I thought I was going to die.
I know. People say that all the time for dramatic effect. I’ve used it a few times myself. But this time, I mean it. I thought I was going to die.
I had breast cancer, but it wasn’t the cancer that I thought would kill me. It was the treatment.
I was originally scheduled for 8 rounds of chemo. After the first 4 rounds of adriamycin and cytoxin, I was out of breath with the slightest exertion. I refused further chemo and saw a cardiologist. I’ll skip the technical talk about MUGA scans and ventricular ejection fractions and go straight into what he told me.
“You probably saved your life by refusing the taxol.”
I was on the brink of congestive heart failure. With adriamycin, even years after treatment is over, you can suddenly experience huge losses of capacity leading to the need for a heart transplant. I went on a strict diet of exercise, healthy foods, and prayer.
That was all well and good, but I still had radiation therapy ahead of me. I’m from the generation of kids who did the duck and cover drills in elementary schools. I don’t know who they were kidding. Not me. I was well aware, even in first grade, that if the A bomb hit, that desk and its layers of old chewing gum wasn’t going to keep me from becoming a glow-in-the-dark ghostie. My parents didn’t buy into the fallout shelter craze, so I grew up convinced that one day radiation was going to kill me. That day had finally come. I thought I was going to die.
I gathered up every piece of information that I could about radiation therapy and the heart. It all proved that it was extremely dangerous for a person in my condition to undergo radiation therapy. The day I went in to meet the radiation oncologist, I had a stack of papers several inches thick. She was a short, pleasant oriental gal who looked about 13 years old until she opened her mouth to demolish every single argument I’d amassed. She told me in no uncertain terms that it was more dangerous for me to go without the radiation than to have it. Then she made an appointment for the next day for me to come in for the targeting.
I thought I was going to die.
I got up that fateful morning and walked out to the mailbox. It’s just two doors down from the house, but it took me over 20 minutes to get there. I had to stop every few feet and catch my breath before I shuffled forward. When I finally reached my goal, I leaned against the bank of mailboxes. As I tried to catch my breath, I wondered if I would die of lack of oxygen before the radiation could finish me off.
When I finally turned back toward my house, I saw something in my driveway. It was too big to be a cat and the wrong shape to be a dog. I began my slow shuffle back to the house convinced that lack of oxygen to the brain was finally getting the better of me. The closer I drew to the apparition, the more mysterious it was. It had a very thick tail, but the front legs were held up in front of it and looked too small for 4-legged running. When I was about 5 feet away, I stopped and stared. It was a miniature kangaroo. Definitely lack of oxygen to the brain! There certainly couldn’t be any mini-kangaroos running around suburban Phoenix.
Then it made eye contact with me. We stared, and in that silent exchange, it talked to me. It assured me that I was not going to die. When I finally began to believe that I was going to live, it seemed to know. It turned and hopped off.
Down the street on the stop sign, a fluttering paper caught my eye. With a new energy, I made my way to it and took it down.
It read “Lost Wallaby” with a phone number and a picture of my new friend. I hurried, well, I shuffled more quickly than usual, back to my house. As soon as I caught my breath, I called the number on the sign. A nurse answered. She told me that she owned an assisted living residence about 2 miles from my house. Her wallaby had crossed 3 major streets during morning rush hour traffic to arrive at my driveway just in time to deliver the message that I did not have to fear death because I was going to live.
The nurse had been a pediatric oncology nurse before opening her assisted living center. She talked to me about fear of treatment, and she reassured me that it’s normal to feel like the treatment is going to kill you. She reiterated the message that her wallaby had given me. I was going to live, and the radiation was going to help me.
I went to the targeting appointment, and all I could think about or talk about was my angel – my wallaby angel. That was good, because targeting is a really embarrassing process that I would have otherwise hated. On that day, I was excited to be there, excited to be getting started, excited to be part of the process of saving my own life.
I completed 7 weeks of radiation treatment. I won’t tell you it was easy. There were burns involved that were painful, for instance. I will tell you, however, that I started feeling better during radiation. My heart improved rather than worsening. I stopped shuffling and was able to start swimming laps in my backyard pool. The cardiologist told me that, despite all medical wisdom to the contrary, my heart was improving. The wallaby had been right. I wasn’t going to die.
It didn’t turn out so well for the wallaby, however. The nurse had been concerned about finding her baby before school let out because she was afraid that school kids would find it and chase it. Wallabys are unable to process a byproduct of muscle exertion, lactic acid, in the same way that we can. It builds up in their muscles if they are chased, and it kills them.
She couldn’t find her baby until she received a call at about 3:30 pm from school kids. They had seen the signs, found and chased the wallaby until it couldn’t run anymore, then cornered it and called her. When I called her after my targeting appointment to find out if she had found my angel, she told me the bad news. The wallaby was dying. She said she could never have another wallaby. It would be too painful.
I will stand accused of anthropomorphizing in this story, and so be it. I believe that angels come to us in all guises, including animal form, and I believe that wallaby was an angel sent to deliver a message to me. It seems unfair to me that a beautiful soul would sacrifice his life just so that a silly, fearful human being would get over herself and do the necessary thing. I grieve for the loss of that soul.
A few weeks after the death, the nurse called me again. She had received a call about a baby wallaby that had been brought from Australia by people in this country. All the permits had gone through and the baby had cleared customs, then the adoptive parents had decided that they didn’t want the wallaby after all. The importer asked the nurse if she would take her, and she did.
I got to go over to the assisted living center and hold the baby wallaby in my arms. As I fed it a bottle, we made eye contact. I felt I wasn’t looking into the eyes of a single baby wallaby, but that I was looking into the collective conscious of every wallaby who has ever lived. The message I received was simple. “Live your life.”
I refuse to spend another day thinking about dying. I’ve been given such a precious gift – life in all its messy glory. I am so grateful.
I am grateful to Bookabee Tours Australia on Flickr for the wallaby picture.