By random luck, my last radiation appointment coincided with a certifiable red letter day on my hometown calendar. It happened to be the date when once, long ago, I was was awoken by the wail of bagpipes on my very last day of college.
The fact that I picked up my diploma and then forgot to leave town means I get to enjoy commencement every year as a nearby observer, if not an official attendee. I love that even though I’m not always part of the alumni pilgrimage, I can almost always catch a bit of the hoopla by simply looking out my front window around breakfast time. There’s nothing that says “Ta Da!” quite like a newly-minted PhD candidate, scurrying by at 7AM in a crimson-y pink robe and black velvet cap. Unless it’s a street vendor, pulling a red wagon that’s laden with cellophane-wrapped roses and buoyed by “Class of 2013” balloons. I’ve always loved the impromptu parade that is this day, just outside my door. The whole assemblage of graduates and families makes me weepy-happy, every year.
But much as I love the pomp and pageantry, I also know one thing for sure: there will be no getting my car out of my driveway on commencement morning, at least not until the thousands of attendees have collectively found their seats amongst those acres of folding chairs. I knew this would be a day to perambulate my way to my final radiation treatment, hobbled heel or no. So off I set, taking in the festival rites along the way.
On a morning that would seem to have been entirely predictable, I was met with a small surprise in the radiation suite. It turned out that this would not be the same as all those other Groundhog Day-ish mornings. Because, unbeknownst to me, the memo had been circulated, and lots of people knew that this was my last day. The lady who checks me in, the kindly nurse who has given me my wonderful Thursday massages, and yes, those efficient radiation techs who wiggle me around and get me all aligned and always, always, tell me that everything’s perfect before they scoot out of radiation range—they all were in on it. Huzzah! Here you go! How exciting, this is it!
Well, okay, not everyone knew. The other patients I sit with in the waiting area, in our doubled-up hospital johnnies, didn’t know. How could they? While we all have our own radiation finish dates etched into our mental datebooks, it’s hard to hold more than a vague sense around which of our cohorts were already at this gig when we started, and which started showing up after we’d been at it for awhile.
Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure which of the regulars I’d see in the waiting area on this particular morning. But I knew I wanted to share the day, somehow, with whoever might be there. And a few days before my final treatment, I found myself trying to come up with a good idea for something, some little gesture, to share this milestone with my fellow members of the radiation waiting room tribe.
It was my pure delight, to hand out little boxes of bonbons all around. It felt like a way to confirm to each recipient that she, too, would soon be putting this chapter of her life in the “been there, done that” bucket. It was also a chance to acknowledge my fellow passengers in our daily do-si-do from dressing room to waiting area to radiation and back again, every weekday morning. There was the elderly woman who spoke lovely Creole to her husband or her son, whichever one accompanied her, always one or the other. There was the stylish woman in impossibly high heels, who I finally figured out works right upstairs. There was the newest member of the 9:30-ish club, a woman younger than me who always looked like she’d come from a rowing session. Confusing as my offering might have first seemed, “Today’s my last day, so everyone gets a prize!” were words that everyone understood, and which made everyone happy. Me most of all.
Just as I was heading out, one of my tech gals handed me a manila envelope. I assumed it was some paperwork that I might need down the road, so I stuck it in my bag and didn’t look at it until I got out the door. Turns out, it was a certificate of completion. Congrats for showing up! Hurrah for making it to the finish line!
A piece of paper, my name magic-markered in. So inadequate an expression of what this day meant to me. I’m done, with all but the hormone therapy that will be part of my morning regiment of vitamins and supplements from here on out. Done with the part where someone with a medical degree thinks there might be any remaining malignant cells lurking around. Done with the day in-week out appointments. Odds being tricky little devils, no one was willing to say, “Congratulations, you’re cured,” but to me, that’s what the day felt like. I have no cancer. Cancer doesn’t have me. We’re back were we started from, back where I thought I was, before I got that follow-up phone call.
Graduations, and commencements. Endings, and beginnings. World without end, amen, amen.