Straw pursed between her lips, Pat gingerly sipped the blended mixture of powdered nutrients, milk and chocolate ice cream. The cold liquid pooled on her tongue for a moment as she held it there, willing the muscles in her throat to swallow. Once she finally did so, pain immediately shot to her jaw, radiating from the back of her bottom left tooth. She grabbed her cheek and winced.
“Still hurts to swallow, Mom?” her daughter Hillary asked, walking in the doorway of Pat’s bedroom at that moment with a tray of assorted pill bottles, tissues, and an ice pack. Pat responded with a slow nod, her eyes still shut tight from the wincing. Hillary set the tray on the foot of the bed, handed the ice pack over and began the tedious task of trying to make room on the bedside table for the box of tissues. An array of over-the-counter drugs lived semi-permanently on Pat’s nightstand for all of the sort of ailments your average ninety-year-old woman might be facing. The pills on the tray were time-sensitive, prescribed medications meant to aid with the side effects of her recent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It had been weeks since her last treatment and yet the nausea was still persisting. She held the ice pack against her cheek.
“I’m sick…” Pat struggled to say.
Before she could finish her sentence, Hillary tried to do so for her. “You’re going to be sick? Let me get the trash can. Lean forward quickly, but not so quickly you throw up faster!”
Pat shook her head back and forth. “I’m… sick…” she said again, slower.
“What are you trying to say, Mom? Yes, you’re sick.” Hillary softened as she spoke and she sat on the side of the bed, placing a hand on her mother’s knee. “We’re going to the doctor today to get the results of your last scan.”
Pat sighed through her nose and opened her eyes, looking at her daughter. “I’m sick of sweet,” she finally managed to say. She handed the glass over, signaling defeat in her attempt to drink it.
Hillary’s back stiffened as she stood up straight and took the nutrient-boosted milkshake back. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. These packs don’t exactly come in beef flavor.” She placed the drink on the tray and began opening pill bottles, taking out an allotted amount and giving them to Pat. Before her mother could grab the water on the bedside table, Hillary got to it first and handed it over. Pat set down the ice pack and placed a single pill out of the bunch as far back on her tongue as she could. With a sip of her water, she once again began the arduous task of swallowing.
While Pat stayed busy with her afternoon dosage, Hillary began straightening up items around the bedroom. “Whatever the doctor tells us today,” she said while folding stray newspaper pages on the bed back together, “we’ll work through it. If we have to continue treatments, Mel said she can come down next week and take you since I’m out of vacation days and have to go back to work on Tuesday. I’m going to talk to my boss about switching me to night shift so I can be here during the day but that probably can’t happen for another few weeks. Leigh is going to try to fly into town by then, though, and he can stay here overnight so you aren’t alone while I’m working.”
The whole time she spoke, her hands kept moving. She hung clothes that were left in a basket beside the closet, lifted the books on a shelf where they had toppled over and would inevitably do so again given enough time and the lack of a bookend. She looked all over the room for tasks needing to be done but wouldn’t look directly at her mother’s face except for the occasional glance to confirm that pills were still being successfully swallowed at a slow pace.
“You know I was reading in this magazine the other day,” she continued, relocating bits of trash on the bed and nightstand into the appropriate receptacle, “that the best diet for cancer was a raw diet. It lets your body put all of its energy into fighting the cancer and not wasting any of it on the digestive process. It’s a lot easier following the raw diet if you can juice that stuff, but you’re already on a liquid diet so it really won’t be that different. Maybe we can find some savory recipes like soups you can sip on.”
Pat thought back to when she first received her diagnosis of cancer after months and months of tooth pain that no dentist could seem to remedy. That day she told her daughter that she was too old to go through treatments. Hillary protested, insisting that they had to do everything they could before giving up and to trust the doctors that were recommending it even when factoring in her age. Pat didn’t know how she was going to tell her daughter that while she might have agreed last time, she had no intentions of doing so this time. She felt the cross hanging from a chain around her neck and told herself that it was a miracle she had made it to ninety years old. If this cancer in her body was here to take her home to her Lord and Savior, she would let it. Now was not the time to have this conversation, though. She would wait until the doctor gave the news that she kept telling herself repeatedly not to be fearful of.
Once the last pill in her palm was swallowed and she recovered from the discomfort, Pat pressed hard into the mattress to help herself sit up. She swung her legs carefully over the side of the bed and said, “Help me with my hair and shoes, then I’ll be ready to go.”
Hillary lifted the silver wig off of the vanity across the room and handed it to Pat to first place on her forehead. As she flipped the wig backwards, Hillary pulled it snug at the nape of her neck and began tucking stray hair back underneath the cap. Pat smoothed her faux hairs down and looked in the mirror on the wall in front of her. She flashed a big smile at herself, then at her child. Hillary smiled back with pursed lips and kneeled to the floor to get the shoes on Pat’s feet.
The two of them, accompanied by a metal walker, made their way slowly out of the house. Despite the lengthy time it took to get into the car, the two women transitioned without saying another word. The movements required to move Pat through the hall, down the stairs, through the front door, around the sidewalk, and into the passenger’s seat had all become a choreographed routine both women knew all too well. With the slam of the car door, their dance came to an end and their journey to the doctor’s office began.
Upon pulling up to the main entrance of the Oncology ward of the hospital, a nurse immediately arrived at their vehicle with a wheelchair. She carefully helped Pat out of the car and into the building. Despite it being one of her favorite nurses, Pat was quiet today. Even as the nurse said, “Miss Pat, you got on my favorite wig of yours!” she could only manage a half-hearted chuckle.
The minutes rolled by slowly as Pat and Hillary waited to be invited into her doctor’s office. Hillary’s eyes stayed glued to her phone, rapidly texting her children updates about their grandmother. She copied and pasted the same information to her sister, then brother. Meanwhile, Pat took in the room around her, analyzing the other patients. One woman nervously bit her fingernails. A man watched House Hunters with too much anger in his eyes for it to be about the content of the show at all. A child, completely bald, played his Nintendo, blissfully unaware of the misery around him.
“Mrs. Cowart?” a nurse called. Hillary helped her mother get up from the uncomfortable chair and slowly they made their way through the invitation-only door, down the hall and into an office. Her regular oncologist was there, but next to him was a woman neither of them recognized.
“Hello Patricia,” her doctor said while gripping her hand in a way that was more intimate than a handshake without being an actual embrace. He gestured for them both to take a seat. “I’ve invited a colleague of mine to join us for our conversation. I promise it will make sense in just a moment. Now, we’re here to discuss the results of your scan. I have good news and bad news.”
“Good news,” Pat said bluntly, hoping any good news would calm Hillary back from the edge of her seat.
The doctor laughed a little, “The good news, Pat, is that the cancer in your throat is officially gone. These last three months of treatments did the trick.”
Hillary let out the breath she was holding and exclaimed quietly, “Oh thank you, Lord.”
Pat, on the other hand, kept the air trapped in her lungs. “Bad news?”
The doctor sighed, almost as if he was trying to will Pat to do the same. She did not. “The bad news is the scan found something else.”
The pit sitting deep in Pat’s stomach managed to sink even lower. “More cancer,” she said bluntly.
“It’s a small spot on your left breast. I want you to listen carefully to me, though.” He made eye contact with her. “That spot wasn’t there three months ago when we did your last scan. That means we caught it right away. My colleague here, Dr. Winters, is a specialist in breast cancer. We will need to do a biopsy but she and I agree that there’s a high probability, if this is cancer, that we can remove it quickly. That means no chemotherapy or radiation.”
Dr. Winters jumped in at the mention of her name. “Breast cancer in older women can be missed at first with symptoms being ignored as just other ailments. Depending on how aggressive this type might be, a later discovery could have proven to be fatal. The way we have found it, though, with the spot being incredibly small and with no symptoms even developing yet, has truly placed us in the best case scenario to handle this quickly and painlessly.”
Her regular oncologist added, “It’s a miracle, really, the way we found it when we did.”
Pat grabbed that gold cross she wore and squeezed it between her fingers. She thought of the words she had been telling God every day for the last week, that she was done with treatments. She sighed, partially in relief. Partially in Defeat. Looking up to the gridded ceiling of the office, she said loudly, “Message received.” The others in the room looked at her inquisitively but did not implore her to clarify. She felt her God had heard her and had accepted her terms while making it very clear that she wasn’t allowed to give up either. There was work she still had to do. He wasn’t ready for her to come home yet.
She spoke in the direction of her doctor as she spoke to her God, feeling the partnership between all three of them as she asked, “Alright, what comes next?”