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In the beginning...

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

A surgical team, preparing to perform a hysterectomy, stopped to watch a golden drop of ova erupt from an ovary. It was just sheer luck making an incision at the precise moment of ovulation. These are some of the only photographs ever taken, and by far the best.

I hope they stood in astounded silence, as if in church on a good day. I keep coming back to stare at them, because each time something new and huge comes forward for me.

My first impression was all anatomical. The textbook renditions of woman's reproductive anatomy did not prepare me for the juicy reality of color and texture. The pearly ovary laced with capillaries, where oxygen molecules travel through gossamer tubes as wide as one red blood cell. The deep, ruddy reds of that follicle, itself giving birth. None of the books I studied looked anything like this.

Even the little egg itself is a masterpiece. Those little squiggles visible within the egg, which surely must be the whimsical DNA waiting for a partner, draw my attention. I taught embryology a few terms, and I have no idea of what that might be. It appears to be the shape of possibility, caught in amber.

This picture makes me think of what was, and what I wish I knew. I spent decades living in a rhythm of my own making, the ebbs and tides of hormones driving me from puberty to menopause. I was only mildly aware of what pushed and pulled on my ovaries, but I marched obediently according to its insistent monthly schedule.

Now I know that my female friends and I were hormonally communicating, our cycles synching, our periods and fertile weeks aligning. Now I know that we all sway with the moon, even when we live in cities where the moon is a casual companion. Now I know that my drive to have babies, which eclipsed my urge to build a career, may have been my genetic inheritance.

I came from an ova, which my mother created in her own body while herself a fetus, when we were both inside my grandmother. We are born with all our eggs, which we generated during fetal stages of growth in the second trimester. We women are Russian dolls, one inside another. A daughter in a mother in a grandmother.

Hitler was already several years into his Holocaust when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor--and my mother was born a few short weeks later. The ova that formed me was forged within a maternal matrix of an impending global war and Depression-era recipes. This fascinates me, and has prompted me to ask so many questions of my mother. I want to know what happened to those women I rode around in, as if it were a road trip I was on but can't recall. What did we wear in the 1950s? What did we do when Kennedy was shot?

This picture also makes me recall the pain of mid-cycle, which we rarely talk about. Where my textbooks described an ovarian follicle, it did not say, "A nipple-shaped, blood blister eruption of glandular tissue." Nor did it fully explain the size, which can be estimated by comparison to the surgical instrument. That thing looks mad with intensity.

Safely on this side of fertility, it's easy to forget the pain of an ovulatory cycle. Some days I want to do the math, and estimate the weeks spent in bed, over years, coping with pain. I wish they were full of novels and soft blue pillows, but they not. Each month, it felt as if I would send forth an ostrich egg, so intense was the pain.

The human body is so much more complicated and beautiful than we understand. When we are given an unlikely opportunity to peek, when our technology offers more mystery than answers, it feels good, doesn't it?

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