The building loomed overhead. It cut through a backdrop of blue skies and sunshine like a knife. I looked at the concrete slab of glass and mortar. Its gray, its windows, its floors stacked on top of each other like a layered cake.
This place looked more corporate than medical. Appropriate, I guess, since this building Meant Business. The most important business of all: Life.
People receive news here. Behind these doors. Within these rooms.
Good news. Bad news.
The kind of news that changes your life.
The kind of news that changes the lives of those you love the most.
Adam paused at the stoplight. People strolled the sidewalks, soaking up the warmth and walking their golden retrievers and taking photos on their cell phones.
The world buzzed with busy.
Meanwhile, I stewed in the front seat.
Trees showed signs of their rebirth, exposing green leaves the size of squirrel ears. Exhausted tulips tried their best to pop out of their beds. But they weren’t fooling anyone.
They all frustrated me. But I was mostly mad at the sun. How dare it shine today?
I shifted my eyes from the offensive sky to the building ahead. We were close now.
I exhaled. We really were here. This really was happening.
Why was this happening, again? I silently asked God. Because I don’t have a clue. I attempted to avoid thinking the whole “It’s not fair” phrase, but….this wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair at all.
I tried to list what I was thankful for in my head. That’s what all the self-help books recommend. “Make an attitude of gratitude.”
I was grateful for time. I was grateful for answers. For God. For plans. For this knife of a building and the existence of these doctors and the nurses and the medicine. Really. I don’t know what would happen if they didn’t exist. I…don’t….
My skin prickled again. The anger blazed like glowing charcoal burning to ash.
The selfishness resurfaced. I didn’t want a reason to be here.
I wanted her home. I wanted her healthy.
I wanted couches and P.S. I Love You and Finding Nemo.
Hot raspberry tea in quirky mugs. John Mayer cooing poetic lyrics over twangy guitar solos.
Hobby Lobby shopping trips where we could pick out the farmhouse style of home décor that we both like.
We need to get that metal cow sign. When it goes on sale.
She’s better at finding sales than me. Always offering where she got her scarf or earrings or dress at an offensively low price.
I wanted to go back to four months ago. To her wedding. To dancing.
To her husband Shane crying as she walked down the aisle.
To the S’Mores bar with peanut butter cups and puffy marshmallows.
To flutes of champagne and long, lace burgundy dresses (Was that color called burgundy? Maybe it was burgundy. I can’t remember if she wanted us to call the color burgundy…or maroon…or wine…but I do remember she was adamant about the distinction).
I want to go back to before.
Before the 10 p.m. call on a Tuesday night in March. I was splayed on our couch in the duplex under a blanket in my sweatpants. The finale of “This is Us” had just finished, and my biggest problem was how bummed I was that my new favorite show wouldn’t return until September.
“Are you sitting down?”
“What’s going on?”
“Words words words words they think it's cancer words words words words”
Punch in the gut. Head in hands. Knees to chest.
Now my husband turned right and pulled into the driveway. It led to a round cul-de-sac. You could turn right into the parking garage, but we missed the sign on the first try.
“Do we park there?”
“Yeah, turn here, it says visitors and patient parking only.”
“Crap, I missed it.”
“Well, just go around.”
The black paved pathway led us directly to the front of the building. Gleaming glass doors effortlessly slid open and shut with a sigh. Open. Shut. I glanced to the left of the sliding door. The sign caught my eye. I stared. My stomach churned.
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CANCER CENTER
I sat quiet in the passenger seat, my eyes glued to the golden letters that spelled out this situation out for me. The word “cancer” rolled around in my thoughts like a silver ball inside a pinball machine.
Reality set it then… Just made itself nice and comfy in my heart, my brain, my bones. It clogged my throat, blocking the right words I searched to say. After weeks chewing on news that I could not swallow, the tsunami of shock finally reduced to baby waves lapping against the lining of my stomach.
She was here. So I was here. Because that’s what we do. Her here is my here. That’s how this works.
Friendship can be like marriage. You’re there for each other.
For better or for worse. In sickness and in health.
Before the multiple myeloma diagnosis.
We made it around the cul-de-sac and pulled into the parking garage. At the entrance, a metal machine spit out a yellow paper ticket. Adam placed the paper on the dashboard, then parked the car in the garage underbelly.
We stepped outside. I laced my fingers with his and held my head high as we walked towards the sighing automatic doors. My boots thumped across the cement. A nurse with blue scrubs and a dirty blonde ponytail breezed by us. She looked about my age. She smiled. It helped.
Does she know? I wondered. I stayed quiet, and I could feel my husband glancing at me. Checking in without saying much. A look can do that.
We stepped in front of the glass doors. They opened up too easily, too quickly. They were trying too hard to be welcoming. We went inside anyway, exchanging fresh air for stale hospital oxygen.
The Cancer Center lobby was clean, large, and—strangely— empty. Coves of seating areas were splayed throughout the floor, chairs arranged in squares. A friendly woman with brassy, thick hair and black-rimmed glasses sat behind a large desk. She smiled, too, and I smiled back because sometimes my smile is automatic like that. Like the doors.
We walked around the lobby. I didn’t know what floor we were supposed to meet them, but I was desperate and determined to solve this puzzle myself. After pacing from one end of the room to the other, the receptionist finally had enough.
“Do you need some help?” she asked. Her words were filled with care and concern.
Just then, my phone buzzed with a text. One letter. One number. B1.
“No thanks, we're good,” I answered the receptionist, waving my phone in my hand. “We’ve gotta go to B1.”
“Oh, alright.” She nodded.
Adam and I turned and stared at the elevators. He pressed the button—the up arrow one—and the elevator dinged as the button glowed.
“There we go,” he said. I exhaled as we stepped into the elevator. It was large. Roomy. Which helped, since the air felt thick and pressing around me.
I felt the elevator shift upward with a slight jerk. After a moment, another ding as the doors opened to reveal B1: The Infusion Area at the U of M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Now that I was on the same floor as her, adrenaline pumped through my veins. I turned to the right, Adam behind me, and we walked towards a room with a TV and chairs and people. Faces, strangers and then, there, in the back corner: my eyes fell on dark brown hair in shoulder-length waves. A sweater the color of a robin’s egg. Ivory shirt. Dark blue denim jeans. A chunky necklace with ivory teardrop pearls that dropped below her collarbone.
Kelly looked like she always looked. Beautiful, and friendly, and stylish, and sassy, and kind. There were no signs of the cancerous cells living in her bone marrow. But they were there.
She turned. Glasses and a smile on her face. The youngest person in the room.
My legs carried me in long strides to the corner where Kelly sat with her mom, Kathy, and dad, Kevin. We all smiled at each other in the same way: relieved to be together, but wishing the reunion wasn’t here in this waiting room.
Kathy squeezed me tight and whispered in my ear, “Hi, sweetie.” I turned to Kelly’s dad. He radiated calm, cool and collected as always, despite the fact that this waiting room, this cancer center, held his own ghosts from his leukemia diagnosis back when were in college. Warriors in their own right, Kelly’s parents looked both strong and weary in a way only reserved for parents who have a sick daughter or son.
Kelly’s husband Shane was working that day because bills don’t stop even when our world has. But his heart and mind are always with his wife, evident in the immediate text messages and calls he sends during the rare instances he’s not by her side.
I turned to Kelly. My arms wrapped around her in a tight hug. She felt small and skinny and fragile, like a baby bird.
“How ya doin’?” I whispered in her ear.
“Okay,” she said, her voice cracking. My arms tightened around her tiny frame.
“I like your haircut.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. She texted me about the new hairstyle earlier that week. Shelby had cut it into more of a shoulder-length bob “to transition to when I lose my hair this summer,” Kelly had explained. “We were talking about you when I got it cut. It looks like yours.”
“Yeah, but you can do those cute waves. Yours is much cuter.”
Kelly stepped back from our embrace. I noticed her movements were slower. Less sure. But she had a smile on her face, and I felt relieved to be here by her side. Adam sat across from me, stoic and loving and supportive. I glanced at him with grateful eyes.
We talked about the traffic. As country bumpkins familiar with back roads and country lanes, the vehicles that littered the lanes to Ann Arbor were intimidating and annoying to all of us.
“A lady was yelling at me when we were going through the roundabouts in Brighton,” Kelly told me. “So I flipped her off.”
“Of course you did,” I laughed.
“And I smiled when I did it.” Her mouth stretched into a grin.
Kelly took a sip of ginger ale from an emerald Vernors can. Several more cans sat on a side table next to her.
“It’s the only thing that helps my stomach,” she nodded towards the cans. “And I need to drink liquids to make it easier for them to take my blood.”
“We had to pee so bad on the way here!” her mom exclaimed. “Every bumpy road we hit nearly hurt.”
“I tried to avoid them,” Kelly’s dad smiled as he spoke in his soft, steady voice. “But every time I hit one, I was like, ‘Oh no’.”
“Oh my God, it was the worst!” Kelly added. Our laughter bounced around the waiting room, feeling out of place but welcomed at the same time.
I glanced at the cans. “Do you get them for free? Like from the hospital?”
“Heck yeah, I do.”
“Geez, you remind me of Mr. Welzein,” I chuckled. Our former high school Algebra teacher slash Varsity football coach loved Vernors. The only one I knew who really did. He loomed over us with his beard and glasses and stood at nearly seven-feet tall. But he never intimidated Kelly, even back then. Nothing seemed to intimidate Kelly.
The mention of Mr. Welzein launched Kelly’s mom into a classic Kelly story: “Do you remember when this one”—she nodded towards her daughter—“put condoms in his cart?”
“What, no?” I gasped. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“Yes, she put condoms in his cart! When you girls were in high school!” A smile danced around her eyes.
Kelly smirked. “He was in front of me in line at Frank’s” –our hometown grocery store—“and I grabbed a box of condoms and threw them in his cart when he wasn’t looking, then I said, ‘Big plans this weekend?’ He just shook his head and laughed.”
A nurse paused in front of our corner of chairs. We silenced. She double-checked Kelly’s name on a clipboard, then gave her a piece of paper covered in numbers from front to back.
“Here are your counts,” the nurse said.
“Thank you,” Kelly replied in a sweet voice as she took the paper. She stayed serene, but I could see her eager eyes scanning the paper that reduced one of my best friends to black and white numbers.
She is more than numbers. That sheet tells nothing about her tendency to snort when she laughs, or the fact that she’s a great driver, or the time we dressed up as Wayne and Garth for Halloween. It doesn’t talk about her ability to love with her entire heart, or her skillful ways with words, and people, and kids.
But the numbers tell a lot about the cancer that lives inside Kelly. Red blood cell count. White blood cell count. Hemoglobin. Every time Kelly gets chemotherapy--twice a week-- the cancer center checks her vitals, then prints out a report of her counts to ensure she is healthy enough to get chemotherapy that day. The chemo kills the cancer cells. We need the cancer cells to die so the healthy cells can live.
So yeah…the numbers are important.
“It’s an aggressive form of cancer,” Kelly told her lap. “And they just can’t seem to find a cure.”
Kelly’s dad stood up and took the counts report from Kelly after she took in the information.
“My white blood cell count is crap,” she reported.
Kevin poised his glasses over his nose, peering at the paper for a long time. He looked like he was examining a report card. Maybe he was. He understands what his daughter is going through in a much different way than the rest of us. He’s been through this, too. He’s walked this walk. He’s fought this fight. Now he is a trailblazer as his daughter has a fight of her own.
“He told me he understands now why he had leukemia,” Kelly told me a few days after she received her own diagnosis. “So he can help me through mine. He said he is almost glad he had cancer, because he doesn’t know how he’d get through this if he hadn’t.”
Kelly turned to me now. “Do you want to go with me to get my treatment?”
“Yes,” I automatically answered.
A strange feeling tugged at my stomach. I was about to go watch Kelly—more sister than friend—get chemotherapy. I repeated the word in my head.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy.
I glanced around the room at the other patients and people spending their sunny Saturday in a hospital cancer center. Most were older, their faces blanketed in wrinkles. Some sat in wheelchairs. Others covered their heads in silky scarves.
“All of my scarves will come in handy now,” Kelly joked. “When I lose my hair.”
“Yeah,” I added. “You’ll be the grandest tiger in the jungle.”
“She has a problem with scarves,” Kelly’s mom joined in. “Even Shane says so.”
“So true,” I laughed as I turned to Kelly. “You have so many. Too many.”
“Whatever,” Kelly smirked. “They’ll come in handy now. I just saw a really cute one the other day.”
An image of Kelly flashed in my mind. Brown locks gone, replaced with a shiny head and a patterned scarf wrapped around it. A visual sign of the intense chemotherapy she will get this summer in preparation for her bone marrow transplant.
A nurse named Zack called Kelly’s name once again. She stood up slowly. I stood up, too. Together, we walked down the hall towards the room where one of my best friends would get injected with the poison that would hopefully lead to the healing.
I sat across from her in a room shaped like a half circle. A wall of windows opened to blue sky above and paved parking lot below. Everything was beige in this room: the leather recliner chairs. The walls. The curtains hanging on metal rods to separate each of these chemo stations. I read the fluffy, encouraging sentiments printed on the fabric: “Peace. Nurture your strength. Trust your journey.”
We followed the nurse around the half-moon of chairs, passing people with IVs running through their veins. Every person had their person –a wife or husband or family member or someone—sitting in the seat across from them. Some were reading. Others were on tablets or iPads. The vibe was more airport waiting area than cancer/chemotherapy/infusion.
The nurse gestured towards a beige chair. Kelly sat down in the recliner. I looked at the empty seat across from her—the place where the person’s person sits—and lowered myself into the chair, formerly taking on the role I was here to fill.
From that seat, I watched as a youngish nurse with dark blue scrubs and four silver earrings lining each ear hustled over to Kelly. Her name badge said ANNE. She wore dark black loafers that looked like they were made of Styrofoam.
“What’s your birthday?” she asked. Her voice was kind and nonchalant. Like she had done this a million times.
Kelly rattled off her birthday. Like she had done this a million times.
30 years old, I thought for the millionth time since her diagnosis. She’s only 30 years old.
“Can I see your wrist?” Nurse Anne asked.
Kelly handed over her wrist to the nurse, who scanned the bar code bracelet as if Kelly was a piece of produce at the grocery store.
After confirming Kelly was Kelly, the nurse motioned for her to lift her shirt.
“I know this stuff is intense when it’s in,” Nurse Anne empathized as she held the needle that held the chemo.
Kelly lifted and unbuttoned, revealing a line of small purple bruises from the previous chemo shots. A blank outline of her first tattoo that she got in high school (the Chinese symbol for love) peeked out below the bruises.
Nurse Anne squeezed a piece of flesh below Kelly’s belly button to pool the blood. She poised the needle above the skin. I stared at Kelly’s face as the chemo went in.
Kelly winced, but just for a second. No words. No complaints. When it was over, she slowly stood up, and so did I.
“Thank you, Anne,” Kelly smiled. “It didn’t hurt so much this time, so I thank you so much for that.”
“Let’s go home,” I said to her as we walked out the same way we came in.
There was no way to deny this situation anymore. The phone call in March had happened. The diagnosis had happened. The drive to Ann Arbor had happened. This was real. Despite the fact that I wanted to deny, I wanted to go back, I wanted to imagine this was all a bad dream…this was life. And avoiding the truth is not an effective way to overcome a hurdle.
You must face it head on.