Yesterday my husband Steve and I took a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping to see some fall colors. My energy and mobility are still pretty limited—for whatever reason, the Taxol has settled into my knees, leaving me to creak around arthritically—so a mountain drive seemed like a nice way to get out of the house and breathe in at least a little fresh air.
The sky was clear and blue, the weather a perfect balance of sunshine tempered by a crisp, occasionally brisk breeze.
The colors this year are pretty lackluster, however.
Just driving along, looking out over the long-range vistas provided by many of the Parkway’s overlooks, there wasn’t much color to see. The rolling mountains along either side of the ridge, while always lovely in their swells and dips and graceful silhouettes, didn’t offer any breathtaking vistas of brilliant hues. Most of the mountains and valleys remained green, or had simply faded to a kind of dusty, rusty brown, without any fanfare, without any autumnal spectacle. From that perspective, it would be easy to say there was no color at all.
But every so often, as we rounded a bend and the sun shone just right, a beam filtering through the trees lit up a few yellow poplar clustered a little ways back in the under-story. A low-growing shrub dappled the roadside bank with orange here and there, if you watched carefully. We had to pull over and walk a few feet up the Appalachian Trail to spot the scarlet of a single sassafras leaf, the mottled red and gold of a maple.
Some seasons of life, perhaps, are like that. The beauty is there, it’s just harder to see. You have to look a lot closer to find it. You have to let go of your ideas about the grandeur that should be, and cherish instead the smallest offerings.
Like a quiet afternoon with the man you love, a few moments on a windy ridge with the sun warm on your face, a sliver of splendor you can hold in your hand.
I remember only a few details from my appointment with the breast surgeon the Tuesday following the MRI. I remember I wore a black t-shirt and a wraparound raw silk skirt I’d bought at a street fair some years back. She wore a simple black sheath. I remember her saying, “We’re going to get the scary stuff out of the way, and then we’re going to forget about it and move ahead.” Then she drew a picture to explain triple negative breast cancer and reassured me that the “Stage 3” was automatically determined by the size of the mass and the local lymph node involvement, that she hadn’t seen anything to make her think there was more going on. I remember shaking uncontrollably. I remember her asking, as she felt my breast, if it were possible the lump had been that hard and pronounced for long, her whispering in my ear as she hugged me good-bye, “We’re going to be hopeful and prayerful. Hopeful and prayerful.”
Despite her reassurances that there was no immediate evidence of metastasis, I would need a CT scan and a bone scan to be certain the cancer hadn’t progressed beyond the local nodes. I kept shaking, so the staff moved mountains to schedule the tests as soon as possible, three days away, that Friday. Results would likely come after the weekend.
The verb “wait” dates to circa 1200, “to watch with hostile intent, to lie in wait for,” hearkening back to the Old North French waitier, “to watch,” from the Old French gaitier, “watch out, be on one’s guard.” It takes a few centuries before the specific meaning to “endure a period of waiting” is recorded, in 1849.
Steve and I had been waiting to tell family and friends about my diagnosis until we had solid information, a sense of scope and plan. Plus, I knew announcing it to others would make it inescapably real. But it was becoming increasingly impossible to sit on the news. We were scheduled to travel to Georgia in a couple of weeks to help host my parents’ 50th anniversary party, and they’d begun asking questions about the specifics of our visit.
The noun weight comes from the Old English gewiht, “weighing, weight, downward force of body, heaviness.” The figurative sense of “burden” arrives in the late 14th century.
My parents were celebrating a milestone. I didn’t want to burden them with distraction and worry. But the uncertainties were becoming too heavy to bear alone. I remember crying through the phone call. I remember their calm, steady voices. I remember the sense of relief afterwards.
The use of the phrase “waiting game” is first recorded in 1835. Early on, it referred specifically to a horse-racing strategy for horses whose strength was speed over endurance.
Steve and I had also been looking forward to a trip to Folly Beach. We’d originally planned to leave the Friday the scans were scheduled, but we delayed our departure to Saturday. We’d make an overnight trip back to Roanoke on Monday to see the oncologist, then drive back to South Carolina and finish our week at the shore. It was the best compromise we could manage: we’d have our beach trip, and we’d have a plan.
The two days we spent at the beach not knowing whether the cancer had already spread felt like two centuries.
The evening we arrived, Steve left me to walk on the beach while he went into town to pick up some groceries. I strolled along the edge of the breaking surf, breathing in the salt air, gazing out at a distant horizon that made me feel both seen and insignificant. The sky was dark and heavy with clouds, a storm over the water. I turned around to see the sun beginning to set behind me. As it dropped behind another bank of clouds, it outlined one with a bright halo, its rays splaying dramatically across the sky. Light behind a cloud: was this hope?
The literal meaning of the verb “weight,” as in “to load with weight” is recorded first in 1747. Its figurative meaning, to load the mind with weight, appeared earlier, as early as the 1640s.
The side effects of chemotherapy are often debilitating and painful. Knowing your body will be permanently altered by surgery is disorienting, even devastating. But the waiting, all the waiting: for appointments, for surgery dates, for results, for reports, for recovery, for any piece of positive news. Ask a cancer patient, and I think many will tell you: all the waiting is the hardest part.
We got the call from the surgeon’s office Monday as we were driving back to Roanoke to meet with the oncologist: my scans were clear. You know your world has flipped upside down and backwards when “stage 3 breast cancer,” a diagnosis that left you shaking in fear just days before, takes on the modifier “only” and suddenly feels like the first good news you’ve had in weeks.
The nurse had tried to call with results late Friday afternoon. I remembered: I’d been on the phone with a delivery company when an unknown local number rang through. I’d started to hang up to answer it, but I couldn’t get a word in with the woman talking furniture. When I checked voice mail afterwards, my phone said it was full, no new messages.
The sense of “wait” meaning to “remain in some place” is from the 14th century.
Given a choice, I would not have elected to suffer through those two days of waiting and wondering. But it threw my perspective into sharp focus, gave me a fierce appreciation for the beauty all around me: the gritty give of warm sand under my feet; the spicy bite of fresh shrimp cooked with Old Bay seasoning; the constellation of freckles on my husband’s smiling face. And the sun shining out from behind a darkened cloud.
We’ll wait again, and again. And while we do, my heart breathes every gorgeous moment.
On a Friday morning in early June I kissed my husband of nine months Steve good-bye and headed to my scheduled doctor’s appointment. I was having a couple of cysts aspirated—a routine procedure for me, as I’d had benign, fluid-filled cysts making regular appearances in my breasts since I was thirty. My annual mammogram, which I’d had the week before, had been clear. I typically had a follow-up ultrasound because of my dense, and busy, breast tissue, but I’d opted out of it this time. The radiologist didn’t think it necessary, and I knew I was heading back for the aspirations, anyway. I figured it would take about an hour to drain the one or two cysts in each breast that were bothering me, and then I planned to head to the office to finish the one last report standing between me and summer break.
The large cyst in my right breast had, as they sometimes did, already calmed down on its own; I wondered whether it was even worth bothering with it. My left breast still felt swollen and tender, though, so I kept the early morning appointment.
The attending nurse and the ultrasound technician arranged me on the table, placing a pillow under my left shoulder and asking me to curve my arm over my head, lifting my chest. The surgeon joined us and asked for the location of the cyst to be drained. I pointed him to the lower outer quadrant of my left breast.
“Oh, yes, I can almost see it there,” he said. With my body contorted, the lump under the skin was nearly prominent enough to spot with the naked eye.
The doctor located the cysts, per usual, with ultrasound. I always watched the images as they appeared on the monitor next to my bed. Each breast typically featured a multitude. They looked a bit like photos I’d seen of black holes, or solar eclipses: a black center, with a clear light-ring around the edges. As the surgeon rolled the wand over my left breast, I noticed something odd on the monitor. There was a dark mass, but unlike the manifold cysts I’d seen on the screen over the years, its border was irregular, furred.
“That doesn’t have the defined outline that a cyst usually does,” I said.
The doctor kept rolling the wand back and forth, back and forth. “No, that doesn’t look like a cyst,” he said quietly. “I think we’re going to need to turn this into a biopsy.”
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Just a few nights before, my husband Steve and I had been lying in bed, talking about what a crazy, busy year it had been. We’d bought a new house together, moved and combined our two households, moved each of his two sons into their first apartments, planned our wedding and gotten married, and graduated the youngest son from college. We’d both worked the full academic year as professors, and there’d been some work-related stresses for both of us. Steve had, in fact, just started a new job with a research non-profit, while I was wrapping up teaching a three-week intensive learning course that included camping and rafting in West Virginia. Our new life together was good, but we were exhausted. “I bet we’d score off the charts in one of those life-stress tests,” I joked, and Steve agreed.
When I awoke the next morning, our conversation still on my mind, I searched online and found the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, which assigns point values to significant changes (positive or negative) in a person’s life. Curious, I completed it—and scored a whopping 412 points. According to the inventory, any score over 300 increased by 80% my chances of having a “major health breakdown” within the next two years. I understood the score as proof positive that our past year had, indeed, been stressful and eventful. At the time I didn’t think much about whether it might actually predict my future.
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I went straight home after my appointment and called Steve. The doctor had completed a core needle biopsy of my left breast, taking three separate samples of the mass they’d found. In some discomfort, I decided to skip the office and work from home. I threw myself into finishing the report, then began packing. Steve and I had planned a weekend at the Peaks of Otter, a rustic lodge and restaurant off the Blue Ridge Parkway, overlooking a small lake in the valley below Sharp Top and Flat Top mountains. We wouldn’t have any answers until Monday or Tuesday, so we went ahead with our getaway.
Having the fact of your mortality plunked down in your path recalibrates perspective, turns up your awareness. We stopped on the way to the Peaks to browse art and antiques in nearby Bedford. A light breeze lifted and chuffed my hair as I rounded a corner onto Main Street. I thought: pay attention to this pleasure; you won’t have it long if you lose your hair to chemotherapy. Later, walking along a forest trail, I noticed tiny details: unremarkable mushrooms, striking patterns of bark on trees.
We tried to stay positive. I researched “benign breast tumors” on my phone, looking for descriptions of all the possible permutations that matched my symptoms. In a lighter moment, Steve looked at me with a tender smile and twinkly eye and said, “I thought of this earlier, but I wasn’t sure I should say it—I don’t mind if you have one Sharp Top and one Flat Top.” He reassured me that even if we’d known for certain we’d face this moment before we’d walked down the aisle, he still would have chosen to marry me. We’d had so little time together, and we wanted so much more.
The next morning, as we strolled the path around the lodge’s lake, we met Ranger Neas, who pulled fossils from his backpack that showed the Roanoke Valley was once an ocean, and asked us if we were familiar with Einstein’s theory of relativity and the time-space continuum. We’d asked him about trees, and ended up talking about time. Instead of understanding time as relative, he asserted, we’ve become slaves to our human construct of time and the belief that time-is-money. “But nature doesn’t do that, the mountains don’t do that,” the Ranger said. I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain”—the mountain takes the long view, even as it understands the value of the smallest interaction. We could choose to change our relationship to time, the ranger urged. Instead of the clock being life’s measure, we could choose beauty, joy, love—the richness of the life we live. We could learn to understand, value, spend time in ways that are more meaningful.
My own relationship to fate and faith is ever-changing, but our conversation with the ranger felt something more than coincidental.
Each evening during our stay, Steve and I held hands as we sat outside on our room’s balcony, tracking the stars as they appeared to move across the firmament. We tried to describe the different shades of dark that were the sky, the water, the mountains, pondering whether reflected moonlight was silver or some other color. When I saw a single falling star, I wished, and hard.
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The call came, as promised, on Monday afternoon. The radiologist’s phrasing stuck with me: “I’m sorry to tell you, it is a cancer.” A cancer: singular, specific. It felt somehow less all-encompassing, stated that way—a thing that was, a thing that existed, not a blanket pronouncement of my fate. I was grateful for that, and for the kindness in his voice. “We’re going to fix this,” he said. “I hate it, since you’re so young. But we’re going to fix it. It’s a garden-variety—if there can be such a thing—intermediate-grade breast cancer. And we’re going to fix it.”
I hung up, cursed, cried. Steve and I walked a few fast laps around the park across from our house, amped up on adrenaline. After we’d burned off some of the shock, we decided to have dinner at the local restaurant where we’d shared our first date.
There, as the sun set, it created star-shaped shadows from the lamps hanging behind the window shades. There was still much we didn’t know. The waiting had begun.