“What are you scared of, Yael?”
Yael was standing way too close to the laptop screen, trying to be as close as possible to my sister Sara, whom she adores. On a video-chat with her Aunt Sara and Wesley, her cousin, Yael answered with a serious look,
“I’m scared of monsters.”
“You know, Wesley is afraid of monsters too, and I tell him that whenever he sees a monster to just say ‘Monster, you really should be a nice monster because if you are a mean monster then nobody will play with you. Nice monsters have lots of friends and are fun to be around.’ You see, monsters can change if you just explain to them why they should be nice.
Yael’s face lit up, and frankly, so did mine. My tactic of insisting, “monsters are just pretend” had not been working. It doesn’t help anyone to tell them that their fear isn’t real. Better to help someone cope with their fear, however rational or otherwise.
After this virtual encounter, I lay down next to Yael’s bed on a big, brown turtle pillow on the floor. We both looked at her closet and told the monsters why they should be nice.
And both of us felt so much better.
What I didn’t tell my daughter is that I’ve been dealing with a new monster of my own.
It is my second week of radiation therapy. I lie half-naked on a long table, arms up, alone except for the massive, powerful machine growling all around me. Motionless, frozen, I stare into its dark mouth as it shoots gamma rays into my right breast. It is unsettling not being able to see what is going into my body—the insidiousness about radiation lies in its invisibility. As the monster spins and snarls, I think the same exact thing every time:
“You should be a nice monster.”
But it doesn’t work. Even though it is part of my treatment, the machine scares me. It is a giant, metal monster, and I don’t think there is a way to make it nice.
Doctors and survivors downplay radiation because its side effects are not as intense as chemotherapy’s and the recovery is not as hard as surgery. However, for me it comes at the end of a long road, after chemo and surgery have beaten down my body for eight straight months. I don’t feel any pain from the radiation yet, but I don’t feel right either. Unlike chemo, where I felt nurtured by nurses and friends by my side, radiation is isolating. Though it only lasts a few minutes, time slows down in that room with the monster.
When I walk out of the hospital the natural sunlight feels so warm and friendly in contrast to the scary radiation room. I take a deep breath and do what every cancer patient does as she emerges from treatment: pick my head up and try to go about a “normal day.”
The parking attendant comes over, takes my validation card, and inserts it into the machine. I usually give a somewhat curt “Thank you, have a nice day,” but today I realize that he always comes to help me even though I could just put the card in the machine myself. Today I look up into his beautifully human face and say, “It’s so nice that you come over to help with the machine. What is your name?”
He proudly holds up his name badge: “Haile.”
“Thank you Haile. Since I will see you every day, it would be nice to know each other’s names. I’m Adina.”
Haile reaches out his hands to envelop one of mine and holds it for a few seconds. It is his way of saying thank you for noticing me but also acknowledging what I must be going through.
This moment, this feeling, transports me into one of my favorite books I read with Yael: South by Patrick McDonnell. One of the beautiful images from the book is a cat reaching out his paw to help a bird find his way back to his flock, as if to say “trust me; I will take care of you. ”
As I drive away, I realize that Haile is going to be one of the people to help me through this final chapter of my cancer treatment. I can still feel my hand in his. The human contact so palpable in contrast to the great big machine monster moving around me. I am relieved that I will see him tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until this is over.
One day Yael will face a monster that is not nice and will not change. I hope she too will look up from the fear to see that there will always be people carrying her through. Sometimes it will be her mother or friend or Aunt Sara…but it might also be someone just crossing her life’s path for a brief time period…just like Haile. Taking her out of the darkness and into the light.