As she prepares for me to go into the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, RN Jane, in her ever-present chipper voice, makes a too-casual comment while she’s changing my wound dressing: “Well! This spot looks a lot more open than the last time i saw it a week ago.”
I casually reply, “It’s probably because Dr. Walsh took the stitches out on Friday.”
“Do you feel any pain in that area?”
Changing out of my hospital gown back into my street clothes, i hear my cell phone ringing. It’s Dr. Walsh’s office. Already.
“Hi, this is Tarah.”
“Hi, Tarah, this is Melissa at Dr. Walsh’s office. Dr. Walsh saw the pictures that Jane emailed her this morning, and she would like you to come in this afternoon.”
My heart sinks. I know exactly what this means.
Dr. Walsh and her assistant, Angie, enter the examination room. I stare at Dr. Walsh with puppy dog eyes, fervently hoping that will make any difference whatsoever.
“You already know what I’m going to tell you.”
“No, Dr. Walsh ….”
But I’ve lost, and i know it. She gives me the speeches: “You had to do the radiation; it’s what helped save your life” … yada, yada … “You did everything you could” … blah, blah, blah … “Sometimes, this just happens with radiated patients who are as fit as you are” … click-click-click of the tongue, in a futile attempt to distract myself … “We could go down one more size with the implant, but honestly, we’ve done this three times already, and it’s just not working” … empty stare, blank stare; it’s too soon to start crying … “I can’t force you to remove the implant, but i can tell you that wound is not going to close, and it’s going to get infected again” … the tears don’t care that it’s too soon to be appearing … “Even though we won’t ever be able to put an implant back in there later, you do have other options down the road, and I will help you find the best doctor possible for another type of reconstruction” … Angie sees my face crumpling in defeat, and she reaches for the box of tissues … “I’m so sorry, Tarah” … and the look on her face shows that she really is so sorry, which causes me to cry harder. Dr. Walsh hands me the whole box of tissues this time.
“Tomorrow. Wednesday. Thursday. As soon as you can.”
I’m sitting in my car, in the parking lot. I can’t drive yet; the tears are still too pervasive, and they cloud my vision. I picture myself spending the next year – perhaps the rest of my lifetime – with just one breast, and the tears turn into all-out sobbing. In that moment, I hate myself for becoming so vain, and i realize that these moments of self-loathing haven’t been this present since adolescence. They are starting to consume me. I know they are.
I text Amy about the happy hour we have scheduled for 4:00pm . “FYI – I’m going to get there half an hour early.”
“I’m coming from a doctor’s appointment.”
“Oh, okay. Cool. I will try and hurry!”
In that moment, I want nothing more than to cancel on her, go home, lock myself in my room, and cry/drink myself to sleep. Instead, i force myself to head over there.
I park slightly away from the restaurant. My face is a mess, and I’m not ready to tell Amy about this upcoming surgery. I’m not ready to tell anyone. I retrieve the “emergency” kit from my glove compartment and go about the process of hiding my pain: antihistamine eye drops; calming facial cleansing wipe; and fresh applications of mascara, concealer, eyeliner, blush, and lip gloss. I keep having to pause and redo some steps because i’m still crying. One boob. Six weeks of fighting, but i lost anyway… and now, I might never get to move past the looks that people give me because they know i’m a cancer fighter/survivor/whatever. That’s all that keeps running through my head.
A man stands outside my car door. He’s reading my bumper stickers, and I think he’s trying to establish eye contact with me. I ignore him, and he eventually goes away.
The man returns and stares at me until my stubbornness dissolves. I roll down my window.
“I like your bumper stickers.”
I smile and thank him, then smile for real when he hands me a pear.
“It’s organic. My buddy owns a farm in Colorado. Yesterday, I drove there to pick up 100 boxes of Palisade Peaches, to deliver to this organic marketplace right here.” He gestures to a store I’ve never noticed before, despite being in that strip mall well over a dozen times.
“Peaches are my favorite.”
“Have you ever had a Palisade peach?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Then no … because if you had, you would know it. No peach compares to a Palisade.”
He leaves and returns with a peach. It’s hard and seems like it’s not ripe enough to be eaten, but i take a bite anyway, and it turns out that he’s right: This is the best-tasting peach I’ve ever had.
“Okay, sold. May I buy a box right now?”
I spend $50 on a 20-pound box of Palisade peaches. He puts a box in my car since i’m on a weight restriction and can’t lift more than five pounds right now. In the meantime, i explore this organic marketplace and find that they sell “backyard chicken eggs” and “organic cotton candy” and other products that conscious-but-privileged folk are willing to spend extra dollars on. I also learn that they have a farmer’s market. This stuff is not available much on the west side of Phoenix, and in that moment i feel like i just won something.
Amy arrives for happy hour, and i meet her in the parking lot because i need to ask her to bring in the box of peaches so that they don’t sit in a 120-degree car for the next two hours. After hugging, she leans into her trunk and pulls out a large wrapped present. “I’m so excited to finally get this to you.”
“Damn … All i have for you are some peaches, and that’s only because i need you to carry the box into the restaurant for me.”
“Don’t be silly.”
She carries the present into the restaurant, and i tear into it before we even order drinks. Underneath the wrapping paper is a shadow box that contains mementos from the H.E.A.L.event. It’s clear she put a lot of time into it, and it’s fantastic.
On my way home from happy hour, i stop at CVS to pick up the refill for my antibiotic. At this point, i know all the pharmacy techs by first name. “Hi, Ismael.”
“Hi, Ms. Ausburn. You doing okay?”
“Ugh. I just found out that i have to have another surgery tomorrow, so i’m not in the greatest mood.”
“I’m sorry to hear that … but i have something that might cheer you up.” He walks away and returns with a blue T-shirt. “Malachi told me to give this to you, in case you came by when he wasn’t on shift.” It was a shirt that Malachi had previously mentioned wanting to make for me, after he saw my interviews on the news … and i was all enthusiastic at the time, but i had no expectation that he would actually follow through with making this … nothing against Malachi … but my only interactions with this man are when he fills my butt load of cancer- and non-cancer-related medications from week to week, so why would he go out of his way to make a customized T-shirt for the lady who drives that crazy car with all the bumper stickers?
Except he did.
I am on my way home, and my brain is on overdrive trying to process all that happened in just this one day. It started out like any other weekday morning, took a sharp turn south when i heard the second most devastating piece of news about my life during this past year, and then gradually but persistently propelled itself upwards as people – strangers, coworkers-turned-friends, and retail acquaintances alike – reminded me that there is and will continue to be beauty and hope and love and light emanating from this whole tragedy … just as long as i keep myself open to them, as well as myself.
I fell asleep sober, without a tear-streaked face. And, in spite of the tragic news i received 11 hours prior, i realized something pretty wonderful: I fell asleep feeling GRATEFUL.