“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 15: (Minor) Miracle on Bank Street

My husband and I were in the Chapters bookstore near the animal hospital doing some last-minute holiday shopping when my cell phone rang.  It was Donna, one of the two oncology nurses treating Zoe for bone cancer.  We had dropped her off in the morning and since then I'd kept checking to see if my phone was on or a text had come through.

"We took images of Zoe's lungs again," she said.  "Dr. Bravo wants to talk to you in person.  How soon can you be here?"

"Five minutes," I said.  I was standing in between a display of Godiva chocolates and CDs by Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, beside a long line of people waiting to buy stuff, my husband at the very end of it.  I looked around me at all this commerce and wondered how many people in the world were idling away an afternoon in some fluorescent-lit box store as we were, half-listening to those old upbeat lyrics about chestnuts and mistletoe and Santa on his way, that generic soundtrack of holiday retail, while they waited for a call they needed, but dreaded.

I tried to steady myself as we made our way to the car.  It didn't help that a freezing rain was icing up the sidewalks.

On Zoe's and my four previous trips to Ottawa for her chemotherapy, I was always the only human in the car.  Chemo day was Friday, my day off from teaching, but Kerry's courses are spread over the five days of the workweek.  The drive is 90 minutes each way, longer in rush hour, so on the last visit, when Dr. Bravo told me that she had seen two small nodules in Zoe's lungs, I had forced myself to imitate a calm, stoic person.  It was snowing and I had to get us home.  

But today my husband was driving.  "It's bad news, if they want us there in person to tell us," I said.  "Will you be okay if I . . . you know, fall apart a little?" 

The day we got the diagnosis, we had both held each other, sobbing.  But we were at the animal clinic in Canton then, only a half mile from our home.

"I'll be okay," he said.

In her consulting room, Dr. Bravo said, "What we're seeing is too complicated to talk about on the phone.  I thought you should see this for yourselves."

She fiddled around with the program of the computer to show the x-rays from 19 days ago, and today's side by side.

"There were those two nodules last time," she pointed out.  "One was here.  See, on this side, from today.  It's gone.  It's just not there.  The other one I had measured at 1.4 centimeters.  On this side, it's only .4 centimeters now."

If the nodules had grown since last time, it would mean the chemotherapy wasn't working at all.  Zoe had undergone two treatments with one drug and had just started on a second.  No one knows which one works better, so Dr. Bravo tries both--three treatments of each.  "And then what?" I had asked, on that last visit, imitating a calm person asking a rational question about the future.  "Just palliative care?"

"We have another drug that is taken orally that can shrink lung tumors," she had said.  "But this is not the result we would have liked.  It means the disease is spreading."

"So what do you think this means?" I asked her today.  

I wanted to hug her and kiss her.  I wanted to do a jig.  But I didn't trust those feelings of hope, of joy.  I knew there was more.  "Complicated," she had said.

She pointed to three tiny spots that were very hard to see, and not just because I didn't want them to be there.  She tried to enlarge them with the computer, but it didn't really help.  "These weren't there last time," she said.  "So we've seen one nodule disappear completely, and another shrink considerably.  But now we have to watch these.  Still, I think we're seeing good results here.  The second drug seems to be working.  It's attacking these nodules.  What I think is that the first drug didn't work for her and we lost time using it.  But the second one is.  And overall, she's doing well.  Her blood work is excellent.  She is happy and energetic.  She looks great."

"Doesn't she?" I agreed.  Zoe's eyes and coat are shiny, her appetite is big as ever, she runs and walks as she always has.  Her personality--alternately affectionate and aloof, cuddly or queenly, has not changed a jot.  

"So if you agree, we'd like to treat her today."

We did, they did, and we made another appointment for chemotherapy three weeks from now.  

When we picked her up afterward, she came bounding toward us, tail wagging, eyes bright.  There were some cute white Yorkies in the waiting room she wanted to play with, and as we left the hospital, the three of us watched a very tall man in a suit with a very small toy poodle sliding around, skidding and bobbing on the frozen grass into the parking lot.  I smiled at the sight of them struggling together while I hung onto the hood of our car for support.  The ground beneath us, the whole parking lot asphalt, was slick with ice.  How hard we try, all of us, human and canine, to get where we think we should be, on two legs, four, or in Zoe's case, three.  

It was almost a surprise to see Zoe, the eager, healthy-looking actual dog who was glad to be reunited with her people so she could get home and have her dinner and relax.  I had spent so much time staring at the blurry images of her innards, and visualizing them in my morning meditation, that I almost forgot who this was we were talking about: the living creature breathing out of these much-discussed lungs.

She's fighting.  We can't say she's winning, because we know it's a battle for time we're waging here, but she's fighting.  And she's happy.  And well.

Game on.  

I used to want the stars and the moon, and everything in between.  There's a print from William Blake of who I once was, not all that long ago: a child grasping for the night sky, clinging to the moon like it's a kite, crying "I want!  I want!"  But on this day, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, I took solace in absences, in the sight of a little something shrinking and another little something fading into nothingness.

We drove back in the freezing rain, stopping for Indian food to take home to our sons, and whenever we looked back at Zoe, she was just a normal dog in the family car, unfazed by all that was happening around her, curious as ever, but calm and trusting, watching the marvelous, ordinary world flickering by outside the window as we took each turn in the dark.
Photo by Tara Freeman

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