A Day at the Beach

By Merrill Joan Gerber


I once took a poetry class with a poet who published poems about Superman, Wonder Woman, Dixie cups, skate keys, Good N’Plenty candies, Blackjack gum—all things that live in our memories and still create a shiver of pleasure when we think of them. He advised us to name every poem “A Day at the Beach” in order not to give away the heart of the experience, the meaning of the poem, the shape of the poem—all of which remained to be revealed by the elements, the words, the journey on which the poem was devised to take us.

Recently I had an experience I want to call “A Day at the Beach”–a trip to my chosen medical facility where I had scheduled four appointments in one day with doctors and trained medical personnel, all highly paid, all of whom had access to my body or, as my Buddhist friend calls it, “my meat suit.”

At 8 AM I began at the Mammogram Super bowl–the drill well-known by nearly every woman in the civilized world: Enter the dressing room: remove your shirt or blouse, put on the gown open at the front, then sit and wait with other women in the small waiting room wondering which of us is destined to be the “one in eight” who will have breast cancer. (I already know. I am the one in eight.  I have already been treated for breast cancer with two surgeries, a year of chemo, and radiation.)

Even now, years hence, I cannot calmly manage to have my mammogram, without feeling panic. I am this month five years out from the day of my first surgery, the magic five years that some suggest means you have got away with your life. But it’s not the case, it’s never the case with cancer, every three months I still have a blood test for cancer markers and for abnormal readings in other organs, every three months I see my oncologist who examines my breasts and every year the mammogram is still required.

Today, I endure the crushing of my breast and a half. I ask the tech if, since I have had cancer, I might get a radiologist to tell me results of this mammogram before I leave and not have to wait the required ten days for a letter to arrive. She says no radiologist has yet come in, but why don’t I stop back later. Later?  I tell her that my next appointment is with a knee surgeon to verify if I am a candidate for knee replacement surgery, and my appointment after that is with my oncologist, “Dr. B.” “Oh,” the tech says, “she is my oncologist, too.”  “You have had breast cancer?” “Mine is colon cancer.” “She’s a wonderful doctor,” I volunteer.  “Yes, she’s amazing,” the tech answers.  “The best!”  I go into the dressing room, discard my hospital gown get dressed, and find, in the waiting room my patient husband, doing a crossword puzzle but willing to rush with me to my next appointment.

The knee surgeon is an hour and a half late. My husband and I sit in the examining room where there are brochures on hip replacement, knee replacement, and various size purple gloves.  After the first half hour, I wander out in the hall. No nurse is around.  After the second half hour, I go out to find someone, some nurse, and I’m told the doctor is really backed up.  I inform her that I have an appointment in twenty minutes with my oncologist which I can’t miss. “You may have to reschedule with the surgeon,” she says to me, and I tell her I refuse to do that!  I explain how difficult it was for me to schedule these four appointments at which I have to appear today!  It was almost a feat of magic.

After fifteen more minutes in the room, in which I have begun to open cabinet drawers and count syringes, I rush out into the hall and nearly crash into a man who says to me, “I’ll be right in!” “Are you the knee surgeon?” He admits that he is. He isn’t what I expected. He’s quite short and he is smiling.

One minute later he comes into the examining room and asks me what level of pain I am in. “None,” I tell him. “I’m sitting down.”  He glances at my knees, asks me to bend them forward and back and then to wiggle my ankles up and down.  He tells me he has looked at my ex-rays, my knee bones are grinding like razorblades upon one another and I am a definite candidate for knee replacement.  He states, “I want you to know knee surgery has the most painful recovery there is from any surgery. And there is a four to five month waiting list. Think it over and let me know.” He adds. “I know you have an appointment with another doctor now.  I believe you can make it if you hurry.”

As my husband and I rush across the hospital grounds toward the Oncology department, as I am imagining my knee being sawed off and a metal prosthesis being stuck into my thigh bone, I hear my name being called. The tech from the mammogram department is running after me, flapping an envelope in her hand. I gasp with alarm as she approaches me, calling, “I knew you were having an appointment in Oncology. I have the report from the radiologist.”  She hands me the envelope and I hear her saying “Don’t worry, it’s good.”  I figure out what she must mean and begin to cry.  We hug each other.  We both are crying in this remarkable moment.

Weak with gratitude, I thank her and proceed into the “Oncology” door to see my beloved oncologist, a woman who glows with some kind of radiant light, ability, without guarantees, to reassure her patients that they are going to live.

She and I go over my recent lab tests, my blood work is okay, my liver is okay, my kidneys are okay…but let’s see, my cancer markers have gone up a second time. “Don’t worry,” she says.  “I’ll put in an order for another CEA test, in a month, and we’ll see what it says.” We both know that if these cancer markers go up a third time, I will be having CT scans of bones and lungs and brain to look for possible cancer sites. She examines my breasts. I glance down: they are what they are now.  I am lucky to have what’s left of them. “You have a good report card,” she says. “Try to enjoy your life.”

Off I go off to the last appointment of the day—it’s a field of vision test after which detailed photographs will be taken of my optic nerves which my optometrist has told me are asymmetrical and may be indicators of glaucoma.  I rest my chin on a little cup (newly wiped with smelly alcohol) and I’m told by the male tech to push a button when a see a flash of light anywhere on the black screen.  I push and push, sometimes I push when there is no light, and I don’t push when there is a light.  My neck hurts at this strange angle where I am positioned. I am so very tired.  I push and push the button till I finally ask the tech to tell me when this will be over.  It’s not over.  He’s a big tall guy with a grim expression.  Next he has to take photographs of my optic nerves. “Look at this light, don’t move your head.” Then he has to test the thickness of my cornea. Then he has to numb my eyes and take a pressure reading.

I’m burning to ask him what he sees so far. And suddenly I do.  It’s forbidden, but I’m old enough to be his mother.  I ask him if so far he thinks I have glaucoma. (My mother had glaucoma, she went blind in one eye.)  Of course he says he can’t tell me.  “But I’m a grown up, and these are my eyes.  If you know something about them, I’m entitled to know, don’t you think?”  He thinks, I can tell, that I should shut up. “I know you know the answer to my question.” He’s immovable. “But when will I know the results?” “It will take a full week for your doctor to get them.”  “A week?  When you know right now?” “You’re all done,” the man says. “You may leave.  Don’t rub your eyes; they will be numb for some time.”  He has the same first name as the knee surgeon.

My poor tired husband is waiting in the downstairs lobby, sitting by the player piano that doles out its dull, monotonal tunes.

I feel as if we are like tri-athletes that have run three, no four, races in this one day. A ridiculous challenge, simply to get it all done at once, not to have to drive these 24 miles more than once for my appointments. What stress, what exhaustion, And certain results still lie ahead!

On the way home, we pass the Yum Yum Donut shop. My husband slows down and asks me, “Would you like me to get you some donuts?”

“I would love a donut,” I tell him, “but let’s pass in the interest of health.”

Not eating a donut, I am sure, will prevent our falling prey to cancer, glaucoma, knee surgery and even death.

As we drive on the freeway, the sun disappears suddenly and we find ourselves under a black cloud. Thunder roars!  Lightning flashes!  Rain beats on the windshield so hard we are nearly blinded.

My husband is trying to steer us to safety. Suddenly the sun comes out again, brilliant and blindingly.  Who knows what all this means? At home, exhausted, we fall straight into bed and sleep till midnight.  The day has been a long poem, a mystery, an adventure– or merely a day at the beach.