I’m sitting on a stool by the table very close to her right shoulder, gently manipulating the still-fresh 1-inch scar over her port. It is silent in the room except for the low tinkling of Bill Evans from the speaker behind me and the quiet wooshing of the central air. A deep intake of air and my hands lift with her rib cage, riding the rolling surf of her breathing.
She opens her eyes and stares at me intently for a moment before she says, almost (but not quite) casually, “Can I ask you a loaded question?”
I keep my focus on the delicate work under my fingers. I keep my shoulders relaxed. I do not hold my breath. I cultivate my tone carefully – neutral-curious, “Of course.”
She doesn’t need to say it out loud. I know what she’s going to ask.
“If it was you…if you were me…or if you were you and you were in my position…what would you do?”
Her left breast was removed 8 weeks ago. An expander was been placed under her pectoral muscle to create space for the implant she will get when she has reconstructive surgery many months from now. The port pinches. It is uncomfortable and her shoulder is sore all the time because of it. She is halfway through her chemotherapy regimen. The side effects have hit her hard and fast. She has lost her hair. She feels sick, weak and fatigued. The steroids she received with the first round made her “a crazy person.” She knows the side effects of the chemotherapy will get worse. Beyond chemo lies a month of daily radiation treatments.
She wants to quit chemo. And she doesn’t want to quit chemo.
She wants to do what the doctor and her family and her friends tell her to do and she wants to rebel against the whole system.
She is frightened and angry and a million other things I cannot even begin to imagine. And she wants me to tell her that there’s an answer.
I have been asked this question so many times.
My heart never hurts any less than it did the first time. I never stop wishing that I did, in fact, have an answer. And I always say the same thing I did the very first time. And I always feel like I’m coming up short, like I’m letting people down.
I don’t know.
Some days I think I might know, but on those days I’m kidding myself. So far I have been lucky to sit on the shore of healthy. I have not been forced to wade into the ocean of illness. I have not been made to discover if I will sink or swim, how long I can tread those dark waters or kick against the undertow.
What would I do? I have puzzled this murky koan for years and my hands are still empty, my mind is still confused, my heart still aches. I have no answer. I have no advice to shout from the beach and even if I were up to my neck right alongside this woman and all the countless other who have asked me, the one thing I do know is that I still wouldn’t know.
“I have no idea.” A failed oracle, once again, I say, “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I cannot even begin to imagine.”
She is quiet for a moment. Then she takes another deep breath.
“Thank you,” she says. “Everyone else I ask seems like they know. I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know…”
I let my hands lay still, one over the port, one on her shoulder. “No. You’re not the only one.”