It was Tuesday morning, and I was in line at the post office in my pajamas. One of the perks of being unemployed was that I could go to the post office, on a weekday, in my pajamas, and not even be bothered by the 8 senior citizens and soccer moms that were ahead of me in line. I could have gone earlier and beat the rush, but I’d spent the morning binge-watching Netflix and pinning recipes on Pinterest that I’ll probably never make.
My long-distance love was 2,000 miles away clocking in 24 hour shifts in the ICU. I wanted to send him a care package to make up for the fact that he was in the trenches, and I hadn’t worn a pair of scrubs or set foot in a hospital for months. After finally finishing training, I had decided to take an 8-week hiatus prior to starting my new job. It felt like an emancipation. I was still learning how to re-integrate myself into society.
I started to a feel a little self-conscious about the way I was dressed – not because I was in pajamas, but because I was wearing a sweatshirt on the hottest day of the summer. It was the first time I’d left my house in two days and the heat was a surprise. The woman behind the counter caught my eye – she was wearing long sleeves under her thin blue uniform shirt, along with a blue fleece vest and a multi-colored knit beanie. ‘At least I’m not alone,’ I thought.
At last it was my turn. I stepped in front of the bundled-up post office employee and put my parcel on the counter.
And that’s when I saw you.
I’d been avoiding you all summer. For the past few months I had tried to reacquaint myself with life, with the living – birthdays, baby showers, weddings. I had almost forgotten the sight, the smells, the sounds of you. I saw you in the contours of her face, the hollows carved under her eyes, the telltale wasting at the temples, the warm knit cap covering patches of wispy hair. I had forgotten what it felt like to be in your presence, to feel your weight on my shoulders, to feel you heavy on my heart.
Suddenly there I was – back in the oncology ward, walking the halls before dawn, air thick with the smell of decay, in and out of rooms of sunken eyes, pale skin, swollen bellies and the cauldron of fear, love, desperation, gratitude and regret that only comes when there aren’t many days left. No matter how positive the patient, the numbers, the scans, thanks to you, death was always lurking in the shadows. Bouquets of flowers sat wilting at the nurses’ station – too dangerous to allow patients to keep in their rooms for fear of infections. In your world, even a flower could be deadly.
You ate away at the patients, but you ate away at us too- the doctors and nurses that went to war with you day after day. We all left with wounds, only ours would go unseen, untreated. I never quite knew what an ‘agonal’ breath was until I heard it, and then I could never forget. There were weeks when you infected my thoughts – I started to see you in my dreams. I imagined you growing inside me and my parents and my friends. One deranged cell growing and multiplying infinitely, irreverently, exponentially – betraying the body in which it lives until it can no longer function. I’d watched you take sons and daughters, heroes and criminals, the wealthy and the indigent. You don’t discriminate. You are merciless. But worst of all, you don’t take people swiftly. You take them slowly. You let them rot like pieces of fruit, until you’ve robbed every last bit of sweetness from their lives. Every bruise, cough and ache made me wonder if you had finally come for me.
We won a few battles, but you always won the war. Our white flag always came in the form of a nondescript coffee cart that was set outside a patient’s door. It meant time was short, and no one could afford to sleep. We referred to it as the ‘comfort care’ cart, but there was never anything comforting about it.
You can’t blame me for trying to forget you, but we both know I never will. For better or for worse, you’re a part of me now, like a lost love. I see you in the faces of strangers, in wilting flowers and rotting fruit and stale coffee. Your quiet presence forces me to look mortality in the face again and again.
I thought of my boyfriend, still in the trenches, caring for the sickest of the sick. “I intubated a 29 year-old today,” he had told me one night. “AML. She just got married…It doesn’t look good…” I can hear in his voice that you’re part of him too. “It makes me wonder why we ever voluntarily spend a day apart. You know?”
I didn’t say much at the time, but suddenly, standing there in front of you in the post office, the words came back to me. I looked back at my lazy summer and suddenly felt ashamed – ashamed for not working, not writing, not living with intention, but most of all, for not remembering the lessons I should have learned from you – that life is short and death inevitable, that we should cling tightly to what we love and what matters. What good is it to bear witness to suffering if we simply carry on as if it never happened? My mind was lost in this question until the woman’s voice suddenly pierced the silence with another one.
“Are you interested in buying any Forever Stamps today?” she asked.
“No, thanks…” I finally said. “Not today.”
 acute myeloid leukemia