Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chemo Days: An Essay

Chemo days ebbed and flowed. The tide pulled way back the night before exposing all of our hopes and fears. Chemo-therapy was both the elusive pearl of complete healing and the deadly shark prowling the shoreline. I would call Debbie the night before to check, to make sure she had taken her Ativan: chemo day would be easier if she’d slept.

The drive to her house got longer with each week of treatment. By the last treatment in the twelve round protocol, it seemed to take forever to wade through the early morning commute. I was swimming upstream, going against the current. I sat through the stop lights wondering if anyone one else was heading out to sea; rushing to get someone to the cancer center too.

Getting Debbie to the car was the worst part. I knew she wouldn’t be ready. If she hadn’t slept well the night before, which she rarely did, the process of packing her bag would slow almost to a stand still. We were trudging through wet sand; pouring orange juice mixed with warm tap water into a thermos, and leaving a message for the kids. Without fail we had to look for her sweater, the black one, and her warm socks. They needed to be gathered into her bag with the framed pictures of holy images, her family and one of a beautiful sunset that gave her strength and comfort.

“Wait, I just need one more thing” would trail down the stairs behind her as she plodded back up. The wave of anxiety would begin to swell. I would try to be as gentle as possible, but I still had to say it loud enough to be heard over the ocean’s roar.

“Debbie, we really have to go now.” At that moment I realized I was dread’s chauffeur.

The car ride was usually better. We would talk easily about husbands and bosses, about sixth grade teachers and our children. Always the crest of the conversation was her family. We would laugh and remember why we were fighting so hard, and the apprehension would subside.

We felt especially blest when Jenny appeared from behind the cubicle curtain. It was hit and miss with nurses. When Jenny was Debbie’s nurse, we faced the waves with renewed courage. Jenny knew about the drip, that it had to be really, really slow. She knew about the cold spray, how Debbie tasted it as it numbed the port. I would close my eyes and take a deep breath too, but try as I might to do some of this for her, I couldn’t taste a thing.

Each night I would bend down in prayer and try to carry some of the anxiety; to guard Debbie from the wave threatening to crash around her. But when I looked past the IV monitor into her eyes, I saw its reflection looming - dead ahead.

Warmed blankets were our sunshine. I would gather up the shovels and pails: Debbie’s favorite rosary and her pictures. We would head out in search of those who were blest enough to wander onto our little stretch of beach. Debbie, with her gracious and generous spirit, always offered to share prayers with those we encountered along the way. She had a gentle kindness that engendered trust.

We prayed for nurses and lab techs. Humbled and amazed by their responses, we listened to long stories, family histories full of sorrow and ordinary stresses and anxieties. Sometimes we listened for quite awhile before the nurse or lab tech would remember why they had come in and start Debbie’s IV or administer her meds. We listened and we prayed and over time our cubicle became a community. We were all patrolling the shore, in search of the perfect sand dollar.

Despite the waves we knew we had yet to encounter; we persevered in our quest. And we did find treasures: moments to dig our bare feet into the warm sand of friendship. We found moments to pray. We found moments to share stories and laugh and make new friends. We found moments we wouldn’t have stopped to pick up if cancer hadn’t forced us into the ocean. Together, dodging the waves was not such a daunting task. Together our pails were full.

Our prayer walks filled us both with hope. Suffering in and of itself, felt pointless: but when it gave us the opportunity to reach out and help others, it became purposeful and bearable. The small cubicle would fill with saints as we invoked their help in our crusade. We were constructing sand castles, elaborate fortresses of faith. We would forget about the waves. Familiar words, blessings, the rosary beads between our fingers, those were the foundation of our structure.

Eventually, the drugs would take effect and Debbie would drift off to sleep. The wave would slap Debbie with its injected poison and go on its way, but the castle would stand. The tide would flow past her onto the shore, and for long quiet moments I would be left alone, with God.

1 comment:

  1. This was such a powerful story. Memories of my son's treatment year came flooding back to me. The beach imagery is beautiful. I wanted to bury my head in the sand and deny his cancer, then I wouldn't have to helplessly watch as poison was pumped into his veins. Thank you for this story.