Monday, March 14, 2011

Thermopylae II

Train’s coming

A friend has suggested that I write down everything that has been happening step by step and in as much detail as I can remember. He thinks it might be useful for the record in case I get a miraculous cure. I will try to keep track of the different saints I have appealed to so we can know who gets credit.

I had known for months that something was wrong. A girl knows when those vital and delicate systems are not functioning as usual. I had spent a little time looking things up on the internet. But what I read and what was happening only confirmed what I had known in my gut.

I don’t know why, but I have always had a very deep intuition that I would get cancer, and still believe that I will die of it. Three years ago, when my mother died of metastasized cervical cancer, I had looked carefully at what she was going through, making notes on how I would handle it when my turn came. When the symptoms started appearing, I was unsurprised and thought, “That’s my train coming.”

So, I am now surprised at the incredible, mind-choking clench of terror that has closed around me now that the news is confirmed. Had I not had the Grandma training from early childhood never to show anyone what I am feeling, I would have simply got up and run in a blind panic from the little room where we were given the news.

A month or so ago I gave in and went to see the GP. I had a lump where I was fairly sure no lump ought to be. On February 7th, my nice German doctor gave me an ultrasound and said, “Fibroid”. But to be sure, he said to come back later that day to see the gynecologist who keeps office hours there twice a month. That afternoon, God and I became re-acquainted.

I had two hours to wait and instead of going back to the office, I took a walk in the cold sunny day. I wandered past the Bangladeshi statue hucksters, Romanian beggars and clusters of Africans selling faux Prada bags and over to the great Piazza, thinking I would walk through the Colonnade and maybe buy a bun to share with the pigeons.

The line was short and for once I decided not to take offense at the metal detectors. I stood on the cobbles with the sun on my back and the tourists chattering all their languages around me and thought, I might have cancer. I’m in this great place and standing yards away from the Pope’s office, and I might have cancer.

I marched past a group of people taking pictures of the Swiss Guardsmen at the Scala Regia, into the big vestibule and past the Pieta behind its bullet-proof screen, down the long row of Bernini’s great Roman saints, hardly glancing up at the dark Baldachino looming up towards the dome. To the right of the Pope’s altar, in the east transept, that is itself the size of a Canadian cathedral, confessions are heard every day in ten languages in a set of mismatched Baroque wooden closets.

I was late for the morning schedule, and the only Anglophone priest left was the Polish Franciscan who manned the gate to heaven closest to the tomb of St. Josephat. While I waited, a long time, for the Polish sinner in bright pink track pants to be finished, I knelt and prayed, for the first time in months, at the marble altar rail. Looking down at the saint’s silver death mask and embroidered vestments where he lay waiting for the King under his disused altar, I didn’t know what to ask. Except perhaps for mercy.

That priest heard all about my life that day, even though he clearly wanted his lunch. When I was done, he said, “Come ‘round to the front.” I got up and crouched down in front of his little wooden cubicle, folded my arms on the railing and put my chin on them. He said, “Don’t be afraid. Do everything the doctors tell you. And don’t listen to the people who tell you about their alternative therapies. All that stuff is rubbish. Absolute rubbish. And keep in mind, this is the time, when you feel at your lowest, that God is with you most closely.” He blessed me in his own words, and made the sign of the cross with his thumb on my forehead.

I went back to the doctor’s office. She confirmed with another ultrasound, “Fibroid”. But something was wrong. How long has it been since I have had a PAP test? Five years.

I was asked to come back in two weeks, on Wednesday the 23rd, for another examination. That was when we met the quiet, stealthy little lump. By then, I had started seeing the first faint traces of blood in the mornings. My doctor said that I must go to the Gemelli Policlinico on the following Tuesday, March 1st, to be seen by a gynecological surgeon, an expert, who would be able to confirm on sight whether the lump were a mere cervical polyp that could easily be removed or whether other, terrible things would start to happen.

I waited over that weekend and more blood came. During that examination, I started bleeding so much that the doctors could not see easily. The surgeon, with two other doctors, took a biopsy. I paid €18.10 for the biopsy and was told to go home and wait, rest and not do too much. In ten days, the pathology report would be available.

I was to go home to England that week for a while. No, I should not go. I should not fly. They had had a hard time stopping the bleeding and were worried that I might start to hemorrhage at any time and without warning and should stay close to emergency services. Did I know the number to call for an ambulance in Italy?

The bleeding did not stop in those few days and I started to feel tired nearly all the time. I stayed in Italy after contemplating the image of myself bleeding to death at 35 thousand feet, and all the fuss and alarm that would cause a flight crew. I imagined, not without a certain secret glee, an emergency landing in France somewhere, or on some tiny, inadequate airstrip on one of the valleys in the Alps.

On Friday, after interviewing an English lord, I begged off work and went home to bed. I stayed in bed on Saturday and the bleeding stopped briefly. I ventured out and bought groceries, had tea at a friend’s place and went home and boiled some veal knuckles for stock. I felt fine.

I took the non-bleeding as a good sign and got up on Sunday and went to the Big Mass downtown. A day out in the sun, after several weeks of rain, wind and overcast and, by Italian standards, bitter cold. We ate lunch at the German restaurant behind Castel Sant Angelo that was a favourite of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Pope Benedict smiles out from a photo that hangs over the wall of his usual booth which was occupied that day by a large family. I made jokes about Star Wars with an American Dominican priest, a professor at the Angelicum, who had turned heads, even in the streets of Rome, with his full-sail religious habit.

On Monday, my mobile internet stick still not working, I went into the City to work, but could not focus my mind on the latest directives of the EU, or the latest legislative capitulations of the British parliament to Brussels, the protests against this or that. It all blurred together into a meaningless drone in my mind. I had started bleeding again, and this time it looked to mean it. I wrote one article, but hardly remember what it was about. Able to think about nothing but the train that was coming for me, I nearly missed the last one back to Santa Marinella that night.

On Tuesday, March 8, I spent the morning at home and went again into the city after stopping at the pharmacy and buying iron pills, thinking about the interview I still needed to transcribe. I sat at my desk with my head on my arms, the world buzzing and popping and crackling for my attention. I called the doctor and she said I should go to the emergency room. I said I would go home and lie down instead. That had worked before to stop the bleeding. She sounded worried, and tried to convince me.

“If you feel badly, or if the bleeding becomes very heavy, call me and I will call the emergency room at the Gemelli. They will take care of everything. They will give you a blood test and check your hemoglobin. If it is low they may keep you in the hospital.”

I knew what was happening. But the thought of hospitals and emergency rooms with their exhausting waits, and the faces of frightened people, of procedures, cold metal implements, plastic packages of sterile equipment, the smell of disinfectant and urine, people wailing on gurneys. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want it all to begin.

I went home and was quiet. At ten, a text sent to Christopher was misspelled: “I’m sacred.” The return came, “Sacred or scared? It will be ok. Call in the morning and if you need to go in, I’ll go with you.”

I lay down and was calm, waiting.



Anonymous said...

Reading this, I am reminded of how talented writer you are. You are very generous to share these experiences with all of us who care. One more thing: the Polish priest was right.
God bless,

Anonymous said...

Correction: How talented A writer you are. Sorry, my typing!

Anonymous said...

Since God, as the Author of His-story, has a sense of humour and poetic justice, we're praying for your "miraculous cure" through the intercession of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, hoping that "your miracle" will hasten the cause of his canonisation.

May our Lord sustain you through the daily trials, the sufferings and the pain of sickness; and may He heal your soul and body through the intercession of His Servant, Pope John Paul II.

Raphaela said...

Dear Hilary,

I found your blog via our mutual friend Fr. BG, who sent a prayer request my way on your behalf. We haven't met, but I wanted to let you know that you're in my prayers. May God strengthen you in this hard and frightening trial and, through the intercession of the Archangel Raphael, grant you swift healing.


Marianne said...

Dear Hilary,
I have been reading your blog for quite a while now and I love your writing. I am praying for you each day, may God give you strength and courage through his grace. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. God bless

Anonymous said...


Just left the local Dominican monastery. They're sisters of the Perpetual Rosary, and pray the Rosary in shifts 24/7 before the Blessed Sacrament. They're always looking for new and nifty cases to bring to work. They now have you.

Btw, I read Part II on the iPhone while sitting in the dentist chair yesterday. They'd just shot my head full of novacane, and were waiting for my face to take on that stroke vicitm look before commencing at me with their implements of torture. Good thing, too. That way they thought my red eyes were but the result of their nefarious methods and plan.

Editor said...

It is wonderful you were able to go to Confession in St. Peters - . Man can not live by bread alone but by the Word of God.

In reading a few causes for blesseds and saints, it seems a good method is to pray to a single blessed or venerable in common with other people and to have a priest bless you with a relic and pray the rite for anointing of the infirm and if possible visit and pray at the the relics/tomb and shrine of the same blessed or venerable. I was just reading how Blessed Columba Marmion completely cured a mother of seven with stage four cancer that had already metastasised while she prayed at his tomb- now it is some forty years after her healing and she shows no sign of cancer returning although her prognosis was very low with little time to live. Other Benedictines were praying for the intercessions which increased the understanding of its authenticity.

Yet there is another person whom I became acquainted with in school a young Catholic man engaged to be marry in his twenties, who after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer did not get cured but did prolong his life by three or four years. In the short time he married and helped to give life to three beautiful children and spent time working in youth ministry. They thought that the healing may not occur as we wish it to in all cases but with prayers and faith the miracle may manifest itself in different ways. For him the miracle was that he was allowed the time to marry and have children, to be happy for the time they had and to offer their life and sacrifices although the time was passing quickly. I believe that he could become a saint.

I hope that you get well at least for a little while longer. God be with you & the Immaculate Mary. Julianna

Mrs McLean said...

Whew. Well-written, very gripping and should make legions of female readers make an appointment for a pap smear.

Prayers from Edinburgh.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hilary,

Thank you for writing so frankly and movingly of what is a deeply personal and frightening experience.

Oddly, when I read your first post on the subject, I thought immediately of His late Holiness, of happy and blessed memory, Jay-Pee-Two (not disrespectful, I think it would make him grin), and I rather hoped that you would be able to find the courage to take your readers with you on the journey you must now make.

Your descriptive skill will help others as much as it helps you, in much the same way as our late Pope's courage did.

Do everything that the doctors tell you. Put all things in the hands of the God who created you. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst and, whatever else, don't stop writing.

You are in my prayers and although Jay-Pee was not my favourite pope I will be seeking his help for you.

Best wishes,

David J. Woodhead
Lancashire, U.K.