It’s my last day of gazing up at the blue sky, spring foliage and blossoms. Instead of a grassy meadow, I am lying on a hard, cold steel table which could belong in a morgue. The only sound is the whirr of the machine. No birdsong or spring breeze here. Every now and then the tech’s disembodied voice reverberates with instructions. Move, don’t move, hold your breath, breathe. She is safely ensconced somewhere out of sight. I picture the malignant cells in my breast as little green cartoon gremlins, squealing and running for cover as the invisible beams throbbing from the machine seek them out. I’ve been trying meditation lately, but I’m not sure if the little critters are exactly what I’m supposed to visualize. The image makes me smile. I must have quivered because the voice sternly instructs me to lie still.
I comply, focusing on the flowers in the fake window above my head. A pretty illusion of nature, they look weird from this angle. I remember a story I read long ago about the cherry blossoms in Japan. A sign forbids the picking of the blossoms, but alas, the wind cannot read. It seems that cancer cells cannot read either, though my contract with them was unwritten. I exercised, never smoked, drank moderately. No one in my family has had cancer that I know of. Why me? I’m genuinely curious. Why did the roulette wheel of life choose to throw this experience in my direction?
My treatments began several weeks ago. I have funky lines drawn on my breast and there’s an oddly shaped patch of sunburn which is red and tender. They give me special ointment to apply and assure me it will get better, though my skin will always be extra sensitive to sunlight. I start to laugh when my doctor mentions this. I can’t help it. The only way the sun would reach this particular spot is if I went topless. The thought of Dave’s expression if I did makes me chuckle. The doctor looks at me strangely and I sober up. I haven’t mastered the social niceties of cancer etiquette yet. It seems it is inappropriate to laugh. Since I’m the victim, no one wants to correct me but they’re not sure if they should laugh with me. But this is my cancer experience and I’ll laugh if I want to at the green gremlins and the indignity of a sunburned boob with blue lines.
My late grandmother never said the word cancer back in the day when it was a death sentence. She and her friends referred to it in hushed tones as the ‘big C’ whenever the subject arose or one of them succumbed. I’m glad we’re past that, but it’s still awkward. Now we battle cancer. I get it, but some days I don’t feel like a warrior. Pink ribbons make me nauseous. I’ll have a pity party when I want to and do my best to stay sane the rest of the time. That’s about as valiant as it gets. I get down from the table stiffly, clutching the ugly gown around me. Medicine has advanced in so many ways. Why can’t someone at least design attractive gowns? The nurses smile and congratulate me on my last day. They laugh when I tell them I won’t miss them for a while, much as I appreciate them. Their eyes light up when Dave brings in a tray of homemade cookies. He’s become a surprisingly good cook lately.
We are discombobulated that evening. It’s weird not to anticipate our usual clinic visit the next morning. He’s ordered in dinner and bought wine. There are flowers and candles on the table. He looks like my husband, but I ask him who he really is. He grins wryly and tells me he’s sorry it took cancer to bring out the romantic in him. I cling to him, moved by his love. We've never been demonstrative, but it’s a special moment. We were both stunned by the diagnosis, but I’ve had appointments and instructions, insurance forms and support groups and well-meaning neighbors to deal with. He’s been on the sidelines feeling helpless, looking sad and frustrated. Men always want to leap up and fix things. Taking me to and from appointments and cooking are tame. He would have liked a laser on his hip to shoot beams at green gremlins.
It's a beautiful spring morning next day. I can’t wait to get outside and see real blossoms. We pack a picnic and head off to a local nature reserve where we like to go hiking. My energy is not back to normal, so we amble along, Dave toting the supplies. We get to our favorite spot, a grassy area with a view over the river. The trees are budding, and the daffodils are beginning to open. A woodpecker is hammering nearby. I sigh with pleasure and stretch out on the blanket Dave has spread on the grass. The river murmurs peacefully in the background.
It’s a weekday morning and we have the place to ourselves. I inhale deeply. Usually being outside like this sets off my hay fever, but today I don’t care. Dave is bustling around with the picnic basket, absorbed in setting things out. Feeling giddy and silly after all the grimness, I can’t help smiling as I picture the gremlins fleeing the fresh air, chittering in indignation. Suddenly I have an idea. I gently call his name. Dave turns to see what’s happening and drops the plate he was holding. His expression is just as priceless as I had imagined it would be when he sees that I am topless. My giggling turns to side-splitting laughter as I pull my shirt back on. It’s beautiful that no one tells me to lie still and be quiet. He pretends outrage and starts laughing too. He flops down beside me and holds me tenderly when we catch our breath. I gaze up at the blue sky and relish the feel of the grass beneath me.