On Day 68 the oncologist sends me back to the beginning, back to the radiologist’s office where I had the mammogram and sonogram that revealed the mass before we knew it was malignant. This time I try to park close to the front doors because my red blood cell count is half of what it was last time I was here due to eight weeks of chemo, which means I’m walking very slowly in my wig I call “the Hitchcock blonde.” The “Tennille” wig I wear to work, and somehow I’ve frayed it a little around the bangs. I think from the time I leaned to pull a sheet of sweet potato fries out of the oven and felt the steam from the gap of the oven door sprawl across my cheeks. Leave it to me to melt my best wig. Or it could have frayed because Tennille filed for divorce from the Captain. So I sweep the Hitchcock blonde bangs back and step into the building’s lobby, which looks like the Genesis cave in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Stone walls and greenery.
I snap a picture, one blurry, the other clear, and then I push the glass door back and check in. They move me to another waiting room, a separate waiting room with four chairs where women in crisscross hospital gowns watch HGTV beside the door marked “Caution: X-Rays in Progress.” The mammogram room. I know where to change clothes, and I know where to sit. I know where to go when they call my name and all the other women wish me good luck, just like they did the last time. Last time, Extreme’s “More Than Words” played over the speakers and I couldn’t stop laughing though the technician ordered me to stay perfectly still. This time they played “And We Danced” by The Hooters, and I’m starting to suspect someone with a wicked sense of humor is programming the music around here. This time, the mass that had registered as 1.8 cm now checks in at 1 cm. The mammogram doesn’t show this, because the mammogram is worthless for someone with dense tissues (my surgeon’s words). The sonogram they complete in the broom-closet room down the hall shows this – the black hole of the mass collapsing in on itself at last.
* * *
Day 69. I have a comedian for a babysitter. I mean that literally. I mean that my babysitter is a comedian who wants to write a comedic television series. Here she is babysitting the Firecracker:
Maybe an hour after she’s left my house, while I’m packing up at work and Joe has taken over at home, the babysitter texts me to say that she just discovered our television remote tucked away in her backpack where the Firecracker must have hidden it. I ask her if she can bring it back the next day.
“This changes everything,” she answers. “You now owe me 12,190 Rupiah if you ever want to watch TV comfortably again.”
Later I learn that’s roughly a dollar. When I sternly ask the Firecracker why she put the remote control in the babysitter’s backpack, she says: “Uh … I … I’m getting kind of confused,” bats at the air like someone losing equilibrium, and then runs off to play Club Penguin on the computer. We’re all comedians around here.
* * *
On Day 70, I sit in my Lebowski robe watching North by Northwest to make sure it’s fresh in my mind for tonight’s screenwriting workshop. This is me in my Lebowski robe back when I had my own hair and thought it was funny to send friends pictures of me dressed like The Dude.
The big difference between teaching pre-chemo and during chemo is that now I have to keep careful notes of what I need to cover in class to keep me from rambling about things like that time in second grade when I sat in the big desk in the back of the classroom wearing a metal arm brace attached to a pencil, looking all Edward Scissorhands, because the teacher thought the way my spindly fingers curved inward and slanted my letters to the left instead of the right was an abomination. I used to call them guitar fingers, piano fingers. She called them abnormal fingers. No one can beat me in thumb wrestling because my long-digit-stretch is incredible. That’s all I’m going to say, because I’m looking down at the notes in my journal that read DON’T TELL THE LONG FINGER STORY IN THE BLOG FOR GOODNESS SAKES.
So I record careful notes, and I mostly keep to them in class now – just like I did the very first class I ever taught. That class was one I taught by invitation of a friend who thought I was ready to give it a go. 1995. I was wearing Joe’s combat boots, a burgundy button down dress sewn by my mom, and blue-black hair I’d cut myself to hang to my chin. My hands shook so badly I dropped a few note cards when I tried to shuffle one behind the other and I gulped an audible gulp that ricocheted off the walls and radiated out across campus. “Thanks everyone,” I said before walking out mid-lesson. I caught a glimpse of my friend’s face on the way out, wide-eyed, lower lip tucked in, her fingertips touching her cheek. There are only two times a friend will give you this look – when you gloriously bomb like a Costner film in her class and when you meet her mother and try really hard not to say something like “vagina” instead of your first name when you shake her mom’s hand and you say it anyway. As long as I don’t revert all the way back to that en total, I think I’ll be okay.
The other difference is that now I re-read and re-watch whatever we’re set to discuss in class as close to class time as I can. I don’t trust my chemo brain to remember.
Cary Grant slips through a window and into a stranger’s room. “Stop!” the woman orders, leaning back against her pillow before she settles her black-rimmed on her nose for a better look. And then, “Stop.”
* * *
I come home from work to find that the Firecracker has packed her bags (a few stuffed animals wrapped in an Angry Bird blanket) and tried to run away from the comedian babysitter whom the Firecracker has terrorized for the past two hours of Day 71. The babysitter and I go over the offenses while the Firecracker kicks her legs in the upholstered chair in the front room and mock-cries.
“I don’t understand why she’d turn into Damien,” I say, hoping the comedian babysitter won’t quit on us because she’s the best comedian babysitter around.
The Firecracker’s cries cut off with the sudden quiet of someone who just found a tiny unicorn in her pocket. “What?” she asks. “What’s a darmian?”
“You,” I say with a little vehemence.
That kid’s going to sit in time out until her body conforms to the chair, I’m thinking. That kid’s going to pack up her playhouse igloo she got for Christmas, walk all the way to the North Pole, and personally give it back to Santa.
“Maybe we could take her to the moon and leave her there,” the babysitter says.
So as soon as the babysitter leaves, I send this picture to lure her back next week:
But I know she’ll come back even though the Firecracker is eating this note. Because the babysitter’s writing a comedic television show. She needs fodder.
* * *
Day 72. Here’s something I haven’t told you yet. Remember how I’ve been trying meditations and sometimes they take Tolkien turns? Well, I stopped listening to the guided meditations altogether because, as I told Joe, “I can do them all by myself now!” Which means I imagine things like Travis Bickle taking out quivering, crumpled discs of cancer cells with his quick-draw slide gun or my red cells multiplying into a billion Hellboys. Maybe I should record guided meditations for film fanatics. But I also imagined, to shove myself through the day with my new rolling attaché case packed with detailed notes, that on Day 72 my oncologist would say, “Oh! The mass shrunk by almost half! No need for chemo anymore. Goodbye!”
That’s not exactly what she says when I show up for chemo five. She’s encouraged by the results and tells me we’re almost there. I’m a triple-negative (as opposed to breast cancer patients who might be estrogen positive, etc.) and this means we need to be even more concerned with recurrence because hormones don’t explain my mass. Nothing explains my mass. So we need to decrease the odds, which is what the full treatment of chemo does. Nonetheless, as of Day 73, I’m going back to imagining that when I see her again in two weeks we’re going to decide I’m all done.
Joe drives me home from chemo number five, and I’ve scrunched myself in the passenger seat, leaning against the window, drinking water and watching the scenery slide by. Overhead, curlicues of highway ramps divide the sunlight. Life is so beautiful, I muse to myself, admiring the curve of the elevated ramps. Yes, they gave me just enough drugs today to find the undersides of highways beautiful. They gave me just enough drugs – a whole IV bag of Benadryl and Taxol among them — to think, screw it, I’m eating whatever I want today, and order Joe to pick up enchiladas and chips at the diner by our house. It should be said that I completely credit the whole-foods vegan diet I’ve been following to the letter along with the chemo for shrinking the tumor by nearly half in what the oncologist deemed exceptional time, but today, today the sun is shining in a starburst of a cracked divot in my windshield, the highway squiggles are phenomenal, next week the oncologist is going to say, “no need for chemo anymore, goodbye!,” and today I’m going to shape the take-out box into a funnel and pour a diner-variety enchilada dinner down my throat.