On Day 30, Joe escorted me to chemo treatment number two, and before the hook-up we visited with the oncologist who asked me about my behavior, sleep habits, and mood. “Fine,” I said. “Pretty good.”
And to Joe, she asked, “Is that right or is she kicking butts and taking names?”
“Oh yeah,” Joe said.
I slapped him on the thigh. “She means am I being really mean to everybody at home,” I told him.
“No, you’re, like, feisty with a good attitude about getting through the cancer and all. That’s what it means.”
“No it doesn’t!”
“Yes it does. Taking names. Kicking butt.”
“Maybe she’s just a little cranky at home,” the doctor said in a kind of whisper, writing something down.
This is how my perfect record has been marred. The last oncologist visit, as I’d sat on the table for yet another breast exam, I was able to peek over her shoulder at her computer screen on which she’d written roughly one-hundred and fifty words about me. Not really about the diagnosis, but about me as a person. Cynthia is a very nice and funny person, it began. It mentioned the Firecracker and Hannah and their ages. A little something about them too. One full of energy, the other, sensitive. It mentioned that I teach creative writing. But mostly, it said I was a very nice and funny person. Now it probably says I am the Day One Monster and counting.
“You totally misunderstood what she was asking you,” I said.
“No, like you’re kicking butt and taking names.” He put his fists up this time to demonstrate. “She is,” he said to the doctor.
“I am not! Maybe I’ll take your name down and kick your butt.”
“Sometimes,” the oncologist said with a nervous laugh, “people can really change during treatment.”
“The thing is, I’m not really changing,” I said.
But just a few days before this visit, when I was driving back alone at night from picking up a stack of exams others had been so kind to proctor for me, an impossible traffic jam materialized on an entrance ramp to the highway I needed access to. So I kept going on the highway I was already on, thinking of exiting elsewhere to take the long way home. This is the way I used to drive, last semester, to pick up the Firecracker from school. For a few seconds, it felt like that was where I was heading, to that old life when everything was just fine. And I started to cry, sitting at the light, bald-headed, listening to “Thunderstruck” on the rock station because ten miles back I’d decided the bald head required rock music. This road was under construction, squeezed down to one lane, but it took me past the Incarnate Word University Christmas lights display. So I sat waiting at the intersection, staring up into the mess of oak branches dotted with lights.
The first chemo went fine, and I’d rebounded fairly well according to the lab results, but this second round of chemo swallowed me whole. I dragged myself around in the belly of the chemo fog, straining to open my eyes, forgetting to take a nausea pill on time. I curled up in bed, watching The Returned, the French series in which the dead wander back into their idyllic village, as they were, as if they’d never left. I sat wearing the new satin turban the oncologist gave me, calling down the long hallway for things like refills of my glass of water or the next pill or a “smidgen of a milkshake” or “toast with butter cut on the diagonal!” And after I asked Joe to make sure the knob on the toaster was turned just slightly past the first setting, he said I looked like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest:
After sleeping all afternoon on Day 31, I found myself at a family Christmas party in a new sweater and the wig. “Do you like my wig? Does it look real?” I asked everyone. I have this thing about the wig. I feel like I have to mention it just as I would surely have to mention an armful of capuchin monkeys if I’d walked in with an armful of capuchin monkeys. And maybe I did walk in holding monkeys. I can’t really tell you. All I really remember is that the Firecracker got a toy fairy stuck in her hair and that during a behind-the-back origami sort of game my big sister accidentally shaped a penis out of paper instead of a Christmas tree.
By Day 33 I thought I was dying. No, not dying. Worse than that. Undead, trapped in the ethereal cotton of an Enya song. Unable to move with ease. Unable to swallow a piece of bread. Unable to open my eyes wider than stoner slits. I started to fear that the rest of my sixteen weeks of treatment would be just like this. I left slurred messages for the oncologist’s nurse stating as much. All the while Joe was bustling between work and home, bringing me prescription refills, taking the Firecracker along with him, buying me the Raisin Bran Crunch and milk I’d decided I had to have and then couldn’t swallow either. And some time around four in the afternoon, when my cousin and her husband brought their baby to visit, the fog cleared. Poof! And I was back amongst the living. I’d returned. Just in time to straighten my wig and hug my cousin at the door. “What do you think? Does it look real?”
I’d returned, and I decided I had to change, really change, before the next chemo treatment hits just as hard. Through a mutual friend (the wonderful Kimberly Wetherell of Spirited Bakery), I’d just met Terri Eickel, a cancer survivor who keeps a truly informative blog at Tiny But Mighty Beats Cancer. So I started here in my panic for a little guidance, and by Day 34, Christmas Eve, I found a yoga workout to follow at home and got info on scheduling acupuncture appointments and drank green tea and read Life Over Cancer and vowed to go full vegan and listened to guided meditation for fifteen minutes that suggested I imagine my white cells rising up like an army. I imagined an army of Tolkien’s orcs, and I’m not sure what that means. Other than I might be nerdier than the regular cancer patient. And a tad bit evil.
Then other good things happened. Joe victoriously poached the perfect egg for himself, texting me this picture of his breakfast from the kitchen:
He read the Firecracker her new bedtime book, which, as one friend put it, means we “can never be sad about anything ever again, knowing this video exists in the world.” (Seriously. Follow the link.) And after I’d sneaked the kids’ presents down the hallway and arranged them under the gloriously lit tree, sans wig or satin turban, Joe ran a hand over my sparsely stubbled head in the kitchen and said how glad he was to see that I was back, “taking names and kicking butt.”
Previous “Box of Monsters” blog posts: