Within minutes I was wheeled in and out one room thru another hallway to the next and finally parked in a dingy spooky room with glass windows that overlooked what appeared to be giant industrial sinks. Facing me on a well appointed blue sheeted gurney was a woman who was waking up from some other universe and she was asking the wall and her pillow if she could go home now. As my own head spun around to survey the crypty concrete and the odd green gowned creeper muttering into a mask I too was quite ready to go home.
""You ok?" asked Liza with all the confidence of a lifeguard in a leaking shark tank. "How is Ethyl doing? Is she still wilted? Excellent distraction. I had completely forgotten what had happened this morning. 'Let's take one last look!" She popped open my gown. " Ew"
Ethyl did not look so good. Aside from having to get up stupid early the poor girl had to have to have her self smothered in emla cream ( which numbs tissue) be swaddled in saran wrap ( not unlike like Evelyn in Friend Green Tomatoes) and injected with radio active materials. She was sheet white and wilted like a wad of wriggley's gum on a sun bleached sidewalk. Not even Buddy would have eaten that.
However gross, the purpose of the radio active dye is really important. It is to help the surgical team find any cancer cells that may have partied off from Peter Paul and Mary and ended up in my lymph nodes. They run a Geiger counter over your breasticle and armpit and if the nodes light up then the team removes them for further scientific experiments. You want them to check. You do not want them to find anything. Metastatic cancer is a game changer.
Ps. Getting a needle in your nipple - even a numb one smarts. Kind of like a tap dancing bee who gets one good "ta da" in before it too dies. And why I felt the need to flick Ethyl to see how she was doing was beyond me.
It was also beyond the anesthesiologist who had been standing there watching us clutching her clipboard to her chest. Women talking to walls is normal. Women talking to dead nipples is clearly not.
We put Ethyl away, my dungeonmate was wheeled elsewhere I sat up and we began the very serious business of deciding how to keep me under and as pain free as possible. Admittedly I was very overwhelmed by it all. In the past 6 weeks I had poked prodded bled, interviewed, weighed, splayed and x-rayed just one too many times. I essentially said yes to all that was offered including a series of injections in my back and shoulder that would help reduce pain afterwards if they had to remove more than just the sentinel node. I figured they would be using a back hoe to get it all so I wanted to make sure I didn't wake up screaming. I just wanted to wake up.
"You will" Said the incredibly smart, kind and forgiving of my weirdness purveyor or pain relief. "You ready?" said the attending nurses as they came in, removed my shoes, and gave me little slippers. "Yup." Ok Liza you can go back to the waiting room and Kelly you come with us. I clutched at Liza. I was trying to be brave but when she kissed my cheek and swept my hair out of my mouth I lost it. I buried my head in the blankets.
The nurses smiled and pried me off the gurney, WALKING? Why am I walking? I am walking right? I am still alive right? You smell nice - dear god - I just walked into an operating room. An operating room filled with green people, blue people, floral people, blood, mirrors, sharp things, and a giant yellow padded cross front and center for me. The nurses helped me onto the table and put a little hat on me. Then my arms disappeared and I felt warm and pokey.
"Do you know why you are here? asked the surgeon. "Yes I am here for a simple mastectomy on the right breast and a sentinel node biopsy. But I am not so sure this is going to be simple..." and with that the medications went in, the sounds faded and the lights went out.
The only thing still on was the faint glow of hope pulsing in my heart. Because I can assure you - nothing will ever put that out.
My internal alarm went off long before any set alarm. Myrtle as you know could not sleep either as she woke up my thumbs to write her last words to her beloved sister. So when dawn arrived - Delta Dawn - Dawn of the Dead - Shawn of the Dead the Grateful Dead - all alive and well in my starving dehydrated ADHD brain. No food and only clear liquids after midnight - I was good to go and just get this day over with. After all I was allegedly first in day surgery - yes - apparently they plan and can lop off a major body part and send you home the same day - hurry Liza. Hurry. Hurry up and wait.
We arrived at God thirty and got checked in. The gals - and I mean gals as I have yet to meet a fellow on a hospital desk - much like education front lines - are incredibly nice. But they ask you the same 20 questions each time. If it is taxing for us imagine the sheer Ghost Buster's pain for them.
My vitals were checked and I - we ( Liza never leaves me) were lead to a change 'room' where I was handed two full length white leg stockings, another one size fits no one or everyone gown and a clear plastic snap together at the top bag labeled PATIENT BELONGINGS. Was Ethyl going in that? EW. Nor were my clothes. Gretchen darling - valet service!
Gowns I have mastered. Stockings not so much. My first experience was for a cousins birthday party circa 1970 in which I was stuffed head first into a velvet dress and hog tied in pair of white - complete with gitch - 'hose' as it was called then. I was out of that and into the sandbox in record time. My second personal stocking experience was in a play I did for Domino Theatre - Harvey - in which I played Myrtle. Yes Really. Since I was in character it was ok. She was wearing them not me. So my third run at stockings required assistance. I had no idea why I had to wear them or how to get them on. My first attempt sent me face first into the wall of the booth - and my second resulted in me falling out through the curtain into the nurse. I was given a longer pair and it was explained to me that wearing them would help to prevent blood clots and thus death during surgery. I sported them gleefully along with my wonder woman low cut sneakers. I assured the nurse these to would prevent death during surgery. With that I was offered VIP waiting service in a room full of beds - rather than the room full of chairs. Thank goodness for that. We waited 6 hours. 6 hours of nervous pees. 5 games of trivial pursuit. 4 rounds of solitaire 3 hip recovery surgeries, a nap and one code 99 - and not as in agent 99 but as in' uh oh potential dead person'. Then I was visited by the surgeon and literally signed off on. He autographed his initials over Ethyl. Terrance Trent Darby eat your heart out.
"Ready?" Yes sir." I said. And with that he gave me warm smile, shook Liza's hand and said with a wink. " You can escort Kelly - and - Ethyl into Pre-Op. It will just be a minute."
Once I had dried off - found a stock pile off deodorant and pulled on an outfit that was weather appropriate - read shorts and a t-shirt not thick enough to use a blackout curtain -
- I asked Liza to call the only person I - we could think of that might be able to capture the essence all that is the Ethyl - who was really needing her moment - and a person who would be capable of snapping an image of me with my mouth shut and my eyes open - as well as a person who would 'get' that these photos were never really to be seen by anyone - but that they would be a way for us - Myrtle, Ethyl and I to bond. After all we had been hanging - quite literally out together since I was in grade 7. So aside from being playful and quick lensed this person also has to able to manage the exceeding eccentric . However and most importantly, we all needed to be in safe company and company who would be emotionally capable of shooting a potential dead person.
The choice was painfully obvious. - The one the only Suzi.
When I called my tongue freaked out. " Err III me... boobie.. - trying to explain myself and what I wanted was awkward. Trying to explain Ethyl and what she was just weird so I stopped sucking air into my cheeks and handed the phone to Liza. " Can you come over and take some photos of Kelly before she has her mastectomy?"
Why didn't I think of that. Just ask. Be simple. Why does my brain and mouth have to add 3000 extra extreme words? Why can't I just have a still silent thought?
Because silence as you may have noted scares me. It fills rooms with a noxious gas of doubt and fabrication. It floats across faces dusting them with vacant ideas and coats eyes with dullness. Minds wander off to grocery lists or worse yet trot back through time and begin to 'write' histories that never quite happened -- Words prevent that. They ensnare the senses and bewitch the mind to thinking something is actually happening. ( Thank you Snape) And hey keep me present. They keep time moving.
Photos then as you can imagine are terrifying to me. Moments you cannot control. Time you cannot move. A perspective no longer yours - a common experience - made silently and deeply personal. Framed by words few will ever hear.
Thank god we had wine. And sunlight.
Suzi arrived the next day with enough gear to work for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. She asked me to find a funky pair of beaten up old jeans and to go barefoot. Yes and lose the t-shirt. Funky? um. I went looking. The only jeans I could find that had some depth to them were the ones I used to wear when I was painting. I say painting but it was really processing. 78 canvases worth of grief - A dear friend of both mine and Suzi's had taken his life some years ago - his funeral was the first night I had met Suzi - so these jeans seemed fitting. Except they did not.
Cancer was eating me alive. I wandered around the corner to present myself and the jeans - even with a belt they hit the floor. So did LIza's jaw. It seems losing weight when not trying is like missing your hair growing -one day you just have a pony tail. I poured a glass of wine and retreated to find a pair of jeans that fit. I could hear them crying. Not only did I feel sick I officially looked sick. And I had triggered Suzi. She too lost her Mom to cancer. I had no idea how I was going to push through this. Wandering around my home topless - and yet shrouded in emotions I - I - I -
I have never felt so vulnerable. Scared or safe all in one moment. Which apparently makes for awesome photographs. At first I was all stiff and posy like. Sears mannequin 101. Then instead of looking down - or at Liza or at the camera - or out the window - or clutching my wine glass in front of my chest - I looked over at Gracie my beloved Great Dane who was curled up on the corner of the white couch just watching. My face softened with love. The first creature I ever chose to love. I melted - not Las Vegas style but in a ways I have never felt. My hands fell open. I had no bones. My skin felt connected to my blood. I lay down with her and she put her paw out and her head down on my feet. She sighed and I cried. That I think was the best shot. In a week our lives and my body would be forever changed. Would I die before her like my mother before me? Would she be as lost as I was with out the touch of my Mom and the sound of her voice? Would a photograph console her the way this experience of being whole one last time was consoling me?
I looked up. Suzi was done. Her camera silently at her side. I rose and put on the only proper lady bra I had. Suzi wiped her tears and I mine. Then she manically jumped in front of me and clicked massive rapid close ups of my double e cleavage. Brilliant. I went crimson - snapped back into my painful self conscious self - I grabbed my t-shirt used a few un lady like words and we roared with laughter.
Ethyl had had her moment. The girls had one last cuddly close up. I came to grips that I am not alone in this journey -love is everywhere if you can stop to feel it - and I also realized that silence - just being in that moment - even if that moment could be forever - is worth taking off your clown nose, your ego, and your shirt.
The Bra I am still out on.