How many times have you been asked for your date of birth, like it’s a code to another level, a password at a locked door? Doctors, nurses, surgeons, pharmacists need this information before they can do their job, which is to take care of you. It confirms to them that you are who you say you are, you are that Sarah. A paper bracelet gets scanned, a driver’s license may be handed over. You tell your name and these numbers, and the process can continue. They smile and give you your prescription for Ativan because it relaxes you, thank God; they smile and send you back to your oncologist’s office for the next of so many visits; they smile and tell you your weight, which has soared post-chemotherapy; they smile and ask you what procedure, ranging from banal to terrifying, you are there for that day. My birthday has been a PIN in countless transactions.
It was in a moment of panic the first time I realized I was being asked for this code over and over again: I was about to be opened up for lysis of adhesions, surgery to correct a small bowel obstruction. One day before I had collapsed while spectator-side at the Boston Marathon; four weeks before I had had an appendectomy after experiencing stomach pain that had been increasing over months. For 24 hours I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I had been intubated with a nasogastric tube. My pain was a delirious 8, maybe even 9 if I let myself believe it. With all the drugs, deep down my working brain was still awake. I wondered what I had done wrong. My view changed from looking at the lump of my toes under a hospital-issued blanket while trying to keep my head from bobbing to the faces of kind EMTs bringing me to an ambulance, to the blank operating room, walls disappearing from my vision by that point. I was asked my name and my date of birth, and I gasped it out. Here, it was being pulled out of me, and I thought, please, take it. Just help me.
Four months later I woke in the middle of the night with a pain on my left side, opposite the phantom appendix, where my tumor had been living. Four months after that I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer at age 34. So many more appointments followed with people who would ask me my date of birth, that key that would tell who I was, this woman with cancer.
I began to appreciate it when I was asked for my code. It was a piece of myself that I could share, unique to me and more than just why I was in that recovery room or at that check-in desk. When I say it, I feel myself opening up just a little bit, letting air into the dark room I often found myself in and still do when it’s time for bloodwork or another colonoscopy.
Even so, I found myself split in two. I wanted to disappear, I wanted connection. I wanted to tell the world what was happening to me, I wanted silence. I wanted to ignore what I needed, but I also wanted someone to ask me something personal, even something that every single one of us has, that we might even share the exact same three numbers.
Before I got sick, I had never really been sick. I had the flu in 9th grade; my parents let me sleep in their bed during the day, even though I was feverish and sweaty. While living in Madrid when I was 26, I came down with what I think was norovirus; my Spanish friends told me to eat white rice and cooked ham, that it would make me feel better, but they brought me boxes of chicken broth when I asked. Me cuidaban.
In a way, isn’t it all our jobs, to take care of each other?
My father was diagnosed with lung cancer six months after I finished chemo. He had been coughing for months, couldn’t stop, and we knew he was trying to suppress it, minimize what was happening, what we could hear. I lived 300 miles and four states away. I was in my first year post-cancer, still in shock about what happened, almost embarrassed for having been sick, needy. I didn’t know how to talk about my own cancer, how do I talk to someone else about theirs? Even my father.
I don’t know what was more difficult, being sick or watching someone else be sick. It’s hard enough to know what you need, but it seemed even more impossible to be sure of what someone else needed. I am healthy now, six years since my last infusion. The number of scans has been reduced, the years between colonoscopies has grown from two to three. But I think about that time often, when I was sick and when my father was sick, about what I could have done differently. If you are a caregiver, I recognize how difficult your job is.
To be honest, I don’t remember if we commiserated about side effects. I remember he told me he was scared, and that was hard to hear. That’s exactly what I should have done, though: listen. Ask, and listen. Ask what he did that day, something mundane; let the person tell you something about them, how they are feeling or what they are thinking or whatever they want. Let them cough, let them be scared.
One year after my dad passed away, in November 2017, I read a book called “There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love” by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. Over and over, they suggest asking the simplest, most obvious question: “How are you doing?” Even though I’ve had cancer, it doesn’t mean I know how another person who has cancer is feeling. So ask. Did I ask? I hope I did, and I wish I could remember. A quote from the book that stood out to me was: “The more we can appreciate the small gifts that we receive, the more we can appreciate the small gifts that we offer.” Did I appreciate every “how are you?” when I was sick? The flowers from an employer, the email from a neighbor who had long moved away, the texts from a friend with a simple heart? I was scared to, because acknowledging their care made it real. But maybe if I had, I would have known what to do when he was sick. I know it’s never too late to start appreciating what you’re given.
My dad had been a CPA, and on nights during tax season my mother would shush us, remind us to be quiet outside his office where he would be working late, mired in numbers. I still hear the clicking of the fat keys of the calculator and the mechanical printing on the roll of paper hung off the back.