Many years ago, when I had just moved to my current neighborhood, I went out to dinner with my new friend Becky, who I met through our kids’ preschool. I didn’t know her that well yet, but I knew she was fun and up for taking 4 kids under 4 out to dinner at our local Mexican restaurant.
It was insane. Our 3-year-olds threw chips everywhere and wouldn’t stay in their seats. Her 1-year-old was crying and mine was drinking the salsa like it was water. We had both just worked all day and then were dealing with this. I looked at her, exasperated, and said, “my God, could it get any worse?”
She looked at me, knowingly, and said, “I think the answer to that question is always ‘yes.’”
I’ve told this story a hundred times because that punch line is just so great. Yes – of course it could have gotten worse. Someone could have run out of the restaurant or started throwing up or a million other bad things could have happened.
I remember that story whenever I feel bad, which has been a lot lately. But I have to say, when Shawn died I thought, “no, it cannot get worse. This is the lowest that I can go.”
Oh, my dear naïve self, of course it can get worse. It can always get worse.
Last week I went in for my mammogram. I had to have surgery to remove a very small problem about 18 months ago, so now I need to get a mammogram every year. I was not concerned. The thing they removed a year ago turned out to be nothing. I figured this mammogram would show nothing as well.
I knew it was not good when I was brought back three separate times from the waiting room – once for the initial mammogram, another time for a secondary mammogram to get better images, and a third time for an ultrasound. My parking meter expired because it took so long, but I willed myself to stay calm by scrolling through terrible YouTube videos.
The ultrasound tech spoke with an accent – maybe Russian? – and asked me about my life throughout the procedure. After our discussion about having three kids, she followed up with, “is your husband helpful with them?” Of course, then I had to tell her that he had died. Her face fell. But like many people who come from other countries, she did a much better job engaging with me about my loss than many Americans. She asked me how I was feeling on a daily basis and talked to me about some resources at the hospital. She was kind, human, and unafraid of my pain. It was comforting, even if the ultrasound she did was not.
Then they called me to the dreaded back room to talk to the doctor. The room was just like the one where I waited for what seemed like an hour to get the results of Shawn’s colonoscopy. These rooms always have framed photos of flowers and magazines that no one touches. I hate them.
I can’t remember exactly what the doctor said, but something about enlarged lymph nodes or cysts or maybe it’s going to be nothing. I didn’t take notes. I just started crying.
The doctor and the nurse both tried to comfort me, reminding me that this was just a screening and not a diagnosis. It didn’t matter, I told them. It wasn’t really about today – it was about everything.
“My husband died in January,” I told them as I sobbed. “I just can’t handle this.”
They were compassionate. I’m sure people cry all the time in their office after getting bad news. The scheduler moved things around after hearing my story and got an appointment for me the following week. I had to get a biopsy.
I left the office and walked out onto the street in downtown DC. People were everywhere and I was openly crying as I walked the few blocks toward my car. No one paid me any attention. I guess that’s the plus of living in a city. I called a few people and choked out what was going on. “I don’t actually think it’s anything,” I told one friend, “but my kids have been through so much. What if it’s something?”
What if it’s cancer? Much worse than any surgeries or chemo would be telling my kids. “Don’t worry,” my dad said when I got home, “this is nothing. They are over-diagnosing you. They didn’t find a huge mass or something like that. Plus there’s no family history of breast cancer.”
Do you know who else had no family history of cancer? Enough said.
Somehow I managed to get my kids and bring everyone home. One child was constipated and another one was traumatized after somehow discovering something terrible on the internet on a play date. Everyone needed me, as always. But I managed to distract myself enough with the help of a few friends and I eventually fell asleep that night.
The next day was my daughter’s ninth birthday. That alone was enough to send me over the edge. As I always do on their birthdays, I talked about what it was like when she was born, barely able to hold it together as I did. I took her out shopping and to lunch and we spent the afternoon trying out her new roller skates. It was a great day, even though it was also hard.
But that afternoon I was starting to feel badly. I chalked it up to food poisoning, but by the evening, I was really bad shape. I laid in bed, unable to help my dad who doesn’t usually do the bedtime routine. My daughter was particularly upset to see me so sick and she kept coming in to check on me.
“Mom, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” she kept asking.
“I’m fine, baby,” I told her, “I have a virus that is making me sick but I will be better in a few days.”
“What if you have cancer?” she asked me with horror in her voice. “Dad had tummy aches when he had cancer.”
Why did Shawn have to have colon cancer? If he had to die, why couldn’t it have been thyroid cancer or lymphoma or something that didn’t look so much like a normal illness? I guess it would have all been terrible. But at that moment, I was cursing his type of cancer.
“Claire,” I said to her, “I have a virus.”
“But what if you get cancer?” she said, the tone of her voice rising. “What if you don’t have a virus and it’s cancer and then I won’t have any parents?”
Dear Lord in heaven above, I never thought I’d have to answer such a question.
“Listen to me,” I said as I pulled her to me, “mom does not have cancer.”
Except maybe I did.
The next day was Easter, and graciously, the kids’ godparents got them to church and off to an egg hunt. I saw none of it. Maybe it was better – it would have been yet another hard moment. Another specific time and place where I had so many memories with Shawn watching our kids do something adorable.
A full day in bed, even if I was in pain, was like a little piece of luxury I haven’t had much of lately. Funny how it took the stomach flu for me to take that time for myself.
Finally it was Tuesday morning and time for my breast biopsy. My friends showed up to take my kids off my hands and my friend Rachel showed up to take me down to the biopsy. She got a Lyft, so we wouldn’t have to deal with parking, and our driver was a woman. I felt like this was a good omen. I started telling her about my weekend when suddenly our driver almost got in a wreck and started cussing at the (narrowly missed) other car. The other driver started flipping her off and our driver started screaming about how she was going to go after him. “I’m going to chase him down and wreck his car and then sue him for emotional damage for anxiety!” she yelled.
Did I mention this all happened right in front of my kids’ elementary school?
She continued to swear and rant on this other driver, threatening to go and smash her car into his for much of the car ride. “I’m from Jersey,” she said to me as a way of explanation, I guess. I was a bit worried that we might actually get in an altercation with another lunatic driver and that we would also miss my biopsy appointment. So, I started to tell her about my weekend, the biopsy, and Shawn’s cancer and death. It somehow brought her back to some semblance of normal, though she interrupted at least a half dozen times to talk about how the other driver had been wrong and she had been right.
But we finally arrived. Rachel apologized. “That was not what I had in mind for our morning commute,” she said. “I was envisioning something calm and serene.”
“No, it was better,” I told her, “because it was totally distracting.”
Maybe that’s what I need more of in my life right now. Not crazy cab drivers but just a bit more distraction from reality.
In any case, I got the biopsy that morning. Of course the attending doctor was a parent of a student at my school. We figured this out as I was half naked in front of her. Need I remind those of you outside of DC that I live in a metropolis with millions of people and yet managed to get my boob examined by a parent of a student at my school? Because that’s the kind of week I was having.
In any case, they said that results wouldn’t be back for a week, so the waiting game continued.
Each night, I sat in bed and reminded myself that everything was fine. Just like I did every night in the fall until Shawn was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.
Every day I went to school and taught about the 4th amendment and Nigerian politics and the Mexican constitution. It was wonderful to hear about college acceptances rather than think about cancer. In a way, my students distracted me in the same way that my crazy Lyft driver had done, which was exactly what I needed.
It only took a few days, but my doctor eventually called back. It was benign. They had found a fibroadenoma of the breast, which is no big deal.
I didn’t cry when I got the news, because I was surrounded by about a hundred teenagers in our school’s library. But damn, I felt about 100 pounds lighter.
I’m not going to say that things can’t get worse, because of course they can. But thank God I don’t have to worry about that today.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.