In retrospect it was perhaps not my best-conceived plan—taking the kids on an excursion to visit the radiation machine—but it’s so hard to know what will spark their malleable little minds and inspire them to be the doctors and scientists and poets of the future.
Freddy—who loves to stay up late reading about atoms and quarks—has been unfortunately stuck for a while now on the notion of being a Billionaire Weapons Inventor. And Benny has an entire notebook of recipes he’s conjured for how to turn humans into different animal species (tail hair of a Welsh Corgi, saliva of an ocelot, chocolate chips, sea salt). I thought nudging them a little from the Realm of Evil Science toward the Realm of Medical Science couldn’t hurt, and could possibly be at least as lucrative.
My radiation oncologist, Dr. Rosenblum, actually thought it was a good idea.
“Make sure to tell the boys the machine is called a Linear Accelerator,” she told John and me at the appointment before I started radiation. “That will get them interested.”
Her eyes might have been glowing a little too brightly, now that I think about it.
“Ooh—and wait—how old are they again? Eight and six? Yeah, tell them we’ll be using lasers to guide the photons and electrons to the right spot and that we will be using the exact same technology we use for radar. And that we will do it all from a remote command center with closed-circuit monitors! And that each machine costs millions of dollars!!”
That night, I mentioned all this at the dinner table as casually as possible.
“Hmmm,” said Freddy, a little interested. “What are the chances you’ll come away from this with mutant powers?”
“I imagine not infinitesimal!” I said, getting kind of worked up myself.
“I have two things,” said Benny in his Benny Way. “Is radiation a kind of technology and will you have hair?”
Me having hair again has been a primary concern for Benny for months now, and as we transition from toll booths to whatever he embraces as his next big passion, it seems the classification as “technology” will be a common thread.
“Yes! Radiation is in fact ultra high-tech technology! And doesn’t affect your hair at all!!” So many exclamation points—maybe I was selling it a little hard.
Then, a couple weeks later when Veteran’s Day rolled around and the kids had no school and John was off work and I had to be at Duke for my daily dose of radiation, I thought: perfect—a family excursion! Let’s all go to Durham and we can eat a hip delicious lunch on Ninth Street and browse through actual paper books at The Regulator and we’ll take the kids to see the beautiful Duke campus and the impressive gothic hospital that is saving my life and where I—and their grandmother—have spent so many important hours. And they’ll learn something about science to boot!
My first spidey sense that there might be some sound reason to why teachers don’t regularly take their eager elementary schoolers to tour hospital radiation facilities came just as we stepped foot into the waiting room—the same waiting room where I wait every day, where I have my usual seat and say my usual hellos and chat with the usual suspects and settle in for the usual routine.
Suddenly I was aware of so many wheelchairs. So many unsteady steppers. So many pale faces and thin wisps of hair and ghostly bodies slumped in chairs. Angry, papery skin. Half-healed wounds. Growths and disfigurements straight out of the Brothers Grimm. So many heads held up by hands.
I’ve seen them all before. These days, these are my people. I’ve talked with them and befriended them: Chris with pancreatic cancer who has a new painful nodule on his kidney. Beth on her second bout with breast. The loud nervous woman who is always wheeling and dealing on the cell phone, half her head shaved. Howard, the man I often sit next to back in the Gowned Area whose prostate is being irradiated and who is so hugely tall that his gown looks like a blue napkin barely covering his bare thighs.
The Feeling Pretty Poorlies— I know them—I’ve even been them—very recently—but I hadn’t really seen us as we are in a long time—the (mostly) walking wounded of the cancer militia. We’re kind of motley. We’re often asymmetrical. We’re wearing comfortable pants and bright scarves. We tend to either smile too quickly or not at all.
I watched my kids taking it all in—seeing me among my other kind. They were not the only children in the waiting room—school was closed across the state—and I saw them all scanning the room for each other with urgency, like we look for channel markers in the fog.
When I told the radiation therapist that Dr. Rosenblum had said it would be okay if my kids came and took a peak at the machine, I maybe mistook her “okay, whatever you want, crazy lady” look for being inhospitable. But then she seemed to perk up when we got back in the linear accelerator room and she got to explain to the kids how everything worked, and I thought: oh this is so cool. How exciting!
But then I noticed Benny wouldn’t stand all the way inside the room and that he kept staring at the oversized radiation warning symbol on the 12-inch-thick door. Somehow I hadn’t noticed the sign or the thickness of the door before. It’s like the opposite of a nuclear fallout shelter.
In the hallway, Howard lurched by in his too-short gown.
Then one of the techs kicked on the enormous machine to show how its huge arm could rotate—the floor opening up beneath it to accommodate its massive orbit around the radiation board, and I saw Freddy’s body physically stiffen.
To be honest, I hadn’t realized that all this time during my treatments the floor had been opening beneath me like some Tony Stark-designed doorway to hell, and I sort of wish I’d kept it that way.
“I’m ready to go now,” said Freddy firmly. Fearless Freddy! Freddy who injects himself with his own insulin shots, Freddy who goes downstairs alone at night to get a glass of water, Freddy who marches into the bathroom when his brother spies a stink bug and dispatches it into the toilet with his bare hands, Freddy who sat for close to an hour on the corner of the bed where my mom’s body lay, stroking her legs the day after she died.
“I’m done, too,” said Benny.
Neither of them had one single question for the techs—and that was a first. They usually live for the question portion of EVERYTHING. Last summer when we visited Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known house, Poplar Forest, the tour guide ran late fielding questions from my kids: Did Jefferson have a dog? Did he die of cancer? Did he like to go camping? Did he enjoy being president?
At Open House night for kindergarten, Benny famously raised his hand in front of the entire parent-student population when the principal asked if there were any questions and said into the portable microphone, “Um, so what do you do if you’re really nervous about starting Kindergarten?”
But here in the radiation chamber: nada.
That night my dad asked them what they thought of the trip to Duke.
“It was terrifying,” said Freddy matter-of-factly.
“I hated it,” said Benny. “I wish I hadn’t seen it.”
“It was pretty intimidating,” admitted John.
So—oops. I just exposed my kids to radiation and probably scarred them for life on their day off.
Except, then there also is this: the next morning as we bumble through our regular routine—me signing permission slips while I drink coffee on the couch before getting myself dressed for radiation, John knotting his tie and packing lunch boxes, the kids shuffling in to their shoes and coats—both boys come sit with me.
“Good luck at radiation today, Mom!” says Benny. “I hope you’re not scared, but if you are you can hug MacDuff when you get home.”
MacDuff is our new mutt. He’s extremely cuddly, and if I didn’t know better I might think Benny had conjured him from one of his recipes.
Freddy gives me a hug. “Guess what, Mom—I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. A playwright!”