar writes not about physical pain, but about the shame of waste and excretion and odors and sounds and soiling. She writes of waking from her drugged and uncomfortable sleep, finding her fingers clenched around the pleated and sealed opening of the ostomy bag. Her fear of fouling herself, her bed, and her husband is so deep that it defies pain and sleep, even the forced unconsciousness of narcotics.
When I opened the book, I had no idea that a colectomy/appendectomy, the surgery I had in early February of this year, was part of Gubar’s surgical ordeal. I do know that my deepest fear, so deep that I rarely spoke of my true feelings to anyone, was that I would awake with a colostomy. (A colostomy involves an opening from the large intestine, while an ileostomy opens from the small intestine. Their functions are the same, to divert waste from a healing bowel.)
And it wasn’t physical pain I feared, but shame. I could not imagine ever again going to parties or traveling or, indeed, eating, as something I had been taught since babyhood to hide and conceal lay outside my body and in, to me, terrifying ways, outside my control. I write of this now only because I must honor Gubar’s courage and honesty.
The first thing I remember hearing my husband tell me when I saw him after surgery was the glad news, “No colostomy.”
There would be no reprieves for Gubar. She had drainage tubes inserted in her buttocks and abdomen. She was poisoned by chemotherapy. She suffered nerve and brain damage caused by the treatments meant to cure her. She endured a smothering fatigue. The cancer returned. As Gubar reminds her readers, “a patient diagnosed with ovarian cancer will die of ovarian cancer,” but not without hundreds of other, smaller deaths first.
Reading her book, I was reminded — again, always and ever, again — of the deep grace and goodness, the mercy, of the Incarnation. God will lift the veil of shame that covers all the fluids and discharges, the odors and urges of men and women, when he emerges, slick with blood and feces, from his mother’s womb.
Christ eats and drinks and urinates and defecates.
He sweats and bruises and groans and stumbles.
And what does he leave us, we who would not be orphans? Christ leaves us with his body and his blood, real body and real blood we say, as if to convince ourselves that such a thing can possibly be true. We ingest the body and blood of Christ. We chew Christ and swallow Christ and digest Christ. And, yes, though I hesitate to write this, so deep is the taboo, carved in my flesh, against thinking or speaking of it, we excrete Christ. The divine is daily mixed with the mortal, and not the part of our mortal nature we show or esteem, but precisely the part we hide and fear. God in our guts, and, our guts redeemed, made holy.
Every gastroenterologist has a stack of brochures in the waiting room. The pamphlets feature pictures of hard bodies climbing sheer rock faces and dancing the tango. The text tells us that these splendid men and women are wearing the new, sport friendly ostomy appliances. Be sure to ask your doctor about getting one for your very own.
Gubar says this is all a lie. The bags swell with gas, and because there are no rectal muscles, waste empties into them at will. There is no “holding it,” neither waste, nor pride.
And that is what I consider as I kneel before the raised body and blood of Christ in these days of my healing: that there is no holding it, neither waste nor pride.
It frightens me.
It fills me with joy.