1. Spaulding, Deborah Milton

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When the oncologist told me the cancer was back, it meant we could no longer hope for a cure. I felt like a child being told she wouldn't be graduating with her class. How was I going to tell my family? With ovarian cancer on my permanent record, my choices now were to drop out and die or to keep repeating chemotherapy and die later when everyone could say it was a blessing.


Tony and I had been married for almost three years when I was first diagnosed with cancer. I don't remember our exact wedding vows, but they were about being in it for the long haul and growing old together. We'd agreed to stick it out in sickness and in health, for better or for worse-but neither of us would have knowingly signed up for this sick and this worse so soon.


I'm at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe receiving my first of seven more rounds of chemotherapy, anticipating the four-day pukefest that will follow. My attending nurse is Eileen. She took care of me 14 months ago, before I went on a remission holiday. I wouldn't have expected her to recognize me with hair and lashes, but the moment she sees Tony and me approach the second-floor nurse's station, I see her face light up. Then, just as quickly, it falls, and her eyes fill as she realizes I'm there as a patient. It's clear we both have mixed feelings about our reunion. Eileen is a fine nurse and a lot of fun, but I'd hoped that I'd never have to see her again, except maybe at a peace rally or opening night at the opera.


I haven't forgotten the neck massage she gave me when I thought my head was going to burst into a million pieces. Nor have I forgotten that she lent me her worn and dog-eared copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I apologize for never having returned it, confess that I probably never will, and then, because we both know the check-in drill and have time to chat-this time there are no discussions about which of my diseased organs will be most sought after-Eileen tucks the paperwork under her arm and sits on the edge of my bed.


I tell her that my daughter Kendra has moved home to go back to school. She was living with a man who was cheerful and kind but whose ambitions were limited to completing a game of Dungeons & Dragons and someday owning a running car. He was 14 years older than Kendra and so wrong for her. He made arranged marriages look good. It wasn't until I was faced with cancer and a grim prognosis that I felt a need to make peace with her boyfriend situation. I told Kendra that if this guy was truly the love of her life, it wasn't my place to criticize or to judge. A few days later she called to tell me that she wanted to do something more useful with her life than working in retail. She had a plan, and it involved leaving the boyfriend, moving home, and going back to school. Hallelujah; there is a God. She let him keep the car-a paltry consolation for losing a prize like my daughter.


Eileen doesn't remember the boyfriend. "He's easier to talk about in the past tense," I say. Then I show her the Port-a-Cath that was implanted during my second tumor removal. She runs her finger over the protrusion under my skin and says, "Beautiful!" That's a first. No one else wanted to look at it, least of all me. My women friends were all busy getting face-lifts while I was getting more scars and creepy implants.


Eileen may shine a little brighter than most, but as nurses go, she's not so unusual. I've learned that it's a special kind of person who chooses a career in nursing. I've seen nurses deal with rude doctors, annoying visitors, spending so much time on their feet, and still the only complaints they seem concerned with are those of their patients. I would never qualify. I'm in a comfortable bed with nothing to do but sleep and read and watch Lifetime, but all I want to do is go home. Hospitals are sterile and ugly, and they smell odd. I could no more work in one than I could stick a needle in someone's chest.


Selfishly, I like to think that those who spend their lives in the trenches with the sick and wounded are a direct result of good parenting. My daughter is studying to be a nurse. She has found her calling. My hope is that I'll live to see her capped and uniformed-for nothing would bring me greater peace than to leave this world knowing that the greatest joy in my life is also my finest contribution, my little Buddha in white shoes.