by Re’Lynn Hansen
It went like this at the doctor’s office: He feels the cancer; he schedules an ultrasound, a biopsy, and a surgeon. Wow. Wow. You took a breath. You thought:
This is it.
This is a movie.
This is incredible.
This is when the person in the movie, you, goes to the doctor, and gets the results and finds out it is cancer.
You were not undone that day, mostly because you had come to your doctor’s office in the new persona of your stalwart self. Your partner, Doreen, had come with you to this doctor’s appointment, for support. You and she were like “A” students. You kept asking all the right questions. Except in your head, you kept thinking, Wow, it is incredible that this is happening.
You felt like going for a cup of tea, and bringing your mug of tea back for a chat with your doctor, and he would rewind the situation. You have always liked sitting around his office talking about omega 3s and vitamin E.
And now you wanted to look up something else on his doctor’s computer screen—like the two of you used to do—like natural elements used in treatments for poison ivy—or something, and then maybe the wows would stop.
It was one of those it-was-like-a-movie moments. It was like a 1960’s movie—the time when you could still almost believe that movie stars would always be there.
You have a journey ahead of you, my doctor said, as if this sealed the deal. He was saying goodbye. He was sending you off. From now on appointments would be with oncologists and surgeons. You wonder if you ever believed in those movies, and if you can watch the movie stars without thinking of them dead, or without thinking of who they were in another era, when they were something more. You wonder if this is the end of the era—or a beginning. There’s something more. Not just now, but soon.
There you were, already knowing life would change.
You and your doctor were research addicts. In the past, you would sit for half an hour discussing factoids related to your low thyroid. You both knew that your synthetic thyroid drug did not address both the T3 and T4 thyroid hormones. In the middle of your talk on the function of the thyroid, he stopped to Google graphs on thyroid replacement therapies.
At one point, you and he reassured yourselves that natural thyroid hormone was better than synthetic. It was manufactured from the glands of pigs that were organically raised.
You and he were able to locate the last truckload of porcine hormone coming into the U.S. and headed to a CVS pharmacy nearby. You drove twenty miles to CVS that week and got the last batch of pig thyroid replacement. Then the pig hormone source dried up. He called you to say he was trying another source. You both hit dead ends on it.
You both did more research. News clips implied that the FDA had approved the organic thyroid replacement from pigs, then stepped back. Maybe they now disapproved it. He said he would keep his eye on Forest Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer, and let you know if it became available again.
There was a part of you that liked sitting there in his doctor’s world with the mug of tea you’d brought from home, discussing your increasing sensitivity to bee stings and how the yellow jackets that burrowed into the ground could be outwitted. You both knew that, technically, yellow jackets were wasps and that wasps were quicker, more predatory than bees.
Still, you had often lamented how your neighbors, and his, killed yellow jackets by pouring gasoline into the holes at night and drowning them, sometimes setting fire to the nests.
You both agreed this seemed cruel, though you each stopped short of defining why. Instead you both used words like toxic and kind of insane and environmentally unsound.
And he doesn’t say what you want him to say. Instead, he talks of god, and how he will pray for you. You had hoped he would say, this is cancer, this is what to expect, this is when it will stop.
Then your doctor wanted to do the unthinkable. He asked if you could pray together.
You wanted to stop the prayer and knew you could not stop prayer. You questioned your resistance to prayer. You were, yourself, stepping out of yourself to watch the prayer.
You quickly reflected, Well, how exactly was this supposed to go? Why not prayer, and why not now?
This was not the time to take a stand. Maybe you should accept prayer in a sort of gestalt kind of way. You tried to see it like that—part of everything with you now and coming toward you, future tense.
But you have never told your missionary doctor that you did not believe in god.
Except now everything has changed. Now he wants to say a prayer for you.
A prayer for me? This cannot be good, you thought.
You thought: You know your cancer prognosis is bad when the doctor with whom you have always made small talk now wants to pray for you.
Not only that, it was this idea of prayer which had stood in your throat for so long. People all over the world had prayed for you because you were gay, or because you were anti- gun, or because you were not them.
You wondered about stopping him, then wondered why you could not deny him. He sat in his chair with his head bowed.
He prayed to the lord that your cancer would not spread and that you would not need chemo which you were certain you would need.
So there you were listening to his prayer to our heavenly father. You and he and your partner, Doreen, were holding hands, and all of you staring down at the carpet, and for a half second you wanted to say something clever, like, Why are we staring at the carpet? You thought: Wow, funny.
When you left, you didn’t know what to say to him, and he told you he’d be in touch, which gave you pause, because you knew you’d go on to see other doctors and that his world, the world of his small office with missionary posters, was gone. Another world lost to you. You didn’t know how to feel about that. It was okay if some worlds became lost, right? It was okay if missionaries vanished, right? He hugged both you and your partner. You realized that his missionaries might be anti-gay, but he had always really liked you both. Or, you think he loved you both, even though his people were anti-gay.
It was like watching The Misfits, where Marilyn is coming up on the beach to greet Gable, and Gable is old, and she doesn’t look well even though she’s supposed to be happy and running on the beach with her dog, and you think, America, that America of Marilyn and Gable, it has passed and they are dead.
You wanted to believe in your doctor again. You wanted to believe in everything you ever watched on TV.
Doreen and I went to see a generalist, a surgeon who on any given day might do gallbladders or mastectomies or colonoscopies or take out an appendix.
This particular general surgeon was kind and explained he was a generalist and not a specialist, but then no one at that practice was. They were also missionaries. I tried not to dismiss him as a surgeon and he did not dismiss me as one of a billion cancer patients. He told me he felt my case had some urgency. He wanted me to get an MRI that day.
I believe in generalists. If I wanted someone on my last days of war on the battlefield, it would be a generalist—all that wisdom, all that knowledge, and the grace that comes from having seen the large and small tragedies play out.
All my small-town doctors have the same sincere look as Hawkeye from M*A*S*H.
The generalist was not afraid to mention the appendectomies and gallbladder surgeries he had performed in Ghana and in the two-hundred-square-mile radius of Michigan where we lived. Doreen and I swallowed our words in hesitant beats. We told him that we were thinking of going to Chicago, perhaps to seek out a specialist. I expected him to object. Maybe I had flattered myself thinking he had waited half his life for a really difficult cancer case to come his way, that I was special. Instead, he said, Oh I know I’m not a specialist. I’m not a cancer surgeon; I’m not a specialist, but I have saved lives.
There were 10,000 killed and 27,000 wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. I looked it up. The doctors, all generalists, arrived in late July. They buried the dead. They tended the wounded, and they did not leave until late November.
I think, The physical catastrophe inside of me has become more real than me. The world in there is complex, barely known to me. I might need a generalist.
Doreen and I like to think there is nothing we cannot get. The whole world is gettable, no paradox too large, no irony unreferenced by us. When the two of us are together in the same room, we can turn bed-making into a science project. We will research the hell out of the history-of-anything and underscore the politics-of-anything. We’ve only had a few weeks to collect data. But we’ve amassed a mountain.
Doreen and I decide to go to Chicago to seek out a specialist. We research OSR’s—Overall Survival Rates. The OSR for my cancer is 8% better with a specialist.
This is the plan in warp mode: I can pick up my medical records from the generalist and bring them to The Citadel in Chicago. The Citadel is a monolith—it inspires sick people everywhere to come to Chicago. They have special Citadel Hospital hotel rates at the nearby Ritz Carlton, Marriott, and Park Hyatt. It’s Mecca. To get in to Mecca, it goes like this: I need to wing by the pathology lab in my tiny-town hospital to pick up the pathology slides, onto which is smeared tissue from my first biopsy.
So into my little car I go and pump it up to warp speed. I think I am flying on the highway. I’ve become obsessive. Everything is life and death.
Is it really this way?
Wasn’t it this way before?
Wasn’t everything life and death before cancer?
Except that everything was so gay and every moment so smooshed and happy together that I couldn’t see it.
But I fly down the highway.
I’m on a mission. I’m galloping. Of course we know what the mission is. And I believe in practically everything the missionary believed in—except I believe I will be my own hero, I will save myself.
I am on the road. I call the pathology department many times to make sure my slides are ready. The Citadel needs them as soon as possible.
I’m coming in now to pick up those slides, I say, and I think: Everything is more important now. Was everything not important before?
Cheryl in Pathology explains that I can’t get my slides, that the slides aren’t ready. Wow, my warp speed pauses. My voice is raised: Why aren’t the slides ready? I called yesterday and they were ready. My doctor in Chicago might be able to see me sooner if I get the slides over there. They’re not ready?
We have to re-label them, she replies.
My missionary doctor has told her to re-label them so that the big-city hospital will have newer and clearer labels.
Clearer how? I ask.
Well, I don’t know, we just wanted to be clearer, she responds.
I think they would have known what it was with the old labels, right? I ask.
Well, everything is on the desk right now and not labeled, she says.
By everything she means me, my skin, my cancer, my cells. I wonder if I am trying to control so much just because I am a cancer patient. I’m wondering if the big-city hospital will not see me if I am not there on time.
What? What does that mean? I do a minor meltdown number. So you can’t put the labels on now? How long does it take to put on labels? I’m going to Chicago now. I need to get these to my surgeon now! He’ll see me sooner, maybe, if I get these to him.
It is similar to the Shirley MacLaine scene from the end of Terms of Endearment where she goes ballistic at the nurses’ station. I must have seen this scene a hundred times:
ALL SHE HAS TO DO IS HOLD ON UNTIL TEN! AND IT’S PAST TEN! MY DAUGHTER’S IN PAIN!
—GIVE HER THE SHOT!
(Nurse picks up the phone to call security)
—Are you going to behave?
GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT! (Emma screaming in the hallway) GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT! ALL SHE HAS TO DO IS HOLD ON UNTIL TEN AND IT’S TEN! GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!
(Nurse puts phone down and moves towards Emma’s room)
GIVE HER THE SHOT!!!
THANK YOU VERY MUCH. THANK YOU.
Cheryl over at Pathology says, You’ll be here in twenty minutes? I’ll work as fast as I can to put on the labels.
When I get to my small town hospital, I park under the trees by the row of salt-box-style Cape Cod houses that line the block with the hospital. I’m like Shirley MacLaine. I recompose myself once Cheryl gives me the box with my cancer slides. I say, Thank you very much. Thank you.
Cancer does not mean I am quitting let alone calling in to work. I have already determined that my students and their quirky creative energy mean the world to me. After picking up the slides, I race to the city to teach my class. It turns out pathology slides can be placed in bubble wrap. Room temperature. They’re fine. However, it’s 70 degrees out and I have to park in the sun. I am late for teaching my class. I can’t go to the hospital now to drop the slides off.
I will teach my class. It’s too hot to leave my slides in the car.
I’ll take my slides with me.
I put my cancer slides in my briefcase and go to class.
I call a friend from campus to tell her how unbelievable it is to have my cancer slides in my briefcase. How I’ll drop them off after class at the huge citadel. My friend is like Mary’s friend Rhoda Morgenstern in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This friend has had cancer and has been to the same hospital I am going to.
You’re going where to do what? she says. What time are you getting out of class? I’m coming with.
We went together after class to drop off the slides. And then she decided to wait in the car. She couldn’t go in. Post traumatic stress she said. She’s been to the cancer treatment center before. We both live in Michigan, so we drove home together at dusk. The air was like that white that forms on the dark husk of concord grapes. It was like that in the car. Darker maybe.
Thoughts came as I drove: You know it’s not like we know death better. But cancer pulls back the veil.
In the car she listened. Then says, You know what it is. It’s really like this all the time.
Image one: The Misfits, film directed by John Huston, 1961. Still by the author.
Image two: The Misfits. Triptych still by the author.
Image three: Armour Thyroid label from the medlibrary.com.
Image four: Bee from “friends of the honey bee” website.
Image five: The Misfits. Still by the author.
Image six: MASH, Hawkeye still from the internet.
Image seven & eight: Flash Gordon stills by the author.
Image nine, ten, eleven, twelve: Terms of Endearment, YouTube clips, screenshots by the author.
Re’Lynn Hansen’s memoir in prose poem and essay form To Some Women I Have Known is published by White Pine Press. Her essays and prose poems have appeared in Hawai’i Review, Prism, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, Fourth Genre and online at contrary. She is the recipient of the New South Prose Prize and the Prism International Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her chapbook 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was published by Firewheel Press. Her Novel Take Me to the Underground was nominated for a Lambda Literary award. She edits Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine. To read essays & poems go to www.relynnhansen.com.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 2 • November 2016
Image header by takomabibelot.
Staggeringly beautiful writing, Renee. Love your honesty.
Mostly these: How are you feeling? Can you and your lady come visit and stay with us in Bend, Oregon anytime soon? Love and hugs and lots of good energy coming your way.