The bits of brown sugar danced together with the creamy butter until they became one. I breathed in the sweet aroma as I added the vanilla. No measuring spoon required. A little extra vanilla meant a little extra love. I cracked the eggs, adding them to the swirling batter one at a time watching them dive into the bowl and disappear. Next, I spooned the flour into the cup, leveling it with the handle of the spoon. As I dumped the flour into the mixing bowl, a bit escaped with each beater rotation. The flour fell like snow on the counter and speckled my shirt. The mixer struggled as the last cup of flour thickened the batter. I slowed the speed and poured in the chocolate chips. Two bags. Because extra chocolate meant extra love too.
I loved baking. Turning all those random ingredients into something lovely and sweet – it soothed my soul. Processing ingredients helped me process emotions. And today, I had a lot of emotions.
It was scan day.
That morning, I woke up with dread in my heart. Would today be the day my life changed, when it took a sharp turn once again? I said a prayer and brushed those thoughts aside as I sleepily sat up in bed. I cautiously stood up, ignoring my bones that protested my every move and shuffled to the bathroom. I considered simply brushing my teeth and my hair, and grabbing a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. No, I decided. I didn’t want to show up for the day looking like I already lost. I put on makeup, curled my hair, and opted for a comfortable, but matching outfit. No metal, of course. I learned the ropes over the years. No way I was putting on one of those awful gowns with the open back.
I woke the kids and went downstairs. I nervously unloaded the dishwasher, straightened the counter, and fussed with lunches and backpacks. I packed the scripts for my scans and a book in my bag last night. Mike and I had to leave before the kids caught the bus so I made sure they were ready to walk out the door. I reminded them to close the garage door behind them, gave them multiple hugs and kisses, and told them I loved them a dozen times.
It was a quiet ride to the hospital but I figured Mike’s thoughts were as loud as mine. Neither of us had the energy to talk over them.
“I hate scan day,” I finally broke the silence as we turned toward the hospital.
“Me too,” Mike said after a long sigh as the light turned green and forced the last turn toward the hospital.
We walked in silence through the familiar corridor, took the elevator to the third floor, then made our way down a long hallway to “Medical Imaging”. My legs felt heavy as I walked toward the receptionist desk. She knew I was there but was busy and avoided eye contact. My hip throbbed and I shifted my weight. I wondered if that deep pain inside my hip meant cancer was growing again. I would pay attention during the bone scan, looking for an extra bright spot on my hip bone when I peeked at the screen.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist with the flat expression interrupted my thoughts.
I spelled my name, first and last, then gave her my birth date and signed my initials on the forms as she mechanically explained hospital policies. She handed me a clipboard and paperwork. I pulled my sleeve around my fingers before grabbing a pen from the cup on the counter. Germs. I sat next to Mike and completed the form. I listed my medications and marked the ‘cancer’ box then added that I had chemo, surgery, radiation, then more radiation and more surgery. I scribbled my signature as best I could with my sleeve-covered hand and returned the clipboard.
A few moments later, a friendly nurse named Megan called my name. She walked me through the maze of the medical imaging department and led me to a beige chair in a small room. We went over my health history and discussed my bad veins. I showed her the vein that was her best choice and explained it was deeper than it seemed and she might have to chase it to get it. I told her all the things the nurses have told me over the years. Then I quickly apologized. I didn’t want her to think I was telling her how to do her job. Because nurses have said that to me. She quickly reassured me she appreciated the information. Her gentle nature put me at ease.. Maybe it was the thousands of gallons of water I consumed the last two days in preparation for this moment or maybe it was Megan’s personality, but Megan found that vein on the first try.
She taped it, flushed the line with saline, and then left to get the bone scan injection. As I sat in the room alone, the tears began to well in my eyes. I held it in all morning. When I hugged my kids goodbye. During the car ride. As we entered the hospital and walked down the hall. As I stood in pain waiting for the receptionist. I held those emotions at bay all morning, but they threatened to escape as I thought about the long day before me. Just as the levy was about to break, Megan returned and her warm smile pushed back the raging waters.
“There it is,” I said looking at what she held in her hand. “The metal-encased syringe! So dangerous, you can’t be exposed to it but you are going to put it right into my veins.”
We laughed but we both knew it was true. She injected me with the radioactive tracer and explained I would come back in 3 hours for the bone scan. My CT scan was scheduled in between so she escorted me to a different waiting room. I sat in another beige chair in a larger room. The nurses discussed the upcoming day and the habits of a mutual co-worker at the nurses’ station while I played on my phone as the easy listening music station played on the television. Nothing like listening to Air Supply when your nerves were already shot.
“Are you Jennifer?” asked a nurse as she entered the room. She was wearing black, an odd choice, I thought. “I am going to take you for your CT scan.”
I followed her through the maze again to a room with the large doughnut machine. I hated this machine. I reclined on the hard table and the nurse wrapped my legs like a burrito. I raised my arms over my head and cringed as the muscles, compromised from my surgery, hesitated and stretched uncomfortably. My left shoulder, the one with the hole left behind from the first cancer lesion that settled into my bones, didn’t appreciate that movement either. Once positioned, the nurse left the room because the exposure to the radiation was unhealthy for her.
The machine started as its innards spun and whirred. I kept my eyes closed at all times during tests but I felt the table pull me into the doughnut hole.
“Hold your breath,” the familiar robotic voice instructed. I inhaled and counted.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …
“Breathe normally,” the voice commanded. I exhaled and listened to the whirring of the machine, hoping it would be done soon. It seemed like forever, but a few minutes later, I heard the whirring slow and then stop.
The door opened and the nurse returned.
“Give the machine a high five,” she said as she moved my arm straight up.
“I am going to start that IV. You will feel a warm sensation and then you might feel like you have to pee,” she warned. I heard this so many times. As the IV pushed, I felt the liquid travel from the IV site and down my arm. It was an eerie feeling. Soon after, I felt warm from my head to my chest then slowly it dissipated. I was distracted and caught off guard when the voice told me to hold my breath. I didn’t inhale first so I panicked a little waiting for the voice to tell me to breathe normally again. I survived.
A few moments later, the machine stopped, the nurse returned, and the test was done. She removed my IV and reminded me to return at 10:45 for the bone scan. It was only 8;20 when I found Mike in the waiting room. He was sitting awkwardly in one chair with his work spread out on the chair next to him. He had a lot of projects going on at work. It seemed they were all due at the same time. Being away from the office only added to his stress, but he told me it was not a problem. The overstuffed clipboard, the building plans, and the intense look on his face said differently.
“I’m back,” I said. He was so engrossed in what he was doing, he jumped and then his face softened immediately.
“Done already? How did it go?” he asked with feigned ease.
“It went well. IV went in first try. I have to be back at 10:45. Do you want to go to breakfast in the cafeteria and hang out here or do you want to go somewhere else?”
“Let’s go somewhere else,” he said gathering his things. “Let’s get out of this hospital.”
He read my mind.
We left the hospital and went to breakfast. I hadn’t been able to eat before the CT but I had no food restrictions for the bone scan. I also felt a little nauseous from the iodine and the stress of the morning so I needed to get some food on my stomach. We talked about the kids and work and politics and everything but my scans and pending results over plates of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. We sat comfortably in our denial. When we left the restaurant, we intended to hang out at the book store until we had to get back to the hospital, but we both mentioned how much we needed a nap. Instead of the book store, we parked the car in the mall parking lot, reclined the seats, listened to music, and dozed on and off until it was time to head back.
That 40 minutes was one of the highlights of my day.
Sooner than we wanted, we had to return our seats to the upright position and drive back to the hospital. This trip, we filled the time with chatter instead of silence. Only a 30-minute bone scan stood between us and the ride back home. We were in the home stretch.
We parked on the rooftop and I took one last breath of fresh air before walking through the sliding doors into the stuffy hospital. Through the corridor. Up the elevator. Down the hall. Back to Medical Imaging. Mike took the same seat in the waiting room while I reported my return to the stone-faced receptionist.
Megan called for me a few moments later and we walked back to the bone scan room. She was as cheerful as she was earlier that morning. She helped me get on the cold table, placing the wedge under my knees and the plates under my arms. I got as comfortable as I could on the most uncomfortable of surfaces.
“Would you like a warm blanket?” she asked.
“I never turn down a warm blanket.”
Megan laughed and disappeared around the corner. She returned to wrap me in a delicious warm blanket before grabbing the remote and lifting the bed to meet the machine. Unlike the CT scan where the table enters the doughnut machine, the bone scan machine moves slowly from head to toe over the table. The worst was when it was over my head. I kept my eyes closed until Megan told me the machine moved past my shoulders. Then, I stared at the pictures of my skeleton on Megan’s screen until the test was over. Funny how you can recognize yourself by your bones. I didn’t see a bright spot near my hips. I hoped that was a good sign.
Mike and I didn’t say much on the way out of the hospital. We focused on getting to the elevator, paying for parking, and exiting the hospital as fast as we could. We reached our car in the rooftop garage. It was a gorgeous day, one of those 60 degree days in February. The sky was blue and the air was thick with anticipation for spring. I took the fresh air into my lungs, looked up at the sky, and thanked God for giving me the strength to get through the morning. Mike got in the car and waited. He knew I needed a moment.
We drove home and the stress of the day turned to exhaustion. I called my oncology nurse to let her know the tests were done and to ask my doctor to call when he got the results. I turned my ringer back on and filled my water bottle. I wanted to flush out all the nasty stuff that was injected into my body. I opened some windows then collapsed and curled up on the couch. I had a little time before the kids got home. Mike went back to work and the room was quiet. I said a little prayer, thanking God for all the time He gave me since my diagnosis. Science said I should have been gone by now. God had a different plan. Then, I asked for good results and more time on this earth with my family.
I must have dozed off a bit. I was stirred awake by my phone ringing underneath me. I searched for my phone under the pillows and blankets. It was my doctor.
“Already?” I said out loud, thinking this had to be really good or really bad.
“Hello?” I nervously and sleepily answered.
“Hey Jen,” he said in his jovial voice. “Good news.”
I felt my whole body relax and breathe a sigh of relief.
“Really?” I asked. my sleepiness disappearing instantly.
My doctor explained the spots of cancer in my left leg were gone. The spots on my right leg and arm were still there but stable. No progression. No sign of cancer in any soft tissue, still only in my bones. Mike came out of his office when he heard me talking. I gave him the thumbs up as I finished the call. Mike’s head and shoulders dropped for a moment then he raised his head. When I saw his face, I blinked back tears. Mike was a man of few words but no words could accurately describe his palpable relief or convey the love I felt at that moment.
Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!
As I scooped the dough onto the cookie sheets, I remembered that day over seven years ago when I found out I had cancer the first time. I came home and all I wanted to do was make cookies. I was an over-worked, over-stressed woman with messed up priorities. Just like that, everything changed. I wanted to be that mom, the mom who baked cookies for her kids. I wanted to be the mom who wasn’t so hurried and impatient. Instead, I wanted to wrap my kids in so much love they would feel it long after I was gone. I wanted to be the wife who doted on her husband, who encouraged him and never neglected to thank him for all he did for us. I vowed to live each day to the fullest and to always tell my family and friends how much they meant to me.
I wasn’t perfect and I still had a lot to learn, but I did my best to keep the promises I made that day. Oh, how vividly I remembered that day. Life was so different now.
My life was no longer chaotic and empty. My life was still busy but in a different way. .
My life was full.
Full of cancer. And blood draws. CT and bone scans. Doctor appointments. Medical bills. Pain and fatigue and sadness and fear.
But life was full of warm, sunshiny days in February. Late night conversations with my teen daughter that included a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream and two spoons. Afternoon walks through the trails with my son to find big sticks fit for whittling. Lunch dates and evening chats with my mom. Stolen moments and favorite songs and knowing looks across the room with my husband. Spit-out-your-drink laughs, catch-up phone calls, and inside jokes with my friends.
Yes, my life was full. Overflowing, really.
Full of great things, and good things, and not-so-good things, and even really bad things. Life came with a little of this and a little of that. When things got hard, I poured a little extra love or an extra bag of faith into the mix. When I took all those things and mixed them together, life turned out pretty sweet…
just like chocolate chip cookies.