“I just feel like I could cry,” the nurse said dejectedly with arms slumped at her sides. I totally knew what she meant. All day I felt the strain of tears pressing against the back of my eyes, hot and insistent. With one hand I held the X-ray plate, the other pressed up against her leg, the lead apron demanding the depression of my body. Allistaire shook with pain and the multitudes of lines and agitating chunks of plastic surrounded her. “I can’t do it,” she cried over and over. “But you must, you must.” A great sigh escaped my lips as the X-ray tech went to check if the picture was sufficient. I hadn’t even known I had mistakenly allowed my weariness to see light until he said, “Almost done mom, just one more.”
I push back, flattening the words of the podcast on how X-rays work. Attend to the task at hand. Disregard the weight of the lead. Ignore the little lead heart-shaped shield they put over her ovaries for the chest X-ray and then remove for the 2 abdominal X-rays, every single day. Forget that a CT is worth 250 X-rays. You did not hear the suggestion to ask your dentist if that X-ray is really necessary. Grip your child and ignore her protests, the beads of sweat on her brow and her labored breath because the pain won’t let up. Now quick, onto the other tortures, lift her up this way and that, change the sheet and pull the measuring tape under her back to measure the distention. Press her hands and toes looking for capillary refill. She is exhausted. So unremitting is the pain that she hardly sleeps and the turmoil in her gut breaks through multiple times an hour. The pain meds are increased, boluses accumulating and new meds added.
It feels like we’re going backwards, like the past three days have never happened. Her chest rises and falls rapidly, heaving. Back on goes the Milrinone. Up go the pain meds. Increase the flow of the cannula. Ease the burden on that left ventricle of her little heart, beating so hard with terror and with fight. After two days of granulocytes, the neutrophils display their fury against the invader. Their number has increased from zero to almost five thousand on Wednesday and after the second dose they are over seven thousand. Who can understand their mysterious wisdom, how they know where to rush in haste to battle, to mend, but it shows in the incredible increase in pain and all night she has been feverish despite regular doses of Tylenol. I guess this is the worse before the better. It’s hard to watch and strange to be forced into the paradox of cheering and gratitude when everyone around wants to throw up their hands – what more can we do for her pain? How high can we go with this dose? What will calm her anxious fears? We’re not even living it, just bystanders, constantly racking our brains to come up with what combination of meds in what doses and at what times will finally yield some peace for her.
Fourteen hours in my too-tight pants and socks that agitate the ever dry skin of my legs. So irresistible is the scratching that streaks of blood line my ankles and calves. I listen to the message on the phone in Ron Don about some package that has been there for days, waiting for me to pick it up, to respond to its little incessant presence. But it is too late and in the morning I will rush again to the hospital to relieve Sten from his long night so that he can go nap for several hours. I unbutton my pants that have pressed into my gut, unrelenting all day. Another pair down? Is that 3 or 4 pairs now that are too tight? Another bit of myself goes skittering away. No chance to exercise and some strange, frustrating need to eat. How can I want to eat when all this is happening and all I do is sit in a room hour after hour for days? I resist long but at last succumb to the warm comfort of the coffee cupped between my palms. The hot liquid soothes as it goes down my throat, like a hand brushing slow across the forehead. My hope is in this caffeine that perhaps somehow it can push back against that wall of fatigue that even recent good nights of sleep seem incapable of diminishing.
“I was wondering if it might be possible to make an exception and have James be allowed to show me how to pump up my bike tire?” Before the ICU slammed out all other life, I had been attempting small steps to be more prepared for Obliteride. Last years ride was fun enough to make me want to do it again, but so brutal that I knew I would be fool to not be better prepared. My sweet mother-in-law generously has allowed me to borrow her bike, a fantastic bike made more so by its perfect orange frame. What a strange color, orange. So bright, almost cheery, but with some sort of fiery force and determination. It is a color to be reckoned with. And out of the corner of my eye I would see it sitting there, locked safely in the corner of the bike racks. I bought bike shoes I’ve been too afraid to use. Little goals – take a picture of the pedals to buy the cleats that fit. Check. Get on the bike, oh but wait, I can see how to go one direction with the gears but not the other. Thank goodness for google that yields the answer. Tentatively, I ride, but not before I have walked my bike across the intersection. I get to the Burke Gilman trail and feel slightly more at ease but anticipate the other cyclists speeding by yelling, “on your left!” And I try to make myself as slim as possible and hug the far right edge to give room.
Sitting on my bed later, I laugh at how tender my tail bone is. How in the world did I ever, ever get on a bike and ride 55 miles without having ridden in a whole year? What a fool. What an idiot. But wow, who was that person, what carried her all those miles? How did she say no, no to the aid car? Was it not the pain of her own little girl? The pain she has endured? What is my pain, ever, ever, compared to hers? I wrestle with my own heart, weeping and yet berating, what is my pain when I have been given so much? She is here with me. Who am I to let the tears come when I always see the grey eyes here and the blue eyes and the green brown eyes of moms whose hands now lay empty on their laps? I have bounty upon bounty. I have been given so much time that might not have been. Such an array of armament has been brought to bear against the invader. I have been offered unfathomable privilege to walk so far down this road of war. How many mothers across this globe at this very moment weep and weep with limp child, eyes glazed? But there they sit, the abundance and the ragged gaping loss.
I got on my bike last summer because I had so much to be thankful for. I got on my bike last summer because my heart had been run through with the blade countless times. There was ecstatic joy and severing sorrow. I make little goals and devise little plans to get back on that bike, to acquaint my rear with the weight of my frame. I stop the man from getting his own bike and ask, will you help me with these shoes? I don’t understand how they clip in? And he gives kindness to me a stranger, and he offers knowledge and extends encouragement. Another man delays his ride home to help me figure out how to pump up the tire with the special pin, unlike the girthy simplicity of a mountain bike. But then I flatten the tire utterly, inept at my attempt and sit feeling myself deflated despite my best efforts. Her comes Seth again, I recognize his shoes and beard. Again I entreat him to help me and he graciously pumps up my tire and instructs. “What you need is the foot pump they have up in the bike cage, it would work so much better.” “Yes, but that is for employees only, ” I respond.
“Can you make an exception and allow James to help me learn how to pump up my tire?” I ask Jen in the Department of Transportation. My hope is that they’ll allow James to teach me some basics that will help prepare me and give me a little more confidence out on the bike. “Sorry, it’s just for staff. It’s a liability issue.” Before I know it, I’m gulping down barely audible sobs. The tears stream and I apologize, saying I have no idea why I’m having this response to something so small. Before I know it I’m telling her there are some people who live, like actually live, in this building and are trapped here for long periods of time. It’s incredibly hard to find a way to exercise and all I want is some help to be able to ride my bike. My spirit slumped and suddenly swamping waves of sorrow weigh heavy, an unconscious overlap of sorrow upon sorrow. Perhaps it had something to do with the combination of hearing about the dangers of X-rays when I had only the day before been doing a bit of research on TBI (Total Body Irradiation), being prompted by seeing Dr. Ermoin, her radiology oncologist. “Did you know that the Fred Hutch website says that TBI “is equivalent to being close to the epicenter of a nuclear bomb blast”? “It does not,” he says alarmed. “Oh yes it does.” Only weeks before I finished reading the book, “Unbroken,” and vivid descriptions of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Hiroshima. My child. Allistaire standing there in the gray devastation, the silent ripping of radiation particles colliding with her flesh, tearing at the fiber of her being, DNA sliced into ribbons.
I am powerless to stop it.
I wear the lead apron to protect my own flesh while her’s must simply accept again and again and again the devastation.
The waistline of my pants cut in and again I shift, trying to find comfort. All I want is some help with my bike pump. I am cut off from my home, my husband, my family. I’m asking for help. I’m ever in the position of being in need, but I’m willing to reveal my neediness. I’m trying here people. I grasp for help in folks passing by, going to their bikes. Will you help me? This person helps with figuring out how the bike shoes clip in. That man helps with how to inflate my tires. The first man helps again when I stand frustrated before the flattened tire despite attempt after attempt to get it pumped up.
Cancer makes you feel powerless. Cancer isolates. It’s just a tiny cell but somehow it seems to dominate everything. All the forces of man are brought to bear against it, yet how it seems to ever overcome every effort. You accept the destruction. You say yes to the horror because you have no other choice. You embrace, you praise, you rejoice in the weapons, pressing the collateral damage back, back to the periphery. And the shrapnel of cancer slashes anyone in its proximity. There is the slice of jobs lost. There the bleeding hole of your relationship with your other child. Time, seasons, swings of dark and light, leaves dead and leaves budding, friends living their lives and you just gone, gone. Those too tight pants bring rage, bring silent tears you reprimand yourself for having.
All I want is to take my flesh in hand and have it yield to me. All I want is to get my tire pumped up so I can get away from this building for an hour and breathe cold air and see something other than walls. All I want is to fit in my clothes and not want to tear them off of me at the end of another day. All I want is to fight back. All I want is to ride my bike so this August, I can enjoy Obliteride. All I want is to feel the power of my quad pressing down the pedal, speeding me away from this constricted, suffocating fight and closer to a cure.
I must give thanks to the little Hiroshima that will transpire in the basement of the University of Washington Hospital within those lead lined walls and door. I must give thanks to the poison that decimates my child’s immune system and has left her vulnerable to these ravaging bacteria. I give thanks because these are the forces that have taken years to understand and develop. I fall on my knees in gratitude for the hundred of thousands of hours of research scientists endeavoring to unravel the power of cancer. I give thanks for three years of life for Allistaire that could have never been were it not for cancer research.
I mourn and I wail because of that most wretched Hiroshima unleashed on my child, that killer not only of cancer cells, but brain and bone and ovary and pituitary. I fall on my knees in grief for the poison that distorts the DNA of her cells and heart and skin.
I grieve years lost and rejoice in years gained. For they are one in the same.
Obliteride is a grieving and Obliteride is a rejoicing. It is one in the same.
This August, I will once again have the joy and privilege to participate in Obliteride which is a bike ride to raise funds for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. One hundred percent of funds raised go directly to cancer research.
I now know how to pump up my tire. Soon I will know how to use my bike shoes. My bum is already getting acclimated. As I trudge up and down, up and down the eight flights of stairs in the Forrest stairwell morning after morning, as I ride down the trail, as I feel the burn of muscles being pushed to do more, to go further, I smile. I will one day fit into my pants again. More importantly, one day there will be no need for Hiroshimas or poison. One day cancer research will have found the way to fully harness the immune system and stop cancer in its tracks, without the collateral damage. Maybe one day we won’t need a cure, because we will have found how to prevent cancer.
I’m going to keep getting on my bike. I’m going to get on my bike in anticipation of this summer’s Obliteride. I am going to get on that bike every single year the Lord gives me life and there are muscles that can move. For I have much to be thankful for. I have much to grieve.
How about you? Where has the shrapnel of cancer lacerated your life? Where has cancer stolen from you and caused your heart to grieve? Where has cancer unexpectedly given you so much rejoicing and thanks that you never knew before?
One of my favorite quotes is this:
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing when you can only do little. Do what you can.”
If you would like to support me in raising money to fund cancer research click HERE
Help me OBLITERATE cancer!!!!
If you want to join our team for this summer’s Obliteride, we’d love it! Emily, Jo and Lysen have once again committed to another year. Leave a comment on the blog if you’d like to join our team and I will get right back to you.