Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Know the Drill

By this time, you understand the language under the language.   By this time you know the drill.

The drill is this:  You hit the sheets early the night before, knowing it may take an hour or more to actually fall asleep.  You lie in bed with those familiar chitterings and flutterings in your stomach, as though a flock of redpolls were trapped inside your ribcage.  You call Craig, snap at him because he’s preoccupied with harvesting lettuce from the garden.  When he asks you what you want from him, you tell him you support, and he obliges.  You take a homeopathic remedy to put you to sleep. 

You wake and shower and dress in layers and pack snacks in an insulated bag and pack your computer and papers to grade in a backpack for the inevitable waiting room waits, you fill a to-go mug with tea, a bottle with water.  You worry about the time.  Will you beat the Boston traffic?  Is two and a half hours enough?  Your sister drives, first dropping the kids off at school, first driving in the opposite direction from Boston.  Taking frequent swigs of water, you listen to her kids argue in the backseat, you feel impatient with their petty spats about who said this, who said that, who hit whom in the head with a backpack.  You get mad when Sam sasses you, you say, “You’re not the one going to the cancer doctor, my friend!” 

It’s a different day in that it’s sunny, cool and breezy.  It always seems to be raining and gray when you go to Boston for these appointments, isn’t that part of the drill?  But not today.  Near  Boston you slide effortlessly into the carpool lane.  You listen to your sister talk, you wrap your head around her troubles, you fail to be preoccupied with what’s ahead for you, with anxiety.  You take in the intense redness and maroonness and orangeness of the trees.  This lack of anxiety is also not part of the drill.  Until you pull into the parking garage.  You’re talking to Craig on the cell, and he says, “Oh yeah, the old parking garage, I remember that,” and you say,  “Too bad I don’t have a joint to smoke this time.”  Remembering how you crouched beside the car tire to smoke a doobie after a chemo infusion, to stave off the nausea, which always began about halfway back to the Cape.

You ride the elevator up from the parking garage, you walk across the lobby where a woman isn’t playing a harp, thank God.  Because something about that harp’s celestial chords recalled for you angelic orders, haloes, white-gold light, and in a hospital, being treated for cancer, or even two years after, angelic orders at heaven’s gate are not where you want to be thrust.  You want to be here, at street level, listening to the latest pop or hip-hop music or better yet, outside on the street, with the living, with the well, under the trees, in the crowds moving down Brookline Avenue.  But today there are no harps, just the second elevator ride, your sister pushing the button for floor number nine, oncology.

It’s crowded today.  You wait in line to check in.  You find a seat, you scan the room, and your sister points out that everyone seems happy, everyone’s wearing bright colors.  Did someone find a cure for cancer?  But you feel the eyes of others on you, checking you out.  You know the drill because you do it too, scrutinize each person who walks in the door, wonder about their story, their diagnosis, their fears and hopes.  You watch as the phlebotomists come in and out of the lab to check the basket for the next blood draw.  You wait to hear your name, hope it will be the Columbian one, not the younger one, the one you called “the milker” for the way she pumped the blood out of your finger every week during Taxol treatments.  But it is the milker.  She sits you down, and she’s fast and efficient, no milking, just a needle in the vein.  Two tubes of maroon, and you’re up and out and down the elevator to radiology.

So here’s where knowing the language, the drill, really matters.  You change into the johnny in the tiny cubicle, you leave your shirt and bra in the locker, you sit down in the waiting room with your arms wrapped around your chest and prepare to wait.  You check your email.  You check out the other waiting, nervous women, you flip through the magazines, rip out an article about freezing fresh herbs from Organic Gardener.  Hear your name called after only five minutes.  You walk in, she tells you to take off your johnny, she tells that since the fibroadenoma in your left breast didn’t change in a year and a half, she’ll just be doing two regular views.  You let her arrange you and your breast on the machine, you breathe when she tells you to, your hold still when she tells you to, you relax when she tells you to, you try to read her face when as she’s staring at her screen.  Go back and wait, she says, and the doctor will call you.  You wait again.  Why is everyone getting called except you?  Every woman who’s called gets the desired sentence:  “The doctor’s ready for you now, go and change your clothes.”  You understand the language under the language.  How this means “Your mammogram is normal, you can change into street clothes, you can leave, you are safe.”  No more views, no ultrasounds, no fear.

You wait your turn.  You remember a U-Tube video your friend showed you, of an elaborate prank some French people played.  With heavy equipment, they dug big hole dug in the middle of a running/biking/walking path.  They filled the hole with water, then carefully covered the water’s surface with leaves.  A hidden camera capture people chatting, walking, then suddenly plunged into water over their heads.  You remember that feeling as you wait.  What is coming for you?

“Ms. Saulitis?”

“Yes?”  You look up.  The portly technician holds a clipboard.  “The doctor’s ready for you with your results.  Go ahead and get changed.  Then come through this door, take a right.”

You hurry back to the locker, grab your small bundle of clothes, put on your bra, button your shirt.  You meet Mara, follow the signs back, the technician directs you into an examining room, you sit, and a few seconds later, a white-haired Dr. Groff with a friendly face more like that of a grocery store bagger than a doctor puts out his hand.  He doesn’t even sit down.  “Your mammogram is normal.”  He leans over the desk to sign a piece of paper.  You look at your sister, and both of you smile, melting smiles, ice cream smiles, golden retriever goofball smiles.

For you, now, this is technically just a routine mammogram, once a year, like anyone else.  But you hope you never receive those words in a routine way.  Because it’s as if you get to relive the terrible moment two and a half years ago when you stepped on what you thought was solid ground and fell through into deep water and found yourself flailing.  It’s as if you get your wish, at last.  It’s as if they’d said, “”It’s benign.  You’re fine, you’re okay, you can go home.”  And know it’s an illusion.  You can’t change the past.  But for those seconds of smiling so hard you want to grab your sister and jump up and down, you pretend.  It never happened.  It never will again.           

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