Last August, some 40 hours before reporting to Mount Sinai Hospital for my surgery, I went to Lowe’s and bought a power drill. I had owned one for the last decade, a generous hand-me-down from a friend that came to me during my divorce, when access to a power drill had turned out to be one of the immediate losses. But that drill had been no match for the concrete walls in the apartment my daughter and I moved into two years ago. Since then I had been at the mercy of our building staff, who possess impressive tool kits but not necessarily an eye or the patience for placing two picture hooks at the same height, or mounting a curtain rail without scratching the ceiling plaster.

Getting to Lowe’s in Brooklyn is no small feat, especially without a car and in the 95-degree humidity of a New York summer day. You likely take not one but two subways, then still face a daunting walk through some baking-hot blocks between 4th and 2nd Avenues in the Gowanus neighborhood, past delivery trucks and forklifts zipping in and out of warehouses. Heavyset Hasidic warehouse managers use the cuffs of their white shirtsleeves to mop sweat from their foreheads and around their payot as they count the number of plumbing pipe elements on the loading decks and bark orders at the Mexican day laborers. Walking down those sidewalks, you are well-advised not only to be aware of those forklifts but also to wear a broad-rimmed straw hat as well a thick layer of sunscreen. If you don’t, you will not only get sunburnt but in the process, feel guilty for not having taken better care of yourself and for having put off the check-up with the dermatologist far too long. I, for one, knew that at some point I would have some explaining to do to Dr. Pat about this delay. But 40 hours before my surgery, the dermatologist was not the greatest of my worries; nor was it hers. The only thing to worry about at this moment was the surgical removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes.

I knew that the procedure was not a big deal. But I also knew that, as a crucial part of the recovery process, I would have to lie or sit perfectly still for some time. About a week, in the surgeon’s opinion. At least a month, according to Dr. Pat. I decided that I just didn’t know how long it would be. So I had already spent the weekend preparing my apartment for my confinement. I had hung the curtains I’d had sewn, which had been ready to put up for almost six months. I had filled unneeded nail and screw holes with spackle and painted over scuff marks in all the rooms. I’d paid special attention to the nicks on the kitchen cabinets that had been sanded and freshly painted when we moved in and were showing first signs of wear. Taking advantage of my daughter’s absence at camp, I had spent the better part of a day decluttering her room, tossing books from her shelves and clothes from her closet that were clearly not fitting nor befitting for a lanky 12-year-old. I had paid a visit to our storage space, a five-minute cab ride down to an old warehouse by the East River, taking boxes full of dolls and books too dear to give away, a couple of years’ worth of tax return documents and my daughter’s 6th-grade school papers. And in the linen closet, while ironing every last cloth napkin and pillow case that had piled up from a couple of months’ worth of laundry, I had come across one last small box from our move.

I opened it.

It contained some small framed pictures and photographs, one a tiny passport photograph of my mother, in her early 20s, in a pretty white blouse with eyelet embroidery. There was a tiny heart of clay, painted a now-faded, watercolor red, that my daughter had given me for Mother’s Day when she was in kindergarten. I found two small acrylic picture shelves and my favorite small sculptures: A group of books carved from old hardwoods—bongossi, iroko, durmast oak—beautifully polished and smooth to the touch, with traces of gold leaf. I knew them to be part of a larger collection that the artist, many years ago, had called her Witches’ Library. A head cut from a fieldstone by the same artist, a friend who had died years ago. She had spent many weeks chiseling away at the stubbornly hard rock, making just the lightest of indentations, yet creating a serene, forgiving Lar who had guarded all my homes since he had come into my life. And there was perhaps my most prized possession, an old African sculpture of a goddess, protectress, wise woman I had purchased years earlier, when somehow there had been some extra money. The gallerist who sold her to us had explained that she had an extra-long neck so that she could see far from her village, spotting danger early. Her hands were folded around her belly, protecting herself, her children, and her community. My daughter and I had wrapped her into a soft cloth and taken her home from the Chelsea gallery in a taxi. She had watched over us for years. Yet here she was, wrapped away in that same cloth from years earlier.

How had this happened? Why had I never bothered to unpack my dearest treasures after our move? Why had I been so busy, so caught up in day-to-day life? Something had always felt amiss, even though I had barely noticed its absence. But now I would have to lie and to sit very still, at least for several days. Or for a month. And to be able to do that, I had to put my life completely in order.

I had been told to set aside the next day—the day before the surgery—for preparation. “Hon, you are not going anywhere,” the surgeon’s nurse had cheerfully  told me as she walked me through the procedure. Which is not pretty. Let’s just say it involves drinking very unpleasant fluids and not eating anything. On the positive side, you are sure to lose a couple of pounds. But you are definitely not going anywhere. In other words, you get a taste of the home confinement that will start in earnest the next day, after you get home from the hospital. And if you don’t live with a partner, like me, you get a taste of being very much alone with your thoughts and your fears.

Of course, you can work around the thoughts and fears. You can dust the tops of bookshelves and lamps, even the light bulbs inside the lamps. You can clean the upholstery of your living room furniture with a concoction of soda water and Woolite. You can tell yourself that you are only doing all of this because you need to wait for the new power drill’s batteries to be fully charged before its initial use. You can even file every last scrap of paper and pay all your bills, but make sure not to stay too close to your desk for too long. If you get too close, you may have to dig into the hanging folder in the very back of your filing cabinet, the one that contains your will. But before you get that far, the light on the battery charger changes from red to green, and you can finally get to your real task.
I know nothing about power drills. All I had wanted was one light enough for me to hold steady, so that the holes I hoped to produce in the concrete walls would be reasonably straight, deep and not frayed at the edges. When making the purchase the day before, I had arrived at Lowe’s armed with printouts showing test results from Consumer Reports in elaborate spread sheets. I had stood, helpless, in an aisle between shelves stretching impossibly high above my head—shelves filled with more different models of power drills than I could have imagined—and between dozens of men who fingered the store models knowingly and hefted big boxes into their shopping carts. I tried to remember what I had learned about torque, keyless chucks, and reversibility. And then, to my great relief, I had spotted a small, lightweight model on sale, the same brand that had scored a 76 in Consumer Reports. I pulled the box of the shelf with what I hoped was an expression conveying knowledge and experience, paid and fled.

I have always felt very reassured by those ratings, assuming that someone knows exactly what constitutes a 76, as opposed to a 78 or 64. There seem to be much clearer, firmer  methods in place to measure the effectivity of drills than, say, the healthiness of human bodies. How do you measure, for instance, on the eve of your own surgery, the risk of having cancer? Two percent, said the surgeon. Five percent, said Dr. Pat. How worried should I be—1.2 minutes out of every hour? 3 minutes? All the time? Or perhaps not at all, since Dr. Pat was doing so much worrying for my sake? And, ultimately, did it matter? There were only two possible outcomes: negative or positive. For the past 18 months or so, certain test results had deteriorated during my regular checkups—Pap smears, abdominal fluid. A line had been crossed. Symptoms that had looked like they needed to be watched now indicated possible but real danger. The best outcome from the surgery was that it would turn out to be precautionary. The least bad of the worst-case scenarios would be to have caught any cancer as early as possible.

I sharpened a pencil and marked the drill holes by holding up the small acrylic shelf next to my bed, double-checking the measurements with the level from my toolbox. I took my time choosing the right-sized drill bit. I attached it to the chuck and turned on the new drill. And what a beauty it was. The bit sunk into the wall as if cutting through butter, the drill making a happy, low, purring noise. A tiny light came on every time I set it to work, illuminating a faint drizzle of plaster and paint dust from the hole.

I had met the surgeon only once, a few days earlier, for a few minutes. With calm precision he had outlined my options. He had drawn a little decision tree: These were the procedures. This was what I could expect in terms of recovery. These were the risks. And of course, there was the possibility that he would have to expand the surgery in the case he found… well, something, The risk of that was a small number, but yet a number. I listened. I told him I would think it over and call. But my decision was already made. I had prepared for it for decades. “I feel—” I began and broke off, unsure how to continue. He allowed a smile to cross his face. “Empowered?” he suggested.

On the retrieved acrylic shelf, I organized my treasures with great care: the Witches’ Library, the Lar of stone, our beautiful wooden protectress. The faded red heart went there, and a resealable pack of Kleenex. (It was a shelf, after all, not an altar.) For a very long time, I weighed the tiny silver frame in my hand, the one that contained the picture of my impossibly young mother before she had been a mother. More than 25 years ago, her risk of ovarian cancer had started out being two percent, and then perhaps twenty. But even though she’d had regular care, nobody had ever laid out the risks to her and had helped her, empowered her, to make a decision. She just continued to be afraid, mostly of the surgery. Until she was not at risk for cancer anymore—until the risk had turned into a terrifying reality.

Weeks before she died, my mother had made me promise not to let it come to this when I reached her age. She was just 49 years old, and now so am I. I had always known, since that conversation with her decades ago, that I would, at some point in my life, have to have this surgery. There was no decision to be made when the matter took on urgency; I had made it a long time ago. I owed it to her to act at the right time, and I also owed it to my young daughter.

I put on fresh sheets, making use of the recently ironed pillowcases. The small shelf was mounted right between my bed and my favorite reading chair. I had all I needed right there, whether I would spend a few days in my bedroom or a month. The apartment was in better shape than it had been since we moved in, and the thought crossed my mind that it might never be this spotless again, this well-vacuumed, this clean-smelling. By late afternoon on the day before my surgery, I had nothing left to do. What’s more, I had decided that this was not the time to look at my will. There would be time for that, a time to calmly and rationally make the more difficult decisions as they were needed. For now, enough had been decided. I called the dermatologist’s office and made an appointment to get my skin checked in a few weeks’ time. Then I turned on some music, picked up a book and settled into my reading chair. I was ready.

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  • Terri-ann White December 8, 2011 at 7:34 am

    As I sit and wait, and prepare, for my second surgery in the one year–the first and second visits to hospital since my birth, this exquisite little essay by Agnes Krup, a rather treasured literary colleague from the other side of the world, pops into my email folder. Because we speak in different idioms, I cannot tell if she means that her surgery occurred in August 2010 or 2011.
    If it was 2011, it is a remarkable coincidence as I too had my ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed in that month. I wish I’d had–or heeded–Agnes’s medical advice to take between one and four weeks to recover. I flew to two cities on an author tour four days after the procedure that had held me in the theatre for three hours.
    This is such an elegant piece, and I’m touched and excited by it. Thank you, Agnes, for the order you apply to this experience, its set of memories, and what happened as you prepared yourself to honor the pledge to your mother to live.
    I’ve been lurking on this site since Agnes told me about it in March 2010 and this is the first time I’ve written back. Thanks, everyone for a stimulating project.
    Warmest wishes, Terri-ann White. Perth, Western Australia