I entered the waiting area of the radiation oncology department a half hour early, anxiousness after all of my pre-appointments with the oncology team, and ready to get the actual radiation started. The receptionist area was still closed, a sign taped to the wire cage that the office opened at 8am, but I was surprised to see three women already seated, their heads huddled together around what appeared to be a large puzzle.
One woman was definitely in her eighties. She had a walker perched to one side of her, a cup of coffee in her hand and she was wearing a bulky, ill- fitting cable knit sweater that dwarfed her petite frame. Around her neck was a patterned wool scarf that literally swallowed her chin, and on her head of silver, was a knit cap of the same pattern. Her ensemble struck me as really odd given it was mid-October in San Diego, our Indian summer, and despite the air- conditioned waiting room, once outside it was hovering in the low 90’s. Her face was deeply lined and her skin, an ashen shade of grey.
“Wow, she must really have cancer pretty bad”, I thought.
The woman to the left of her was probably in her fifties and she was wearing a pastel pink headscarf with a beautiful jewel pin on the front. In contrast to the woman in the bulky sweater, this woman looked very elegant in a tailored crème pantsuit with a silky blouse of jade and matching jade pumps. She was leaning forward over the puzzle, a piece of it in her hand, and her face registered intense concentration.
Seated next to her was another woman, she was much younger, maybe mid-twenties. She had on yoga pants and an off the shoulder sweatshirt that said, “#cancersucks”, her hair was little nubs like grass seed that is just beginning to sprout. She greeted me with a big smile and said, “Welcome to the Club” and motioned me to come sit next to her.
I looked at her confused, what club? “Well, um, I need to check in, I’m starting my radiation treatments today.”
The elderly woman with the walker said, “Yes, we know that honey, the gal opens up at 8am, come and sit with us and help us figure out this damn puzzle!”
I was taken aback. I just stared at them. Puzzle? What in the world, are they nuts? I’m here for radiation. This is serious you idiots. I HAVE CANCER! I have no time for the trivialities of a puzzle!
I turned towards the registration counter, and read the sign again. “Open at 8am!” I turned back towards the waiting area and the elegant woman, puzzle piece in hand, motioned towards the open seat next to her. “C’mon over here and help me find where this sucker goes!
Again, I just stared.
This time my voice was a little firmer.
“Um, thanks, but I’m here for my first radiation treatment today, I don’t think I could work on a puzzle.”
The elderly woman said, “We’ve all been there honey, but trust us, together is how we beat this thing. I’m back for the fourth time, not much left to radiate, but I’m going to beat it like I’ve beaten cancer all the other times. My friend here (pointing to the elegant woman) is almost finished with her radiation treatments for breast cancer, she gets to ring the bell tomorrow. And the youngster there (pointing at the woman in the yoga pants) is a newbie, like you, but she started a couple weeks ago.”
I’ve blanked out what happened next because I certainly don’t remember the elderly woman getting up and coming to stand beside me. But suddenly she was just there, walker and all, right next to me gripping my hand. I have a fuzzy memory of her saying something like, “C’mon, it’s ok, come join us!”
I remember her hand was like ice. Cold… so very, very cold. The bones of her fingers had a gnarled appearance, blue veins standing out like cracked porcelain against the grey of her skin. Two of her fingernails were black. I tried to recoil my hand, but she held on tighter. “C’mon, we need you!
Despite her cold hand, I felt a trickle of sweat drip down my back. Fear???
The elderly woman drew me over to the puzzle area, “Sweetie, fighting cancer is like this puzzle. It takes us apart and we have to put ourselves back together one piece at a time. Sometimes we need help to complete our puzzle…lots of help. C’mon and sit a minute with us while you wait for your radiation appointment and help put “US” back together.”
Did I hear her right? Did she just say, “Help put “US” back together?”
What is this “US” business? Poor thing, she must be delusional. I’ve never seen her or the other two women before in my life. I’m here for my radiation treatment, not to work on a puzzle. Again, I tried to pull away, but the elderly woman patted my hand and softly said, “Help us.”
Something about this elderly woman fascinated me, but also scared me. It was silly. I was towering over her and she looked as if a gust of wind could topple her without the security of her walker. Something about what she said made me want to run, to hide. The sweat was now rolling down my back. She tugged on my hand harder.
I took a seat next to her like she had asked me to. I was too afraid not to.
I was 52 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mom had breast cancer in her 50’s and so the possibility that I might someday have it was always lurking in the shadows of my mind. But my mom had beaten the disease for over twenty years and in all honesty, I really didn’t spend any measurable time worrying about cancer or any other sort of life altering disease. If I got cancer, or any of the millions of other illnesses that were possible to ravage the human body, I’d deal with it as I’ve dealt with every other drama in my life.
On my own terms, head up, and with my usual can-do spirit.
But here it was, this cancer demon not only on my doorstep, but taking over my entire house. Every room.
It was overwhelming. The neat and tidy box I imagined my cancer journey to be, was not so neat and tidy in real life. I had complications, lots and lots of complications. I felt torn apart, like pieces of a puzzle waiting to be put back together.
It was unsettling, disconcerting, humbling and frankly, the scariest thing I had ever dealt with in my entire life.
I stared down at the puzzle in front of me and back up at the women.
The elegant woman said, “We were just saying to each other that figuring out the puzzle of life is hard enough, add cancer or any other major trauma and sometimes things don’t fit like they used to because cancer changes us, not only physically, but in all ways.” She talked a bit about how she had to rethink her life priorities, particularly when her cancer returned in a new, more aggressive way.
I found myself opening up. I told these strangers about my breast cancer, the complications, the surgery I was facing after radiation to fix my colon and after that a very probable hysterectomy. I told them I was so scared.
The elegant woman handed me the puzzle piece that was in her hand. “Honey, sometimes we need a little teamwork to get us through the darkness.”
I looked down at the puzzle before me. It was one of those thousand-piece deals, of a very famous Thomas Kinkade painting. A cobble stone street stood in the foreground of a white cottage. Yellow lights winked happily from the cottage windows and the street lanterns along the cobble stone street showcased an abundant garden, flora of every color, wrapping itself around the sides of the cottage like a hug. It was a happy looking picture and I smiled, until I looked down at the puzzle piece in my hand.
The piece was not pristine white, or cheery yellow, or even red or green or blue, no, it was midnight black.
The reality of the entire puzzle came into focus then. All that was left to finish of the happy scene was one corner, one dark corner. Every piece that was left to place was midnight black and indistinguishable from each other except for the individual intricacies of their jagged edges.
Why these women wanted me to help them because this is the hardest part of the puzzle!
A solid field of darkness that requires a keen eye, patience and sheer determination in order to solve. I didn’t think I had any of that left in me.
I held up the puzzle piece to the light above me. It was unremarkable. One of those typical puzzle pieces that look like two hands sticking out from a horseshoe. Common, except one of the hands was a little longer than the other.
The woman in the yoga pants said, “These two ladies come a half hour early for radiation to work on the puzzle together.” “I thought that was ridiculous! Why would anyone come early to radiation? Then I went home that first night after treatment and the fear crept in and ever since that day, I am here early, with these amazing ladies and one of these crazy, silly puzzles.”
“We are often surprised when we arrive each day that all that is left to finish of the puzzle is the darker, solid pieces”, said the elegant woman.
“We often need the assistance of a new person to help us solve where those darker pieces go, “said the elderly woman, that’s how we met our friend here”, she said pointing to the woman in the yoga pants. “In fact, she finished this tricky corner over here yesterday.”
I looked back down at the puzzle. The dark space that was yet to be completed. Suddenly, the puzzle dissolved before my eyes and in its place I imagined myself prostrate on the table with these three women hovering over me.
“I think it might go here,” the elderly woman said trying to put a piece of me back together. “No, can’t you see that edge there is a bit jagged?”, the elegant woman said. “Keep trying”, the younger woman said, “Together we can do this!”
“Help me”, I said. “Help me to be whole again.”
I was suddenly back in front of the puzzle, the three women at my side, their eyes on me with a clarity and a knowing that was palpable. I took the puzzle piece in my hand and pressed it in place.
“You did it!”, the elderly woman said. “We needed you and you did it.”
My name was called for my appointment and I got up and hugged each of them. The radiation tech smiled and as she walked me to the back area she said, “It’s funny how a silly puzzle has a way of helping us see just what we need.”
I lay on the radiation table, bare from the waist up, hands above my head, while the radiation tech maneuvered my body into place. I was told not to move as gears began to grind and my body slowly, very slowly was placed inside a large tube.
“Are you ready”, the radiation tech said. For a split second I felt a pang of fear.
Then a warmth enveloped me and I was laying there, my three new friends hovering over me in my mind, reassuring me that they would pick me up and put me back together, no matter how hard the puzzle.
“Life is a Puzzle, We are the Pieces”
Cancer is indeed a part of my life puzzle and it has certainly changed the physical me. However, cancer also gave me the opportunity to understand that the puzzle of my life is not mine alone to solve. When it comes to the hard parts of my puzzle, the pieces that don’t seem to fit, the dark spaces where it’s almost impossible to see the light, I can rely on the kindness of my family, my friends and yes, even strangers, to bless me, to put me back together in a way that is better and stronger than anything I could do on my own.
I hope I can be that for you too! PositivelyAnne
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