Pink Lemonade Margaritas

“When you look at a person, any person, remember that everyone has a story.  Everyone has gone through something that has changed them.”

Unknown

I screeched to a stop at the hospital parking lot and pulled in. It was exactly 1 minute past nine.

By the time I’d found the pay machine hidden behind the overgrown bushes, I had beads of sweat running down my forehead. By the time I’d dodged around the lineup at the coffee shop and dashed through the corridors to where I had to be, my shirt was soaked.

They’d told me to come on time. By email, by text, by voice mail, even by old fashioned letter. Late-shows will be pushed back in line, the wait list was long, and it’d be months before I got another chance, or so they had told me. Cursing, I frantically looked for the signs. I saw one for the Biomedical Laboratory, another for the Orthopaedic Unit, then the Diabetes Centre, the Intensive Care Unit, the Pathology Laboratory, the Red Zone. Red Zone? What the heck did they do there? I didn’t have time to find out. I kept running. I finally found the sign I was looking for and scurried through the corridors following the pink arrows on the wall. It was now a full 8 minutes after nine. I was out of breath, panting loudly and the few people who passed by gave me funny looks.

Everyone will tell you that I’m not very good at judging traffic or that I’m an island girl on island time, but those were just poor excuses. I really should have slept earlier, woken up earlier, left home earlier, and got here earlier. Truth was I’d gone to bed late the night before, trying to find a distraction, any distraction, from thinking about the next day. And it was so much easier to fill my brain with utterly useless but cute cat videos. When I eventually got to bed, I tossed and turned all night, and then missed my alarm in the morning.

A nurse with a short grey bob and twinkling blue eyes was waiting for me at the reception desk. She turned and smiled when I walked in.

“Good Morning! You must be my nine o’clock.” She had the same chirpy voice of my favourite kindergarten teacher of long ago.

“Hi,” I said meekly, feeling everyone’s eyes on me, making me feel like I was back in kindergarten again.

The nurse’s smile turned from my face to my head and her eyes narrowed. It was then I realised I’d forgotten to brush my hair. While I’d love to think my morning uncombed hair looked like Erykah Badu’s dazzling do, it probably resembled more like a dirty mop. I smoothed it quickly with a clammy palm. Too late. She’d already noticed. As well as the other people in the room and the receptionist who was now watching with a look of severe disapproval.

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” I stammered, feeling a thin stream of sweat running down my back.

“That’s OK, honey,” the nurse smiled a genial smile. “We give everyone ten minutes grace or they buy us all a round of coffee.”

I sighed in relief and made a mental note to get her a large cup after I was done.

As soon as the receptionist jotted down my name and birth date on her pad and gave me a curt nod, the nurse asked me to follow her inside. In this second inner waiting room, I put on the baby blue hospital gown she had given me and picked a hard plastic chair to sit. I’m now convinced that half of any hospital is made of medical facilities while the other half is made of stark, cold, waiting rooms. They all also must have a hurry up and wait policy. Trying to make sense of these procedures and wait times only made you go crazy, which in turn would require more waiting, and therefore not recommended, so I had nothing else to do but wait patiently.

I was alone in that room for almost ten minutes. With nothing to occupy me, my mind started to wander. There are times I believe women have it better in the world than men and this may have been one. I was glad my gown opened in front, because this way, I could tuck the two flaps in front and pretend I was wearing a long night gown of sorts. A monstrous looking one for sure, but still better than having my back bared for all to see. Because that’s what I’d imagine men being forced to wear, don’t they? Maybe I was committing a major fashion faux pas, but no one had told me otherwise.

The door squeaked open and a pale face peeked in. A woman took a step inside, her eyes darting across the room as if something nasty was waiting to swallow her up. She looked rake thin, had a large scar down her cheek and thinning blonde hair that looked like it had been falling off for a while now. I looked up and smiled that awkward smile you give strangers who cross your path at a grocery store. She turned two frightened eyes my way and took the furthest chair she could find. She was also in a baby blue gown, also opened up in front. I signed with relief to know that at least I’d have company if I wasn’t wearing this thing right.

That was when I spotted the magazines on the coffee table close to where the woman now sat. I got up and walked over, and with a nod to my new waiting room companion, I picked up a handful of tattered journals. She looked away with a frown. While I flipped through stories of Britney and Rihanna’s latest shenanigans, she sat in her corner, on her plastic chair and stared at the wall next to her, her back ramrod straight. Tense. On her side of the wall was a glass encased diagram with instructions for a fire emergency. For the full forty minutes I waited in that room with her, all she did was stare blankly at that picture. From across that empty room I could feel her unhappiness. “Hey sister, it’s gonna to be alright,” I said silently in my mind. “We’re in this together. You’re not alone.” I glanced her way. She was still scrutinising the diagram. “Whatever comes, whatever happens, we can handle this.” My silent positive vibes never made it to her. Her posture never changed nor did her fascination with the fire escape sign.

“Your turn!” The nurse had popped her head in and was now pointing at me. I hurriedly put the magazines away and followed her through the corridor into a large, sterile room. I’d been here before. Once. Three weeks ago. It was a brightly lit room with a bank of computer screens behind a glass cage and an immense white alien robot that took up all the space in the middle of the room.

I took off my t-shirt and bra, and walked up to this great white machine as the nurse had instructed. A sticker on the floor told me where my feet had to go and another on the machine told me where my arms had to go. While the nurse clicked through a computer screen behind her glass shield, I stood half naked in the middle of the room, feeling more vulnerable than I’d ever felt. I’m inherently suspicious of anything that zaps you and it was one reason I didn’t have a microwave in the kitchen. The less zapping all around the better was my thinking.

“Are you ready, honey?” said the nurse, walking over to me now.

No, I wasn’t at all ready, but I nodded. She must have pressed a button or something because with a sudden electrical whine a steel white arm slid out and moved towards me. I jumped back terrified. We both laughed, her sympathetically, and me nervously.

“OK dear, now follow the signs for me, will you? Your hands go in that slot. That’s right. Now bring your feet closer. Closer.”

I felt the cold steel against my skin and tried not to shiver. The nurse reached up and put gentle pressure on my back to move me even closer. Then without any warning, she took a hold of one of my breasts, the right one, and shoved it on a narrow ledge in front. The machine whirred. I watched a glass panel slide down slowly towards my chest until it was firmly on top of my poor unsuspecting breast. The panel kept pushing further and further down, squishing my chest, pulling me in.

Now I’m a petite woman with tiny tits. My ex-husband used to comment on how cute my bum looked but never said a word about my breasts. Because I never had children, my breasts didn’t play a major role in my life other than just being there. I can’t say just hanging there, because there was not a lot to hang in the first place. I was one of those girls who had had a sudden growth spurt between nine and thirteen, then stopped growing altogether, which meant I’ve had a thirteen year old’s breasts all my life. If Pamela Anderson sported gorgeous Rocky Mountains on her chest, then mine were the bunny hills where they taught kids to ski. Insignificant. An embarrassment. I’d been so ashamed of my breasts as a teen I was certain I’d end up single for life. No guy would date a breastless girl, would they?

I remembered one day, later on as an adult, sitting around the coffee table at my office with a few buxom colleagues. The conversation inevitably turned to our bodies as it often does in female company. My colleagues sipped their coffee and teas while complaining about how their “girls” got in the way. It seemed that simple things like tying shoelaces, doing push-ups, or finding the right bathing suit was an immense challenge. I listened in amazement. And envy. This world was foreign to me. I wished I had “girls” too.  At the end of their rant, one of them looked at me and said. “Lucky you, you don’t have to worry about these things, do you?”

I almost spluttered in my tea. “Lucky?”

“You’ve got the perfect pixie body. Do you know what I’d give for that?”

I stared at her in disbelief. “Do you know what I’d give for your girls?”

They laughed. But I was dead serious. Oh, what would I have given to make my chest fuller, more wholesome, more womanly. Though I was disdainful of plastic surgery, I had secretly wondered what a boob-job might look like. But now, looking down at my breast being squished by this ominous machine, I was partly delighted to discover I had boobs of some significance, big enough to fit on this machine, but I was also partly horrified that what little I had was being flattened into a pancake.

The machine whirred.

That hurt. I made a face.

“Perfect,” said the nurse running back to her shielded control station. “Don’t move. Don’t even breath.”

I stood stock still. More button pushing by the nurse and more breast crushing by the machine, but I held my breath like my life dependent on it. I didn’t want any mistakes or any questions this time around.

The machine whined louder and louder and then suddenly came to a stop. The glass panel released with a slight swoosh, and my breast swelled back to its normal size.

“Relax,” said the nurse’s voice from behind me. “You can breathe now.”

“Oouff.” I let go, extricated my breast from clutches of the machine and took a step backward.

“We’re not done yet,” chirped the nurse.

My shoulders drooped.

“Just a few more to go dear, so stand exactly where you are,” said the nurse. “I’ve scheduled the ultrasound next. I know it’s not easy, but it’ll all be over before you know it.” I could hear the encouraging smile in her voice.

 

This wasn’t my first mammography. My doctor had recommended the test but I’d thought nothing of it because it had been part of a regular annual physical. Then came the results.

“Your youth’s working against you,” the doctor had said peering into her computer screen. The image on it looked like one of those blobs of paint they show you in psychology class, a blurry white splotch on a black background.

“I’m not that young,” I said looking at her surprised. “You do know how old I am, don’t you?”

“Oh, you’re not old yet,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Your body’s dense right now. That’s why it’s difficult to identify the problem, if there’s a problem at all. Things go downhill and pretty loose after fifty, let me tell you. It’s also much easier to form a diagnosis then.”

She had seen a shadow. A shadow of a small dark mass, she said. Maybe it was something. Maybe it was nothing. I sat silently, listening intently, not sure how to take this in. “Well,” she said taking her glasses off and looking at me straight in the eye. “This concerns me. I’m afraid you’ll have to go back for a re-test. I’ll have you booked into the first available slot.”

My heart skipped a beat.

***

The night before my re-test, that is before I turned on the laptop to watch cats doing wacky things, I sat at the edge of my hotel bed silently and still, till my limbs fell asleep. My mind though, was spinning a million miles a second. Is this really happening? I checked my phone for the tenth time. Yes, the appointment was still there in my calendar. Whatever the outcome, I can handle this. I’m bigger than this. I’ll worry when I know. Maybe it’s nothing. But what if it’s something? Oh my god, what if the test comes positive? Then what would I do? How am I going to handle this? Oh. My. God.

It had been a tough twelve months. I’d gone through a divorce after a long term marriage. I’d also gone through a change in jobs, a three thousand kilometre move across the country, and a disastrous attempt at rekindling ties with my family. I was now officially between homes, having sold half of my dream-home to my ex-husband and in search of a new home in this city notorious for the highest real estate prices in the world. Being nomadic and living out of a suitcase was draining. All my closest friends were thousands of miles away. Any friendships I was building in this city were still fragile, too new. A shiver went down my spine as I realised I was alone now. There was no one to help me cope if this test turns out positive. No one to confide this news with, not even a goldfish. I swallowed a tear, brought my knees to my chest and hugged my blanket closer.

Then I remembered one of the bravest women I knew. Nancy, one of my friends whom I’d left behind, had gone through all this and more while she was pregnant with her first child, in her forties no less. She’d persevered through the first tests, then a hundred more. She’d gone through an early induced birth, a heartbreaking surgery, then chemotherapy, radiation and all the heartache and pain that went with fighting breast cancer. All on top of having to take care of a new born baby. I remembered how wrapped up I’d been in my own troubles that I’d neglected her. Yes, I’d dropped by, sent cards and tea, but I could have done more. Much more. What a terrible friend I was. I wished I could have been there for her. Imagine what she must have gone through. The fears, the worries, the pain. And here I was terrified of just the possibility.

I remembered one night how Nancy had sat on her sofa, exhausted from yet another bout of treatment while her beautiful baby slept quietly in his crib. I remembered her saying that there is always someone worse off than you, whatever your circumstances. She was someone who always thought of the other. She only talked about gratitude, immense gratitude to her doctors, her nurses, her counsellors, the health care workers, her husband, but most of all to her newborn baby. “He keeps me going,” she said reaching to smooth the one and only hair on his little head. “He’s the main thing getting me through this.” I remembered him stirring in his sleep and clutching onto his mother’s pinky finger, still in his dream world. Sweet and innocent, bringing a smile to his mother’s face. Nancy may have been tired, but she didn’t look sick. She never did. Her cheeks always had a rosy hue and her eyes were always bright, filled with life, filled with strength that she probably didn’t feel she had. It was hard to say what she was going through inside. But in the end she had conquered it all. Magnificently so. She’d gone through everything anyone could have gone through in that situation, and done it with gumption and grace. In my mind she rose tall and brave. A testament to life. To courage. Now, I sat alone thousands of miles away, remembering her words, breathing in her courage, strengthened by her conviction and above all, uplifted. Still fearful, but uplifted.

***

The woman with the scar was standing next to the fire escape sign, gently rocking back and forth. The waiting room had become busier while we had both gone for our tests. More women had arrived, women of all ages, backgrounds and sizes. One tall, blond woman with a strong jawline sitting up front reminded me of Nancy. She sat legs crossed, tapping into her phone. Looking around I couldn’t help notice everyone’s breasts. This is not something I’d see or look on any ordinary day, but that day, I noticed them all, breasts faintly outlined under thin blue hospital gowns. Big breasts, flat breasts, droopy breasts, floppy breasts, and perky breasts. Whatever their breasts were like, most of the women here were by themselves. Some were flipping through magazines. Others were sitting quietly and staring into nothing, hugging their purses. No one was smiling.

“You’re next!” said the voice of the nurse signalling to an older woman next to me. The woman picked up her purse, and shuffled out of the room staring at the floor, like she was walking towards her execution or something. I plopped back in my chair, expecting to do more waiting. I hadn’t done anything much that day other than trip through hospital corridors and hug white machines, but I was spent. I looked at the dozen women in the room. What are the chances any of us had dastardly sick cells in our bodies? Deathly cells that could end our lives or give us a lifetime of unhappy years. I watched the pale, thin woman rocking back and forth near the fire escape sign. What’s going through her head? Where her hospital gown ended, I could see a torn jean skirt and a faded smudgy tattoo on the back of her leg. I looked at her closely.

There’s an infamous street in this city’s downtown that you wouldn’t want to go after dark. I’ve been there during the day once, having to cross it to get to an office tower nearby. It’s a short street full of men and women who trade needles and sleep on the pavement, or at a local shelter if they were lucky. These were people who’d gone through hard times and it showed. It wasn’t their torn, unwashed clothes that gave them away, it was the broken look on their faces that did. The look of fear, the hopelessness in their eyes. They looked beaten by life, like this woman who was rocking back and forth in this hospital waiting room.

Something about her snapped me awake. Sure I was now divorced, alone in a new city and homeless, at least in my definition of homelessness. But boy was I lucky. I had food on my plate and a roof over my head. I had an education and a good job. I had good friends and I was generally healthy and fit. I’ve had tough times like anybody else, but I’d always managed to pull through. Most importantly, I was lucky to have an attentive doctor and a cheerful nurse. I was lucky to get squished by that cold zapping machine. I lived in a place where when there’s a smidgen of doubt about my health, an entire system rallied around to help me. Over my lifetime, I’d lived and travelled in dozens and dozens of countries, so I’ve seen despair and hopelessness. I’ve seen desperateness. How could I’ve forgotten? I knew how many people on this earth didn’t have access to a doctor or a nurse like I did. I knew how many didn’t have enough food to eat, clean water to drink or a safe place to sleep. I also knew how many people on this earth had a lifespan that was half of mine. Half of mine.

I sat up in my chair. No, I’m not going to let this steamroll over me. If anyone had the resources and good fortune to face this fight, it had to be me. I squared my shoulders. My fate will be up to me, for me to mold. I looked straight ahead, head up, back strong. If this test comes positive, so be it. I will face it and I’ll make the best of it. I’ll take each day as it comes. And I’ll fight for health. I’ll fight for life. Damn it if I’m going to stand in a corner and take it in the face like a victim. If this woman near the fire escape sign, this woman who looked like she’d had enough of life’s worst thrown at her, was facing this same battle, then so can I.

I remembered, while in the midst of therapy, while losing her lovely hair and nails, Nancy had said that when life gives you lemons, you just have to get up and make yourself a pink lemonade margarita. I leaned back and closed my eyes, and silently thanked her for the support she was giving me though she didn’t even know it. I knew what I had to do now. I had to make myself a sweet cocktail and stick one of those fancy colourful umbrellas on top. I glanced over to the woman in the corner. And, if she’d let me, I’d offer one to her too.

“Ms. Herath!” The nurse was calling me.

I stood up to find my legs had turned into jelly. I grabbed the back of a chair to not trip over myself, and walked towards her like a zombie. She reached for my shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “The doctor’s ready to discuss the results with you,” she said giving me her thousand watt smile. I gave her a wane one back. My stomach had begun to feel queasy.

It was a young doctor in a pretty pink suit sitting in front of the computer screen. She didn’t even look up as I came in.

“Your family doctor will get these results and will have a chat with you soon, but I wanted to share this with you now.”

I think I gulped audibly.

“See this tissue mass here?” she pointed at the screen with her silver pen. A blurry grey picture of my squished breast was on display. My heart started to beat a tick faster.

“Uhuh,” I said nodding. My mouth had gone dry.

“This is what concerned us, but I now see it is merely tissue that has folded over each other. Gathered together.”

I gave her a blank look. What does that mean?

“This is good news.” She gave me a quick smile and with a click turned off the monitor and began to gather her papers.

“So everything’s fine?”

She was already standing up, ready to leave the room.

“Absolutely. You should celebrate!” With a smile, she walked towards the door her high heels clicking on the hospital floor tiles. At the doorway, she stopped and turned around like she’d forgotten something.

“You’ll have to come back every year for a test from now on, alright?”

I nodded. And then she was gone.

I sat in my chair, frozen. All the emotions from the past few weeks washed over me one after the other, like waves on a beach. The unease, the fear, the angst, the relief.  Then came crashing the biggest wave of them all. It picked me up and lifted me high. I wanted to shout out in joy. Jump up with hands high in the air. Somersault across the room. But I sat still, with a huge grin forming from ear to ear.  I felt like I’d just been handed the world on a platter.

“All OK?” said the nurse looking in.

I nodded. That was all I could muster.

“You can go home now,” she smiled.

This time I gave her a big smile in return. “Thank you so, so much.”

“You take care now,” she said before turning around to walk briskly towards the waiting room. “Your turn!” I heard her say to someone else. I could imagine another woman in a baby blue gown getting up, clutching her purse. Whoever it was, I wished her well.

I got up from my chair, fished my bra from my purse, and pulled off that gown. I looked down at my breasts again for the second time that morning. Really looked. This time, I noticed their curves. The midnight black nipples in the middle of my silky brown skin. They looked full, as full as they could be. These boobs of mine were proud and strong. Not bad. Whatever made me ever think they were ugly? I put my bra on my perfectly healthy breasts. Pamela may have the Rocky Mountains, but my girls were good just the way they were and they were beautiful. I’m never going to take them for granted. I’m never going to take anything for granted again. I pulled down my shirt feeling like I was luckiest woman in the world.

I threw the hospital gown over the chair, picked up my purse and skipped towards the door. Just as I pulled on the door, the door right across from me opened and out came the woman with the scar on her cheek. We locked eyes. I couldn’t tell if her news had been as good as mine. Her face was still pale and her eyes still looked haunted. We stood and stared at each other for a second like two deer locked onto lights. m

“I’m going to get myself a pink lemonade margarita,” I heard myself say. “Would you like one?”

Silence. Then a slight twitch of the mouth. “Sure,” I heard a rough gravelly laugh. “Where’d you get one of those around here?”

“We could ask the coffee shop to start.”

“Sounds good,” she smiled. “Hey, I could do with a coffee too.”

“Me too.”

We turned into the corridor and walked silently side by side.

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The Canadian Breast Cancer Society

Click for information. Click to donate. Click to support your girlfriends, mothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, colleagues and neighbours. Above all, get yourself checked!  October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Early detection is the best prevention.

Cover picture found on etsy.com

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