When you’re waiting, time is measured out in used coffee spoons, worn socks and sweatpants, stained wine glasses and dishes in the sink; artifacts that comprise a day. Time stamps. Things that say I have been here. I have lived this.
Time pauses. In 1988, I applied for college two hundred miles away from my home. I was number six in a family of seven children and none of us had gone to college. There was no money for school so I applied for a student loan. Answers came in the mailbox back then and that’s how I counted my days, waiting for the mailman. The letter never came. I remember driving to Kmart to buy a trunk to hold my worldly possessions as I shipped off to a dorm room I wasn’t sure I could stay in. For two weeks, I was called to the registrar’s office.
“The check should be coming in the mail. My mom said it should be any day.” Maybe.
I felt like an imposter among my dormmates, waiting for a decision from people who didn’t know me. A bank. I slept in a bed I hadn’t yet rented and ate meals in the dining hall that I couldn’t pay for. Eating felt like stealing. Bagels. Tater tots. Chicken patties. Do I dare take some cake? All around me, freshman settled into their brave new worlds of independence while I counted the steps back and forth to the registrar’s building to speak with the lady with red hair and thick glasses. This was time I measured in uncertainty and fraud. Then the phone in my dorm room rang. It was from my mother.
“Honey, the check is here.”
Time takes. On the first day of September in 2006, I was awakened in the early hours of the night by a phone call. A family member living with my widowed mother was frantic. “Something’s wrong with her. She said her head hurts. She keeps passing out.” I called an ambulance and said I would be on my way. I was a mother of a young boy back then. My life had been a carefully sculpted into a journey of college, career, marriage, family, and all of the securities that world entailed.
Aneurysm. There was a tropical storm and the hospital wasn’t flying anyone out. I followed the ambulance up Pennsylvania Avenue in Maryland into DC in driving rain and howling winds, knowing every second took her further away from me. I counted those moments in stop lights.
She woke up the next morning. I had time to call my family. Everyone was there. We talked and laughed. I remember walking out of her hospital room that evening and calling over my shoulder, “I love you, Mom.” She said she loved me too. That night she slipped into a coma.
Time stretched on two more weeks. My oldest sister yelled into her ear, “Wake up, Mom! Wake up! You can do this! Wake up!” I sat next to my mom in the hospital and read out loud chapters from an Anne Rice vampire novel that had been on her night stand at home. In case she could hear me. Just in case. Fourteen more chapters. And then she was gone.
Time stops. I was teleworking in my basement office when my cell phone rang.
“Ma’am, can you please confirm your full name and date of birth? This is the radiologist’s office. Our next available appointment will be in about nine days. We need you to come back. Would you prefer morning or afternoon?
“Wait. But…I mean…did they find something? From the mammogram?”
“We need you to come back.”
“But…somebody looked. A doctor looked?”
In the early mornings since, when consciousness has awakened me from sleep, I have counted. I have lifted my lids to the world in the darkness of pre-dawn and counted. Numbers and measurements give stability to this new unstable gait. In 216 hours, this will be done. In exactly nine days, I will know.
Each year, a friend on Facebook gleefully posts a countdown to her trip to the Outer Banks. “Only nine more sleeps!” I have only nine more sleeps.
The online patient portal shows the doctor’s report and scans. Dense breast tissue. Right breast normal. Left breast showing abnormality. Lower left third quadrant. I stare at the scans, zooming in, mapping veins and shadows, white on black. Tissue clumped and stretched, obscurities hidden but white as ghosts.
“Morning or afternoon, ma’am?”
I have counted my time in artifacts. Used coffee spoons and dirty laundry. Letters in the mail. Stolen food. Stop lights. Book chapters. I have counted and marked each artifact.
And now, again, I wait.