The nurses’ white board at the foot of my bed was a blank slate. My husband, Jon, and I took turns with dry erase markers in every color to let my nurses know who they were dealing with here. This wasn’t my first liver biopsy. When it comes to lemons and lemonade, we’re pros.
The reek of her hit me first, a consuming, palpable odor. The curtain separating us wasn’t nearly thick enough to filter her rotten ashtray stench. I inhaled little pieces of her, flakes of tobacco lining my mouth, coating my throat.
I was already nauseous. I’m always nauseous. In an hour, I’d be back in this room with a little less liver and even more nausea. I knew from before that they would make me stay for hours after the biopsy. I raised my eyebrows at Jon and shook my head No! I cannot stand this!
I heard her next. “They’re lying to me again.”
She barked insults that fell flat because she sounded so bored, ugly lines that fell empty. Jon and I put down our markers and busied ourselves silently on our side of the curtain. We listened while she fired hate and rage at everyone round her. I felt for the nurses. For her. I thought about adding a few more silly faces to the whiteboard. But instead, I sat back into the comfort of myself...
…because I know exactly who I am.
And I will stay the same.
No matter what is shaken,
if I am a rookie or a sage,
in a river or a cancer center.
Among different backdrops,
the threads stay the same.
What luck, when we’re living a life that is at least imaginable.
When the ground is solid enough for far sighted perspective.
I am in my own snow globe.
It was as if she wanted dismissal. The more the nurses tried to accommodate, the sharper she retaliated. She seemed worn by the predictable injustice of her enemies— just shy of warranting a full assault. They were almost as experienced in this as she was. Their health and joy mocked her. They had no idea the shock of being trapped in a snow globe that’s not your own, one that’s flipped upside down over and over until you can’t see yourself in there anymore. The woman on the other side of the curtain was relentless in casting her misery outward. Because if they didn’t feel this pain as ferociously, they wouldn’t really see her. She might not even exist.
… I did not exist in the same way now.
Not the way the nurse remembered.
Five years ago, we’d swap stories about our kids
as the chemo dripped into my bloodstream.
“How are the girls?” she asked now, smiling.
“Fine,” I said to the floor.
I said nothing, stifled an eye roll.
Instead I gave her a long… loud… sigh,
and swatted her question away.
She nodded, looked away and said, “Okay.”
Then she stopped asking me questions.
In a moment, they’d wheel me past the curtain and my neighbor. I wouldn’t look away. I would treat her like the person she was before she got sick. I looked over with an expression that I hoped said, Hey, I’m not afraid to see all that is unfair to you, and maybe for a second, you won’t feel so alone.
Just a peek was enough to see the big, red sores all over her face. She looked furious at the TV that she’d set to volume ten. By ignoring me, she was also begging me to push her, so that she could set me straight on how meaningless fleeting attentions are. I was just another glimpse from another person headed out the door.
…I can feel your curiosity, in the way you approach,
the pause before you speak.
You’re wondering if you should ask.
It’s not the best time or place,
but you don’t know when you’ll see me again.
So right there, in the line at the grocery store,
with the cashier and all the randoms
standing around, listening,
you observed, “You’ve lost a lot of weight!”
A year ago, I would have softened that for us, for you.
I’d not mention all the vomiting, diarrhea,
and very real possibility of starving to death.
But that day in the line,
I held eye contact and said,
I didn’t even save you when you grimaced,
when you caught the error,
I said nothing.
In the last moments before sedation hit me, I wondered what her laugh sounded like, before she lost it. How hard did she try when her illness first slathered itself all over her? I bet she scrubbed with a rough abrasive until her skin gave way, and she had to switch to a soft cloth that didn’t do the trick. She ran out of “tough-it-out.” What sealed that final slot, the one that swiped her last capacity for joy?
After she gave me my shots,
she got far too close
and said a little too loud,
“I’m worried about you.”
Some people need you to get in their face to snap you out of it.
I do not.
I leaned closer to her and hissed,
“Don’t. Bother. There’s nothing to be done.”
I stormed out of the cancer center,
my long black parka flapping behind me,
with the fury and injustice of Cruella deVille.
That woman needed to be loved. She was trying to make herself unlovable. She was trying to push everyone away when what she needed was someone to hold her tight and not let go. She needed something solid to hold on to, someone to tell her over and over again until she could believe it herself:
You are loved. I am loved.
You are loved. I am loved.
You are lovable. I am lovable.
You can still love. I can.
You are not done. Not done yet.
I promise I’ll try. Please don’t give up on me.