I’d Be Alison

I made one last check of the mailbox, what wasn’t discovered today would be left tomorrow when I made my way back to Qatar from Australia.

The shoebox came with a note scribbled on the top right hand corner of the lid. The exact words I can’t remember but it was something like “Don’t get excited it’s not a new pair of shoes”. I’d began to form a relationship with the lady at the post office and we both giggled as we read it. “You’re popular at the moment aren’t you?” I smiled the fake smile, the one that doesn’t want to ruin a strangers day with the “Yes, I’ve got cancer.” It’s the smile the woman at the hairdresser received when she said something lovely about my hair and all I could think was it’ll be gone soon. Remember the penguins from Madagascar? Smile and wave fellas, smile and wave.

I carried the box to the car, opened the back door and immediately began attacking the tape on the box with my car keys. It was a present from Alison: beautiful, raw, honest, no bullshit, soft, self confessed bleeding heart, Alison. Alison who somehow went from a stranger to an acquaintance to a God I bloody love you friend in a year. The note had been typed, printed and folded, underneath it wrapped in tissue lay an assortment of unrelated bits and bobs. The note had me smiling from the start. Her hashtag explanation of her religious status #TeamAgnostic therefore an apology for her personal lack of prayer. Her “pity party” supplies of an alcoholic beverage, party hat, balloon and party blower. Her incredibly useful tub of vaseline for lips and dried out skin during chemo, the backscratcher, the tea. The enormous block of kitkat chocolate to have a break, the scarfe to keep warm during treatment, the heavy duty water bottle to donk anyone on the head who suggests you just need to drink more water. As I lifted each item and read with it its explanation I wiped away the tears. The final line had me giggling out loud  “you are in my thoughts and my mum’s prayer chain – if there is a God, I can assure you he is not going to fuck with that woman.”

Chemo terrifies me, it’s the thing that’s keeping me up at night, the most thumbed page in the cancer book. I’ve been told every awful story: hospitalised, cold soress, mouth sores, joint pain, menopause, weight gain, nausea, brain fog, baldness and constant debilitating fatigue. Allison’s shoe box said “you’ve got this, I’m giving you the tools. Laugh, cry, whatever you need to get through it, you’ve got this”.

There have been flowers, soaps, food, car rides, dinners and gift baskets. There have been hugs, giggles, texts, emails and notes. Over coffee with a new friend she explained the reaction to cancer as “a wall of love”. And it is, sometimes it’s overwhelming with its questions and concerns (I often don’t know the answers to the questions I’m asked and that’s when it gets scary), but for the most part it’s comforting.

A visit to the hospital had me undone. It hadn’t started well. After I’d nearly been run over in the carpark I approached a “guide” who’d sent me in the wrong direction. Having only just arrived back in Qatar it was hard not to make the comparisons with a hospital visit at home. The breast clinic in the green leafy suburb with magazines and lollies in a jar on the front desk was replaced with a busy public hospital with a separate “women’s entrance”. I was back to peering into the eyes behind the abayas. The shortness in instruction with no rudeness intended, just a different language with a different inflection. Go and pay at this desk, the desk was closed. Wait in line at counter eight, no-one came. Go back down to reception and tell them to open a file. I stood in line with two women who I was sure were arguing until they kissed at the end of their chat. I paid. Now sit. We are very busy. You will wait. There were roughly 40 – 50 women in the waiting area, lined up in rows on chairs that needed a wash, all pointed forward towards a television showing Mecca in real time. I spotted a woman with kind eyes and beautiful thick hair who was reading a book and I selfishly struck up a chat. She immediately provided answers, you’ll go here next, you’ll have this here, you’ll get this treatment there. An hour, then two whizzed by as I heard her story, her recovery, her marathon runs after her marathon recovery, and most importantly her encouragement. “You will feel terrible but you will get through, be glad to have your chemo, I’m glad I had my chemo.” We talked about the viciousness of the return of cancer. “I’m glad I had my chemo”. I’ve done all I can do.

I was the last one, an empty room and me. As the doctor spoke random people walked in and out of her office. “It’s busy in here” I said looking towards the fourth person who entered the room, stood to stare at me for a moment and then checked their phone. She rolled her eyes, shook her head, she’d seen over 65 women that day. She was efficient, looked over my notes, stamped the form, gave me the referral to the oncologist and then explained I would be going to another hospital in a different location where I would go through the exact same procedure again.

There had been a moment earlier when I’d made my way from one desk to another feeling lost and defeated and my bottom lip had begun to quiver. For about a minute I had felt alone and scared in a sea of people.  I wanted kind smiles, warm thoughts and a system I understood. I looked at the floor desperately willing myself to harden up. This is only the beginning, you knew the admin bit would be the hard bit, you’ll be fine once you’re set up for treatment. Harden up. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. I thought of the women I’d interviewed recently other expat women with cancer, they’d all said the same thing, the treatment will be fine, it’s the admin that will break you. Once you get through that you’ll be fine.

Cancer is a constant head game. I’ve been surprised by my favourite phrase “you’ve got this” so American but so reassuring, upbeat, you can do it. My least favourite phrase from a well meaning client for which English is a second language “I hope you survive”. There’s no need to hope. I will, just like Gloria, survive.

I have read and been told by many that cancer will show me who my real friends are. I don’t agree. Cancer just shows you who’s more equipped or experienced with the situation. I never knew what to say to people with cancer – now I know exactly what I’d do. I’d do what Alison did. Useful, funny, thoughtful and kind. I’d be the lady in the waiting room: reassuring, gentle, honest and true.

I’d be Alison.

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