Part two of the cW Slice of Life essay series, Part Two of Mandi Chambless’ “Tomorrow I’ll Know” takes readers through her cancer journey, exploring the fears that seem insurmountable, the grief of losing sight of past selves and the anxieties of not knowing what is to come — emotions that are real, raw and deserving of recognition.
Part One can be found here.
By Mandi Chambless
Tomorrow is now Today.
The gods of rest took pity on me last night and allowed my mind, body and soul to replenish itself with sleep. I woke up before my alarm sounded in a dizzying vacillation between calm and anxiety. Blane has already quietly slipped out the door to work so I am alone once again. I lie awake in the early morning, contemplating if life as I have known it the past 12 years is now over. Images of what were intertwine with predictions of what could have been, the mingling of past, present and future creating a blurry highlight reel playing through my mind. I lie still for quite a while before slowly lifting the covers off my body and rising out of the safety and comfort of bed.
Today I will know.
I brush my teeth, wash my face and continue the rest of my morning routine with an unmemorable, mindless and somewhat catatonic sequence of motions. I grab the waistband of my pajama shorts and pull it away from my uncomfortable belly and watch them fall to the floor of my closet. Carefully, I bend over to pick up my bike shorts and step into them as I will myself to muster the energy to walk into my office, which is where my Peloton resides. This is my constant. Moving my body, exercising, flooding myself with endorphins. Regardless of the turmoil in my mind, the physical part of my routine never changes. It’s always been an integral part of my healing process. It’s also served as a distraction, or transfer of pain, so I am able to momentarily shift my focus away from reality for an hour or so each day.
I slide my socked feet into the bike shoes that have remained clipped to the pedals practically since the day the Peloton was delivered. They have seen a million miles, but have yet to touch the floor. I press the power button and scan the screen for my scheduled class. Although my soul is fearful, my limbs are ready to be pushed to their limit. The instructor’s smiling face pops on the screen as I press the pedals toward the floor with my feet. I ride hard and fast. As hard and as fast as I can for 45 minutes. Not necessarily because I want to, but because I need to flood my body with that natural chemical high that only exercise can offer. For 45 minutes, I close my eyes and ride to the music. I don’t want to do it, but I ride. Sweat drips into my eyes and I don’t wipe it away. The taste of salt is on my lips but I let it linger. I just want to be this way a little while longer.
I slowly start to feel my anxiety being snuffed out like a candle flame. The movement of my body and the focus of my mind on the music is working. My flight response is morphing into a “stay and fight” mentality. This will buy me a little bit of time. The calm before the storm.
Once my ride is complete, I climb off my bike and hop into the shower. I am forced to remind myself every few minutes to keep breathing. My mind is calm but my body is now taking over. I turn the water off and reach for my towel. I stare at my red “Live Life on Purpose” T-shirt, which I carelessly tossed on the ground. I gently pick it up, thinking of my late friend who created the tagline as she passed away from ovarian cancer a couple of years prior. Britt is coming with me to my appointment today.
“Hey Alexa, play Goo Goo Dolls on Pandora.”
“The Goo Goo Dolls Radio on Pandora,” my virtual assistant responds obediently.
My breath catches in my throat as the first few strands of “Name,” my favorite song, and one of my choices for Britt’s celebration of life playlist, course through my ears.
“And even though the moment passed me by
I still can’t turn away
‘Cause all the dreams you never thought you’d lose
Got tossed along the way
And letters that you never meant to send
Got lost or thrown away…”
The melody feeds my soul, and as my heart lifts I feel the corners of my mouth curl into a half smile. A memory flashes through my mind of Britt and me at a Goo Goo Dolls concert, rocking out on air guitars to the music, and I lift my eyes to the heavens and say, “OK… I get it. I get it.”
“And scars are souvenirs you never lose
The past is never far
Did you lose yourself somewhere out there?
Did you get to be a star?
And don’t it make you sad to know that life
Is more than who we are…”
I apply mascara to my eyelashes and concealer under my eyes. Maybe if I don’t look sick, I won’t be sick.
Either way, today I will know.
“I think about you all the time
But I don’t need the same
It’s lonely where you are
Come back down
And I won’t tell ’em your name…”
My eyes brim with tears. Are they happy or sad tears? I’m not really sure. Is it possible to be both at the same time? Happy for the memories, yet sad they are but mere flashes of dreams that once were? I hum the last few chords, and as the song ends, I force myself to sigh deeply, the air filling my lungs and causing me to pause and take note of its presence as it sustains me. I slowly and steadily blow it out as I walk out of my bathroom and into the kitchen where my phone lies on the white countertop.
I pick up the device, feeling a beckoning inside of me, and illuminate the screen by pushing the button on the side. I unlock the phone and tap on the orange icon to open my notes app. After pressing the microphone above the keyboard, I start speaking my thoughts and watch as the app changes the words I am saying into text on the screen. My thoughts are erratic. Choppy like my mind. I don’t care. I keep talking. This stream of consciousness would eventually morph into the words you are reading right now, my friend.
I sit at my desk and log into a meeting with a couple of coworkers. Can they tell? Am I playing the game well? Do they have any idea what I am facing right now? They must not because I am not questioned and we hang up the call and all go about our individual days.
The clock on my phone says 12:47, and the effects of my Peloton ride have completely worn off. I have busied myself as much as possible but I’m beginning to falter. Today, I don’t care about customers and I don’t care about sales.
I don’t care about anything but whether or not I am dying.
My nerves are rocking me in full force again. I’m clammy and my breath is shaky. I’ve had multiple conversations today and no one has noticed. I should get a Golden Globe for this type of acting. Best Female Lead in a Drama, because I am fooling everyone.
Scenarios keep sprinting across my mind. I could have gotten the results from my blood test today, but I chose not to call and ask for them. What if I ring the doctor’s office and the nurse calls me back only to tell me that the doctor will need to be the one to share the results with me? For 12 years, they have always told me over the phone, but what if they don’t this time? That within itself would be my answer. I’d much rather just get all the bad news in one shitty bundle. No need to parse this out. I’m already nervous enough, and I know nothing.
But what if my results are normal? Maybe I should have saved myself the stress today. Who’s to say whether it would have been worth it or not?
Regardless, in an hour, I will know.
It’s time to get in the car. My hands shake as I buckle my seatbelt and back out of the garage. My heart somehow is racing and feels like it has stopped beating all together. The Not Knowing is pure and utter torture. I sure hope the Knowing isn’t the same.
I am going to my appointment alone again, as I would prefer it. Maybe I do it to protect myself, but then again, I know the real reason. I do it to protect Them. I’ve already caused so much strife, although I certainly know it was never intentional. I also acknowledge that They know it as well, but that isn’t enough to change my mind. Friend’s names have shown up on my phone over the past couple of days and I have chosen not to answer their calls. Responding to texts has been a little easier. I have time to think about what I am going to say and how I am going to say it so They won’t know. I will call Them when I know. At some point…
Blane acknowledges that I prefer to go alone. Sometimes he offers to go with me, other times I think he knows better. I know all I’d have to do is ask and he would be there, but I don’t know if I even want to. Since we weren’t together during my diagnosis and treatment, I struggle with subjecting him to any undue pain. He’s lived quite a “normal” life without a lot of heartache, so I often think he doesn’t know what to do with me anyway, when I’m struggling through these times. I am the tough one in our relationship, as I’m sure our friends would agree. I do allow myself to be vulnerable with him, but not about this.
My parents aren’t even aware, for heaven’s sake. The thought of someone worried and concerned with sorrowful eyes on me while I’m being poked and prodded will not help. My guilt is already choking me. I can’t stand it anymore. Plus, anyone accompanying me today would just have to wait in the car. What’s the point in that?
I refuse to drown Blane with me before it’s even necessary. I won’t do it. I’ve probably already told him more than I should have anyway. I picture him at work. He’s proctoring a state exam for middle schoolers today. He’s not allowed to have a phone in the room with him, but even if he was, I wouldn’t have contacted him. But I do wonder, is he nervous? Is his heart racing like mine? It’s best that he can’t reach out to me at the moment, because I most certainly don’t want to know the answers to those questions.
I will know in less than an hour.
My lips silently move with a prayer I lift up to God as I drive. Is He listening? Is He here with me in this car? The armpits of my shirt are damp with sweat. But somehow I am still shivering.
I get a little lightheaded as I see stars flashing before my eyes. Don’t forget to breathe. I have to keep reminding myself to breathe.
I consider turning on Britt’s playlist from her celebration of life but think better of it and shift once again to the Goo Goo Dolls. I select “Name” and allow it to try and calm my nerves as I play it on repeat. I silently pray that it’s hard to find a parking spot when I pull into Texas Oncology. I want to get this over with but delay it for as long as possible at the same time. There’s a spot directly in front of me, so I pull in and silently say a prayer while I let the song close out. I feel Britt here with me. She’s here and I know it but I don’t know why. Is it to cheer me on when I get good news, or is it to comfort me when I get bad news? Either way, I look at my empty passenger seat and tell her it’s time to go in. I’ve waited until the last possible second.
A calm passes over me as I reach the entrance. It’s time, and I try to accept that regardless of the answer, I have no control. I relent and walk through the glass doors as they slide open, pulling me in like krill into a whale’s open mouth. At least krill lack the reasoning of cause and effect so they remain blissfully unaware of their fate. Lucky-flipping-fish.
Once again, I check in with the receptionist. “Please have a seat and we will call you back shortly,” she says. I turn, head down, refusing to make eye contact with the other patients awaiting to hear their destiny just the same as I am. I don’t want their sympathetic and questioning looks today.
My name is called and I am led to an exam room. “Undress from the waist down,” I am told for what must be the millionth time in my life, as the nurse gestures to a crisp white sheet neatly folded on the exam table.
I do as I’m told. My heart races as I sit down on the exam table and spread the sheet across my waist and legs. Breath ragged, nerves tingling. I stare blankly at the beige walls of my enclosure, feeling as trapped as a prisoner in the electric chair. Resigned to my fate, both relieved and denying that it will be all over in just a minute. It’s not necessarily the Over or the After that elicits fear. It’s the During. It’s always been the During. There’s no Knowing in the After, thus there’s nothing for me to fear. The During, on the other hand, is where Knowing and Feeling and Fear reside. I don’t like the During.
I remind myself to allow my lungs to take in air as I wait for that fateful knock. Within minutes, I hear it. Three light raps on the wooden door. My eyes are focused on the silver doorknob, and my breath catches in my throat as I see it slowly start to turn. The door separating me and the Knowing opens.
The doctor is walking in now. I am about to know.