Yesterday, in Pittsburgh, I had a long wait. Poor Mary was out front. I was out back (not to be confused with Australia, mate, or a steak house) wrapped in a double layer of hospital gowns, waiting.
I was not alone in my wait. One woman said, "I had to be here at 8:30 and I drove all the way from Punxatawny." I smiled wryly and said, "I had to be here at 7, and we drove in from very nearly the New York State line. Long pause as everyone studied me. We began talking, because that's kind of how I roll. An employee came around with a basket full of snacks. I wasn't holding out for much hope for anything I would eat, having become a little picky and health conscious, but lo, there was a Nutrabar, and it was good. The employee said, "You all are being so patient, and I said, "Really, you're about to see a group of gowned and topless woman stage a violent revolution. We were planning it before you got here and we're going to continue planning it after you take your basket and go." And we all laughed, hard, the way nervous people do when they find an escape from stress.
There was a black woman there sitting at the far end of the hall. Even though she was in a blue gown like the rest of us, I could tell that she was a woman who paid careful attention to her appearance. Her hair was perfect, her makeup perfect, and beneath her gown peeked some amazing shoes, people. I noticed that she was blind in one eye, and she was quietly listening to the rest of us as we laughed, not taking part, but listening closely. There were women who had cancer before. There were women who had symptoms and were fearful. There were just some annual exams. And we all talked.
I saw her studying me closely when she heard that I was tentatively scheduled next week for a mastectomy and to get the mass removed from my shoulder. She came down from her end of the chairs to talk to me. Her name was Michelle. "It's not so bad," she said, and she went on to explain that it was mostly how you dealt with it in your mind. Matter-of-factly, she opened her gown. I looked at the scars where her breast used to be, and I said, surprised, "Well, that's not so bad..." and she smiled. They called my name, and I hugged her, and went to hear that they needed more pictures. And I died a little inside, thinking 'Good God, how bad is this?'
When I came back out, Michelle was back in her chair, at the far end of the hall, away from us. I headed for the chair next to hers. We talked about cancer, and kids, and faith. Much to my surprise, she said that her biggest problem was that, as a single parent, as a cancer survivor, what she wanted was love, another person at her side, and that she was having a hard time because she was embarrassed to show her scars, self conscious. I stared at this woman, shocked, really. She had just shown those scars to me. Overcome with gratitude at her sacrifice, I opened my mouth to say something, and my name was called again. I hugged her once again, and walked off quickly to the woman waiting with the papers.
They wanted to double check, with ultrasound, and I died once more. 'Oh, dear God,' I thought yet again. 'How bad is this?' And then, finally, we looked at pictures. As you know, it wasn't bad news, and I walked out of there in shock. Total shock.
On the way home, I remembered Michelle, and I nearly cried, because I did not go back to tell her. For all her self consciousness, she displayed herself to me, in an attempt to comfort. I had started to tell her, 'Michelle, you are beautiful. Truly, truly beautiful...' It was perfectly true, but the woman did not know it. Michelle did not have a clue.