These posts about my sister, about the journey we took together during the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer until we lost her, are coming out in spurts and starts. There is no logical order to them (maybe one day I will go backwards and put them all in chronological order), but for now, they are coming out as they need to, in fits of hiccups and tears and sometimes even laughter. I hope somewhere in the path of these puddles of words, I will find some stepping stones toward healing.
I thought it was strange, because the building shared a driveway with the college I’d been attending for close to three years, but I’d never gone inside. I’d seen the people driving in and out of that lot many times over the last few years, and never stopped to wonder what was going on, how they were doing, what diagnosis they may have just been given. I never stopped to think if they were coming from radiation, or chemotherapy, or if they’d just been given 3 months or 6 months or a year to get their lives in order before their predicted death.
I never stopped to wonder if they were swerving as they pulled out of the lot because it was the day their hair started coming out in handfuls. Or because they’d just been vomiting in the bathroom of the dismally colored building. Or because they’d just learned their insurance wouldn’t cover the medication necessary to prolong their suddenly shortened lives.
I stop and wonder now.
I’ve been inside that building, and now my view is altered.
We rushed in the rain to arrive on time. It was the end of a Michigan April, and the rain was cold and sleety and hurt the skin a bit when it pinged against a bare hand or neck or cheek. Mom, my sister, her ex-husband, my brother, his wife, and me. We checked for directions on the maps plastered on the wall just inside the door, shivered a bit because our clothes were still a little wet, and took the elevator up to the correct floor. The waiting area was enormous, and white and cold, and felt a little bit like an assembly line: check in, show card, sit down, wait, get weighed, vitals, sit back down, wait for the right name to be called. Everyone there was in the same little rickety boat as us, everyone there was either waiting for a storm to break or had already received their forecast and were now awaiting directions on how to batten down the hatches and sandbag the house.
We all held some variety of liquid caffeine in our hands. None of us had slept the night before.
Mom crossed her right leg over the left and swung, swung, swung her right leg like a clock pendulum.
We tried to begin conversations but most of them died out within just a few seconds. The only talk we seemed able to keep up was the breaking news from the night before, about the man named Ariel who had kidnapped and held 3 women in his basement for years on end. The women had been discovered and rescued, and this was a safe topic to continue on with because none of it had anything to do with cancer.
“Terrible! Just terrible!”
“Really. A monster!”
“How was it that nobody saw them? Why weren’t they rescued sooner? “
“They say his son didn’t know anything about it.” (This was from my mother, and she sniffed with a kind of superiority about it because obviously it made us quite a lot better than THEM, and if the Universe had been run by HER, snakes like that would be dealing with a diagnosis of cancer instead of our family, who had never kidnapped anybody and held them in the basement.)
Finally, a nurse in childishly colored scrubs came out and called my sister’s name, and the way she said it made it sound like a question. “ Charlotte? Savage?” And then again, fast and altogether, “CharlotteSavage?” And the six of us stood and trooped along, single file, in the narrow hallway, down to the room.
There was not enough space in the exam room for all of us to sit, so we deferred to my sister, who we now thought of in our minds as “THE SICK ONE” and my sister-in-law, who was still using a cane to walk since her terrible car accident a few months before, and our Mom and gave them the seats. The guys squatted rather awkwardly on the floor and I leaned against the giant, cold window sill and my Mom jumped up and offered to let me sit down and I said no because, well, because she is my Mom, and also because it seemed somehow wrong for me to sit down and relax my legs at all when my sister had cancer.
We waited for the doctor and again, we tried to talk about something, anything really, but there just didn’t seem to be much of anything we could say.
What we all wanted to say, but couldn’t, was, “It will be okay.”
Failing that, there were just no more words to throw out into the airless room.
We waited. Time passed so slowly, as if each second was minutes long; each minute, at least an hour.
I often think in pictures, and so while we suffered through the interminable wait, I imagined what this physician would be like. I expected him to be tall and lanky, as many oncologists on television medical dramas seem to be. I expected a grim face, a gaze filled with pity. An appropriately hushed tone of voice. In my mind, he’d be wearing scrubs – perhaps fresh from a surgery – with tired, deep blue eyes that were crinkled at the corners and a white lab coat with his name stitched across the upper left corner.
I imagined he would resemble Dr. House, with a slightly less caustic personality. And perhaps a British accent, because wouldn’t that be
hot nice to listen to?
A sharp knock on the door interrupted my imaginary-doctor-rendering, and we all stood up quickly, brushing at nothing on our clothes so we would look nice for the man who held my sister’s life in his hands.
He walked in with confidence, this petite Asian man in faded blue jeans. He was balding, and his face was wide, open and honest. In lieu of a lab coat, he wore a somewhat wrinkled button-down shirt, and when he sat down, the hem of his jeans came up just enough to reveal black leather biker boots with silver chains.
He introduced himself as Dr. Danish, and I instantly loved him.
I trusted him immediately, solely based on his biker boots and the fact that he was named after a tasty breakfast pastry.
He didn’t question the amount of people crunched into the tiny, white square of an exam room; instead, he remarked on the beauty of such a support system, and – gingerly stepping around the maze of extra legs and shoes and purses — walked around the teensy room, shaking hands and introducing himself to each of us. We answered in turn as if auditioning for parts in some small-town play.
“Hello, I’m Danish, and you are……”
“ Mary. Sister-in-law.”
“And you, ma’am?”
“You sir….are her….” Here Danish guessed at what was the most likely choice, then left his question dangling, mid-air.
Breakfast Pastry blinked. Twice.
“Come again now?”
Danish turned to me, and I found myself clasping his cold but firm (not at all sticky) hand and stating my role:
“Valarie. Little sister.”
I’m not sure why I added that word, “little”. Was it really necessary? At thirty-eight, am I anybody’s “little” anything, anymore? But that has always been part of my own identity; I am Charlotte’s little sister. Charlotte is my big sister. It’s just always been.
Breakfast Pastry navigated back to where my sister was sitting, in a small chair at the end of the row that also held my sister-in-law and mother. He shook Charlotte’s hand gently, and invited her up to the exam table as if asking her to dance. I sat down in the seat she had vacated because my mother told me to. The seat was still warm.
This man, this Danish man in his black biker boots, explained the size and location of the tumor (we had graduated far past “spot” or even “mass” by this point), and told us about the way it had already eaten (he actually said that, “eaten”, as if the tumor was a living creature with sharp teeth) through three ribs and part of her spine – the T3 – and had spread to one lymph node in her chest. Because of the size (that of an orange, which then made me think of an orange with vampire teeth inside my sister) and location, the tumor was inoperable. He left that word, “inoperable” sitting in air the for a few minutes, so each of us could pick it up and examine it for ourselves, turning it this way and that, getting a handle on the meaning of it.
Charlotte cleared her throat and said in a very small voice, “So….what can we do?”
And Breakfast Pastry explained about pain medications to help with the agonizing pain in her shoulder, and he talked about an appetite stimulant to get some weight on her, and he talked about a PET scan, and he told her to eat more, and he said this was “fightable” and it was worth going through chemotherapy and radiation.
Danish said if she wanted, he could write her a script for medical marijuana, and Charlotte darted her eyes to our mother and shook her head quickly, “No thank you!” because even though she was in so much pain by then she had to sleep sitting up in spurts of 20-30 minutes and could barely move her arm, she didn’t want to disappoint our mother or agree to something Mom would find inappropriate.
He looked at my sister with her long, long hair and said, “You understand your hair will all fall out, right?” and she swallowed hard and said, “Are you kidding me?” and he said, “No, it will all come out and you will be bald, and you need to be ready.”
She swiped at her eyes and under her eyes and blinked several times and said, “Okay.”
He said, “Stay positive.”
Then he was gone, and I think we all felt a little let down, like something bigger should have been happening, because we expected him to tell us something magnificent, and as much as we all liked him, we were deflated because although he had said quite a lot, he never said, “I can fix this.”
And he never said, “It will be okay.”
He never said, “You aren’t going to die.”
So we pulled reassurance from the words he had given us, words like “positive”, and “fightable”, and we said that we liked him because he wasn’t uppity, and because he was like us, and had chains on his biker boots so he had to be a good guy.
And we all left together, our little big group of despair and hope; we walked back out in the chilly April rain, and I wished I had brought a sweater, and I wished I had brought an umbrella and I wished my sister didn’t have lung cancer.
We went out for breakfast again, because that was our normal thing to do, and it was nice to do something normal, and we talked about the same things over and over until Charlotte started to cry as she moved the food around on her plate in circles with her fork, and we all handed her napkins and sat quietly and awkwardly and tried not to cry, ourselves. http://wp.me/p3vrHA-1D
Even though it was a different restaurant and a different day, my eggs again tasted like sawdust and I forced myself to chew them because my mother wanted to see one of her daughters eating, and I watched the rain splash against the windows of the restaurant as I went over and over and over the entire appointment in my mind, trying to remember something good to hold onto.
I searched and searched inside my mind, reaching for something positive and tangible, but instead all I found were cobwebs of words and when I reached out to catch them, they crumbled into sawdust in my hand, just like the wooden dust of eggs in my mouth. http://wp.me/p3vrHA-22