This morning I should be working on a difficult section of my novel, but after yesterday, I can’t work on the fictional difficulties of Paris in 1925. Instead, I’m drawn back into the past by an odor in the bathroom of the Swedish Cancer Center.
The dates December 21, and June 21 will continue to be circled on our calendars for a few more years. These are our appointments. Every six months, just enough time to believe things are normal, just long enough to forget about the five months on the 12th floor. Every six months for five years, we will venture back to the cancer center to see if Dylan is still healthy.
I could lie and say that the days leading up to these visits are like any other days, but they aren’t. I still worry. Now, I have 100 other things I can blame for my detachment and moodiness, but when I examine it in my mirror where “things are larger than they appear” I can see that the last two weeks have been a building feeling of dread. I’m not really even aware when it is happening, I just have an angsty feeling that can only be compared to my 7th through 10th-grade years: my Dungeons and Dragons years.
The one thing about dealing with cancer is that it wipes away all the difficulties of life. Regular adult life is stressful because there are hundreds of things; cancer life is one big thing.
We arrived at the Swedish Cancer Center, Dylan checked in, and I went down the stairs to use the bathroom. I opened the bathroom door and the smell hit me. I don’t know if it is the cleaning solution used to clean the bathrooms, or the disinfecting soap next to the sinks, but whatever it is it has a distinctive smell that my brain connects to a time and place. The entire 12th floor at Swedish smells like it. The bathrooms, the halls, the showers, the family room, the nurse’s station all have the same bitter, soapy smell. I have heard that smell has the strongest connection to memory and I believe that is true.
One of the things that happened in the last year is that we have all gotten tattoos. We are not a tattoo family, but as Dylan was going through chemo we all agreed that when it was over we would get some ink. My wife got a pink lotus flower on her wrist, Dylan got an Ouroboros (snake eating itself) on his ribs, Emma got a “You are here” Google Earth marker on her wrist, and I battled between two quotes that I love. Thoreau’s, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” or Fitzgerald’s final line in Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
In the end, I went with Thoreau’s quote on my skin, but Fitzgerald’s words have been living in my head. As much as I want to move forward and forget parts of the past I can’t. I will forever be pulled back to the 12th floor of Swedish.
Dylan drank his banana flavored barium, was called back to scan area, returned to us 15 minutes later, we went upstairs for Dylan’s blood draw, and then had three hours to kill before our appointment with Dr. Pagel. We wandered around Capitol Hill, ate lunch, bought some CDs and books, and then went to the 10th floor of the cancer center. The last 20 minutes are the hardest. There is waiting and it is quiet. Then Dr. Pagel came in and said what we all wanted to hear, “One year is a big milestone. Everything is great. Your blood is great. Your scan is clean.” We talked about Dylan’s plans for the upcoming year; he’s off to Western Washington University to complete his BA.
We left. We had planned on celebrating at a fake German beer hall, but when it was all done none of us felt much like doing anything but crying and driving home. So we did.
There are times when last year seems like a nightmare that happened to someone else, but here we are, all of us pulled into the nightmares of the past paddling as fast as we can to make it beyond the bar and into the rolling ocean waters of the present. Someday, someday…