On the first Saturday in June 2007, two weeks before my chemo port was to be removed, an intern from the hospital called. Compunet, the blood draw people, had called the hospital to report that my absolute neutrophil count was low, 1.4.
“But it’s my nadir count,” I protested, “and it’s low by only a tenth of a point.” The intern wanted to know if I was experiencing fever or chills; he warned me to stay away from sick people, which is what I’d been told all through chemo. He also told me how to reach him if I felt sick. Because I am so responsive to suggestion, I felt puny all day. I also resented this intrusion on my illusion that I was going to get over the last of the chemo and begin to feel better.
On Monday I called my chemo nurse in a panic; Linda told me that 1.5 was the lowest number at which one could receive chemo, and the number should be higher in a healthy person. She suggested that when I went for pre-surgical testing, I have my blood work done before the EKG; the doctor’s office would know if I needed the Aranesp to boost my strength so the surgery could proceed.
My numbers were fine. Still, two days before port removal, I could tell Rebekah in an e-mail: I think there’s free-floating anxiety about surgery. I’ve seen too many movies of people dying on the table unexpectedly, and I’ve let everything get out of perspective. My editor’s gone for a week to Ireland, and I am caught up with work, which means way too much free time.
My dear priest quickly responded, Having brought you safe thus far, there’s no way the doctor is going to let you die on the table getting your port out!
“Safe thus far” is a line from the hymn “Amazing Grace.” ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace shall lead me home. I knew I needed to rely on God’s grace, even more than I rely on my doctor’s surgical skill. I hit Reply. This isn’t rational, Rebekah. Of course I’m not going to die having a port removed.
Exactly one year after my first clear symptom, my doctor removed the port. And I don’t die in surgery.
My e-mail to Rebekah that evening included a description of a picnic with one of my friends at a local park, then Not a bit queasy at this moment. I do feel rather terrific—I’ve just had a restorative bowl of mashed potatoes. Ben said getting a foreign body out of me was a good thing and probably contributed to my sense of well being. I’ve not looked at the incision (or the tape over it) or read my post-op instructions, which might say something like absolutely no picnics or mashed potatoes for 24 hours.
Another CATscan, another blood draw, and then a final meeting with my doctor ending this phase of treatment.
“It all looks good,” he said as he entered the room and sat down. Seeing my notebook, he asked, “What questions do you have for me?”
“I have a lot, since you’re about to turn me loose,” I told him, and I went through my list.
I told him about being afraid and about trying to decide how to live now. He said the first time he heard this nervousness from a patient, it surprised him; he’d expected that women would simply be glad to be done with chemo. “Just live your life. Have dinner and a glass of wine with friends. With each positive checkup, the hospital will become a place a reassurance, rather than a place of getting bad news.”
“I don’t think of it as a place of bad news,” I said. “I think of it as a place that gave me my life.”
“I’ll see you in three months,” he said, and was gone. I’d not been able to speak any of my gratitude; I was too near tears. I sat alone in the room and wept, because I was alive.
But how to re-enter that life, changed and yet the same? I’d had lunch with Rebekah, and confessed to her that I’d been hoping for some sort of Damascus Road experience. (When the apostle Paul was on the road to Damascus, he had a vision of God that changed his life and left him temporarily blind. Three days later, after prayers by a godly man, scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he could see.) But then, thinking about it, I realize that he went off by himself for about three years to figure out what to do next. Rebekah wasn’t worried about the lack of a dramatic experience (as if chemo isn’t dramatic enough). “You’re only a month out of chemo,” she reminded me. “It will come.”
I wanted my life back. I also wanted to be Mother Theresa, even though we’re not much alike in temperament or gifts. I didn’t see how I could go back to my life unchanged, but I hate change.
For me, food is celebration. I went to drive-through for a greasy food combo meal I’d not tasted in months. (For the record, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being, which I took as probably good news.) Then I did something I used to do when I worked outside my home: I drove to a scenic spot and ate it while I read. I chose a wetlands preserve on the way home, a place new to me. When I looked up from my book, I could see pink coneflowers and yellow black-eyed Susans, with an occasional bird or butterfly. I’d put both front windows down, and a lovely breeze floated through the car.
I was in what’s called liminal space, neither in nor out. I was trying, even while I was reading, to adjust to the idea of being free for the next three months, not seeing the dear nurses who hug me, or the surgeon who just possibly saved my life. It would take a long time, I suspected, more than one meal and a few chapters of a novel.