Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two worlds collide

Today I had to visit the Cancer Institute to give a blood sample for my upcoming procedure. (more on that in another post). It happened to fall on the same day as my daughter's annual checkup. So I combined the two errands, one after the other. I told my daughter that "both Betty AND mommy will get shots today! So let's both be brave!"

I've never taken the kids to Swedish Cancer Institute before, even though I go bi-weekly. We entered and the kids burst into the spacious, airy waiting room with an excited flourish-- a far cry from the entrances most patients make. There were dozens of people around the room, and because of the noise we made, most eyes turned in our direction. I guess I wasn't really prepared for the experience I was about to have/create.

Betty ran (why do kids always run?) up to the front desk and announced, "Hi!!" The sleek brunette who has checked me in dozens and dozens of times looked down and spoke in a voice I've never heard her use, "OOOHH! ARE THEY YOURS?! You have little ones? THEY ARE SO SWEET!" The other receptionist said, "Look at that little guy! He's MY favorite. Look at him, acting like he's the boss." The women both looked at me and I could see their minds working, digesting this new, slightly more interesting information about me. What an incomplete relationship I have with them. They know a whole lot about a very little part of my life. But they don't know the first thing about the rest of me.

I said, "I'm here for some lab work" and as the receptionist found my lab slip, Betty told her, "Mommy's gotta get a shot!"

Then the kids turned and bounded over to the huge saltwater fish tank, plopping themselves on the adjacent chairs (which have rarely felt such enthusiastic little knees on them, I'd venture). I could feel a lot of eyes on me. And I realized. Wow. I'm that poor, sad person you read about, the young mother, trying to do-it-all! while also fighting cancer. It's funny because though I'm aware of the facts surrounding my situation, I don't feel like a living sob story. Still, it's unsettling when you can see this sentiment reflected in other people's faces.

Betty said, "I like that one! Look at his mouth, Rhoey! He got big orange lips!" And Rhodes proceeded to make fish lips, his new trick that never fails to crack Betty up. Betty, wanting everyone to share in the big joke, turned and said to the general crowd, "Oh my gosh, look at my brudder. He got a fish mouth now!"

Next to the tank sat a woman in her late 50s-ish. She wore a headscarf. The kids continued pointing out interesting fins and coral, and Betty said, "Mom! I like your doctor office! They got good fish!" At this, I noticed the woman almost imperceptibly shaking her head, and I noticed her eyes began to well with tears.

I moved us along. In the center of the room, I passed a beloved nurse who stopped me, "Shelly! It's so great to see you! I haven't seen you in ages!" Then in a lower voice, "What brings you back?"
"Oh, just got a little radiation coming up. Cyberknife. You know."
She said, "Oh dear, and this is for....?"
"A little spot on my liver."
Her hand went to her mouth.
Me: "But it's the same old spot! Not a new one."
She exhaled in relief. I looked just behind her, at a row of elderly folks catching our every word, their eyes moving from Betty's bright green and pink flowered dress to Rhodes' sturdy little fireman rainboots to me, then back over the three of us again. She continued, "So they're just gonna blast that. And that'll be that." (side note: the nurses I deal with are angels. They speak with conviction and they CARE.)
We shared some stories about a friend we share (SSH), she gave me some good pointers on how to maintain my port, which currently isn't being used, thank heavens (no chemo), then we parted ways.

The kids had somehow wandered off to a supply closet I never noticed before. I went to retrieve them, and in this corner was a wall with thousands of multicolored ribbons tacked to it, many of them signed. These are of course the ribbons people wear to show support for various types of cancer (breast is pink, colon is a medium blue) and Betty ran her fingers over a light blue one and said, "Ooooh, this one's pretty. I want this one." And I said a little too forcefully, "No you most certainly do NOT want that one." A stupid retort on my part, really, intended more to be clever or for adult ears, I guess, not for her, and she looked confused, so I ushered her back.

When I returned to the center, a few people were sort of pointing at me, and I realized they had called my name and were looking for me. The three of us went back into the lab (again, staffed by angels), and the folks quickly worked to divert the kids' attention. They handed them hard butterscotch candies, which instantly got the kids' attention, though I worried about them choking. I announced to the kids with fake enthusiasm, "ok! now mommy gets her shot, then we go on home!"

The lab tech tied the rubber band around my arm and prepped the vials. Betty looked up at me and stopped licking the butterscotch disk suspended between her fingers for a second, "Mommy? Does it...hurt?" "HO NO! IT'S FINE! DOESN'T HURT A BIT!" Her eyes locked on mine and she reminded me, very quietly, "Be brave."

(God, if only you knew.)

Another nurse I knew stopped by "I heard you brought your KIDS! OH MY GOSH, ARE THESE YOU KIDS? THEY ARE A-DOR-ABLE!" Another nurse took Betty by the hand, telling me, "She dropped her candy on the floor, I'm taking her to wash her hands". Rhodes walked away from my station and out of my view, but from the cooing and ooh-ing about 10 feet away, I knew he was in good hands.

Finally, we got up to leave. Each kid was given a spare hard candy (which I hid) and a celebratory band-aid. As we walked out and waved hi/bye to yet another nurse, Betty announced loudly, "Wow, Mama, you know EVERYBODY HERE!" I noticed a collective wince from the people as we walked out.


  1. A gorgeous, moving post, Shelly. But my favorite line of all was that of your nurse: "So they're just gonna blast that. And that'll be that."

    That'll be that, indeed!


  2. huh. wow. it is a moving post, shel, and is just another day in the life, which i realize. one thing i'm particularly struck by is your comment about not living a sob story. Of course you aren't; instead, you're living a story of strength and life (and gosh darn good writing, if I do say so myself). My hope is that some folks at the office saw you with the kids and, instead, saw the incredible life (literally) that you're leading. bravo, here's to life!