The Bus Ride

The Bus Ride

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

The Bus Ride

An individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does.

Terry Tempest Williams

Five afternoons each week, the rickety old shuttle bus opens its doors to a waiting group of radiation patients. The door creaks shut and, with windows and bones rattling, the bus and its cargo bump along four freeways to the Kaiser Permanente Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

Stories, shared experiences and traumas unite these strangers thrown suddenly together. My wife, Catherine, is one of them.

Rider: “Is that a Walkman?”

Catherine: “Yes, it is. My husband bought it for me when I started riding this bus.”

Rider: “Sounds like you got yourself quite a man.”

Catherine: “Yes, he is. I appreciate him so very much.”

Rider: “Wow, I’ve gotta get me one of those.”

Catherine: “Don’t give up that thought—he may be just around the corner.”

Rider: “What are you talking about?”

Catherine: “The possibility of a husband.”

Rider: “Husband! I don’t want no husband, honey. I’ve already tried on one of those. I was talking about getting a Walkman. Now that’s what I call useful.”

Catherine and I are in this thing together, and we have been ever since the doctor looked at the first suspect mammogram, sending us on a journey that has drawn us closer than ever before, even if I’m not on that daily ride. There’s nothing like a traumatic personal event to test the fabric of a relationship; out of that test, I suspect, comes one change or another—perhaps for better or worse. I can’t imagine everything remaining the same.

Her first lumpectomy involved the placement of a marker wire clear through the right breast, and then removal of tissue, including a lump that sat against the chest wall. Before the surgery, the surgeon had said, “The signs are all in your favor. Let’s get this over with.”

I answered the phone when he called a couple of days later with the pathology report. “It’s cancer,” he said. There was more, but those first words floored me, and I felt tears well in my eyes.

Catherine said, “Tell me everything. Don’t leave anything out.”

“He said a second surgery is needed to remove more tissue and several lymph nodes.” She listened and said simply, “Oh, I see.”

We believe in stepping into the fire of life with both eyes open, and we looked at each other for awhile without needing to speak.

Her second surgery was scheduled to last one hour. An hour and ten minutes later, the surgeon hadn’t shown up, and I was very concerned.

Finally, he appeared. “Hi, John. You doing okay? Yes, the operation is now complete. No, it didn’t take too long . . . sometimes it’s longer, sometimes shorter, and she’s safely in the recovery room now. There were no complications or problems—the surgery was a thing well done.” Whew. Relief flooded every cell. Up, down, up, down, up. As long as we land on “up,” I’ll be fine.

A cancer patient’s life is filled with the unexpected. Every day is a walk along a new learning path for the whole family. Patients often get used to it, even gaining a morbid sense of humor, as evidenced by this exchange Catherine heard on her daily bus adventure:

Rider 1: “I don’t want to get on this bus one more day. It’s driving me out of my mind, and I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Rider 2 (hands on hips, eyes twinkling): “Dearie, you get on that bus this instant! Get on that bus or die!”

Rider 1 (smiling sweetly, as she gets on the bus): “Thank you. I needed that.”

No one chooses to have cancer. It leaves a cloud hovering over one’s life because the outcome is never certain. But then . . . what is?

It is also a gift.

When Catherine was bed-ridden after each of the surgeries, I lovingly took care of her. Spending more time at home, I had the opportunity to look around and appreciate the pleasures and treasures that are mine: our faithful dog, the richly stocked library, the lovely kitchen, the bed of recovery, the couch of conviviality, the garden of dynamic life, and—most important—my healing wife.

Being here is what I choose.

For us, John and Catherine, this is the time of living intensely. Out go the previous habits of a lifetime that don’t serve, either because they never did or because they no longer do.

In come those things that allow us to grow, to delve deeply into this life . . . and lead to happiness. We became better listeners, clearer speakers, more thoughtful discerners and quicker to smile in recognition of life’s joys. Somewhere, somehow, I was given this life that is so beautifully enmeshed with the life of another. It’s a blessing.

John de Strakosch

Reprinted with permission of Allan Hirsch ©1998.

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