“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” ― Nellie McClung

An ultrasound room seems an odd place to find joy. I would not go looking for it there. The place where tissue is extracted and examined for cells gone-rogue has qualities antithetical to human-magic. Cold and sticky gel is rubbed across bare skin while danger lurks on a glowing screen. Places you loved before are suddenly deemed suspect.  

As the technician led me down the hallway, I noticed the way her wavy hair was cut in a subtle, angular manner so when it draped down her back it fell into a V-shape. I didn’t know at the time it was likely a fresh cut for her wedding in Vermont the weekend before. She showed me where I could put my bag, overflowing with a heavy book and multiple other weighty items. I thought about how later I would be told I shouldn’t pick up anything heavier than a milk carton. I would carry my belongings out like a bag of groceries, not slung over my shoulder, as usual. Bending forward, I unzipped my mud-splattered boots and climbed onto the table imagining the experience might be restful. A rare luxury to lie-down, mid-day, in a dimly lit room. 

I was ill-prepared for the first biopsy, afterward canceling a full-day of activities, so I could crawl into bed with an ice pack. I rely heavily on a high pain-threshold and a can-do attitude to get through things I might do better to prepare for. I had not considered the signals my body would receive having three of these same procedures back-to-back. My sister described how my immune system might go on alert imagining it was under attack with each removal of a valuable part. 

What I was in-for started to become more-clear as the ultrasound wand was pressed down forcefully on my bare chest in the same bruised area where I’d had the previous excision. My arm, raised in an L-shape above my head, began shooting pins and needles into my hand even before we had begun.

The technician apologized for being silent for a long stretch as she mapped out the red and blue landscape of my inner world reflected like a military radar screen to my right. She lined up the suspicious locations of density like targets. l told her I welcomed the quiet. Her presence felt immediately familiar in the way of an old friend. Of the five women who would occupy the room, she seemed the most like a sister and in the days to come I would think of her. 

I heard an assistant come in and when I turned to look, I recognized the back of her frame as she quickly dove into her preparations. Her fuchsia scrubs were the only notable color in the room, and brightened the space, like a bouquet. When she finally turned toward me, her hair swung around at her chin. Her face reacted with happy recognition. 

I thought it might be you! 

I filled her in on the results from my previous test and watched as the space between her eyebrows contracted with concern. This has become a familiar facial expression in the people I share my experience with. Then she brightened, doling out affirmations of hope, like candy.

I couldn’t say her age, she wasn’t likely all that much older than me, but she brought the mother energy into the room. From beginning to end she filled up a halo of comfort around me with endless offerings of support. Her presence was like a siphon, keeping me fueled and abreast (no pun intended) of what was happening. She left the room to find a warmer, softer blanket, better, she thought, than what had already been draped over me. 

The radiologist came in like a force of nature, with a resident in her wake. She made a comment about how the doctor with her was fortunate to be on her service in a room full of women. We all laughed as she quickly pardoned herself, affirming the many capable men working in the hospital.

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. 

The sound of a breast biopsy is exactly like the sound an ear-piercing gun makes when penetrating cartilage. It’s like a hole puncher making its way through a stiff sponge. I began bracing myself for the sound as everyone in the room lined up images on two screens with the reality of what was going on inside my chest. The last time I was there, the radiologist suggested I look away when she began inserting numbing needles into my breast tissue. This time, I closed my eyes without her prompting. I began concentrating on my breath, dropping my awareness down into my belly, softening and gripping simultaneously. 

The assistant came around by my head and propped a pillow under my arm and then took my hand in hers as the procedure got under way. Chatter began about weddings and stinky, boy children—several of us had a couple of those—and honeymoons filled with reading and sleeping late. We laughed more than you might expect given the circumstances but there was always a pause and a sense of sacred space being held in each moment when the real work was undertaken. I could feel a force of goodwill building in the room, like oxygen was being pumped in.   

Each biopsy target required multiple shots for numbing that felt like exaggerated bee stings, and then one long needle inserted deeply into hard to access locations in my breast. I steadied myself for the pressure of the reach and turned in my mind to the energy of friends who promised to be with me from afar. I experienced a sense of them, as if they hovered over me. Their personalities fell away in my mind and I knew them in the backdrop of their being. 

With the numbing agent, you can’t really know for certain whether it has fully-deadened the area in question until the contraction of the biopsy tool is made. After each compression, the radiologist questioned me, Are you ok? You doing ok?

She said she could hear my heart beating. I assured her I was okay.

At one-point trouble-shooting was necessary. The resident sat at a computer across the room, meticulously considering the best course of action based on the imagery from a previous test. Peering through horn-rimmed glasses she contributed her opinion and then stepped back to observe. We celebrated between biopsies and the bed was turned around multiple times for better access. Each time I was spun around, it was as if a slate was being wiped clean or like I was being let up for air. Everyone seemed to take that moment to breathe again and I realized each of these women were every bit as much invested in the experience as I was. 

I watched as the clock ticked closer and closer to school pick-up time and when I was finally finished the relief was palpable. I was ready to jump out of the bed and leave but my mother-for-the-afternoon encouraged me to move slowly. She helped me to sit up and saw I had water in my bag, encouraging me to drink. She wanted to know my plan for the evening. I didn’t tell her my husband would be working late. I told her, instead, a friend had brought food. 

Afterward, I felt elated. It was more than the adrenaline surging through my body. Even as I had experienced extreme discomfort, I felt as if I had also been held for many hours in a gentle womb by a group of women who knew their job extended well-beyond the technical aspect for which they were each responsible.

Walking into the damp, Maine air, I made my way to my car and just as I was getting in, I suddenly made a connection. I thought about joy and instances that elicit this human-magic, this fleeting knowing that all is right in the world. I realized that whenever there is love, there can be joy. These two qualities are inextricably bound. It doesn’t matter if it is a bleak time. It doesn’t matter if you and your friend—a woman of grit and dogged humility—both have cancer. Whatever the circumstances, love is the gateway to the very highest realm of experiences we may have as a species.

In the aftermath, my chest turned all shades of grape-purple and yellowish-green. Waiting for the biopsy results was grueling. I’m not a worrier at heart, but I ruminated plenty in this instance. Positive results would likely have changed my plan for treatment significantly. Bursting into the room, my surgeon spilled out the good news. When we discussed next steps, I somehow managed to simultaneously admire her stylish, strappy heels (at a time like this!) and when she hugged me, in the uniquely, warm way she does, I knew I was in good hands. 

“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.”—Brené Brown

*This is the 3rd installation in a series of posts. If you missed the first, you can find it here and the second can be found here.

The drive from Dallas to Houston on I-45 is long with stretches of road in ill-repair—narrow where under-construction—and lined with ranches as evidenced by sprawling pastures and tall, drying grass that seems to go on for miles.

My mother held herself gingerly in the back seat while my sister and I attempted levity in response to the grueling situation with comments about the cowboy church we passed and the git er’ done sticker on the back of the pick-up truck window—beneath the gun rack.

I looked through the messages on my phone hoping for something new to pop up and take my mind off my desire to skip over the drive and get to the treatment. My heart seemed to beat at a quickened tempo in response to my thoughts.

Residents of just about every state relish their unique slice of sky. Texas could win a prize for most-opulent setting sun—golden and radiating in the drawn-out center, all-wrapped-in-red-at-the-end like a pair of shiny boots.

We switched drivers just before the glow dropped below the horizon and later when I pulled into a rural gas station, it was dark. My sister returned from the bathroom and I got out of the car—stretching—watching through a window from outside the building as three men—traveling together—walked toward a long hallway inside where the restrooms were located.

I contemplated whether it was safe to enter the narrow hallway—outnumbered. I ended up waiting, slowing my pace and slipping in to the women’s room when they were out of site.

The likelihood they were predators was slim, I’m sure.

In the hotel room my mother got into bed wearing her clothing—something she would never have done when well. I curled up next to her and my sister joked that I just didn’t want to sleep next to her.

Humor soothed the anguish of our mother’s suffering—so-on-display. Our shared sense of irony was a private language between us, our closeness a shroud of protection.

I waited—more than slept— and checked for the time when the alarm would sound and the neurologist would meet us at the hospital.

He had called me earlier to find out when we would be arriving—too late for admittance that evening. His tone was grandfatherly and when we met, his wide smile and straight, bright-white teeth were familiar.

His accent evoked his heritage and a way of treating people that seemed of another time.

Weeks later—on a day in which my mother was improving—we shared with him about how our father had flown regularly as an airline captain to a neighboring country near where he was from. As a young child, it was a mystery to me where my father was much of the time, although the souvenirs were good clues when he returned home—colorful, velvet sombreros that were hung on a wall, miniature stone castles for the tops of our dressers and endless sets of plastic wings to wear on our shirts.

When I was a teenager and the news was bad—like when a Boeing 757 crashed into the side of a mountain in the country where my father flew most often, or a hijacking was underway—I would go scrambling to find out where he was and whether or not he was safe.

Airports and airplanes were familiar places to me in the way that a school might be for a teacher’s offspring.

Chicago O’Hare had the tall, red, popcorn machines and three-letter airport-abbreviations lived in me like a part of my genetic code—BUF, DFW, LAX. A plethora of old-school ticket-stubs hung around our house piling up and finding alternate uses as bookmarks and scrap paper.

Marilyn—the pilots’ secretary—filled toilet paper rolls with candy and wrapped them in tissue paper with ribbons on the end. Whenever we passed through, she would open the drawer to her metal desk and hand one to me and my sisters.

In all of those hours of sitting and waiting and traveling, I fell-in-love-with reading and have rarely-since left home bookless.

For this trip I had packed in my carry-on the first of the three books I had recently purchased, having already read the second.

I still hadn’t connected with the fact that the author of the current book—Brené Brown—was from Houston. At that point, I didn’t even know for certain that I would be going to Houston. I only thought it convenient that at such a difficult time, I happened to have the perfect book-in-tow.

We entered the hospital-admittance waiting room just after dawn—beginning our lengthy wait for a bed. We stood in front of the art display cases lining the wall filled with delicate sculptures of birds and other nature scenes, encouraging our mother to rest in a reclining chair covered with a blanket.

It was noon before we finally had her settled in a shared-room with revolving roommates at the end of the hallway. It would be days before we would move into a private room where we set-up camp.

We read on the nurse’s board how some of the patients had been there for many weeks, even months.

As the days passed, I did whatever I could to help the nurses help my mother all-the-while composing letters in my head thanking them.

Donna with her braided hair and upright posture, the way she thought things through and answered yes whenever she could—her dad re-married and moved to London, she living at home with her mom to save money.

Kara with her stamina and return-to-kindness again and again, her rapid response to a rapid drop in blood pressure— saying she was prayin’ for us and telling about her grandfather with Alzheimer’s.

Montoya—a nurse’s aide and possibly part-angel with an unflappable—yet palatable— positivity and willingness to help in any way she could.

I thought about the privilege of having access to attentive, 24-hour-care in juxtaposition with the bedraggled man I had been noticing each day when I came and went from the hospital—stationed in a wheelchair out front—his leg propped up, his head drooped down, his body curved in the shape of the letter C.

One nurse—the exception—demonstrated for me the power of our being there, of our witness.

I watched as she inserted a new IV—the third or fourth in an already battered arm. When she accidentally moved the needle and catheter backward—forcefully in the wrong direction, under skin—I nearly jumped out of my own skin and my mother gasped, crying out in pain.

The nurse’s comment about what she had done was dismissive and unapologetic. In that (however brief) moment she seemed to have lost touch with her patient as a human being.

I validated my mom’s anguish at her situation as a whole and held her hand and did anything I could to comfort her in those weeks—regardless of the futility I felt—and when there was a quiet moment, I would drop-my-own-head-down and read a little from the book in my lap.

In many ways I was already living out the author’s suggestions for meeting challenges with the courage of curiosity and a keen eye for erroneous inner-storytelling as a means of dodging growth and personal responsibility.

I was right there with her and while there were certainly things for me to learn or experience more deeply, it was having the book with me—and the act of reading it there in Houston Methodist Hospital—that became relevant to me, flipping time around on its head and revealing the inherently, circular nature of life, once again.

My sister and I offered each other breaks from the intensity of our experience by encouraging the other to go down to the lobby of the hospital and sometimes we would go there together.

It was a beautiful and peaceful place with an arching atrium where light poured in on sunny days.

Lines of trees and plants surrounded tables where hospital staff had lunch alongside visitors and patients and even the building grounds crew took up a table occasionally.

There was a fountain in the middle with a life-sized sculpture of a turquoise-God-I-couldn’t-name riding a dolphin. Water cascaded over the rounded edges of the pool and seemed at the same time to be both flowing and static—like plastic wrap had been pulled taught in a curved and striated position and filled up with liquid.

There was a grand piano near the entrance with two large vases set beside thick columns—none of which would have seemed out of place in a museum.

Occasionally an individual would approach the piano and play—a concert musician’s serenade to a somewhat weary crowd.

At first, I kept to myself what I had read from the book there in my lap—the magnitude and gravity of my mother’s care overwhelming the impact of the coincidence I had consumed and for which I had felt a deep sense of awe.

But then, one afternoon, my sister and I were in the lobby about to sit down to a three o’clock lunch we had finally gotten to. With only two restaurants to choose from in walking distance—and nearly a dozen days of needing to eat —it might be fair to say that I have finally had my fill of Chipotle, another bowl of which we were about to consume.

We were standing by our table, setting our things down—when a couple approached us. It took me a moment to process the fact that they were homeless or nearly so—and they were requesting our help.

They led by sharing about their embarrassment in approaching us—it was a Sunday and the lobby was nearly empty, they had likely snuck in.

Given the subject-matter I had been reading about in my book and the fact that I was where I was, everything around me, suddenly came into clear focus.

I knew—without a doubt—it was no accident these individuals were approaching me now.

I brought my whole attention to them—specifically making a point to look directly into their eyes while internally asking myself the question, can I look openly at the pain and need before me and hold space for it, not diverting my gaze or rushing to end the interaction?

The man’s bright blue eyes contrasted with his dirty jacket and need for a shower. I was glad they had each other. I told them I understood what they were going through and immediately felt a little sorry for saying that—knowing how little I actually knew about what it would mean to be in their situation.

What I meant was, I see you—I see my own need in you—and I do not judge you for where you’ve found yourself.

I gave them money and when my sister and I sat down, I flooded her with the story of what had been happening between the pages of my book and how profoundly aligned it was with our experience.

I explained that Brené Brown had written a story in the book I just happened to have with me about her own experience in the lobby of Houston Methodist Hospital—when her mother had become suddenly ill.

I bought the book in South Portland, Maine—near where I live— at a time when I imagined I would be spending the fall admiring the colorful transformation of leaves, sending my children off to school and returning to my work.

I described to my sister how the parallels did not stop there with our presence in Houston.

Brené Brown had also described the way her curiosity around a characteristic she had noticed about herself in her interactions with homeless people had culminated into deeper understanding through an experience with a homeless man she had witnessed playing the grand piano a few feet from where we stood.

Her quest for understanding was prompted by the question of why she was able to give readily to a homeless person in her presence and yet, she could only do so hastily and without looking into the person’s eyes nor lingering in their presence—an uncharacteristic manner for a seasoned social worker and compared with her normal way of being with people.

After she had encountered a homeless man at a restaurant across from the hospital (perhaps Chipotle) where he was being shoved out of the place and then witnessing him the following day in the lobby playing the piano, she had also come to attention—knowing life was speaking to her.

She entered into a conversation with her mother about the history of need and self-reliance in the story of her family eventually coming to terms with the fact that her reticence was rooted in an avoidance of facing the presence of  her very own need residing in her being.

In some ways my sister and I were blown-away by the seeming coincidences of the book and the way it was lining up with our own experience.

It also felt like of course this was happening—we knew we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

Later when another person—clearly in need—approached us on the street, I asked him if he was the one who liked to play the piano in the lobby—I had to try— and he said, no.

I know that guy though! he’d said.

A few days later, toward the end of our time at the hospital and after a particularly stressful experience, I decided to walk outside around the medical center—something I hadn’t done much of.

There was an abundance of concrete and almost no-green to be found in the area.

I walked past the children’s section of the hospital where large, colorful letters lined the walkway and found the door to the playground area with benches and fountains locked.

I looped around through cancer centers and other specialty clinics and after not-too-long I was back where I started. In the distance I saw the man who I had been noticing all throughout my time there stationed in his wheelchair with a towel draped like a triangle over his head and his leg propped out in front of him.

He had been moved or someone had moved him away from being right-out-front in plain view. Now he was under an overhang and out of the regular flow of traffic in-and-out of the hospital.

I began walking back up the ramp toward the entrance and suddenly something stopped me. I turned around and walked back down, looking into my purse to see what I might be able to give him.

I walked slowly toward him and finally stood directly in-front of him. His head was drooping down and when he sensed my presence he looked up at me, raising his head just slightly.

I looked into his eyes watching as they widened in surprise at someone standing there before him. I observed his rounded spine, drooping skin and ragged clothing. He was really thin.

Our eyes continued to be locked and I somehow managed to say, I’m so sorry you are suffering.

His eyes widened, again, and I saw tears spring up into their corners—emphasizing the already liquid nature of their rich, chocolately color.

A flood emotion came washing over me—my mother, the suffering, the inequity, this world—and I held it all back like you might hold a door closed with your whole body against a powerful wind.

Tucking money down by his hand, I told him I hoped someone could help him get some food or help or whatever he needed.

It was clear he couldn’t speak but he stayed intently in my gaze. It felt like we both knew this interaction was not about the money or at least that is what I told myself.

I didn’t know what else to say or what I could do so I said again, I’m so sorry you are suffering and walked away down the street and away from the hospital where I could breathe.

I finished the last few pages of my book in the final days my sister and I were together and handed it over to her for her flight home.

The third of the books I had recently purchased was sitting in my lap on the runway as we began barreling forward into the morning sun and lifting smoothly into the air. I opened its hard cover and began reading as I listened for the wheels being drawn up and tucked away, and headed for home.

 

*Due to the lengthy nature of this story, I decided to break it up into a few installments. This was the 3rd. Thank you for staying with me! I do not intend to regularly create such lengthy posts. If you missed the other two posts, you can find them here and here. I hope you will enjoy my journey through three books that spoke-to and supported me during a difficult time caring for my mother who is now recovering.  

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