from Health & Care
by Olivia Bergdahl
introduced and translated by Linda Schenck
In July 2021, deep into the pandemic and a month from giving birth to her first child, spoken word poet Olivia Bergdahl, then 31, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma that had spread, unbeknownst to her, to her lymphatic system.
In March 2022 her book about this traumatic year, Vård & omsorg (Health & Care), was published. It is a demanding and rewarding read, about the overlap between life and death, and about survival into an unknown future. It is a narrative that grows on the reader as Olivia’s year passes and is transformed from pregnancy pleasure to melanoma anguish.
This story is told in diaristic form with 129 entries and a few connecting texts, as well as a number of italicized ‘interview questions’ to her from her unborn daughter, projected into some distant future, where it is uncertain whether it will be read posthumously. She had begun the diary when her pregnancy was verified, not knowing that her melanoma was also present.
In a way we all live with these existential issues, while in another this text is particular to Olivia and her experience. What follows is a selection of excerpts from the book, numbered using their diary entry numbers.
Read a translation of Olivia Bergdahl's spoken-word poem Europe in SBR 2022:2.
from Health & Care
February (entry 16)
Past the twelve-week mark. The risk of a miscarriage drastically reduced. Sonogram. We got scheduled early, according to the midwife ‘because you’ve had one miscarriage already, so we usually take an extra look so you can relax.’ A throbbing little cloud on the screen. A beating heart. I had to take a deep diaphragmatic breath so as not to fall apart. Astonishing. It is utterly astonishing to see a new life. Completely filled up with it, the astonishment. A single word to hang onto. As with every person who faces the arrival of a new generation, I, too, must summarize. I’ll have to summarize. I’ll dare to summarize now. The story of a person, a childhood, everything involved in becoming a parent. in other words, me.
Who are you?
My name is Olivia and I’m thirty. My work is writing and performing. I can tell myself I am in perfect control of this presentation, although I know this is just how the imagination works, it comes from somewhere. There’s no deciding in advance what you’re going to make up, it is simply the result of a thousand little coincidences you can’t possibly control. It’s difficult to talk about yourself, the self is private, wants attention and validation, which makes it uninteresting. I care a great deal about my relation to the world, but less about myself. The circumstances. They’re easy to talk about. I’ve always been interested in history. Something preceding me, something coming after me. That makes it simpler.
Where did you grow up?
I was a city child, grew up in central Gothenburg, in the outermost row of buildings in Nya Masthugget. You entered from Andra Långgatan 46, which had more porn shops and fewer cafés in those days. And a state liquor store as well. The buildings in Nya Masthugget served as a fortress, impenetrable, with a huge system of interconnecting underground corridors and identical courtyards. I still know my way around Masthugget perfectly. Everyone’s parents worked in the arts, but no one’s parents were well known. We children who hung out together were all girls, all city kids, courtyard kids, when dinner was ready a parent would shout from a balcony: Come on in. Time to eat. Sometimes I tell the story of when we built a playhouse right next to Johannes Church, with its soup kitchen, and how somebody took up residence there. I tell it as an anecdote about what it’s like to grow up in the middle of a city — somebody homeless moved into our playhouse. We’d dragged over some old rug we’d found in the trash room, it was pale pink, I remember that clearly, and an old plastic chair. The next day when we arrived there someone was there, and we backed off in fright. Drunkos were no danger, just creepy, but flashers were scarier. You could see them in the city park or out by the pier at Saltholmen. Everybody knew that, and everybody’d encountered a flasher some time.
Like all children, I was part of an us. Us kids on the courtyard, us kids on the street, …us kids from Masthugget, us kids in class 1-3 A, us kids from Oscar Fredrik School. Later the us was fragmented, as happens, each individual stands alone. Each of us has to stand in that solitude, become an I, become the only individual who is me, in solitude. There’s no getting around it.
I grew up. Halfway between two church spires, Masthugget Church at the top of the hill and Oscar Fredrik church at the foot. When I couldn’t sleep I’d lie and listen to the church bells ringing, more or less in time, and know I was at home. Not until I got to upper secondary school did I realize that lots of other people don’t grow up living in apartments, and not only the ones who live in single-owner houses with basements and indoor staircases. That a sense of community not only means living in the same way at the same place, with the same kind of parents, clothes and hairdos, but that it is about other, deeper things, like a color inside or muffled music close to the soul, whether the soul is in the stomach or close to the heart.
In any case, I’m a city kid, and cities are where I feel safest. Always some place that’s open, always a light on somewhere, always someone moving around in an apartment across the street. Always part of an anonymous, enormous community. I like it.
In the city you learn to observe people. This is a different gaze than the look that gazes at the natural environment and the changes of the seasons. I’ve always looked at people. At strangers.
I was also a solitary child, didn’t like being a child, couldn’t wait to grow up. Not because childhood was so awful, but because adult life seemed so wonderful. My sister and I grew up surrounded by wildly enthusiastic love. There was a distinct line down the middle of life, between what was family and what was outside. I never doubted that I was loved, I knew it. I was good and clever and used an adult vocabulary. My mother always asked why, asked me to explain and to tell her: why do you think they behave that way? How did that make you feel? Do you think there’s a reason for it? I learned from the outset to think dialogically, was able from an early age to put into words to the thing everyone has to formulate some time — my feelings in the world.
Throughout grammar school I was an outsider. Sometimes invited along, sometimes not, never relaxed. For a long time I said it didn’t bother me, in my childhood I wasn’t interested in other children, I said. When, one afternoon as an adult I returned to my old school, I wept. It took a few minutes for me to sort out the sea of emotions. Then I realized the trigger was every time I passed the spot where I used to hide from the other kids during recess. If you’ve ever been excluded from the community, you carry it around like an ugly scar on your face, that’s what I think. Most of the time life is pretty good anyway, but then there are situations in which you behave peculiarly, as if driven by your angst. I still find it very difficult to know how to behave in relationships that aren’t clearly defined. I stand there at a loss and panicked by the thought that I might do something wrong. That’s how important a sense of community between people feels, I know that for certain.
The first time I was on a stage I was about ten or eleven. I liked it from the get-go, I found it easy then to perform, there were clear rules within which I felt entirely free. I rushed out into the world in an enthusiasm of puberty. I had tremendous self-confidence. At one time I thought any stage was a worse stage if I wasn’t on it. I invented myself in front of the audience at the same time as I invented myself to myself, I thought it was wonderful, I felt omniscient.
I had to eat those words later. I grew older, reduced, I no longer know what I knew then. Exactly what the greatest grief in life was, the greatest joy. What is to come, probably. If you have been young and gifted, you often remain young for a long, long time.
As an adult, I have had an unusual professional life, closely intertwined with my self-image. I have done a great deal of touring. I’ve been just about all over Sweden except for the island of Öland, just by chance. I’ve travelled widely in Europe and the US, I’ve been to a couple of countries in Africa. That’s how I’ve introduced myself. As an itinerant. An observer. A satellite with powerful anchor chains. My best friends are all over the place. Myself, I moved back to Gothenburg, it was primarily a physical sensation, missing my hometown as if it were an amputated body part. Not exactly essential, maybe like a pinkie finger, that was how I felt when I moved back home. I got back my amputated pinkie, things fell into place.
This is where I live now. I live with the man who will be your dad in an apartment from the 1930s. They were referred to as ‘the healthy buildings’ when they were new, with large, bright rooms. From the living room we have a view of the street, from the bedroom a view of a slope where deer sometimes graze. It’s a lovely apartment, we were lucky.
Every person lives a tremendous life. This is what I can say about myself. I’m not interested in being at the center of things, as I’ve had to explain to people. That’s not why I’ve been attracted to the stage, it attracted me as a place where you can recreate yourself. I devote a lot of effort to doing that. To drawing a ring around myself and saying: This far but no farther. You can’t get at me. Within language there is an opening where I have always been free. Here. That which is me. Everything which will be your mother. There’s no getting around it.
The rest of you will also be my mother. There’s no getting around it.
I still haven’t miscarried. Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing.
April (entry 43)
But how to raise a daughter when you know what men do to women? I’m the one asking this question, you know nothing of all this yet. I’m asking the question because I know exactly when it happened the first time the second time the third time the thousandth time, I know exactly, I know exactly, exactly how it feels.
You weep. You love. That’s all. There is no other answer. I did think you might be a boy and not have to know. Know the sound of the streets on the way home in the dark, what it’s like when you travel, what kind of looks you get, what kind of words you hear, how everything you do has to be sifted through it. That’s the only answer. I know. I know too much about it.
What’s going to happen?
You’re going to learn which side of the street to walk on and in which parts of town. You’re going to learn how to talk back and how to ignore anyone who shouts, looks, asks questions, takes things from you, your solitude, your right to it. You’re going to stand at a bar or on a dance floor. They’re going to talk about your clothes in a way that implies something you didn’t mean.
You’re going to be tired and lean against a wall, semi-shut your eyes because you’re falling asleep and somebody will come up and tell you that you look like a whore. You’re going to just have turned twelve when that happens. You’re going to sit alone in a taxi at fifteen, stiff all over and unable to get out.
You’re going to hear how men twice, three times as old as you talk about imagining you naked, this is going to happen in work-related contexts, when you have a chance to do a good job, you’re not going to do a good job because that happened, just because that happened. You’re going to be at restaurants and at parties and on just an ordinary afternoon when you’re boxing things up to move and a neighbor offers to give you a hand, all these times are going to end with somebody groping your breasts. Some of the times you’ll freeze to ice. Other times you’ll be outraged. You’re going to scream at a man, a full restaurant, a neighbor and you’re going to think: they’re dogs. They aren’t people, they’re dogs. You’re going to wish a man were dead. There’s no other way to explain that feeling. Wishing someone were dead, you’re not going to believe you had it in you, you’re going to have to admit it, that it’s there inside you, that it’s what gets deposited there when something else is taken from you, when something that was your absolute right is taken from you, and the freedom in simply being able to exist is taken from you and the freedom in simply being able to exist is exchanged for this, to be able, deadly seriously, to hate.
It makes no difference that you didn’t think you had it in you. You’ll travel all over the world and it will be everywhere. A little less freedom. You’ll long for old age, when there will no longer be such things to take from you. You’re going to find the thought of old age horrifying, because this is what people say, that only youth is worthwhile, that’s what they holler and freedom, freedom, freedom being taken from you at every moment. There will be hands, there will be limits crossed, there will be ruthlessness, there will be an apology afterwards, you’re going to say it’s okay, it’s all right, you’re not going to talk about it, because you don’t talk about that kind of thing, don’t mention it, you just know, you just know, know how it feels not to be able to breathe when somebody’s holding you much too tight, know what it means not to be able to break loose, how it feels to be looked at, now hate is deposited in you, hate not amenable to reason, all this, it will not be mentioned with a single word. Especially not to me. Because how do you tell your mother? How do you tell your mom something like that?
And then at some point in adulthood, you understand. It wells up in you with icy clarity: she knows. She’s known it all along. Mom has always known because the same things have happened to her, and she’s carried it with her. All my life, she’s carried it. So I will be your mom. So I will know. So I will carry.
Then what do you do?
You weep. You love.
July (entry 77)
Life always goes very fast and very slowly. Then the phone rings, everything changes, a moment later: something new.
What did they say on the phone?
They told me I had cancer. Malignant melanoma. Do you want the number to a psychologist or a therapist? Normally we would have called you for an appointment, but it’s like this because of Corona, over the phone. We’ll send you information about sun protection and your treatment plan. That’s what they said.
What did you hear?
Nothing and everything. I heard a voice speaking to me as if I were in a state of panic, I wasn’t in a state of panic then. That came later. I thought I’m glad I’m pregnant. Cancer reduces fertility, I was thinking, I want children. The circumstances are special what with your pregnancy, my contact nurse, who had taken the phone from the doctor whose voice just told me cancer, said now. I liked her very much, my contact nurse. I’m your contact nurse she said, I’ve made you an appointment at the surgery unit in a week’s time. Call any time. Nothing that happens now, no matter what the outcome, will affect the child you’re carrying.
What did you think then?
I stopped thinking. I had no idea I was so good at stopping thinking. I didn’t think for several days. I called my mom and dad. I called my sister and a couple of friends. I practiced. I said I have cancer. Then I didn’t think any more. I painted a chest of drawers. I binge listened to a podcast on the history of country music. I told the man who’s going to be your dad that I wanted to watch movies with absolutely no female characters, didn’t want to know there were women because women are the ones who get pregnant and I’m pregnant and this is me in my body and I didn’t want to think about my body because my body was not only pregnant, it also had cancer. We watched movies with absolutely no female characters. He held me. Tight. I didn’t think. I didn’t write at all. I painted a chest of drawers. I scrubbed it down, washed it, put on two coats of primer and then three topcoats. I was overwhelmed by a peculiar, wild feeling of happiness. There was nothing but the present. I didn’t leave the apartment. Together with me lives the man I love most, as if to fully lean on him, my entire body. This is levitating, and we are expecting a baby together. I didn’t think anything more than that.
Then what happened?
I went to the country, my best friend was there from Copenhagen. There was so much growing there. So many flowers. So much grass. So much life. In the middle of a field. And the trees. I saw all of that, and I didn’t think anything more than that. Then I went back home. […]
The Writer has cancer. She has to recreate herself now, these are words she has written before, that time it was about something else, this time it’s about this: there was life growing inside her, there was death growing insider her. The Writer had a baby, the Writer got cancer. She is very young to have cancer, she has skin cancer, malignant melanoma, the kind Tage Danielsson died of? Yes, the kind Tage Danielsson died of, the kind lots of people have died of, in the old days the survival rate was one in twenty, things have changed a lot since then. The Writer has skin cancer at the right time in relation to how things used to be, research has made progress, modern medical science, the new kind of cancer treatment has revolutionized the world. Not least for melanoma patients. The Writer had no idea.
The Writer gave birth to a baby. A healthy baby in late August, 10 out of 10 on the records, Bergdahl female child, 49 centimeters, 2900 grams. She had never had a baby before, she had no idea about that either, but it all went well, went magnificently, she didn’t get depressed which she had read everywhere that you got, the baby blues they called it, she was overjoyed. Her lovely little baby, her body had given this to her, it felt like a gift. She didn’t give a thought to illness, medication, health & care. Nursing and diaper changing, magical nights of being awake, dawn light. She had no idea about cancer medication. No more than most people know, radiation, chemo, hair loss, the Writer knew about this. The new cancer medications, the current treatment regimen, is completely different. Nurse her as long as you can, soon you’ll be on medication.
The Writer is unable to write about this in anything but the third person. The Writer is pretending it’s about someone else and googles on side effects and survival statistics. A very good form of cancer to have unless you belong to the minority, if it hasn’t had time to spread. The Writer’s cancer has spread.
There are the sick people and the healthy ones. The Writer had no idea. Had no idea, none, about the limits of the body, thought she knew, but that was sheer vanity.
The Writer is facing a death threat. It is for real. It is a real death threat, so what happens? The Writer is now utterly insignificant, since there is nothing to tell here, there is nothing but the present. The Writer is the one reaching forward in time, backward in time, in the face of a death threat there is no forward, no backward. Just the present. Nothing else. The Writer becomes something else. Loving. Beloved.
The loving one has a little child in her arms, a newborn, her child. She knows that nothing she can do can make this child remember her if she ends up dying. She knows that this is the only real betrayal, dying, but it’s the one thing over which she has no control. She can’t stop looking at the photos of the two of them, the only parenthood she can give, a child’s fantasies about how things might have been. Look, this is me with my mom, I don’t remember her, I look like her in this picture.
The loving one fends off the words, refuses to speak, is unable to respond to emails or messages, is unable to write anything down, not the words for it, anything but the words for it, the loving one does not want to speak them. She fumbles for the pictures. The terror. The fear, a lit corridor. There goes her beloved, her child, there they go without her. The sheer terror of it, of a slow death. Knowing that the most evil thing you can do is the only thing over which you have no control, because it’s completely arbitrary, it’s good luck or bad luck, and no one knows the answer: will I recover?
A special gaze strictly for crises. The crisis gaze, the clear-eyed gaze, the gaze of terror and a sense of detail. I’m drawing a circle around myself just here and this is me. I am. But not forever. That knowledge.
December (entry 104)
You think you’re telling a story, that you have something to say, that you’re in control. Then this happens. All I wanted to do was to write down everything I knew. But life intervened with its drama, here it came and changed everything.
We went to the same high school, the man who’s going to be your dad and me. Not at the same time, but we had the same teachers. He imitates the voice, he’s doing it now, of our math teacher, he was always saying, our math teacher: But is this reasonable?
When everything is unreasonable, he says it. Is this reasonable? He asks. Is this really reasonable?
It isn’t reasonable, for things to be this way.
Vård & omsorg
Ordfront förlag, 2022, 286 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Olivia Bergdahl and Ordfront förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Olivia Bergdahl is a prominent stage poet and writer. She has published two collections of poetry, and two works of prose. A translation of Olivia Bergdahl's spoken-word poem Europe can also be found in SBR 2022:2.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for Translation of Swedish Literature.