My senior year of high school I began working for my mother’s gynecologist. A couple times a week, I would take the 4 or 5 train from my school in Brooklyn Heights to the Upper East Side. The office she shares with two other doctors is old – with creaky floral chairs that are too low for the massive wooden desks and only two rooms for three doctors. I set up the outdated Dell laptop next to the softly humming bone density-processing machine.
My work consisted of reading through hundreds of the doctor’s handwritten notes and entering the information into each patient’s new computer generated file. Once, the doctor I worked for called me into a room to watch an ultrasound. After the procedure, she told me I looked a little “green” and never invited me into the examination room again. But I learned about her patients through their charts. I traced their lives through their marriages and divorces, their pregnancies and miscarriages, their sleep problems and anxieties, their childhood abuse or teenage sexual assault. As I went through a given chart, I became intimately acquainted with a woman I had never and probably would never meet. Some doctors scrawl very few specifics about their examination: “nl (normal), wants pregnancy, cousin breast cancer.” But the doctor for whom I worked, wrote her patients’ lives and family stories in full sentences made of small, swirling letters.
The only rule was that I wasn’t allowed to transcribe my mother’s chart. I knew it was there. I knew exactly where it was: tucked into a cabinet overflowing with W’s and T’s, but off limits, untouchable.
After graduation and a family trip to France, I returned to New York City, and every other hot July day got on the subway from my house in Tribeca and rode uptown to tree-lined avenues. I was sick, having spent the first week of July throwing up or curled with waves of nausea, and heartsick too: my boyfriend was in China, my friends still on their Euro-trips. The office was gray and suffocating. Reading about women who developed diabetes or brain tumors, who were abused by parents or partners, who wanted desperately to have a child or experienced unplanned pregnancies, made me feel like whatever young adult anxiety or sadness I was experiencing would only get worse.
I had just finished the chart of a woman who had a double mastectomy, basal-cell carcinoma, and suffered from manic depression, when I came across a name I recognized. Not of someone I knew, but a name that was familiar and tickled my memory. Shortly, I realized that it was a name I had seen tagged in Facebook photos with a girl who had gone to my high school. Good, I thought, a college student, like I’ll be in a couple months, and perhaps a less depressing story than the one I’d recently transcribed.
I opened her folder and began reading; she first came to the gynecologist when she was seventeen, not because she was sexually active but because she had heavy periods. She was healthy. She had gone to a private school in the city. And then I turned the page and saw “rape.” There were very few other words on the sheet of paper, little to no detail: just her age, the date, the physical examination that showed she was okay (physically) but with some mild bruising. What wasn’t written was what had happened, how it had happened, why it had happened, or how she was dealing with it.
I wondered whom the girl had told. Had she told her parents, her home friends, her new college friends? If I were in her position, whom would I tell and how?
When I left the office, I decided to cross through Central Park to the train. As I walked, I thought about the girl; how something so life changing and incomprehensibly difficult to talk about had happened to her just before going to college. I thought about all the new people I would be meeting in just a couple months. All the people whose stories I didn’t know yet. I thought not just what I would learn, but also what I wouldn’t.
At the end of that week, my boyfriend came home from China, my friends returned from Euro-tripping, and I continued working a couple of days a week in the doctor’s office; eventually forgetting about the girl’s chart.
College started: forced ice breakers, late-night heart-to-hearts, drunken reveals, brunch DMCs (deep meaningful conversations). I only focused on what my friends chose to tell me and what I chose to tell them, not thinking about what we weren’t sharing.
Near the end of freshman year, I went home for a weekend. Over dinner my parents and I were discussing sex and abortion, perhaps because it had come up in the news, or maybe for no other reason than that my family likes to have somewhat risqué conversations over our roast chicken, my mother said she felt very strongly that abortions should be legal because she had “personally been affected.”
I asked her what she meant and saw my dad shift in his chair uncomfortably. And since we already had discussed erectile dysfunction that night without any shifting, I knew I should brace myself for what was to come.
“I had an abortion when I was in high school,” my mother responded. “The first time I had sex, the condom broke, and I got pregnant. Abortion had just been legalized. I remember it vividly,” she continued, “my mother put on a hat and sunglasses and hid her face when she took me to the hospital.”
I tell my mother everything about my life, and she has told me about her own. But over dinner that night, I realized how much there is about her that I still don’t know. I was reminded of that bright day in July, when I read through the girl’s chart, and was led to wonder about who we tell our most painful experiences, and how we tell those stories. And I was reminded too, of my mother’s chart, lurking there among the W’s, squeezed into the bottom right of the overflowing file cabinet; stuffed with papers, forms, ultrasounds, and stapled together pages of the doctor’s notes.
I will never read my mother’s chart. But over time, hopefully, she will tell me all that is written there.