Last week, I went back to work and the Minis went back to school. Naturally, our calendar was immediately ten times more full. And normally, our stress levels would immediately be through the roof too. But this year was different. I found myself unable to get upset or worried about deadlines, and schedules, and paperwork, things that would have really gotten to me this time last year. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be a good teacher and I’m still working non-stop to achieve that, but it just feels different on the inside. So many things have happened since last August that could have caused that change in me; tragedy and miracles will certainly teach you what’s really important in life. Simply spending one day in a place like MD Anderson will teach you what’s really worth your time and your heart.
It has been a month since I was there and I still can’t seem to shake the effect it had on me. I’ve thought about how to describe that to you a hundred times and I just can’t seem to find the right words, the ones that truly capture the place. I think that is because it is such a powerful place that I know mere words won’t do it justice.
Alas, I will try, but I have to warn you, it is a place that causes a veritable plethora of emotions. In fact, I’m not so sure that it’s not the place where emotions live. Emotions, all of them, dwell there so heavily that it is impossible to not feel them. They grab your hand in the foyer and walk with you to the lab. They whisper sweetly in one ear while the doctor vies for your attention in the other. They mingle in the coffee shops and blanket the air. They play in the waiting rooms and lounge in the hallways. You cannot escape them, even if you want to. And the thing that has surprised me the most about them: they follow you home. The emotions I felt there, and the things and the people that caused them, are so forever ingrained in my mind and my heart that when I share them with anyone, it literally feels like I’m sharing a piece of myself. I know that sounds nuts, but I’m telling you guys, that place is special.
We got to Houston very late on that Monday night, or technically Tuesday morning. The alarm clock hurt our feelings when it went off after only three hours, but the Texas-shaped waffles at the continental breakfast at the hotel made us smile.
The Minis and my friend Jess (they refer to her as their “second Momma, the nice one”) got to sleep in. Kids are welcome on the floors of the hospital where my appointments were, but I figured they had already seen enough hospitals this year, so we let them sleep.
Luckily, Momma found a hotel that offered a shuttle to the hospital, so after breakfast, we waited outside for it. That is where we met Gloria and her husband. I sat down next to him on the bench and we started chatting about the book he was reading. Then, Gloria joined us. She was about five feet tall, Hispanic, at least in her 70s, and absolutely adorable. Her husband completely agreed with me on that last point because when she said, “Oh no! I meant to put on my make up and I totally forgot! Do you think I have time to run back up?!” he said, “Oh Honey, you don’t need make up! You’re beautiful just the way you are.” She blushed, shushed him, then ran after her make up anyway. They were so cute together, y’all. Gloria and her husband have been going to MD Anderson every three weeks for over a year for her chemo treatments. She has a rare type of skin cancer which, unfortunately, made its way inside her body and proceeded to spread all over. He gave up his seat on the bench for her when she returned wearing mascara and bright red lipstick; she sat and promptly began bragging about him.
“He never does anything for himself. He gets up every day and says, ‘What’s on your agenda today, love?’ and I tell him, ‘Go! Go to the library or something! Go do something you love! I can do this by myself!’ but he never listens to me.”
I smiled, choked back tears, and said, “Well it sounds to me like he really loves you, so I’m sure he doesn’t mind coming with you; he probably prefers being with you than at the library.”
She grinned, leaned in toward me conspiratorially, and said, “Well, I am his third wife you know, so I guess I’m the charm,” with a wink.
We laughed and since I was completely charmed by her in less than five minutes, I told her that I was absolutely sure she was right. And we laughed some more.
Once on the shuttle, they told us that this was their last trip to Houston because they couldn’t afford to come anymore. They only live about three hours away, but they are old enough and that is far enough that they have to stay overnight and hotels are expensive. Gloria’s chances of survival aren’t as great at home. The doctors there just don’t have the same equipment as the ones at MD Anderson. Her husband didn’t say much after she said that, but I could see everything he was feeling in his eyes and it broke my heart.
She told me, “We’ve been married for twenty-six years. I’m not sure what he’ll do without me, but I’m sure he’ll figure something out,” and she smiled a sad smile while she winked at him playfully.
I want a love like that. I want to be someone’s charm. But more than that, I want his charm to get well. There are so many evil people in the world – why can’t one of them have skin cancer gone wild? Why Gloria? It hurts my feelings. It makes me so mad. Stupid cancer. Something as beautiful as the way they love each other should never be riddled with disease. It’s just not fair. I’ll never see them again, but I think about them almost every day.
When we got to the hospital, Momma and I were immediately struck by how incredibly efficient the place was. There were several people right inside the massive doors greeting patients upon arrival, asking us if we needed help finding our way. They directed us to a reception desk to pick up my schedule for the next two days. Then, we followed several well-organized maps and lists on the walls like this one
until we found where we needed to be. The place has endless hallways and countless elevators, but we didn’t get lost. We were impressed – these people know what they’re doing. Efficient, I tell ya, super duper efficient.
I had an appointment at the endocrinologist’s office first. After filling out literally ten pages worth of background information and discussing my history, vitals, and medicines with the nurse and patients’ rights with the liaison, I met the nurse practitioner who asked me a million questions and then patiently answered a million more from me and Momma.
After she had taken the time to speak with the nurse and the nurse practitioner about me and review all of the records and films I brought with me, Dr. Hu [pronounced who] finally came in and introduced herself with a firm hand shake and a warm smile. She was Asian, mousy, and petite. We liked her immediately. I’m not sure what Momma liked about her, but for me, it was her confidence and honesty.
In the last ten years since my initial diagnosis, I’ve learned that people get shifty and uncomfortable when they’re treating you for cancer. They desperately don’t want to be the one to have to give you bad news, so oftentimes, they’ll pass the buck to some other unsuspecting soul, or they will exaggerate your odds against it in order to soften the blow. There is nothing confident or honest about that behavior. I understand why they do it, but it doesn’t make it feel any better when it’s happening.
Dr. Hu wasn’t like that at all. She very confidently told me that I will always have thyroid cancer (ouch), but that it will not be what kills me (well thank goodness for that!). She explained again that my cancer cells have mutated and are immune to the only radiation that could potentially kill them; therefore, the cancer will always be there. There is no cure. Right now, it is too microscopic to treat, so we have to wait for it to grow again. If it grows in my neck again, they will cut it out. If it grows in my lungs, they will watch it grow until it is at least 2 cms and then they will give me chemo pills to stunt the growth.
“It could take decades to get to that point.”
What a relief. Seriously.
Her honesty was a breath of fresh air. Now, I truly know what to expect, as much as possible anyway. She said that this type of thyroid cancer, even the fastest growing variant of it like I have, is so slow growing that most of her patients think of it more as a nuisance than a threat. Holla!
You wouldn’t think hearing that I’ll have cancer for the rest of my life would be such good news, but it was. The part of what she said that matters most is the word decades. When I left her to go have the tests she ordered, I quickly realized that “decades” is not a word that is thrown around too often at MD Anderson.
Sick people everywhere. Really sick people. People walking around with giant IVs hanging from their arms. People who can’t walk curled up in wheelchairs or on couches. Very few people with a head full of long, healthy hair like mine. Actually, many of them wore head scarves like this.
The IVs and head scarves were constant reminders of why we were there. Sure, there were sculptures, gardens, and incredible pieces of art all around us. It was beautiful. But one could scarce take in all the beauty for all of the pain. Momma even said once, “It looks like a resort. Except for sick people.” My happiness from Dr. Hu’s “decades” comment was quickly countered with heavy, heavy guilt and despair for the dying all around me.
Next, we went to the lab for them to draw blood, where we were dazzled with even more efficiency. You have to remember, I spent the last year in endless doctors’ appointments and hospitals, so when I tell you that this place was well-run, I actually have the research and data to back up that claim. We couldn’t get our seats good and warm in a waiting room before my name was called. It was awesome! If you’ve ever waited too long for a doctor, I’m sure you can understand my joy over something so silly.
After the lab work, I had a break until 6:30 that night, so we took the shuttle back to the hotel, where we found Jess and the Minis ready to go discover Houston. We ate lunch at an overpriced cafe, with the yummiest lemonade on the planet, and then we went to the mall. It was no ordinary mall; it was the mall for the other half, if you know what I mean. It had stores that I’ll never be able to afford to shop at in my lifetime. Momma and I gawked into the window of Tiffany’s and skipped right passed a dozen high-end places like Versace and Prada. Gawking and skipping is fun for water parks or Walmart maybe, but not so much for shopping. Can a girl just get a Target clearance rack around here?! Maybe I was just too tired to appreciate that place, but I was actually glad when it was time to go back to the hospital so we could get out of there.
My appointment that night was for an MRI with contrast to see if the cancer had already spread to my lungs (I’ve since gotten the results and they are clear! Woo hoo!). That’s when I finally got one of the giant IVs. There was a woman from Mississippi next to me. She and I joked about how my IV meant I had finally been accepted into the club. Some club, huh? She said, “A sick sense of humor is a must for survival.” I agree – laughter is definitely the best medicine. It certainly helped when this monster was hanging out of my arm.
They used the biggest possible catheter in order to get the most contrast in my body; it felt like she shoved a two by four into my arm. I cried. I felt like a sissy and tried real hard not to cry, but dang that hurt. When the nurse spotted me crying, she told me how big the catheters were in a effort to make me feel better. It worked. It was dang near a two by four. She had the sweetest smile and beautiful Shirley Temple curls. She brought me a warm blanket and chatted with me about the drive in movie we had plans to go to the next night for my birthday. I felt like a little kid, sitting next to my Momma, wrapped in that blanket, wiping my tears on it and getting excited about my birthday. I wish I could remember that nurse’s name – she sure made a particularly painful moment into a sweet memory for me. I told her thank you as I left, but I really wanted to hug her. I bet she would have hugged me back.
Momma had to wait in the waiting room without me after that. I went back to what my Mississippi friend called “the holding cell.” It was a small area, not even a room, with about fifteen chairs in it. When Mississippi and I got there, all fifteen chairs were full of people waiting for tests just like us. Everyone had the big IV, the standard-issue hospital gown (no bra in mixed company – oh dear lord! Uncomfortable is an understatement!), and a worn look on their faces. It was about 8 pm and you can’t eat for several hours before those tests, so we were all hungry and tired.
Mississippi was a talker and I really liked that. She has pancreatic cancer and is a five-year survivor, which is almost unheard of. Pancreatic cancer is not a nice cancer. She had some kind of experimental treatment at MD Anderson and it seems to be working so far! Praise God! She teaches first grade on the coast and her husband is a pastor. We sat there and complained about what lawmakers are doing to the education system and pretended to not be sick and bra-less in a room full of strangers. Her enthusiasm for teaching, for cures, for life was contagious and I found myself wishing we were friends in real life. Once she left for her test, the woman on the other side of me started talking to me. She asked me the most common conversation starter at MD Anderson, “What kind of cancer do you have?”
I gave her a brief synopsis and followed with the same question. Her response took my breath away.
“Oh Honey, they don’t know. It’s all over. They think it may have started in my stomach, but there’s really no way to be sure because there’s so much of it.”
How does one respond properly to those words? I’m sure I didn’t. I don’t even remember what I said to her. I just remember having to remind myself to take deep calming breaths because my heart was racing. I remember thinking this woman is dying and I have decades. Why? How is that fair? She was perfectly calm about it though. She said she was an artist from Monroe, Louisiana and that she would start chemo treatments there in a few weeks when she returns home. She told me she admired teachers and the sacrifices they make.
A dying woman thanking me for my sacrifices, no bra, no breath. Surreal.
That night when we got back to the hotel, Momma fell fast asleep (she was so tired, bless her heart) and Jess went out in search of food for us. When she returned, she found me outside on the curb, crying. Of course, being the stubborn girl that I am, I tried to deny it at first, but I couldn’t stop, so there was soon no sense in trying to hide it. I don’t cry often, so I think Jess was a bit surprised and confused. I tried to explain to her what was wrong, but how could I properly explain something that I didn’t even fully understand?
My heart was broken for all those sick people. For Gloria. For my Mississippi friend. For my Monroe friend. For the woman who was too weak to even lift her head off the couch when I passed her. For the man who had an allergic reaction to the contrast, but was too tired to even care. For the people there taking care of them. For my tired Momma who was there taking care of me. For the nurses and the doctors who want so badly to cure us, but can’t. Cancer, you cruel selfish bastard, how dare you take all these people away from those who love them? How dare you take our charms? And our daddies? And our mommas? And our grandparents? And our best friends? And our babies from us? How dare you make their last days full of weak limbs and allergic reactions? How dare you mix their beauty with IVs and head scarves? How dare you?!
It was all too much. I cried ugly tears until my head throbbed and my stomach hurt. I fell asleep thinking about Gloria and her man.
The next morning was my birthday. The Minis and Jess joined me and Momma for breakfast, but went back to the room when we headed off in the shuttle again. This time, I sat by a med student who was on her way to take her finals. I found myself staring at her and thinking I hope you make an A and promptly find a cure.
I had an ultrasound of my neck to check one more time for any signs of malignancy. The ultrasound tech was amazing at her job and had that same confidence and honesty that I loved about Dr. Hu. She encouraged me to continue coming to Houston for my yearly checkups because their equipment is better and they see this stuff everyday so they know exactly what they’re looking for. She didn’t have to encourage me too much because Momma and I had already discussed how much we liked the way things are done there.
After the ultrasound, Momma and I found a clearance rack at the gift shop. Yay! Happy birthday to me! Then, Jess and the Minis picked us up and we went to Dave and Busters. It’s a restaurant slash giant arcade. We had a fabulous lunch and then played video games for five hours. No kidding. It was great! Then, we went to that drive in.
Man, I wish we had a drive in movie in Louisiana!! It was so neat. We saw Despicable Me 2, but our tickets actually included Monsters University too for the same low price of $6 for adults and $4 for kids. What a deal! The second movie came on too late for us, and we had already seen it, so we skipped it. On Thursday, we checked out of the hotel, went shopping, and then spent about three hours at the zoo. The Houston Zoo is beautiful and unlike any zoo I’ve ever been to. It was entirely too hot to really enjoy it, but as much fun as a group can have in what felt like 200 degree weather, we had it. Then, we headed home, physically and emotionally exhausted.
Five and a half hours and one month later and I still think about Gloria, Mississippi and Monroe almost daily. I wonder how they’re feeling. I wonder how they’re doing. I wonder if I’ll ever stop wondering about them. I wonder how long it will take for us to find a way to save them.