On Waiting

by Teresa Milbrodt —

I’ll admit it now, I’m a hypochondriac. The good part is that I’m fully cognizant of my irrational fears and so is my hypochondriac husband, so much so that we wrote the following provisions into our marriage vows:

“I will love you when you’re sick, when you’re healthy, and when you’re anxious about being sick. I will Google all of the medical conditions you think you might have, and assure you that you don’t.”

We are people who believe in preparation, though I tend to be more vocal about my worries. My husband usually suffers in silence, but he has been true to his vows. During the five years of our marriage he has looked at more pictures of skin cancers and lesions than a dermatology student. This is how I will forever define true love and commitment.

I was trying very hard not to worry about the odd white bump that had appeared on my chin in early May and failed to look like much of anything that my dear husband could find on Google images. Part of me worried that it was cancer, but part of me worries that everything is cancer. My husband said it didn’t look like anything serious, certainly not an evil melanoma, so I should just chill. While chilling I bought some concealer to cover the odd little zit, but whenever I try to conceal anything with makeup it backfires and the thing ends up looking like it has blinking red lights around it, and a sign that reads “Please stare at my facial blemish.” While my husband claimed he didn’t notice it when he looked at me, I was sure the rest of the world did.

Yet I continued play it cool, and I was very proud of myself for shirking my hypochondriac tendencies—mind over odd bumps—until I arrived at my parents’ house for a visit and my doctor father said, “What’s that thing on your chin?”

I said I didn’t know, but it was white and looked like it was covered with dead skin and it wasn’t getting any bigger.

After a kitchen examination my father said, “You should get it off, it could be squalmous cell carcinoma.” A form of skin cancer. This statement was followed by, “Why do you always worry about things that turn out to be nothing, and you weren’t worried about this?”

“I don’t know,” I wailed, “I was trying to play it cool.” So much for that bright idea. My hypochondriac side was righteously indignant for having been correct after all, and scared out of its mind. But the white bump continued not to look as bad as squalmous cell carcinoma or a cutaneous horn or kerotosis or a wart. It didn’t look like much of anything. All the pictures my father and ever-vigilant husband found online appeared much worse than what I had affectionately termed my little white zit from hell. My husband said that should be reassuring, but in my hypochondriac brain the only thing I could process was, “What is it, and when is it going to kill me?”

When you think you might be sick—or when I think I might be sick–it’s like there’s a black cloud hanging in the back of my mind all the time, even if I try to forget it. The cloud is looming over my shoulder whenever I turn around. That was what happened with the little white zit from hell. I figured it might be similar to how women feel when their mammograms come back inconclusive. You try to pretend you’re living in the real world, but really you’re in an alternate pseudo-reality where there’s an elephant in the room but only you can see it, and you don’t want to mention the elephant to anyone else because they’ll think you’re crazy. This is because you are crazy and you probably realize that, but just because you know you’re crazy doesn’t mean that you can get rid of the craziness. It’s kind of like a bad case of acne. You do what you can to relieve it, but really you just have to tough it out.

“Well, it’s probably benign like a wart,” said the surgeon when I was sitting in his office, “but it could be squalmous cell carcinoma. I’ve seen a few of them start out as little horny things.”

Forget it, I thought to myself.  You’re here and I’m here and you have sharp things. Just get the damn zit off and send it to the pathology lab so you can tell me what it is.

While she prepared the aforementioned sharp things and sterile surfaces for surgery, the nurse and I chatted about how I was living in Colorado and her daughter lived in Arizona and how it was very dry so you needed to drink a whole lot of water or risk dehydration. When you’re really nervous it’s amazing how easy it is to find a connection with someone, anyone, so you can make futile conversation and try to get your mind off impending doom. Or a shot of anesthetics.

The good thing about doing a lot of hand sewing—and I may be one of the few people who does anymore–is that most shots don’t feel too bad. While getting the shot I can ponder all the needle sticks I’ve had in the past that felt much worse because they were unplanned. After that I had to think of something while lying on the table with a blue sheet over my face and a little bit of chin exposed.

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed that fly, I guess she’ll die. There was an old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly… I worked my way through the bird and cat verses and then didn’t remember what came after, so I was alert to the tug of the needle when I was getting stitches.

Someone is sewing my skin together. How about that. I don’t feel a damn thing. They used to get people drunk before they did things like this, and then sterilize the wound with more booze. Too bad I don’t drink. At least this isn’t as bad as dental surgery, but I don’t get nitrous. That’s a shame. Why don’t all doctors’ offices have nitrous? Dentists shouldn’t have all the fun. Nitrous would make medical procedures so much easier…

Then it was all done and I had a band-aid on my chin and an order not to take off the band-aid or get the wound wet for twenty-four hours. That was fine with me, since I didn’t want to see the stitches or the little vial that now held my zit from hell. Now all I had to do was wait for the test results. The problem was that this was a Thursday, and my dad explained the slides took a day to be prepared, so they probably wouldn’t be read until after the weekend. The good and bad thing about having a doctor as a father is that I get all the inside information, including the history of research on squalmous cell carcinoma while standing in the kitchen making dinner. According to my father, the National Cancer Institute was considering re-naming some kinds of squalmous cell carcinoma that occurred in breasts, because some of the cells looked like cancer cells but didn’t behave like them or spread beyond a certain point. Except for a few kinds of squalmous cell carcinomas that did behave like cancer cells.

Since I grew up with a family member in the medical profession. part of me wants to shrug at any ailment, take some Tylenol or apply antibiotic ointment and tell myself I’ll be fine. The other part remembers all the dinner table stories about people who died suddenly for odd reasons and that taking too much Tylenol could kill my liver, but I’d have to do it all at once.

My adopted grandma has told me that we spend seventy to eighty percent of our lives waiting. I don’t know where she got this statistic, but it sounds true. We pass a lot of time searching for distractions to stop us from thinking about other things. Sometimes I knit. Sometimes I cook. Sometime I watch funny cat videos online. Are funny cat videos proof that humans have superior intelligence, or have they made us take an evolutionary step back closer to lowland gorillas? At any rate they’re something to do, since all of us are waiting for something. That would make a good question for a poll. What are you waiting for?

When I was in high school I really wanted a boyfriend. High school of course is its own country with its own social mores and caste system and currency and a range of other customs that shift from year to year when the seniors graduate and a new crew of freshmen move in to be ritually demeaned. But high school relationships and PDAs (public displays of affection) seem to be universal, as does the existence of the much larger and lonelier population of discontented teens who get to watch those PDAs with equal parts ridicule and envy.

My mother stood by the standard mothering script—I needed to wait until I graduated and entered the larger world, then I’d find a guy who was right for me. While my mother turned out to be right, I didn’t relish swaying alone to slow songs at high school dances. I did what I could–got together with a gaggle of girls and tried to have fun, but felt insanely jealous anyway. If someone would have told my seventeen-year-old self that I’d meet my husband at twenty-seven I probably would have shot them. This is why it’s good that we don’t have crystal balls, though I really wanted crystal ball during the days when I was waiting for the report on my zit from hell.

When I was job-hunting last spring, I heard way too many people my parents’ age say, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not young anymore, the market is really awful for people your age.” I’m not exactly sure why they said this, since everyone in my generation is fully cognizant of the fact that we and our friends and significant others are lost in application hell. My husband has been there for some time. He has two hard-won part time jobs totaling twenty hours a week, but still needs more work.

Dearest baby boomers, we know things suck. Is it supposed to make us feel better that you’re acknowledging the fact? Job searches are another kind of hell, another kind of waiting, especially since prospective employers don’t feel obliged to tell you when someone else has been hired for the position. Ultimately we end up shooting cover letters and resumes into the application black hole, which I imagine to be a deep dark virtual crevasse sucking in white paper moths.

Or maybe the job market is more like a carnival game where you throw darts to pop a balloon or throw a ball and knock over milk bottles. You have to know the tricks to win a huge stuffed rhinoceros, and even then it doesn’t always work. In the meantime all we can do is knit and watch funny cat videos while old people remark on how they’re really glad they’re not us. How comforting.

My grandma was put into Hospice in early September, when her coughing was getting worse. It was one of those times when everyone in the family knew we were settling in to wait, one of those times when the treatment options would have killed her before the cancer. At least I could Skype my grandma in Hospice since she didn’t have Internet in her condo, and I could see what she looked like. Once or twice a week I watched Grandma TV for the latest status report, and we chatted. In the end she wanted to be around for as long as she could. We had to honor that, even if the waiting was uncomfortable, even if it made us wonder if medicine had gotten too good.

Those kinds of experiences make you lie in bed thinking morbid thoughts. If my brain could survive in a jar, would that be okay with me? What would a brain think when it was isolated from everything else? Wouldn’t it get really pissed and miss pizza and chocolate, only it couldn’t tell anyone because it was alone in a jar? What happens when you’re lost in that space, floating in a mason jar in some lab? Could it be fun, like when you realize you’re dreaming and suddenly you’re God and control everything, or would you just end up waiting forever for…something?

The Lakota people believe that when you die, a relative comes to greet you and take you over to the next side. One of my Lakota friends told a story about her terminally ill uncle who was in the hospital and near death. One afternoon he sat up and started reaching out his arms and pulling them back to his chest, like he was hugging people no one else could see. My friend said it must have been family members who’d come to walk him to the other side. He passed away not soon after that. He was done waiting. Of all the stories I’ve heard about the afterlife, that’s the one I like best. Everyone wants a hand to hold when they go to a new place, and like anything else you must be a tourist at first and need someone to explain things to you. I wonder what it would have been like to sit in that hospital room while he was hugging people. I probably would have shivered in my chair and made myself small so there’d be more room for whoever else had decided to show up and wait.

Actually, I picture it less like an elephant in the corner of the room, and more like a one-eyed one-horned flying purple-people-eater.

Everyone know waiting is the worst part of any problem, question, or dilemma, because you have time to dream up all the things that might or might not happen. There’s no course of action, just the space of waiting. It’s one of the most helpless places in the world. I don’t think we’re getting better at waiting, just at being distracted with the Internet and cell phones and other electronic temptations of a life increasingly lived online. I don’t like it. Nobody seems to be able to have a conversation that lasts for more than a couple of minutes without being interrupted by a text or ringtone. At least most people remember to apologize when they answer.

But there are other side effects, like the way I have an ability to focus on something for a long period of time, a talent that seems lost on many twenty-somethings. It’s a trait that I never thought would mark me as a product of my generation, but some of us can still concentrate. That also means I could focus on my zit from hell for long periods of time, which wasn’t productive. Then I really needed a good funny cat video.

My father is a talking medical encyclopedia. He wants to give you all the footnotes, which is great if you have the time and desire for knowledge. He has all sorts of knowledge, and one of his greatest joys in life is dispensing it. His lectures float from topic to related topic, and I know I do the same thing sometimes, but not about medicine. Kids don’t become their parents, but we have a tendency to rhyme. I have my father’s temper and inclination to lecture. I have my mother’s need to make lists, and her love of asking questions. Both of them are worriers, but my mother will admit to it faster than my dad. Neither of them like to write, so in that I’m an anomaly, but sometimes things can’t be explained.

A guy drove into a crowd of people in California the other day. Venice Beach. He killed one person and injured eleven, at least that’s what I heard on the radio while I was taking a walk and waiting to hear back on whether my zit from hell would kill me. We get up every day and expect to get back into bed that evening. You don’t think something weird will happen in between those times. Sometimes there’s no waiting, there’s just surprise, which has its own kind of awfulness. The lady who was killed was a newlywed. She was just walking along with her husband and then…

Well-meaning and curious people keep asking if my husband has found a full-time job. They keep asking if my parents have found their cat. The cat bolted in May after getting dental surgery. May was also when the zit from hell first appeared. The zit is gone. The cat is still gone. My husband is waiting for better job prospects, so for now we just have a string of people my parents’ age telling us that they feel bad for our generation. I have also been told not to listen to anyone in my parents’ generation, so I can maintain my fragile optimism. Even if the old codgers are right, it’s better to be cheerfully young and chasing dreams. I can wait to grow old and jaded, but sometimes I feel five, sometimes I feel thirty-five, and sometimes I feel sixty-five. I don’t have to wait for any of this; it happens on its own.

I wish I could explain things better to my parents’ lost cat, why he needed the tooth cleaning and dental surgery, why people who loved him put him through pain. I want to tell him it was in his own best interest because his teeth were turning brown and needed to come out. That’s just the way it is. It makes me wonder if there’s some greater being trying to tell us the same thing–This sucks now, but you’ll be happier for it. Just wait.

For four days—which felt just short of an eternity—I walked around with a band-aid on my chin waiting for someone to make a fistfight joke so I could say, Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy. My sweet husband told me not to worry too much about the zit from hell because it didn’t make sense to fret. Of course that made sense to me, but of course I was always fretting when my mind couldn’t think of anything better to do. This happened too often. I was walking down the sidewalk not long after I heard the report about Venice Beach, when I realized Maybe we’ll all waiting for death all the time, only we don’t realize it. God, that’s a cheery thought…

When you have a father who’s a doctor you get certain perks, like the ability to look at hospital records and peer into pathology reports that confirm the zit from hell was not squalmous cell carcinoma but a wart, a very funky-looking wart, but a wart just the same. I was happy. I was surprised. I called everyone who I’d told about the biopsy to let them know. It was a time for rejoicing. I’d never been so happy to have a wart, or have so many other people be happy I had a wart.

Quietly my brain had been preparing for the worst–cancer that had spread, news I’d need to have chemo or radiation or further tests. Now the slate had been wiped clean. I had a new future, a brighter future, impossibly wonderful and free of burdens, even though they never existed in the first place. It was so elating and completely illogical. I also felt like a total wuss, since I had just escaped a fake brush with death. I’d never been in danger, but the purple-people-eater had left the corner of the room and gone to haunt someone else until he came back to my corner, which I knew he inevitably would.

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories; a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People; and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines. She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, frozen yogurt, and anything by Sherman Alexie or George Saunders. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/