At the age of nineteen I received my very own oncologist.
The pretty story I like to tell people goes something like this: My freshman year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was stressful and I returned home to take a few summer classes at Moorpark Community College to figure out next steps.
But the truth erases all possibility of blowing back to the Windy City (don’t tell my dad, please) because there was an abusive relationship, and co-dependecy galore, and stress, and weather, and both a Green Peace solicitor and an H&M on every corner. Lots of ands.
“Dude, look at this lump.” I yelled down the hall to my best friend Sarah, whose house I was crashing until I felt a little less disheveled. A large mass just above my left collarbone pillowed up almost overnight.
In a few days I would have a yearly physical with our family doctor, I’ll ask about it then.
Blood pressure—low, as always, Thanks God. Weight and BMI—high, as always, Thanks God. And butter. I’m walking out the exam room door, I don’t want to ask about the lump because deep down I know what masses mean.
“Hey, I totally forgot, could you take a look at this thing on my neck?” I point to the tumor Sarah later named Timmy. His eyes widen with each step toward my awkward, fearful, limitless teenage body.
“Claire, we need to get you an X-ray tonight.”
Why? I didn’t break anything. I know that tone, I used to hear it in UCLA exam rooms all the time. Cancer couldn’t be in my cards, too. Could it?
“With your family history, we need to get the ball rolling.”
My appointment was his last one of the day & it lasted longer than expected, the lights in the long hallway flickered off as I raced out the door. Fifteen minutes until my appointment at the imaging place off Hampden Ave. Late August in the Santa Monica mountains is brown and I remember how cripsy it all looked speeding past my window. French fries pressed into the soil, sea salt and sage wafting through the open windows and wrecking my hair.
This can’t be happening…I want to go home, wherever that is…
CT scan. Check.
PET CT scan. Check.
August 28th, 2007. “You have Stage III Hodgkins Lymphoma…Great odds…twelve rounds of chemo…not a GBM…” All his words sat scrambled in a cold pan inside my brain bits. Nothing registered, nothing moved, nothing bubbled or browned or became digestible.
“Will I lose my hair?”
“Duh!” Jk. He didn’t say that.
“Yes.” He nodded.
I remember reaching for the tissues at this point.
“Most people lose everything with this type of chemotherapy.”
You ask most any Millennial woman what part of her face she values and protects like a new iPhone and she will reply: eyebrows. It was this thought, the one of my eyebrows jumping ship, that brought the tissues to my inner eyes, where they dabbed away at the pride and vanity my quest for Kardashian brows fueled. Why God?
Within a week I had a port-a-cath installed in the lining of my chest. Do you know how much attention nineteen-year-olds with chemo ports receive? ‘Bout time, bitches! Now fetch me that remote, and a Fresca. Grab an oxy, too, will you?
Timmy swept in like a croissant in shining armor (he must’ve known my plans), because now I could blame the C-word instead of the boy and the snow for my permanent Midwestern exodus. Thanks, God.
Young, punk-ass baldies wearing space-age black Chanels, rolling in hot, blaring Timbaland and Justin Timberlake out the open windows of Honda Elements are a few things older people hobbling with helpers to the curb of their infusion center DO NOT appreciate. Just a heads up.
And to be fair, I never actually lost all my hair the first time I had cancer, which made Sarah’s dad laugh.
Because months earlier she and I sat in the bathroom we shared and laugh-cried as she buzzed away all my chestnut glory, forty years too soon. When middle age, or older age people complain about cancer, hair loss, their fears of dying, I struggle to find the grace and kindness one would expect to conjure up.
Did they tell you at age nineteen you could lose your fertility? What about college? Could you attend college uninterrupted instead of partaking of chemical poison? You lost your hair, at the age of sixty-five? How do you think it feels as a teenage girl, in Southern California!? Cry me a… I mean—I know. It sucks, and I am sorry. Hug.
Ellen’s faith in a Goodhardgood God never wavered, no wind or needle was strong enough to bend her Joy or break her smile for long, so I knew combating cancer with a deep, immutable peace could happen.
Raise your hand if you have a “life verse.” If you’re a recovering Evangelical like I am, then you have it tattooed on your inner wrist or your heart. Since the fifth grade Romans 8.28 alone has helped quiet the terror of my alone moments. “…That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of Love for God is worked into something good.” Good.
The Red Devil. That’s what they call Doxorubicin, a chemotherapy drug that nurses administer with great care, lest it melt their skin off.
“So if this touches flesh it will burn right through?” I asked.
“Yes,” Patti nodded, wearing her white, sealed, sanitary tent.
“Good to know.” I sunk down into the oxblood leather chair and imagined what the molten insides of my forearms and abdomen looked like. Daddy, not caring so much about Chicago anymore, sat across from me, watching his a second daughter receive chemotherapy.
I don’t know if he’s said it out loud yet, so I will for him: Fuck you, God.
The Red Devil looks exactly like red Gatorade, and makes one’s piss reek for days. Today, when whiffs bounce around the back seats of my car after soccer practice I’m unsure whether to verbally abuse the child drinking it, curl up into a ball on the side of the road, or breathe deeply.
Romans 8.28. I remember this.
Scribbling down the date on my journal page after that long day—the one where I learned of my eyebrow’s fate— I remember: All things work for Good.