Real life stories percolate for some time, and eventually they must be told. Here is a short one (aside from the name, I changed very little).
The trouble with Paige was she never smiled. She had no physical defect, but would not allow herself that simple act. Even her laughter, and she laughed, sounded like crying. Something inside her rebelled against the notion of happiness.
Why, I wondered … what had happened to her? I tried to ask, but she’d change the subject. Never discussed her past, birthdays or family; only her friends spread all over the country.
When she shut her office door with a loud thud that morning I left her alone. I wasn’t in the mood for cajoling, for peeling back another layer.
The call came on Monday morning, the day after a weekend party filled with good food, music and friends. With lots of friends, except for Paige. She eschewed anything remotely extravagant, worked twelve-hour days, and donated twenty percent of her salary to all known and unknown causes.
“I have breast cancer,” Paige said into the phone.
“No.” Besieged by emotion, I stuttered like a broken record. “When … How do you know?”
“Wednesday. Found the lump while taking a shower on Wednesday and saw the doctor on Friday.”
“But it could be benign. You get the results back?”
“They gave me the look. The doctor, the radiologist. Nothing from the lab yet, but they gave me the look. It’s cancer.”
Everything she predicted came true three days later when I sat outside her oncologist’s office, waiting for Paige. She wanted to hear the news alone, but I insisted on driving her there. With legions of friends all over the country, Paige lived alone in her two-bedroom apartment on the west side of Los Angeles. Alone and loving it, until disaster struck.
Now, her toughness peeled away layer-by-layer exposing the helpless side of the most difficult person. What took a lifetime of resentment to harden her took one word to break. Cancer. She didn’t weep, but she was broken. Her eyes glazed over now and then as we sat waiting for the nurse to call; the eyes behind the mind likely to have ventured into a darkness she needed not visit – because, I decided, she was going to beat this damn thing.
“Stage three HER-2 positive estrogen negative cancer,” Paige said when we reached the parking lot.
She went on to say HER-2 is an aggressive form of cancer, one that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. Not good.
I put my arm around the shoulders of my friend whose short legs, she’d once complained, kept her from walking fast but took her so quickly out of the oncology department I almost slipped down the steps, struggling to keep beside her.
She took no calls for three days. The mutters of discontent were gone, replaced by defeat stares.
Her road was treacherous – surgery, radiation, recovery – but Paige did it; a year later she was cancer-free. Three years later and she’s back to seeing the doctor for yearly physicals, like everyone else. And to celebrate, she returned to her grumbling, her dissatisfaction with … everything. And that’s fine with me, because that’s my healthy Paige.