Day 55 and I returned to the classroom for the first time since starting chemotherapy for breast cancer. I marched across campus double-time, running a few minutes late, my notebook opened to the building and room number scrawled on the ledger pad, my attaché slipping off my shoulder. As I squinted at the closed double doors of the lecture hall to see if its number matched what I’d written down and tried to assemble the chemo spiel I’d been rehearsing for three days, I heard someone say, “Let’s do this!” It was my assistant, Andy, who I wasn’t expecting until the second class meeting. Andy was among the students on whom I’d dropped the cancer bomb in Fiction class last semester. He knew, and somehow this made it infinitely easier to throw the door back and say, “Hello!” I did not say “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya!” like I’ve always wanted to do, but … some day.
Of course, somewhere between explaining the course materials and the grade scale on their syllabus, I had to explain the chemotherapy and how, if at all, it might affect our class. “You don’t know me yet, so hopefully you won’t be too sad about my bad news,” I began, because the students I told last semester knew me well by the time I had to tell them, and there were long, shocked faces and tears and terrible silences I immediately filled with cancer jokes. One class I’d emailed in advance. The other class, I’d told in person. Both seemed to be bad choices. Frankly, there’s just no good way to announce cancer. And what I’d said, about this new class not being too sad yet, that was wrong too. Because one thing I’ve learned is that even when people don’t know you, they’re moved either by you or by the aunt or sister or mother they knew who has struggled through it. Or maybe even by Walter White with his lung tumors. And I didn’t miss a Breaking Bad joke in this class either. “If you accrue too many absences, I might have to put on my Heisenberg hat and have a serious sit-down talk with you.”
My new fiction workshop met an hour later, and we started by listing our three items, unique items, items others might be surprised this person owned. I do this every semester because I remember the students through their items the way we remember characters in fiction through their own particulars. I always start: “On my shelf in my office at home I have a Gilderoy Lockhart action figure because he’s little Kenneth Branagh. And beside Kenneth sits a framed cartoon, ‘Travolta House’ by Ted McCagg, drawn in the shape of ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ era John Travolta.”
I didn’t even have to explain that reference because this class is either a phenomenal group of actors or they are my happy equals in senseless trivia from way back. “And I have a Fender Stratocaster on which I can play Metallica.” I didn’t say it was “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” because, well, it would suck all the mirth out of the cancer jokes I had planned for the syllabus introduction still to come. One student, on her list, mentioned a little plastic dog she kept to blame all of her problems on.
“Does that work?” I asked.
“I guess so. It’s all his fault.”
And it reminded me of the worry dolls I’d once bought from a street vendor in New Mexico. Five tiny dolls with bodies made of knotted yarn and spent matchsticks, miniature dresses held on by opaque glue bubbles doubling as bodices. I bought them because I’ve always been full of worry. About the small and great and imagined alike. About whether or not my new sunglasses were too round or if I could still ride a bike or what I could say at the next writer reception because at the J. M. Coetzee reception all I’d managed to do was ask half the room, individually, if what I was eating on a melba toast was pepper jelly or not. J. M. Coetzee said he wasn’t sure. I used to put my thumb on each doll before bed, push a new worry into the narrow doll chest. Then one day I lost all the worry dolls. They escaped through a hole in my slacks pocket. I imagine them making a lint rope, scaling down until their matchstick ends hit the sidewalk, whispering all the while, “Let’s get outta here! She has too many stupid worries! I can’t take the burden anymore. I can’t take it!”
It’s probably just as well they bailed because my breast cancer/chemo worries would have snapped them. I told the lecture hall class I was worried one of these days I’ll careen down the twenty-five or so steps to the stage and do a face-plant in front of the podium, and I’m worried one of them will record it and put it on Youtube and it’ll get picked up by MTV’s Ridiculousness and Chanel West Coast will cackle at me. “But I don’t watch that show,” I said. “I don’t know what that show is.” Joe watches that show, for the record.
On Day 58, my sister Shelly drives down from Dallas to sit with me in the chemo lounge for IV drip number four. Halfway done. When I’d announced this to the new fiction class, that I was halfway through treatments, they all cheered. I’m gradually reaching a point where surviving trumps jokes in the stuffing-of-long-sad-silences department. But Shelly waits as I go for lab work, talk to nurses, meet with my oncologist. She sits on the other side of the curtain as the oncologist does a quick breast exam, suggesting the tumor seems like “just a thick place” instead of the mass it once was. I planned to write my worries down in the small black moleskin notebook I’d bought for the purpose, but I remember each one too well. “You gave me a double dose of the red matter last time,” I say to the oncologist, pointing both fingers at her like a game show host. In my mind, this is what Adriamycin, aka the red matter, is and does:
“There were two vials of red matter last time,” I said.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Next on my list: My shoulder on the side of my mediport (the golf-ball looking thing sitting just under my skin, just under my collarbone, where the IVs go) feels like I’ve worked out for two hours. My neck feels strange too. I have a faint discoloration shaped like a crown under the collarbone on the other side. My arms and legs went to pinpricks for two hours in the middle of the night ten days ago. Joe made a joke about my mediport popping out like an Alien chestburster, and I now I’m convinced it will.
I guess this is what you’re supposed to do at the oncologist’s though. The doctor is the person toward whom you push your worries, and though her face might indicate she’d like to wriggle through a magic wormhole to get away, she stays and listens and nods. Some worries probably drift onto Shelly as well, the innocent bystander and big-sister-worrier extraordinaire.
All together the three of us head for the chemo lounge (does anyone else call it this?) to get to the bottom of the two vials of red matter. Apparently, some nurses just like to split the dose into two vials. Mischief managed. This time my nurse makes sure to put it in one vial with an eye scrunched in my direction. I suppose not many patients march the doctor and a big sister down to chemo to investigate red matter complaints.
I like having Shelly here. I can show her around. There’s the bathroom you can use down that hall. Don’t use this bathroom. It’s full of chemo pee. This is the recliner I usually sit in because it has a plug for my computer and windows I can stare out. There’s a candy basket over there (shhh, I’m going to go steal all the butterscotch). We look at swimsuits in her Travel + Leisure magazine and imagine summer, how this should all be over by then. We talk about how funny it was she accidentally made a penis out of paper instead of a Christmas Tree at the family Christmas party and how funny it was I wrote the word penis in a post (and now that’s three times). “I couldn’t have forced myself to make that on purpose if I tried!” she laughs. Two hours seem like ten minutes, and for once time isn’t one of the things I’m worried about.
Previous “Box of Monsters” blog posts: