It was the middle of April – Tuesday the 16th, in fact – and in the midst of rushing four kids through the rituals of getting to school by 7:30 a.m., I was struggling to cram my own shower and make-up time into an already hectic morning. I considered bypassing doing my hair and then decided I needed to look decent, as it seemed somehow that if we looked nice, the morning would go better.
Having dropped my crew off at school, I gathered my purse and a crochet project and waited on my front porch swing. I wanted to be ready as soon as Mom’s little silver Impala pulled into my drive. I didn’t want to be the reason we were late. Picking up my yarn and hook, I worked rather nervously on the infant hat while straining my neck for a glimpse of her shiny car. Finally! She whipped in and I ran out and climbed into the passenger side. I could tell she was nervous and Mom kept telling me how she couldn’t sleep last night, even though she’d taken a sleeping pill. I understood. We were all anxious.
Mom’s cell phone rang and she answered. “Hello? Yes, yes, we’re almost there. Don’t worry. We’ll make it on time.” It was my sister calling. She was nervous, too. Anxious to get to an appointment we’d all been dreading. Anxious for news nobody wanted to hear.
She was waiting outside when we pulled in. I got out and hugged her, and crawled my too-tall self into the too-small backseat of the car, giving my sister the passenger seat. I suppose, in some act of deference to the situation.
We talked about nonsense most of the way there. Stupid things, laughable things, repetitive things that meant nothing at all. The three of us checked our phones for the time, then double-checked the digital clock in the car to make sure. We worried aloud about arriving late, even though we had plenty of time before the 8:30 appointment. We talked about everything except what we might hear when we finally got there.
We passed the office at first, had to turn around in another drive and go back. Mom made a big deal out of it, though, because it was an easier thing to make a big deal of than the appointment we were about to walk into. At least it was a fixable subject.
Early. We were too early, and this somehow became just as big a problem as arriving late. We discussed what to do. Should we go ahead in? Wait in the car? Drive somewhere, a gas station perhaps, and get everyone a pop? Talking, talking, talking about nothing. Just keeping the chatter up. It seemed important to do.
An accidental silence filled the car. The three of us immediately leapt from the vehicle. We started walking in time with one another, confidently deciding to go ahead in. After all, there would probably be forms to fill out, insurance information to sort. Might as well.
The office was cold, and my sister pulled her sweater around her slight frame and shivered. I thought, She is so thin. I said, “I love that sweater.” She gave her name at the desk: Charlotte Savage. Explained that her insurance card had not yet come in the mail. Would that be a problem? She accepted the clipboard with its stack of white forms and we walked in tandem to the chairs in the waiting area. She wondered aloud about family histories of anemia and diabetes, high blood pressure and allergies.
The nurse stood, door propped open with her foot. The three of us stood tall, daring her to question why both of us were going back with my sister. The nameless nurse sighed and flicked her hand toward the door. We followed, chins in the air, shoulders straight. A trio of anxiety.
The room was small. Charlotte sat on the examining table, Mom and I in the two chairs pushed against the wall. We waited. We waited for news we didn’t want. We waited for an explanation that would drain our worry. We waited for someone to say it was a mistake. We waited for a pulmonologist none of us had ever met.
Charlotte said, “I think it’s just an infection. Remember when I had that bad bronchitis back in January? I think I’m still sick from that, I’m sure it’s an infection. I just need a different antibiotic.”
Mom said, “I think it could be a calcium deposit. I read about something like that in a magazine. You should probably be taking a calcium pill. I take Fosamax, myself. I only have to take it once a month. We should ask the doctor. Maybe you could take that.”
I said nothing. Nothing at all.
Three quick knocks, and the doctor was in. He shook Charlotte’s hand. He shook Mom’s hand. He shook my hand.
He sat at his little computer and looked over my sister’s chart.
“So, you are here today because you have a spot on your lung. Did you know that?”
A quick nod from Charlotte. Her voice is suddenly stronger, her back straighter. She says, “I think it’s from an infection. I had this bad bronchitis back in January.”
The doctor is noncommittal. He makes a noise that sounds like, “Hhmnn.”
He runs through a quick list of questions:
“Have you been coughing blood?”
“But you do cough?”
“Pack a day. I had cut way back lately. But then all this (she waves her hands in a useless fashion around in the air) started, and I’ve been stressed. You know.”
“Yes. So how long? how long have you been a smoker?”
“Twenty-five, thirty years, I guess.”
“I see. Night sweats? Fevers?”
“Both.” (Mom and I lock eyes quickly. This is new information. Why hadn’t she told us this?)
“I see. Yes. So you have this spot on your lung. We need to biopsy this spot to see what it is. You understand that?”
“Yes. I think it’s just an infection, though. Could you give me an antibiotic?”
Mom has been silent this entire time. Suddenly, she can’t keep her thoughts to herself no longer. She leans forward and says loudly, “I read in a magazine about calcium deposits in the lung. Don’t you think it could be that? And night sweats. She’s probably just going through her change. You know, her CHANGE. (Mom looks him in the eye and nods slowly, as if to aid his understanding. After all, he is just a man. A foreign man, at that. Clearly, Mom thinks he may be a little simple-minded.) Would Fosamax help? I take that every month, and I never have got a calcium deposit on my lung.”
The doctor blinks.
“Well, let’s see what the biopsy shows. We’ll go from there. “
My sister seems irritated. “I don’t understand why you can’t just give me an antibiotic!”
He had been poised to leave, but halts mid-rise, and sits back down on his stool.
His words are slower this time, more careful.
“Let’s just say the spot IS an infection. Until we biopsy it, we don’t know what kind of antibiotic it would need. So let’s just go ahead with scheduling the biopsy, and we’ll go from there.”
Mom pipes back up. “Could you give her some Fosamax? Or something to help with her Change? I remember those night sweats. Terrible, terrible. No wonder she’s so worn out!”
The pulmonologist seems confused by our family – or perhaps disturbed by the desperation, the denial that hangs thick in the air, like a palpable humidity – and stands abruptly.
“Right. Well. We can schedule the biopsy, and we’ll talk again once we have those results. So nice to meet you! Stop at the desk for that appointment. Goodbye!”
And he is gone.
Charlotte mutters, “What a waste of time. I wish he could just let me try an antibiotic. I want to feel better.”
Mom says, “We’ll ask Dr. D. Maybe she can give you some Fosamax.”
I say nothing. I can’t think of anything to say. I just stand up quickly and grab my purse. I watch my sister move slowly, trying to fiddle with my purse so I don’t appear to be watching her halting movements, and I think, She is so thin.
Charlotte tells the receptionist that Tuesdays are good for her, Tuesdays are usually her day off.
The receptionist blinks at my thin sister, hunched and in pain, frail and sick and blurts, “You’re still working?”
“Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
She hands my sister a card and says she will call once the biopsy has been scheduled.
We troop from the office. Mom and Charlotte have their big purses dangling from their right shoulders. My sister’s left shoulder – near where the “spot” is – hurts too much to bear the weight.
I usually carry my purse on my left shoulder. But I feel somehow awkward. So I switch it to my right as we walk to the car. I feel better once we are all the same. Mom and I slow our pace to match Charlotte’s measured steps.
None of us have eaten yet. The morning was too hurried, too frightening.
Mom informs us there is a new restaurant nearby, and she’s taking us out for breakfast.
Charlotte looks back at me and rolls her eyes and smirks a bit. It’s so typical of Mom. So normal. Any excuse to eat out.
And there we are, in a cold booth at a new restaurant, and the waitress brings us two Cokes and one Diet, then stands with her pad and pen and waits for our orders.
“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”
“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”
“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”
We slap our menus shut and hand them toward the waitress, who laughs and says we all must be related.
We laugh, too.
It doesn’t take long, and soon three hot plates filled with enormous omelets overflowing with ham and melty cheese are slid in front of us. Mom asks for extra strawberry jam.
We all breathe out, thankful for the distraction of food. It had been getting difficult to talk about nothing.
I pretend not to watch as my sister cuts her omelet in half, and slides it under the edge of her plate, then cuts up what is left so it looks as if she has eaten.
Mom pretends not to watch, too.
We exclaim over the flavor of the eggs, the thin slices of ham, and how we need refills on our drinks.
Charlotte’s eyes suddenly fill with tears, and she quickly drinks several long sips of her Coke.
“I’m really sc-sc-scared. I don’t want to have c-c-c-cancer. I hope – I hope it’s just an infection.”
We agree that it probably is, and we discuss the fact that this doctor reassuringly called the lung mass a “spot”, and we collectively find comfort in that. “Spot” seems a much less terrifying word than “mass”. We hand Charlotte our napkins to dry her eyes with.
Mom digs in her giant purse, and comes up clutching a small pill bottle.
She smiles brightly.
“Isn’t this nice? Just us girls out for breakfast! We should plan another Girls Day Out like this soon! Hey,” (Mom drops a half a white pill onto her tongue and swallows) “you girls want a Xanax? It’s okay. I just refilled the bottle. I have plenty. I cut them in half all the time so they last longer. Char, do you want one?”
We both shake our heads no. Mom pours the tiny white pills into her hand and holds her palm up in the middle of the table. “Go ahead.” She nods encouragingly. Her eyes seem a little frantic. She is desperate to fix something. Somehow.
Once again, we shake our heads in unison. No, Mom.
She slips the offered pills back into the bottle, screws the lid on and puts her bottle back in her purse.
The eggs suddenly taste like sawdust. I suck at my straw, welcoming the cold bubbles of carbonation in my overly dry throat.
I glance out the window, and the skies have suddenly gone gray. The dark clouds open, and hard drops of rain slap the cars in the parking lot, bouncing off the pavement, pounding at the restaurant windows.
My sister pulls her sweater around her slight frame, and shivers.
I think, She is so thin.
I say, “Did I tell you I love that sweater?”