I have experienced many different kinds of loneliness in my life:
At the age of seven I found myself alone on an airplane, traveling across the United States, to be adopted by strangers. The story ended happily, as one of the greatest blessings of my life, but I remember the loneliness of that time as if it were a heartbeat ago.
I have known the loss of a beloved cousin, a dear friend, to a premature death.
When I was seventeen, I thought I would die of a broken heart because the boy I loved stood me up for the Junior Prom.
There have been countless Christmas’s, New Year’s Eves, Valentine’s Days and birthdays spent alone, lonely and depressed because the men I loved had moved on.
And I’ve known the kind of heartbreaking loneliness that is caused by the betrayal of close friends.
But I know now that there is no loneliness that compares with how you feel when you’ve been told you have cancer.
No matter how many people gather around you and hold you and cry and tell you they are there for you—your parents, your husband or wife, your own children, best friends, it doesn’t really matter. In the final scope of things, you are alone. They don’t have cancer. . .you do. And not one of them can save you.
* * *
My husband had been pacing for well over an hour, picking up his keys, laying them down, gathering his briefcase and name badge, only to place them back on the table. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay home? I feel like I should be here when you call the surgeon.”
I walked over and laid my head against his chest and he put his arms around me, hugging me close.
“No,” I told him, “I’m not even going to call him until at least two o’clock. I want to make sure my biopsy results are in.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Like I swallowed a Big-Gulp of nitroglycerine, so don’t squeeze.” I whispered.
“So, you’re going to call me as soon as you talk to him, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, kissing my husband’s worried face. Now go to work. I’ve got to go make sure the kids are up.”
He retrieved his things and I walked with him to the door. We kissed and he left after a last anxious look.
I headed upstairs to wake our fifteen year old, Aaron and twelve year old, Summer. When they left for school, instead of calling out my usual, “Bye, guys, have a good day,” I hugged them both, one at a time and said, “I love you.” Aaron, a little surprised, grunted and mumbled “Uh…yeah, okay—me too,” which is how he usually responds to any emotional outbursts. Summer hugged me back, patting me reassuringly.
“I love you too, Mom. It’s going to be fine. Really. I’ll see you after school.”
As the door closed behind them, I stood there staring at it, wondering how I was going to get through the next seven hours without having a nervous breakdown. Seven hours might as well be seven days or seven years; it was all relative . . . an eternity.
Around eleven o’clock, the telephone rang. My heart did a double back flip. Was it my doctor, calling to tell me the news was good; calling to say, “I told you the silly lump was nothing?” Or was it him calling to say the news was bad? I reached for the phone. Picked it up. Held it shakily to my ear. “Hello?”
“Is this Tina Mattern?”
“Yes.” My heart did three forward rolls and a summersault.
“Hi there! This is Brad with AT&T. How are you today?” “
Barely resisting the urge to throw the phone across the room, I snarled, “You don’t want to know!” and slammed the receiver down. I glared at it. “Ring again with anybody but my surgeon and I’m flushing you down the toilet.”
The rest of the morning and early afternoon were taken up with pacing, staring out the window and sending telepathic messages to the doctor; “Put down the scalpel or whatever it is you’re doing. Go call Tina.” It seemed his psychic network was busy; he didn’t call. The telephone, apparently well intimidated, didn’t ring once.
Finally, at two o’clock, I picked up the phone, ready to dial the doctor’s office. I took a deep breath. Took another. Then a couple more, until I realized I was very close to hyperventilating, so I put the phone back down and waited until my breathing was calm. Centering myself, I cleared my throat and picked the phone up once again. I dialed the surgeon’s number. On the fourth ring one of those nasally women’s voices answered, asking to which doctor’s office I would like to be connected. When I told her, she informed me that his receptionist, Mercy, was out of the office temporarily.
“Call back in a half-hour,” she said.
I groaned, sending the thought out to the receptionist: Lady, you need to pee or eat lunch or whatever it is you’re doing, on your own time. Right now you’re supposed to be answering the phone.
I sat down on the sofa, gathered Sam Hill, my twenty-one pound cat onto my lap. After a few minutes though, his deep chest rumbling purr began to grate on my jangled nerves so I set him down on the sofa and got up to go into the kitchen where I could pace back and forth in front of the oven clock. Twenty more minutes crawled by like dying slugs. I dialed the phone again.
“Dr. Blank’s office, please,” I said firmly.
Another nasally voice put me on hold for three very long seconds, then returned and said, “The receptionist was just here, but she stepped out of the office again for a minute. Could you call right back?”
What the HELL is wrong with this woman’s bladder! Picturing her in a broom closet with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel, I hung up and set the stove clock timer for ten minutes, figuring whatever she was doing, she should be able to wrap it up by then.
I watched the numbers count down to zero. This time, when I dialed, I finally got through. I asked to speak to my doctor.
“He’s not in,” the receptionist said, sounding slightly annoyed, as though I was being a self-absorbed, selfish jerk to expect the poor man to be in his office at two forty-five in the afternoon.
“What?” This wasn’t what I was expecting. Just yesterday, when I came out of surgery, he had patted my shoulder in his comforting way and said, “Call me tomorrow and I’ll have your results.”
“I…what?” I repeated, taken aback, not having prepared myself for the possibility that he might have stepped out of the office. “When will he be back in?”
The woman sighed. “He’s out of the office for the rest of the day. Was there something I could help you with?”
She was there in my mind’s eye, drumming her short no-nonsense nails on the desk as my mind struggled painfully with the unexpected realization that I was going to have to wait another day at least to find out what my surgery had turned up.
“But. . .he said to call him today. He said he’d tell me my biopsy results.” My hand was gripping the phone so hard my fingers were going numb. “He’s my doctor. I need him,” I whispered.
“Wait,” she said, putting me on hold.
Let her be sending him a message to call me, I prayed, knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat or even take another steady breath into my body until I knew what I was facing—good or bad. In a moment, she was back.
“Let’s see,” she said. “Did your biopsy results come in. . .?” She was silent for a few seconds; I could hear her shuffling through papers.
I was prepared for her to say, “No, they didn’t come in yet.” I was prepared for her to say, “You will have to call the doctor again tomorrow.” I was heartsick about it, but I was prepared. Nothing could have prepared me for what the receptionist did say:
“Yes, it appears you do have a small cancer” she announced brusquely. “A one centimeter tumor.”
My heart stopped. What? WHAT? My legs gave out and I dropped onto a kitchen chair. Something was wrong. There wasn’t enough air in the room. My mind wasn’t working right. . . I shook my head, trying to clear away the sudden darkness.
The woman’s indifferent voice was in my ear, blithely laying out treatment possibilities; words coming at me like bullets through the telephone, firing into my brain with deadly accuracy; Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Words that stunned and terrified me every bit as much as the one she uttered first. Cancer.
Wait! No… WAIT! My mind scrambled to understand what she had just said. This can’t be right! You’re not my doctor. . . I have to wait and call tomorrow.
The room began to shimmer and distort. I laid the telephone on the table and put my head down between my knees. The voice was still coming through the receiver. I put my hands over my ears.
I have CANCER.
Inside my chest, a tornado touched down.
Why can’t I breathe?
I sat back up, gasping.
“Ex-cuse me! Are you there?”
I stared at the phone where it lay on the table like an armed grenade.
“Hell-o-o-o. . .?”
I watched my hand reach out and pick it up.
“We’d better make an appointment for you to talk to the doctor,” Mercy was saying, all business. “Let’s see…okay, he can see you tomorrow at three-thirty. Okay for you?”
I felt my head nod.
“Okay?” she repeated, impatiently.
I heard myself mumble something inarticulate, which she took to be an affirmative.
“See you then,” she said.
I sat holding the telephone until a dial tone pierced the silence.
What is that sound?
I placed it back on the cradle.
A strange coldness moved up through my legs, through my stomach, through my chest, to my face. I was frozen, unable to move.
I stayed that way for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably only ten minutes, staring out into nothingness. Finally though, the thaw began; I started to shake.I shook for a long time. Shook as though there was an earthquake in my soul. Until I heard someone calling my name.
“Tina…? Honey? Did you talk to the doctor?” The telephone was somehow back in my hand; my head filling with the sound of my husband’s worried voice.
“Freddie? You come home now. Okay?” I whispered.
As I put the phone down, the thaw reached my throat, my mind, and then my eyes; I was able finally, to cry. I cried the way I hadn’t done since I was a child, deep gut-wrenching sobs, my arms wrapped tightly around myself because I felt like I would fly into a million pieces if someone didn’t hold me together.
But there was no one there; it would take my husband at least a half-hour to drive home; the kids weren’t due from school for almost an hour. Mercy’s voice echoed in my head, over and over, “Yes, it appears you do have a small cancer.”
Looking back, I realize now that I probably never even heard the word small; size is meaningless when it comes to cancer. My mind heard the “C” word, period, which equaled death, or at the very least, losing my breast and/or months of suffering through poisonous drugs that would probably make me wish I would die.
So I cried and I rocked and I waited for Freddie to come through the front door.
A half-hour can be a very long time. A half-hour can be a lifetime.