This is the second part of a two-part posting. You can find the first post titled “Cancer Redux” here.
This past Thursday was the coldest day of winter and the Kellogg Cancer Center parking lot was completely full. I waited ten minutes then gave my car to the valet. Inside, the waiting room was crowded. I stopped just inside the entrance and looked around.
There is something uniquely nondiscriminatory about the waiting room of a cancer center. Every age, gender, ethnicity, and religion is represented. People are waiting for treatments, are in-between treatments, or are waiting for people who are having treatments. Mostly, it’s easy to tell who’s who. As I looked around the room, eyes met mine. There’s an assessment going on. Are you one of us?
I walked across the lobby to check in. Only two women were working behind the desk, and there were several of us in line. Within moments a woman who had been checking in turned to walk past me. She wore a heavy red coat and several knit hats layered over her bald scalp. There was a bandage on her neck and she looked pale and tired.
When it was clear I didn’t recognize her, she said, “It’s Rosemary.”*
“Rosemary!” We hugged each other.
The last time I’d seen Rosemary was late last October. We had shared a bottle of Côtes du Rhône while dining at a local French bistrot with Judette, a mutual friend. Rosemary had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and Judette had suggested the dinner so Rosemary could ask me questions about what I’d experienced. That night, in the candle-lit restaurant, eating delicious food with French music playing in the background, Rosemary had appeared robustly healthy. She was a beautiful woman with long wavy blonde hair and a hearty laugh. After talking about the hard stuff, the three of us shared Paris stories, and talked and laughed for hours. When we parted that night, I told Rosemary I would be happy to be part of her team, if she wanted. I’d never heard from her or seen her again, until Thursday.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Well.” I explained what I’d been through and that I was better now. “Ironic, huh?”
Rosemary hugged me again. “I’m so glad for you.”
“How are you?” I asked.
“Today’s not a good day,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”
After a few more words we hugged again, and she walked away. Fighting tears, I had just turned to face the check-in desk when the man behind me asked where I was in line. I told him I thought I was now second, but there was an older woman standing just off to the side. I asked her if she was in line.
“No, I’m waiting for her.” She pointed to a woman being checked in.
The man behind me said to her, “Oh, you’re one of the lucky ones.”
When it was my turn, I got my wristband then rode the elevator up to Dr. Y’s waiting room. There, a Hispanic woman was waiting with her elderly mother. The mother was in a wheelchair, holding a cane, and looking gaunt and tired. A tiny blond boy wearing a Chicago Bears jacket wove in and out of the chairs. When I sat down, he came close to me, watching.
“Hi, Cutie,” I said, and smiled at him. He looked suddenly shy. He didn’t respond, but he didn’t move away.
“Wow, that’s something,” his mom said. “Usually he bursts into tears and runs away when strangers talk to him.”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“One and a half,” she said.
“What’s his name?”
“Pretty name.” I smiled at the boy. “Hi, Christian.”
Christian ducked behind a chair, but didn’t run away and didn’t cry.
A moment later, two more women walked into the room. They also appeared to be mother and daughter. They were Muslim and wearing hijabs. The youngest smiled and waved at Christian. I wondered if she was going to ask his name. How interesting that would be. But she didn’t.
Soon, the Muslim women were ushered into the office suite and the Hispanic women and Christian left. I was alone in the quiet room when it hit me—a wave of gratitude. I felt so blessed. This, I knew would be my last appointment for a while. I gazed out the windows and cried softly.
My appointment was brief. The bandage was removed. There is still a scab, so the incision looks like a curved line drawn with a fine-point marker. But soon it will be pink. Over time it will fade to a silver crescent—matching another scar on the same breast.
I saw Dr. Y maybe for a total of five minutes. She confirmed that all is well. I have a follow-up appointment in six months, and will keep my regular mammogram appointment in December.
Since Thursday, I’ve had three sessions and attended two Zumba classes. I’m sore and emotionally fragile, but a pervasive feeling of gratitude surrounds me like a warm cloak. Tears come easily, but I don’t struggle with issues of “fairness” or “why me?” It’s a bummer to no longer be a twelve-year survivor, but I’ve reset the stopwatch and I’m already working on year one.
I’m looking at the past two-and-a-half months as a wake-up call. Time to take another close look at how I take care of myself. Time to reassess what’s important and what’s not. Time to remember how sacred our time is here on earth, and recommit to valuing every second. Time to spend more time with loved ones. Time to commit to joy.
I cry often, but when I cry, I don’t cry for myself. I cry for Rosemary and all those who are still struggling. For those who have lost their fight. Thursday, after giving the parking valet my ticket, I again glanced around the crowded waiting room of the Kellogg Cancer Center as I was leaving. I heard the man’s voice from earlier in the afternoon, and I realized—I am now, again, one of the lucky ones.
*Rosemary is not her real name