A woman I am

Huberta Hellendoorn

Huberta Hellendoorn
Huberta Hellendoorn

A short extract from Huberta Hellendoorn’s recently published memoir, Astride a Fierce Wind (Mākaro Press, 2017).

A few weeks ago I realised that this ageing body could benefit from some repair work and I made an appointment to visit a specialist. Again.

I arrive at the suite of the surgeon. Soft grey-wool carpet on which are arranged deep armchairs in tonings of navy blue. Oh, how I love this luxury. I feel so warm, so pampered. Modernist paintings on the palest of blue walls, framed with just that right amount of grey and chrome.

I’m led into the surgeon’s room. After a series of perfunctory questions I’m told I’ll need a small operation to clear my medical problem. It will mean just one day in hospital. I’m told that I’ll be well looked after and that it will be a day of rest and relaxation. I feel awful. How can I disappoint him? How can I tell him that even one day is too much?

I ask him if he can give me another option to clear my problem. I don’t want another operation. He frowns. I smile and tell him that I have already had six operations, some more major than the others, and I’m reluctant to have another one.

As the doctor’s voice drifts in perfectly modulated tones across his wide desk, I look at him. Dark, perfectly cut hair, beautifully tailored grey suit, good-looking in a polished kind of way. He tells me there is nothing else he can do to relieve my symptoms, and asks, ‘What were the operations?’

I mention the hysterectomy, the mastectomy. I don’t mention the months of recuperating, trying to accept what’s happened, all intertwined with other internal blocks and tackles.

He leans back in his comfortably padded chair and with his fingertips touching looks at me, smiles and says in a calm, detached voice: ‘I see, I see.’

What does he see? A thing of shreds and patches? Frankenstein?

Again he says, ‘I see, I see.’

But this time there is more to come. A polite smile moves his mouth. ‘So, if I am correct, with your hysterectomy and your mastectomy … well, it really makes you only half a woman, doesn’t it?’

He smiles as he looks at me, waiting for agreement. Does he want me to answer and say, yes, doctor, mister, you are right. I am only half a woman?

Oh, but then, this great wild anger slowly comes in my throat, from deep down in my innermost core of womanhood. A core that has been damaged many times but knows how to survive. Is it only my body that defines my womanhood? Is womanhood only significant if the body is without blemishes? I have carried, loved and brought up children. Soft limbs tired at the end of the day. Nurturing at night.

My supple song has been tuned many times.

Convention takes over; politeness is important. I was brought up well. But my reply is cold: ‘I resent that remark very much. I may not be a lady, but I am a woman.’

But I want to hurt him. The smile of smugness is still there. I have visions of him surrounded by women in white silken robes. They dance around him, singing how they are women, wise and strong. Asking him how he would feel if he were called ‘half a man’?

Astride a Fierce Wind coverI have reached a stage in my life where there is no need to pretend any more. I have learnt a lot about life and living. But I feel helpless as I think of the damage this man causes with the power of his words. Does he see me as a statistic in that beautifully ordered, colour-coordinated world with mahogany furniture, desks dotted with expensive pens, bookcases lined with textbooks?

But I am not a statistic.

I am not.

I’m ready to leave. The specialist puts out his hand and I shake it. My voice holds back words of anger – not because I am afraid of expressing them but because I would not know when to stop. Does he see a female body only as a conglomeration of cells, built and shaped to perfection? I think of thin, small-breasted women with inferiority feelings about their bra size. Searching for soft paddings. I think of tall, solidly built women conscious of their image, searching for diets that might supply the perfect form. Pounding the pavements in the hope that men will love them more. Will love their bodies more.

I’ll keep the image in mind of a young woman washing her hair on the beach, singing and dancing, reaching her arms to the sky.

Huberta Hellendoorn was born in The Netherlands in 1937 and emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand  in 1960 with her husband. Her most recent publication is the memoir Astride a Fierce Wind (Mākaro Press, 2017). See more about Huberta and her work here.

Read another article by Huberta Hellendoorn on Corpus, about her daughter Miriam who was born with Down Syndrome: Speaking Wordlessly

An invitation to our Dunedin readers: Astride a Fierce Wind is being launched in the Dunningham Suite, Dunedin Public Library at 5.30pm on Wednesday 17 May. All are welcome.

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