Last night, I was introduced to a woman about 10 years my junior. We both hail from the same region of New York so everyone assumed we would have much in common. She is short (as I am)…she is pretty extroverted (as I might be described by a few…) She is also a breast cancer survivor. As a matter of fact, she and I were both diagnosed with similar cancer and each in just one of our breasts. However, when it comes down to it… we have chosen very different paths…at least, when it comes to treatment. Within a few minutes of introductions, she tells me that she has opted for a double mastectomy and reconstruction. (By the way, I would never have known…there’s not a single giveaway).
I, on the other hand, have opted for breast-conserving surgery, followed by radiation, and hormone therapy for the next 5-10 years. Hmmm….that’s where our paths decidedly divide.
She confides that she is thrilled with her decision because the pathology report that followed her surgery revealed that cancer was found lurking in her previously undiagnosed breast. She must read my face, because she emphasizes that other options, like mine, are also valid.
“Of course,” I agree. I am happy to have met her and I wish her well on her follow-up procedure the next day. Despite my smile as I bid her good night, I can’t help but wonder…did I make the right decision?
Breast cancer statistics assure me that the option I have chosen will result in almost identical chances of a recurrence…slim to none. Maybe it’s just treatment paranoia, but, the mastectomy people always seem just a little bit more self-assured than “conservation” folks that they have eradicated all chances of cancer taking root in them ever again…
As I shut off the light, I try to equally shut out the nagging little voice who questions just about every little thing I do — from my choice of socks for the day to the cancer treatment I have chosen. Eventually, I succeed. After all, I do respect and trust my treatment team…and besides, what’s done is done. Just gotta play the cards at this point…
Today started bright and early, and following a nutritious breakfast, the sun began streaming into the gathering room. I simply sat — like one of my tabby cats — sat, mind you, soaking up the rays and drinking in the quiet. Everyone had dispersed…whether it was to the hospital for appointments, or behind closed doors for a much-needed nap as a result of yesterday’s treatment…and only the muted ticking of the mantle clock broke the still.
I wander to the puzzle closet. The empty card table beckons. I make myself a mug of chai and pull my chair up to the task. Sky blue, barn red, the rich leafy greens of a summer scene of Americana …it could be Vermont. I start with the sky and lose myself in the simple act of sorting puzzle pieces.
I seriously can’t think of the last time I gave myself permission to sit in silence and work on a puzzle. No text messages, no television blaring in the background, no pile of papers needing to be graded. Such a simple pleasure. Of course, there is still the guilt, lingering — always lingering.
Intellectually, I know that I’m here to focus on healing. I’m here to ensure the cancer never returns. I’m doing my work…everything my doctors tell me to do. But, still…
I walk to the hospital again for treatment. The sun is brilliant and the wind has finally stopped its blustering. I know in an instant what I will do when I return from lunch…
Today, I wander.
When I was a kid, I wandered all the time. I would dilly-dally, saunter, stroll, skip — you name it. I seriously doubt my parents ever knew just how much distance I could cover in a short period of time. I would amble through graveyards, explore side streets, clamber awkwardly over fences and slink through alley ways. Sometimes, my wandering took me along the railroad tracks…sneaking into the empty playground after-hours, or peeking into the thick wavy-glass windows of abandoned houses.
As I wandered, I would imagine the people who had lived in these once-grand houses, drove carriages down these narrow streets, or traveled in fancy sleeper cars where only freight cars bounced along now. My mind would be abuzz with their stories….I could almost see myself riding along side them, or leaning on those burnished maple window sills spying for the ice man, or weeping beside the monument newly dedicated to the soldier who had not returned as promised in the letters he faithfully wrote from the front every day.
As an adult, I rarely have had the luxury of wandering in just this way…there’s work of course, and usually a meeting, a meal to cook, kids to transport, a couple of dogs looking for some exercise. All proper obligations and attended to without a shred of regret or resentment. But, aimless wandering? A pastime for fanciful girls with overactive imaginations…
Except for today.
Once properly bundled, the adventure begins. Hope Lodge is bordered not only by the hospital but all of the University of Vermont, as well. As I stroll along, I admire the beautiful architecture — a striking testament to the value of higher learning. Gleaming spires catch the sun, massive edifices of stone and brick stand squarely side by side, soaring columns bracket impressively thick and oversize doors — it’s a virtual feast for my eyes and imagination.
In the distance, I see the shimmer of Lake Champlain…looking chilly, but rollicking along seemingly unencumbered by ice. Academic buildings give way to the wide verandas, cupolas, and whimsical turrets of family homes and well-tended student housing. At the bottom of the hill, where College Street collides with the commercial district, I browse shops with names like “Trinket” and “Old Crow Bookstore.” I pop into a consignment shop and ogle vintage purses (the leather “like buttah”)…and wander into a shop where I can’t help but carefully cradle the heft of hand-thrown pottery. Violin music settles on the passersby like snowflakes as we walk along the open-air marketplace of curio shops, cafes and restaurants.
When I finally turn toward home, I realize I have wandered for hours… Needing nothing, I have bought nothing…leaving nary a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart in my wake.
Legs a little shaky, feet sore, I climb the last incline toward Hope Lodge. There is still daylight, even though we’re closing in on 5:00, and as I look out at the chimneys of the lodge, I notice for the first time the mountain peak towering just beyond the city…white with snow and dotted with pinpoint lights I imagine mark ski trails and cabins.
I realize I have not even thought about breast cancer for the entire afternoon. I have not had to explain the pathology of a tumor, the history of my diagnosis, or taken my gown off in a room full of strangers. I have not been a patient, a parent, a wife or a teacher.
I have been just me….a wanderer. And, now exhausted and completely satiated, I’ve finally come home.