I’m not sure when the realization that my parents were human actually took hold. When I was a child I used to think my entire family was made of aliens. True story.
I was waiting for the day when they would remove their human masks and unveil horrible green faces. My family was on another planet somewhere, and I was stuck down here with these alien impostors. Only I knew the truth, and it was a heavy truth at that. I was at once terrified and intrigued.
I’d wonder if when my mom washed her face in the bathroom while I brushed my teeth if the veil of her mask would wear thin, or if while Matty and I were wrestling if I would accidentally pull his off – my hair pulling phase was not focused entirely on winning against him, mostly I was trying to see if the mask would come free.
I didn’t dare tell them I knew, what would they do to me if they found out that I was on to them? I had to play it cool. So every day I went to school, slightly terrified, not only of my parents and sister, but my best friend.
When dad died I still felt like he was a little superhuman. He was always bigger than life, and smarter than anyone else in the world. In the years before he died, I started to see through that intelligence to realize it was just a father’s job to act as if he knew all the answers, and sometimes his answers didn’t make sense, but I didn’t care. My mom on the other hand, what is it between mother’s and daughters? I could see her humanity long ag0.
I feel like I’m wearing a mask now, and the rest of my family is on to me. They are waiting for me to remove the mask, to show the alien underneath. The trouble is, although I’m not an alien. I have been hiding something. A few things really…
I am sitting in a room, that isn’t even trying to pretend to be something it’s not. The walls are ecru, is that even a color, if it is I think it means vomit. I am sitting in a hard backed chair staring at the grey examination table, covered in hygienic white paper.
All told, this has been a fairly decent doctor’s appointment so far. I called looking for a female doctor that was taking patients, and was pleasantly surprised that I was able to get in so quickly to see Dr. Saad. Seriously, that is her name. I got to the office fifteen minutes early for my appointment, knowing that I’d have to fill in paperwork, and expecting to wait for at least thirty minutes before being ushered down the hall to this sad room to see Dr. Saad. I brought a book, and was actually a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to read more than a paragraph before my name was called, “Anna Emerson, follow me please.”
I put my book back in my bag and got up to follow the skinny little receptionist to the exam room, “Dr. Saad will be with you shortly.” She closed the door, and here I am. Sitting in this hard backed chair staring at that unwelcoming examination table.
I have a confession. I’m not sure that I’m ready to tell Dr. Saad my confession, but she’s going to figure me out. I haven’t been to the doctor in years. I mean, like four years. That’s a long time for a woman of child-bearing years. I have my reasons.
First off I haven’t dated anyone in a long time, so contraception needs are a moot point. Also, I’m a little overweight, I think I hide it well – from myself that is. I was waiting until I had lost some weight before coming in. Because, if you have ever been on the overweight side of the scale, you know the condescending feeling that you get when a doctor tells you that you need to lose a few pounds. Like I wasn’t aware before I came in here. Like I wanted to be told something that already bothers me. Third, I like to think that I can solve my problems myself, and then go see the expert once I’m all better. I call this being resourceful and resilient – high on my list of values.
So I’m sitting in this unwelcoming exam room, staring at the grey examination table. The door opens, and this beautiful woman walks in. She has long black hair, and perfect proportions. This is something us chubby girls notice, because our proportions spill over perfection into insecurity when we see someone like this walk in, especially someone who is about to examine our body.
She is wearing fuchsia scrubs, and flat white shoes. I instantly wonder why I didn’t become a doctor so that I could wear those comfortable scrubs and shoes. No, I had to choose corporate life with its business suits and five-inch heels. My shoe closet would argue that my love of five-inch heels outweighs my love of comfort.
Dr. Saad walks to the desk and takes a seat, signing into her computer. She has yet to say anything, so I see this as the perfect opportunity to take charge of the situation. “Dr. Saad, I’m Anna Emerson, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say sticking out my hand. My boss would be so proud of me taking charge, like I’m networking in a room of executives or something.
She looks at my hand with a smirk, “Nice to meet you Anna. Just bare with me a moment, while I pull up Dr. Saad’s files, she will be in the room shortly, I’m her nurse Indira.”
“Okay, thanks.” Beads of sweat form on my brow. Just keep your mouth shut next time, I yell at myself internally. I’m embarrassed, as if the water cooler talk wasn’t going to be bad enough when they talk about the chubby girl who came in and hasn’t had an exam for four years. Now she is also the savant who takes nurses for doctors. There was no lab coat, I should have known. Wait; do they wear lab coats in private practices? I don’t know because I haven’t been to one for four years.
Indira gets up as the door opens and an equally gorgeous woman walks into the room, no lab coat, and I sit on my hands. Indira leaves the room, and the new woman extends her hand, “Anna? I’m Dr. Saad. It’s a pleasure to meet you. What brings you in today?”
She has an English accent. Seriously, I want one of those. Sometimes when I’m home alone with my dog Maggie, I talk to her in an English accent. Except that it’s not really that good, and she usually just looks at me and barks. As if confirming my worst fear that my second career as an actress on Downton Abbey is never going to happen.
I grasp Dr. Saad’s hand, give her the two pump and release handshake and say, “Thank you. I’m pleased to meet you as well. I am here, well, because I need a doctor, and figured I should probably get on that. Also, I have a new boyfriend and need to get some birth control.” Oh my god, did she notice that I had a bit of an accent in my voice. She doesn’t know me, or how I sound, maybe it sounded natural. This happens sometimes, especially when I’m Skyping with my neice in London, I can’t help but take on the accent a bit. And what was the bit about a boyfriend and birth control? So now not only am I fake accent girl who hasn’t been to the doctor in four years, I’m also girl who lies about potential bed mates? Oh my god, I just said bed mates in my head with an English accent, this is getting out of hand.
“Ok. I think we can take care of all of that. Do you currently have a prescription, or have you had one in the past that you are looking to refill?” Dr. Saad asks. She’s typing notes in her computer and instantly I wonder what the notes say. Surely its all medical jargon and is nothing about my mental state. Besides, she doesn’t know me, I have a fine mental state. Don’t I?
“Um, no. To be honest it’s been a while since I’ve been to the doctor, I let the prescription run out,” I involuntarily look down in shame.
“How long is a while?”
“About, well, maybe four years,” I thought you were supposed to feel better after confession. Now give me my atonement – four hail Mary’s ought to do it – and let me go in peace.
Dr. Saad makes additional notes in her computer, “Has it been four years since you’ve had a pap?”
I swallow, “Yes.” More typing from the good doctor. “I know that’s bad, and irresponsible.”
“Well, it is recommended that you have one every three years. Is there a reason that it has been so long?” Dr. Saad asks. She looks genuine and empathetic and is already a ton better than the last guy. This is why I wanted a woman, only women can be real with each other in these situations.
“Well, there’s not been a lot of activity lately, yeah… that’s really about it,” I stammer. With all the sex in books, movies and T.V. I feel like I have failed my generation and my plan on becoming the next Carrie Bradshaw. She’s awesome in that messed up sort of way. Mostly I want her shoe collection and book deal.
“Ok. What about your periods, are they regular?”
“Well, they are regular in the sense that they are not at all regular. They come every…” I look up trying to think how often I have my period and how much I can get away with here. “I would say every three to four months, but that has always been the case.” If I were being honest I would have told her that it had actually been six months since my last one, but really, in the scheme of things is there a difference between three months and six months? Yes, I can do the math, but the big picture is what I think is important here.
“How old were you when you got your first period?”
Oh my god, I totally remember that. I was in grade six. I hid it from my mom for a few days because I was embarrassed. I was the youngest kid in my class, along with my twin brother, who was technically older than me by like 12 minutes. But not only was I the youngest I was also the first to get my period, what fresh hell was this? I remember one night as everyone was going to bed asking my mom if I could talk to her. She was sitting on the couch and I was sitting on the footstool and I told her. Oh the relief of getting it off my chest. “I was eleven I think, I was in grade six, so however old you are then,” I chuckle nervously. Could she see the sweat? Why is it so hot in here?
“And they have always been irregular?”
“Yes,” I say. Is that really true? For as long as I can remember it has been true, but I’m sure that the first few years everything was copacetic. This is a lot of period talk for me; I’m ready to move on.
“Ok, Anna. I’d like to schedule you for a complete physical and pap. We will also have some labs done, including a blood work and urinalysis. Is there anything else that I should know?” Dr. Saad asks, looking up from her computer.
Would now be the right time to tell her that I get bad headaches or that I’ve been having dizzy spells? That my abdomen gets sharp pains from time to time. I don’t feel like it is. I’ve been working out and eating healthy the last week, and the dizziness is less, I’m sure if it’s anything she’ll see it in the tests. “No, nothing else,” I reply.
“Ok, then let’s get that scheduled and we’ll go from there.”
That was nine months ago, and now I see multiple doctors on a weekly basis, sometimes daily. The first set of blood tests was inconclusive. Elevated liver enzymes in the blood. Dr. Saad assured me that there was nothing to worry about when that result came. Two weeks later we did the labs again, the liver enzymes had doubled. She still wasn’t worried, but wanted to do an ultrasound. Next came the biopsy. And that’s when she, along with three other doctors confirmed I had that stupid thing called cancer.
How fucking normal was I that I got cancer? It’s so cliche. Seriously, I thought maybe I would have some sort of tropical bug bite disease, not that I’d spent a lot of time in tropical areas where bug bites were a concern. But regardless, I spent the first month in complete denial. I went to my doctors’ appointments and heard words like metastatic, and pancreas, and inoperable, and they washed over me. I had shit to do. I wasn’t entirely sure what that shit was, but it needed done, and so I allowed myself to “forget” about the cancer.
After a while though, with drugs being pumped into my system, the reality of it all came crashing down on me, and I got really angry. Like really angry. I was mad at the world for not having found a cure to this stupid disease yet. I was furious at the God that I barely believe in for allowing shit like cancer to exist. I was enraged at my doctors for not finding a way to cut it out of me. I was seething at my pancreas for even existing – who needs a fucking pancreas – apparently everyone. But most of all, I was outraged at myself for having spent the last fifteen years working myself into cancer instead of a life. I had given up so much to be something that I now didn’t care about, and instead I got this stupid diagnosis that was going to kill me. Literally, fucking, kill me.
Well fuck that.
Turns out anger lasts longer than I thought, and even when you think you are past it, it has a nasty habit of creeping up again. Always bubbling at the surface waiting for the chance to break out into a furious tide pool.
I always thought myself a happy person, and then cancer, so yeah, whatever about that. I have a hard time thinking full sentences when the word cancer is included in them. And so I haven’t been able to form a full sentence to tell my mom, or my brother, or my sister. So what did I do, I put on my human mask and ran away home. Who does that? Runs away to home, instead of away. I don’t know what I thought I’d accomplish by making this trip, but I knew that it had to happen.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror. I’m halfway between my human mask and my alien or true face. My alien face isn’t green like I imagined my family’s to be when I was a child. Instead the bags under my eyes refuse to disappear. My short peach fuzz hairs, the result of three rounds of chemo, are yet to be hidden under my wig. A large zit lives on my chin, it lives there like it has taken up residence in a rent controlled apartment and has no expectation of eviction anytime soon. I’ve gotten skilled at make-up over the last few months, but this morning I look in the mirror and wonder what would happen if I refused to put on my human mask of make-up and fake optimism. Would the girls run from the room, would Matty recognize me, would Katie shriek in horror?
We came home pretty late last night. I don’t think anyone saw through my drunk act. I held on to the same glass of sparkling water and lime all night, pretending I was downing gin and tonics. I know that Katie won’t let me get too far into this day without an explanation of what is going on with me.
It isn’t the physical changes that bother me so much. The sunken eyes staring out at me are just an exaggerated version of how they looked at the height of stress in my career. The hair, well, turns out wearing a wig is far easier than dealing with my real hair. No, it doesn’t bother me that my skin is almost translucent, the things that bother me are the way people look and think of me. And I know that in the moment that I announce to my family that I am sick, that I will become a sick person in their eyes. I’ve seen it happen with all of my co-workers and friends. I was powerful. I was strong. I commanded attention, I held a room. And now, well now I make the room uncomfortable and drenched in pity.
I came here to tell my family about my illness, and so it is time.