Read an Excerpt
Songs from a Lead-Lined Room
NOTESHIGH AND LOWFROM MY JOURNEY THROUGH BREAST CANCER AND RADIATION
By Suzanne Strempek Shea
Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Strempek Shea.
All rights reserved.
My new guru has an office on the deep-down floor of the big hospital.
The walls here are yards thick and they are lined fat with lead. There is bad stuff being dealt with here, and it needs to be contained not just the danger that people who come here are carrying inside themselves, but also the things that are aimed at them down here to try to kill that danger. Everything here is bad. Even the radio reception. Only one station can be caught through the fortress walls and it's lousy. Lion King. Disco revival.
The guru's room is the size of a car. A budget rental. Two chairs, and a shelf for a desk. Today she has offered me the option of having our session observed by an intern. This hospital is a teaching place, so at least one student in on an appointment or exam or procedure is not uncommon. Since late winter, in the name of education, dozens of strange hands have been placed on one of my more private areas. I'd get probed, and then thanked, and then later they'd see me in the hall with my clothes on and they wouldn't even nod a greeting. Kind of like high school. The weird thing about today is that it seems odder to have a stranger in on the listening than the touching. But I don't mind. I feel bad in my soul and at this point might even say yes to a live telecast.
The intern's name is Holly. It's bright, and, of course, holidayish. Holly wants to become a nurse and is attending Springfield College, so I compliment her because that is a fine school. She smiles from a face that belongs on a good-looking religious statue. Clear and open and ready for your prayers, and I wonder, in years to come will she turn out to be the kind of nurse who held my hand an hour past the end of her shift even though she really needed to get to the grocery before it closed. Or will she get burned-out and hateful like the one who shouted at me the time I asked again for a painkiller. You can't tell these things in advance, about how Holly, or anybody, might act in time. But for now, she shows every sign of being the type of nurse you'd want: interested, leaning in, but not getting in the way of my guru, Wendy, who knows what to say and when to shut up.
Wendy has not had this. I know because I asked, the first time I met with her as part of the package deal of radiation. If we have the inclination and time, we patients down here can be connected to helpful resources and activities that include a chaplain, massage therapists, reiki practitioners, meditation sessions, writing groups and art workshops. Colorful posters and leaflets hang in the waiting rooms and locker rooms, announcing the next series of courses. I was more in the mood to complain about my problems than to weave potholders. So I leaped at the chance for psychotherapy, and in Wendy found one of those huge iron posts to which they moor freighters at a dock. I was bobbing around, she was a possible line to stability. I connected with her right off, and right off I asked her: "Did you ever have this?" Knowing that was important to me. A lot of such things wereand areimportant: top of the list, am I going to die from this? I'd asked that one three months earlier, of the nurse, on the phone the night I received my diagnosis. Cindy later said, "Wow, you asked that? I never thought to ask That." My best friend never thought to ask; even though her diagnosis eight years before had been dire. For me, despite the blessing of early detection and a classification of Stage One out of four, it was the first thing I wanted to know. You hear the word "cancer" and your name in the same sentence, and you can already see your name carved into the stone. At least I could.
So I needed to know if Wendy had personal knowledge of what she counseled people about while she sat all day in her tiny office on the deep-down floor of the hospital, doing her social work. She told me no, she'd never had it, but she went on to tell me she had known some of the forms of hardship that befall anyone who's alive, and I was all prepared to hear her go on and tell me about her cesarean, thinking she might be another of the surprising number of women who, when they learn about what's happened to me, scramble for a story to swap and start reciting, "Well, I went through fifty hours of labor only to have a cesarean." They got a child for all their misery, a bit more positive an experience than having mortality in your face, which is how the guru put it the first time we met. In your face. That's where it is with cancer. Of the fingernail, or of the brain. That's the thing. And even though Wendy has not had this, or any cesarean that she cared to mention, I felt she knew what she was talking about, and that she would help.
So I regularly will be going to see her in her office on the deep-down floor, where the waiting room is packed with people wondering what do you have and how bad is it? I should note, that is what I am wondering: what's he got? And what about her? A couple is sitting together, and you try to guess which one of them is the patient. Most of the people I see there are older. Some look terrible. But some look pretty good, and you have to remark about that, if only to yourself. One elderly man was showing off a diploma today. They actually give you a diploma when your treatments are over, which I think is a ridiculous thing. But this man apparently didn't. He appeared to be very proud. And, I have to say, he looked great. He didn't look sick. But then, I don't look sick. I don't feel sick. Yet I'm to he coming here five days a week for the next six and a half weeks, to get myself radiated while the theme from The Lion King plays and the technicians answer my fears by saying no, don't worry, this is not a dangerous thing being done to you here, and then they file from the room and shut the door and a red warning light beams from the ceiling so nobody will come back in until it's safe again.
This machine on which I am to be radiated is so old the technicians admit they don't even know its age. It is the dull tan color of the IBM Selectrics I used in the newsroom when I first worked as a reporter. Like the Selectrics, it is worn and scratched. But unlike a typewriter, it takes up an entire end of a room and has a moving arc-shaped part that curves around your body to the sound of a compressor, and if you were claustrophobic you might have trouble here. There is a new high-tech machine at the other end of the hall and there is to be an open house next week to show it off to the public. I have been given a laser-printed invitation to this event, which will include refreshments, and I ask if this means I will be treated on the newer model. No, I'm told, it is for dealing with parts found only in men. The cobalt machineminedoes what's needed for me, I'm assured, has done the job for women for who knows how many years, and certainly will for my six and a half weeks. Maybe so, but to look at my machine, you'd think the power source was a crank and a pair of hamsters on a treadmill. Somebody has stuck pictures onto the part that encircles you. Transfers, the kind that people once dipped in water and applied to their kitchen walls. Two cardinal birds, both boldly red males, sit on a pine branch. A big pink flower blossoms nearby. These are supposed to cheer you, I guess. They don't work.
I feel rotten, I tell Wendy afterward, back in her little office with Holly in a chair she's jammed into the corner behind the door. I am worn out and defeated and I don't want to be coming to this hospital or anywhere near this hospital and I'm not happy that it's going to take no less than three weeks for the country's number-one antidepressant to kick in and give me a leg up and over the wall. I don't want to have cancer. I don't like having cancer. I turn to Holly even though the deal is I'm supposed to be pretending she isn't there. I tell her this has been going on for way too long, in my opinion. Since March. Fucking March. And here it is, September. Annual mammogram at the tail end of winterwhat's this here? Another appointment to find outno, that was nothing after all. But can you come back so we can take a look at the other breast?
I'm forty-one and in the best physical shape of my life. Or so I thought. Go down the waiting room-posted list of preventative measures, and I've met them all. Because I thought my parents would kill me, I never once smoked. Or inhaled. Anything. Because I love being outdoors, I walk daily, in all weather. Because I woke up to the cruelty involved, I stopped eating meat more than a decade ago. Because it doesn't take much, I don't drink much. I was happy without having to force it. If this counts for anything, I went to church, I gave to charities, I packed groceries at the local food pantry, I recycled, I captured and released any bugs found in the house. I even bought the postal service's special breast cancer postage stamps, despite their costing seven cents more than the regular kind. Nothing's perfect, but I was in a life that always had made me feel lottery-lucky. I didn't squander thatI took care. I have no family history of the disease, but since age thirty-three faithfully have been going for mammograms due to a benign cyst discovered the same exact month Cindy was diagnosed. And about which, due to my guilt over escaping away free that time, I did not tell her until this year. Until my own bad news. Eight years back, though, from the unscathed side of our parallel universes, I watched her fight for her life. And I guess I have never stopped fearing for my own.
So at end of this past winter, I went for my usual look-see and was asked to return. And to come back again. There were more examinations for me. More mammograms in a single day than there are m's in the word. An ultrasound in May. An extremely uncomfortable three-hour stereotactic core biopsy in June, my left breast dangling through a hole in a raised table while, seated below like a ear mechanic working on a rattling muffler, a radiologist drilled repeatedly for samples.
Then it's the Fourth of July and we are visited by this blowhard guy and his wife and his two little kids, all of them out from Ohio. They lived here long ago, they knew my husband Tommy then, they always had meant to visit on trips back. And finally here they are in my home and I don't know any of them and I don't want to know any of them and I don't want them to be there and the night is dragging and the wife is nice enough but the guy won't shut up about downloading music from the Internet and when I finally find something to insert into the conversation, the name of an album I'd been listening to recently, he says, "Oh, you just heard of them?" The "just" is big, the size of a movie screen on which can be shown a film of my general lack of knowledge of what is hip. The kids don't care who knows what. They are restless and want to run in the rain that is pouring and when their parents say they cannot, they shout how they hate them and even though I don't know them I hate them, too, and I'm just begging them in my head to get out my house and leave me alone because tomorrow I'll be told what I've got or not got growing in what the clinic's paperwork maps out as the upper left quadrant of my left breast.
The family eventually leaves, of course, and the next day arrives, of course. And, of course, the call does not come anywhere as swiftly as I would like. I'm waiting all the day and on the hour I'm pestering the nurse on the line, she says the doctor's in surgery and I'm thinking how it's an awful long operation already, taking this many hours somebody must have something really bad that needs repair. I pray for whoever it is. I've always liked to pray for strangers. They'll never know. It's as if you're sending something out there, invisible, unexpected, the source unknown if the beneficiary ever did stop to wonder why things maybe ended up the way they were hoping. Powerful stuff it can be. But I don't pray for myself on this day. And I haven't since, even though I have spent much of my life begging daily for favors, most of them for me me me. The instinct to do that has vanished. Lots of things have fallen away in these months and don't seem to matter, and I wonder if they ever will.
I have a basket of get-well cards, the wicker almost dissolving from the sweetness of the messages. Everybody offers to take up the slack of the praying for favors. I don't even know some of these people. I am on actual lists at local churches, my name typed under the heading of "sick" and placed at the feet of the statues of saints known for their great batting averages in interceding. I've not personally seen any of these lists, and I don't want to. I don't look sick. I don't feel sick. Why should my name be on a list that says I am? I go to the CVS to pick up the country's number-one antidepressant and a stranger stops me to ask what's wrong with meher whole entire church is praying for me and she wants to know: "What's wrong?" Other than "Who are you?"which I do not replyI don't know what to answer. I just shrug, "Oh, well, things...." but I would like to add that maybe the praying should have begun a little earlier. Like three months before, on the fifth of July, when I was waiting for the doctor to phone me. Tenth call to his office. Last few times, the nurse has been saying yes, yes, she has the results now, but only the doctor can give them out. So I ask her this: if it was good news, would I have to wait for the doctor to tell me? That gets her thinking, and even though she prefaces how it is against the rules, she reads me the results. I have Cindy's medical book in front of me. I'm looking up the words as the woman is giving them to me.
My fifty minutes are up. Holly will be able to do an entire term paper now. I repeat to her face that I don't want thiswhat's happened so far in these six months and what is to come. The prognosis is good, I realize things could be much worse, but it's happening to me. And that makes it bad enough. I slide from feeling as if I'm whining to feeling justified about the whining, then back again, sometimes with Olympian luge speed. I whoosh unprotected down the icy incline of helplessness and unknowing, no sled beneath me, no snowsuit padding, no clothing at all, no cap or mittens or boots, no nothing, no skin even, it's like my bones are showing, I feel so down to the base of whoever I am, more naked than the moment I was conceived, feeling everything. Same time, feeling nothing.
"I just don't want this," is how I condense all that. And however Holly views this, she doesn't let on. Wendy does, though, and she asks, "Well, what do you want?" which is a good question, both right then or anytime.
I tell her this:
"I just want my life back the way it was."
I liked it.
I liked it the way it was.
I had it good, and was smart enough to realize that. To be grateful.
Well into adulthood, I still held the practice of evening prayers, still moving through a trio I've said in my family's native Polish, long ago having hitched a list on to the end of them. Last thing, in the silent dark, I'd name three experiences, feelings, items, thoughts from my day, things that made me grateful. And I would reflect on them. Watch them like a movie. Remember the emotions they brought: a kindness shown to me. Unexpected breaks. The solution to a trouble that had been hanging over me. Spotting a face I love to see. Opening a check arriving from nowhere. Finding a full sack of Cool Ranch Doritos unopened in the cabinet. Reaching the answering machine, rather than the actual person, when I didn't really want to have to talk to that person in the first place. Often, one of the three things would string into dozens of others. In January, I'd hear the rush of air from the furnace and would be grateful to have a furnace. And money for the oil to fire ita tank full of that, and a basement to put the tank in and a house on top of that basement, a house that was mine, filled with my immediate loves: the man, the dog, the space in which to do my work. Outside my...
Excerpted from Songs from a Lead-Lined Room by Suzanne Strempek Shea. Copyright © 2002 by Suzanne Strempek Shea. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.