My recovery after this 5th session proves more difficult than previous ones. Even after the nausea abates, the pain persists and I find myself so weak that I can not even get out of bed. I find myself relying on Dili for everything. He carries me from the bed to the bathroom for toilet breaks. He bathes me. He feeds me. He does everything for me. And not once does he look angry or irritated about it. Instead, he is always full of endearing words. He always tries to make sure I don’t slip into my typical melancholic mood by always cracking jokes or playing nostalgic music he knows I can relate to. Even in my sad and sorry state, it is impossible for me to be depressed…not even if I tried.
For my 6th and final chemo session, I see the concern in Penny’s eyes as Dili carries me into the room. I’ve never had to be carried in before, and it is real evidence of the fact that I am fast deteriorating. Dili’s music choice that day is less nostalgic and more romantic…as if he too is desperate to prove his love to me before I go away for good. That day, his playlist consists of John Legend’s Good Morning, Luther Vandross’ So Amazing, Chaka Khan’s Through The Fire, Brian McKnight’s Never Felt This Way, and a host of other love songs…with him singing along to every one of them.
“No piano to back you up this time, huh?” I manage a joke, my voice barely a whisper.
He smiles at me, his eyes glistening with tears. And that is when I see, for the very first time, the fear in his eyes. I know I look like death itself.
“I don’t know how to play all the melodies.” he answers, kissing my frail hand.
I close my eyes, enjoying the feel of his hand and the beautiful lyrics of Brian McKnight, and I know that if I die this very moment…I will die happy and content.
Once the session is over, I am even weaker than when I got there, and again Dili carries me to our waiting cab and back to the house. Thankfully, apart from a few dry heaves, there is no more vomiting and I can at least manage to get to the toilet before my diarrhea hits. It is just as well, because my body would not be able to survive that kind of ordeal…not in this state.
I am given a month after that last cycle, to regain my strength before my surgery. Dr. Chambers has decided I will have radiotherapy after my mastectomy and not before. Once that is completed, we can discuss my reconstructive options.
By the third week after my last cycle, I start to regain my strength again. As I have been advised to exercise to try to regain some level of fitness before my procedure, Dili ensures we go for long walks down the coast every evening. As we walk hand in hand, I know we must make a very unusual and odd sight. A handsome Adonis of a man…and a wasted, skeletal excuse of a woman. But I no longer care. I know that, despite this surge of energy, I will still succumb to this sickness. Uchechi had also experienced this same boost of energy after her own treatment, and had been strong enough to return to her job back in Nigeria. But where had she ended up at the end of the day? Six feet under, that’s where. And I am all too aware that will be my own final destination…a lot sooner than we think.
So, because of that, because I know that this is only temporary, I am ready to ride this wave of so-called love with Dili. I am ready to play along to his belief that I am indeed his true love. Sometimes as we walk, I nestle my head on his shoulder as his arm rests comfortingly on my waist. I am ready to enjoy this little bit of heaven before God takes me away to the one up in the skies.
After all the love I have showered on him in the past, surely I deserve this.
On the day of my surgery, I wake up feeling surprisingly calm. It is Dili who appears nervous, as he patters all over the house, trying to remember all the things we have been instructed to bring with us. But I sit there, cool as a cucumber…not because I am overly confident about the procedure, but because I am so ready for death, I don’t care if it is on this operating table, another one, or even in my bedroom at home. I have made peace with the fact that my life is fast approaching its grand finale.
We get to the hospital at about 7:30am, and I am wheeled into the theater at 9am. The last thing I see before I succumb to the anaesthesia is Uchechi’s face, and I wonder if she has come to get me. I wonder if I will awake in Heaven, with my parents and kid sister. I wonder if this journey will end this very day…on this very table.
But it doesn’t, and I awake in a Recovery Room at about 1pm, still feeling groggy from the procedure. Dili is there with me through it all, even when I am moved to a private room later in the day. I am able to give him and the medical personnel monosyllabic answers to their questions, as the sedatives and painkillers have completely knocked me out. The intense pain I awake to the following day explains why I was put on medication that strong.
The pain is so intense that I simply cannot move. I lie extremely still because I don’t want to feel the pain. Even when Dili talks to me, I don’t move. With each passing hour, the pain seems to quadruple, and I am soon screaming and crying in anguish. There are four drains under and above my breasts, which are also stitched into my skin. With even the slightest of movements, the drains pull and feel like knives are poking me from the inside.
It is the worst pain I have ever felt in my entire life.
Except it isn’t.
No…the real pain comes when I finally make it to the bathroom…and I see what remains of my womanhood. As I stare at my heavily bandaged chest, I am all too aware that beneath the bandages no longer lie my pert B-cup breasts. They are gone forever.
And I slump to the floor, wailing like a baby.
Dili rushes to the bathroom and joins me on the floor, taking me in his arms as I weep my heart and soul out. Thankfully, he says nothing and just rocks me as I cry, knowing I need that release. After about an hour, he carries me back to bed.
“I can’t wait for when we can go back home to New York.” he says from his position next to me on my bed. My head is on his shoulders and his fingers are caressing my hairless head. “We’ll have a proper wedding this time…maybe even go to Church. Our families will be there and we can do things the right way this time. And then after that, you can help me decorate my…our…house the way you want it. You can sell your apartment if you want, it doesn’t really matter. Don’t worry, by the time you see the house, you’re the one who’ll be excited about leaving Manhattan.”
I drift off to sleep as he talks, trying to stay detached and disconnected from what he is saying. I know I will die soon…but even if I don’t, I’m not that foolish not to recognize that this ‘love’ of ours can only exist here in Friday Harbor, where any kind of romance can thrive. Back in New York, back in the real world, he will only be able to keep up this farce for so long.
Before I am discharged, I ask Dr. Chambers why I wasn’t given any temporary balloon or saline expanders, as I have read most women who undergo mastectomies get.
“Because of the size of your tumour and how much of your breast tissue and muscle we had to remove, we decided to give your breast cavities enough time to heal on their own. Hopefully, by the time you are done with your radiotherapy in about a month, you’ll have your reconstructive surgery.”
“And I get to pick any breast size I want?” I ask, with a sly wink.
Dr. Chambers smiles and pats me on the hand. “One step at a time.”
We get home, and I am surprised to see that Dili has found time to have the apartment cleaned spotlessly. It is as sterile as can be, and I know it has everything to do with the doctor recommending we do all we can to reduce my risk of getting an infection. I am so touched by this gesture and as we eat dinner, I find myself beginning to wonder if I might be wrong after all. I start to wonder if what we have could be real after all. I start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Dili isn’t being driven by guilt or a feeling of indebtedness after all…but instead by love. Three months is a long time to put up a charade.
I slowly start to warm to the idea, and even the sight of the jagged lines across my chest where my breasts once were no longer depress me. Instead, I start to fantasize about when I get my new breasts, when I get my hair back, and when I can regain the weight I lost. I dream of the life Dili and I could make together, and I even imagine what our wedding…or vow renewal…would be like. I can see the happy faces of my siblings and his mother, and it gives me all the motivation I need to fight my pain…and to fight this disease. Death loses its appeal to me, and instead I want nothing more than building a beautiful life with Dili…the forever kind.
Radiotherapy soon commences, and even though it is nowhere near as harrowing as the chemo, it is no walk in the park either. The sessions are short and painless, no more than 15 to 20 minutes, but the stinging after-effect is always harrowing. Dili has to rub my chest with soothing ointment to stop my skin from peeling. Over the four-week period, I deal with debilitating blisters and extreme fatigue. But what keeps me going is that at the end of it all, there is a high chance that we would have beat this cancer. And also that I will have my surgery and feel more like a woman.
Finally, the day comes. November 2 is the day of my final radiotherapy session, and when I am given the all-clear by my doctor. The fact that this falls on All-Souls Day isn’t lost on me, and I wonder if this isn’t a sign from my departed family, cheering me on for being the first one to overcome this dreaded disease.
“So, when can you schedule me for my reconstructive surgery?” I ask, my grin spreading from ear to ear. “My husband and I would really love to be back in New York before Christmas.”
Rather than give me a definitive date like I expected, his face clouds over.
“What’s the matter, Doctor?” a frantic Dili asks. “Has her cancer spread?”
“Oh no, not at all!” Dr. Chambers answered. “We caught it just in time. Apart from a few more years of hormone therapy, you two will soon forget she ever had cancer.”
“So then why the long face?” I ask.
“We had to cut a lot deeper into the breast cavity than we wanted to…mainly because of the size of both tumours.” he answers sombrely. “I’ve spent the last few weeks evaluating your case with my colleagues, and we all think your cavities might not be able to support any implants.”
My heart crashes to my feet. “Any implants? Not even small ones? I don’t mind a downgrade to an A-cup.” I make a lame attempt at a joke.
He shakes his head. “I’m afraid not, Ezioma. But what we could do is construct a small flap, maybe even with a nipple, just so that you’re not left with two scars running across your chest.”
“A flap?” I repeat, not believing what I’m hearing.
“I still have to run it by a Plastic Surgeon friend of mine in California, but from what we can see, that’s the only option we’re looking at…”
He continues to talk, but I don’t hear a word of what he says. I hear Dili also engage him with questions of his own, but I have no interest in listening to them. The bottom line remains that I have lost my breasts…forever. Forever. And my consolation prize is some sort of flimsy skin reconstruction to cover my shame.
“Let’s go.” I say, standing up as Dr. Chambers is mid-sentence. “I think we’ve heard enough.”
“I know it’s a lot to take in.” he says sympathetically. “I’ve already made an appointment for you to meet with our Counsellor later this week…”
“It’s fine.” I say curtly. “Thank you for everything, Doctor.”
“Regarding when you can leave for New York, I would recommend at least another month here, so we can monitor you. I can’t discharge you until I’ve kept an eye on you for at least that long.”
“No problem.” I say, before looking at Dili, who is still sitting down and looking bewildered. “Let’s go. Or do you want to sleep here?!”
I stalk ahead of him to the waiting room, where I call for a taxi. I rebuff his attempts at conversation and we ride all the way home in silence.
“Baby, I don’t know why you’re so angry about what the doctor said.” Dili mutters as we walk into the house. “So what about implants?! I’m just too relieved that you’ve been given the all-clear.”
“Oh, so you don’t care that I won’t have implants?!” I snap at him. “You want to look me in the eye and say that me not having breasts won’t be a problem for you?”
“No, Ezioma! It won’t!” Dili snaps back. “What matters more to me is that you’re alive, and you’ll be alive for us to plan our life together…”
“Oh please spare me the bullshit!” I shout. “When I had two breasts complete, I wasn’t good enough for you. You still left me for Onyeka. Is it now that there is hardly any difference between me and a man, that you won’t do the same thing when we get back to New York?!”
“Are you kidding me?” Dili says, flabbergasted. “I can’t believe you’re implying that my love for you is because of your breasts! Ezioma, I love you in your entirety. I love your mind, I love your heart, I love your spirit, and yes I love your body too…thin or fat, short or tall, bald or with hair like Rapunzel. You mean the world to me, with or without breasts!”
I glare at him, angered by his patronizing words, angered he would dare try to lie that it doesn’t matter to him. And I suddenly realize I was right all along. His guilt has brainwashed him to the extent that he has made himself believe all the garbage of loving me unconditionally. But if he couldn’t love me unconditionally before, is it now that I have effectively been rendered unlovable that he will.
“I need to go and lie down.” I say. “I’d prefer to be alone, if that’s okay.”
A beaten and defeated Dili shrugs. “I’ll be here in the living room if you need me.”
Without another word, I walk to the bedroom where I proceed to strip myself of all my clothes. Even though I have started regaining a little bit of flesh, and there is a small fuzz on my scalp indicating possible hair regrowth in the near future, they take a back seat to the scars on my chest. A tear rolls down my face as I imagine the kind of clothes I will no longer be able to wear, the kind of questions I will now be forced to answer. Dili might be declaring unconditional love now, but can he truly tell me it won’t be a turn-off for him when we have sex? Can he honestly say it won’t bother him when I get curious stares from passers by or, worse still, his friends…his colleagues…his acquaintances?
No. This won’t work. Not like this.
Somehow, I find the strength to change into warm flannel pajamas. I reach for my laptop and cue on the one melancholic song that best fits my equally melancholic mood.
Gravity (John Mayer) – November 02, 2017
Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down
Oh I’ll never know what makes this man
With all the love that his heart can stand
Dream of ways to throw it all away
Oh, gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down….
…Oh twice as much ain’t twice as good
And can’t sustain like one half could
It’s wanting more
That’s gonna send me to my knees.
As I listen to the song, a lone tear rolls down my face. I am unable to even log into my blog, let alone write anything. It feels like my world is over.
It would have been better if I’d died.
I realize the only way I can recover from this blow is to return to my life the way it was…before Dili showed up. This farce has to end, and it has to end now.
And there is only one way to make it.
I reach for my phone and dial a number I haven’t called in months.
“Hello, Seth.” I say, as soon as he answers his phone. “This is Ezi.”
Catch up on Ezioma’s story here:
- A Love of Convenience! 1: Handbags & Gladrags
- A Love of Convenience! 2: There she goes
- A Love of Convenience! 3: The day will surely come
- A Love of Convenience! 4: Russian Farmer’s Song
- A Love of Convenience! 5: Moonlighting Strangers
- A Love of Convenience! 6: Knocks me off my feet
- A Love of Convenience! 7: A simple kind of life
- A Love of Convenience! 8: I can’t help it
- A Love of Convenience! 9: Edge of desire
- A Love of Convenience! 10: The Fear
- A Love of Convenience! 11: Ordinary People
- A Love of Convenience! 12: Me and Mrs. Jones
- A Love of Convenience! 13: You could be happy
- A Love of Convenience! 14: Linger
- A Love of Convenience! 15: Sunday Morning
- A Love of Convenience! 16: Drive
- A Love of Convenience! 17: Bohemian Rhapsody
- A Love of Convenience! 18: Sailing
- A Love of Convenience! 19: One Last Breath
- A Love of Convenience! 20: Love is stronger than Pride