Monday, April 14, 2014
L is for Loss
When I followed my family into the hospital room that Saturday afternoon the antiseptic smell mixed with the aroma of chicken soup made my stomach churn. I was normally a timid 13 year old, but I lunged for the only seat in the room, an orange vinyl chair, forcing my brother and father to wedge themselves awkwardly against the window. Only my mother strode right up to the sterile bed surrounded by strange buttons.
“This doesn’t look too bad,” she said helping to unwrap the plastic dishes that were making me nauseous. “You should try and eat something.”
So my aunt picked at a few things until my mother seemed satisfied. Aunt Rita then disappeared under a mass of cotton blankets that wrapped around her like she was a mummy. Suddenly, she seemed no bigger than a child. Only 5' 1", she’d never seemed small before even when I towered over her. My mother’s cool older sister. She wore stylish heels and had long polished fingernails. How could she be sick?
“Does anyone want coffee?” my father asked hopefully.
“Why don’t both of you go find the cafeteria?” My mother said extending the escape pass to my brother.
I watched longingly as their heads bobbed out into the fluorescent hallway. At least the TV was on and I could pretend to be engrossed in Bowling For Dollars. My aunt’s voice floated above me. “How’s school?’ she asked.
“Fine.” I glanced towards her and then quickly away as the clank of the pins fell overhead. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, only that it was something bad.
“So, what else is new?” Rita tried again.
A nurse with spiky hair wheeled in a cart. “Blood pressure time,” she said, as if it would be fun like craft time.
I stood up assuming the need for privacy.
“Don’t leave,” Rita said. “They’re in and out all day. Taking this, checking that.”
I propped my sneakered foot against the wall and tried not to watch. The nurse cuffed Rita’s arm with a long plastic rope and looked for her vein.
I felt dizzy. I wanted to scream. This was my favorite aunt. My only aunt. I couldn’t watch. But I couldn’t leave.
My father and brother squished back into the small room. As they passed the nurse on her way out she smiled. My dopey brother smiled back and acted all goofy like he was on a class field trip. Then he pretended to hand me one of the round orange bars he was holding.
“Psyche!” he said grabbing it right back. Why couldn’t he be serious for one second?
I swiped the Reggie bar from him, ripped it open and devoured it. I usually savored every bite, but I hardly tasted the chocolate, caramel and peanuts. When I got up to throw the wrapper away, the little dweeb grabbed my seat. I was about to whack him, but my mother gave me a look.
“Mom,” I whined, but she didn’t even seem to hear me. Instead, Rita made room for me alongside her on the bed, “How about combing my hair for me? It’s tough for me.”
I hesitated. Would I get sick if I sat next to her? My mother nodded encouragingly. So I sat on the edge of the bed and clumsily groped sections of Rita’s hair with the tiny bristles of a round brush. It was sparse and I could see white scalp between the patches. I hated the cooties feeling I was getting.
Rita held up a compact mirror and frowned. “Much better."
I’d almost gotten used to the antiseptic smell when they wheeled another cart in with dinner. That’s when my mother finally said we could go. When I reached across the bed to kiss my aunt good-bye she hugged me extra tight. I wished I’d hugged her back, instead of letting her do all the hugging. She died a few weeks later.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned the strange padded bra I spotted in her room was due to her mastectomy. I had no idea she had breast cancer until after she was gone. Cancer was not 80’s friendly. Cancer was not talked about unless whispered.
Today breast cancer is no longer a quiet, hidden disease. It’s Save The Tata’s and pink ribbons on t-shirts. There is comfort with the truth. I wished I’d known back then.