A Belated Valentine, a Parking Lot, and Cancer
Dear [insert your name here],
This is my belated Valentine to you. You are the parking lot attendant, the valet, the front desk attendant, the nurse, the physicians assistant, and the gynecological oncologist. You cared for me on February 14, 2014.
On Valentine's Day five years ago my daughter took root. Then she was just a hope shared between me and my person, Eric. Like all early pregnancies, we tempered our hopes knowing that life is delicate, and one morning I thought we had lost her as I clutched to toilet vomiting from pain.
Eric rushed me to the hospital where I cried from relief to see her heartbeat flicker on the ultrasound machine. It was also the first time I saw the tumor. Twisting my ovary from it's weight, a seemingly benign cyst the size of a grapefruit, showed up as a ghostly, thin-walled circle. "It looks like a cyst" the ultrasound tech said is a delicate voice, but I could see the shock on his face when he looked at it's size.
Appearing benign and normal, we waited to remove it until the fetus stood a real shot at surviving. In May 2009, I went into surgery. I remember feeling calm and assured as Eric paced from nerves. The surgery went as planned, no complications, no concerns.
A week later my doctor walked in, a concerned and heavy look on her face. I was sitting on the exam table still clothed. I was wearing a gray shirt and stretch jeans to accommodate my 28 week belly. Eric was sitting in the chair next to me. "Did you get my call?" she asked. "I need to talk to you about your pathology report." In that moment, I could hear the air exit Eric's lungs. I could not look at him, but I could see in my periphery that he went still. "You have a borderline serous ovarian tumor." I had cancer. Thankfully, it was a rare, perplexing ovarian cancer that rarely metastasizes or becomes scary malignant or require chemotherapy. But it was enough to merit that look on her face.
It was enough to send me, five months pregnant, to the oncologist.
I remember my first visit to set up the appointment. I was conspicuous in my maternity clothes entering the cancer ward. I rode the escalator with a woman who smiled at me sweetly, empathetically, and I hated her for it. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be a cancer patient. I did not want to see her kind face, or any of yours, for that matter.
My daughter's birth was scary and complicated (a story of it's own) and I pushed all of my feelings about this diagnosis deep deep down. She recovered quickly, and freshly traumatized from that, I had to spend the day pumping milk to feed her, anticipating that my breast milk would be toxic from the contrasting fluids needed for my CT scan and barium shakes. I wept as I pumped and I shaved and I drank not one, but two, barium shakes and then I drove myself, early in the morning, to the radiology center where I met the first one of you.
Your name was Gabe, and I grew to look forward to your kindness and affable and light demeanor. You always called me "Ms Dougherty" and I knew that when you saw me each quarter than you remembered me. You advocated for me when they sent the wrong orders for my CT. You did it without my prodding. You took it on, wholly, and solved that problem for me. And you have a special place in my heart, Gabe, for making me feel welcomed in the place I least wanted to be. You made me feel at ease, like I could do this every quarter for five years.
And there was you, Arzou, my OBG who sat with me long enough to listen. You let me work through my thoughts about future pregnancies. About being a mother, about my ovaries. You let me hold my ambivalence about this diagnosis and you did not push me because you knew we were talking about trade-offs between under-researched outcomes, a family, about giving life and avoiding death. You made me feel like I had a partner in my care.
And Dr. Reynolds, who, when I transferred from Berkeley to Ann Arbor, smiled at me openly. You reminded me of Garrison Keillor and I was grateful for the resemblance. You reassured me that the fears of future malignancies were unlikely. You confidently and compassionately told me, with a hint of joy (I felt), that I could have another baby if I wanted. You told me that this tumor and my pregnancy were independent events, coincident, but independent. You relieved me of my superstitions. You took three years of weight off.
And then there was all of you on February 14, 2014. I spent the week anticipating this visit, feeling weepy and mad that I was still here. I would be spending my valentines day getting a breast exam, a pelvic, a rectal exam, and blood draws.
I arrived feeling vulnerable weak at the U of M Cancer center. I pulled into the garage.
You, the parking lot attendant, with reddish hair and freckles were so kind when you asked "are you a patient at the cancer center?" I said "yes." I think you know that every time you ask that question every person in that car wishes that you would tell them they are in the wrong place - "perhaps you meant to be in the lot down the street?"
And when I pulled into the lot, this is what I saw.
I saw a parking lot full of cars. Hondas and Lexus's. VWs and Fords. I saw HRC stickers on bumpers, university stickers, "Piss on Ford" stickers. My sticker said "I support North Carolina Bio Fuels." Here we all were, in or heading to your offices, the masses. All of us, so different in our daily lives and all so the same here. I realized I was here to be monitored. Many were here for treatment. Some of us were dying. I fought back tears.
I was touched when I saw you, the valets, running faster to pick up cars than I had ever seen at the luxury hotels and restaurants I have visited as part of my work. You ran fast and in earnest. You were taking care of us with each stride and I could feel it. I was grateful for you, as I walked in to the building, knowing you were running for one of us who could not walk like I could walk.
I took the elevator to the Gyn Onc floor and met you at the front desk. You were sweet and open and handed me my paperwork. You were generous and kind to me. You handed me a packet of valentines, which I later learned, were made by local women and church groups. And that made me cry big fat tears. I thanked you three times and said it was "so sweet," and you touched your heart and I knew you knew it was a hard day for me. Even though I was not one of the women in the waiting room in a scarf or a wig or thinning hair discussing the temperature of the chemotherapy room. Even though I was just being monitored.
And then there was you, Lisa, who sat with me longer than anyone before. You asked me questions and waited through silences to give me time to tell you about my life. My new business, my four year-old. You patiently and thoroughly examined my breasts when I told you I was "unsure" about some tissue. I felt neurotic needing reassurance. But you knew that's the thing with cancer, however big or small, it haunts you. You listened to me when I explained that I think there's a PTSD quality to it - that you feel fine and ok and you don't think about it at all, until you do. And even though your healthy and even though you're 99% certain that everything will be fine, you re-confront the fact that "you could die" 1% of the time and you're fucking scared.
It has been about five years since my resentful elevator ride to the oncologist and, as much as I hate to have to see you all, I am so incredibly grateful for you. Your care and your kindness. Your careful and practiced attention to me - to us - is other worldly. It's what you do everyday. You make us feel better, reassured, and strong during some of the worst days of our lives. I love you for it and I am so grateful that you were with me this Valentine's Day.