3. The Double Hit

Unbelievably, four weeks after my second surgery, there’s still no pathology report. Through October I call and call the surgeon’s office. This is American HMO bureaucracy. The Germans had it the next day. It took me longer to translate it than them to do it.

I am standing, nibbling bites of lunch, about to leave for campus.
The phone rings and the nurse starts talking in a roundabout way. “I finally called the chief pathologist and told him we simply had to have the report now, so he went in yesterday evening and did it. There were dozens of slides, almost all showing no cancer. But there was one place, in a tissue around the colon called the omentum, where there was a growth of live cells, about the size of your thumbnail. But, she hastens to add, “The omentum is gone now—it was part of what Dr. K. removed. It’s a fatty tissue that catches and holds things around the colon, so we hope that maybe, early on, it caught something floating, and so the cancer was only there. But we don’t know that. You need to get three opinions from medical oncologists on what to do next.”

She stops. I’m silent. “Is anyone with you?”

“No,” I say. “No one is here. Thanks. I have to go teach a class now.”

November – Driving To Seattle For Radiation: A Ballad Of The Cascades

Daughters, my undeserved bounty, each
Open-eyed with blessing,
Open-mouthed with questioning,
You swam slowly, one by one, into my body and mind.
Now on wet cliffs I see your faces
Swinging by.
Lovely ones, the first with an artist’s blue almond eyes set apart,
The next, with impish grin keen under gray-eyed thought,
The last with rose-shaped lips and bouncing hair,
All pouncing affection, irrefragable.
To the whine of snow tires.
You carry my mind in three-part song
Of rise and fall

Holy mountain
Sing to me
Sing a new song
Falling free as the pane of snow-melt
Down a sheen of gray rock in amber sun.

Dark fir needles
Sing to me
Of the woman
I yet may be, sing a new song while I twist
Among you, rocks and crags.

Wind in canyons
Sing to me
Of the death
I would fling free from my womb place,
Rivers, sing it out to biting air.

And dear ones sing that you’ll be mine
Even in other arms entwined,
Down beside where the waters flow,
Down by these banks in the day’s last glow.

December, Seattle

I’ve been here almost five weeks getting daily whole-abdomen radiation and, in the first and fifth weeks, taxol chemotherapy dripped in over four days. The first week they put me in the hospital to get the chemo. But for the fifth week I’m getting a pic-line put in my arm, and a pump to carry around. It’s taken all afternoon to get the pic-line in. My veins are too scarred from all the I.V.s and blood draws. Finally I had to go to radiology and have a surgeon put it into a deep vein. Now the bag and belly pack are on and pumping. Late in the evening I get back to my apartment, exhausted. I pull off my coat and sit down.

Blood is soaking the sleeve on my right arm. I manage to find the phone number of the Franciscan Nursing organization that’s going to come each day and change the bag. The nurse answering says get to the emergency room. My husband jogs back out, gets the car again from deep in the parking garage across the street, and drives me to the ER.

A medical student writes up my case. I’ll have to wait my turn for the doctor. The med student is told to put thumb and finger pressure on the wound and hold it ten minutes. The poor guy’s fingers turn bluish-white. When he lets go, the bleeding resumes. Finally the doctor comes, pulls out the sutures, resews them, and plugs the wound with a wondergel like playdough. The best guess is that some tape from around the dressing worked partially loose from my arm, stuck and tangled in my sleeve, and was tugging on the chemo line and the sutures. It wasn’t hurting enough for me to notice.

At midnight we get to bed. After five weeks of radiation, four more days of it to go, four days of chemo, five more self-injections of the new stuff to build white blood cells (which they call GCSF), a month of aftermath to survive, then, hopefully I can start eating again, and regaining strength. The doctors have no more plans for me but quarterly checkups. My outlook in general with stage-3 ovarian cancer would be a 15-20% chance of long-term survival (past a year or two). But with these six weeks of individually tailored treatments, they hope to have upped my chances by some large unknown amount. If my colon can recover and I haven’t lost too much bone marrow for normal blood cell production.

This time I’m not only bald but even my arm hair and pubic hair are gone. I feel like a little girl made of silky paper. My kids and one boyfriend fly or drive in, bringing presents, meeting at a motel in the strange city. In my one-room apartment, arranged for me by the med-center, we hang a gold bow ribbon around the floorlamp, and on its switch, a camel decoration from a package. My husband spreads his and the other the presents around it.

Local friends, who’ve helped me through these weeks with rides and groceries and reading the Book of Hours with me, have us all over to their house for turkey dinner by their tree, with red, green, and gold lights, stretching across a bay window and up to the ceiling. Ducked under my German wig that feels like a fur cap, I lie on their couch wrapped in an afghan, defocus my eyes into a blur of tree lights, and listen to their cd of Christmas chants–hodie Christus natus est. I feast on the lights and the conversation. It’s raining in Seattle, but there’s kindness around me.

New Year’s Eve

I’ve been taking anti-nausea and sleeping medicine most of three days, watching everyone pack my stuff, riding home from Seattle, and getting to bed. My sister is here to help again, making soup. I lie on one side. On the other. There is no way to lie. Whatever food I taste is somehow outrageous, barely to be swallowed. She plays the piano downstairs and I hold on to the sound. In a while she comes up and asks if I’d like her to read me something. I think of what I had wanted to work on with my German research partner (I never made it to meet with him)–methods of discourse analysis for studying John Lyly and Shakespeare. So I say ‘yes: Two Gentlemen of Verona.’

A music teacher, she reads it beautifully in her light southern accent, though she’s never seen it before. She says each character’s name again before saying the lines, and they start sounding like tones of different bells to me: Valentine, Proteus, Silvia. She goes through it in three sessions, with breaks to try to get me to drink broth. Not that I can concentrate. Nor sleep either. Later it seems to me that she skipped some parts, though she didn’t.

It’s probably Shakespeare’s first or second professional comedy he ever wrote. Two teenaged ‘gentlemen’ are bosom friends, then the one betrays their friendship for ‘love,’ trying to steal his friend’s ‘lady.’ After denouncing this treachery, the loyal friend then bizarrely seems to offer the other his girl, so as to show that friendship matters more than ‘love.’ The best part seems to be the lines of a scene between their two witty bumpkin servants, reading a catalogue of traits of a wench offered up on the marriage market: “Item, She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults.” That’s the line for me, I think, ‘more faults than hairs.’

But soon comes a better passage, that makes me hope to work again, if I can get past this taxol.

“Ay, much is the force of heaven-bred poesy . . . .
Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears
Moist it again, and frame some feeling line
That may discover . . . integrity:
For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.”