It is now 7:49 a.m. on May 22, 2020. I have been up since 2 a.m. and talking to my mother since 4. I have three butter cookies on a plate from last night and a bowl of oatmeal from this morning sitting on her bedside table. I can’t eat any of it. And I don’t want to get out of her bed which I slept in last night for the first time in half a century. I feel safe here, as if I could stay here and nothing would move forward, nothing would progress. But I know that’s not true.
Yesterday, May 21st, was a very bad day, the first day and the beginning of the end. It was the day my doctor told me I have cancer.
So here’s a quick history:
I have been sick since January 2nd. The pain started in my lower left abdomen, intermittent and tolerable. It got much, much worse the third week of February. I also started experiencing shortness of breath and light headedness and was getting tired after one activity. I thought I was just out of shape as I was commuting to work nearly three hours a day and sitting on a chair doing my work the other eight. I was wrong.
On March 5th, I sat next to someone with a cold and on March 8th, I developed my own cold symptoms. By the night of March 12th, I had a 101.7 fever. The fever went away but the flu did not. I could not beat it. It lasted three weeks and took me an additional four to fully recover. I could barely walk down my block I was so weak and lost my appetite resulting in a huge and unwanted weight loss. I did not know why.
During this time, COVID-19 happened and all the hospitals closed down except to treat COVID patients. I was too afraid to go to the emergency room for fear of catching COVID in my weakened state. So I waited.
In mid-May, I could no longer tolerate the pain, which woke me up every 1-2 hours every night, and called my doctor. That was five days ago.
Yesterday (May 21st), I finished my blood and urine tests and had a CT scan. I went to the lab at 6:45 a.m. as it opened at 7. I wore a mask but when I entered the building was told to report to a woman behind a plexiglass window. She asked me the standard COVID questions, gave me a badge saying I was cleared, and handed me a mask to wear over my own. Then, another woman took my cell phone number and told me to wait in my car until I received a call to come in.
I got the call at 7 and was the first one in. A large woman with a wide, welcoming smile, greeted me with a “high honey” and told me she’d be right with me. I had met her on my first trip to the lab a few days earlier and instantly liked her. She was kind.
I had two vials of blood removed (in addition to the three earlier in the week after which I learned that my body is no longer creating enough new red blood cells) and was unable to complete my urine sample. So, I went outside, drank some water, sat on the curb in the cold, pulled my fleece around me, and tucked my head between my knees, becoming so very small. I listened to the parking attendants chatter in Spanish and through their masks, entertaining one another, and glimpsed medical professionals and patients walk by, at a distance, all with seeming vigor. I noticed their energy, their step, and felt apart.
They were of the world and I, it seemed, already no longer was.
I went back inside, waved to the healthcare workers who now knew me and tried to give another sample. I emerged from the restroom and announced “success!” to the front desk. The ladies smiled and clapped for me. It was a nice moment.
Then, I got in my car and drove to the next town to an imaging lab for my CT scan. On the way, I received an email from a potential client and felt invigorated that there was someone who needed me and someone I might help. I emailed her back and set a telephone appointment for 4 p.m. that afternoon.
The imaging center was situated in a low brick building on a busy street in a busy neighborhood. Its parking lot, however, was empty. I pulled in, parked my car, and got out in full COVID mask and gloved hands regalia. A note on the front door instructed me to both ring the bell and call a number. I followed the instructions.
A woman came to the front door and told me that she would buzz me in. She did and I took a seat in the empty waiting room while she returned to the receptionist desk. She said that she had tried to call me the day before to ask me the COVID questions and seemed annoyed that she had reached what appeared to be a work voicemail and, therefore, could not leave a message due to confidentiality concerns. I told her it was not a problem.
We spoke briefly about my procedure and I told her that I was nervous about drinking the dye. She said that I was not going to drink a dye. I would receive it by injection. Worse!
Then the nurse appeared. She spoke in a lilting British/Australian accent and chattered about what I could expect. I told her that I was nervous and she explained each step from the injection to the saline solution to the dye to how it would feel and taste and smell. I explained that I just learned I was anemic and had her confirm that my blood could handle the injected substances. She assured me that all was fine and I believed her. I laid down in my clothes, gave her my arm, looked away, and did as told. It was over in minutes.
At the conclusion of the CT scan, the nurse told me that I needed to drink alot of water to flush out my system and that I would likely pee alot too. I asked if I could have water before I left as I had a long car drive home. She was warm and gave me a cup before returning to her post behind closed doors.
I was then left with the receptionist.
I took my cup of water outside and drank it in the morning sun. Then, I returned to get another. I rang the doorbell without also calling (as the receptionist already knew me and had already asked me the COVID questions). I waited patiently until I saw her face and waved hello. She buzzed me in and told me that I should have called her. She said that she had started to place a call and had to hang up because of me. I apologized and said I just wanted to get another glass of water. She suggested that I get two so I wouldn’t have to buzz her again. I told her that I had a long car ride ahead of me and the nurse had said I might have to go to the bathroom due to the procedure so I was planning to wait ten minutes. She was annoyed.
I got my water and left. I did not return.
It was 10:30 a.m.
I called my mother to tell her about my day so far. All seemed good. It was not but I didn’t know it. I had four remaining hours of blissful ignorance to enjoy.
At about 2 pm, the physician’s assistant with whom I was working set an appointment to speak with me the next day about all my test results. But at 2:30 pm, my doctor called. I picked up his voicemail message. He asked me to call him and I instinctively knew that the news would be bad.
I have a very large mass attached to my colon which they believe is cancerous. My lymph nodes are enlarged. They need to take a CT scan of my chest to see if the cancer has spread to my lungs. They need other, additional tests. I asked him if I was Stage Four. He said I would need to speak with an oncologist about staging and they are referring me to an oncologist. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
At a certain point, I could no longer process his words. It was like the scene from Breaking Bad when Walt was given his diagnosis and the doctor’s words became muted and confused as Walt faded out of the conversation, overwhelmed by the information.
I thanked him and hung up.
Then, I went downstairs.
“Mom, sit down.”
“Sit down. Sit down right now.”
She sat down in her big reading chair.
“I have cancer.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The doctor just called.”
I told her what he said and she began to cry.
“This makes no sense. How can this be?”
It was 3 p.m.
We sat and talked.
At 3:30 p.m., I called the potential new client and told her that I had to cancel our appointment. I answered her questions and she thanked me for speaking with her. I knew it would be the last client conversation. That’s what it felt like.
I returned to my mother and we sat and talked for hours.
Then she asked me if I wanted to sleep in her bed. I have not slept in my mother’s bed since I was five years old.
“Yes,” I said.
Her bed was fresh with clean sheets and a billowy, downy top mattress. I got in and never wanted to leave.
I am sure they are going to want to cut this massive tumor out of me. I have had abdominal surgery before. It is completely debilitating and takes months to recover (and I was young when I had it). So we have to move immediately before I have no strength left and am relegated to the bed.
I haven’t allowed myself to feel much of anything yet. I am holding it at bay. When I feel it, I cry. I am looking out the window now. It is Spring, a beautiful day. I am overlooking tree tops with new green leaves and flowering branches. I think this will be my last Spring.
I love Spring. I want to live.
If I had Stage 1 or 2, I would fight. But I don’t. I don’t understand Stage 3. But if I have Stage 4, I do not want to suffer with chemo and radiation until I die.
Now I’m going to shut my diary. I am suddenly quite sad. I am so sad. I wish I were not leaving my mother behind. And I have a cat who is devoted to me and whom I love dearly.
It’s now just before noon and I received an email from a woman who was my best friend in college. We haven’t talked for 30 years. I burst out in tears when I read it. It was lovely. Now I know I’m going to die.