At age 90, in the middle of the night, my father took his last breath as my mother slept soundly by his side. For 63 years, every night, my mother and father lay side by side--she always very still, he always snoring. Throughout those years they were apart rarely, neither liking to sleep alone.
After waking to find him dead, she stayed by his side for hours. HIs cold, stiff body did not frighten her. Instead, she found comfort in stroking his ashen face, touching his lifeless hand. What frightened her was the thought of leaving him to others. What frightened her was his leaving her. She knew only a life where he took care of everything--the house, the finances, the plans for each day. Now, at age 87, her eyesight was nearly gone, her body crippled and mangled by arthritis, her mind forgetful. She believed she was truly dependent on him.
As I drove home after seeing my CT scan, I thought about how I could avoid telling anyone my diagnosis. It would be easy, I figured. I would wait until I had written confirmation of what I had seen. A few days passed, and I was able to maintain the deception--I loved acting, and this was an easy role for me, as protector of my family.
When the radiology report arrived, I felt like I was reading a report about one of my patients: "…suggestive of malignancy," it said. I kept looking at the name and birthdate--yes, this was my report. Thus began my path down the rough road of lung cancer.
I've been afraid twice as a result of my multiple sclerosis. The first time, I was twenty. As I sat down on the edge of the bathtub one day, the backs of my legs felt oddly cold--even numb. I ran to the library and looked up MS, and my heart began to race. Yes, odd sensations of hot and cold were among MS's symptoms. Suddenly, I could see my future life as my grandmother’s--as that of someone who sat in a chair all day, used a walker and watched TV, not as that of the geologist I was studying to be.
My actual diagnosis came twenty-two years later, after I'd had three children and was embarking on a second career. By the time I received the news, I'd experienced enough incidents like the bathtub moment that I expected it. I wasn’t afraid then.
Wendy's hoarse howling startled me. She was usually among the best-behaved, highest functioning residents in our group home for adults with mental challenges. But today I turned to see my colleague, Sandra, struggling to bring Wendy back to her room, while fending off her kicks and bites the whole way. I fought my own fear of getting hurt and ran to help.
I undo the front of the cloth gown and step closer to the menacing machine. The female technician gently lifts one of my breasts—usually she begins with the left—onto a cold, flat surface. I shiver as my warm skin reacts to the chilly metal. Then, the top of the machine slowly descends, pushing into the top of my breast, flattening it, and squeezing it until tears form in my eyes.
“Hold your breath,” the technician states.
The thirteen-year-old boy sits in a battered ENT exam chair. Henry, my Kenyan colleague, hands me a blurry CT scan. "His neck mass has grown for two years," Henry says. "We think it is a glomus vagale tumor. Do you agree?"
I hold the scan up to a window. The vascular mass fills the side of the boy's neck, displacing his carotid artery. "That's probably right," I respond. "At home, we would get more studies. We would prepare for bleeding. This kind of surgery can be very dangerous, even fatal."
Many things frighten me--from creepy-crawlers to turbulence on airplanes, from intravenous needles to walking across bridges over menacing rivers. However, late-night phone calls, especially from my family, send shivers up and down my spine. That is why I froze with fear when I received a call from my parents at 11 p.m. on February 28, 1986.