I am grateful I have two sisters to wait with as we sit in the Green Room of Bryn Mawr Hospital. Francie, the youngest, is intent on her iPad, sliding her fingers over the screen as she surveys a cartoon town, Springfield, home of the Simpsons. Through a game called “Tapped Out” she has added houses, shrubs, sidewalks, and stores, as well as an amusement park and castle. “I’m trying to make it as realistic as possible, but I probably overthink it. I still haven’t put in stop signs.” I comment that, given her goal of realism, this is a key feature to omit. “Yeah, but all the cars are parked, so it’s okay.”
Rita, the middle child, in fact and personality as she is quick to point out, is playing solitaire. There is not an actual card in sight, for she, too, is frowning at an iPad. I am the oldest daughter and I don’t own an iPad. I brought my book and Yankee Magazine and have not glanced at either one. Actually, I am enthralled by Francie’s game. “I put in all the flowers and vendors: it was a blank field when I started,” she says. I'd no idea my sister had such city-planner skills.
“Damn, someone just wrecked my castle,” she grouses and sighs. “It’s okay. I can rebuild it. “
Across from us, an old gentleman in heavy orthotic shoes snoozes, chin to chest, his hands clasped across his belly. His walker is parked at his side. A stately Asian woman sits alone in the corner, her back erect, her calming deep breaths so forceful as to be audible. I hope everything works out all right for her and whomever she is here for.
My sisters and I are awaiting word of our mother. She discovered a lump three weeks ago when we were on vacation. She is stoic and didn’t want to interrupt or worry us, so by the time we’d all returned from our jaunts and she told us her news, she’d already had the necessary appointments and biopsy. When the time came to deliver the lines she had practiced, Mom began her spiel with, “Before I say anything, I want you to know that everything is fine and under control.”
At 82, my mother is blessed with a busy schedule, good spirits, and great health… and she rarely, rarely, goes to doctors. She drives her physician crazy. “Oh, he wants me to get all kinds of tests, a colonoscopy, things like that, but I just tell him, ‘no thanks.’” So my sisters and I consider ourselves lucky that she took the steps she did and agreed to this lumpectomy.
We are also lucky that she is a friend of the head of the hospital’s breast cancer department, a surgeon sought after by patients nationwide. Mom has full confidence in him and to all appearances, has been totally relaxed about this procedure. In fact, when I arrived from Connecticut last night, she was so chatty and cheery in her welcome that I said, “Clever of you to arrange this reason for us all to get together, Mom.”
The worst part for her, other than the biopsy and diagnosis, was last night’s shower with anti-bacterial soap. Where I think showers are one of God’s great gifts, Mom is a bath kind of girl. As she struggled not to slip on the wet tiles of the shower stall, she grumbled, “Never again.”
So, free of bacteria and squeaky clean, Mom and I met my sisters at the hospital at 6:00 AM this morning. She was bustled off for prep by a friendly nurse, and when we were guided to her side shortly after, she was dressed in the same blue-diamonds-on-white johnny I’ve worn for colonoscopies and mastectomies alike. Who is the design genius now reaping big bucks off that pattern, I wonder?
Mom seemed at ease as she rested with one arm crooked behind her head, a pink plastic bracelet encircling her wrist, a needle access ready in the back of her hand. A flat neon line ran across the screen of a monitor mounted behind her. She laughed aloud when someone said, “Oops. Too bad, Mom. Apparently you’re dead.”
We were introduced to several nurses and the anesthesiologist, each of whom checked Mom’s bracelet and confirmed who she was and what she was in for. The anesthesiologist observed that, according to his records, Mom had had a tonsillectomy. “Well, yes, when I was four. Seems a long time ago to be of any interest now.” But there again, given her healthy history – and lack of doctors’ appointments – there was nothing else for the poor man to note. Clearly he felt he had to say something.
When the surgeon arrived, Mom said to him, “Everyone sends their love. Can’t possibly remember all the people who told me to pass that along when they heard you were doing my procedure. So there you are. You are beloved.”
He laughed modestly, then told Rita, Francie, and me to plan on about an hour’s wait. A nurse gave Mom a shiny foil shower cap, which she slipped over her silver-white hair, tucking in a few errant tendrils. She smiled brightly as we kissed her, and said, “see you soon!”
It’s been forty-five minutes or so since we left her. I go to the restroom and when I return, my sisters, in whispered giggles, give me a hard time because my flip-flops, true to their name, flipped and flopped so loudly I woke up the old man in orthotic shoes. I sit down and study our three sets of painted toes, mushroom brown (Francie), eggplant (me), and neon midnight blue (Rita). Not so long ago, Mom and Dad would have raised an eyebrow at painted toenails and told us they were tacky.
Soon after, the surgeon enters the Green Room. He smiles reassuringly, nods, and indicates that we should follow him to a private adjoining room. The surgery went perfectly. He pulls out a pen and lined sheet of paper to draw a sketch of a torso, a breast, and a dotted incision line. “Once it’s healed, it won’t look much different. She’s in recovery and Joyce, at the desk, will let you know when you can see her.” Francie picks up the drawing, folds it, and slips it into her purse.
Back to the Green Room, giddy we go. The old man has fallen asleep again and the elegant Asian woman is gone. Last week, Mom had told the three of us to Google “shoe ruins family picture.” “It’s in terrible taste,” Mom had said, “but it’s hysterical.” We’d never gotten around to it, so now is the time.
Francie types it in on her iPad, scrolls through a few possibilities, and clicks on a likely choice, a group of tan, handsome, happy, twenty-somethings. In the front row, a blond guy with the look of a surfer stands with legs planted wide, wide enough that the beige pump of the girl behind him appears to dangle, penis-like, between his legs.
My sisters and I erupt in laughter desperately suppressed so as not to seem inappropriate or bother others. From there, it’s an easy leap to YouTube videos of pooping dogs ruining family pictures. Then Francie suggests we hold our breaths to see who can last longest; it’s been just under fifty years since last we held such a contest in our neighbor’s pool. The seconds pass as we lock eyes and press our respective lips tight. Rita’s hand goes up first as she inhales deeply, and ultimately, I win. Not bad for the oldest.
As we’re taking a few breaths to recoup, Joyce comes to fetch us.
Mom is in Room #363. We leave the green carpeting and sponge-painted geraniums in the Green Room to walk down the corridor under glaring white lights. A nurse at the desk smiles as we pass, and we check out the numbers of each door along our way. “363. Here we are,” says Rita.
Francie knocks on the door and pushes it ajar. “It’s your girls,” she says as we enter.