It’s interesting the things we cling to, the things that stand out, and the things we can’t get rid of.
In May 2013, I walked across a stage at the San Diego Convention Center and received my diploma for my masters degree.
I’d worked so hard for that degree in particular. I plowed through my graduate studies while moving cross country, working full-time, and raising two young kids. There were many nights when I’d sit the kids in front of the TV, go in the kitchen, and while cooking dinner, listen in and participate in a lecture. There were many weekend trips when I’d lock myself in our hotel room, feverishly working to meet a deadline, while my husband and kids tried to be patient and not outwardly annoyed while they waited on me.
That masters degree was, and continues to be, one of my proudest achievements. Walking across that stage was one of the best days of my life, feeling the rush of excitement, pride and overwhelming emotion of a job well done.
In May 2016, I lay in a hospital bed in a busy emergency room in the middle of the night as a doctor told me I had cancer, it was bad, and I needed to go to California for surgery as soon as I could. One of the worst days of my life, an understatement if there ever was one.
I was wearing the same dress I’d received my masters in.
I actually remember buying the blue and black sleeveless dress. I had just started working at Big Casino Conglomerate, and I needed some new work clothes. I saw it hanging on the wall of a store while shopping with my husband and kids, and I picked it right up. I even remember getting it altered and the seamstress complimenting me on it. I loved that dress. I wore it to work often because it was easy to throw a cardigan or a blazer over it. It also had POCKETS! I wore it out some nights too. I even brought it with me when I had to travel for work. So, it was a no brainer to wear it for my graduation under my gown.
It’s also why it was a no brainer to wear it when I woke up on a Monday morning and needed to get dressed for work but couldn’t fit into any pants because of my swollen legs.
When we got home from the ER early Tuesday morning, I walked into the house and got into the recliner. I lay down again, stunned and scared. Feeling a little numb from the meds they gave me in the ER, I curled up as our sweet old cat Sadie who has since passed jumped up and settled in next to me, feeling a disturbance in the air. As my husband and kids tried getting some sleep since we’d stayed up all night, I lay there and tried practicing the words, “I have cancer. I have a tumor. I have to have surgery.” It didn’t even sound right. I called my best friend since we were teens, who answered the phone with, “What’s wrong?” I called my boss and told him I wouldn’t be going in to work today and didn’t know when I would be back. I talked to my cousin in Houston, who tried to help me think through logistics. I tried sleeping, but I couldn’t even nod off. I was so far trapped in my own circle of hell that even though I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, I couldn’t close my eyes because every time I tried to, I thought, “Oh my God, I have cancer.”
When the urologist’s office that the ER doctor had referred me to opened at 8 am, I called back to back to back until they picked up. They told me to come right in, that the doctor was expecting me. I called one of my other best friends and asked her to come stay with the girls so we could go to the urologist. I put my flats back on, and my husband finally said, “Can you go ahead and change out of that dress? Don’t you want to get more comfortable anyway?”
The dress was A Reminder. At the same time, I didn’t want to get out of the dress. Maybe it was the ER-issued Valium, but somewhere in my illogical, stunned brain, I thought that if I didn’t get out of the dress, it meant none of this was actually happening. If I stayed in the dress, this was just some sick nightmare that I would wake up from. If I changed out of the dress, it would be doing something normal, and none of this was normal.
I realized of course that this was nuts, and that of course it didn’t make sense to keep carrying on in this dress. So I went ahead and changed into some sweatpants since it was about all I could fit into with my ballooned legs. But I didn’t want to. It just made things seem more real.
At some point, the dress got washed and hung to dry, but then I went through almost 6 months of not working or having any reason to wear a dress as I recovered from surgery. When it was finally time for me to go back to work, I had lost so much weight that the dress and almost all my other clothes didn’t fit anymore. I’ve never worn the dress again.
Yet, even though I’ve given away most of my old clothes, I can’t seem to bring myself to get rid of that dress. It still hangs in my closet, staring at me as I walk in each day. I’ve almost donated it or given it to a friend several times, but make up an excuse each time for why I can’t. It’s just as irrational as why I couldn’t take it off that day, but I can’t let it go. I loved that dress, had so many good memories in it, but yet when I look at it, I am reminded of my own mortality.
Later that day, The Day After, the day that seemed to never end, we went back to the same ER when I started urinating blood. The ER doctor had warned us that it was a possibility, but it still sent me into a panic when I saw it. It turned out to be from the tumor in my kidney hemorrhaging from the aspirin the ER had given me in an attempt to thin my blood so it could pass around the tumor blocking my vena cava. My ballooned legs had not been from retained water as originally thought, but from my blood being unable to return to my heart because it couldn’t get around the massive tumor. I did not understand this fully at the time, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.
It was almost time for a shift change when I finally got to a different bed in the ER, and the nurse told me the same doctor who had diagnosed me was about to come back on duty if I wanted to wait. I said yes. My mom was about to land at the airport, and I told my husband that I was OK, to go ahead and go and pick her up, that I would just rest as I waited for the doctor. He came in while my husband was gone, and I looked up at him bleary eyed as he explained that it was OK, that I just needed to discontinue the aspirin. He asked me if I had met with the urologist as he had instructed, and I said yes, I had and I had an appointment scheduled at UCLA in a couple of weeks. I then looked him in the eyes and asked, “Am I going to die? Is this going to kill me?” I had asked the urologist this earlier, and I was not encouraged by what the urologist had to say. The ER doctor had been kind, and I trusted him, even though we’d just met 24 hours before. There was something in how he’d given me the worst news of my life that made me feel he would be honest but not kill my desperately needed hope.
He looked at me with the saddest eyes, with what could only be described as complete pity, and said, “This cancer can be fatal. Some people die no matter what we do. But, you’re going to one of the best hospitals in the world. You’ll have some of the best doctors in the world. And you have a beautiful family that really, really needs you. I promised you that you could be treated if you followed what I said last night, and you already are. You have to keep giving this everything you’ve got. I can’t tell you what will happen, but I can tell you that if you do your best to hang on and really give it your all, you’ll have a better chance than many other patients.”
I don’t know if he even believed what he told me, and it still wasn’t entirely what I thought I needed to hear at the time, but I clung onto it.
Just like I cling onto the dress.