My nephew graduated from dental school this month. He walked across the stage holding his 2-year-old, and suddenly the little boy I used to know was all grown up and had become a dentist.
As I paged through photos, my mind wandered back to my latest graduation, one that happened nearly three years ago: my last day of chemo. No one played “Pomp and Circumstance,” that iconoclastic graduation piece we all know by heart, but that’s not the music I wanted to hear anyway. I wanted to hear nurses singing me out the door. I wanted to see medical providers waving me goodbye.
Shortly after my cancer treatment began, I walked to a gathering of moms huddled in the parking lot at school. We had just dropped our kids off at various classrooms. It was cold that morning, and I wore a wool knit hat with my coat. The moms glanced at me, and I saw the looks on their faces when they noticed my changed appearance.
Suddenly, I felt awkward.
Usually I took the time to hide my disease. I wore a wig that sort of matched my hair, and I applied makeup more carefully than I had since high school. But that morning, I left the house worn out, and my cancer made its debut with others.
I guess I didn’t realize how bad I looked. “Oh, um,” I said, aghast at their expressions. “Sorry. I guess I’m sporting the chemo look today.” My hat covered my thinning hair, but I had lost weight and my skin looked sallow.
As soon as my words escaped, I felt the tension drop. “There. I said it,” I thought to myself. “The elephant in the parking lot has been acknowledged.”
“You look great,” my friend Shannon said. She’s a pastor. What else would she say? Pastors are notoriously kind. I mean, it’s sort of their job, isn’t it? I smiled, hoping the conversation would take a different direction. But my friends persisted in asking how I was doing.
I was about to turn 50, and the only thing I wanted was not to be in the hospital on my birthday. My first two rounds of chemo landed me in the emergency room, one for an I’m-gonna-die-here experience because my body was rebelling against the very elixir that promised to make me well. The other ER visit was nasty, too, but not as bad as the first. Chemo isn’t for wimps.
I knew I couldn’t have a trip to Tahiti or even a heady cocktail with a fruit-festooned umbrella for my birthday. But at least I’d hoped not to be hooked up to an IV alone in a room where people had to dress in hazmat suits just to bring me water.
I learned about my cancer on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. It was the day before Obamacare kicked in, and my family’s insurance got cancelled as a result. Ultimately, I got treatment, but only at a facility hours from home. So for me, chemotherapy was more than hookups to powerful meds. It was long drives, overnight stays in expensive motels, the angst of leaving my child behind, an outpouring of time, money and energy that sometimes made me wonder if it were worth it.
In my first few chemo sessions, I tried freezing my head to save my hair. My husband found a service that rented cold caps shaped like a helmet. We froze them in coolers with dry ice and secured them to my head with Velcro.
For seven hours at a time, I sat there, medicated drops streaming into my veins and a block of ice cradling my noggin, wondering what in the hell happened to my old life. When my hair started falling out anyway, it was sort of a relief.
Through all that weirdness, slivers of sparkly magic dotted my path. My husband’s intelligence, drive, love, and commitment saved my life. My daughter’s resilience inspired me, and everyone around her. My sisters dazzled me with generosity and loving care. Friends stepped up with dinners, cards and support. Strangers sent me gifts. People around the world prayed for me.
And an army of nurses at Stanford Hospital embraced me with what they do best. Danielle, my first chemo nurse, was born to take care of people. Her intelligence and compassion are the perfect mix for someone who has to poke you with a needle, especially if that needle is attached to meds labeled with a skull and crossbones.
Over the four months of my chemotherapy, I counted down the days until my final session. I crossed each one off like a kid waiting for Christmas. When the moment finally came, my beloved nurses gathered around me. Their singing was better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At last, that unparalleled serenade, the one I’d yearned for. The moment I thought would never come.
No one gave me a cap and gown that day, and I didn’t get a diploma. But the victory of finishing chemo and the image of those radiant nurses singing just for me? That’s the graduation moment that will live forever in my heart.
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