No Lonelier Place
Georgette Mulunda Ledgister
I have 17 children. Before you start wondering whether I am a boomer living in a third career or a golden life chapter, I’ll tell you I’m not. I’m a millennial. I know what a rotary phone looks like, and I have used one – in my childhood home. I remember when the internet was created. The civil wars of the 90s on the African continent are not history lessons I learned. They are memories that I can recount. I have 17 children, and I now know that my valiant efforts to avoid unwanted pregnancy and to live up to a standard dictated by faith and family were honourable, but futile. I couldn’t have gotten pregnant at 15 years old nor at 25 years old. I would only find out at the age of 25 that I couldn’t have children without medical intervention (which also failed, leading to the loss of twins). My attempts to start a family resulted in nine pregnancies, eight embryos in cryopreservation, six miscarriages, seven dead babies, and one round of in-vitro fertilisation. Those gut-wrenching 15 years also included marrying my Jamaican-American spouse, finishing two graduate degrees, and giving birth to three children that I am currently raising with said spouse. This essay tells a portion of that story by reflecting on a particular dimension of the solitude, pain, and confusion of pregnancy loss – the process of dilation and curettage and the insensate silence and hapless terror of anaesthesia. This essay is my attempt to reflect on an experience defined by muting your mind and your being and leaving your body at the mercy of total strangers – an experience disproportionately experienced by Black women.
The operating table underneath me was cold. My hoodie – which they had stretched under me in an attempt to cover the table – was not nearly long or wide enough to protect my five-foot-five frame from the (hopefully sterile) table. My mind lurched into motion, temporarily awakened from the terror that had paralyzed it.
“It’s your hips, girl. They don’t lie.”
Meet my mind. The brilliant and fierce Congolese-born-and-raised Black woman who doesn’t take anything from anyone. Ndombolo style with a flair of amapiano energy, my mind is a constant flow of rhythm, movement, and creativity. Paradoxically, my mind is my muse and my best friend. She is my ride-or-die-chick. She is also the warden of my Black body, making sure that the latter stays in her place. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always remember that she is – that we are – Black in public (and private) spaces that deem Black, woman-identifying embodiment as a threat to be eliminated or dominated. My mind has an occasional and nasty vice that makes her susceptible to the opinions, “objective data”, and ugly words birthed out of the oppression of whiteness and misogynoir. She is particularly adept at using these racist and oppressive tropes when policing my body and me. But for the most part, she is everything. She is magic.
“You may want to put that cookie down. You know, diabetes and heart disease are rampant in the Black community. Especially among African American women,” she quips – right on cue.
I call her Us. Sharp as a tack. Sometimes, like a blade. I have the scars to prove it. There’s no better advocate than Us though, even when her advocacy for other bodies sounds and feels more constructive. Her advocacy on my behalf can be too intense and too pointed at times. Too often, rather than being for me and my body, Us communicates at me and my body. Nevertheless, we are lifelong companions. My body, Us, and I.
While my body, Us, and I have been alone before, we have seldom been lonely. We’ve always had each other. Even when we were the only toddler and girl climbing mango trees in Lomé, Togo, with my older brother’s first-grade friend group in our sandy and sleepy backyard (uninvited, of course), we had each other. Even when we moved to Washington DC when we were nine years old and were the only immigrant child in the fourth-grade class, and we didn’t speak English. We had each other. We were often embarrassed. Often left to play alone. Often fighting to be heard. But never lonely. We had each other. Even when we finally managed to make it clear to white people in predominantly white institutions that we would earn our bachelor’s and master’s degrees not in spite of our Blackness but because of our Blackness, we were never lonely. We had each other. Then, we headed to graduate school to earn our PhD.
“You know, Black women, on average, take seven to 10 years to graduate from doctoral programs,” Us chirps.
Indeed, it is the case that Black women rarely receive the institutional and communal support to complete their doctoral degrees within their preferred time frame. Yet, my body, Us, and I had each other. Until we didn’t. Until my attempts to build a family and to defy the historical odds against Black coupling in the United States, while trying to break barriers of financial stability and social advancement, began to trouble Us – and many others beyond our tripartite self and identity. I wanted it all. The doctorate, the career, the spouse, and the children. Yet, I wasn’t allowed to have it all. And if I wanted to attempt that near-impossible feat, I would have to do so on my own. I had to contend with a painful and immutable truth: to journey through this side of eternity as a human being can be a lonely endeavour. And to do so as a Black-embodied woman is to feel that solitude most acutely because there’s no lonelier place than inside a Black woman’s body.
My fertility journey didn’t begin in graduate school. I had been trying to conceive for four years when I began graduate school, and I was determined to see both dreams of career and motherhood through.
“Was that really a good idea? You knew the odds were already stacked against you. What were you going to do with a child when you were already pregnant with a doctoral degree?”
I was ready with my retort. “Can you be more supportive? Thanks.”
By the fourth year of my five-year program, I had had six surgeries and one cancer scare. My body was not okay. Surprisingly, Us more than showed her support. She picked up the slack and took up more space. Us led us through graduate coursework, comprehensive exams, and PhD candidacy with merciless and relentless excellence. I only got in her way once. When IVF treatment failed, and I passed my exams with distinction, I demanded a break from Us for all of our sakes. At the end of that month-long break, I found myself pregnant, and not just with my dissertation. My daughter was lovely. And I prayed that her mind was not like Us. When it was clear that my daughter was healthy (healthier than me, in fact), Us took over again. We were on a timeline. We needed to conduct field research while cranking out chapter after chapter of the dissertation and mothering a newborn. As planning for fieldwork on the continent progressed, my resilience under the barrage of Us began to waver and even wane. The joys of motherhood had me on my toes with giddiness in the daytime and had me dizzy with fatigue in the long nights of passing my daughter back and forth between my spouse and me.
“I thought you were ‘magic’? You got this!”
“You know, Black women are the least funded constituency in research programs. Heck, in any program. Your grant applications have all been denied. We have one year left.”
“Thank you, Us. Thank you.”
With the uncertainty of whether I would finish my PhD program in time looming ahead and the statistical reminders of Black women’s difficulties in academia propelling me, we got our shots, lined up interviews, and left for the country of my birth. Kongo. Zaire. The Democratic Republic of Congo. The name you choose will depend on what histories you read and trust. I was headed home. Me. My body. Us. My daughter. And – unexpectedly – another baby. I found out that I was pregnant during my pre-travel physical. Us was sceptical. My body was tired. I was elated. My mother offered to join our research party and to do whatever mothering (of me and my daughter) it took to help me finish on time. I wondered if she had an Us in her mind too.
Within a week of arriving in Kinshasa, disaster struck. I went into labour. I was only eight weeks pregnant.
“I hate to say it, but I knew that would happen.”
“You knew nothing, Us. You just hide your fear behind carefully curated facts.”
I was rushed to the nearest emergency room. It was purported to be the best hospital in the city.
“We’ll go with ‘the preferable hospital in the city,’ ” Us said. “ ‘Best hospital’ is a stretch.”
Pain wrenched my insides, draining all the strength from my body. My mother held me in a strong and gentle grip as we got out of the car my father had driven ever so gingerly in and out of the occasional pothole in the roads we travelled. We made our way through the emergency room doors. We were not greeted with a wheelchair. In fact, we weren’t greeted at the entrance at all. I happened to be having a miscarriage and in need of medical care amid a hospital-wide strike. The state-funded hospital only maintained a skeleton staff to attend to patients who were already admitted. Us kicked into gear.
“Are they serious? So what if we were someone else with a fatal problem? What would you say to the countless other people in this city who need access to medical care? ‘If you weren’t already dying before the strike, don’t die now?’ ”
“We’re not dying, Us. We’re just breaking. From the inside out. Well…we could bleed out, though.”
A nurse finally met us at the entrance and brought me to the triage area. She guided me to an empty bed and rapidly pulled the sheet off the bed. She wanted to hide the brown stains on it, but we had already seen them. My body started to shake from the sheer exertion of holding back my screams. Groans were all I could allow myself and still maintain a modicum of respectability. It still wasn’t proper for a woman to draw attention to herself in public. There were hospital guards around, too. And if looks are to be trusted, male guards. My mother requested fresh linens.
“Je suis désolée, madame. Nous sommes en grève.”
Us was beside herself. What does she mean, “Sorry, ma’am. We’re on strike?”
She means, “Sorry, ma’am. We’re on strike.”
A conversation ensued, followed by mother making frantic phone calls, rousing her contacts from bed to beg succour for her daughter. I was bleeding profusely. I felt masses of tissue pressing against my cervix, vagina, and anus, but nothing would descend.
It kind of feels like constipation, doesn’t it?
I’m just making an observation.
Time slipped by, or it didn’t. I couldn’t tell the difference. My mother was advised to keep the single spare sanitary napkin – We say ‘pad’ now – she had grabbed from my bathroom on the way out the door for after dilation and curettage. She was reminded that there would be no supplies available to us whatsoever. No sheets. No towels. No wipes. No pads. The hospital and its supplies were on strike.
More time went by. I’m not sure how much. A male doctor came in accompanied by two female residents. He spoke with my mother first. She thanked him for coming. She knew of him. Her calls had worked. He pulled gloves from his pocket and spoke a few words to me while pulling them on. Sympathy. Regret. Pre-operative instructions. Short, brief sentences spoken in a calm and confident tone. I don’t recall signing and legally consenting to anything. One of the residents squeezed my hand reassuringly. The other looked like how I felt. Through my tears, I could see her own forming.
Is she going to be okay?
This is what compassion looks like, Us.
The doctor examined me and explained that he could see some of the tissue. He informed me that he would reach into my vagina with two fingers and dislodge the tissue. When he did so, I would experience temporary relief while they transferred me to the operating room. A strong tug. Pressure. Pain. Tissue oozing between my legs and wrapped around the doctor’s fingers. A hot rush of liquid – blood – flowing out of my body onto the cracked leather padding of the bed.
For the first time in a while, Us didn’t speak. Neither did I. We were trying to fathom what we were looking at in the doctor’s hand. The only movement came from my body, which shuddered uncontrollably every so often. Pain. Shock? I don’t remember the words my mother and I exchanged. I do remember being wheeled to the operating room, where we were met at the door by two nurses – men. One of the residents leaned down towards my left ear and informed me that I would have to remove all of my clothing before going into the operating room. She exchanged hushed whispers with my mother, who had a frown creasing her brow and tugging at the corners of her mouth. There would be no hospital gown. My mother gently helped me to remove the clothing that remained on my body. I had long forfeited my athleisure pants and panties. Off went my bra and shirt. I was cold. Naked.
I could hear voices that sounded far away. I was waking up. I made it! I didn’t die at the hands of strangers. One of those voices broke through the haze. It was my mother’s. She was asking when she could see me and when she could take me home. Someone, a voice unknown to me and unfriendly in tone, informed her that I would need to open my eyes first – and that wouldn’t happen for a while. I felt paralysis, that familiar and relentless surgery companion, begin to slither up my feet. My legs. My sticky thighs.
Sticky? Still? I thought.
Sticky, Us said in a subdued tone.
I started to fight. I needed to open my eyes. I needed my mother by my side. I needed to go home. My eyes were sealed shut. I wanted to see. I couldn’t. But I could hear. So, maybe I could speak. My lips trembled from the effort of attempting to move them. They parted. I urgently slipped my dry and clammy tongue through one corner of my mouth, forcing my tongue over the cracked skin over my lips.
Girl. Uh-uh, Us interrupted in apparent revulsion at the image of dry lips and a clammy tongue.
Uh-huh! Hush! I hissed back.
The movement of my tongue over my lips generated the mobility I needed to wake my salivary glands and to furtively massage movement into my dormant lips.
Once I could roll my lips once, I gave my voice a try. My actual voice. What came out was not what we had agreed to say. Sort of. We agreed to ask for my mother. We just didn’t ask in the same language.
“Mama yangu eko wapi?”
“Where’s my mother?”is what, I believe, you meant.
Not right now, Us.
In the haze of fading anaesthesia and my conversations with Us, I didn’t realise that the source of the unfamiliar voice had been closer than I estimated.
“Ah. Vous êtes réveillée?” She was avoiding our question.
We tried again. Same result. This time in Lingala. “Mama na ngai aza wapi? Où est ma mère?”
“Elle est partie. Elle rentrera bientôt.”
Wait. What does she mean, “She’s gone. She’ll be back soon?” What about you?
For the first time since I began regaining consciousness, I felt something in my previously numb midsection. I felt a heavy dread coil itself into a tight knot in my lower belly. In the cavity of my empty womb, I was now carrying – again.
Well, that’s a new record, Us scoffed. I offered Us no response. Sis, I was – I was just kidding. I’m sorry. I know. Too soon. Nothing from me. Are you okay?
That’s when we both heard it. The piercing whine of a thirsty mosquito – unnaturally loud – buzzing near my ears. Dread turned into panic. My eyes flew open. The scene before my eyes swam for a few moments before settling on the face of a woman – a nurse – looking at me with disdain and disgust. She sat at a desk a few feet away from the door of the small recovery area. She had turned her body sideways in the chair to glare at my semi-conscious body. I looked down and saw that I had been moved to a gurney. No sheets. My hoodie, which served as the only table covering in the operating room, had bunched up in the small of my back. Someone had haphazardly thrown a kitenge – the blue wax print wrap that my mother had worn as part of her outfit on the way to the hospital – over me. I smiled sadly. I wondered how much she had to pay to bribe someone to restore a shred of dignity to me. The kitenge slipped when I moved my arms. Exposing my breasts. I looked up, and the woman’s face twisted in a maniacal smile.
Is she serious? Is this what we’re doing?
And that’s when we saw it. The mosquito. No, saw them. The mosquitoes. My too-awake mind went to the thick immunisation folder that sat in my small Samsonite carry-on roller in the room I occupied in my parents’ home. In my mind, I ripped the yellow folder open and frantically shuffled through the vaccination advice sheets until I arrived at a friendly packet that detailed (with images) all the possible delightful diseases and parasites an unsuspecting researcher and her nine-month-old could pick up in the field. The one bearing the title “Malaria” stopped me in my tracks. Malaria. I knew this one well. A mosquito-borne disease that is the number one killer in Africa. My mother made us routinely take anti-malaria medication as children and as adults. My mind snapped back to the recovery room. A singular thought crystallised in my mind while a singular word escaped from my lips. There was no linguistic confusion this time. We – Us and I – were in sync.
Georgette Mulunda Ledgister is a storyteller, trained scholar, and professor of social ethics. She tests theories about human flourishing in her full-time role as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging leader in a global advertising technology company. She lives in New York with her spouse and three children.