Several Thursdays ago, I flew to Washington to see my sister Rachel. She and our Aunt Beth met me at the airport; we traded updates on friends, cousins and great-aunts, shared noodles over lunch at a Vietnamese place, then shopped in a cute, quirky gift shop that carries assemble-yourself paper robots and sandwich-shaped lunch tins (and those are just the things I bought!). It was a great kickoff to my four-day visit, which we went on to spend mostly on cherry blossoms, good food and late-night movies on demand.
But first, an afternoon appointment at Georgetown University Hospital.
For chemotherapy orientation.
It was March, Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Or in my case this year, your 26-year-old sister has stage three colon cancer awareness month.
I spent most of it – and much of the time since – in a place near disbelief, asking myself over and over, Did that really just happen? It’s what I wondered when I called her on a Monday after work and she answered from the hospital; when my mother, on the phone with a doctor 1200 miles away, held her hand over the receiver and repeated his best guess; when the diagnosis confirmed it; when, on that Thursday two weeks later, we sat in a small waiting room and read along as a nurse led us through a booklet entitled “Chemotherapy and You.”
Yes, it really did.
I went into Rachel’s chemotherapy orientation intending to hold onto my sense of humor, which is what I use to medicate most difficult situations. We’d both been doing our best to apply sarcasm, buoyancy, fact, distraction and normalcy in just the right doses, but I think I ended up somewhere between acceptance, confidence, and the desperate, frenzied enthusiasm that engulfed our new student orientation in college, which culminated with a theatrical anti-drug interpretive dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (That also really happened.)
At the hospital complex, we deposited the car in a cold maze of a parking garage and made our way to a very small waiting room, whose only other visitor was a very old, very drowsy person who may or may not have intended to be an orientation attendee. Before the oncology nurse got started, we heard from a woman who led a hospital arts program which, though well-meaning and probably wonderful, sounded depressingly like a community service project and was distinctly incongruent with my sister’s age and interests in a way that institutionalized her illness and distressed us. Being invited to imagine Rachel, sitting in the chemo chair and asking to work with a bead artist, brought us to tears. We were actually eager for the transition to infusions and side effects, to flip through our introduction to chemotherapy and her.
What also really happened: Family and friends rallied, lining up to visit her in the hospital and sending fabulous gifts. She recovered from a big surgery with remarkable speed, ready less than two weeks later to drive around the city and walk around the Tidal Basin in the wind and the cold. On my last day in D.C., I went with her to work on her first day back at the office. When we said our goodbyes in the lobby of her building, under the brusque supervision of stern security guards, my sister was the one assuring me she’d be fine. Heading on to the airport after was easily the hardest part of the trip, which was otherwise just good and fun.
Sure, we spent some time with the booklet, cancer.gov, her pathology report and postponed wedding plans. But we spent more playing word games, drinking milkshakes, watching movies and the NCAA tournament, and buttoning up against the chill to admire the pink and white and green promise of early spring.
My memories of the visit are not full of worry and illness but of triumphant underdogs and pretty flowers, and they’ve buoyed me through a spring that would otherwise have felt weighed down by my powerlessness. As the world shook and swirled and swelled around us, and my toddler learned the word “tsunami” and the face of Qaddafi, we walked along with an ordinary, everyday sort of hope – not the brittle hopefulness of fear disguised, but the simple hope that exists in having expectations and making plans.