“You have cancer.”
The doctor doesn’t really put it as bluntly as that. He uses words like malignant and aggressive, says we’ll treat it with the best chemotherapeutics and hopefully send it into remission. Therapy should begin as soon as possible, before the disease gets any more advanced. He assures us Hodgkin’s lymphoma has a good prognosis and tells us not to worry.
“You have cancer.”
That’s what I hear.
I have cancer.
Not a virus like my regular doctor kept insisting. Not even mono, which I’d grown increasingly anxious about because it would have kept me and Charlie from kissing for months.
Gripping the sides of my hard plastic chair, I try to ignore the pounding of my heart. The doctor is still talking, but I don’t think the words I’m hearing are the ones actually coming out of his mouth.
“…treatment regimen called ABVD, which stands for (cancer). It’s administered as a series of infusions, so she’ll need to come to the (cancer). Or you can go to the outpatient clinic at (cancer) if that would be more (cancer). Each infusion takes about (cancer), and it’s given once every (cancer) for (cancer).”
I have cancer?!
Surrounded by the buzzing fluorescent lights and cold, sterile air, I can’t stand to be in this tiny room a second longer. I jump up and bolt into the hallway. My mother calls after me, but I run into the bathroom and turn the lock.
Closing my eyes, I rest my head against the door. Struggling to focus, I try to remember how cold it is outside, to decide if I can leave without my coat. Although everything before this appointment feels like another lifetime, a memory surfaces—belated snowflakes swirling down from the morning sky. We usually get a few flurries in early March, but these should be the last and they won’t amount to anything. Still, they’ve managed to trap me in the bathroom. Looking at my bare forearms in my wishful-thinking three-quarter-sleeve shirt, I can’t help but wonder if freezing to death would be better or worse than dying from cancer.
Suddenly, it’s like I’m outside because I’m shaking. Turning my back to the door, I wrap my arms around myself and sink to the floor, staring at the porcelain base of the toilet and breathing in the smell of bleach.
Eventually, the shaking subsides as a chilling numbness takes its place. With a deep breath, I pull myself to my feet. I peek out, but the only activity is a nurse consulting a chart at the end of the hall. Keeping my eyes trained on the woman, I exit quickly and beeline for the front entrance.
Mom is pacing the sidewalk, the rhythmic runner’s stride we share evident even in such short distances. She turns back and stops when she sees me. Our eyes meet and a magnetic force threatens to propel her toward me, but I avert my eyes and hurry to the minivan.
After a moment, she gets in and starts the ignition. I cup my hands and blow in the space it makes. It is silent as we drive.
Despite fixating on the scenery passing beyond the side window, I feel her glances. She waits until we’re cruising on the freeway before she says, “Do you want to talk?”
Such a reasonable question, and yet I’m caught off guard. I shake my head because I know I’ll cry if I speak. I see her hand moving toward me and I’m afraid she’s going to pull my face to the left, forcing me to look at her. Instead, she picks up my hand and squeezes it, and I have to swallow a few times to choke down the lump in my throat.
If there had been any doubt, I know when we turn onto our street that I won’t be going to school today. Once we’re in the garage, neither of us opens our door. Mom shifts in her seat. “What are you feeling, baby?”
Leaning against the headrest, I examine the emotional stew inside me and start naming ingredients. “Freaked out…sad, mad, confused…numb, nauseous…cold…hot…scared…. Terrified.”
Rolling my head to the side, I finally look at her. She’s nodding and trying to hold back tears. We stare at each other until I can’t take the intensity anymore and have to look away.
“How can everything change in an instant?” I ask. Without waiting for an answer, I continue. “I don’t even know what to do now. I mean, I guess I’ll get chemotherapy or something…but do I still go to school? Can I still run? Who do I tell? How do I tell them?”
I panic. “You’re not going to tell Bean, are you?” I can’t bear the thought of my seven-year-old sister hearing I have a disease that kills thousands of people each year. “And what about Laine?” My older sister is a sophomore at Brown. Less vulnerable than Bean, maybe, but surely no more ready for this news than I am.
Mom squeezes my hand kind of hard, and I’m not sure if she’s trying to reassure me or herself. “We don’t have to give Bean details. She knows you’re sick. For now…we’ll just tell her you have to go to the hospital to get your medicine. As for Elaine, I think we should tell her, but I want to talk to your dad first.”
“Will you tell them?” Ever since hearing the horrible verdict, I’ve been resisting my mind’s attempt to imagine saying the words to Charlie, but the thoughts of watching my father’s face fall, of hearing my sister’s voice fill with fear, are worse still.
Based on Mom’s expression, she hasn’t yet allowed herself to picture sharing the news. As it plays out in her mind, I realize it might not be any easier for her. But, of course, she agrees. “Your dad’s scheduled to be in San Francisco through the end of the week, but I’ll call him. I don’t want to wait until he’s back.”
Dad runs a software consulting company and travels two or three times a month. I wonder if it will be harder for her to tell him without him here to comfort her or easier since she won’t be able to see his reaction.
“We’ll figure out when and how to tell Laine,” she continues. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
Nodding, I open the door. I don’t want to talk anymore.
Mom follows me into the house. “Can I get you anything? Would you like me to make you some tea?”
Feeling wiped out, I drop my purse on the counter and head for the stairs. “I’m just going to lie down.”
There’s no way I’ll sleep, but I get into bed anyway. With my clothes on, it’s hot and uncomfortable, but I don’t care. Looking at the clock, I know Charlie will see I’m not in fourth-period Spanish and wonder where I am. Sure enough, at 10:03 I get a text: Did your appt run long?
A mono diagnosis would have been equally bad for both of us, so I know he’s been anxious all morning. But this is obviously not something you share via text. As much as it scares me, I know it needs to be in person.
Which is why I avoid his calls the rest of the day. He calls before lunch and leaves a message, saying it’s not the end of the world if it is mono. He calls after lunch and asks me to text him, says he’s getting a little worried. He calls after biology and sounds worked up enough that I’m compelled to respond: We’ll talk after school—come to my house.
Within seconds, he writes, What’s wrong?
I’ll tell you later. Just come over.
Is it mono?
Just come over.
I wait to see if he’ll press me for more information. When five minutes go by without a peep, I set my phone on the nightstand and sink into the pillow, staring at the ceiling. Now I’m restless, dreading the conversation. With just over an hour to wait, I open the door and leave my room.
At the end of the hall, I see Mom’s closed door. Before going downstairs, I take a few steps in that direction and listen. I hear her speak, low and quiet. Creeping a few feet closer, I make out a teary strain in her voice and know she has told my father.
Realizing I don’t want to hear any more, I hurry down to the kitchen and step out back. The day is typical of the goofy March weather we sometimes get—cold and flurrying in the morning but sunny and halfway warm now. Shielding my eyes from the brightness, I walk to Bean’s play set and sit on a swing.
We have an old oak tree that never manages to lose all its leaves in the fall. It’s like it tries but gets tired and decides it will just wait until new leaves emerge in the spring and knock the old ones off. The wind blows, and I hear them shimmy above me.
Feeling like I’m four again, I twist myself around and around, coiling the chains until I can’t make them go any tighter. I pause for a moment, then let go, lifting my feet so I can spin freely. Once my shoes are planted on the ground again, I start tapping my foot, unable to stay still. I left my room because the confined space made me feel like I was suffocating. But the open space out here isn’t calming me down any better than my room did.
The sun offends me. Bird song frays my nerves. The gentle breeze sets my blood boiling so that when I hear the soft rustle of the leaves, I want to jump up, ball my fists, and scream, “Shut up!” at every single one of them. The day has no right to be beautiful. A day like this demands deafening claps of thunder and heart-resuscitating jolts of lightning. I deserve to be sitting in a torrential downpour, but all I get is a single leaf that falls from the tree above, the lone tear the day will shed for me.
Frustrated, I go back inside. As I pass the dining room window, I see a beat-up, dirty, blue Toyota Camry pull into the driveway, and my heart leaps into my throat. I didn’t think I’d been outside that long, but when I check the time, it’s only 1:31. Charlie skipped his last class.
He must have left as soon as we finished texting and probably drove twenty miles over the speed limit the whole way. The car stops abruptly and he throws open the door. Shaking the dark brown curls out of his eyes, he loops his camera strap over his head. Once he gets out, he kicks the door shut and moves so fast, the camera bounces up and down on his chest.
I open the front door as he comes up the walk. My heart is beating like a hummingbird’s as we stare at each other. Despite knowing he has every reason to be scared of what I’m going to say, seeing how serious he looks somehow makes it worse.
It’s not like I haven’t understood the gravity of the situation, but I did spend most of the day trying to think about anything else. Maybe I’ve been too numb to truly grasp the significance. Or maybe knowing I’m on the precipice of having to utter the words myself, to openly admit it’s true, is making it hit home.
Regardless, seeing Charlie’s face, full of concern and fear and knowing, causes me to lose my tenuous hold on sanity, and I give him the last reaction he’s expecting and the most inappropriate one imaginable: I laugh.
It doesn’t last long; it’s more of a giggle, really, and I choke it off mid-chuckle, giving it a pinched, pained sound. Charlie furrows his brows and tips forward but then rights himself, as if he isn’t sure whether to hug me or restrain me.
Finally, he breaks the silence. “Dell, what’s going on?”
“Come up.” I turn and mount the stairs, leaving him to close the door and giving me a few seconds to compose myself.
Once we’re in my room, he sits on the edge of the bed and looks at me expectantly. When I don’t speak, he stands again. The closer I am to him, the more nervous I get, so I start pacing, shaking my hands to get some feeling in them because they’re strangely icy even though my armpits are sweating profusely.
“Dell…,” Charlie pleads.
I stop and lean against the wall, facing him.
His shoulders are slumped. “It’s not mono, is it?”
Shaking my head slowly, I take a deep breath. “Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” I can’t bring myself to say cancer out loud yet.
Charlie’s face contorts and he raises his hand to his head. Sliding down the wall, I sit on the floor, hugging my knees. After taking a shuddery breath, Charlie slides down next to me. “What did the doctor say?”
Given the shock of the news and my early departure, it’s safe to say I’m not the most reliable conduit of the doctor’s words. I recount as much as I can remember, which, predictably, turns out to be not very much. “I think I’ll have to start treatment soon, but Mom wants to get a second opinion first.”
The thought of chemo, of losing my hair, plunges my heart into a pit of depression, and I stare vacantly at the floor. Charlie is still and silent beside me. I can’t begin to imagine the next few…what—weeks? months? years? No one close to me has had cancer. Whatever accounts I’ve been exposed to—in movies or TV, books, a friend who talked about her grandpa’s experience—haven’t depicted it as a walk in the park, but how bad will it really be? As a runner, I’m used to pushing my body through a certain amount of pain, but I’m fairly certain this will be nothing like that.
Will I miss too much school to finish the year? Will I have to go to summer school—if I’m even better by then—or, worse, repeat a grade, graduate late, delay college by a year? I’ve been researching schools, starting to plan visits. Will I keep at it, or will postponing college be a foregone conclusion? And what about running? I want to run my first marathon in the fall…I’m trying to push myself to be good enough for the Boston. Will I even be able to run the Columbus?
I have a multitude of questions, but the answers I’m desperate for are ones no one can give me.
It’s been so long since either of us moved that I almost forgot Charlie is here. But out of the corner of my eye, I see him roll his head toward me and lean it against the wall. I stare for a moment longer at a spot on the carpet, the rough patch where the fibers stick together from the honey Bean spilled during a tea party she snuck in here to have when she was five.
I hate that patch of carpet because it scratches my skin every time I walk barefoot over it, and yet it’s blurring before me as tears make their way down my cheeks, one dropping off and landing on my forearm, and I finally turn and see Charlie staring at me, tears coursing down his cheeks too, and then we’re reaching for each other, pressing our lips together, and I can’t tell anymore which tears are mine.
When we stop kissing, Charlie rests his forehead against mine, keeping his eyes closed. Suddenly, he opens them, cups my face in his hands, and looks at me intently. “You won’t go through this alone.”
I had no idea even a tiny part of me harbored this fear, but after hearing his words, relief floods me and I bury my face on his shoulder and sob. Stroking my hair, Charlie takes a deep breath. “I’m going to study everything. Figure out the best treatment, find the best doctors, learn what we can do. You don’t have to do anything but fight it. We’ll beat it together—like always.”
He whispers the last phrase as he rests his chin on my head.
As darkness pushes up against my window, Charlie and I struggle with the thought of letting each other go. “I don’t want to leave.” He pulls me close, as if holding onto me will prevent obligation from snatching him away.
I want to say, “So don’t,” but I know neither of our mothers would agree to an overnighter, even under the circumstances.
As if on cue, Mom knocks softly, waits for a moment, then pokes her head in. “Hi, Charlie.” She gives a sad smile. “I’m sorry, but it’s getting late.”
Charlie takes a deep breath and sighs. Mom closes the door to let us say goodbye in private. Staring at my hand, he rubs his thumb over mine. “Will you be at school tomorrow?”
Nodding, he stands. Once I’m on my feet, he wraps his arms around me and squeezes so tightly I almost ask him to stop. I know he’s worried about me, and I want to tell him I’m going to be fine, but hell, I’m worried about me, and I want him to tell me I’m going to be fine. So I don’t say anything, just relax into his embrace until he finally releases me.
“I’ll see you in the morning.” He kisses me quickly, then swings the door open. I step into the hallway and watch him go down the stairs, but he doesn’t turn back.
Once the front door closes, Mom emerges from her bedroom. A few minutes ago, I felt like I was done crying, like drinking a gallon of ocean water couldn’t make me produce more tears, but they’re coming in torrents now, and even though I am physically tired and emotionally exhausted and just want to fall into bed, I let my mother drape her arms around me, let my arms go limp at my sides, and bury my sobs in the crook of her neck.