We stood at the side of the four-lane highway; the heat made the cars speeding towards us from both directions look wavy and far away. Being locked out of the house again was bad, but wasn’t as bad as the morning my dad took a big knife into the boy’s room and cut up the green cotton belt that my mother used to tie the baby into his crib. It wasn’t as bad as nothing in my lunchbox but a leftover baked potato, wrinkly and cold. Or sitting in a chilly swimsuit for a couple of hours because my dad forgot to pick me up from the pool. Enchiladas with green sauce. Eggplant. The forest fire that killed Bambi’s mother. Those were worse.
I held Randy’s hand. Tommy leaned into me. I was eight, Tommy six, and Randy four. I looked left and right and thought the break in the traffic would give us enough time.
“Okay,” I yelled.
Yanking Randy’s hand hard, the three of us darted across the super-heated asphalt. His little legs could barely keep up. A car honked, then another. Randy and Tommy panted, their faces red and splotchy. The glare of the sun made all of us squint. Sweat dotted our upper lips.
“Let’s go this way,” I said pulling Randy down a narrow street with no sidewalks.
“Why?” asked Tommy.
“Maybe we can find a park.”
“No,” Randy screamed, trying to pull his hand out of mine. “I wanna go home.”
I pulled him harder but Randy’s hand slipped out of my damp grasp. He threw himself onto his belly and pounded the blacktop with his fists. The toes of his shoes slammed into the asphalt as he continued to scream.
Randy howled and beat the pavement. Tommy looked scared. I wiped my upper lip with the back of my hand. I hoped no one could hear him. Randy was famous for his tantrums and when he threw one, he got his way.
“You’re going to get us in trouble.”
I pulled Randy to his feet and we turned around. We waited a long time for an opening in the stream of cars before we ran. By the time we got home, both the boys were crying.
I pounded on the locked door, “Let us in.”
“Stay outside,” our mother yelled.
“It’s too hot and there’s nothing to do.”
The baby wailed from inside the house. He always seemed to be crying.
When they brought him home, he didn’t have a name. We called him Baby. When the hospital social worker telephoned, needing his name for their records, I pressed the receiver against my belly and shouted to my mother barricaded in her bedroom.
“The hospital is calling. They need a name for Baby.”
“I don’t care.”
“What should I tell them?”
“Call him Johnny.”
John was my father’s new name. I didn’t know why he went from Bill to John or Jack. Calling her new son Johnny was not a nice thing to do. Perhaps the name was meant to punish my father for the night I’d seen him on top of her. As he held her down on the kitchen table, she yelled at me to run for our neighbor. I couldn’t move.
I can’t remember my mother touching Johnny except to hurt him. Shy and guarded, he didn’t speak until he was four years old.
My dad wasn’t around much and when he was, he was drunk. When our cat killed a neighbor’s bird, he stormed through the house and ranted that he was going to kill the goddamned cat. And he would have, but the cat was too smart to come around with all the yelling. Or when I got into my mother’s makeup and he came home unexpectedly and screamed at me to take the goddamned stuff off my goddamned face. Who did I think I was? Even though he never hit us, I became so afraid of him and his rages that I couldn’t look him in the eyes. My mother put up with him until she was done. My dad had to choose: his wife and kids or Gordon’s Gin. He left her with four shell-shocked children and never enough money.
At twelve, I lost him. At seventeen, I’d lose my grandmother. At twenty-five, I’d lose Johnny to back street drug dealers. And at fifty-five, I began to disappear.
Am I the Stat?
Swallowing three aspirin with a cup of strong black coffee, I turned on my computer; its familiar waking beeps, the soundtrack to another day. I pressed my spine against the ergonomic office chair but the pain that had woken me still pounded at my back. I keyboarded my symptoms. In a Nano-second Google diagnosed a kidney infection. Good, old reliable Google. A bottle of antibiotics and I’d be fine.
At 10 A.M., I sat on the paper-covered exam table, lightly tapping my feet together anxious to get this appointment over with. As I shifted on the table, a jolt of pain—hot, yet freezing, like electricity—shot up my back. I let out a low moan. After a soft knock, Dr. Carson, my internist, entered the room.
After a brief hello and a description of the back pain as severe, I said, “I might have a kidney infection.”
She turned towards her computer. I could imagine her rolling her eyes and thinking, “Oh no, not another self-diagnosing patient with a medical degree from the Internet.” She looked back at me, eyebrows raised. “Possible.”
“I have other symptoms too.”
“Shortness of breath, leg cramps, puffiness around my eyes. Kidney infection is what Google came up with.”
She squinted at me, and I felt stupid. She was likely thinking that I was just one more in a parade of whining patients complaining of disjointed, vague, or kooky symptoms. Even worse, I had identified my malady and had a course of pharmaceutical treatment in mind—all courtesy of Google U.
“I’ll order a urinalysis,” she said and walked towards the door. “Take acetaminophen as directed on the bottle when you need it for pain.”
My fingertips rested on the left side of my neck. She had seemed so disinterested in my wacky symptoms that I felt like a namby-pamby complainer for calling attention to yet another trifle. Still I blurted out, “I have a lump.” With her hand on the doorknob she turned and seemed to look at me for the first time.
Instructing me to lie back on the table, she pushed around my neck, under my arms, and palpated my stomach. The room was chilly and too bright, but I felt no pain at her prodding.
“How long have you had this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a year.”
“A year?” she asked in disbelief.
I felt defensive. “I told another doctor about it. He said I was just fighting a virus,”
She gave her head the tiniest shake as if she either didn’t believe me or could not fathom the stupidity of her fellow practitioners.
I had asked another doctor. Months before, at a routine appointment with my Ob/Gyn, I’d gazed over the top of his shining bald head and said, “I have this little thing, like a knot, on the side of my neck.”
He finished the business at hand and abandoned the speculum that clattered in a shallow metal bowl.
“What’s that?” he mumbled.
I gratefully slid my legs together and sat up. “I have a lump. On my neck.”
I wrapped the blue paper sheet around me. “I’ve had it a while. It might be getting bigger.”
Without a second glance, he waved his hand, snapped off his latex gloves, and said, “You’re just fighting something. Don’t worry about it.”
Granted necks were not his area of expertise, so I accepted—was even relieved at—his brush off, and continued to ignore the bulge until today when it met with a far different reaction.
“You can sit up now,” said Dr. Carson.
She turned to her computer and while quickly typing said, “We’re going to do a work-up. Labs first, then x-ray.”
My shoulders slumped. I glanced at my watch. I had a project to finish. I developed educational materials for physicians and my client was waiting for a slide deck. It could not be late. Put out at having to make two more stops, I hoped this runaround wouldn’t take much longer.
“Really? Can’t I just get some antibiotics?”
“Not yet. We need to see what’s going on.”
What’s going on, I thought, was a stupid kidney infection. I swung my oversized Foley and Corrina leather handbag onto my left shoulder and walked down two flights of stairs to the first-floor lab. I handed my medical card to the receptionist who called out, “Stat’s here.”
Is she referring to me? Am I the stat? This is so weird.
The lab tech motioned me into the draw area. The x-ray guy watched from the door. Simple infections were their stock and trade, why were they so eager beaver with my tests? Nice, I’ll admit, but peculiar. I wouldn’t let their attentiveness, even urgency, bother me.
Holding the gauze over my inner arm, I walked out of the blood draw area. The x-ray tech motioned me to follow him. One quick picture and I was done. At least I didn’t have to wait around.
Too short of breath to climb the stairs, I rode the elevator to the third floor. Dr. Carson waved me into her small office, indicated a chair, and closed the door behind me.
Sitting at her desk, she typed on the computer keyboard then, while waiting for a response, picked an imaginary piece of lint off the sleeve of her stark white lab coat. She glanced at me—her face slack; she looked somewhat ill herself—then clicked away at the keyboard again. The familiar sound reminded me of the work that awaited me back home. Anxious, I let out a long breath and wondered what a urinary tract infection looked like and why she had me come into her office to discuss such a no-problem problem. I wanted to say, Was I right? but decided not to be pushy and let her go first. I could still taste the bitter coffee at the back of my tongue. My back ached.
Turning the monitor my way, she said, “You don’t have a kidney infection.”
An x-ray lit up the computer screen.
“Oh,” I said, feeling foolish again for having suggested it yet relieved that this back pain must be little more than a strain.
She crossed her sensible Aerosole-clad feet. I looked from her comfort sandals to my Tory Burch urban cowboy boots. I moved my right foot around in small circles.
“A tumor may be the source of your back pain.”
Surely Dr. Carson was talking about some other, very unfortunate, person. This was not happening to me.
“The pain could be from a tumor. Pressing on your spine.”
My right ankle continued to draw circles above the beige carpeted floor. I glanced out the window at the street below. Traffic moved as always. The wooded northern California hills looked the same as they had this morning. Everything was the same—reliable and familiar like the pair of jeans I always reached for—yet not.
“A tumor,” she said again, looking at her hands.
I might have flinched, or shivered. “What?”
I leaned forward in my chair and squinted at her and then at the computer. Cold, I pushed my hands deep into the pockets of my black wool cardigan.
Pointing to the screen she said, “I don’t like the look of all those spots.”
Besides the quiet buzz of her computer, I heard a thudding in my ears, soft yet distinct.
I’d walked into my doctor’s appointment a complacent, middle-aged woman fretting about an expanding waistline, vaginal dryness, a lackluster retirement account, and a dozen other issues of even less importance.
“Likely lymphoma,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I recognized a heart, lungs, and stomach, but also filling the screen were what resembled hailstones scattered on a sidewalk after a storm. I dug my fingernails into my palms.
Lymphoma? Cancer happened to other people.
“Non-Hodgins lymphoma is a type of blood cancer.”
“Blood cancer,” I repeated, my voice sounding disconnected, as if it came from the walls or the ceiling but not from me. I struggled to take a breath.
“Don’t worry. It could be easily treatable.”
Don’t worry? What else was I supposed to do? Plan a trip to Disneyland?
“I need….” I wrung my hands, “…to do something.”
“Go home and try to relax.”
“Relax? … I ….”
Nothing was real.
“I am so sorry. I’ll call you as soon as I have your labs. We’ll know more then.”
S. Z. K e l l e r, Author