What Did You Expect, Though?


This spring the gland in my throat that sets the speed of change of every cell in my body started to fail. I shifted by the day, grew cheeks, lost memory, went dry and slick, lost hair where I wanted, found it where I didn’t. My body swung between poles—woman to man, industrious to exhausted—thanks to antibodies set to kill my thyroid. I’d prefer the gland stay, but here we are.

Nature never promised otherwise; transformation is the base state. The fisher cat’s scream morphs in a listener’s ear to that of a dead woman’s. The Internet holds tales of this conversion and its reversal, written in forums by folks sad to discover their brush with a ghost was probably with a cat. My first fisher scream recalled another scream years before, by my dad. He crossed—human to animal, man to woman—in my childhood home in Texas. I stood upstairs as he did, packing to start graduate school in Chicago.

Around that house curved guarantees, ribs of an umbrella blocking facets of existence. My parents walked with ease. Myself and brother, too. Teeth and spine worked and always would. I trusted body as a child trusts water. Before you learn of drowning, of tsunamis and floods and choking in a pool, you know a colorless spray, switched on and off at home. You are the master of water. Bring it to your lips and swallow its force. In time you learn it can swallow you. A lesson brought perforce, when the ribs of the umbrella start to crack (water pressure).

Disease feels like betrayal. Especially autoimmune diseases, such as my thyroid deal, in which the protective mechanism goes haywire and becomes dangerous. The immune system, meant to protect a body from foreign invaders, works too assiduously, sees danger where there is none, turns on itself. Such conditions lend themselves to metaphor. Humans sensitive to the imbalances of the world manifest those imbalances inside themselves. Some eighty percent of American autoimmune patients are women, their bodies attacking tissues of the brain, muscle, joints. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Sjogren’s. Genetics predispose, but the trigger for the expression can come from anywhere: a virus, a surgery, an earthquake, PTSD. Sufferers cluster in stressful parts of the world. Cures, such as they are, live in the realm of faith. Ghost cat stories share space on the Internet with tales of other mutations, of women falling sick and changing tacks to achieve remission. Athletes going vegan. Bankers finding yoga and losing income to broker a peace with the body. The diseases can seem to match personality as if designed to punish. Invisible retribution, felling the sorts of women whose choices upset others—who work hard, work out, have it all. Suddenly she is tired and sick, though she may not look it from the outside. Unusual in the opposite way of how she was. You asked for stress? Dared to control your body? Your mind? Sent a message that you are wrong, foreign, not as you should be? Watch as your immune system follows suit.

My mom’s condition carried the balance of an autoimmune disease. She was a doctor of the brain. A neurologist, good at her job and at most tasks. Enough to inspire blame for her demise—from doctors, patients, friends, relatives—who spoke wistfully of another sort of woman, who might have stopped for help en route to the stroke, who might have taken more seriously the pain in her belly that was not indigestion but tumor, thickening her blood. On the couch she wore an orange nightgown bought on the street in India. I saw her drive the price down years before, dimples flashing, the man on the other side of the sale at the mercy of her face, which moved at the mercy of her whims. Now she lay in her spoils, parts in disarray, forcing dad to scream like a woman at the foot of the stairs. In another voice I’d never heard, he said to call 911. I took in the limbs atop each other, the tongue lolling from mouth, a woman without control.

Change can surprise even a girl who’s seen death. We forget the force of change, of pain or loss or joy, when intensity ebbs. Then a second puberty takes hold. Ovaries grow cysts, uteruses tissue, faces move to echo the mother not seen before her own shift to womanhood took hold. Pregnancy brings new organs and a rewiring of old ones. Tissues fill with water, bones move in recognition of placenta and limbs, breasts rewire to the brain, seeping liquid if any old baby cries. A friend, a doctor, offered a theory. The nature of the woman’s body makes her vulnerable to glitches. Every day of every month after all, her hormones shift in orientation to extreme transformation, toward or against pregnancy.

Last year the country changed at woman-speed, lines hardened, softness lost, collagen stores depleted, pain radiating in new ways, its body mapped to our own. Doctors spoke to reporters of great traffic in the months since the trigger. Therapists spoke of an election effect. In my acupuncturist’s office—a frequent stop in my pubescent years—I saw the neo-Buddhist magazine Tricycle. Sent a photo of text to another friend, with whom Buddha had come up as she cried over a relative sick with MS. I offered the story of Prince Siddhartha, who left the palace sheltered. He saw a poor man, a sick man, a dying man; he left his kingdom and family (“Thanks a lot,” his wife, stuck with kid and shifted body, might have said to those three men on the street); he went into a trance under a tree to make sense of it all.

The story in question: how do we live in these times? The solution: observe, don’t act. Illusion of control is what agitates, not the change that inspires that fantasy. Especially if change looks like decline: of a country, a body—our family member’s, our own. On the phone with the EMT, I shared facts: posture, tongue. I skipped the ones I valued most: neurologist, same hospital, same nurse, same procedure, same day, same condition. Different body. Doctor in the morning, patient at night. Studier of strokes trapped inside one. Such twists inspired imagination, felt too neat to be real, the sort my college fiction workshop peers might excise. I sensed through these plot points a script with an author—god, maybe? In the poetic form my mom’s took, even this break from the norm suggested a control beneath, limbs and organs to return to obeisance by the final act.

The EMT didn’t sound so sure. He warned against sleep. I pitied his ignorance. Could he not see the script? Feel the umbrella’s shade? Of course she wouldn’t sleep. But it was my voice sounding strange now. “Please don’t sleep. I love you too much.” The eyes closed and I yelped and they opened to show the familiar flicker of sparrow alertness. She still looked curious about strokes.

I watched as they loaded her, eyes bright in the red. A neighbor asked about the ambulance. I said mom had a stroke, was stricken, couldn’t move. She looked at me as if I were the unluckiest person in the world. As if she were the owner of the voice I heard out of myself before, of a person who knew what I didn’t. There are no guarantees. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to take your money.


Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.

Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. More from this author →