I had a lot of time on my hands yesterday to think about the subject of waiting, as my 20 minute tyre repair turned into a two-hour ordeal trapped in the rubber stink and decade-old magazine hell that is the tyre repair shop’s waiting area. According to researchers, we are more likely to tolerate having to wait for something if what we are waiting for is desirable, and we have something interesting (or at least distracting) to do whilst we wait. Clearly Bob Jane has not been keeping up with the research.
We spend a lot of life waiting. Fifteen minutes for our prawn chow mein and special fried rice on a Friday night, 30 minutes because the dentist is performing a particularly tricky root canal (the sound of which will never leave me), 10 minutes in a queue for movie tickets. Most of this waiting is done without much thought or attention – we check Facebook on our phone or read a New Idea from 2003 – and next thing we know our number’s been called and we’re on our way.
Then comes cancer. Cancer is all about the waiting. And the waiting is fraught and excruciating and ongoing. My first wait was less than 24 hours – I had a biopsy done at 2pm on a Thursday and by 10am the next morning the call came through. My next wait was from seeing the surgeon to having the surgery – only a day but one where my mind buzzed pretty much non-stop. The wait in the pre-operative waiting room was so sad, my husband by my side listening to my incessant small-talk which I seemed unable to stop. Anything to avoid the silence. Then, once I was on the operating table, I had to wait whilst they set up the IV lines on my left arm. They normally use the right side but that was where the surgeon needed to stand to remove my breast and lymph nodes. As I waited, I placed my hand over my right breast, and remembered how my infant son had fed pretty much exclusively from that side from day one, he was always fussy on the left but comfortable on the right. That wait ended as the anaesthetic took over. I often wonder if my hand was still on my breast when they started the surgery, and if it is what all women undergoing a mastectomy do as a natural, protective reflex.
Once I awoke from the surgery, I started waiting for the nausea to stop. Oh, the nausea. I vomited so much that I wet myself, which was when I discovered that not one but both of the nurses looking after me in recovery where in my senior class at high school. I hadn’t seen either of them in 25 years, yet here we all were. If it was part of a movie plot you would think to yourself ‘oh bullshit, as if that would happen’ but it did. Rachael and Rowena. They stayed with me for hours as they worked with the doctors to try to get my nausea under control. That waiting was made so much more tolerable by that double blast from the past, and I will be eternally grateful for the set of cosmic coincidences that made it happen.
My next wait was for the surgeon to come and give me the news on my pathology the following afternoon. I cried that night (once the pethidine high had finally worn off) in terror of the unknown, and then again the next afternoon when the surgeon delivered his news – the cancer was all through my lymph nodes, it was as aggressive as it gets, and – he drew breath at this point and the wait, although only a few seconds, seemed eternal – he suspected that the cancer had probably already spread elsewhere. And that’s when the hardest wait of all started.
To find out if the cancer had spread I had to have a CT scan and a bone scan. Because of the various dyes used in the tests, and because I had just been through a massive surgery, the tests had to be done on separate days. It was now Friday evening and the first test would be done Monday, and the second Tuesday. And then I would see the surgeon Tuesday at 5pm. A full four-day wait to find out if I had terminal cancer. Maniacs, despots, psychopaths and crazies of the world take note – if you want to torture someone (and those close to them), tell them they definitely have cancer, but then make them wait four days to find out if it’s terminal.
I spent those four days pretty much non-stop in the company of my husband, whose unwavering love and support were literally the only things keeping me afloat. For 96 hours I waited. To pass the time I cried, raged, mentally planned my funeral, had horrendously difficult conversations with friends and family, and wondered if perhaps this would all be easier if I wasn’t an atheist. And when, finally, it was 5pm Tuesday, I sat in the surgeon’s office waiting for him to deliver my fate. He came straight from a day of surgery to our appointment, so was just reading my test results as he walked in the door. Time was suspended – again – whilst I searched his face for a clue about what he was reading. Then, the words: ‘Tests are all clear’, at which point I started crying and laughing and would have probably also peed my pants except that Rachael and Rowena weren’t there to help me change my undies.
That was the end of the worst wait, but little did I know about how much more waiting there was to come. In fact, so much waiting that it will need a whole other post, for which you’ll have to wait.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this. As I was driving to work this morning, soaking up my 15 minutes of daily thinking time, this post was forming in my head. As the ideas tumbled around in my brain, I realised that this song was playing on the radio:
I’m terrified of the waiting. The answers are concrete. Understandable. Actionable. The waiting …… well it’s none of those things.
As my husband would say, the waiting is bullshit.
“As I waited, I placed my hand over my right breast, and remembered how my infant son had fed pretty much exclusively from that side from day one . . . It is what all women undergoing a masectomy do as a natural, protective reflex.” Has to be one of the saddest things I have ever read. Julie: you express yourself with such unflinching honesty and with such clarity that a few simple words can evoke a world of pain and speak directly to the heart.
Oh Georgina you just made me cry. It means so much to me that my writing is reaching you. Thank you.
Actually, you made me cry. Such insights are a rare privilege.