Little Mouse

frozen scissors
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.

Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.

I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.

Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.

•••

I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.

“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.

By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.

One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.

The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.

Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.

One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.

•••

Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.

•••

When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.

I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”

Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.

I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.

This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?

The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.

Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.

The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”

“Amy?”

“Yep.”

“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”

Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”

I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.

I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.

Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.

Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.

And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.

•••

As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.

Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.

As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.

I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.

My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.

Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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Picking Sides

laughing
By Danor Shtruzman/ flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

We’d talked about going to the German restaurant in Gibson City for years. Well, my friends had talked about it and I’d played along, neither enthusiastically nor unenthusiastically. When I thought of German food, what came to mind was the German restaurant we went to in high school as part of the German class field trip. I didn’t love it. Sausage and schnitzel don’t rate high on my list, I guess. But then Elise reminded me about strudel. Who doesn’t love a good strudel?

So the six of us—Chris and Christy, Elise and Jeremy, and Steve and I—all drove the forty-five minutes through the cornfields of Illinois one Saturday night to give it a try. I’d been hearing wonderful things about Bayern Stube for more than ten years now, and Steve loves sausage. Oh, does he love sausage. He’d studied the online menu for days and he knew just what he wanted: the huge platter of assorted sausages.

We’re seated at a huge table in the very back room, past the rooms decorated in the dark tones we’d come to associate with German-themed anything. This room is too brightly lit and feels more like a banquet room. It’s decorated—if you can call it that—with both parts of and entire dead animals. A deer head here, an entire turkey splayed out and flattened onto the wall over there. Antlers. Bearskins. “Do you get the sense that Grandpa went a little nuts decorating this room?” Jeremy asks. But only Elise and I can hear him because the table is so big and the chairs so wide and the room so loud that conversation is limited to those sitting closest to us. There’s a party of six at a round table behind us, a party of probably ten at the table next to us, and a party of five or so plus a toddler over there in the corner.

The waitresses are wearing dirndl dresses with the gathered white blouse and it’s hard not to notice how prominent their breasts are. It’s like the German version of Hooters. Our waitress takes our drink orders and disappears for a half hour. A half hour. We beg a waiter for water. It arrives only after our drinks. Steam is coming out of Steve’s ears and I’m beginning to feel the stress of his frustration. I try to make him laugh. We joke that we’d get up and leave except that this is the only restaurant in town.

We study the menu. I’m still not quite sure what a schnitzel is, but the one with apples and gruyere cheese on top sounds good. The Bismarck. We watch our waitress deliver a tray full of drinks to the table of six behind us. We salivate. “I’m feeling a little parched,” I say, smacking my lips together. I tell them all about our plans to go on vacation with the dogs up to Door County in June. We’ll be staying at a dog-friendly inn right on the lake and, as part of the “Hot Dog” package, we’ll get a gift card to a local dog-friendly restaurant whose selling points include a doggy menu. It kills me to imagine Wrigley and Essay sitting at a table with us, looking over the menu, deciding what they’re in the mood for. Yes, we’d like four of everything, please, says Wrigley to the waiter. “They’ll probably be served before we are,” someone says.

At last, our drinks arrive. Steve’s full liter of beer is in a huge glass stein and he drinks it very quickly. Mine is in a smaller glass stein and not nearly as impressive looking. Soon our waters arrive and we order. We’re in it for the long haul, it seems, so we’d better get comfortable. These chairs. They’re huge and hard and the baby over in the corner cries every now and then, a sound that grates on some of our nerves. In order to hear each other, we have to practically shout and still some of us are lost in our own conversations.

I come from a long line of loud people. My mother’s sneezes could wake the dead and her laughter could be heard up the street. In nearly every job that I’ve ever had, my loud laugh has been the subject of attention, both good and bad, but mostly good. When I move my office at school from one in a long hallway of colleagues to a much bigger but more remote one, my colleagues tell me how they miss hearing me laugh.

Our food arrives to much fanfare. We’re hungry. We need another round of drinks. One of the tables behind us clears out, making the toddler’s cries more prominent. Midway through our meal, a woman from the toddler table comes over to our table, and I wish I could describe better what happened but I couldn’t look at her and only Jeremy and Elise and Christy and I heard her ask me to please stop laughing because every time I laugh it scares the toddler and she starts crying. I can’t look at her. Jeremy doesn’t look at her. I probably set my lips tight together and nod. Later I learn that Christy gives her the stink eye. I don’t know what we say to her, if anything, to get her to leave, but she’s apologizing as she’s asking me to stop being so loud. Steve doesn’t hear her and we have to report to him and Chris what just happened. I’m mortified. I try to summon anger as my friends respond with outrage as they process what just happened.

“Why isn’t that baby home in bed?”

“It’s clear who runs the show in that household. Baby gets what Baby wants.”

“A kid who’s afraid of laughter. Christ.”

“You are not too loud. I love your laugh.”

“Who does that?”

Steve, realizing what’s happened, says in their general direction, “We’re too loud?”

I want the subject to change. I’m mortified and all I can think about is how I couldn’t even look at her when she was talking directly to me. But my friends continue defending me and I almost can’t bear it. Because I can see the woman’s point. Almost too easily, I slip from my own perspective into hers and I imagine that if I were at a restaurant with my toddler and there was a woman at a nearby table whose laugh was particularly loud, I, too, might ask her if she could perhaps be a bit quieter. Maybe I would have done it differently, more kindly perhaps, but I couldn’t inhabit my own position, feel my own anger and self-righteousness for more than a minute or two before shifting to empathy for her position.

We’re a culture concerned with empathy these days, the popular sentiment being that we don’t have enough of it. But having too much of it and accessing it too quickly can be as destructive as not having any.

Christy asks me what I would have said if I’d been able.

“Probably something along the lines of ‘Fuck you.’”

“You should’ve,” she says.

Our table goes quiet for a little bit as we all absorb what’s happened. I remind my friends of the time that another friend of ours, sitting next to me at patio table on a summer day, got up and moved to another chair after dramatically covering his ear with his hand in response to my laugh.

“Well,” says Jeremy. “This puts a damper on the evening.”

Steve is upset that he didn’t realize what was happening when it was happening because he would’ve defended me better, he says.

I often tell my rhetoric students that once I’m done with them, they’ll never be able to see the world the same way. I tell them that I’m out to ruin their lives. Experiences they’d never thought twice about would become fodder for analysis, and they’d recognize dominant ideology everywhere they turned. As my friends rushed to my defense, I wanted the subject to change because I kept thinking that if they’d been sitting at the table with the toddler, they’d be rushing to the mother’s defense just as vehemently. And they would’ve been very good at it. Their defense of me, I couldn’t help but think, was so obviously biased.

And then, a few days later, telling the story to another friend, I found myself saying that it’s not as though I would’ve wanted the opposite situation: to be called out like that and to have my friends agree with the woman. Yeah, Amy, you’re way too loud. We’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Could you please just stop laughing?

That would’ve been a nightmare.

A few more days later and now I think I get it. It’s never just about what we think it’s about.

When I was a kid, my older sister abused me. She hit me and insulted me and told my friends how stupid and fat I was. She told me to shut up when I sneezed. Margie’s bedroom was next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to her room, she had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut her out. My door was always open.

Bedtime. Margie walks through to her room. “You little shit. You’re dead.”

Middle of the night. Margie walks back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker. Fat shit.”

Back to her room. “Skank.”

Morning. “You’re dead, you little shit.”

And so it went, with our mother doing nothing to stop it. I always had the sense that Ma didn’t believe me when I told her about Margie hitting me, giving me bloody noses. But now I think that she couldn’t bear to see it and so she just didn’t. She looked away. She told me to stay away from her. She made it about me, what I was doing or not doing.

When my friends sought every possible way to defend me, to protect me from the shame they knew I’d probably eventually be feeling, they were doing what my mother never did, and I didn’t know how to accept it. I just wanted to change the subject.

I never got my strudel. They had cherry or apple/raisin. Steve and I were going to share dessert, but he doesn’t like cherry and I didn’t want raisins in my apple strudel. Instead we passed around a piece of black forest cake and when the family with the toddler left, Steve said to them, in his most sarcastic voice, “Have a nice night.”

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her work has also appeared on The Rumpus.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.