When you’re undergoing chemo treatment for cancer, here’s the one thing they’ll never tell you, here’s the thing they will never say: You will never be the same person as you were at the beginning.
You probably won’t believe me if you’re only on month one or two. You might even think to yourself: Why, this isn’t so bad. This isn’t something so difficult, so insurmountable. I’m coasting along and I’m feeling well, not perfect, but well enough. Sure, I’ve had butterflies in my chest and I can think only the simplest thoughts and I can’t stay out late nor can I have a conversation without feeling scattered, like a leaf drifting in a muted forest while the denuded trunks sway and creak in their language which once was mine.
I am fine.
It’s when you reach month three that you realize the full nature of the process, that it is relentless, that you have a feeling throughout your abdomen, a kind of dull hardness You have been impregnated with your own death.
And no, you do not show up to the hospital smiling anymore, and no, you do not ask the names of all the nurses and doctors’ assistants, and no, you do not act like this is all a lark for the benefit of other people who know you, who want to see you as “brave,” as a “champion.” You ask for your own chemo room. You wear your sunglasses. The hair of your wig lies about your face in patches and is mussed on top. The chemo nurse smiles like she wants you to smile back at her. You were never that popular in high school, but you knew what that kind of smile from a certain kind of classmate might mean, what it was intended to obligate you to, and in spite of your best efforts to be a good person, all you wanted to do was crush whatever was behind it, make it go away at whatever cost.
The smiling chemo nurse sends for another nurse to test your blood. All this other nurse does is her job, and that’s all you want, and that’s all you ever intended to pay for. She works quickly. You recognize her from a previous appointment. She has a short, fashionable haircut. She gets you what you need: a blanket, a sandwich, a cup of cold water. At your request, she draws the blinds and the curtain. She closes the door. She’s quiet and efficient and gets out fast.
Nurse Smiley comes back. She catches you with your teeth sunk deep in a tasteless egg salad sandwich. She laughs because you can’t answer her questions. Your mouth is full. She comes back again and again and again between visits from the nurse with the good hair and reminds you several times that you couldn’t answer her question because she caught you stuffing your face.
When you lie back to take a nap because no one else will be picking up your son from school and you need to be ready, she says you must be preparing for a date you have tonight. It’s her way to get something from you by flattering you. But you won’t give her what she wants and you won’t disabuse her concerning your evening plans She throws away the sandwich and chips you don’t eat while you wonder how you’ll find your car in the parking lot. Your stomach is full of the death baby.
You’ve spent three hours sleeping between the alarms that alert the nurses to change the chemicals. You wake to each alarm believing you are home, waking to your bedside alarm, waking to take your child to school, waking to pick him up from school, waking to feed him, waking to attend his baseball game, waking to pick him up from his friend’s, waking to pick him up from his father’s.
At the final alarm, you awaken to the solitude that is your new land, your vast terrain. You have awakened to your death. Despite what they say, there are no people here. You won’t be able to find the party set out ahead of you because it doesn’t exist.
Even the creaking of the forest trees grows faint and you aren’t even a leaf among them nor a particle of dust in the fading sun but only and ever your breath.