The bells of the church are ringing through the skylight in the Lung Doctor’s private office, as she starts to explain in a slow, gentle voice how the lymph nodes in my lungs are inflamed on both right and left sides and many are larger than normal so she wants to do a biopsy.
I nod slowly, looking her straight in the eyes with a serious, alert expression, but all I can hear are the damn bells pouring into the room, as if God is yelling at me, “Wake up! Pay attention! Act now!”.
Instead of being afraid of God’s voice, I smile.
The Doctor pauses and asks, “Did I say something funny?” Her Swiss accent is crisp, with not an trace of sarcasm.
I smirk and confess the bells/God theory, then I pause and ask her, “You hear the bells too right?”
We both laugh nervously, and she informs me that the bells ring four times a day and that I am not that special nor cursed. This makes me a bit sad, because I think it would be great if God took time out of his busy day to focus only on me.
This all started a month ago, when I had remembered that it was 10 years since I had a heart check up with my cardiologist, so I emailed him and booked a follow-up. He remembered me, he even made a joke about how no one could forget me. I choose to take that as a compliment, regardless if that is how he meant it or not.
We had bonded when I had come to his office in the first year that I moved to Zurich from New York. I had a painful bladder infection from too much sex my new German boyfriend and was referred to a local Swiss doctor through my insurance on-call emergency service. I walked into his practice late on a Monday night and saw that, much to my dismay he was a cardiologist. I was embarrassed to talk to a cardiologist about my bladder infection and what had caused it, but he calmly laughed it off and said that it’s “nature”. Like it would have been “ok” if was just a general practitioner that I handed my cup of pee too, but it seemed to me, that it was beneath a cardiologist.
Nervously, and in order to make “light” conversation, I told him that my mom had died of a heart attack in her sleep at the age of 47 and her dad had also died of that same disease at 51, so it was ironic to be sitting in his office. I also confessed that sometimes I thought I was doomed to die young, so I tried to live life to the limit, but in reality was afraid to know the truth. He stopped what he was doing, listened carefully and then softly suggested we make an appointment and find out- do a full check up, stress test, blood, EKG…the works. I asked him how much it would cost. He laughed and reminded me that this is Switzerland and that insurance covers EVERYTHING. I guess it’s hard to forget American healthcare phobias. Anyway, I agreed. What do I have to lose?
The day of the exam, I was nervous. Not sure why, but I felt like I was a runaway bride walking down the aisle of a church to an old, fat man I did not want to marry. (Note: the heart attack is the fat man, not the Cardiologist). Nevertheless, the Cardiologist was professional, kind and funny. I think he knew this was more an emotional thing than health problem. He took the time to explain the process and what it meant to be “normal” and “at risk”. At the end, he told me that I was fine.
“Whatever you have been doing, keep doing it. You are healthy woman and your heart is as strong as my triathlete client,” he said. I cried anyway. He handed me a tissue.
“I wish my mom had you as a Doctor, she might have had a chance to live a long, full life,” I remember saying. To which he replied, “I may not have been able to be there for your mom, but I will be here now for her daughter.”
So like I said, we bonded.
Now ten years had passed and I booked a follow-up. The Cardiologist was kind and professional as last time, and happy to see me again. The exam was the same-blood work, EKG, sonogram, and stress test. I felt more relaxed and confident, since I run and cycle regularly, eat whole foods, avoid cigarettes and drink mostly good wine. At the age of 46, I have been told I can still pass for late 30’s. In fact, I was so cocky, that I even told the Doctor he should play music for the stress test on the bike, so you don’t have to pump away in silence wearing a hospital gown with no bra and paper underwear. I told him it would make it more fun. He told me that once again, I had told him something no other patient had. He was mildly amused, I thought.
However, this time he told me we need to do a CT scan, to be more careful since I am closer to the danger zone, when my family seems to die. I agreed. Ironically, my mom had a check-up 4 months before she died and her Doctor assured her she was fine, “normal” blood pressure, high cholesterol but nothing unusual for her age. When she died in her sleep of a heart attack at age 47 with no prior heart attacks or illnesses, the coroner that did the autopsy said she had 95% blockage of her major arteries. I wish she had gone to a cardiologist instead of the family doctor who sent her home telling her she was “normal”.
The CT scan was at a private hospital, which was so fancy, that the lobby was filled with crystal chandeliers, a piano and a white leather lounge. I think they even serve champagne on the lunch menu. Anyway, I went to the MRI office and waited my turn to take off all my clothes, put on a paper dress and lay down on the table. The technician informed me that he would inject a coloring agent into my arm that would make my veins show up better in the scan. He warned me, “You may feel a hot sensation as it enters your bloodstream, you will feel warm EVERYWHERE.” He pointed at my hips and legs. I nodded as he rolled the CT scan table into position. I listened to the machine and imagined beautiful pictures of my heart and blood vessels. It was surprisingly relaxing.
The technician spoke into a microphone over the machine and told me that he was going to inject the agent. He was right, it was warm. I felt like luke warm lava as it as it entered the vain in my arm and then into my core, and finally, and surprisingly my vagina. It actually felt like someone was blowing hot air between my legs. I tried not to laugh out loud and when it was done, I told the technician that he was right, it was warm EVERYWHERE, pointing below my waist and I wish more men knew how to do that trick. He laughed out loud and leaned against machine with one hand and his body slightly doubled over, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. I suggested that maybe we can become partners in a new business called “O Clinic” a kind of social club that supplies CT Scans and orgasm for elderly women that is covered by health insurance. He said he had never heard anyone in this room say that. I am not sure he meant that in a good way, but I made him smile. (Note to reader: I am aware of my pattern of using humor as a way of disassociation from what I don’t want to feel. But in all honesty, I actually do believe they should play music in the stress test bicycle room and that men should learn the hot air trick.)
The technician shook my hand when I left and told me that they would send the images to my cardiologist, and that I can talk to him about it tomorrow.
So the next day I went back to the office fully expecting to hear how healthy I am. My cardiologist informed me that although my heart was in excellent condition and my blood work was normal, but they had seen something in the CT scan that was irregular, so they wanted to do another CT scan tomorrow and send me to a lung specialist, as soon as possible. He told me I had enlarged lymph nodes in my lungs and on both sides, double the usual size and in multiple locations. The room felt airless and like someone was standing behind me pushing down hard on my shoulders while at the same time squeezing my skull. I was not sure what that meant, but he deferred his diagnosis until the second scan and the meeting with specialist.
“If it is something, you are very lucky we caught it this early, usually this disease has no symptoms and you don’t know it is there until you are very sick!” he reassured me. I did not feel lucky and shook my head in disbelief. He asked me what I was thinking.
“Synchronicity!” I said.
“In what way?” he asked.
“Imagine the synchronicity required for my mother to have died 24 years ago (and her father 40 years before that), and 10 years ago the bladder infection that led me to your office, the first heart check up as a result and finally, the follow-up heart check today in order to find these enlarged lymph nodes hiding in my lungs!” I said, still shaking my head in disbelief. “Isn’t God amazing? What a sense of humor!,” I said smiling bravely.
“You are a poet!” said the Cardiologist. “But if you read this book you won’t be able to think with your romantic mind about what your rational mind is experiencing.” He pointed to a book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahnenam, that he had recommend on the first visit.
“You are an asshole!” I said laughing, though a bit shocked at my own boldness.
He laughed too, his eyes wide and said “No patient has has ever sat in that seat and called me an asshole. You are incredible!”
“Sorry, I just meant that I had this wonderful epiphany about the meaning of life and you just deflated it.” I explained.
“Are you religious?” he asked, knowing that his faith was proudly displayed throughout his office and on the back of his head.
“I believe we all worship the same God, but in different ways and languages that make it easier to swallow, but that most bibles or dogma are actually just written by old men through the filter of their own human experience rather than the voice of God.” I said.
I suddenly felt nervous, and wondered if this was his polite way to tell me I better start praying to a God, and that any God would do.
Friends & Family
I struggled. Physically I felt fine.
“Hell, the week before the first check-up I ran 7 kilometers uphill without stopping! My lungs and heart are strong!” I thought to myself.
I wanted to talk to my friends and family, but having lost my mother when I was 21, I had thick, high walls around my heart. In the months after her death, childhood friends that I had always thought would be there for me, were too busy to talk, afraid my grief and depression was contagious and that they might say something to make me cry. My own father had failed to show up, too narcisstic to put anyone ones needs first. I remember him calling me the three days after she died, “Sorry your mom died. I lost many friends in Vietnam. Now that is pain!” he declared, as if we were competing in grief. I was not surprised, they divorced when I was two years old and he had only seen me four times since. My extended family was also of little comfort, my uncle’s wife told me that “We don’t need to cry, if you need to do that, go in the other room.” I don’t blame her, it was a stoic family and she was raised that way. I was just wired differently. So I learned to be self-sufficient.
These days, I relied mostly on my cousin in Denver who had had her own share of health issues -a son with hearing loss and a “minor” stroke at 36 years old and overcome both of them with grace and a dark sense of humor. She is a no-bullshit kind of woman, we share a love of cursing and jokes about farting.
So I called her, and she was warm, loving and understanding however a bit rushed because she was driving across Montana with her children’s church youth group and had just stopped to go to the bathroom. In between giving people directions, she paused, focused like a laser on me and listened to my short version of the situation.
Then I asked her, “How did you deal with the shock and realization that you are “not healthy” and can no longer live in the bubble of “Everything is fine”.
She chuckled at my spot-on analogy and agreed that it is surreal. “That is normal” she said and then I asked her how she dealt with it. “Look I have two kids, a family to take care of and things to do. So I just dealt with it.”, then she said “You have to find a way through it.” We hung up the phone shortly after and I promised to update her when I got my biopsy.
Next, I called two of my closest friends. Both women who live in different parts of the world-Sydney, Australia and Washington DC, but equally fierce and funny. I figured I needed a round the clock team in different time zones, so that if I had “a dark night of the soul” moment, I could call them at any time. I didn’t want any of that “Poor you” crap, or “Bless your heart” and especially not “Maybe this is God’s way of telling you that you should settle down…” pseudo sympathy that leaves you feeling more empty after you hang up the phone.
The one in DC said, “We got this, not going to let anything happen to you. Whatever you need, just ask”.
The one in Sydney said, “Call me when you get the biopsy results. We are going to drink this out over facetime video, no matter what the diagnosis.”
These are my wing women. This is how we roll. It was easy to tell them, because I knew they would catch me if I fell. The rest of my friends were another story. I hate pity, but love kindness. I didn’t want to burden anyone, but I also didn’t want one of them to think, “why didn’t you tell us?”
I felt that it was too soon to say that I MIGHT have something, but also a bit conflicted and feeling that I did need support (and prayers!) and did not want to go through this alone. I struggle with vulnerability. I think we all do, the older we get. Dependency of any form-emotional, financial, physical, etc. can be daunting for anyone, let alone for someone like me, that has been on my own since I was age 18, put myself through college, lost my mom at 21, lived in Japan for 5 years, earned a Master’s degree, worked in finance in New York and Switzerland.
People often use the word “strong” when they describe me. I knew I was an enigma to many of my family and friends, in that I was never married, although three times engaged. The Greek owner of one of my favorite restaurants asked me the other night, “How come someone who looks like you is single?”, as if in his mind ugly/fat people deserve to be alone and good looking people are entitled to be in a fulfilling relationship. I told him that I am not alone, I am “free.”
But to be honest, it may have been a fear of commitment or as I like to call it, “a fear of getting stuck”, but I never thought marriage was the answer for me. My happiness was not dependent on someone else, now was my unhappiness. I had two or three multi-year relationships, and at the end, when the mutual respect and love ran out, I/we parted ways. I do not consider this breaking up or running away, but more moving on. I love kids but never felt I had the right partner that made sense to raise a soul with.
Vulnerable is not a side of my personality I show to hardly anyone, ever. It was beginning to feel like this health issue/”would be crisis” was a highly bespoke curriculum in order for my fiercely independent, Teflon soul to evolve.
So in the middle of my soul musings and circling my friends & family wagons, my Cardiologist texted me and asked how I was feeling. He really did that. I do not know what I did to deserve this man’s kind and caring attention, but I know this is the kind of person I needed as a doctor.
“I am nervous,” I said, “I feel like crying, but relieved we found it early. I am scared, but pretending to be brave. Mixed up mostly” I confessed to him. “I am trying to accept the new normal,” I said.
Then he wrote me something so profound and rational, that I knew what to do. I posted it on Facebook.
Yes, Facebook. The person who hates vulnerability, decided to post her pre-biopsy and mysterious pre-diagnosis health condition on Facebook. Brilliant, with a capital B!
This is what I wrote, along with parts of the text from my Cardiologist, I cried while writing it. My fingers and hands were shaking as I typed. I proofed three times, took a deep breath and hit the post button:
“Do you ever feel like you walk around in a “Everything is fine” bubble? Confident, but a bit bored with the comforting routine of life. Well, my bubble popped.
In a “routine” check-up on my heart (I have a family history of heart disease, my mom passed at the age of 47 and her dad at 51) the Cardiologist discovered a number of inflamed lymph nodes in my lungs and near my heart. After a number of CT scans and a meeting with a lung specialist, we think it may be sarcoidosis. If you want to google it, feel free. it’s not lethal and it can be monitored and treated with medication, it sometimes goes away spontaneously as it shows up. On positive note, weight loss is a symptom so I could have that to look forward to (*fist pump*). However, the Lung specialist wants to do a biopsy to rule out lymphoma. I will go for that procedure tomorrow and should have the results in a week or so.
The reason I am writing this today is that my Doctor said I am lucky. He said that (and this is why I love this brilliant man!) quote= “You are healthy Tamara! So far we just have some images showing something several people you know may have too but they don’t know about it. So take a deep breath and try to see it this way. They say “I wish I was as fat as I was when I thought I was fat”. I hope you will never in your life have to say “I wish I was as ill as I was when I thought I was ill”. But I understand it isn’t easy. Once the biopsy result is here it will be better.” unquote. (if you want a referral, PM me).
How many of us have looked at Facebook pictures from 7 years
ago and wished our arms were that skinny again?! He is so right! So I am embracing my health now. I am blessed. I am also encouraging my friends to face their fears, get a check up, go for a CT scan, regardless of your family history or cost. The cost of ignoring it and going when you are sick is much higher. Or in other words: The unknowing is more dangerous than the knowing.
I sincerely believe that I am so far ahead of this, that no matter what comes I am confident that I have the strength and support of good friends/family to go through it. Your prayers and good wishes are gladly accepted. And on a positive note, this has helped me to see what and who is a priority in my life and what I no longer have time for- i.e. like focusing on launching a new business, taking time for a long bike ride on a summer evening, and not to engage in other people’s drama, people who are not kind or do not respect me. Much love to you!”
So 80 likes and 57 comments later, I started to receive countless calls, texts, whatsapp, PM’s and emails from my greater circle for friends from Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Australia, Japan and the US (Montana, Washington DC, Idaho, Texas, New York, Georgia, California, Arizona, and Utah. Friends from childhood and high school in Polson, Montana, people I went to business school with, work friends, sailing friends, drinking friends, friends of friends, parents of friends, former boyfriends, cousins and neighbors. This post opened a dam of kindness, support and understanding. People shared their “me too” stories with me, in order to let me know that I am not alone. Rather than feeling embarrassed by the attention, I felt uplifted. I felt the sun shining on my face. I felt the true sense of community, in a social media age. I didn’t mind the distraction from work since it was impossible to concentrate on anything else.
I suddenly felt well-armed to face the biopsy. Like I had an army of love soldiers ready to fight with me.
One man, who I have not seen or heard from since high school wrote this comment, “Another step in your journey. If your life is any indication of success, you will triumph over this as well.” He is a retired navy pilot, who truly knows something about courage.
The evening before the biopsy, I went for a walk along the lake of Zurich. It was beautiful, warm evening and the sun was setting. I wore headphones and listened to my favorite Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, №2 on my Iphone. It grounds me. For some reason, it has felt like one of the songs I would include in a compilation called “The soundtrack of my life”, if I were to ever release such a thing. After the walk I went to my favorite gelato stand and ordered a two-scoop waffle cone. I usually only order one scoop, but tonight I decided it was all right to indulge a bit- a big round ball of toasted coconut and another ball of limoncello on top. I walked toward a spouting fountain on the square in front of the Opernhaus plaza, taking big licks from my waffle cone. In the past, I had a tendency to eat my feelings, numbing myself with pizza or pasta to the pain I did not want to feel. Some people use alcohol, some shop, gamble or watch porn. It all serves the same avoidance purpose.
This was different. I was feeling so much pleasure in each mouthful of creamy gelato, with no guilt. I was fully present, taking in the sounds of the water falling on the concrete tiles, the lights shining through the spray holes, as a little girl, wearing only pink underpants, splashed in the play fountain. She jumped from one spray to the next, as it spouted columns of water in random intervals into the air. Sometimes she would twirl, like a tiny, wet ballerina. Her parents stood by proudly taking pictures of her at play, which I am sure some day they will show to her first boyfriend. I admit, I took a video of her as well, to remind myself what “carefree” looked like. I made a plan to play this again after the biopsy.
I walked home feeling peaceful. Thinking what my doctor had said that I am “lucky”. That regardless what the news is, I can do something about it before I get sick.
When I got home, I set my alarm for 6:00am, in order to allow plenty of time to wake up and get to the university hospital for the biopsy procedure. I fell asleep instantly, but suddenly woke up at 3:30am, when a loud bolt of lightening and thunder clap rolled into my window. My romantic mind was once again awake and racing, trying to seek the meaning of all this, search for a clue or a cause. After what seems like hours, but was probably more like 10 minutes, I decided to get up and get ready. The lung specialist had instructed me not to eat or drink, so I stared longingly at my coffee maker and then listened to a twenty minute meditation on acceptance, sitting cross legged in the middle of my living room. (I am terrible at meditation, half the time I am thinking about how stiff my legs are or what I need to shop for at the supermarket, but there are those tiny, quiet moments when I connect my breath with my soul, so it makes up for the rest of the sideshow.) After I showered, I went to my closet to figure out what to wear. I cursed myself for not washing all my underwear the night before, the conservative black and white boy brief ones, with the fully covered bottom would have been perfect. Instead I only found Hanky Panky thongs in hot pink and turquoise, and thought how my German grandmother would not have approved of this, at all. I laughed at this image of her shaking her head, and finished getting dressed.
At the tram stop, the smell of fresh baked croissants wafted through the air from the bakery nearby, which according to the sign in the window, claims to have the best in town. This was pure torture. Now my mouth was watering from the smell of the buttery goodness and I really, really wanted a cup of coffee. I shook it off and got on the tram, packed with normal, everyday commuters who were engrossed in their papers, Iphones and video games. I envied their supposed bliss. In reality, they were probably also struggling with some form of anxiety too-money, love, work, financial, etc. None of us escape suffering of the mind. It is a universal disease, a growing epidemic.
I saw a Katie Byron seminar poster on the wall of the tram and it I reminded me of an interview Oprah Winfrey did with the guru a few years ago. Byron is a 76 year old self-help writer and speaker. Her mission is to help people overcome all suffering of the mind and to share a healing concept called “The Work”. It is a method of self-inquiry that can help people to release fears of real or perceived threats. It is comprised of four steps:
First step, ask yourself, is it True? (Is there proof? Actual facts?).
Second step, ask yourself “Is it Absolutely True?” (100% true, no questions asked).
Third step, ask yourself “How do I react when I believe that thought”. (Scan your body to feel that thought).
Fourth step, ask yourself “Who would I be without the thought? (or in other words Who would you be if it were not true? And how would that feel? What would your life be like that if it is not true?).
The timing of seeing her poster on the tram made me chuckle softly. It was a God wink, that synchronicity the universe likes to throw your way to let you know that you are on the right path. I suddenly realized that I had been struggling with the fear of cancer but it was not true. I had no facts that I had cancer. No doctor had said I am sick yet. But I was suffering in my mind by thinking I had cancer. I knew that after the biopsy I would know the 100% truth if I did or did not have cancer. It felt heavy in my heart, and on my shoulders. I could even feel new wrinkles forming on my forehead and deeper grooves around the corners of my mouth. Weighing me down with a one thousand pounds of what-if’s that I had no control of. Yet, none of it was true. I thought about how it would feel to receive the biopsy results and discover I was 100% healthy. It felt bubbly in my head, and I thought of the fountain girl prancing in her underpants. Carefree. I decided to believe that thought instead of the first one, because until I got the results I was in fact, healthy. My cardiologist had told me so and he never lies.
I arrived at the hospital 30 minutes early, which in Switzerland is technically considered “on time”. I was taken to a post-up room where they would bring me back to after the operation. I changed into the hospital gown, and but kept my hot pink underwear on and got into the hospital bed. The Pulmonary “Lung” surgeon (I am now up to 3 doctors in my health case, all specialists. I am lucky!) came into the room and told me that the hospital performs 900 of these non-invasive out-patient procedures a year, so I should “relax”. He explained that they would give me a sedative, and then insert a fiber optic plastic tubing through my mouth and into my lung cavity where they would be able to video the procedure while they take tissue samples from each inflamed lymph node. He told me I would probably cough up blood after the procedure and not to be alarmed, because it is not coming form my lungs its from the punctures in the bronchus.
I asked him what the biggest risk was, and he said “A punctured lung.” And said I should not worry, because if it did happen, he could re-inflate it. Actually he said “pneumothorax”. I apologized for my lack of medical vocabulary and promised to watch more Grey’s Anatomy. He shook his head smiling and said his wife watched it and he hated that show and then left the room.
It was showtime, and I was wheeled down to the operating room by two nurses. My heart was pounding again, people glanced at me as I wheeled by, or at least I thought they did. I wondered if they could see how I was pretending to be cool with all this-the imposter syndrome personified. At that moment, I had a sense of empathetic connection with every person who has gone into surgery. At the entrance of the room they handed me over to two surgical nurses, who were at the top of the food chain of the hospital. According to Meredith Grey of Grey’s Anatomy, the surgeons and the surgery team are the cool kids. They put a green cap over my hair and warm blanket over my thin cotton sheet. The operating room was ice cold. My eyes took in hundreds of images-machines and lights and sounds. It was a lot to take in, on many levels, emotional and literal.
Just when I was starting to feel the fear, I thought of a friend of mine from Houston who had fought and won two rounds of cancer and is in remission for two years now. She bravely chronicled her experience from scans, biopsy, chemo, hair-loss and recovery on Facebook. She was a source of inspiration for me to share my story, because she was pro-actively fighting this cancer in a positive way, taking us all along on her journey and sharing the all the lessons she was learning as she went through it. I remember her posting pictures of a procedure, so I channeled her in my mind. Like the scene from Caddyshack when Chevy Chase tells the boy while teaching him to golf blindfolded to “Be the ball, Danny. Be the Ball.” Instead in my case, I was thinking, “Be the Nancy, Tamara. Be the Nancy!”
The lead nurse asked for my stats-height, weight, age and entered it into a machine. All this information was on my chart, I think she just wanted to say something to make me relax.
“How old are you,” she asked.
“46, but on Tinder I am 38,” I answered with a wink. She winked back, her kind brown eyes shining over the top of her surgical mask. I think she understood I was self-soothing with cheesey humor.
The surgeon entered the room, and everything went softly quiet and fuzzy and then I was soundly asleep.
I woke up back in the recovery room bed. My throat was dry and my chest felt heavy, I began to cough, a course, deep mucus sounding cough. Up came the blood the surgeon had warned me about, I spit into a cup they had thoughtfully placed next to my bed. It tasted like metal. I took a picture in my mind, wanted to record everything.Sensing that all of this was important evidence in the mystery of my health. Twenty minutes later and a few good rounds of coughing, and I was feeling wide awake. I looked around the room and saw that 3 hours had passed since I went down to surgery. It felt surreal to have that hole in time. The last time I blacked out like that, was a ski trip in Crans Montana, when I drank too many Jäger bombs in a row during aprés ski and “woke up” eating dinner with my friends realizing that I had somehow managed to go home, change clothes and curl my hair.
The nurse came in and asked if I wanted something to drink and eat!
“Yesssssss! Please” I replied.
She brought me a big glass of sparkling water and a cheese sandwich on pretzel bread. It was the best sandwich ever. I ate it in exactly 5 bites and asked for another glass of water. I asked for my phone and texted my cardiologist to let him know I was out of surgery, eating a sandwich and everything was fine.
He immediately replied “Great, You are a brave woman. Enjoy your sandwich.”
The surgeon came in the room, and told me that my lungs are fine, they successfully extracted the tissue samples they needed and would send the results in 5 days to my cardiologist. I honestly felt happy. I didn’t have the results yet, but I felt calm for the first time in weeks.
I got dressed and went downstairs to meet my neighbor friend who had offered to pick me up and take me home. She promised to serve me chicken soup and ice cream when we got back. All was well.
In the days that followed, I received flowers, phone calls and more Facebook messages of support and love. People that I had debated with over the presidential race were giving me virtual hugs. It was wonderful.
By the second day, I texted my cardiologist and asked if it is ok for me to go jogging.
“Of coooouuuurssssseeeeee!!!! You are totally healthy!” he texted back. I still didn’t believe him.
“Come on, I was coughing blood two days ago!” I wrote back.
“You should jog every day. I mean it. You are normal!” he declared.
So I ran up the tree covered mountain trail behind my house, that follows a small river. It felt really great, I felt my strength back. I was grateful for my thick muscly calves and for my whole body. The sweet summer air was full of the smell of fresh cut grass and and flowers of some secret kind, that no one can see, but only smell. The sun was shining through the leaves, dancing on the river. I usually like to run along this trail a couple of times a week, but today I noticed everything. I was like a newborn child, discovering everything for the first time. Then, I thought of my lung lymph nodes like little children and how they must be enjoying the ride. I stopped thinking about them as something wrong inside of me. Maybe they just needed nurturing, and were just acting out to get attention.
I was in such a good mood, I came home and made spontaneous plans with 8 friends for barbecue the following day (Saturday) at my friend’s place, which has the best balcony and views of the lake and mountains. At that moment, I decided I wanted to celebrate life now, regardless of the results on Monday.
I planned a middle eastern menu of grilled lamb, kefte mini burgers, spicy sausages, hummus, eggplant salad, greek salad, roasted red peppers and grilled haloumi cheese with pita bread. Cooking is my thing, it is one the act I do with total confidence. It calms me and keeps me centered. I can multi-task, cook, chop, whip and puree with equal concentration and ease. I made everything in 2 hours, except for grilling the meat. My host friend was skeptical of the weather, I assured him the sun would come out, that is how confident I was.
We started the dinner at 6:30pm and ended sometime around 3:00am. I know this because I took a picture of three guys who had fallen asleep on the couch together and the time stamp said 3:03am. We ate all of the food and drank 15 bottles of rosé and some brown Korean liquor that tasted like ginseng. We talked, played music and told stories, trading teasing insults occasionally. Some people asked me how I was doing, and offered their support, but for most of the night, we were just good friends enjoying a beautiful summer evening together, sitting around an outdoor fireplace making each other laugh and playing Stevie Nicks. All I knew at that moment, was that I wanted to enjoy life as much as I could, to really live life, feel joy and that deep belly laughter. I had a cardiologist and two pulmonologists taking care of my body, but these 8 people were my joy-ologists and they were here to help me heal my soul.
That night, I slept over in my friend’s spare room and in the morning, I was deeply hungover. I looked in the mirror at the raccoon mascara rings under my eyes and smiled. I was still happy. Last night was so satisfying, no hangover is going to change that. I washed my face and went to the kitchen to face the mess. My friend’s girlfriend was out of town and I could only imagine what she would do if she came home to this wreckage. So while my friend slept it off, I washed dishes, swept and mopped the floor and made it all look new again. Cleaning with a hangover can be strangely satisfying, because you can accomplish something on what would most likely be a wasted day.
Then I went to check my phone. There was a short text message from my cardiologist.
“Hi Tamara. Call me when you are up. I have good news.” it said.
I blinked. Read it again and on a Sunday morning at 9:23am I called my the Cardiologist.
“Good day Tamara” he said brightly.
“It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it!” I said, my voice was husky from the hangover. I was looking at the rain falling outside the window and the heavy gray clouds hanging over the lake.
“I came to the office today and saw that we have the biopsy report already. I didn’t want you to worry another day.” he explained. “There is no cancer cells! You do not have sarcoidosis, which I though might be causing the the inflammation. You have inflamed lymph nodes in your lungs, that is all. We will continue to monitor that, but you are healthy.” he said, I could hear a smile in his voice. He was pleased.
I paused, for the first time, I had no funny comment. No sarcasm. No humor to distance myself from what I was hearing and feeling. I just let it sink in to my brain and into my bones. The understanding that I am healthy and safe.
I thanked him for the news. I laughed.
Then he said “I kept my promise,” referring to the promise he made 10 years ago to be there for me since he was not able to be there for my mom when she needed someone like him.
“Thank you for keeping your promise,” I said.
“You are welcome! I always do! “ he said. Then he asked how I felt.
“I feel so relieved, but also like I want to sleep again or maybe celebrate or call everyone in Montana to share the good news and I want to do it all at the same time, is that normal?” I asked.
“Yeeeesssssss Tamara, it is normal because you are normal. So everything you want to do is normal,” he assumed me, “Math is so simple.” I appreciate his eternal patience.
“So true Doctor! Normal = Normal.” I said.
“Exactly, so let the people in Montana sleep and you too. Good day and see you tomorrow, we will go over the whole report together” he said.
“Ok, good bye”. I said and hung up.
I felt that bubbling feeling and saw myself dancing in my pink underpants in the fountain in front of the Opernhaus plaza.
I texted the good news to my friend in Australia, knowing she was awake.
She texted back, “Yay! Let’s drink!” I think that would have been her answer regardless of the diagnosis and that is part of the reason I, and my liver, love her.
I texted the Washington DC friend that had just landed in Greece, who I was supposed to meet later that week.
She texted back, “You were celebrating your health! It was so sweet of your doctor to let you know as soon as possible! Can’t wait to see you!”.
I texted another friend from the dinner the night before who had brought me flowers, ice cream and thai food the night of my biopsy.
He immediately replied “I imagine these days were not easy for you. Super happy with the news, but even if the news would've turned out the other way around, we were ready to fight!” and he added a little arm muscle emoji.
I loved how he used the word “we” instead of “you”.
I ran back to my friend’s room and jumped on his bed.
“I don’t have cancer! I am healthy! Wake up! Let’s drink champagne!” I laughed.
Teflon Soul Evolves
So here is what learned from my highly bespoke life curriculum: I had been healthy the whole time, I just didn’t believe that it was true, but thanks to this experience, I learned to let my guard down, surround myself with good people, let them know what I was going through and ask for help. I know who my friends are and the ones I don’t need to worry about anymore. Now I know 100%, absolutely that I am a strong, healthy, lucky woman and it feels wonderful. So I let that sink into my bones too!