A doctor came into my room with a needle in his hand. “This is going to hurt,” he said. He did little to hide the sadness he felt about the pain he had to inflict, tears glistening at the corners of his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying in a soft Celtic accent.
But I needed that pain to get to the other side of cancer.
“Bring it on, doctor,” I said. “I’m one tough cookie.”
Really, I wasn’t concerned about the pain. I’m from the midwest, after all, and we’re not wimps. Plus, I have four brothers.
By the time I was in grade school, I had been beat up, rolled in dirt, and showered with insults. I’d seen my teddy bear dangling from a noose. I’d had socks in my mouth, snails in my bed, and pepper in my milk.
Don’t worry; I dished out as good as I got. There’s not much the world can do that tops the torture, or the joy, of growing up with six siblings. So the doctor gave me the shot, and it wasn’t that bad.
Before I knew it, they were wheeling me off for a nipple-saving lumpectomy. I imagined Dr. Cheryl Ewing, and her buddy, Dr. Robert Foster, my surgeons, with the medical equivalent of a melon baller scraping up every last cancerous cell that had the audacity to outlive chemo.
That night, I got to stay in the hospital, and really nice nurses made sure I was happy and comfortable while my overburdened husband finally got a good night’s sleep somewhere else.
But in the midst of all those miracles, somebody stole my shoes.
“Um,” a hospital guy said the next morning. I’m not sure what his title was, but he delivered the bad news. My shoes were gone.
Sheepish, he offered a pair of slippers from the gift shop so I could get home without getting my socks wet. Later, the hospital sent a check to reimburse me, a check I lost amidst reams of insurance notices, bills, forms and receipts that make up the paper trail of cancer.
But that bill wasn’t the hospital’s to pay anyway. It wasn’t their fault one of their staff members decided to be dishonest that day.
Sometimes I wonder about that thief, about the person who made off with a cancer patient’s stuff. What horrible circumstance compelled him — or her — to that moment? I wonder what twists and turns that life had taken, how long that thief had been miserable, and where my shoes landed? Did the thief wear them or trade them for drugs?
I’ve been the victim of a lot of crime and have had practice contemplating these questions. At first, the crimes made me mad. Now, I’m in a more neutral space, one that allows me to consider what sort of circumstances compel people to make dark and lonely choices.
If my shoes did get traded for drugs that day, I hope they were the very drugs that brought the culprit to rock bottom, that he didn’t have to wallow there for long or hurt many more people on his way down.
I visualize the thief using my shoes to get to a better path, one of light and love and beauty, where needs are met and where he is strong enough to help others, not hurt them.
I rode home from the hospital that day in my brand new slippers, watching vineyards blur by my windows, another step further on my long path to recovery. One of the first encounters I had at that hospital was with the soft-spoken, empathetic Celt. Then the unrivaled competence of two amazing surgeons and the team of experts who support them. Through it all, the unwavering love of my husband, the person who has been with me every step of the way.
And in the background, unseen, is one lone thief, trying to get something for nothing. But all of us know the world doesn’t work that way.
As I felt the sun through my window, reveling in the miracle of survival, I prayed that some of that light would make its way into the thief’s life. And that he realizes the only shoes anyone can possibly fill are their own.
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