My phone rings—finally.
But the voice is unfamiliar—Dr. Something Something.
“I’m calling about your Petscan,” he says.
For three days I’ve been tearing off my cuticles while waiting for my doctor—not this mystery man—to call with my results, so I ask, “Is there some reason that Dr. Zhang isn’t calling me?” and he says, “I’m sorry, can you hold a moment?”
Hm. Maybe he’s patching him in now. Or maybe Dr. Zhang’s busy and he asked his colleague to call me? That would be like him—Dr. Aloof. Dr. I-Can’t-Be-Bothered. Is it possible that my results are so urgent that the radiologist himself is calling? Are radiologists doctors? You’d think I’d know this by now.
On the T.V. the local weather guy is talking about the upcoming frost tonight. Bundle up, he says. Get those plants inside. Not once have I brought mine inside. Each year I tell myself I’ll do it this year and then I remember how heavy the pots are, plus the mess of all that soil, and I tell myself it’s fine, I’ll get new plants in the spring.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” this new doctor says, clicking back to me. “So, yes. Your scan.”
All he needs to say is It looked great! or Nothing lit up! Either translates to No need to worry!, but he hesitates—or did we get cut off?
“Hello?” My thumb presses the volume button on the side of my phone, making sure it’s on the highest level.
“Yes, yes. I’m here,” he says.
“Yes, I am, too.”
Maybe he’s still reading the results. Why didn’t Dr. Zhang call me? Is it possible that he only calls patients when the news is bad, meaning my news is good? Or is it the other way around?
I glance at my ragged cuticles and, with my front teeth, yank out a dried curl of skin that has a much deeper root than I’d realized and now it hurts. Throbs, actually.
I’m standing at the back door watching the random gusts of wind shake the branches of our American Elm. A loose, crumpled napkin blows across the slate patio stones.
There’s no preparing yourself for test results. The scan only lasts about 30 minutes, but then you spend every second of the next few days convinced that your original treatment didn’t work and now your body is riddled with more abnormal cells, which by the way, show up as bright spots on a Petscan. As a patient, you do not want bright spots on your scan.
“So, what I’m seeing in the throat area…” he says slowly, as if he’s still reading the results, “that’s where the tumor was, correct?”
“Ah ha. That explains the metabolic activity.”
“The brightness. Lots of brightness around that area.”
“But isn’t that—?”
“Not to worry,” he says. “Radiated areas are bound to be illuminated.”
“Oh. So the brightness is from the radiation?” Sometimes it takes me a minute to process what doctors say. “So everything’s okay then?”
I’ve learned that you have to be direct with doctors. Am I going to die? No. Will I be in a lot of pain? Yes. How poisonous is chemo? Very.
But this doctor is telling me not to worry, and I’ve been needing someone to tell me this for a long time. A really long time. Who is this messenger of phenomenal news? And what does he look like? I’m picturing the exact opposite of Dr. Zhang: tall with thick dark hair and soft blue eyes, a warm handshake. Maybe we passed each other in the hallway when I was trudging to chemo and radiation for all those weeks. But I don’t recall a handsome male doctor anywhere in the hospital and right now I’m strangely certain of his striking good looks.
“So,” I say, making sure I’ve got this right: “My throat area is bright, but it’s nothing to worry about.”
Slight pause before “That’s correct.”
Is it me or is he distracted? Every so often there’s a weird delay. Also, I hear voices in the background like he’s at the Starbucks in the lobby.
“I’m not concerned with the throat,” he says, coming back to life. “The brightness there is absolutely par for the course.”
Well, I’ll take par for the course. And even more, I’ll take not concerned because doctors never say not concerned if they’re concerned. They literally say, “I’m concerned.” I’m concerned that your neck is still oozing after the neck dissection. I’m concerned that your low white count hasn’t improved. I’m concerned that your body can’t handle more than three chemos. As a patient, it’s hard to know what to do with I’m concerned. But this doctor is telling me the exact opposite, which at the very least, means that my husband and I will be popping open the expensive California Cab tonight. Actually, he’ll probably drink a Tecate straight from the can and I’ll sip the wine even though my taste buds are pretty much shot from radiation, but you know what? Who cares? All that matters is my clean scan.
ALL NORMAL!!!! I text my husband.
“Thank you so much,” I tell this doctor. “I’m actually kind of glad it was you calling instead of Dr. Zhang. I mean, he’s fine but he can be so—”
“Mind if I put you on another quick hold?”
“Not at all.” I’m totally fine with being on hold again. In fact, I am one hundred percent at peace with everything in the world right now, including my torn-up neck and my diminished salivary glands. So the lymphedema aged my otherwise wrinkle-free neck by thirty years. Big deal. So muffins and breads dry up on my tongue. I’m cured.
Should I rush to the corner store and buy a pint of Chunky Monkey to mark the occasion? Imagine: No more Hmm your veins are hard to find. No more Let’s see what your next labs tell us. I want to scream into the streets that I’m a free woman.
Instead, I breathe in a deep inhalation and exhale with a roaring back-of-the-throat ujai yoga breath. It feels so good and cleansing that I do it again and when my eyes open, they land on an eerie little circle of dead leaves hovering above the patio stones. The spinning leaves remind me of a movie I once saw about a girl who would stare at things until she made them move. One time she made a dinner plate fly into her drunk dad’s face. Another time she caused a swarm of bees to chase a girl who was mean to her.
My outdoor plants, poor things, are trembling in their blue and teal pots. In a month they’ll be drooping, heavy with snow. It’s all good. Life is very, very good. Plus, my creative juices, which have been fast asleep since my diagnosis five months ago, are clearly waking up because a short story idea just popped into my head—a doctor-patient romance!—even though I’ve never written romance. It’s okay, though! I’ll figure it out!
“Hello?” he says, clicking back to me. “Are you still there?”
I like how he keeps returning to me. In my short story, he’ll be the savvy 911 operator who helps the heroine escape her captor.
“So, is that it?” I ask him. “Can I now…” I almost say, “move freely about the cabin?” because obviously my sense of humor also is returning, but I stick with “move on with my life?”
“My apologies,” he says. “One more brief moment.”
Okay, got it. Something (or someone) else is more important. Maybe he spilled his latte and he’s on the floor sopping up the mess with his white doctor coat. Or maybe he’s consoling a patient on the other line whose scan wasn’t as good as mine.
Another thing I know from being a cancer patient: When you pick too deep, your cuticles bleed.
Now the wind kicks up for real. It’s the kind that shows up in a fit of fury, tossing everything up in the air, like the plastic spinach container that had been tucked in our recycling bin but now is ricocheting through the backyard. And look! A New York Times newspaper bag soars through the air. It darts toward our house like one of those black soul sucking Dementors from Harry Potter except it’s royal blue instead of black.
Is it a little weird that he put me on hold again? Aren’t we basically finished with the conversation?
“I’m back,” he says. “Very sorry for all the interruptions.”
“Not a problem.” Another thing I know: With doctors, I often say the opposite of what I mean. (“I’m sorry you had to wait for two hours.” “No biggie!”)
“So, yes, ah…” I can hear him tapping the keyboard. Maybe he’s x-ing out of the crying woman’s scan and returning to mine. “We talked about the throat area. Right.”
The only thing I appreciated about Dr. Zhang was that he laid things out in one breath. He prepared me. Chemo is set for seven weeks but you might be too sick to finish. Radiation is every day for eight weeks and by the end you’ll feel like you’re eating glass. You’ll lose your tastebuds and saliva glands for up to a year and possibly forever.
But this doctor, I’m realizing, is no straightshooter. He skirts around the truth, then leads me down a long, winding hallway where I wait and wait before he admits the radiologist did find something.
“Actually there is more to the scan.”
“What?” I say. “I thought you said I was fine!”
“The scan shows what appears to be—”
But a deafening crash comes from outside—in the alley? Did a tree fall down? It sounds like metal garbage cans falling from the sky and smashing against the pavement. Jesus Christ I mutter as I rush to the living room to try to hear what he’s saying. “I’m sorry, Hello? I didn’t hear a thing you said.” This brief exertion of energy has left my heart pounding in my ears.
“They’ve found an area of interest in the center of your sternum,” he tells me.
“My what?” Blinking, I stand perfectly still on the carpet. A shard of sunlight juts into my right eye.
“The radiologist detected a cluster of brightness right under the—”
“You said there was nothing to worry about!” I spit out.
“At the original tumor site, yes. In your throat, that is.”
Is he serious? Because it feels like a very mean joke. Like what doctor sits on the phone being all Oh yes par for the course before spilling the actual news? Plus, my sternum? Does he mean my chest? Why can’t doctors just speak normally?
“It’s cancer, isn’t it?” I say, taking the reins.
“A PET scan is only one step in the diagnostic process.”
“But it might be cancer. Right?” I don’t let him reply; I say, “There’s definitely a chance. I know there is.”
He waits for a second before delivering the standard doctor line: “More specific tests will be more conclusive.”
I don’t even know how or when, but I’ve returned to the kitchen and now I’m at the back door again, peering out at the yard where my neighbor’s fake owl has fallen onto my Lenten roses. That’s all I can see—that stupid light brown, greyish fake animal peering through the oversized leaves of my plant.
“I realize this may not be what you were expecting,” he says, and I tell him, “I’m sorry but I need to put you on hold.”
I set the phone on the kitchen table and I pinch the bridge of my nose the way I did when my kids were babies and not sleeping and always on the verge of ear infections, but the pressure does nothing except buy me about six seconds, in which time a bright yellow tablecloth flies into our backyard, crumpling in a defeated heap on top of our Nandina plant with the red berries.
What the hell? When did our backyard become the receptable for all of our neighbor’s loose items? And at what point did that enormous tree limb fall across our patio?
My husband texts SUCH GREAT NEWS!!, along with a burst of red hearts.
I turn away, move toward the counter and force open the closest drawer, the one where we keep scotch tape and batteries and rubber bands and items that we can’t seem to get rid of like old coins and little twisty wires from loaves of bread. I stare down at the contents of this drawer that has everything and nothing—dental floss and sparkly nail polish and an endless string of fairy lights that promised to twinkle but never did.
Now my husband is calling me, but I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to throw the phone out into the storm, make this whole conversation go away. But of course, I can’t because the man on the other end has all the information about my health, so I pick up a blue pen, put the tip to a white index card and say, “Go on.”
Last month I purchased these index cards specifically so that, when I chopped kale or dunked a peppermint tea bag into my mug or just stared into the yard, I could jot down short story ideas. The goal was to ease myself back into my writing without being hard on myself, but now I’m using the cards to transcribe things like Could be swollen lymph nodes, could be cancer, we just don’t know, could be nothing. I’m writing so fast I don’t even underline “cancer.” I write LUNGS? I scribble Could be inflammation. I flip over the card and write biopsy?
“We’ll be monitoring this closely,” he says.
“So, you actually are concerned.”
Mr. Par for the Course doesn’t say, “Actually, I am” or “I’m sorry I didn’t start with the bad news.” Instead, this person who is not my doctor but probably a resident in fact, one I pictured to be of movie star quality, says, “It’s the hardest part of my job,” and I think, And you, sir, are the least attractive man on the planet. Yet because I was raised to sit nicely at the dining table where only my dad was allowed to talk, I thank him for calling and sharing the results with me.
THRILLED ABOUT THE AWESOME NEWS! my husband texts. More hearts. Red, pink. A suffocating amount of hearts.
I don’t call him. I don’t break down in tears. I get up and go directly to the sink and pour out the cold, dirty water from last night’s lasagna pan. I blast the faucet and scrub off the hardened tomato and cheese until the coarse side of the sponge wears through. I tackle every single plate and mug and each fork and spoon, and I wipe them dry and put them away. The counter is sprinkled with toast crumbs and coffee grounds, and I sponge up all of it, but the spattered stove top and the sticky blue kettle—it’s everywhere, this dirt and mess that I swear wasn’t here yesterday.
Could be cancer, could be nothing.
The Harry Potter Dementor is back, flitting in all directions. I half-expect it to slither, wraith-like, under the door, and head straight for my soul, but it glides away, disappearing behind the apartment building next door.
I grab my husband’s down vest that’s slung over a kitchen chair, and I shove my arms through the holes, zip it up. I crack open the door and the wind rushes in, spraying the index cards across the floor in a swirl of sharp edges.
Once outside, my hair flies into the air, the dried-out ends snapping at my cheeks and eyes.
It’s cold and obnoxious, this wind, and it pushes me, shoves me from behind like a mother saying, Go. Get on that bus. But I stay where I am, cold heels sunk into the slate, my hand clutching the imaginary hem of my mother’s dress. When I breathe in, I smell the sharp edge of winter creeping in.
Forget my perfect garlic chicken. Forget the frozen spinach stacked up like sandbags, my daily regimen of 10,000 steps and deep cleansing breaths. None of it matters now, not the six liters of water a day, not the morning dropperfuls of astragalus tincture and mushroom extract and certainly not all those bottles of curcumin or the ancient herbs extracted from Boswellian trees and tangerine peel. All that time I should’ve been inhaling chocolate shakes because that’s my plan from here on out: Double fudge and cotton candy and deeply fried everything. Tequila shots and sunburns and why not start smoking because actually? Screw it all.
The wind whips me, slaps me—bitter, unrelenting wind refusing to back off. Exasperated, I scream at it, a rabid animal shriek, but the wind pummels me like a wave, swallowing my wail in one gulp. Louder, I yell again and this time a dried leaf or who knows—a handful of dust?—shoots to the back of my throat and I can’t speak, much less yell, and part of me thinks, Please let me choke to death right now, let’s just get it over with, but I panic and try hacking it up, yet nothing comes out except for a strand of saliva that flies between my lips and lands right back in my face just below my eye.
If I focus hard enough, like that girl in the movie, if I just stare at my chest long enough, maybe the cluster will disintegrate and in its place a field of daffodils will bloom.
In all the whirling mayhem, the massive tree limb lies there, strangely majestic in its stillness. The wind tears at me as I go toward it, my face and hands burning from the cold. A paper coffee cup just misses my head. Could be cancer, could be nothing. I breathe in a blast of freezing air, packing it into my lungs and holding it in my mouth, counting 4, 5, 6, 7until I let it go, let it blend into the roiling air all around me.
On this limb I’m steady. I’m steady like I was on that balance beam in sixth grade gym class when everyone thought I wouldn’t be able to make it across the whole thing, but I did, and then I surprised everyone by turning around and doing it again. Could be cancer, could be nothing.
The wind no longer arrives in gusts—it’s now one long, continuous blast.
I could wait until the weather settles, whenever that might be. Or when the sun comes out, maybe tomorrow. But I don’t.
I start with the pot closest to me, shimmying it from side to side. The second one I attempt to roll but soil escapes onto the patio, soil so dry and light that the blasts of wind gather it in their fevered swirl and spray it up towards the sky. The rest of the pots I wobble toward the door, tiny steps back and forth, over and over, until finally each one is inside, huddled together, frigid stems and leaves intertwined.
Pot by pot, I manage to get them over the index cards and through the dining room and into the warm living room where the gardening book says they might be in shock for a few days but with the proper care, most will adjust and make it all the way through winter.
Jamie Holland’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Antietam Review, Baltimore Review, Brain Child, Electric Grace: Still More Fiction by Washington Area Women, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gargoyle, Grown and Flown, Literary Mama, Scoundrel Time and others. She has lived in Washington, DC since 1986.