It had been 17 years since they had last encountered each other. From the very beginning, it was a volatile relationship. They did not bring out the best in each other. Her hope was that their association might terminate forever, but that was not to be.
My aunt knew it before the doctors did. When she told them that her Cancer had returned, they seemed taken aback. She felt as if her right breast was trying to tell her something. At first, she tried to ignore the constant feeling of something pulling inside her, but it became too hard to ignore.
She closed her eyes as the doctor spoke and all those words that she hoped she might never hear again came surging back into her mind: sonogram, tumor, biopsy. It was malignant, stage 1, but, once again, something deep inside her told her to have a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy. As it turned out, this eradicated a string of Cancer cells that were lurking behind the scenes. The doctor praised her for being proactive; she had not only found her Cancer, she had also saved her own life.
When you are ill, you can let yourself wallow in a bubble of get well cards, doctor visits and the awkward smiles of visitors who fumble for the right thing to say, but my aunt decided that she would, instead, gather herself up in her faith and not be afraid.
For the next 28 days at 3:30 p.m. each afternoon she would travel to the hospital for radiation therapy. The 10 minutes went by quickly and she mastered the drill: gown on, lie down, eyes closed, head left, angles set, lights on, panel activated, imagine the high doses of energy killing off the tumor cells as if it were a video game, get up, get dressed, repeat.
On day 29, she woke up and decided that she needed to do something special for the wonderful staff that had helped her through her ordeal. She had expected a more clinical atmosphere and not the daily welcome hugs, the smiles and the small talk that came with her 10 minutes a day. How many times did they repeat this patient scenario in the course of a day?
She didn’t care if her family thought she was going overboard, a box of candy or a tin of cookies wouldn’t do; she would cater a lunch for the entire staff. To this day, she does not know why she bypassed the restaurant she intended to enter and walked into another one down the street instead. The manager had to be called when she noted that, instead of paying with a credit card, she intended to pay cash when she returned to pick up the lunch order for 15 later that day.
Usually not considered outspoken, her arduous journey thus far had toughened her up a bit and she vowed not to leave without placing her order, credit card or not. She gave the manager the short story of her last 28 days and noticed his demeanor change immediately. In a soft voice, this big man, who seemed a bit stern around the edges just a minute ago, shared his story. As the words poured out of him as to how his wife had died of breast cancer, they embraced. Then, he looked into my aunt’s eyes soulfully and said “…You must promise me that you will not refuse what I am going to do right now…”
They argued for a few minutes, she stating that as a business man, he needed to be more practical, he affirming that it was his pleasure to pay for the entire lunch order. In the end, he won. She thanked him a hundred times and gave him two more hugs and kisses. He sat in the back room for a while after she had gone, trying to regain his composure from what had not been a typical morning.
The 28 days were a blur to her and, for now, she forgot about everything she had been through. The staff was overwhelmed by her generosity and together they enjoyed the lunch and the camaraderie.
Little by little, constant talk of her health gave way to the normalcy of life. What’s for dinner? What are the grandchildren up to? She relished those ordinary parts of life that now seemed so important and meaningful.
The bone chilling numbness felt when surprised by an unwelcome twist of fate, the warmth of a guardian angel’s guidance, the bright glow of kindness; from time to time, she would think about how a devastating diagnosis could bring about such a beautiful ending.