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One of the first gifts my husband ever gave me was a silver pocket compass. It is of great sentimental value to me, while not at all useful.  Having noted very early in our relationship my stellar capacity for getting lost and notwithstanding the fact that I was then a novice driving on the American side of the road – the wrong side – my man intervened as he knew best. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I was never one for “orienteering” or map-reading; I was more of a free-spirited “let’s-just-see-where-the-road-takes-us” kind of gal with nary a Duke of Edinburgh Expedition Award in my school career.  With factory-installed GPS navigation systems now de rigeur, and the fact that there is most certainly “an App for that,” it has to be said that I am feeling infinitely more confident about my ability to drive around Phoenix and other cities. It should be noted that if I have been somewhere at least eleven times, I can get there without assistance. Until such times, however, I will count on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions, my long-suffering friends “bringing me in” on the phone from my destination.

Mind you, I know where I am when I’m driving around central Phoenix. I like to think I could be a taxi driver. I know it even better than I Belfast, and various places within can now be referred to as “my stomping ground” – there’s the Dutch Bros Coffee on the corners of Central and Camelback Avenues, the nearby Poor Little Rich Girl, a favorite consignment store, and Ticoz, where the owner can always count on me to place a half-order of the grilled peach salad with salmon. Too, I’m a frequent flyer to Marshalls and TJ Maxx, and no Saturday would be complete without a trip to Target to return something. Sunday afternoons used to be reserved for Loehmanns on Lincoln Drive. To my chagrin,its only store in Arizona closed recently, but thankfully it is immortal in Erma Bombeck’s All I Know About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmanns Dressing Room. In such places, are those “known strangers” who won’t let me get lost.

Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center, has officially become one of my haunts as well. The strangers I know there are cheerful and warm, and I reciprocate, because I am polite, obedient, and scared. I am frightened because when I go there it is for procedures involving large needles, big clunking machines, and stretches of time when I am completely alone. The MRI technician performing the scan outside the room does not count as company, and I wonder if she thought I had too breezily blown off last Thursday’s brain scan until after our vacation, preferring to postpone it in order to focus on more important things like tide-pooling and seal-spotting and the lighting of a fire on the edge of Morro Bay each evening.

To put things in context, a headache has been my constant companion since right before or right after my cancer diagnosis. Immune to Advil and Tylenol and serious pain-killers, it will not go away. I also have twinges of sharp pain in my left hip which is either another Tamoxifen side effect that can be relieved by another medication, the side effects of which might cause twinges of pain somewhere else, or a more palatable side effect of aging. Then there is the fatigue, the memory loss, the hot flashes, and – staggeringly – more fatigue. At the same time, there is the odd flash of creativity or energy to convince me I am somewhat more than someone who merely reminds me of a woman I used to know.  

This woman had been to the Scottsdale hospital many times before a cancer diagnosis (at least eight, see above) but was wholly unprepared for the emotional response that was simmering below the surface. Transformed once again, Stepford-like, by the same hospital-issued gown from the same wicker basket in a room where I had waited last November. With my clothes in a plastic “Patient Belongings Bag” stowed away in a locker, I began to cry. Inconsolable, great, fat tears fell as I remembered I was last in this place following a difficult core needle biopsy and endless mammograms to get “just the right picture” for the perky technician.  Last Thursday, not a year later, I had new things to think about like the headaches, when exactly they started, and how long they lasted. It took longer to fill out the form because there were more boxes to check in this new and revised edition of my medical history. That, and I had forgotten my glasses. I also had to remind myself to remind Stephanie, as she prepared the IV, to use my left arm not my right, because of my new fear of lymphedema which I have since learned can develop following removal of lymph nodes. (On that, why aren’t there large-print notices in hospitals and doctor’s offices reminding health care folks to remind patients how not to increase the risk of lymphedema?) As Stephanie found an obliging vein in my “good” arm, she told me I was brave, “a warrior” no less, and that it was muscle memory that was making me cry. “Entirely understandable,” she said. Her earnest and interested eyes soon had me singing like a bird about all that ails me. But once I was on the MRI table and slid into that machine, Stephanie had fled. I could see her reflection with that of the top of the technician’s head in the tiny mirror attached to the machine somewhere in the vicinity of my head. And the scan of my brain was underway.

The MRI scan is a surreal and solitary confinement, ungainly, and it takes too long. The machine itself stops and starts with strange sounds that would not be out of place on a Pink Floyd song. It is a time to be silent and still, to Confront My Mortality. For an entire thirty minutes. Entirely too long to think about scary things. 

Confined thus, and claustrophobic, I forced myself to find a mental picture to help the time go by. I imagined the sun falling asleep on Morro Bay, and one of my sunset shots:I tried to bask within that orange glow until I heard “Good job. You’re all done,” from the same voice that had reassured me it was attached to a human being who was right outside and I needed only to squeeze a ball to let him know if I couldn’t take it anymore or if I needed to sneeze.

And then, it was over. I was back with ‘known strangers” in the hospital waiting room, those with whom I can readily share confidences, indignities, intimacies, and other ties that bind us in our “stages” of disease – those who are weary, frustrated, and frightened by new uncertainties.

I learned something on Thursday. I should not go to these appointments alone, because I am shocked by what happens to me. Every time. It isn’t that I’m alone in the world beyond the hospital, in my ‘real’ life. My husband loves me, he is in my corner and my soft place to fall. I have dear friends who care about me. Why must I continue not to invite one of them to come with me to one of these appointments. I think I know why. You do too.

The truth is that I have not resumed normal activity at all, but I have been a fairly decent actress. Already, I have grown weary. I have forgotten my lines, and I am in need an understudy. Anybody interested? My life is teeming with people who do not know what to say to me about The Cancer. It is the subject they do not bring up. The elephant in the room. Maybe I say too much about it myself or not enough, or maybe it is too frightening and unsettling, too inconvenient to see a change in the routines and rituals that used to define me. All this I pondered, still and silent, within the confines of an MRI machine, imagining a very beautiful sunset and remembering from Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.
I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it’s not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.