Valerie Schultz

Kathleen and I make all the arrangements mothers have to make to spend a day away from their childrenbefore-school care, after-school care, instructions and emergency information. Everything is in order for us to be gone from early morning to late afternoon. We have 100 miles to go each way. She insists we take her car. I insist that I drive home. We plan where to have lunch. It would be good clean fun if our destination were different. We are going for Kathleen’s second chemotherapy treatment.

Kathleen treats it like an adventure. Her husband brought her to the first session three weeks ago, of which she was understandably frightened. Maybe her life hadn’t been the same since the biopsy came back, but it was really all going to change with the first drip of chemotherapy drugs into her body. In the three weeks since, she has been tired and has literally pulled out her hair by the handfuls. But she is relaxed todayat least she knows today what she faces. Today is what she deals with today.

Kathleen is such an outgoing soul that she already knows the nurses by first name and has brought a gift for a fellow patient. She has lent a bubbling tabletop fountain to add calm and balance to the plant-filled chemotherapy center. She has baked a cake for the staff. When complimented on her positive attitude, she looks puzzled. I don’t know how you could be any other way, she says.

I do. Were I in Kathleen’s position, I have a feeling I would barely speak to the staff or other patients. I would remain as anonymous as possible. I would appear to be in quiet denial, but I would rage on the inside about the unfairness of my plight. I’d have a definite attitude problem. I’d have a huge case of Why me?

But Kathleen, who lost her mother to breast cancer and has seen her sister go through this same treatment, is philosophical. She has known all her adult life that her genes might betray her. She is glad her breasts stayed healthy long enough to perform their function, which was to nurse two sons into sturdy young men.

Well, very young men. Still in grade school, her older son has shaved his head to show solidarity with his balding mother. Her younger son has written a prayer for people with cancer and other troubles. They are coping just as well as she has taught them to do. She has told me that when she thinks of them, she feels sure that God is not through with her on this earth yet. Her faith takes my breath away. Again I have a fleeting image of how short I would come up compared with her in the faith department.

Kathleen casually shows me, in the waiting room, the special cancer magazines and the hat catalogue. The catalogue purports to support the victims of cancer in their special needs, and then charges an exorbitant price for a baseball hat. She has ordered several. She is planning a party at her house in a few weeks, at which everyone will be required to wear a hat, the more interesting the better. Her concern is that my husband and I, vegetarians, will have enough to eat at the hat party. My concern, that she not overdo things, gets waved away. It’s a potluck, she says, as though the house will magically clean itself and set out plates and cups and greet her many friends. I’ve had potlucks. They involve some serious work.

After greetings and gifts and updates and cakes, Kathleen settles herself for the several hours of chemotherapy. Three bags will drip their mysterious and wondrous contents into her chest through her porta-cath, a thing previously inserted under her skin below her collarbone of whose painful presence I have just now learned. The fluids in the bags are clear, then bright orange, then clear again. It looks more orange than last time, Kathleen observes nervously, first to two nurses, then to the doctor. They each assure her the dosage and mixture are the same, are exactly as they should be. (She will worry all the way home, especially when she begins to feel nauseous, which she didn’t the time before. I knew it was too orange, she’ll say.)

The chemicals, which wreak such havoc on her immune system and hair and general health, are, strangely enough, her ticket back to health. She tolerates all manner of indignity as a result of the drugs in order to obtain their greater good. (My pubic hair was the first to go, she told my husband last week, who protested that this was way more information than he needed.) After all this, the travel and the chemo and the overall disarray of her life, will come daily radiation. And then perhaps surgerymastectomies and reconstructed breasts.

Kathleen is wise to focus only on the present. The rest of us can worry about her future. Right now, she has just one more bag to go. She has a hat party to plan. We talk about kids and the rainy weather. We say a rosary, feeling a bit smug that we are in a Catholic hospital, after all. The doctor and nurses ask Kathleen all manner of questions about her life in the past three weeks. And then the treatment is finished.

We buy lunch in the hospital cafeteria rather than brave the pounding rain to search for another, more appetizing place. We bring the food into the car. It is, surprisingly, not bad. We concentrate on eating. We are running late. The rain is reaching Noah proportions on the freeway, and I know Kathleen thinks I am driving too slowly, even though she is too polite to say so. She is anxious to get home to her sons, and I drive as fast as the traffic allows. We chat a bit and then drive many miles in companionable silence.

I am moved by the day we have spent together, by the center itself and the patients and the dedicated staff, by how cancer defines their daily lives and yet does not rule them. I feel as though Kathleen has joined another religion, or taken on a new citizenship, among the people and culture of cancer. It is a difference she will always carry, even after she returns to the land of those of us non-sufferers who take our good health for granted. The fact that she has suffered, and that she is so sensitive to the suffering of others in her position, makes me almost shy around her for a moment, as though I do not know her, or as though she were a visiting celebrity.

The moment passes as we arrive home. Kathleen’s boys are waiting safely. I tell her to rest. I tell her it was not too orange. Friends have brought dinner. I get to return to my so-far cancer-free life, to my healthy children and healthy husband, feeling inordinately and undeservedly blessed. I know I have been well taught today in the marvelous ways of God’s grace.

Valerie Schultz, who lives in Tehachapi, Calif., is an occasional contributor to America.

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