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Later, I will meet with a doctor who I have never met before. I imagine us being introduced in a social context and consider the surreal nature of his request that I take down my gown, so he can examine my breast, within one minute of meeting me. Noticing my book, he asks about it. I wonder if he really wants to know and whether I should try to explain. He listens awkwardly as I tell him about the memoir, a story of a Stanford Medical School doctor and his attempt to integrate Native American healing techniques with western medicine. He flashes a smile at me as if we are speed dating and responds with disinterest.
My friend leaves me there and rushes home. I imagine her driving along steep and winding roads at a fast clip, intent on relieving my suffering. She returns with a tall, orange container filled with pills wrapped in silver packaging. I separate a couple capsules at the perforated edges and think about how despite our shared place in the same ditch, here she is shoveling me out. Later, the on-call doctor encourages me to take her medicine, and I marvel at the malleability of rules when compassion is at play.
My first awareness of a return to consciousness is a swell of nausea coupled with big, wet tears pouring down my cheeks and a small sob caught in my throat. Like the rebound from a hard, double-bounce on a ping-pong ball I reenter the world, slammed back in like a rag doll. My eyes resist opening, and I am perplexed as I swim around an odd interior, spinning with darkness and the presence of this unexpected, emotional release. One of the nurses says to another, they did a lot in there, as an explanation for my blubbering. I can’t quite put my finger on what I’m feeling. If I had to name it, I’d call it grief.
Even despite my previous emotion, I didn’t expect my heart to contract so mightily when the music began. If cancer does one thing, it frames your life. It reminds you that time is fleeting and all we really have are individual moments in which to see people, exactly as they are. It also shows you how you can endure way-more than you think you can.
We were acquainted from the previous biopsy and she greeted me warmly then quickly switched gears, detailing her plan to the others. She was like a sergeant barking out orders, only kinder and with an upbeat energy. There was a lot to be accomplished. She had a commanding voice and presence I might have once found off-putting. I might have read her as brash or overconfident. I understand better now about what it takes. I understand about how many ways women have been taught to shrink and to be quiet, to dim what allows us to make a needed contribution in a flailing world. I could recognize in her the many layers that must exist in order to demonstrate so much skill under the weight of responsibility with alternating humor and seriousness.
I listened to everything being said, and yet, it registered as if it were happening to someone else. The size of the tumor was being described, and the grade. I suddenly became privy to things like proliferation index and types of receptors as indicators for treatment. I held the phone between my head and shoulder, which I have never been very good at, and began typing into my computer. I titled the page breast cancer and put words and actions to the page I had no interest in ever impressing upon my body.
The house is finally still after a whirlwind of overlapping encounters with winter’s harshest microbes and all that is intrinsic to the human condition. Some of it is beautiful and golden, like a painted sunrise. Some of it throbs and pulls at the heart like punch in the jaw. All of it threads together the remarkable narrative of a strange and sometimes-conscious species.
Each time I see them I think about the salt air and seaweed perfume, the sitting on the edge of a boat at dawn and dusk taking in the vast Maine sky. I imagine their weathered hands and wonder if our spines are made from the same fibers—mine seeming somehow not as sturdy despite my attempts at affirming it otherwise.