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Standing in the quiet

“The air's so heavy, it could drown a butterfly, if it flew too high.”
–from the song Falling and Flying by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals


From the moment I came to, after receiving the diagnosis, my world started moving at 150mph 24/7. I met the breast surgical oncologist. I met the reconstructive surgeon. I went for a PET CT scan, a breast MRI, a pre-op orientation, a DNA test, and a post-op camisole fitting. I told people. I made lists and arrangements and wrote newsletters and emails so everyone who I had told could keep up on what was going on. I bought bathrobes and journals and soft oversized shirts: Things that would make me happy and things that would make me comfortable. Every day I was talking until my voice was hoarse and driving from here to there to get everything done… and then there was the mastectomy and lymph node dissection, and recovery, and visits. There was learning how to sleep without rolling over on my drain. Figuring out how to get out of bed without engaging my chest muscles. Working toward being able to open the refrigerator door all by myself. Researching anything and everything I could to heal my body and make it stronger than ever before. I had always thought of myself as a go-go-go type of girl, but the kind of “busy” cancer brought into my life was something I never could have imagined. And the busy of it all, in many ways, is what saved me.

For me, Cancer was a full time job added to my actual full time job and overbooked life. I think that’s why my first day of chemo hit me like a freight train. There is no hurry in chemo. There is no anesthesia. No hustle and bustle of people moving to get you from here to there. Nothing to organize. Nothing to do. There is an attentive staff preparing for your marathon. There is stillness. There is waiting. And there is a profound state of quiet.

Five other people were in the room receiving chemo on my first day. There was a bit of privacy, but we could all see each other. I was the new girl. The only one with a glow to my skin. The only one with hair. The only one standing in a paralyzing state of terror over the unknown of what I was facing.

I had made the decision to spend the day alone. I was feeling good, strong...fierce. I knew my first treatment would be a long haul. Anywhere from four to seven hours depending on how things went. I wasn’t terribly nervous going into it, but everyone in my world was. On the insistence and foresight of my friend Olena, she and Ruth picked me up at home and brought me to my office for a few hugs and then Mary Beth dropped me off at chemo. Ruth would pick me up, but until then I was on my own.

It was after my blood panel had been taken and the wonderful nurse assigned to me was looking for a vein to thread the chemo needle when the reality of what I was facing took hold of me. That was the moment I saw the scope of what was happening. That was the moment I lost control.

The tears that followed poured through my eyes, but my whole body truly wept and I could feel it in every way. I didn’t move. I’m not sure if that was because I couldn’t move or because the nurse was threading the needle. And apparently I didn’t make a sound because it was quite a few minutes before she looked up and me.  “Allison” she finally said. Her voice full of surprise, tenderness and great concern. The seemingly fearless warrior who had walked through the door less than an hour earlier was crumbling and they hadn’t even begun the first drip.

I’m not sure exactly what went on or how distraught I appeared to be, but while my world went into slow motion, as I contemplated the fact that I was about to douse my body with poison so that I wouldn’t die, people were being assembled. I completely lost sense of time. I was in a moment that felt like forever. Then somewhere along the way I opened my journal and started writing. It was the only thing I could do to get from one second to the next. And they were all so long. The seconds… at a certain point the head chemo RN was sitting in front of me. She was amazing. We talked about so many things. I can’t remember what exactly, with the exception of my asking her if she was familiar with the play No Exit by Jean Paul Sarte. That I remember clearly for some reason. Looking back it makes sense, sitting in a chemo chair, grabbing for something to relate to and coming up with a one act play consisting of three people that are trapped in hell for all of eternity.

The nurse was so good with me. Who knows what kind of sense I was making. Holding her hands and getting it out, I heard another voice, “Chemo Sucks.” someone said. I remember that because it threw me. It was my well mannered, always composed and cheery nurse navigator speaking in a tone I’d never heard and using a word I never would have imagined her saying. Looking up to see who was talking, I knew it was her, but I was expecting someone else. In a sense it was. She had revealed another side of herself. What I saw was a face of a woman who knew. A woman who had seen it all.

And together we sat. The chemo nurse, my RN navigator and the chemo RN running the team. I’m not sure how long we talked and I’m not sure when the drip started, but I wasn’t left alone for quite some time. I must have cried for two hours, and then talked for another two. It all came out. Every question. Every fear. Every ounce of control over my mind and body was gone. It was the most intense experience of my life and then, in the midst of that poison dripping into my body, something shifted.

The scariest thing had happened. It was happening. That’s when I fully realized the quiet. I was being given a moment. A day. A place with no phones, no email, no bombardment of questions and information. I was alone with myself, at my very core, to think and feel and experience at my own pace. My hell had become my oasis.

I spent the rest of my treatment alone with my heart and a heightened awareness of my soul, and as crazy as it sounds, it was beautiful.

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