Imagine my bed queen sized and still too small, old and imperfect like my country. I sleep with bent knees so my toes don’t dangle, all six feet of me curled fetal, a blanket pulled tight to my chin. It’s something I’ve known since well before birth—an instinctual, habitual comfort for the senses or psyche. Tonight, I’m afraid, it’s the latter.
Before collapsing here, I did something I vowed I would never do: put down the chips, picked up the remote, paused the TV, and opened a new tab. Twelve simple keystrokes led me to Ancestry.com. Because membership is pricey and I was raised on thrift, I’ve hesitated to join the site before. Tonight, something pushed me outside myself. Maybe it was the beer.
A few clicks past the paywall, and all my fingers could do was scroll. I found more information about my family, adopted and biological, than I imagined would exist in a single archive—census records and obituaries, military rolls and addresses, gravestones, photographs, even a few family trees. Name by name, I searched for my dead relatives (which is to say, I searched for myself). I clicked and clicked, attempting to put order to the mess—until.
A black and white photograph of three children, happy and half-clothed, stopped me mid-scroll, beckoning a click of its own. Is it him? I wondered. The search bar held my biological grandfather’s name, a man I met just once and of whom pictures are few.
I waited, as patiently as possible, for the photograph to load but lacked “permission” to view it, the image part of a private collection. Ancestry.com gave me the option to contact its owner, a virtual stranger named VickyJohnson72. My sunny subject line: “Would love to see family photos!”
I imagined Vicky, if her name really was Vicky, sitting in front of a computer, a desktop computer, if she really did graduate in ’72. In my vision, her gray hair was long, impeccably kept, knotted down her back. At home, she’s loosened the braid, and hair draped her shoulders like a hug. The television glowed in a living room where I could make out doilies and two dogs, a crystal bowl of mixed nuts on the coffee table. Taking my own small handful—crunch—I composed my message to VickyJohnson72. Expecting her asleep in the armchair or the kind of person that checks her inbox only once every couple of days, half-heartedly, I pressed send.
But before I could queue the next episode, Ancestry.com pinged my inbox—New message from VickyJohnson72—and the browser loaded her good tidings. I learned Vicky is a distant cousin by marriage. We’re related through her husband, Dennis, a nephew of my grandmother, Vivian, whose death at forty caused the biggest tragedy in my family’s recent past: my grandfather’s decision to put all seven children up for adoption, placing them into the hands of the state.
No one has ever told me how my grandmother died, or why. We don’t talk about it. I do know this: my father and his siblings found their way out of the orphanage. They created families, whole lives of their own. The picture I’ve found on this website could be anyone. VickyJohnson72 doesn’t know, but she would love to share the photograph with me. “Okay send me your email address and I will hook you up,” she said.
And then, I did the math. In her part of the country, it was well past midnight.
Before I opened my computer, I was binging Allt för Sverige underneath my favorite blanket. Of the homebodies who find themselves eating chips for dinner and watching TV on Friday night, I’m sure only a small fraction queue this series made for Swedish audiences and broadcast on a Swedish network. Outside the context of its country, The Great Swedish Adventure exists as an artifact of the internet. You have to be intentional to find it, patient with the buffering and endless YouTube ads.
This was how I’d decided to fill my time. With my husband away for work, I’d invested every evening in the show. Sandwiched between two cats, I nursed a second beer and studied the screen, my attention on the action and what I sensed was lying just beneath. I wanted to deconstruct the show’s design, crack the shell, drink whatever I found inside—and feel better for it. Mostly, I was considering what might have been.
“When we’re casting, we’re assembling a bouquet,” Olivia told me last year. As we neared the end of our interview, she said not to take it personally if I wasn’t called back for a second. “We need a lot of flowers, and some years, we get so many of one kind, not enough of the others.”
What kind of flower, I still wonder, does she think I am?
Olivia and her colleagues cast ten Americans every spring from a smörgåsbord of coastal and inland cities. In June, “the Americans” travel together through Sweden to learn about their ancestors’ country of origin before finding themselves eliminated one by one through a series of silly challenges with no real point. How quickly can they load and unload a dishwasher while tied to another person? How well can they memorize a playlist of Swedish pop songs they’ve never heard? There is no way to prepare for a win because nothing about the competition emphasizes skill. Producers don’t script conflict or incentivize drama. Alliances are useless.
Instead, the point is to go home, literally, to Sweden. Through the country’s centuries-old system of tracking births, marriages, churchgoing, and just about anything to do with land, Allt för Sverige’s staff genealogist easily traces each contestant’s past, passing along the information to a team of writers and producers who craft for each American a “special day,” a journey alone somewhere in a part of the countryside that might have once belonged to them. Cue the flood of self-reflective tears.
Through the story of your ancestors’ love or loss, their decision to flee the country because of sickness or poverty or famine, the familiarity of native grasses swaying in the breeze, or the stark beauty of a one-room shack painted red, the show offers a glimpse of life unlived, a fragrant, open window into the idyll. It’s an experience I want for myself.
In 2017, I landed an interview. Olivia looked gorgeous in a bygone way, a ’60s-era model—Twiggy, but Twiggier. A mess of blonde hair piled high on her head, eyeliner in softly swooped angles, she had a kind of effortless beauty. Though she was sitting on a couch, I could tell she was tall. But maybe I was forcing too many expectations on that adorable Svedish accent.
“It sounds like a soap opera,” I said to Olivia. We were talking about her life. Sometime after learning his “sperms” were “no good” and spending over $100,000 on fertility treatments, Olivia’s boyfriend had cheated on her and impregnated a married woman. Before that, he and Olivia had repeatedly tried and failed to have a baby. They were committed to having a family, but wanting children had not been enough to keep their relationship together. So, it was inconceivable—to Olivia, to her boyfriend, to everyone involved—that things could have unfolded the way they did. As almost always is the case, the worst thing to happen was more than one thing.
It would have taken a lot of emotional investment, or trust, for me to share with such operatic flair a story like Olivia’s. At least, I was finding it difficult to tell a stranger about the details of my life over Skype. How do you convey what makes you you in a half hour and a handful of anecdotes?
On her side of the Skype call, Olivia was showing me how. She was used to shaping episodic drama. I suspected she even dreamt in unscripted plot, that she overcame obstacles always, with ease. She described her work casting for an entire portfolio of reality television shows, the Swedish counterparts of The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, and The Real Housewives. I wanted to follow her lead. I wanted to charm her.
She had contacted me for an online interview based on my application materials—a family photo, headshot, body shot, a dozen essay questions, and a two-minute video. Of course, I envisioned this video grander. I wanted to be the most lovable, quirky Swede with a Midwestern upbringing. My biological family was Swedish, my adopted family was Swedish—so many potential angles they looked prismatic! My stories of Christmastime lutefisk and grandma’s rice pudding, hair in double braids and clutching a maypole ribbon, would convince the producers I was the real deal.
Leaving no time for that kind of polish, I put off filming the application for weeks. I was busy writing copy for restaurant clients at the PR firm I’d been employed at for the last few months. A week before my Allt för Sverige interview, my boss laughed emphatically after telling a table full of restaurateurs my job was to do all the things she didn’t want to do. A few weeks before, she sent me on a one-mile walk in the rain to buy Jell-O and a box of sugar-free popsicles for the next day’s colonoscopy. I needed an out, and thought, Sweden?
But the client work kept me busy. I rode the bus over the Willamette River both ways in the dark, and after my commitments and commutes, felt too tired for anything else. Eventually, I panicked and filmed the video selfie-style, talking at my phone in the conference room at work. The video took one lunch break and three takes to get right. I had trouble fitting everything I wanted to say—about my family, about myself—into two minutes of dialogue.
Behind a glass wall at the conference room table, I played back the tape. I was talking too fast. The gap between my front teeth looked huge. In the day’s humidity, my curls had lost their hold. I was surprised when Olivia contacted me in less than twenty-four hours. She said she wanted to meet me.
The next day, we were online reviewing the bulk of the details. Where I’m from: “the Swede Capital of Nebraska.” Where I lived: Portland, Oregon. My boss might not have appreciated the depths of my creativity, but finally, someone found me interesting. Olivia and I discussed my grandfather’s immigration records, my father’s adoption, my husband, my cats, the fact that I’d never been to her country before. Things took a turn for the dramatic when Olivia asked me to describe the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
“For some people, it’s something as horrible as rape or the death of someone they love,” she said. “And for others, it’s not that big.”
“You’re young. Maybe nothing so bad has happened to you.”
Her expectations matched the exterior I presented—a healthy-looking twenty-something in an Ann Taylor romper and three-inch clogs—that I hadn’t experienced much. Or maybe, her explanation was a kind of trigger warning, my chance to offer something small. She was removing the pressure to revisit a memory more traumatic than, say, a bruise on my knee or the time I almost got into a car accident and it made me believe in god.
I went for the gut. I used my cancer as currency. I told her about the surgery, the recovery, the way I wondered if and when and how the threat of a tumor reappearing on the single ovary that remained—or anywhere, for that matter—would affect me in the future. I was less than a year out from surgery, and though my doctor assured me it was possible, I worried I would never have kids. There it was, laid out on the conference room table—my worst thing.
When Olivia launched into her own story about childlessness, I listened. For a moment, we were two women sharing the same cloud, one of us on either side of the sun.
In 2016, I was still recovering. Mostly, from the shock. During poetry class, I missed a call from my doctor. She didn’t leave a message, which alarmed me, but I had gotten tripped up in that kind of worry before. The doctor says she will call only if there’s a problem, and then the nurse calls anyway to say everything came back normal, everything is fine. I tried to ignore the anxiety.
When I got through to the office, my doctor was in surgery, and things went on like this—phone tag for nearly a week. I could feel every one of my senses operating in a terrible, heightened state. Something was wrong. Something was wrong with me. I felt unsteady, like I had been asked to drive a car with real and known problems across the country, fingers crossed I’d make it where I was due. This was no simple cyst on my ovary, the doctor said. It had a blood supply and for months did not resolve. She advised we take it out, whatever it was, along with my right ovary. We scheduled the surgery a few days before Thanksgiving.
I expected to wake to good news, a sore but grateful young person in high spirits and dying for a plate of turkey. That was another kind of awakening. Instead, she reported the facts: my reproductive system had grown a tumor and would require monitoring for the rest of my life. Or at least until I opted for a hysterectomy, which could be now if I wanted, given the circumstances. Zero to sixty. Rarely did my husband and I discuss having children. We didn’t particularly want to go there now. I still had to finish school. Finish my thesis. Put the ideas into words. Writing became the field my uncertainty wandered in, the safest place to process when I wasn’t suspecting my doctor had it all wrong. Just to be sure, I asked her to order parasitic testing from the student health clinic. I focused on the goal of my degree, as focused as I could be with a bag of my own dung under my desk. Of course, I didn’t have a parasite. I had a tumor.
After graduation, we spent more than we could reasonably afford to get out of town because I was alive. I was alive and foolish, completely rattled by a new set of circumstances: missing ovary, cancer history, finished thesis, no job, no savings, no children, no plan. Referred by a friend, I applied for a job in restaurant PR. We moved our lives and our cats to Portland, avoiding plans beyond the next week. Donald Trump was running for president. My new boss got kicks out of abusing my self-worth. The worst thing was happening. It was more than one thing.
The interview with Olivia seemed to have gone well, but so had every job interview for the last six months. I was sick of filling out applications and writing bullshit letters about how much I loved companies and advertising, tired of being stuck in a job and an industry and a cubicle I hated. I was twenty-six and looking for permission—for someone, anyone, to believe I was worth the things I wanted.
After the call with Olivia, I left the office and headed to a nearby bookstore, where two friends were on the bill to read at an event called “The Prince Party.” They took the stage with essays they had written about music, the color purple, the way an artist can cultivate identity, infamy, even a particular smell. This was what I’d been missing—words and a community of people who wanted nothing more than to transcend the shit and make them sing, who set old records spinning and danced badly beside bookshelves.
I had graduated and done nothing but learn to build media lists. The gap between who I was and who I wanted to be seemed more significant every day I didn’t write. The shitty boss didn’t help. Neither did the unresolved trauma of my diagnosis and surgery. Neither did the results of the presidential election.
Certainly, the stories I’d shared with Olivia had been unique, right? Adoption seemed the most interesting angle, one my writer-brain couldn’t help but connect to the medical circumstances of my new future. I might adopt children, if I had them at all, and that felt important to acknowledge because it confirmed a pattern. Adoption had calmed my family’s disruptions before, and my father’s life, his siblings’ lives, and my life were better for it. I fashioned it into a story in hopes of gaining a new one, a meaningful trip to the motherland, the healing powers of another world. I presented my pain honestly—a storyline the show could use. Rescue me, I could almost hear myself say.
Confident I would make callbacks, I told my friends about the interview, teeth wine-stained purple, the unofficial color of the night.
“Maybe I’m going to Sweden!” I yelled over the bar noise.
Joe asked how the job was going, the job I loathed, the same job he had worked the summer before and helped me land. He would graduate from the writing program in a matter of months, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him how much I hated the work, how connected the experience of my daily tasks was related to the night’s binge drinking and reality television delusions. Instead, I told him I couldn’t wait to see his career take off. I asked for the copy of the essay he’d read and watched him uncrumple it from his pocket.
I spent the next few days considering what I would wear to callbacks in LA or New York. Forty contestants would be invited to meet the producers based on their Skype performances, a final cast of ten chosen from the bunch. Just one would win the show’s ultimate prize—a family reunion in Sweden. Joe told me he thought I would make it. There was no way I wouldn’t. He thought I should wear what I was wearing.
As I rode the bus to work day after overcast day, I imagined a June of wondrous travel. I ate fishy foods, splashed along fjords, and celebrated the summer solstice with a delicately vibrant flower crown. The Great Swedish Adventure would be a pause on my life and worries, my questions about the future—planet, country, health, career—that had been mounting for over a year. I was inventing an alternate reality, one in which my face graced the cover of a Swedish tabloid, my name surrounded by words I didn’t yet understand, sentences peppered with umlauts and hard G’s. It was hard to think it wouldn’t happen if I wanted it badly enough.
I consumed at least three beers while replaying the season of Allt för Sverige I had hoped to be cast in. In couch-laden defeat, I decided I must be a store-brand Cosondra, the Instagram model with gorgeous red hair who left her hometown for life in the city, or a less-interesting version of Amanda, the goth girl from Portland with a septum piercing, tattoos, and the coolest cateye sunglasses. Don’t tell the producers, but I hated this particular “bouquet.” There was nothing obvious I shared with any of “the Americans” this season.
I am not a farmer, widow, rock climber, or recovering Mormon. I don’t blow glass or sing for a living. I don’t live in an ashram or travel the world, moving from one volunteer gig to the next. I am drunk and alone on my couch, sad and adrift, living in a crumbling America with every kind of outrage pulsing through my veins. I wonder if that was the problem, if Olivia could spot my desperation right away, even through pixelized conversation.
What I should have said: The morning after the election, I woke up fixated on a thought. I will never have children. The fear that I’d lost more than an ovary, that in present circumstances I’d lose more—that’s what I had trouble articulating to Olivia. It was the kind of truth I’d kept close a long time. I had grappled with the fear of infertility long before my first visit to an oncologist. The national conversation about healthcare, especially women’s healthcare, dialed up the anxiety.
In the midst of the chaos, it felt wrong to feel sorry for myself, and utterly privileged. So many people were fearing for their very lives. I needed to be stronger, focus my energy on problems more urgent than whatever shameful political promises were clouding my optimism. I was free of the label “preexisting condition” until the day those promises came true. For the moment, I had access to a doctor, an affordable insurance policy, a way to schedule and attend the screenings I needed. In January, I marched with thousands of women (we will not go back!). I called and called and called my senators.
Try explaining all that to a woman from a country with socialized healthcare and 480 days of parental leave. In some ways, it may have seemed obvious why I preferred life in Scandinavia, but most of my motivation went unchecked. I want to meet my family, I told Olivia, but I didn’t know enough about those people, about myself, to know why. Desperate to leave my own problems, I waited for someone to say the only words I wanted to hear: you can walk out of this life.
But I never heard from Olivia again, the rejection silent and slow. So, that night on the couch, I decided to take discovery into my own hands.
“I’m wondering, do you know much about my grandmother Vivian? For instance, the illness/cancer that caused her death? It seems like my dad was too young to have known much about the situation (four years old when she passed), and I’m of course, curious.”
VickyJohnson72, the stranger, the cousin, was still awake at 3 AM.
Her next message read: “Vivian died of ovarian cancer.”
In the shower, I’ve been thinking about my answers to the questions I know Olivia will ask if we get the chance to talk again.
What is the best thing that has ever happened to you? What is the worst?
It is hard to choose just one.
Like most things, the prospect of motherhood takes on a new hue in the late anthropocene light. The idea swims silky purple, seductive but overcast. I cannot deny the pattern; the weather is changing, even in me. What does having children mean, if I’m due to die the way my grandmother did, leaving them alone in the storm?
Most of the time, my own questions are still the hardest to hear.
Cover Art by Jack Freedman