The Kindness of Strangers
Betsy’s first words to me: “How’s the constipation?”
I instantly knew she understood. Chemo, hair loss, fatigue, nausea – these were the usual things people talked about with those of us who had cancer. Not shit. Not lack of it. Not the immobilizing, bloated, out of control, backed up, doubled-over painful, I’d-give-anything-ANYTHING-just-for-a-real-poop existence. But Betsy was up for it. I loved her. I hardly knew her.
We met the previous year. Betsy was a manager for a community action agency, a member of a coalition that hired me to facilitate several meetings. After the first meeting began, Betsy walked into the conference room, her head in a scarf, telegraphing chemo to all attendees.
“I just finished a treatment. Sorry I’m late.” I was the only one surprised. She was talkative, present, unfazed. I found myself staring at her, then not. Then doing it again.
As people filed out of the meeting, Betsy introduced herself to me and apologized again for arriving late. I asked and she told me, “Breast cancer.” We talked briefly and that was that.
I received many, many well-wishing cards when the news of my diagnosis spread. Some were funny, some inspirational. Betsy’s card said, Call me, if you want. Here’s my number. When I received it, I thought, that’s really thoughtful. And then set it aside, in the pile next to the couch. I had lots of friends. I wouldn’t be reaching out to a stranger.
A couple of months into my treatment, when I was feeling every bit as down about having cancer as the brochures in the doctors’ office waiting rooms predicted I would, I grabbed the pile of cards seeking the inspiration and encouragement they were meant to convey. I got to Betsy’s and stopped, realizing I was lonely in a place I hadn’t known I was hurting. It turned out, I didn’t have that many friends who understood cancer. And I hadn’t believed I would get this down or get this lonely. I thought I was protected by my years of therapy, years of moving through my dark places already. Sure, I struggled with depression, but I had a spiritual base. I had prayer and meditation and friends and a gratitude for today.
None of which protected me from the impotence of constipation. After an abdominal surgery, everyone checks to make sure the bowels are working. Each person who entered my hospital room – doctor, nurse, Ramona, family member, visitor – expressed preoccupation with my bowels.
“Have you passed gas yet?” they asked.
Mortification ebbed to numb acceptance of my exposure as I lay in bed, waiting, waiting, to pass gas. I could not go home until I could answer yes to the gas question. But the bowels were not moving. No gas came. My first bout of constipation had set in.
The surgery had caused “adhesions,” some kind of internal scarring, complicating the normal course of recovery. By day four, I was crying out for a doctor, sobbing from a pain worse than the surgery. Ramona could only pace the room, undone by my distress, as I lay on my side, yearning to crawl into a fetal position and cradle my wounded self. A resident showed up, talked to me through the side rail of my bed, meeting my eyes. “If I give you a pain killer, it will cause more constipation. I know this hurts, but we have to wait it out.” I looked at his young face and thought, there is no “we” right now.
There was no “we” as the adhesions collided with the cumulative effects of my treatment regimen. Every chemotherapy treatment resulted in constipation. Every pill prescribed to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy caused constipation. I became crazed waging an anti-constipation war. Senna, Mylax, Fiber One, bran, prunes, Colace. I returned to drinking caffeinated coffee, placing faith in caffeine’s ability to move bowels. I drank more water than I thought I could hold. My bathroom became a ready room.
I will not discuss what happened when my efforts were successful.
Constipation-induced depression had humbled me. I dialed Betsy’s number and stepped into connection with someone outside my circle, someone in the know, someone who understood powerlessness. How’s the constipation? Betsy wasn’t looking for the plucky cancer survivor response and I didn’t give it.
“Oh, thank you for asking!” I laughed, before downloading my despair.
© 2011 Cathy Kidman