Lived Through This

My Family’s Tender Language of Blood and Gore

Thanks to my dad’s profession, the unmentionables were part of regular conversation

Microscopic view of human cancer cells.
Microscopic view of human cancer cells.
Photo: PansLaos/Getty Images

I had to get used to unmentionable subjects as a kid, because body fluids and odd animal injuries were discussed over dinner the way some people talk about weather or distant relatives.

My dad is a country veterinarian and took emergency calls in the kitchen; pretty much everything was on the proverbial table. I have a distinct memory of my dad cutting his steak while assessing a client’s cow’s prolapsed uterus, the long, twisty phone cord draped around two of his children’s chair backs. We kids kept eating, kept up our chatter, but Mom put her fork down in disgust. And protest. She’d heard it all a million times — they’d been married since before vet school — but she continued to pull faces in hopes that civility would someday reign.

We did talk about the weather, especially as it related to growing crops, and about relatives too, especially their medical maladies. My family is a veterinarian family. My dad’s brother and his wife are vets too, as will be my younger brother when he graduates. The rest of the family on that side are doctors and nurses, but probably they wanted to be vets first. After all, the saying goes, if you don’t get accepted into vet school, you can always just be a doctor.

At my family’s gatherings, there is a lot of inspecting other people’s moles.

Serving three counties of large and small animal owners in Southern Illinois, my dad stayed busy in the ’80s and ’90s. I hold close the memories of riding around in Dad’s pickup truck with boxes of syringes sliding around at my feet. The windows would be rolled down, and a sweet, earthy manure scent clung to the air. I pride myself to this day on knowing what kind of livestock is nearby on smell alone.

My dad had grown up on this land, so he knew not just the livestock but the people. One day, an older man in overalls greeted Dad’s truck barreling through his pasture. The farmer wrung his hands in distress. “Well Doc,” he said, using the name everyone except family calls my dad. “Turns out Ol’ Bitsy’s got the shitsies.”

I was about 10 years old. I searched Dad’s face for even a hint of a smile. But his professionalism, and perhaps his own traumatic experiences treating explosive bovine diarrhea, rued the day.

He gave the man a compassionate nod, not looking me in the eye.

Another time I noticed a farmer carefully collecting severed cow testicles in a bucket as my dad removed them, and I thought that was something to ask him about later.

“Ever heard of Rocky Mountain oysters?” he asked me, rinsing blood and mud from his muck boots with a garden hose.

“We don’t have oysters around here,” I answered thoughtfully, hoping to impress him. That was all I could get out of Dad, who was usually pretty open about such things. I later asked my brother — he was happy to explain.

When he wasn’t tending his crops or stuffing uteruses back into cows, my dad ran a few clinics for smaller animals. I’ve watched him spay and neuter so many cats and dogs, I’m fairly sure I could do one of those surgeries myself if the opportunity presented itself. My job was to vacuum up shaved fur from the surgery table or pass Dad surgical instruments while catching him up on what happened at school that day. My routine once I began driving was to spend an hour at Dad’s clinic before my shift at the local Hardee’s. I’d clean soiled newspaper from post-op kennels, then serve those same pets’ owners a hamburger.

I wanted to be a vet someday too. I made a hobby of memorizing random animal anatomy, like the names of the four cow stomachs. I was sure this knowledge would come in handy in the wider world; it sure seemed to in my family.

Something I find fascinating when talking through people’s problems is that what’s considered unspeakable might be the very thing that needs to be said.

Then one day in Mr. Easterday’s chemistry class, I realized I maybe knew too much. Mr. Easterday taught chemistry and physics, and was also head coach of the school football team. Like many people in farm country, he worked several jobs and came home to 30 head of cattle.

Mr. Easterday was telling a story about his cows, as he often did, and I was daydreaming, as I often did. “You know,” he trailed off, “cows have four stomachs, and the first one, I think it’s the rumen…”

“Reticulum,” I blurted out, in one of those half-asleep moments you speak before realizing you were even awake.

Every head in the room turned to look at my darkening face. I visibly shivered.

“I mean,” I whispered, “the first one is the reticulum.”

He scratched his stubble. “Why, Ms. Probst, I think you’re right about that. My mistake.”

And that is the story of how I became Mr. Easterday’s personal coffee maker for the rest of high school.

I never did become a vet. I did work as a phlebotomist for a while, draining people’s blood in a donation clinic for minimum wage. But I’ve barely used my knowledge of animal husbandry, and still haven’t been in an emergency that required me to spay a cat. But once my friend texted me a close-up of her dog’s stools, nestled like little eggs in the grass, and I helped her diagnose the parasites in them and told her how to buy drugs on the internet. (It was tapeworm. She needed praziquantel.)

I’m in a completely different field — my specialty is human mental health. But some things never fade away, which is why, yes, I absolutely do want to see your scar.

Something I find fascinating when talking through people’s problems is that what’s considered unspeakable might be the very thing that needs to be said. Sometimes, to move forward, we may need to learn vulnerability, a language that is new to us. Sometimes, we may need someone to be vulnerable and learn how to listen.

Years ago, when I had a miscarriage, I felt so alone. I didn’t know how to talk about it. The confusion was too new, the pain too raw. I’m not even sure I realized I was grieving. So I clammed up. I was pretty sure the one way I knew to talk about what had happened to my body, was not something other people would find palatable.

I finally called my mom. I spared no details. I told her about the massive amounts of blood, rivers that ran down my legs and pooled around my toes. I told her about the gut-twisting cramps that felt like childbirth, and clumps of clotted tissue that fell out of me, knotted like fists.

I told her that at one point, I thought I’d seen something recognizable — a little bump, a dark-colored bubble, suspended. I told her how I’d knelt and poked at the mass with my fingers, and for a brief moment, the sobbing and cramping subsided as I searched in earnest.

I didn’t see it again, that little bubble. I finally let go. I sat naked and shivering, watching the remains of a lot of things wash down the drain.

My mom, the veterinarian’s wife, didn’t ask me about my feelings. She just listened, wordless, until I was done. And even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew it wasn’t crumpled in disgust by the image of me picking through my miscarriage, or recoiled by my frankly talking about it.

She was probably glad I hadn’t brought it up at the dinner table, but even then, I would have been forgiven. Not everything is acceptable everywhere. Maybe what makes a family is having one place where your ugly can be seen.

Storyteller. Solo parent. Social worker. Published in Forge, Human Parts, and more. Lover of frisbees, ukuleles, and lists of threes. I’m on FB @courtneycwrites

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