The first short Friday of chemo did not begin auspiciously. Linda, the chemo nurse that day, had trouble accessing my vein (each failure hurt) and another patient’s port. Finally another nurse put the needle into the vein. Linda dropped some fluids on the floor. Even nurses had bad days, I realized. This was just life in the infusion room.
When I’d told a friend that I’d be spending the day in the infusion room, she said it sounded like a place out of Star Trek. I’d previously thought of infusion in terms of aromatherapy or tea; the notion that chemo was being infused into my body was not pleasant.
The Spanish idiom for headache is “dolor en la cabeza.” In that language, one doesn’t have a headache; one has “sadness in the head.” I had both the English and the Spanish versions of the malady. The drugs hit me hard, so my head ached, and it was filled with deep sadness for the difficult paths we in the infusion room were taking.
My real problems came with the afternoon shift of patients, an extroverted bunch of recidivists. (Two can be a bunch if they’re extroverts and talking too much.) They were swapping notes, not quietly, and I realized they’d been dealing with this six years, eight years, on third and fourth rounds, happy for a three-year spell without chemo. It hit me that this could be my life, that my doctor could give me hope, but not guarantees. I finally realized what he’d been saying all along—I would be in remission after chemo. He never said I’d be cured.
Linda saw me go white and asked if I was okay; I said I had to pee—any lie to get away from the cheerful comparing of notes. While in the bathroom I stared at the artwork, such as it was. I faced a crayon sketch of an annoyed heron with a partially swallowed frog in its throat, little frog legs and hands grasping the heron’s throat to prevent its being completely swallowed. Underneath were the words “Never Give Up!” How are those words meant to be applied? I wondered, perversely refusing simply to laugh and move on. Was I the frog, fighting for my life, trying not to be swallowed up by cancer-heron? Or was I the heron, determined to get and keep this nasty chemo-frog down? Was I to regard myself as an insignificant amphibian, about to be preyed upon? Or was the heron a symbol for my cancer, determined to make an end of me? I was overthinking the drawing, but there wasn’t much to occupy my fears in that small space.
Another crayon of a lion bore the words I later learned were by visual artist and writer Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” Later, when I found the entire quotation, I regretted the omission of the first line—Some days there aren’t any trumpets, just lots of dragons.
After I returned to my recliner and my current chatty dragons, Linda made the connection between the still ongoing conversation and my face. I could see how hard it was for her—she couldn’t shush them and tell them not to scare the newbie. She pulled the curtain around my chair and gave me a pep talk. She brought me ginger ale. She got me out of there asap and hugged me and reminded me that every body, every cancer is different.
When my friend Ben called in the midst of my post-chemo manic phase that evening, he asked, “What can I do for you? Do you need anything?”
“Nothing tangible,” I said.
“What intangible do you need?” he persisted.
“Courage,” I said, my voice breaking. “I need courage.”
“What did the Cowardly Lion get when he went to see the Wizard of Oz?”.
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, I am opening my hands and sending you courage,” he said.
The Wizard had given the lion a medal, I recalled later that evening. I settled for a medal I had and could find—the Veterans of Foreign Wars medal I’d received for winning a Voice of Democracy writing contest in high school. I blessed my pack rat tendencies and placed the medal, with its royal blue grosgrain ribbon, on the dining room table, so that I could see every time I ate—my own desperately needed talisman of courage.