The Things We Keep

by Jennifer Gregory
Originally Published: 

One of my big goals this year has been to clean out the house. I mean really clean it out. This undertaking is about more than sorting through toys, shredding old paper files, and purging unworn clothes from our closets. It’s about wanting – and believing it’s possible – to live a lighter, happier, and more fulfilling life with less. It’s about keeping what I truly need and having the courage to get rid of the things I don’t. Things that have no bearing on the authenticity of the memories they represent, like a T-shirt from a 5K or a ticket stub from a concert. With or without the things, I still ran the race and I still heard the music.

As I walk from room to room surveying the endless objects that fill my home and life and asking myself, toss or keep, I’ve discovered that the reasons we keep things – guilt (the kids’ stuffed animals), hope (my size four jeans), nostalgia (the shoes I wore to my wedding), and despair (my recently deceased dog’s bumblebee Halloween costume) – are often the very same reasons we eventually (and bravely) throw them away.

Eight years ago, I made a bowl in a pottery class on a summer family vacation in Colorado. I took the class because there really wasn’t anything else I could do at the sprawling resort outside of Telluride. You see, I was five months pregnant, so activities like horseback riding, biking, rock wall climbing, and drinking in the hotel lobby were off the table. Just walking up the hill to the spa for a prenatal massage left me winded because of the altitude.

It was an ugly and beautiful bowl. Ugly because it was so flawed and beautiful because even though it looked like a lopsided, vomiting tulip, I made it with my own hands. The resort generously shipped it to me when we left, and to my great surprise, it arrived home intact. It survived a few additional moves before it reached its final destination on the small, white shelf above the toilet in my bathroom (because where else would I put it?).

I should’ve thrown it out when it first arrived (it was hideous), but I kept it because it reminded me of the precious summer I spent floating in the bliss of the second trimester of pregnancy with my first child. The nausea and exhaustion of the first several weeks had receded, my belly was round but not uncomfortable, my body was ripe but not swollen, and I had nothing but time on my hands to daydream about strollers, diaper bags, and baby names. It was magical.

But that’s not the only reason I held on to it.

First pregnancies are magical, but it wasn’t technically my first. That one happened a year and a half earlier around the time I embarked on a different family vacation, a holiday cruise to the Caribbean. After taking a home pregnancy test, I raced to my doctor who smiled and said, “Have fun, don’t drink the water in Mexico, and we’ll do an ultrasound when you get back.”

What I remember most about that trip, besides the night I miscarried, was that there were Christmas cookies everywhere. I couldn’t walk into a room on that ship without bumping into a tower of perfectly decorated cookies.

Within days of disembarking, I was admitted to the hospital. Despite the crippling pain and discharge I experienced on the cruise, my urine and blood told the story of a woman who was about eight weeks pregnant. The ultrasound, however, did not.

Heartbroken and scared, I counted backwards from 100 in the operating room uncertain if I would emerge from surgery with one less fallopian tube (if it was ectopic) or worse. I woke up intact, but the relief was short-lived because the fetal tissue they found floating around my uterus was indicative of a molar pregnancy. In other words, the “pregnancy” was nothing but a mess of abnormal cells that never would’ve formed a baby.

As if all of that weren’t cruel enough, four weeks later I found myself in the office of a gynecological oncologist because the sneaky thing about a molar pregnancy is that all of those messy cells can grow back and transform into something called choriocarcinoma, which is fancy talk for cancer in the uterus.

I spent the next two months undergoing weekly chemotherapy injections and the year after that doing regular blood work to monitor my hormone levels because even though the cancer was curable, it wouldn’t have been if it had come back unknowingly and metastasized to my liver, abdomen, lungs, or brain.

In a way, my first pregnancy was magical. It was an illusion of epic proportions. A disappearing act unlike anything I’d ever seen. I wanted a baby, but I got cancer instead, and everything I believed to be real and true and good and safe and normal vanished before my eyes.

I never liked the lopsided, vomiting tulip bowl I made on that summer vacation in Colorado, but I kept it because I believed it possessed the collective memory of the hard-fought journey I endured to reappear. To fall and get back up. To heal and trust and forgive. To eventually experience the precious second trimester of a real pregnancy, and to finally have a baby.

But, it didn’t hold any of that. It was just a bowl and an unsightly one at that, so I threw it out because, with or without it, the memory of that magical time would always be mine.

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