“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. 

“If the whole world followed you, would you be pleased with where you took it?”—Neal Donald Walsch

Jonah and Adrian have been coping with the heat these last, sweltering days by spraying each other down—fully clothed—with a garden hose left out in the driveway.

When water hits the blazing pavement they marvel at the steam rising-up from the surface, transfixed by the chemistry—radiating heat mingled with a cool stream.

An aqua and yellow wave-board becomes a shield—blocking water shot forcefully in a front-yard battle between brothers. Shrieks of laughter and withdrawal and the pounding sound of the hose turned to jet hitting the board emanates like the call of wild birds across the still, quiet landscape.

They look for rainbows in the places where the sun’s radiance intersects with mist and Adrian calls to me—from outside into the house—elated by what he’s seen.

I wish that they might always care so much to share with me about what they’ve seen.

I try to understand how the mind works and construct a future scene-of-them—two, grown men eager-still to share about the things that stir them—the places they will be drawn to—the people—the ways of being in the world that I have yet to know.

I imagine intersecting with this vision of them on another wave in the swell of time.

I sift around my being for any evidence that I can—even now— remember them in this way.

Running inside, they leave footprints on the wood floors and scoop out ice from the freezer carrying it back outside on a makeshift tray.

Delivering it onto the hot surface, they dip their bare feet into the place where it is quickly beginning to puddle and watch as it begins to disappear.

They argue about who has had a longer turn with the hose and ask me to be their referee.

Sometimes I try to decide what is fair—making a judgement and enforcing it. Other times I encourage them to figure it out themselves. Occasionally I will approach them—bringing them to the ground in a seated circle—and engage in a more nourishing exchange meant to soothe tensions all-together with reminders of who they are to each other.

I am always reminding them of who they are to each other.

When I arrived at the soup kitchen, I signed-in, grabbed an apron and asked the supervisor how I could help.

As she started taking me to the back, storage area, I kind-of-wished I’d waited around the serving-line where I hoped to be placed. Instead I found myself walking into a labyrinth of boxes and rows of shelving units filled with a plethora of donated food needing to be sorted and stacks of paper products, plastic utensils and containers strewn about.

As I began moving boxes from one room to the next where the contents would be put in their right-place, I assumed I would be there for the entire shift.

I thought about how I had come there to help—whatever that looked like.

It was a familiar job for me—like the work I had done when I helped manage a large endurance event in New York City and was responsible for keeping straight all of the medical supplies supporting thousands of participants.

There were two teenage girls who I would be working with in this task—one with a warm, wide-open smile and sparkly eye-shadow, the other more-sullen and with a sharper way of speaking.

People donate a ton of tea to food pantries—and canned pumpkin, and artichoke hearts. I imagine it is what they find in the depths of their pantries when they feel compelled to give.

I came-upon multiple boxes of coffee filters and smiled when I thought about how I had been using a paper towel for a filter in my coffeemaker at home for several days because I kept forgetting to buy more.

After chatting about what-went-where, the girl who seemed less-amicable mentioned that she would be doing this work for two days straight. She did not seem at-all happy about this fact.

I didn’t make the connection at first and just as I was asking her why she was there for an extended time, it became clear that she was fulfilling a community service requirement prescribed by the courts.

I’m just a normal teenager—there’s nothing wrong with me or anything.

I said something about how one way or another we are all just learning—I was there volunteering because I believe people are inherently worthy beyond their circumstances and I certainly knew there was nothing wrong with her.

I wasn’t so sure nothing-was-wrong or that she knew her own value but I was certain of her worth.

I wished I could have offered her a glimpse into some of my less-than-stellar life-experiences to put her at ease—to let her know that she was far from alone in her misstep—whatever it was.

Any one of us could pull out a long-list of all of the ways in which we might have done better at some point in our lives.

I thought of Maya Angelou. Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

I knew better than to try to share a quote with her in that moment or to convince her of anything so we moved-on to the paper goods area where she put her hands on her forehead—overwhelmed by the mountain of products.

When I suggested we combine like-with-like she seemed to agree that was a good idea and took over from there, ignoring any further suggestions I made.

Her friend smiled at me sweetly from time-to-time.

It seemed like we had been working for a long while when the manager came back and asked if any of us would be willing to come to the dining room and keep track of the number of trays being served that evening.

I was surprised when I entered the steamy kitchen and saw that the food had only just-then been placed in the serving-line—the first wave of people lining up like pilgrims, layered with their belongings.

I was asked to position myself in a place where I could observe—either in the dining room or behind the serving line in the kitchen and to press-down on a little, hand-held lever each time a tray was filled with food.

I chose to stand behind a friend who was gently dipping out mashed potatoes onto trays—tenderly creating a little space for the gravy—and offering light banter to the souls passing through in the way only a person comfortable-in-her-own-skin can.

To my right was another gentleman I know who—despite his own, significant, physical challenges—was offering bread to weary travelers.

In addition to physically taking a tally of each individual who passed through, I made an accounting of them as well.

Not having a responsibility to interact or provide a service, I passed the time engaged in deep noticing of all those who came there for sustenance.

They selected the foods they wanted and I recognized them as valuable—infused with a powerful life-force and birthed into this world, welcomed or not.

I took in each part of them—the energy radiating from their bodies and especially their eyes and their hands, the turn of their mouths—studying the stories written there upon flesh.

I watched them light up and remember and retreat—expressing preferences and showing gratitude—in much the same ways as we all do.

I told myself the stories of their battles and considered the microcosm accumulated in their various paths—emblematic of the universal struggles we all face.

In the quiet of my mind, I let them know they had been counted—not just for having consumed a meal, not for having passed through, but for having arrived on this planet—in all of their unfettered humanity—worthy of being seen.

 

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