On New Year’s Eve, I went to an appointment for a mammogram and a New Year’s Eve party.
The party was great. The mammogram, not so much: triple negative breast cancer, spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. Chemo started within the week.
Five months later surgeons, removed the shrunken lump and offending nodes. Radiation was the last leg, a five minute zap daily for six weeks. In anticipation, I circled the final day of treatment on my calendar and drew fireworks inside the little box, the day I would be free.
Compared to chemo and surgery, radiation is easy. For me, though, it was the hardest. Because of an insurance glitch, I couldn’t get treatment locally and needed to stay near a hospital far from home, leaving my husband and child behind.
It felt weird to pack for myself and not for my family. Was laundry caught up? Food in the refrigerator? Bills on fire?
Departure loomed like a dry rehearsal for the Big Departure to come. In my desperation to ready the family for weeks without me, I realized I was trying to prepare them for life without me. That realization helped me understand the futility of my efforts, and ironically, brought me peace.
Is it okay for Lauren to see me cry or will it scare her? Should I paste on a smile or show my fear? What will serve her best?
Smiling, we hugged on the sidewalk, my warriors waving goodbye. Later, I pulled to the side and wept.
My first day of radiation, I descended into the basement, a chamber of thick walls and cement floors. Perfectly still, I lay on a bench, red lights blinking over my bald head, surreal beams shooting invisible threads under my skin.
“Hold your breath now,” a disconnected voice directed over the intercom. I stared at the ceiling, arms tucked into pink stirrups, my flesh goose-pimpled. Over the weeks, the routine became familiar: dim fluorescent lights, stainless steel fixtures, one blue plastic chair.
Was treatment working? What if it didn’t? Who would show Lauren how to become a woman? Who would help her navigate adolescence, her first period, her romances, her applications to college? How could I bear to break my little girl’s heart?
Would Gary find a new wife? Would she love them both? How could I ease the transition for them and keep my sanity? How could I keep these thoughts from ruining the precious time of the present?
For the final week of treatment, my husband had to leave town on business, so Lauren came with me. We tossed her bag into the back seat. “It’s heavy,” I said. She giggled.
Scruffy and Rex peered out the top, their floppy cotton heads banging against a mountain of snack food. Katy Perry replaced Handel in the CD player.
At the hospital, techs showed Lauren the radiation machine, how its steel arm traveled around my body to zap my cancer away. I showed her my seven tattoos, each one a dot of a pen.
“They line up those lights with my tatts,” I told her, “that’s how they know where to zap me. Cool, huh?”
One of the techs gave Lauren her blazer. “Now people will think you work here,” she winked, and they left the room, Lauren’s arms disappearing in huge sleeves that swayed at her side.
“OK, Mommy, you’re all done,” Lauren said over the intercom, her voice a ray of light.
“The youngest radiation tech in history,” I heard someone say before the speaker clicked off.
That Friday, I climbed on the table for the final time, my last day. Nearly a year of aggressive cancer treatment was culminating, and I leaned into the meditation I had trained myself to assume, half prayer, half endurance.
Piercing the din, Lauren’s voice burst into spontaneous song. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I dreamed of, once in a lullaby.”
“Mommy, you’re all done now.”
We skipped to the locker room and got out the cupcakes we had made for the staff, coconut clouds of goodness, and handed them to everyone. A new beginning, a moment of hope, another story waiting to be told.
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