Extracting the Essence
I burned the percolator to a crisp that first June of our marriage. Heat unable to escape, it was as though the blazing Texas sun just outside the window had been trapped within the steel pot. A wedding gift unwrapped with all the naive glee of a twenty-year-old bride whose fingers traveled from pulling aside wrapping paper to flipping through the instruction manual, trying to figure out how to use this thing. “Percolator,” I read. “A coffee pot in which boiling water rising through a tube is deflected downward through a perforated basket containing ground coffee beans to extract their essence.”
Plugged in for hours on the Formica countertop, the percolator slipped from my memory and its insides turned to char. My mind was pulled away by homework or by convincing myself I wasn’t late for work or by internally debating whether or not separating the whites from the colors actually mattered as much as my mother said it did. I left it running.
I was disappointed in myself; you found the offense benign.
This would happen over and over again, though I never bought another percolator. I, frustrated by failing to meet my own standards and you, suggesting that perhaps the standards your young wife had set for herself weren’t ultimate, that mistakes were nothing more than, well—life. Even then, your cup was always half full, while I constantly checked mine for a chip or crack.
She brought the ultrasound wand to my throat, her gaze fixed on the monitor. The wand moved back and forth, demanding angles that threatened my breath. My eyes searched for answers in the twitches of her mouth and furrow of her brow. They found none.
Ten days later as I sat in a shared office, the phone rang.
“I’m sorry it took so long to give you results. I had to have other doctors look at your images. We think you have follicular thyroid cancer.”
I came home and we collapsed into each other. We made calls no one wants to make.
Doctors removed a tumor and an organ with it. They said it was rare to see this type of cancer in a twenty-two-year-old woman. Typically, they found it in middle-aged men. I was so young, so healthy, so…female.
We stared at the doctors as they delivered explanations, describing the typical victims of thyroid cancer and how far outside those boundary lines I fell. I was too young, too stunned, too overwhelmed to respond as I wanted to—”why should I care?” The hope of a life lived inside the safety of the typical experience was evaporating before us as this atypical cancer was about to burn parts of me alive.
We fought fire with fire. Surgeries and radiation seared the poisonous cells. Cancer pressed from the inside, doctors from the outside, wringing out the poison entangled inside my throat. You carried us through that year (though you will never see it that way), infusing my days with a sweetness light that tempered the bitterness heavy.
Our first baby came on an August day that boiled with the heat of that percolator four years gone. You pressed your ear to the door of the sonogram room, listening for the doctor’s whispers in the hall. I was giggly and nervous, told you not to listen, “just wait till she comes back!”
Within moments I was standing at the labor and delivery desk, smiling at the nurse’s confusion. I was not yet in labor. But he was coming, my body unable to keep him safe any longer.
Hours later, Owen arrived, and the doctor slid him between the sterile fabric of your scrub top and the warmth of your chest. He melted in your arms, as though he were as much a part of you as he had been of me for the thirty-seven weeks just past.
The months that followed stripped me bare. The boss who praised me daily was replaced by seven pounds of shrieking, by tasks I could not seem to master, by guilt over feeling as trapped in my life as the heat in the long gone percolator. You were finishing a masters degree, working two jobs to pay the rent of our subsidized apartment. I was falling into myself, obsessive, wondering if colic would ever subside, if I would ever know this little person who found satisfaction only at my breast, milk and nearness soothing us both only for fleeting moments.
I wanted to offer Owen all of me, but I was unsure if there was an all of me to be found. Did I have anything left to give him or had the blistering intensity of young motherhood singed me from the inside, rendering me useless? And if there was a reduced version of me remaining, just enough to give our son, would there be anything but lukewarm drops swirling inside a forgotten morning mug left for you?
Our second son, Gabriel, comes, dimpled cheeks like bed pillows with the indentation of a full night’s sleep. His feet turn inward; doctors call them clubbed. When he is nine days old, they wrap his tiny legs in casts.
You take Owen to a basketball game; my mom stays with me. I lay Gabriel carefully across my lap after he nurses on our bed, tenderly avoiding the incision from where they lifted him out of me. How is it, I wonder, that our bedroom can be so familiar and so foreign at once? I know every inch of its walls, its furnishings, its memories, but this new person lying on the bed now fills this formerly understood space with unpredictability. The chasm between what I have been sure of and what the future will bring is deep and threatening. I can feel myself slipping down, down, down.
The days pile on to us like they have forgotten we are human, that we have a breaking point. I am steady in ephemeral flashes—when Owen burrows into my side and I read aloud to him, when the milk flows from my body to Gabriel’s, when you do not scoff at my need for time alone though time for you and me is scarce. I write to find out what I feel, to boil the chaos down to the grinds.
It is in this season that I stop caring about so much, that I realize how much I have been clinging to that which no longer has a place. Maybe, if I am honest, it never did.
I crave a fast pace, a cup poured quickly, but I am forced to slowness.
I long to present myself as at ease in the unknown, but I am not.
I want to do other things, things to help the world, things like being a foster mother and opening the door of our home to the needs outside it, but I see now that the needs brew inside our four walls.
Gabriel’s legs are shrouded with plaster, then plastic. We drive hours each way to appointments conducted in rooms with yellow walls covered in Pixar decals, characters who mean nothing to an infant but taunt me with the simplicity of a childhood out of reach. Life’s temperature rises, and I must decide – do I cling to the coarse grains slipping through my fingers or do I unfurl my fists to discover if anything remains inside?
I swallow a pill every morning, sky blue and chalky; I wait for it to help me believe that I am not being consumed from the inside. You see the shell of me and long for its filling, encourage me toward books and music and learning and friendship. As my body works toward stasis, my fears slowly subside, surrendering to an evolving faith. There are many, many days when all I can pray is, “I must not understand what ‘good’ means, because nothing about You seems good right now. I want to believe that You are the origin of good, that all good springs forth from You. Help my unbelief.” This honesty with God and myself develops into a new courage, and I am suddenly able to unfurl, to look on that which remains.
There is you, my husband, and there is me. There are two boys who are all that I adore about you, your eyes that see others before they see yourself, your happiness, your strength, bottled up and pouring over. There are friends intent on knowing me. There are written words to read and to type. There are hopes that are shifting and all the loss that entails. There are mornings when I want to disappear, and there are mornings when I want to take a long sip of the new day.
All is not perfect, but I have extracted an essence. I am certain that I am whole, that I have not been swept away or reduced, that life has not taken more from me than it has given. I dream like never before, intense focus and newfound patience. The hope of a book deal by thirty is traded for an increased diligence in putting pen to paper. The plan to bring children in need through our doors becomes a passion and a pathway for serving them where they are. I settle into a certainty that the grounds of thought I scoop up each day are not being wasted; they are steeping.
Sometimes, when the boys are asleep and no longer nipping at our heels, I pour out a cup full of possibility and you drink deeply with me. You smile as I come on strong, passion swirling. The boiling waters of idea and nuance and theory press down, over, over, over again, testing just how much heat I can bear. With every cup I share with you, I am less afraid of smoldering from the inside, of finding my dreams charred to ash.
You take a sip and I am comforted by your comfort, certain of the essence of us.
Abby Perry has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, Upwrite Magazine, iBelieve, and The Influence Network. She is the communications coordinator for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts—one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations and one supporting area foster and adoptive families. Abby graduated from Texas A&M University and currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her family live in College Station, Texas.