Denise

July 6, 2020
Michelle Wheeler

When I was a little kid, my mom would sit on my bed and play with my hair or tickle my back as she tucked me in at night. When I could tell she was fidgeting to leave, I’d throw out some random sleepy sentence to keep her around. Moms love that. They’ll drop everything for your words if there’s a chance for some new insight. But actually, my insight-less, random words were a distraction, a tactic, so that I could reach out slowly — so slowly she wouldn’t even know I was moving — and grab a small pinch of the fabric of her clothes. I’d hold tight. Tight as I could. And only then, assured that she couldn’t possibly go anywhere, would I relax back into the silence of being cared for and fall asleep. My lucky mom, I know she got to sit guard at my bed for years, because I never remember waking up in the night without that fabric in my fingers. Not once.

A mom’s love is like that. It fills us before we even know that words could be put to such a thing, complete and absolute without any easing in.

There are other loves that trickle in. Ones that we didn’t seek, but they seep in gently, slowly, like the color of tea spreading through hot water. An unexpected love that you only realize once you’re surrounded by the warmth of it.

I know the moment I fell in love with Denise.

I sat in the waiting room for one of my first appointments after my cancer returned, this time as a stage 4 diagnosis. I flipped through the pages of a magazine, seeing nothing in it. I was on the brink of a full-blown panic attack, focusing intently on steady breathing to stop myself from screaming, flailing and running blindly in any direction. Any second, one of the nurses was going to come to call for me. The thought of it made the pit in my stomach shove its way up to my throat.

Five years ago, I was the darling of the cancer center. I made my way through each wing — chemo, radiology, surgery - befriending nurses strategically so that I wouldn’t hate it there. I propped myself up through that defined series of treatment assaults by creating connections with those wonderful nurses, and what luck, I ended up sincerely liking all of them. They carried me through to the finish line, one that we celebrated, all of us hoping this would be my only race with them.

But now, I dreaded the witty banter I nurtured five years ago. Because if they thought I was coming back in here as that same person, they were wrong. I was fixing to make that clear. Go ahead, I thought, come on out here and crack the whip with something as predatory as smiling at me. I’d despise them. Or better yet, avoid eye contact all together. I flipped the pages harder. I was ready for whoever to get it all wrong.

I heard my name and looked up to a nurse I’d never seen before. She was about my age, maybe a few years older, with lots of fuzzy brown hair hauled into a messy bun at the base of her head. Denise. She looked at me, just briefly, with a neutral expression, and then looked away as I gathered my things. I followed her without a sound or another glance, thinking that I could still dislike her if she started asking me about my weekend like it mattered. She didn’t. In the exam room, she went through my med list with a calm stoicism and asked only the essential follow-ups to my one-word answers. Denise disarmed me by not asking anything more of me; she didn’t ask to be noticed.

But I did notice, over the months, how quickly she responded when I’d call about side effects giving me a hard time. I noticed how she’d hustle around her work station with the energy of urgency, but she never brought that energy into the exam room with me. I noticed how she watched from the corners, so I wouldn’t feel the pressure of her worry, as she studied me for hurt in my body, but also in my heart and mind.

Which made it really hard to try to keep hating Denise. I decided I liked her and therefore started messing with her. At my next appointment when she asked me, again, if I’d picked up smoking, I told her, “Only a pack a day.” I watched for her reaction and saw, for the first time, a subtle tug at the corners of her mouth. A fleeting half-smile as she kept staring at the screen, clicking away on the mouse, and said without fanfare, “We don’t judge.” I could tell she meant it.

I studied her a little closer at each appointment. With not a drop of make-up, Denise was absolutely gorgeous. I’m guessing that she had spent maybe thirty minutes in her entire life looking in the mirror, ten of them probably on her wedding day, because Denise has stuff to do. Although always more eager to listen, sometimes I’d get her to tell me her stories, until I could start to fill in some of the lines and shadows of her.

I came to know Denise as a woman of great faith, who never tried to insert her beliefs into my experience, because I didn’t ask. Instead, we slipped into the thoughtful talk of moms, kicking around ideas to outwit the bad habits of our kids. I only have two daughters, twins. Denise has a pile of kids. She’s been through the stages of age more times than I ever will, with boys and with girls. She has grandkids even. She was clearly a more evolved as a parent than I was. But she never assumed authority, which only made me want to pry every thought about parenting from her head.

Except for the days when we were awaiting my scan results. There was nothing else to talk about when we were waiting to hear if cancer was eating my innards. At first, I thought she always knew the results as she was checking me in. She could have. She didn’t. Instead, she deliberately avoided knowing my results until after I did. It saved her from having to hide that knowledge. But also, she’d share the torment of the unknown with me, which made me not have to carry it all by myself.

If the scan was good, Denise and I would exhale back into normal conversation, because Denise is not flowery, and neither am I. But if the scan was bad, I’d made a habit of walking just shy of running out of the cancer center. No follow up with Denise. I didn’t know what she did if the scan was bad.

It is truly amazing what a person can get used to though. On my next bad scan day, I sat by my oncologist looking at the black and white images of cancer-consuming in my liver. I watched as he measured the increase in size on that blob, and then the next, leaving no doubt. I still felt devastated, but for the first time, not panicked. “Well look at that. I’m getting good at this,” I said to him. “I haven’t even cried.”

I didn’t even run out the door. I walked back to the waiting room while my next appointments were scheduled. I sat in the corner by the fish tank, trying to decide if the castle in it was more grey or brown. Undecided, I turned to see Denise walking quickly down the hallway towards me. She didn’t seem to be focused on me though, so I figured she was just coming to get the next patient. I turned back to figure out that castle to avoid facing her.

In a second, Denise was in front of me. She pulled me gently out of my chair and wrapped me up in her. I just stood there at first, stiff and startled and not hugging her back. She stayed right with me, held me tighter, and whispered, “You… are allowed… to cry.”

And so, I did. Denise never let go as she helped me back into the chair and held my hands as we cried.

That was the moment I fell in love with Denise.

She has become my anchor in the cancer center. I look for the comfort of her as soon as I get near it. Like a child, I’ve even taken for granted the imbalance of our relationship, one that occurs in its entirety in one of three rooms. Denise could tell you both of my girls’ names, I couldn’t tell you one of her kids’ names.

Sometimes, when she’s close enough, I want to reach out and grab a small pinch of her scrubs and squeeze the fabric of it as tight as I can. I think she’ll let me. I think she’ll pretend not to notice. I also think she’ll slow down a little bit, so that she doesn’t slip out of my fingers and I can know that she’ll be there, caring for me, the whole time.

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