On this date, three years ago, I celebrated my last day of chemo.
I had no hair, no appetite, and was so weak I’d been admitted to the hospital earlier that week. I received my last infusion while in the fetal position, which was the most comfortable position for me, relatively speaking, as I’d gotten to the point where my very bones seemed to ache. I ended up having to have a blood transfusion that day, which perked me up ever-so-slightly — though a few days later, I would end up back in the hospital with a fever, and chills that would not abate no matter how many blankets the nurses piled on me. My sense of smell had sharpened, and every aroma seemed to nauseate me, from the heparinized saline used in the flushing of my chemo port (temporarily implanted just below my left shoulder blade for the duration of my treatment), to the hazelnut coffee my sister and husband would drink in the mornings. I was, as they say, a hot mess.
In the chemo ward, the nurses had a special bell for patients to ring when they finished their final treatment. I’d often hear that bell throughout my four month internment, and would imagine the day when I’d be the one doing the ringing. When I was finally done on that day, my sister and husband were excited for me to ring the bell. But I had no interest in doing it. I didn’t want fanfare. I didn’t want to spend one extra moment in that chemo ward. I just wanted to leave, to be out in the fresh air and away from the invasive sights and sounds (and smells) of sickness. I didn’t want to waste time celebrating my life; I wanted to get back to it.
Last year on this day, I was ready to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the end of my chemo. It was the beginning of Columbus Day weekend, and my husband had a half day, so we were going to go out to lunch and run some errands. I had my quarterly CT scan scheduled for the following Tuesday morning, and the imaging center had called me that Thursday afternoon to ask me their regular round of questions (“How much do you weigh?” “Are you allergic to latex or contrast solution?” “Do you have any problems having an IV put in?” “Is there any chance you could be pregnant?”) I hesitated at that last one, though I knew there was no chance I could be pregnant, given my history of infertility and the ravages of chemo, which left my cycle wonky in the year or so after my treatment ended. In fact, I’d undergone tests and my ob believed I might be entering perimenopause. I hadn’t had my period in a couple of months, and when I hesitated at this last question, the person from the imaging center informed me that I’d have to get a blood test at my ob’s office to rule out pregnancy and have the results faxed to them.
I was annoyed, to say the least. I was hoping to spend the afternoon celebrating, and instead, I had to spend it taking a pregnancy test, of all things? Worse, my CT scan was scheduled for the Tuesday morning after Columbus Day, so I had to make sure my blood work was rush-processed and the results were faxed to the imaging center by the end of the day on Friday. What was supposed to be an afternoon of leisurely lunching and errand-running had turned into me with a needle in my arm, then me on the phone with a nurse named Bonnie, who was trafficking the blood work and subsequent paperwork for me at my ob’s office. I told her, very specifically, not to call me with the results of the blood work; I didn’t need to be told that I wasn’t pregnant, and after going through years of failed fertility treatments, I’d had enough of phone calls from medical professionals about negative blood tests. I just wanted to get on with it. After the blood test, we went out to lunch and ran our errands as planned, but I had my phone out the whole time. What a hassle, I thought. What a waste of a celebratory day.
Imagine, if you will, me wandering the aisles of a big box craft store. (Okay, it was the HOBBY LOBBY. I’m not proud. And I didn’t know just how evil the store was at the time.) I was looking for yarn of a specific shade and heft for a scarf I’d planned to crochet for my mother for Christmas. My husband was looking for decal paper for a model car he’d been building, so he was somewhere else in the store. My phone rang. I was relieved to answer it, because Bonnie had assured me that she’d call to confirm that the blood work results were in and were being faxed. Finally, this whole stupid situation was going to be OVER.
“Hey, Bonnie,” I said, trying to hold the phone at my ear while wrangling an armful of yarn.
“Hellooooo, Kara,” Bonnie crooned. I laughed. We’d been on the phone multiple times throughout the afternoon, so I knew we were both glad we were getting to the end of the ordeal.
“Thank you so much for getting back to me,” I said. “And for running around for me all afternoon.”
“That’s okay,” she said, her voice still buoyant. “Are you sitting down?”
When she said those words, I just knew. I can’t fully describe my physiological response at that moment. It was a cross between my heart stopping, my stomach dropping, and nearly passing out.
“No, Bonnie,” I managed. “I’m standing in the HOBBY LOBBY with an armful of yarn.”
“Well…we got your results, and you are more than five weeks pregnant.”
How I didn’t drop that yarn, or lose consciousness altogether, I couldn’t tell you.
“There must be some mistake. Are you sure?” I asked. Though I knew it was happening, I also knew it made no sense. I couldn’t be pregnant. My husband and I had tried for three years. We’d consulted with fertility specialists. I’d taken Clomid. I’d endured six rounds of IUI, three rounds of in vitro, and all manner of hormone shots and supplements, all to no avail. And then, I’d had cancer, with generous helpings of radiation and chemo, and was told I was in the midst of perimenopause. My head was spinning.
“We’re sure!” she said, laughing.
I seem to remember asking Bonnie, in several different ways, how this could have happened. She remained patient with me through it all, bless her heart. Finally, she said “Congratulations! Go tell your husband!”
“Okay…” I said. And then, my arms still cradling all those skeins of yarn, I started wandering the aisles, looking for Scott. If you haven’t been in a HOBBY LOBBY (and I hope you haven’t, because they suck, even if they do have a decent yarn selection), it is downright labyrinthine, especially when you are in total shock. Thankfully, Bonnie stayed on the line with me until I found my husband, who was still considering the decal paper.
“SCOTT!” I yelled, immediately getting his attention. He would tell me later that my tone of voice and the look on my face made him panic, as he’d assumed he’d done something wrong. Au contraire, mon cher.
I put my hand on his chest — partially to connect with him, partially to stabilize myself — as I delivered the news. He blinked, numerous times, as he took it all in, and then his eyes grew teary as he hugged me.
We spent the rest of the afternoon engaged in a whirlwind of activity. (I did manage to stop and buy the yarn, the first and last time the HOBBY LOBBY will ever get my money.) Bonnie squeezed me in for an ultrasound at a hospital in Providence, and before we knew it, we were looking at our unborn child, not much bigger than a speck at that point. But it turned out I was more than five weeks pregnant. I was closer to six weeks, which meant that we were not only able to see the baby — we were able to hear its heartbeat for the first time.
If you told me, that morning, how my day would end, I would have laughed in your face. But there I was, hearing that little insistent bell of life resounding in my body, the same body where malignancy had been discovered and removed and treated just two years before. It blew my mind. It still does.
“We’re having a baby,” my husband and I kept reminding each other, as we moved through the coming days in a fog of shock and confusion and joy. “WE’RE having a BABY.”