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Without Warning

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On a cold day in March just before dusk I walk down Fifth Avenue across the street from Central Park opposite the Metropolitan Museum. Pink afternoon light casts a spell across the sky. The people in the park move in a stream. I am gliding with them. Hatless, I feel the wind lift my long, dark hair. At thirty-nine I am committed to youth, to the alacrity of movement, to my buoyant steps and straight spine. I toss back my head and smile. Time can’t touch me. I shiver. The chill transforms into a band of sweat around my neck and then settles as a heat against my chest. I throw open my coat and breathe deeply. This sensation leaves as imperceptibly as it came.

In the weeks and months that follow I wake in the night aware of the same faint collar of perspiration. Vigilant and alert, my mind seems capable of observing my body as if they were separate entities. My period loses its rhythm. I am no longer ruled by the gravitational pull of the moon. The monthly flow of blood that has carried away my darkening moods is replaced by a bimonthly trickle.

My gynecologist, a serious young woman with illustrious credentials, is concerned and schedules an endometrial biopsy. “This is just a precautionary measure,” she says reassuringly. I submit to the scraping of my uterus. Pain rips through me like an electric current. I am too stunned to cry out. While the test reveals normal cells, I am not ovulating. “Let’s wait and see,” she says cautiously. Meanwhile, my periods have resumed their flow. My body temperature has regulated itself. I pronounce myself well.

That summer in Italy in the merciless heat of Pompeii, I begin to bleed profusely, running in shame to my hotel room to wash my clothes. The heavy flow ceases as suddenly as it began and becomes a normal period. I am furious at my body’s rebelliousness. Once back in New York, I re-experience cycles of heat and cold at unexpected moments. While hormone irregularities have appeared in my twenties and thirties, playing havoc with my period, I sense something more poignant is at work here. For two months my period stops altogether. I recall stories of my grandmother who lost a kidney giving birth at thirty-six to a change-of-life child, my mother. I remember my mother entering menopause in her mid-thirties. Suspicion becomes a certainty that I pick up and discard. I am a young woman after all. This can’t be happening to me. My erratic periods and body temperature tell me differently. I ask my doctor to test for menopause.

She is skeptical about my diagnosis. “Women regardless of genetics menstruate longer in this generation,” she explains. “You’re more active and health-conscious than your grandmother.” An examination corroborates her opinion. She smiles down at me.

“Your skin is soft. Your vaginal tissues are moist. You are not a woman entering menopause.”

I sit on her table in a thin white paper coat, letting her words provide a balm. I am aware of my slender body under the coat, the youthful encasement that has always been mine, and I don’t want to relinquish. “Please do the test,” I say. “I’ll feel better knowing for sure.”

She concedes graciously. As she draws blood, she shares her medical knowledge with me. “If your follicle stimulating hormone, the FSH serum level, is high, then your ovaries are losing their capacity to produce eggs.”
Losing their capacity. The words threaten to ensnare and define me. I cast them away. A few days later my normal period resurfaces; hope stirs as a purring in my chest. When her call comes, we are both surprised by the results.

“You are well into the menopausal cycle,” she tells me. Her tone is gentle, regretful. “An early loss of estrogen can pose health risks for a woman your age. There is a possibility of osteoporosis and heart disease. You have to start taking hormone replacement therapy immediately.”

Caught in a tunnel of diminishing options, I can barely breathe. “I need to think about this,” I say. “I can’t talk now.”

Stalking the circumference of my small Manhattan apartment, I try to outdistance the news. Outside, it is winter again. The cold blue air feels as unrecognizable to me as I do to myself. Without an ideology for aging, I don’t know who I am. I am not ready to make a decision about estrogen. When I tell close friends what is happening to me, I feel as if I’m talking about someone else.

At home I study my face in the dusty antique mirror above my dresser. The lines around my mouth seem more apparent and my cheeks have a pinched and tired look; my skin appears sallow. A wave of sadness swells inside me thicker than blood and darker than the winter night. I cry for the loss of my youth with a deep heaving sound.

Tears cleanse and help me to remember myself as a girl of thirteen, exuberant at the first sight of her period. She pulls her robe open in front of a full-length mirror, admiring the curve of her breasts and hips, the woman’s body that is newly hers and now bleeds monthly. In celebration of this gift, she skates wildly across a frozen lake: blood is power and immortality. I follow the rising tide of her sexuality into her twenties and thirties, fueled by the ebb and flow of blood. I see the lovers that have left her and she has left. I envision the children she might have had thriving in the bloody warmth of her womb. I feel the energy that courses through her in the absence of blood and youth, the power of her body and soul to stride alone into an uncertain future.

There is not a specific instance in time when I come to accept the menopausal transition, but rather a compilation of moments that brings me closer to my changing self. I pull my hair back into a braid and then cut it short when I notice it shedding on my pillow. An eerie tingling sensation comes into my fingers. I read voraciously on the subject of menopause and attend conferences on women’s health. When a bone density test shows loss at my left hip, I take a natural form of estrogen and progesterone. I sleep more soundly and my hair stops falling out. At work I begin to talk, even joke, about menopause. When I notice a young woman eyeing me cautiously, I smile at her and say, “It’s not catching.”

After making sporadic visits over the next four years, my period stops, and I achieve an emotional stasis that I never knew while menstruating. My sexuality is a gentler stirring of pleasure. I have become more sensitized to the natural world, and I am more prone to taking risks, asking myself the question, If not now, when? On a plane trip south, I allow myself the sensation of skydiving.

More than a decade has passed since I began the menopausal passage. Snow is blanketing the ground as I walk up Fifth Avenue. My body feels strong in the folds of my coat. My steps are attuned to the rhythm of the night.


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