You know that uplifting ad for the Macmillan Cancer Support charity–”Today wasn’t all about cancer”?
I’d like a day like that. Maybe after I’m done with chemo.
That’s it, of course––it’s not that my days are all about cancer but they’re all about chemo. Being careful about possibilities of infection, watching for certain side effects like bleeding gums or my fingers going dead (technical term: neuropathy). I think I’ve already experienced radical changes to my taste buds. Last night Chris made a nice dish of angel hair pasta and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference pasta sauce. I tasted the difference all right––it tasted like mould. I had to have both Chris and Amanda taste it to be sure. Whatever the herb is, it tastes mouldy to me. Fuck you, cancer. Killing me isn’t enough, you have to take the little pleasures before I go?
And that’s silly because I’m not dying yet. Not really, not any more than anyone else is, in that the-moment-we’re-born-we-start-to-die way. I can’t even imagine dying, although I’ve actually done it twice and come back.
The first time, I was five and I checked out during heart surgery. Patent ductus arteriosis isn’t what it used to be in the late 1950s. These days, they discover it in infants and I suppose they would have found it when I was a baby if my home life hadn’t been so chaotic. As it was, the school doctor found it when I started school at St. Bernard’s, after we left my father and went to live with my Aunt Loretta and her “business partner.”
The second time was a little over thirty years ago in October 1984, just after Rob’s father A and I got back together after a year-long separation. Rob was just a notion at the back of my mind at the time, when I had to take penicillin before a dental appointment. I was supposed to take antibiotics before dental appointments because of my heart––the pda had been repaired but for some reason, there was a risk of my getting an infection in the lining of my heart. The old regimen had me taking antibiotics a few days before dental work, then for several days after. The dentist I had at that time told me the routine had been changed: I should take a certain number of tablets that morning. I don’t know how many I was supposed to take afterwards because I never got that far.
The tablets added up to a full gram of penicillin, which I thought was excessive for a drug that you could develop an allergy to. As well, I’d taken quite a lot of penicillin two months earlier for an infection. But I took the tablets and told myself to watch for a rash.
Twenty minutes later, I started swelling up. I knew what was happening: I had bypassed the rash stage and gone directly to anaphylactic shock. I knew my biggest risk was that my throat would swell closed and I’d suffocate. However, I was wrong about that. My blood pressure was dropping too fast. I did start itching briefly; I was on the phone to the dentist explaining what was happening at the time and stripping my clothes off so I could scratch.
I sounded so calm and collected, the dentist didn’t realise what was really going on. “You’re just having an allergic reaction,” he said. “Drive down to the office, we’ll give you an antihistamine shot.”
“Okay,” I said, now completely nude with my clothes in a heap around me. I would have to get dressed to drive to the dentist’s office, I thought, but I wasn’t going to put those clothes back on because I didn’t want to start itching again. I would have to go back to the bedroom and put on something else. Only now I had a new problem––as soon as I started to walk, I started to pass out.
The solution, I discovered, was to crawl on all fours and that was exactly what I did: I crawled to the bedroom and pulled some jeans and a shirt and underwear out of the laundry basket in the walk-in closet.
I actually was calm and collected. My blood pressure had fallen so quickly I was too stupid to be frightened. I got dressed sitting on the carpet and then stood up carefully so I wouldn’t pass out. At that point, I took a look at myself in the mirror over the vanity. My face was red and puffed up enough that the normally invisible lines under my eyes looked like paper cuts. Jeez, I thought, I hope I don’t have to stay like this.
I had to crawl back downstairs to get my purse and my car keys. As I picked them up, the last shreds of common sense kicked in. Gosh, if I can’t walk without passing out, I thought, I probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car.
(With that thought came the memory of what I’d heard from Tom Reamy’s neighbour the day that Tom had died. Tom had known he was in trouble and he’d tried to drive himself to the hospital. His neighbour in the other half of the duplex saw him start to pull out of the driveway, then stop; then he pulled back into the driveway, went back into the house, and, apparently, sat down and died. Low blood pressure or not, that memory was vivid even though it was something I’d only heard about. I’d pictured it in my mind, wishing I’d called Tom that day. What the memory told me then was, I wouldn’t be able to drive my way out of this.)
So, still calm and collected, I pulled out the Yellow Pages to phone for a cab.
Overland Park, Kansas had little public transportation and less in the way of cabs. If you saw a cab, it was probably from the airport and whoever had taken it would know to use a car service next time. You saw cabs in KCMO, in front of the Crown Centre hotel or one of the other hotels downtown. But I found a cab service in the Yellow Pages––this was 1984, remember, no web, no Google, no Über––and blinking through the dark patches in my vision, I managed to dial a number.
“We can be there in about an hour,” the cheerful woman on the line said. “Is that all right?”
“No,” I said, “I won’t be here in an hour,” and I hung up. (To this day I imagine her wondering how I wouldn’t be there in an hour when I had to call a cab to travel in the first place.)
At this point, I realised it was time to call an ambulance. I knew the ambulance garage was only a few blocks away so I was sure they’d reach me in time. I picked up the phone again and for a moment, the buttons confounded me. There was a nine but no eleven. Then I dialled 9-1-1.
This time, I managed to sound urgent when I told the operator I was having an allergic reaction. She was dispatching a unit right away, she said. I hung up and thought about what I would need to take to the ER with me. Years earlier, my mother had told me that if I ever had any kind of reaction to medication, I should hold onto the bottle or package so that if I were unconscious, the paramedics would know what I had taken. I took a firm hold on the empty penicillin bottle. Now, what else? ID, yes, that was in my purse.
My memory went back to the ERs of yesteryear. Every one I’d ever gone to had been crowded. I should probably bring a book to read, I thought, and crawled to one of our many book cases to pick something out. Okay, medicine bottle and book; what else?
I should go outside and sit on the front step, I decided, because they might pull up in front of the wrong house. Keeping hold of my purse, book, and penicillin bottle, I crawled out the front door onto the step and waited.
The ambulance arrived and pulled up in front of the house next door. Seeing me, they backed up. Five people came, four men and a woman. They lifted me off the front step and took me into my kitchen, where they laid me on the floor and put what seemed to be the most comfortable pillow in the world under my head. (When I came home, I discovered it was one of our couch cushions.)
As soon as they opened my shirt, a hush fell over the room and I knew they were looking at my heart surgery scar. I explained about pda and how it was kind of why I was in this fix.
At that point, I thought I could relax but the paramedics wouldn’t let me. Every time I started to, someone would yell, “Breathe! Breathe!” at me. I have a vague idea that someone hit my chest, hard; there was a bruise later, although no pain or fractures.
They started a saline drip and I kept waiting for us to pack up and go to the hospital. I gave them my then-husband A’s phone number at work so they could tell him I’d be at the Shawnee Mission Medical Centre. But time passed and no one made any let’s-go-the-hospital moves.
This was where I finally started to get a little scared. I had managed to keep myself alive until medical help arrived. Were my would-be rescuers going to blow it?
“Is there some problem?” I said finally. “That we’re not going to the hospital yet, I mean?”
“Well, we’re trying to get your blood pressure up. It’s still pretty low,” said one of paramedics.
“My blood pressure runs pretty low anyway,” I said, which was true. 90/60 wasn’t an unusual reading for me in those days. “What is it?”
“Fifty over zero,” came the reply.
“Oh, my,” I said, astounded. “That is low, even for me.”
Eventually, we did pack up and go to the hospital. I left my book behind; there was no waiting in the ER, not in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Not that I would have had to wait anyway.
This is where things become very fuzzy. I passed in and out of consciousness while a procession of everyone I had ever met in my life passed by my bed in the ER bay. Eventually, A arrived. (“How do I look?” I asked him, still thinking of what I’d seen in the mirror. “Like Howard Waldrop’s little sister,” he said.)
After a while, I was more awake than semi-unconscious and one of the paramedics came to see me.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Pretty good, considering,” I said. “And you?”
“We just wanted to check and see how you were doing,” he told me. “I don’t know how you did it, lady, because you were dead when we got there.”
I was still too stupid to grasp the full meaning of his words. It didn’t hit me until later, after I was discharged and A took me home. I couldn’t stay awake; I kept falling asleep. this bothered me because I was afraid that if I napped all day, I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know why I can’t stay awake.”
A gave me a Look. “Well, when you almost die, it takes a lot out of you.”
And then I finally understood.
That was over thirty years ago. The anniversary of my narrow escape from death’s door went unnoticed. In October 2014 I was more concerned about the severe hernia I had developed, which had made it almost impossible for me to walk. I think I had a cancer follow-up appointment around that time. Sometime that autumn, anyway. My surgeon had been happy with how things looked in that first year after my diagnosis and surgery. But he didn’t like what he could feel going on in my abdomen that time. I’d been waiting to have a CT-scan, which was supposed to be fast-tracked as I was technically still a cancer patient. Mr. Pisal gave them an extra nudge.
The consultant I saw for the CT results told me they had trouble reading exactly what was going on. There was a hernia, yes, but that wasn’t all. I saw the consultant on a Friday afternoon; they found a slot for me in the OR the following Monday.
The rest is cancer.
And now I’m back on the floor, back on my hands and knees, trying to keep myself alive. The medical cavalry has ridden in but even if they do everything right––and they are––they know at this point that they are delaying the inevitable. Which is fine with me––see my previous post about the condemned prisoner who has a year to teach a horse to sing. It is entirely possible that I may get lucky with a clinical trial or just go into remission for some unknown (and unknowable) period of time, and it might be long enough that they figure out how to cure this thing. I’m all for delaying the inevitable for as long as possible.
Isn’t that really what everybody does anyway?
In fact, isn’t that the whole point?