When I finally was able to get sprung from the hospital I could not wait to be in my own space again even though my own space now included my mother who had moved into my studio apartment, an air mattress where a dining room table should technically be became her room and my couch became my new command center.
My first night home I realized how badly I missed my adjustable hospital bed because laying down flat was simply not possible. Sure, I could stand at this point, I could shuffle, I could get from the couch to the kitchen, but sleeping? Forget about it. I spent two nights slumped down on my couch, using a chair as a footrest as Jeanee snored peacefully from my bed. I would throw things at her to make her stop and in the morning she would wake up surrounded by an array of books, DVD cases and tissues that I had intermittently thrown in her direction to get her to stop snoring.
Basically what I did every night.
In between popping Oxycodone for the pain, my mother would have to chart and drain the small clear plastic bottles that looked like mini-grenades that were attached to my body to make sure that I was healing properly. She was like a chemist dumping out the reddish yellowy liquid that was actually coming out of my body. Unable to deal with this horrific sight, I kept my eyes closed, which was unusual for me, because I’m usually the one that can’t look away.
Case and point. When Pleasance was pregnant with Saylor, she wanted to use a doula, which is a fancy word for a birthing coach and I volunteered because, why not? I read a doula book, I packed a doula bag and off I went with her and her husband Mel to the hospital when she finally went into labor. Mel, similar to Ricky in that he is like a brother I never wanted, and I joked around while Pleasance was resting. And when the time finally came, there we were, Mel on the left, me on the right, holding Pleasance’s feet as she pushed Saylor out. Somewhere in between the pushing the doctor asked if I wanted to see the head and I was immediately unable to turn away. I went even so far as to give the play-by-play, “I see hair! Wait, it’s gone, push again. I see hair again! No, wait, it’s gone.” I couldn’t avert my eyes so I found it so strange that when it came to what was actually happening to my own body, I couldn’t stand it, it made me cringe.
Clearly my unwillingness to accept what was happening to my own body was part of the whole denial stage of having cancer where you don’t want to deal, you just want it to be over with, but at this point I was nowhere near having the whole ordeal being over with; it was all just beginning which I wish someone had really explained to me up front. No one sat me down and said, “this is going to be a process.” This will be a process. Nothing happens as quickly as you’d like it to. Our bodies have an amazing capacity to recover if you just give it time. This was a notion that took me over a year to grasp. I just wanted everything to go back to the way it was as quickly as possible.
On my third day home post-surgery it was time for my first field trip to see my plastic surgeon so he could inspect his handwork. Since most of my body was still bandaged up, I had not actually seen myself in a week, which was strange since in the days leading up the surgery I was topless for most of the day while being inspected.
I stepped gingerly out of my apartment, down the steps, into Pleasance’s car with my mother in the front seat, my basset hound accessory still hanging from my neck. My body wanted so badly to sit upright and stretch, full of kinks from sleeping upright on the couch but there was no way that I had the strength to make that happen just yet.
As we walked into Dr. B’s office, I realized that I was now one of the women that I had been so intent on staring at during my first visit. I was officially a plastic surgery patient; I had undergone plastic surgery. This was still a concept that I was not able to wrap my head around. How was all of this possible? Take note: oxycodone makes you think of some very strange things when you’re seeing daylight and someone other than your mother for the first time in a week. I was convinced that the other women in the waiting room were now staring at me wondering what I had done as I stood in the waiting room, hair unwashed for days, in an oversized Goldberg the wrestler t-shirt and black sweatpants, unable to lower myself onto the plush leather couch in the waiting room.
“How are you doing?” he asked as he walked into the room as he helped me to the reclining medical chair that was in the center of the exam room.
“You tell me,” I said, striving for witty banter.
As he slowly pulled off the bandages I laid in the chair, my eyes squeezed shut, unable to look down at the mess of stitches, drains and bandages that temporarily covered my entire torso.
Here we are…
“Meredith, I need you to open your eyes so you can see what I’m showing you,” he said.
I shook my head like a petulant child.
“Oh for Christ sakes Meredith, just open your eyes,” my mother called from the other side of the room.
I slowly opened my eyes and looked down. I looked like a robot with white tubes sticking out of four holes in my body. I immediately closed my eyes again. This was way harder to look at than Pleasance giving birth. This was happening to me and I hated it.
“Everything is healing nicely. The drain on the left side can come out today,” he said as he reached for a pair of gloves.
“Wait, what?” I asked, unprepared for anything to be removed from my body at this point. I assumed that the removal of the drains consisted of some sort of numbing medicine or at the very least a topical. Nope. Nothing. He pulled that drain out and I felt it as it snaked its way through my body. I’m not going to sugar coat this experience because it was horrible and if you are going to have to go through this, you need to be prepared, unlike I was. This drain in particular was affixed to my newly reconstructed left breast, ran the length of my torso and ended just below my hip bone. The pain was intolerable. I winced and white knuckled the chair as he pulled it out and when he was done, I looked up at the good doctor and said, “Holy fuck that hurt like hell.”
Pretty sure the look I gave my Dr. was similar.
“Meredith. Language!” my mother scolded me. I shot her a look and she sat back down. Really? She was going to reprimand me for my language now?
I rolled my eyes at her and looked up at Dr. B as he began to further inspect. As he looked around, I did too, realizing that something wasn’t quite right here. Something was missing….
“Umm, where’s my nipple,” I asked, like I was looking for a pen?
“We discussed this. I took it off. You’ll get a new one after you’re done with all of your treatments.”
“Oh.” I replied, not wanting to admit that I had totally missed this part of the conversation but my facial expressions were pretty apparent that I was in shock. How could I have missed the part where he told me that I would be minus a nipple? I know exactly how I missed it now, looking back. I was so inundated with information that it clearly went in one ear and out the other, further proof that you need to have someone with you at these key appointments. Had I relented and let Chrys come with me for my initial meeting with Dr. B, I can guarantee you that I would not have been surprised to see my left breast sans nipple. The buddy system works people!
I looked down at the left side, which was foreign to me, a new body part that I had to acclimate myself with. I almost wanted to say, “nice to meet you” but I think that was most likely the pain medication talking. I took note of the stitches that ran across my breast, through the place where a nipple should be. My right side looked more familiar, smaller from the reduction that I had undergone to keep things as even as possible, a ring of stitches around my remaining nipple, but it was still all there.
Moving further down my body, I noticed another ring of stitches around my belly button and below that, a line of stitches that ran from left to right. My stomach was smooth and flat, a feat that I never could have accomplished without having all of the fat relocated to my left breast.
“Have you showered yet?” Dr. B asked as he was bandaging me back up.
“No,” my mother interjected. I could not believe she had outed me. I was so scared to let water touch my reconstructed body that I was going through packages of baby wipes every day trying to get my body clean rather than just standing in the shower.
“Meredith, you HAVE to shower.”
I looked up at Dr. B hoping my sad, drug-induced blue eyes would diminish his stern words. No such luck.
“I know, I know,” I lied. I had zero intention of getting into that shower until those drains were out of my body and I no longer looked like an alien. I didn’t care how gross I was starting to look, never mind the dreadlocks that were starting to form in the back of my head. Even if I had wanted to shower, I couldn’t lift my arms over my head to wash my hair.
It’s a strange feeling not being able to trust your own body and at this point, I really didn’t. In all honesty I thought that if I got into that shower, I would no doubt fall causing even more harm to a body that has just gone through the ringer.
As I left Dr. B’s office I had one assignment. Take a shower and come back in a week so he could remove the rest of the drains. I shuffled out the door, past the women waiting for their chemical peels, and Jeanee and Pleasance took me for a well-deserved Starbucks before heading back home so I could resume my position on the couch, take another Oxy and a nap.
The next day I reluctantly attempted my first shower, a welcome activity for the rest of my body. Unsure how to navigate this task, Jeanee asked if she could assist to which I replied, “Absolutely not.” It was hard enough or me to grasp that my mother, the woman that I have not seriously depended upon physically since I was a teenager, was collecting body fluids like a chemist, there was no way I was letting her bathe me.
As I stood in the bathroom waiting to gather the courage to actually step into the shower, I stood there and cried. I hated that I couldn’t trust myself enough to get into the shower, a task that I did every day up until that point. I hated that I looked like a rag doll, stitched and sewed in various places around my body. This was not the life that I was supposed to be living. I was supposed to be basking in my singledom, crushing it at my new job and generally enjoying life. Never had I imagined that I’d be standing in my bathroom weak and vulnerable. This is one of those times where your diagnosis will seem like the most unfair thing in the world and that you must have pissed someone off in a former life to have warranted this kind of torture. Allow yourself to have these moments. Allow yourself to stand in your bathroom, tears rolling down your face and onto your ridiculous fanny pack hanging around your neck. Allow yourself to feel sad and helpless and when you think you’re done for the moment, get in the shower because it will make you feel like a new person.