YOU MIGHT KNOW HOW it can go. You ask the doctor to take a look at a weird bump somewhere on your body. She says, “It seems harmless, but let’s make sure. I’d like to take it off.”
The radar in your gut jolts on. “A biopsy?”
“I always send anything I remove for a biopsy,” she says. “I’m sure this is fine, but the biopsy will tell us for sure. We’ll let you know on Friday.”
Two days pass. They might as well be centuries. You grew up in a home in which your mother’s potential suicide lurked in every corner. You’ve never believed in a nice god who “…never gives you more than you can handle.”
On Friday, an innocent communication snafu occurs. You learn before you are told the biopsy results that you have been scheduled for further biopsy surgery. You are a writer and a story-teller and a terrified little girl. The stories you tell yourself are anything but fine. The gut-radar flashes wildly — or whatever it is that it does. You force yourself to sit down. You don’t break through the screen door and run frantically around the trailer till night falls.
The doctor finally calls. “I am so sorry for the phone call mistake. It must have scared you.”
“Thanks, but never mind that, what are the biopsy results?”
“You have squamous cell skin cancer,” she says. “It’s the second most common cancer. They don’t move — and if they do, they move slowly. This isn’t cause for alarm.” You can feel it. The fucking skin cancer is creeping slowly, but steadily up your leg. You know where it is headed. It wears a little Go-Pro and it is headed for your brain. You are sure that its triumphant video will be up on Youtube in minutes.
“There is no need to be scared,” the doc says. “I scheduled the further surgery because I didn’t cut out enough. The skin specialist is great. You’ll love him.” You thank her, break through the screen door and run laps around the trailer.
You meet with the skin doc on Monday. He is great. There is no pain. He says, “I’m 99% certain I got all of it.” He shows you a pink, red and yellow blob floating in a jar. “If I’m wrong, I’ll give you a day’s receipts.” That is the second most comforting thing he says. The first is, “You’re going to feel jittery till the results are back on Friday.” You don’t have to be brave. You don’t have to hate yourself when you panic.
You leave the office. You don’t leave alone. One of your best friends has come with you and stood by you while the doc cut out the cancer. She is one of the few people you called when you got the diagnosis. You didn’t want the local town criers spreading the word. You didn’t want the news metastasizing into a tragedy. You called her and your best guy pal, a few of your students/friends and a long-distance soul sister, a woman who has gone through three cancer surgeries, lives with stage 4 cancer in remission and teaches you how to be in your life with the necrotic fear of death.
You use every trick you’ve ever learned to not just make it through, but stay a little comfortable through the long long days between Monday and Friday. You tell yourself every Keep It Simple slogan you’ve seen in 28 years in Twelve-Step Rooms. You remember that for months before the bump appeared, you had been chatting with That Which You Are Not Even Sure Exists. “Help me come back into my real life,” you had said. “Help me get off the Internet and into the real world.”
You write. Not about the cancer, but you work with your new short story collection and remember when you wrote each one. You remember the pain that fueled many of them — and the crazy joy. Finally, you open your notebook and write: 5/9: I’m writing here in front of the laundromat while the wash dries. It’s 8:46 p.m. on a day in which I’ve had a chunk of me cut out of my leg — me and not me. No way I’ll let the cancer be me. The cheerful doctor said, “I’m 99% sure I got all of it. If I didn’t, I’ll give you a day’s receipts from my practice.” You check your watch, close your notebook and go to retrieve the wash. You remember the other thing the doc said, You’re going to feel jittery till you hear the results. You open the dryer door. “No shit, doc,” you think and pull a warm shirt into your laundry basket.
The next afternoon you begin to realize that you feel more alive than you have in years. Walking on the old dirt road is no longer just exercise; it is glorious. The sunset gold on the tops of the dark pines is more beautiful than any digitized light. The trails up into the trees that you have walked a few thousand times are sweetly familiar and achingly new. You feel each footstep on the soft earth, each breath moving through you. Time has slowed down.
Yes, you can barely eat, but that is hardly fatal. Yes, there are moments when you face into all the ways in your life you have ducked and dodged reality. Yes, you feel like a punk for being so scared — and then you remember the magic word, “jittery.”
The day before you will learn the biopsy results, you crouch over a purple lupine in the dusty pine needles. You are thanking the flower when you realize that TWYANESE has listened and it has answered your prayer. Whatever lies ahead, lies ahead. You are not alone. You carry ways to not just survive, but celebrate. You hope you never forget what you have learned.
The nurse calls on Friday. You have been sitting on the front porch telling your brain that it’s okay to jitter. “It’s Lisa,” she says. “You know. Lisa from the Dermatology Clinic. You’re fine. He got all the cancer. We’ll see you in a week or so to get the stitches out.” You babble a little and thank her.
The sweet relief that floods through you and transforms everything within and outside you is a high lifetimes beyond any of the ways you have used to duck and dodge reality. All you want to do is call the friends who have carried you through the last weeks. All you want to do is share the joy.