A Quiet Fear

October 20, 2017

The sliding glass doors open and out spews the glare of florescent lighting, along with the overpowering scent of acrid hand sanitizer. You know, the foaming type conveniently laid out every ten feet. And it’s sterile. Everything is sterile. Look at the receptionist; she’s pumping that foam into her palms every three customers. Look at the janitor; he’s only half alert, fighting the relentless fits of sleep that come with graveyard shift, on the verge of surrender whenever his eyelids become heavier, but still mopping those floors because everything must be sterile.
It is 4:00 am in mid-December. The girl walks next to her mother. Glancing over every now and again, she sees everything her mother has been keeping from her in just her gaze, a gaze that screams exhaustion and fear. A quiet fear that resides in the most removed corner of her brain. It tells the tale of a trip to Starbucks the month prior. The mother and daughter went to get the first peppermint mochas of the season, to feel the liquid silk in their throats, the cool peppermint that is strong enough to make your eyes shoot open a little wider, but still tastes like snowy, nostalgic, Bing Crosby-narrated days more than anything else.
Once in the car driving away from Starbucks, the sound of that phone ringing cut through the Christmas songs on 103.3 and made the air in that heated car feel even heavier. That phone ring was the threshold to a new world of long car rides, waiting rooms, mammograms, and more phone calls even longer than the first. It’s just a lump, the mother told the daughter. It’s probably benign, or just a tissuey mass. But of course, it wasn’t.
When the mother told her daughter the results from the mammogram (the daughter was watching Food Network, expecting nothing significant to come out of her day), everything started happening in slow motion. No tears were shed, just the slow pulse of heavy words too strong for the mind to bear. Cancer, the daughter mouthed. She’d said the word before, but it had never sounded like this, like when you drop a glass vase onto a hard floor. It had never tasted so bitter coming off the tongue, like the taste of the cement they used to put her braces on four years prior.
A month later, the daughter has to skip school to be at the hospital at 4:00 am. Please, momma, she thinks, looking over at that vacant 4:00 am gaze. You’ve taught me how to walk, and talk, and feel, and fight, and love, but please don’t teach me how to die.
It is now 5:00 am. The mother being taken into surgery was all a blur of front desk paperwork on the nearly vacant second floor, a blur of pre-op instructions, liquid dripping from IV bags, through thin tubes, and into that aged, delicate, shaking motherly hand. It was a blur of beeping machines, the sound of those machines almost identical to that of the first phone call. A piercing ring that cuts through the air. A blur of doctor’s names (there was the surgeon and the anesthesiologist), surgical markings on pale skin in royal blue ink. And then the goodbye. The, “I’ll see you later,” that was lacking confidence but bursting with hope.
More family is arriving, and the sun is starting to rise over the West Hills of Portland, Oregon. At first it goes from black, to a milky navy blue, and finally, to a mix of electric orange, pink, and red. That sunrise, just for a moment, takes that family out of the dark place in their minds where it’s been perpetually raining a constant drizzle.
6:00 am hits and they decide to go to the cafeteria. The daughter notices her father getting coffee that slowly drips from a machine. They didn’t have time to stop for peppermint mochas today. Even if there was time, nobody would have wanted to. That sweet richness wouldn’t have sat well in their churning, nervous stomachs. And the nostalgia would have been wiped away by the overlying drear the day’s events naturally brought. So, hospital coffee will do. The daughter’s heart sinks when she realizes hospital omelets aren’t the same as omelets made on Sunday mornings by her mother, Sunday mornings when the sun shines in through the window, warming the surface of the furniture, and it feels as though there’s nothing in the entire world that could spoil the moment. The family finds a long, secluded table to eat at. They make small talk, of course–what the daughter would be doing if she were at school today, how cold it is for this early in December, that biology project she’ll need to work on in the waiting room today. Small talk conveniently suppresses the mind’s most dark imaginings.
Most girls don’t have to do this at 15, she thought to herself while moving the omelet around on her plate with her fork. The thought kept racing through her mind: who gives a mother breast cancer in the middle of her daughter’s teenage years? But, you can think, wonder, and wish until your mind is spinning and even then, all of your questions remain unanswered. And that’s how it is in the hospital during the early hours of a December day.
Renee Hollopeter