I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of an On Route halfway between Windsor and London, eating a cup of Greek yogurt with a plastic knife. It did occur to me, as I scrambled to leave home in time to get to my 12:40 appointment, that I’d need something to eat. It did not occur to me that woman does not live on PB&J alone. So, the yogurt, an orange, a Babybel two-pack scrounged from the gluten-free offerings of the convenience store: 300 calories for $8. Halfway there, half-prepared. A plastic knife is surprisingly sharp, but a better utensil than the foil top I tried to fold–in half–& use as a spoon, and it’s all that’s left in the glovebox’s half-empty takeout packets: a couple of cellophane bags spilling paper envelopes of pepper. It’s more than halfway to spring, but it’s also about 20 below, the 401 salted pale and lined with knee-high curbs of grungy February snow.
This might be a metaphor.
I never realize until I’m driving home from Victoria Hospital, home of the London Regional Cancer Program, how much I dread the appointments. It’s not my usual appointment-dread, incited by the anxiety of the perpetually-early, the creatures of routine habit. Until a few years ago, an appointment was a rare event: the ophthalmologist every two years, the dentist every nine month, massage whenever I remembered I still had benefits to use up. The simple mechanics of getting there–what’s the street number, the office number, where do I park, do I need change for the meter–generally occupied my attention. The worst thing that could happen: I’d be late. The horror.
But then I got cancer. (More accurately: then the cancer I had for years was diagnosed.) Then I was treated for cancer–a month of radiation therapy and the tumour surgically excised from my left leg. Now I have been NEC for almost three and a half years. Now I know without my usual appointment-time calculations that I need to leave three hours before my follow-up: two for the drive to London, thirty minutes for milling about at rest stops, thirty minutes for the x-ray checking for metastasis in my lungs. Between “deep breath, hold it” from the x-ray tech and my oncologist, a tall, silver-haired surgeon whose stature and baritone voice are the essence of confidence, saying, “X-rays are clean,” maybe twenty minutes elapse.
I suspected an all-clear already, because I haven’t felt any changes in my breathing, because I passed through the 50%-chance-of-remission window a year ago, because I feel great. But mostly because when I get back from radiology I take a seat outside the open door of Clinic 3, through which the lightbox is visible, and watch as film after film is clipped up and examined by Dr. Ferguson and his residents. In the series of images of limbs and torsos, the bright edges of bones and bulb-like epiphyses, the lungs are black hollows through which the ribs run in familiar parallels. A tumour would ghost like a cloud, irregular, floating discrete or spidering like a galaxy from a central star. There’s no reason for me to imagine I could spot an irregularity on an x-ray even if I weren’t sitting thirty feet away, and no reason to imagine any of those skeletal portraits is of me; for all I know, they don’t get my films until I’ve been called back to the exam room. But what else would I do while I wait?
The exam itself takes ten minutes. Any pain, new meds, new lumps or bumps? Sometimes a survey to fill out for the sarcoma study. Quick exchange with the doctor, then see you in six months. By now I know the path out of the labyrinth of examination rooms out to the airy lobby and the crowds of patients, new and old, waiting. Pay for parking, then out into Friday traffic, west on Commissioners. Though after each image the x-ray tech says, “Okay, you can breathe normally,” I don’t really start again until I’m on the ramp to Highbury, the short stretch of expressway that takes me back to the 401. Two hours West and I’m home.
I recently got a new family doctor, and was late to my first appointment. I was working on a poem and lost track of time, then missed the driveway to the medical complex. I didn’t know I had to pay for parking and didn’t have a cent on me, so I wasted another five minutes looking for a spot on the street. When I finally found the office, the waiting room was full; it’s safe to say that no one noticed I was late.
There’s before, and there’s after, past and future. I am trying to live more in between. For one, I’m trying to stop being so precious about this space, to keep starting sentences without knowing where they end. Illness ought to teach you the value of the present; it works that way on TV, at least. For the most part, for me, that’s been true. I am abruptly a runner, something I have not been since suffering through cross-country in high school, an endeavour I never much enjoyed but at which I persisted for the sake of conditioning ahead of the basketball season. But I knew that spending so much time on the bike was no longer strengthening my leg; instead, it was creating a very noticeable imbalance between right and left. So one day in December I sucked up all my apprehension and went for a run. A few minutes in, I realized: I’m running. I’m missing a piece of quad, hamstring, and glute–but I can still run. Writing, though, is different. The thing that’s kept me guarding my words for so long has little to do with being sick, though of course that didn’t help.
So here I am, holding it up to the light. Looking. Trying to breathe.