Back in the radiology waiting room at the hospital in Boston for my six-month follow-up mammogram and ultrasound. I just walked here in the pouring rain from the little inn on Beacon Street. Out on the streets, I think I was the only person not carrying an umbrella. Well, a guy on a bike wasn't carrying an umbrella, so I'm exaggerating a little. But I felt a bit foolish. Like showing up for an Alaska hippie sauna wearing a bathing suit. In Alaska, carrying an umbrella, even in an autumn deluge, means you're a wimp. (You cover yourself head-to-toe in rubberized rain gear and wear rubber boots instead). My friend Kelly (not a wimp) lives in a town in Alaska where it rains almost 200 inches a year. It's been his personal mission for decades to convince Cordovans that umbrellas are a great invention. Years ago, he convinced me, so I do walk around in Homer in the rain carrying my umbrella, eliciting incredulous glances from drivers. Last time I was in Cordova, in September, during a storm, I didn't see anyone carrying an umbrella. Kelly, undefeated, showed off his extra-fancy unbreakable model that is stronger than a North Pacific gale. I wish I had that umbrella today.
But this is what -- displacement behavior? I'm clearly distracting myself. This is me trying not to think too much ahead. Wisely, I didn't buy a latte on my way up here this morning. Because of course as soon as I stop thinking about Kelly and umbrellas and Cordova and rain, within me arises, just under my solar plexus, an inner fritzing, like a television screen in an electrical storm, aka, anxiety.
Next to me, a woman talks to her friend about how she's going to pay for cancer treatment. Her friend reminds her to stay positive. Another woman, fine new hair growing sparsely back on her bald head, texts someone after a consultation. Getting up to go to the exit or one of the examining rooms, women grab fistulls of hard candy from a basket on the table. Another kind of displacement behavior, maybe. I see they got rid of the Lucky magazines. Here we are in the waiting room, individual in our anti-anxiety drugs of choice: paperback, Us magazine, cell phone, daily planner, New Yorker, arms crossed protectively over the breasts, and me: tapping away on laptop.
Just got out of the mammogram room. All those extra views because of a fibroadenoma, a benign nodule, in my left breast; it caused me a scare last time. This time, I'm more prepared. A very nice woman with a pink ribbon pin squished my breast between the machine's plates. Hold your breath she said, as if I had a choice, while the machine whined and clicked and beeped. She kept me chatting. "We're here to reduce your anxiety," she said. "Cancer hits good people in bad places," she said. Actually, it's not like Santa, it doesn't care if you're bad or good, holy or profane, organic or chemically preserved.
A black woman who waited a very long time for her ultrasound grabs candy from the basket as she leaves. We catch eyes, smile. "Have a good day," she whispers.
White sneakers, shiny black rubber boots with yellow trim, running shoes with pink soles, two sets of clogs, my brown suede boots. The current composition of the waiting room. Individualized in this moment by our feet. Our street selves. Boots made for walking out this door, into the regular world of puddles and crosswalks, asphalt and cement and soggy fallen leaves. On top, we're all the same in our johnnies.
The bald woman comes out of the ultrasound room, and a voice from behind the door trails after her: "Good luck."
Called back for one more picture. "Everything's okay, just need one more view," she says. It's the same nice woman who did the first views. Now things get really intense; I practically stand on tip-toes. Breathing, neither notion nor option. We chat some more, about the breast cancer walk she was in the other week, about Alaska. And then I'm back out in the waiting room. I realize the exit sign is pink. I think about my clothes, none of them pink, damp form the rain, hanging in the skinny closet in the changing area. Okay, now this is strange, unbelievable. On the table beside me there's a New Yorker magazine open to page 65. I scan down the columns, thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool to find one sentence that speaks to me right now, to this situation? One sentence I could quote in the blog." With the New Yorker, anything is possible. And there it is, on that very page, 65, halfway down:
"And what's so great about work, anyway? Work won't visit you when you're old. Work won't drive you to the radiologist's for a mammogram and take you out afterward for soup." I flip back to see who this is: "Confessions of a Juggler" by Tina Fey.
Go figure. I think about my sister. A consummate juggler -- mother of three, doctor, volunteer, runner, yogi -- she rescheduled half a day of work today to drive to Boston for me. She will be here mid-afternoon, in time for my oncology appointment.
Out of the "second view" room comes a woman, thirty-something, dark brown shoulder-length hair, jeans and clogs, and she sits down next to me. I push the magazine toward her. "Were you reading this?" I ask.
She says yes. I say, "Did you see this paragraph?" She picks it up, reads, laughs.
"Did you see who wrote it?" she asks me.
"Tina Fey," I say.
She resumes her reading, her waiting, every once in awhile even chuckling at something she reads. I'm sure, in her regular life, she's a juggler too. I saw her studying her daily planner earlier in the morning.
Thank you Tina Fey.
Now in the hospital restaurant drinking coffee and listening to bad pop music and loving it, loving every syrupy lyric and synthesized beat. Is there anything more sweet than sweet relief? Because the radiology doctor told me the fibroadenoma looks exactly the same as last time. "Normal breast tissue," she said. I don't need another mammogram for a year. No more ultrasounds, unless there's some change. Then she handed the wand to a trainee. There were two trainees, actually, one from Harvard med school, one from the hospital program. After the blur and exhaustion-fog of med school, what will they remember, those two? Surely not the anonymous, relieved woman lying on the examining table, her boot-clad feet hanging off the edge, her one breast covered with gel. Here's what I will remember: Trainee 1, a head of intricate black braids, smooth brown skin, a look of eagerness on her face, taking the wand in her hand for the first time. "Hold it like this, the other way," the doctor said. Trainee 2, strawberry blonde tight curls, brown eyes, pale freckled skin -- she looks 12 or so -- staring confidently at the computer screen. And the woman doctor, white coat, mannish gray short hair, stocky voice and frame, motherly, instructing them: "Relax your wrist, stand up straight." Off to the side, the true expert, the dark-haired Helena, technician, catching my eye, giving me a wink. "You are still here," she seemed to say with that look. "You haven't disappeared."
After I walked out of the ultrasound room, clutching my johnny over my chest, I saw the dark-haired woman, still waiting for some other test. Done with Tina Fey, she just sat there, her eyes closed. "Take care," I said.
She looked up, startled. Smiled. "You too," she said.
In the waiting room, with eyes and mouths and gestures, we speak a language under the language we speak on the street.
And in the hospital restaurant, another pop tune plays, a remake of "You're so vain." I sip my coffee. I'm so unreasonably happy. I tap my suede-booted foot.