Barbi Calusdian is relatively new to writing. Thanks to an empty nest, she took a local writing class, fell in love with the written word and hasn’t looked back since. Her short story “Hide and Seek” was published in the anthology Fearful Fun by Thurston Howl Publications. She’s also been published in the online publication The Write Launch.
Sliver of Hope
A lot of things run through your mind when someone tells you that you’re going to die.
The doctor must be wrong.
I’m only 53.
This isn’t fair.
Then there’s the stupid stuff. The projects around the house that you won’t get to finish. The places you won’t get to visit. The half written stories. The photos. The damn photos. Who is going to put those photos into albums if you die? What if you never get to it, and your kids find that picture of their great Aunt Bertha and you’re not there to tell them who she is?
Then it’s back to denial, anger and fear, a never-ending merry-go-round of emotions that started with two simple words.
The funny thing is, you almost didn’t have a visit with your oncologist at all this year. Last year, the nurse practitioner told you congrats! It’s been ten years! You don’t need to see us any more. We are sending you out into the world.
When you expressed doubts, she said we can see you again next year, one more time, if that would make you feel better.
Now, you almost wish you had said no.
This year, after discussing your mammogram—looks good!—you casually mention a nagging cough that’s been around for months.
Well, I don’t like that, she says. Let’s get it checked, just in case. It’s probably nothing. Later that week, you get the c-scan, but you’re not worried. It’s a nuisance, really.
You’re relaxing with your husband at six o’clock on Friday, and stupidly decide to check your patient portal. The report is indecipherable medical jargon, except for those two words.
What’s the matter, your husband asks, seeing the panic in your eyes. You read the report aloud.
What the hell does that mean? he says, his voice cracking.
You leave a message for your oncologist, and even though it’s after hours, she calls you back almost immediately.
Your heart sinks because her tone is somber. You had hoped she would say it’s a mistake, that the scan showed nothing, sorry for the scare. Instead she talks about swollen lymph nodes and biopsies, and your husband starts to fall apart in front of you because even though he can’t hear what she’s saying, he can read it on your face. He sits with his head in his hands as you mumble responses and hang up.
This is supposed to be in the rearview, not even an issue. Your breast cancer was eleven years ago. You beat it. It can’t be back. There is no way it has spread to your lungs, because you know that is incurable. You watched your friend die from that very thing, thankful that it didn’t happen to you, grateful your cancer had never spread, only stage three, thank God, thank God.
This can’t be happening. It was over eleven years ago, they can’t tell you it’s back, they can’t.
And now the whole damn weekend is in front of you and you have to wait till Monday for the pulmonologist to call and set up a consult. Waiting will become your new dreaded pastime.
Your husband tries his best to cheer you up all weekend and get your mind off things. He buys you a Mickey Mouse bird bath for the backyard, because you love Disney. He takes you to your favorite restaurant, the one you went to the night you got engaged. He finally hangs that beautiful print he bought for you last summer on vacation, a simple scene of a row of birch trees with green foliage poking through, a picture so peaceful, you wish you could disappear into it.
Even though you know you shouldn’t, you sneak upstairs and google metastatic breast cancer. The first result punches you in the gut.
About one-third of women live at least five years after diagnosis. Some women may make it to ten years, but the life expectancy is five.
Five years. Only one-third of women. There’s a two-thirds chance you’ll live less than that. And if you’re in the lucky one-third, it’s still probably only five years. An incredibly small amount of time. Your daughter graduated high school five years ago, or was it yesterday?
Five years, five years, five years, the words play in a loop in your head.
You start calculating how many weekends, how many days, hours you have left. How many walks in the woods, how many dance competitions, how many books can you read before your time is up.
You fall down a rabbit hole, visit at least twenty different sites, but the information never changes. Some are even more grim than others and suddenly there’s a band around your chest and you can’t breathe, it’s too much, and you fly downstairs and fall into your husband’s arms.
He cries with you, tells you that you aren’t going to die, it isn’t cancer, you’ll see. Stop looking at Google, he says, but you wonder how long until he starts with the searches.
You sit together on the couch, gazing up at the framed print, imagining yourself sitting in the shade of the trees, and soon the tears subside.
The week crawls slowly until you meet with the pulmonologist, expecting the worst, expecting him to frown and say, I’ve seen the scans, it looks bad, I’m so sorry. Then he surprises you by listing all the other things that could be wrong with you. It doesn’t have to be cancer, he says. That’s not a done deal, he says. There are many other possibilities. He’s angry about the report, angry that you had to see it without any explanation, angry that someone would put it there for your eyes when there is no way to tell from a scan.
Let’s just take the lymph nodes out completely, he suggests. Then there will be no question. Then you will know. You’re a cancer survivor. You’ve been through so much and he wants to ease your mind so it’s decided. Not just a biopsy. Let’s take the damn things out.
In a daze, you and your husband leave the doctor’s office. The sun is shining a little brighter and it feels like a day to get ice cream.
It’s not a done deal. You might not have cancer.
A tiny voice in the back of your head says not to celebrate, that you don’t know anything yet, but there’s a sliver of hope that wasn’t there before.
It doesn’t take long before the negative thoughts push their way back in.
The weekend before your surgery, you attend a wedding and you stumble through the day, pretending to be happy, drinking too much. The flashing lights on happy faces tear your heart open, the band around your chest tightens a notch. How many weddings, how many birthday parties, how many life milestones will you miss?
The newlyweds are on the dance floor. Your husband slips an arm around you and the band tightens even more. You hope that he will find someone after you die because he deserves it, but then your heart breaks at the thought of someone else growing old with him, because that’s your job. You’re supposed to putter around the yard together, watch old Friends reruns, and attend family weddings. Imagining someone else taking your place shatters your soul.
You grab your husband’s hand and tell him you have to get some fresh air, you have to go outside right now, and without question he follows you out and you stand beneath a lovely lilac tree, the scent enveloping you both as you hold each other.
I’m sorry, you say. I don’t know why I’m crying, you say.
Don’t be stupid, he says. Of course you know why you’re crying. He rocks you for a while and then you’re ready to return, although he wisely won’t let you drink anymore, and you manage to enjoy the rest of the night.
The day of the surgery arrives and you’re scared because anesthesia terrifies you and your husband holds your hand and strokes your hair until it’s time to go. Unlike your lumpectomy, you are completely awake as they wheel you down the hall, pulse racing, everything passing by in a blur because you had to remove your glasses, but soon after you get on the table, you don’t remember a thing.
During the surgery, they call your husband from the OR and tell him the surgery isn’t going as planned and they need to do a different procedure, but he will not remember the details or what they said exactly because he is freaked out. You will learn later that there was too much scar tissue in the way to remove the second lymph node.
The damned scar tissue. You don’t know it yet, but this scar tissue is the problem, this is what will give you sleepless nights, and will hide the answers you desperately need.
Surgery goes well, and a new waiting game begins. Another week. But you’re an expert at this game, a professional. And so what if time crawls by? If you’ve only got five years left, it’s a blessing, this slow ticking clock.
You take time off of work. Sleep late. Feel guilty for sleeping late. Play on your phone way too much. Get angry at yourself for wasting time on your phone, because you’re probably dying and you should be doing meaningful things, filling your days playing board games with loved ones, or tackling those photos. But you don’t have the energy, so you sleep. The weather is dark and overcast, even though the sun is burning brightly for everyone else.
You wait. And wait.
A week goes by.
An email informs you that your results are in and you call your husband to your side. Hands shaking, you open your patient portal and see two reports. The words “No malignancy found” leap off the screen and the sun gleams through the window, lighting your smiling face. You say the words out loud.
No malignancy found.
The second report is confusing, but from what you can gather, there were no atypical cells present. You and your husband puzzle over the verbiage, but it seems like good news.
There are tears and hugs and you read and re-read the report, but how can you misinterpret “no malignancy found”? You text your friends a screenshot of the results. Now you want to go to work, you’re looking forward to teaching. You tell your adult dance class everything you’ve been going through, but not to worry, happy ending, you’re going to be fine. Thank goodness, they say. What a relief.
Your youngest says she won’t celebrate until an actual human being tells you it’s not cancer, but you wave her off. I’m fine, you say.
She’s smarter than you know.
Do you even need to go to your oncology appointment this week? You suppose that you should, just to tie things up, maybe make an appointment for next year, shake her hand.
Of course your husband insists on accompanying you, even if the visit is unnecessary and the two of you sit in the patient room at Dana Farber, chatting. There’s a knock at the door and a physician’s assistant comes in to talk to you, his face as still as stone.
Words float through the air, and you barely catch them. Metastasized cancer. Quality of life. Treatment options. So sorry.
The walls are closing in. The band around your chest squeezes. The man fades out of focus as your eyes glass over, the reality that you are going to die after all stabbing you in the heart.
Wait, you say. The report said no malignancy.
He folds his hands, furrows his brow. The doctor will discuss that with you. They were not able to get enough of a sample, he says. Too much scar tissue in the way, scar tissue from you radiation eleven years ago, but we still believe it’s cancer. He leaves to get the doctor.
Silence. After all, what can you say to each other in a moment like this? Even words like “I love you” fall short when death is around the corner. Your husband takes your hand and you sit quietly, every breath an effort, your brain shutting off.
The doctor and her assistant return, and you nod and listen as she explains something about cells wrapping around each other, an indication of cancer. There’s not much else it could be, she says. She suggests a course of action, but you interrupt her.
What is the life expectancy, you ask.
She doesn’t want to answer. Hems and haws. Tells you that you need another biopsy to be completely sure. You prod further and she finally gives an answer. But you already know, thanks to the all-knowing Google.
But we don’t know what we are dealing with, she says. It could be more time than that.
We are going on vacation in a few weeks, you say. A dream trip, France, Italy, Amsterdam.
We can cancel, your husband says.
You shake your head. The trip will go as planned. If you aren’t dying, it won’t matter if the biopsy gets pushed off and if you are dying, you want to see Italy before you go.
Scans, tests, blood draws, constant and never-ending, are in your future and they can wait. You are not missing this trip.
Besides, he has been training for almost a year for an Ironman. That’s the whole reason for the trip. You will not allow him to quit. No way. The fact that he was willing to give it up without a second thought makes your heart hurt.
The oncologist puts you on medication to treat your probable cancer and you drive home, have a glass of wine, lose yourself in the picture over the fireplace, studying the sharp lines of the trees, breathing in, breathing out, imagining the fresh air.
There is one last doctor’s appointment before your vacation, a post-op with the pulmonologist. He enters the room, a big smile on his face. Wait, why is he smiling?
He tells you that you have mediastinal fibrosis, something that happens in women who have a history of radiation treatment for breast cancer.
For a moment, you can’t speak, frozen to the seat, afraid you heard him wrong.
It’s not cancer, you say.
I would be shocked if this was cancer, he answers.
What is happening right now? Is he telling you that you’re going to live?
It’s not cancer, you repeat.
He really doesn’t think so.
Well he’d better talk to your oncologist because she’s sure that it is.
He exits the room and you turn to your husband in disbelief. Neither of you have any words, and he starts to laugh as you shake your head.
The doctor returns after leaving a message with your oncologist, reiterates his diagnosis, very sure of himself. I would be shocked if it was cancer, he repeats.
Every time I see you, I want to kiss you, you tell him.
He laughs. Come back in six weeks, he says. Take another scan. If it is cancer, it would show growth. Your oncologist is on board with this plan, hopeful even.
The world is bright again, although you’ve got whiplash and you wish you had a definite answer, you are going to hang onto his words like a lifeline—I’d be shocked if this were cancer.
Your trip is everything you imagined, and you somehow barely think about the roller coaster ride you’ve been on, barely even think about five years, about the big C. You continue to take your meds as instructed. And when you return from your trip, six weeks after your post-op visit, your scan shows no growth. You can breathe again. It’s over. You and your husband cry with relief.
The euphoria lasts two whole days. On a follow up visit with your oncologist, she delivers another uppercut. She’s concerned that your medicine might be masking the truth, keeping the cancer at bay and messing up the results. So now you have to go off the meds, wait two months for another scan, and the roller coaster is starting another ride even though you’re screaming to get off.
“I’m sorry,” your oncologist says. “This never happens. We usually get answers much easier than this. This never happens.”
How can you go through this again, two months in limbo, like an inmate on death row, waiting to see if your death sentence will be overturned? It’s too hard, it’s too much to expect one person to deal with, and even though your husband is there for you, will do anything to help, he can’t possibly understand the terror overtaking you on a nightly basis.
Death has always scared you, doesn’t it scare everyone, but now it’s right there, looming, threatening, ready to steal you away—or not. Waiting two more months to know is torture, you just want an answer now, any definitive answer so you know how to proceed, back to normal or getting your affairs in order.
Last time, you amazed everyone with your positive attitude. Last time, you wouldn’t even entertain the thought of dying, because that wasn’t an option. Cancer is just a word, not a sentence, you said. Last time, it was easy, but you don’t exactly know why. Perhaps because death just seemed such a ludicrous option, how can you die at forty-two, that’s just nuts, no way, besides, you had your palm read once and she said you’d live to be ninety-three, and you’ve been counting on that. You were not going to die, you simply had to take care of the problem and move on.
This time is different. Maybe the thought of going through it all again is too much. The fear is ever present, blocking out the hope, bathing you in a darkness that’s hard to escape from. The band around your chest strangles you, the constant pit of dread sits in your belly like a stone.
You wander in a fog, bouncing between “It’s not cancer” and “I’m going to be dead soon.” The dishes pile up, the laundry is overflowing, but you don’t have the energy. You sit and do nothing, which makes you more anxious, because you shouldn’t be wasting a second of your life. You could be working on the photos, but looking at them makes you spiral into a deeper depression, the reminder of happier times.
The timeline never leaves your mind.
If you’re lucky.
You force yourself to go for a walk, to sit down by the lake and read, to watch silly sitcoms. Your mood starts to lighten and days go by where you don’t even think about it, where you’re enjoying yourself. There is still over a month and a half to go, but death is far from your mind.
Your husband does a thousand little things to make you happy, bending over backwards to fill your days with joy. He tries to get you to eat healthy, always giving in to your junk food cravings because that’s what you want. Not once does he make you feel guilty for being lazy, even though he is doing twice as much work around the house.
At first, you keep your fears to yourself because the thought of losing you is overwhelming him and you want to protect him. But, he is your rock and eventually, you collapse into him and sob, and he breaks down a little as he holds you, whispering that he loves you, that it’s going to be okay. You’re so blessed to have him.
He won’t have any trouble finding a new wife when you die.
There’s happiness in working in the garden, in writing stories, visiting with friends. You find yourself thinking about the upcoming scan less and less, focusing on the positive, on living here and now, being present. The possible diagnosis is banished from your mind almost entirely, hanging out in the back, but not taking over. Most of your days lately are good ones.
Until one day, you cough.
It’s not a heavy, hacking cough like it used to be. Just a little one, nothing to be concerned about, could be allergies, right? The cough had pretty much disappeared since your surgery, why is it back? You stare at the bit of phlegm in the tissue, as the word CANCER flies to the forefront, in all capital letters, taking over the headlines.
If you start to feel sick, call me right away, the oncologist had said. Don’t wait the entire two months.
This isn’t what she meant, though. It’s a late summer cold, you even have a little runny nose, and you’ve been sneezing like crazy lately, so maybe allergies. It’s got to be allergies.
You can’t tell your husband, not yet, because he will throw you in the car and rush you to Dana Farber in a heartbeat. He’s overcautious, always worrying, and this is nothing to worry about.
You can’t do this anymore. You’re sick of existing in limbo with no answers. How can you possibly wait another month and a half?
It’s hard to breathe. The band squeezes, squeezes. You need to calm down and you cannot burden your husband right now, so you drift to the living room.
Standing in front of the fireplace, you study the framed print. Trees lean this way and that, emerald green leaves interspersed between their skinny trunks. Your heart rate slows, your breath comes easier. You step closer to get a better look.
Carved numbers and letters spill down the bark of one tree, nonsensical and mysterious. You imagine young lovers by the tree, or even drunk teenagers. It’s fun to come up with scenarios, and story ideas pop in your head, stories you’ll never have time to write.
No. Positive thoughts only.
You breathe in deep, trying to lose yourself in the picture, imagining yourself walking around a tree, running your hand along the smooth bark. You close your eyes, breathe, breathe, breathe.
Fresh air fills your lungs and a light breeze kisses your face. Your eyes pop open and your heart lurches in your chest. Reaching out a shaky hand, your fingertips brush against bark as a leaf floats gently to the ground. The trees tower above you beneath an impossibly blue sky.
You glance over your shoulder, back through the frame to the living room, still there waiting for you. Just for a little while. I’ll leave it all behind, just for a bit.
The call of a bird brings your attention back to the forest and you walk through the trees, away from the living room and away from your fears. With every step, the band loosens, the pit in your stomach grows lighter. Soon your house is far behind you and you’re free, away from doctors who can’t agree, away from your phone and its Google searches, away from family and friends who mean well, but hover too much, away from dirty dishes and piles of photos.
A wooden path leads you to a lake, crystal clear water like a sheet of glass, surrounded by trees billowing in the wind. It’s so quiet. The scent of pine trees soothes you, and you breathe deeply, imagining your lungs filling with a bright blue light, and exhaling all the anxiety, all the disease. Your chest expands, tranquility settling in your bones.
A rowboat waits for you on the shore and you gingerly step in and take a seat. The boat floats away, bringing you past mountains, around the bend through a marsh and under a canopy of branches.
You breathe in light, exhale the darkness.
A voice whispers in your ear.
You can fight this.
Whatever happens, you will face it head on.
You’ve got plenty of time.
Breathe in light. Exhale darkness.
Before you know it, you’re back at the shore, following the path to the birch trees, your living room, your life. You steel yourself, taking one last inhalation and step out of the frame and back into your house.
The band around your chest returns, but not as tight as before, the pit in your stomach a manageable weight.
Your husband comes down the stairs and asks where you’ve been.
I went for a walk, you say.
In your pajamas?
You smile. Don’t worry. Nobody saw me.
What’s for dinner, he asks.
Let’s make burgers on the grill and eat outside, you say.
He frowns and looks out the window. It looks like rain.
No, you say. I see sunshine poking through the trees. We’ll be fine.
Copyright 2023 Barbi Calusdian