Now we go down into the dark
By ten past three on Wednesday morning, I knew that my time was up. I woke and knew that I was bleeding heavily. I had been dreaming of my grandparents’ house, a deep subconscious icon of family, safety and security, in which it was being washed away by a rising sea, a tide that was going to destroy it and its magical, semi-mythical gardens. I had fallen asleep with the bedside light on, like a child afraid of waking to an unknown dark.
A friend has said, “You have a fight ahead of you.” And I have objected that it is not me who will be doing the fighting but the doctors and all of their minions with their procedures, machines, drugs and voodoo ceremonies. Perhaps though, my friend is right. (He usually is.) Perhaps I have underestimated the role of the will in all this.
All my life I had ignored all medical threats and possible threats as a policy and avoided doctors, and now, today, I knew that all my previous habits of denial were done. The priorities of concrete physical reality would now have to be the ruling principle.
I got up and had a look. Saturated as on the heaviest day, and I could feel the blood pouring out of me. This time it was my own important vascular blood, the kind one needs to run the systems, the kind one needs to keep. The time was now upon me and the will took over.
Super Calm Girl got up at 4:15 and had a shower, set the kettle to boiling, and got out the overnight bag, started a good, protein-oriented breakfast in the fry pan, and sent a text message to Christopher at 5:30. “I’m going to the emergency room. When does the first train go?”
She was making the tea when the text came back: “Me too. We’ll do the 6:30 train, ok?”
Standing in front of the mirror, Super Calm Girl smiled briefly and thought of the Spartans as she carefully blowdried her hair. She put the dryer away and hestitated for a moment before pulling out the curling iron as well. On some lower plane of existence, my Xerxes, the spined and jagged demon, “Hospitalisation,” howled at the insult.
She marched back and forth, putting clean underwear, pajamas, slippers and socks into the kit and loading the wash bag with shampoo and toothbrush and the little comforting pot of Oil of Olay. Extra food into the cat’s dish, litter box cleaned, bed made and be sure to turn the heat off.
Got the passport, the extra set of keys, a zip-lock bag of Twinings tea, the name and phone numbers of doctors, a book to read, a little bit of drawing, pencil case, sketch book, cell phone, the warm wooly cardigan.
Passport in the handbag, phone in the pocket, Super Calm Girl looked around the flat for a moment then locked the door behind her. She marched me smartly past the beach, where the sun was just starting to lighten the sky. There was little wind and the sea was like moving silver, rippling discreetly up and caressing the sand. She allowed me to stop for a minute and look at it, with the clouds starting to show a little pink overhead. I noticed the Gigi Bar was already open and doing brisk morning business.
At ten past six, I looked out over the train tracks and up at the tops of the dying palm trees and paused, listening. The birds had begun and the sky was turning pink. I wondered how long things would be this first time.
“Here we go,” I thought. “Down into it.” All the dark and fearful things came forward: pain and drugs and manhandling by strangers, needles and tubes and catheters, gurneys, scans and huge clicking machines and helplessness. The gaunt spectres of surgery and chemotherapy grinning, and behind them, like a shadow of the others further off, gangling, coughing, shivering, hollow-eyed death.
The train pulled up: this is the start, I thought, and from here we have to just keep going forward, no matter what it is we’re going toward. Christopher took my arm and bundled my cold self and all my wars onto the train.
Super Calm Girl was still in charge as we arrived at the hospital at eight in the morning. The Gemelli is huge, and, I am told, is known to be one of the best research hospitals in Europe, offering the most comprehensive care and all in one place.
By the time she had called the doctor from the lobby and was sure that the emergency room was expecting me, Super Calm Girl was starting to falter. She began flickering, winking in and out of existence as the hospital, its busyness, its noise and size and cold, clean modernness intruded. The lobby looked like a set from Logan’s Run, with the added insult of a hideous, modern crucifix to remind everyone that the old, warm, wine-soaked, plaster statue Italian Catholic world was no longer welcome.
The lobby bar was crowded and noisy and Christopher thought better of having me fight my way through it to. He parked me and the luggage in a relatively calm corner and returned a few minutes later with a glass of fresh squeezed arrancia rossa that was bracing and brought my mind for a moment out of its dark corner.
This snapping back and forth from my closet of sour fears to the necessary realities has been the largest obstacle so far. Left alone for more than a few minutes, my brain will begin its spiral, a kind of panicked death leap off the safe ground of the practical and consequential into a black vortex where no sense or reason can claim any ground. This was going to cause a problem later.
A word to the wise, if you need to go to the emergency room, arrive before nine in the morning and call ahead. I was seen inside of ten minutes. Super Calm Girl was able to endure another humiliating gynecological examination and the doctor and single nurse present were kindly and gentle of hand. The bleeding was alarming, but a blood test showed that my hemoglobin had not yet dropped dangerously and I was packed tight with a mile of gauze and a coagulant, and given another dose of a coagulant drug, a little bitter draught in a plastic cup.
Super Calm Girl flickered and almost disappeared at the sight of a gurney and I was told to wait. The biopsy results were going to be made available and we would see whether I would be going home or staying. I was wheeled out into the small waiting lounge, the gurney loaded up with bags and books and computers, and Christopher and I watched the Simpsons, played computer chess, read books and speculated about the other patients.
A young woman was wheeled in on a gurney sobbing and writhing in pain. She lay for about 15 minutes weeping and I had the urge to get up and go over and hold her hand. After a while, someone gave her an injection and she quieted before she was taken away. A family came in with a pram and a child of maybe two with huge eyes and long black lashes and pink cheeks. Everyone made much of her and she looked as though she were used to it.
After an hour or two, I watched two doctors glance at me gravely as they passed by into the gynecology room. I was called in and the pretty young doctor was sitting at her desk.
“You can bring your ‘usband in, it’s ok…”
I declined to correct her and went back and waved Christopher into the room. We sat down and she picked up a piece of paper.
“I’m afraid I ‘ave some bad news. The growth is not a polyp.”
Super Calm Girl popped like a soap bubble and I could feel Christopher take my hand as a kind of roaring started to drown out what she was saying.
“The pathology report shows that the cells are malignant…” I looked down and saw my own lap getting far away and at the edges of my vision the room turning black. I may have made some kind of sound, but I can’t remember. I leaned in to Christopher’s shoulder and he put his other arm around me.
She kept talking, saying that there was much that could be done and that the most important thing now was to find out how far the cancer had developed, whether it was localised, whether there was any in the surrounding tissues. I tried to nod and look as though I were listening. Christopher took it all in.
She described a series of scans and exploratory surgery, a “visita,” that would start right away. I was to stay in the hospital while these were arranged, and had only to wait now while a room was found. She tried to tell me that my mother’s death from this disease did not mean I would die, that things could be done now that could not be done then, that the Gemelli was a leading hospital, that I was young and strong. I’m not sure if she knew that by now, I simply could not hear her.
After a few minutes, I said I was thirsty and Christopher said he would take me out into the sunshine and to find a glass of juice. The doctor nodded and said not to go too far, but that there was an exit with benches outside around the corner and a vending machine.
He led me through the halls and I was stiff and blank. I stood while he got a pineapple juice out of the machine and I think I remember looking around at the other people in the emergency room lobby. He led me outside and we found a bench and he gathered me up while I sobbed into the shoulder of his jacket. After a few minutes, the Italian sun had worked a bit of therapy on me and I could think again. We made some phone calls and then a smiling ambulance driver found us.