I’ve always been fascinated by people and their stories. Every single person in this world is surrounded by a million other people with backgrounds, dreams, struggles, thoughts, and stories that we know nothing about as we pass them on the street.
I went to the grocery store this morning and just on my way in I saw a man unlocking his bicycle and strapping up his purchases for the ride, a woman slowly plodding toward the door in her flip flops, and a mother wrangling a full grocery cart and two young kids she was trying to keep out of traffic. This was before I’d even reached the door. Inside there was a man buying supplies for grilling out, an older couple methodically crossing items off their neatly written shopping list, the friendly produce guy who apologized if the rolling cart he was stocking from was in my way, and the young cashier at the check-out who said I made her day because I had pre-loaded my groceries into my reusable bags. Apparently you’d be surprised how many people who bring their own bags want items packed a particular way, but assume the checker will know this clairvoyantly.
By happenstance, all of us were together at this grocery store at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Where had we been an hour ago? Where were we all going next? Why were we all there at this exact moment? Who knows?
A few weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. I had felt new lumps. They felt the same to me as the old lumps feel, so I wasn’t too worried, but my doctor agreed I needed to check them out with a mammogram and not to be surprised if the radiologist felt I needed an ultrasound again as well.
So, there I sat on a Wednesday afternoon in a waiting room with three other half-gowned, half-clothed women, Little House on The Prairie playing nearly silently on the mounted television. This wasn’t groceries on a Saturday morning. We were all gathered in this room to find out if we have cancer or just lumpy breasts. We were all different ages, and I’m sure we had all been doing different things that morning and would all be heading out to spend our evenings in different ways with different people later, continuing to live our different stories.
The television volume was too low to follow the story, I’m too germaphobic to pick up a communal doctor’s office magazine, and I stare at a computer screen all day, so I didn’t feel like staring at my phone. Instead I was doing what I often do these days when faced with waiting somewhere, I closed my eyes, focused on my breathing, and listened to the silence.
My brain is an introvert by trade, so I’m not one to start a conversation with a stranger. When the woman, maybe a bit older than me or maybe a bit younger, who looked vaguely familiar and yet I knew I didn’t know her, sitting a chair down from me in the row flipping through a magazine, asked if I knew who this woman in the makeup ad was, I opened my eyes and had to look around to be sure she was speaking to me before I answered. Though I’m not apt to start a conversation, I’m happy to engage in one, so when she continued by leaning over to show me the magazine and say she thought the woman had been on the show “House” we had a brief deliberation before determining neither one of us was sure what her name was, but she was definitely an actress.
I went back to my breathing and she went back to her page flipping. After a moment she said, “Have you ever had one of these before?”. Her voice, while confident and pleasant, betrayed a touch of quiet nervousness. We soon discovered we’d both had lumps mammogrammed this same time last year that required the extra step of the ultrasound to confirm they weren’t cancer. The mutual surprise and recognition and understanding we exuded was akin to finding out you and your new neighbor went to the same college. You know…if that college could have potentially killed you, I guess.
We hadn’t even introduced ourselves by name, but in that way you speak quickly and almost frantically with someone whom you feel an instant kinship to through shared life-changing experience we were suddenly discussing intimate things like life and death and fear and the frustration of lumpy breasts.
How places trigger memories.
She told me being in that room reminded her of last year when the doctors told her they’d found something they were concerned about on her mammogram and wanted to do an ultrasound. She stood in that waiting room with her cell phone calling her mom to tell her what was happening and that she was scared. I told her that waiting for those elevator doors to open, preparing to find out what may or may not be going on in my own body, reminded me of the moment I heard the doctor tell me over the phone that my mom had cancer that had spread to her brain.
That’s when the woman a chair down from me and I discovered we had one more awful thing in common. We had both lost our mothers.
We spilled our stories like sugar draining out of a sack with a hole in the bottom. But not in detail. In big, clunky sentences that condense a memory, a feeling with a thousand different layers, into hollow, ugly words that transmit the facts, but don’t get anywhere near revealing the depths to which you’ve truly been gutted. Words that instantly bond strangers who are unfortunate enough to understand their deeper meaning.
I told her my mom had died in December of 2012. She had just lost her mom four months ago, in March. She asked if I had kids – she does and she worries about them. I said I’m not married, and no kids. She asked if I had brothers and sisters – she does and having them was helpful. I said I’m an only child and my mom was my best friend. She paused and looked at me. Really looked at me and said, “That must be hard.” I said, “Well, I guess I don’t know anything different.”
A moment of silence passed as we both stared ahead into space. Then, not looking at me, still staring straight ahead, she asked, “Does it ever get any easier?”.
I felt a flood of emotion pass over me. It felt a little like joy. I could help this person. I had been where she was now. I remember what four months was like for me. Functioning enough to get through life, but still nightmares and disbelief and sobbing and memories that brought pain instead of smiles. I looked at her and said, “It does absolutely get better. I promise you that. But it will take a lot longer than you think it should.” I told her someday the memories of her mom will make her laugh instead of cry…and then they’ll probably make her cry again, but at least not all the time.
They called my newfound compatriot’s name to head back for her mammogram. I told her good luck. She said, you too.
They called me back a minute later. The mammographer and I placed the metal BB stickers on my lumps and began the awkward, uncomfortable dance of positioning me with the mammography machine and away we went. As predicted, after looking at my pictures, they needed to do an ultrasound as well, so back to the waiting room I went.
As I sat there, my “sister of the shared experience” came around the corner. She told me she got a clean bill of health, no ultrasound needed. “See you next year”, they said. I could tell she was relieved and surprised and maybe a bit wary that it had all gone so easily this time. I congratulated her and she went to the changing area to turn into a regularly clothed person. On her way back she stopped in front of me, as I clutched at the edges of a gown I couldn’t seem to keep comfortably closed, and asked with concern how it had gone for me. I told her I was waiting to have an ultrasound done, but I wasn’t too worried. Everything had turned out fine last year and I was sure it would again today. Which was true, although I might have sold it a little more confidently to her than it was actually in my mind, because I knew I’d likely never see this stranger-turned-kindred-spirit again and I didn’t want her walking out the door worrying about me.
She said, “I’ll say a prayer for you on my way out. I mean…I don’t know if that’s something you believe in, but…”. I assured her I absolutely do, thanked her, and told her I would pray for her and her family as well. Then, as we were saying our goodbyes, they called me back for my ultrasound.
The ultrasound went as expected at first. The technician did the procedure same as last year. I wasn’t really nervous at all, until the doctor came in after having reviewed the pictures the technician had taken. He didn’t have quite the spring in his step he had had last year. He was a bit more serious. He took up the wand and showed me on the screen that the two giant lumps I was feeling were in fact multiple cysts. Some from before, some new. Great! No cancer! Then he said, however, there was an area he was concerned about in comparing this year’s mammogram to last year’s. He said, he was fairly confident the change was just caused by one of my cysts shrinking in one area and getting bigger in another, but he couldn’t tell for sure at that angle, so he wanted to do a couple more mammogram pictures at different angles to verify. Plot twist!! I was not expecting that. At all. Soooo, yes. I did get a little nervous at that point. But it was the kind of nervous where you’re so surprised that you end up in some sort of suspended state where you can still project so much outward confidence that your mind almost believes it too.
We went and took the additional pictures right away. Here’s a “Pro Tip” for you ladies, “additional angles” is code for twice as painful. I hesitate to say this, because people talk about how painful mammograms are and I think that frightens people…but I honestly don’t think they’re that bad. I mean it hurts, but only for a few seconds, and it’s definitely doable. But, these last pictures were a whole ‘nother squeeze-fest. If the technician hadn’t reminded me to breathe as she was tightening the plate, I may have passed out. Just sayin’. No fear, ladies, but be prepared to breathe.
I only had to wait a few moments for the doctor to take a look at my latest pictures before I, thankfully, got the same “see you next year” clean bill of health my fellow waiting room warrior had received. I was relieved, but on my way out I felt bad. I felt bad that I couldn’t tell the woman I had spoken to for no more than ten minutes that I was okay too. I knew she’d be worrying about me, because from only our brief conversation I could tell her concern for me was as real as mine was for her.
Then I realized I needn’t worry. God would let her know I was okay. Because unlike the strangers who happened to be at the grocery store with me this morning, this woman and I had clearly been brought to the mammography waiting room at the exact same moment for a reason. He had brought two strangers together to help each other by sharing their stories. We had been different places an hour before and headed different directions after, but during that conversation in the waiting room we received a gift both of us will remember for a long time – the knowledge that others have gone before you and that you are never alone.