She told me she was getting chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant this week. So I brought her breadsticks from Olive Garden.
It was the Sunday before the infamous First Week of School. Last year at this time, Kelly was gearing up for the chaotic first day like every other teacher.
But not this year.
No, this year, while students crack open fresh boxes of Crayola crayons and squeak their new tennis shoes across the school’s tiled linoleum floors, Kelly will be absent from the special ed classroom.
Instead, she will be in a hospital room in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A place she’s spent countless hours in, week after week, for the past five months.
But this trip is different. Kelly won’t return right away after this trip. But maybe she’s never completely returned from any of the trips to Ann Arbor. She leaves pieces of herself in that hospital every time she visits: vials of blood, strands of hair, salty tears.
Still…After many long trips and exhausting appointments, the day we’ve anxiously awaited since she received the multiple myeloma diagnosis in March is now here.
At 31 years young, Kelly will walk into the hospital this Wednesday, August 30.
She will sit in a beige chair.
She will get hooked up to a cocktail of chemotherapy so poignant, the concoction is comparable to the makeup of mustard gas used in World War II.
She will allow the chemotherapy to invade her body and bully her blood cells. Harassment that leads to healing.
Kelly and her husband Shane discussed the details with me over Olive Garden takeout bags I unloaded on their round kitchen table. To us, OG is literal…the Original Gangster of Comfort Food…in more ways than one. My mom and I brought Olive Garden to the hospital when Kelly’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. I brought the warm, drippy, carb-happy, noodle-heavy food containers again when Kelly initially got diagnosed this spring. Olive Garden is now strangely synonymous with solution.
When life is crap, my subconscious screams, “Buy the breadsticks!”
“I thought the chemo would be yellow, since, you know, mustard gas, but the chemo is blue,” Kelly explained as she sat across from me at the table, chewing the marinara-soaked lasagna from her Tour of Italy meal. After months of witnessing Kelly’s waning appetite, I exhaled relief when she ordered the menu’s tempting trifecta: fettuccine alfredo, chicken parmesan and lasagna. “The nurse told me, ‘Don’t worry, the blue chemo won’t turn you into a smurf….’ Har, har, har.”
Kelly rolled her eyes and she expelled a sarcastic fake laugh. The nurse’s corny pun coaxed matching smirks out of our mouths, pushing its way around bites of salad. She sipped her water—filtered and room temperature—out of a glass. She’s never liked cold water, but now the temperature is especially daunting to her especially sensitive teeth.
Our dinner seesawed between blissfully average and overwhelmingly abnormal. One minute, the three of us were discussing how to prevent pet pee stains that linger within the carpet (“That stuff will stain a ring in the WOOD underneath the carpet!” Shane huffed with passion.“It happened to a buddy of mine.” ) The next minute, Kelly is tugging her loose-fitting gray shirt to the side to show me her implantation port.
“These are called lumens,” Kelly pointed as she looked down at the flesh near the right of her collarbone.
“LOO-Mens?” I repeated like one of her students.
“Lumens, yes,” Kelly nodded.
“It sounds like something out of Harry Potter.” I stared at the three small tubes that dangled out of her pale, bruised skin like small Christmas lights.
“They are hooked up to a tube inside me that goes up my neck”—her index finger softly traced a path across her throat—“and down my chest, directly into my heart.” She held her finger there. I imagined her heart beating, steady like a clock.
“The lumens help so she doesn’t have to keep getting poked all the time,” Shane added. “Less bruising that way.” The tubes hung lifeless and guilty, intentionally avoiding contact. They knew we didn’t really want to need them.
Since Day 1, Shane has soaked in the information on his wife’s disease like a sponge. Caring for her, making her mugs of the warm tea that she loves, keeping others informed while he works long hours to provide for his family.
In his mind, though, he’s never doing enough. We all feel that way. Cancer is crippling in its masterful ways. A true magician, it plays mind tricks to make loved ones feel powerless. You do what you can to feel like you’re doing something. Anything.
Hence the Olive Garden breadsticks.
“Are you taking another one?” Kelly turned and mockingly accused her husband as he reached for a garlic butter-soaked breadstick innocently lying in its aluminum-wrapped bed.
“I’ve only had two!” he countered. Our laughs bounced around the room.
I turned to my left and took in the impressive gallery wall of farmhouse signs and décor clinging to the kitchen’s back wall:
An oversized antique spoon and fork.
Distressed gray letters spelling out the word E A T.
A large metal envelope.
“Shane hung them all,” Kelly’s eyes stared at the gallery wall signs and nodded proudly. She smiled at her husband.“It’s all even and measured.”
Shane glowed with pride. He took another bite of his Five Cheese Ziti. On the counter across from me, a glass jar filled with flat brown coffee beans held a balloon in the shape of a monkey. A conversation bubble hovered over the monkey’s head, encouraging us to “Go Bananas!”
“The doctors call Wednesday, which is chemotherapy day, Day 1, but then they call Thursday—stem cell transplant day—Day Zero,” Kelly continued. “Don’t ask me why they do that, though. I’m not sure.” Throughout this whole process, she’s never shied away from talking about the tough stuff. She is anything but an avoider. It’s one of the things I admire most about Kelly.
She sighed, then continued. “But basically, they are bringing me as close to death as possible without actually killing me. All my counts…red blood cells, white blood cells…they’ll all be down to nothing. It’s like I’ll have a new birthday.”
I speared my salad with the black plastic utensil forks. Crunched on my croutons. Took a sip of the bottled water. Even now, months later, I still have a hard time accepting that this scenario is reality.
“So it’s like you’re starting over,” I said, swallowing. “Like restarting a computer, I guess.”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Kelly agreed. “That’s why I can’t really have visitors right away. My immune system will be so weak.”
She stood up. “I need to go put a load of laundry in.”
Shane and I sat in silence for a moment. “She will need to get immunizations like a newborn baby,” he added gingerly.
I nodded, trying to swallow the frustration that clogged my throat. Right there and then, I wanted to return Kelly’s cancer to wherever it came from, like an unread library book banished to the bottom of a bin with a quick flip of a handle. Easily. Harmlessly. Quickly. Like it was never a part of your life to begin with.
But cancer is a decorated, nail-polished, bedazzled, neon orange elephant in the room. Even though we acknowledge the elephant as it trumpets around, that still doesn’t mean we want this beast joining us for dinner, grabbing our coveted breadsticks with its trunk.
Kelly returned to the table. She offered me blueberry crumble cake.
“Mom made it,” she smiled, saying the three magic words. She knows I’m a big fan of her mother’s baking. Especially the oatmeal cookies. Kathy chocks them full of raisins. Three types of raisins, ‘cause Kathy doesn’t mess around. A trait her daughter inherited.
Over square slices of cake and scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, we ate dessert.
Kelly’s ice cream melted into the edge of her cake. The spoon clinked against the plate. She narrowed her eyes.
“I’m getting my hair cut tomorrow over at Shelby’s salon,” she told me. “At 6:30. Mom and Dad want me to get a ‘cutie pixie,’ but I kind of want to buzz it all. I don’t want to see my hair fall out into chunks.”
My eyes gravitated towards her dark brown waves pulled back into a ponytail. Threads of rainbow—purple, pink, blues—peeked through the brunette strands. The colors were the latest look courtesy of our friend Shelby’s hair expertise. “If I’m going to lose it anyway, I might as well do something fun,” Kelly reasoned. Her rainbow hair looked positively unicorn. Rebellious. Beautiful.
“How short do you think you’ll go?” I now asked.
Next to me, Shane slipped off his ball cap. He pointed to his buzzcut wordlessly, the hair more fuzz than hair.
“Like that,” Kelly pointed to her husband’s head.
The abrupt shortness of the hairstyle caught me off guard. Like the lumens imbedded in her chest, this haircut—this buzzcut— would be another visual representation of the cancer clogging Kelly’s body.
“What do the chunks of hair falling out represent to you that you want to avoid?” I asked.
“I just think it would be hard to see my hair on the pillow.” She crinkled her eyebrows thoughtfully. “And in a way, I guess, to feel a sense of control.”
I nodded. It made sense.
Kelly’s gaze shifted to the sliding glass door. In the corner of the yard, a batch of yellow Black-eyed Susan flowers swayed in the summer breeze. Fall is knocking on our door. The leaves are already blushing from the evening cold.
“Daddy said to say goodbye to my flowers before I leave,” she said wistfully. “Because they’ll be dead when I come home.”
Following the chemotherapy and transplant, the hospital will immediately admit Kelly to a room. After weeks of monitoring and tests, she will return home to receive constant and crucial care from her family. The chemo’s bullying side effects that will impact Kelly—mouth sores, loss of appetite, bleeding, hair loss—is a long list, all documented in black ink on a white handout from the hospital.
We threw away our empty takeout containers. I grabbed my leftovers, placed them back into the brown Olive Garden bag, took the bag by the handle and headed to the back door. Photos of Kelly and Shane smiled behind the picture frames’ glass as I turned to face them standing in front of me.
Shane wrapped me in a goodbye hug, then Kelly. Arms around the back, not one of those flimsy one-armed side hugs. Hugs like these are given out freely and generously within our crew these days. Like our arms will keep our feet planted on the ground, if only to keep us all from floating away.
“Love you,” I whispered in Kelly’s ear.
“Love you, too.” She squeezed me tighter.
My car had clung to the garlic-butter smell of breadsticks. The smell wafted to my nostrils as I climbed into the driver seat.
It still feels like a punch in the gut to face the facts of this situation, this diagnosis, this reality. But no one said the facts are always beautiful. No one said the facts have to be easy, or smooth. Facts are often rugged, and bruised, and gnarled. They’re the seasoned boxers that won’t back down in the ring. Round after round, the facts remain.
But so do we.