I was twelve years old. My mother was out late with her friends. I went to the living room where my grandmother was sewing in front of the television. I was crying. I told her that I was bleeding. She sighed, shed a couple of tears, walked to the linen closet, and came back to the table where I was sitting. I was terrified, terribly confused about the pain and blood that had come so suddenly. She wiped my tears, gently squeezed my hand, then, rolled a few handfuls of cotton into a cloth, and told me to stuff it in my underwear and go to bed. I held the bulky pad in unsteady hands, unable to get up for fear that the blood would come gushing out of me. I asked why I was bleeding.
“Your mother will have to explain that to you tomorrow. All I can tell you is that it means you can be a mother now.”
I was bleeding to death. What if I didn’t live till morning? What if I died without the chance to ask my mother what had made me so suddenly and terribly sick?
I wanted to believe my grandmother. She had always been true to me (with the almost unforgivable exception of belonging to the group of conspirators who had feigned my uncle to be my father until I was old enough to decipher untruths and uncover the lies under which I began to find pieces of myself; almost, because she told me she was sorry to have lied). But she cried when she heard about the blood. She didn’t even try to reassure me. And as much as I wanted to believe that this blood suddenly gushing from me heralded motherhood instead of imminent death, I couldn’t believe her. I had never met a twelve-year-old mother. So I cried myself to sleep.
In the morning, my mother showed me how to make my own pads with cotton and cloth, and said she would pick me up from school and explain everything then.
At recess, I huddled by the window with my three closest friends, and told them that I was bleeding. One was more terrified for my life than I had been. The second said it happens to all women. The third confirmed that it must be normal since she had heard of bleeding from her older sister and cousins, and said, “You’re a woman now.” Relieved, the first said, “But you’re not even in university yet.”
What does bleeding have to do with being a woman? Everyone seemed to understand and accept this most peculiar occurrence and its meaning. I didn’t understand a thing, and all I wanted was for my mother to tell me what was happening. I spent the day fidgeting, worried that the blood might stain my uniform, anxiously waiting to see my mother.
We walked to a café called Fairy Tale. We sat down in miniature chairs at a miniature table, surrounded by dancing and smiling cartoon characters that barely resembled themselves. My mother had coffee. I had a pastry. Three layers of vanilla cake with bright pink frosting, and a rose on top. I scraped off the rose, dumped it on the side of the plate, and wiped the rest of the icing off the spoon with a now useless napkin.
“Alma told me you were scared last night,” my mother said. “There’s no need to be afraid. This will happen for a few days every month. It means you can have children someday.”
That was all. I spent a few days every month terrified that I might lose too much blood this time, and die. I learned the science behind the bleeding four years later, in an American high school.
The other day, perplexed with my daughter’s fidgeting, I ask her what is the matter.
“It’s just that my underwear keeps going in my vagina, and it bothers me, so I’m trying to fix it.” She is speaking with a frown that says, really, I am not comfortable.
“Mommy, should Imani even be saying that word?” my son asks, playing his self-imposed role of his four-year-old sister’s moral lighthouse.
“Yes!” Imani protests, “I can say that word. It’s just part of my body. That’s what it’s called. What’s wrong with saying it?”
Daniel still asserts that she could use a different word, but Imani insists that her vagina is a part of her body, that it has a name, and that that’s what she is supposed to call it. In the end, albeit still not fully comfortable with the idea, Daniel agrees that there is nothing shameful in calling things by their scientific names. Imani changes her underwear, and all is right, for the moment.
The personal is political.
Politics is power.
Power is built one truth at a time.
And truth is our most imperative obligation to one another.