from the waist up

“Undress-from-the-waist-up-gown-opens-in-the-front-sit-around-the-corner-until-your-name-is-called,” she recites, and it’s clear that she’s said the three sentences as one single word approximately a billion times already this month. It is October, after all, and the pink awareness campaign is in full force, sending lots of us to the radiology center. I put on the gown which is far too big and join a dozen other women sitting silently in the waiting room around the corner. We are all wearing matching hot pink hospital gowns with pale pink trim, waiting for the same opportunity to have our breasts squeezed into pancakes and shot at with radiation.

I alternate between scrolling through Instagram photos on my phone and staring at the other women sitting around me, most of which are doing the same. At 37, I appear to be among the youngest in the room.  Most seem to be in their 50’s, though a couple of mammogram veterans look closer to their 80’s. From where I sit, they don’t seem any more excited about it than I am. No one talks; no one even makes eye contact with the other women. This makes me feel sad because if there’s anyone who can understand my waiting room anxiety, surely these fellow women get it. But the room is silent, void even of the standard medical office background music. It’s uncomfortably quiet.

I dread the yearly mammogram. I dread it because the scan itself is uncomfortable, but it’s truly not horrible and at least it’s short lived. I dread the feeling of being so exposed, but I’ve nursed 3 children, so it’s not like I’m afraid of showing a bit of breast. Heck, I’ve been known to pump while riding in the passenger seat, so there’s pretty much no one in a 5 county radius that hasn’t see my boobs. What I really hate is the time in the waiting room, the anticipation and expectation of scary results. I always imagine the worst.

I hear the phone call from the doctor, her voice measured and calm. I see my family sitting at the kitchen counter, listening as I explain that I have cancer. I sit as a fly on the wall at my own funeral, watching my husband straighten the bow in my daughter’s hair, my daughter who is so young she will have no memories of me. These pictures flash through my mind so quickly and so fleetingly and so frighteningly that the reasonable, rational side of me can’t even catch them, can’t stop to tell them that they are ridiculous. Possible, of course, but unlikely.

I look back at the dozen women in the waiting room, wondering if they too are silently picturing their own bearing of bad news or their own funerals. They all appear to be just scrolling through facebook as though mammogram day is just another day. Names get called, women go back for their scans, other silent women fill their seats. One nervously walks in giggling, “Oh here’s where the party is!” and sits beside me.  I chuckle, nervously adding “Jump on in; the water’s fine!” I desperately hope that I look more calm than I am. We resume our silent unwillingness to make eye contact with anyone else.

One woman comes in with what appears to be her daughter and we silently shuffle seats so they can sit together. She is clearly not one of us because she’s not wearing the stylish gown. Instead, she’s donning a white t-shirt emblazoned with “2 blessed 2 b stressed.” A dark haired woman across the room begins grinning and asks “Do you think you’ve ever been a telegraph from God?” The woman nods yes, mumbling “Sometimes, maybe.”  We all glance up from our phones, surprised to hear conversation. The dark-haired woman says, “I was worried about being late to work because I’ve been sitting here over an hour and I hate doctors anyway and I am seriously stressed. But your shirt is just what I needed. Thank you.” We nod together, and for a moment, I wonder if there might be a spark of connection. But a minute later, we are back to the phone scrolling. Like so many others have asked in essay after essay, I wonder how it’s possible that social media have destroyed our capacity to be social.

My thoughts shift from what songs I want at my funeral to Brene Brown. I’ve seen her TED talk dozens of times, read her writings until her theory on human connection through shared vulnerability is firmly cemented in my mind.  I want so desperately to find a moment of connection in this room.  I want my mom with me to hold my hand, but since that’s not happening this side of heaven, I crave someone else to understand my fear. To show that they understand. In a waiting room full of such intense vulnerability, I wonder how to express my own. Do I just start speaking in the silent room, asking if anyone else worries?  “Hey, anybody else here imagining their own funeral?!  Ha ha!” I recognize the crazy in this, so I just go along with the silence.

Another woman walks in, limping a bit as if she has a sore back or maybe a bum knee. She’s full-figured, her large breasts clearly swaying under the gown without a bra to contain them. She’s clearly the oldest in the room and is a commanding presence. She plops down and begins loudly, “Can you believe the waiting in this place?!  I mean, I sat out in the first waiting room for 30 minutes and you people look like you’ve been sitting here for days! And you know how awful these places are? Last time, I went to to the hospital across town, and that woman working there that day did NOT want to be at work. She just took that damn machine and slammed it down on my tit!  Can you believe it? I told her, ‘If you don’t wanna work here, then you need to get yourself on home because I’m not gonna be treated like that.’ Shooowee. She slammed that down and it hurt. I should have called her boss. I should have called the news people ’cause she doesn’t want to end up on the 5 o’clock news for causing breast cancer with her machine. I should have told somebody because it hurt like hell! Ain’t nobody need to be working there that don’t care any more about patients than that. We don’t have to stand for it.” We begin to giggle, fueling her enthusiasm for telling the story. “Nope, she shouldn’ta been working there. She was an angry woman, that girl, and you should have heard the SLAM of that machine down on my tit!” By this point, I’m cracking up at her story, enjoying the genuine laughter. Other women begin chuckling and listening to her tirade.

I break in with, “Hey, don’t scare the new kids!  We are already imagining our own horror stories.” She doesn’t seem to hear me – or maybe the matriarch of mammograms does hear but decides to keep going.

“They don’t even have good gowns there! We had to wear those ugly blue things with the fake flowers on them, just like we were deliverin’ a damn baby in the hospital. At least these are pretty and pink, right? But you know, I don’t much care what we wear, as long as the girl don’t slam that machine down. They gotta be gentle, you know?  She got tits too. She sure wouldn’t want somebody slamming that machine on hers.  Ain’t right to do it to people all day if you don’t want it done to yourself, right?”

Now we are all howling with laughter. Together. It echoes through the room, until it fades to silence again. As the moment of shared pain and shared laughter fades, and yet again, the rest of us glance down to the phones in our laps, I feel sad. I wonder what kind of connection I’m looking for, whether it’s even possible for the company of strangers to make me hate the waiting and worrying any less. I wonder if this woman who never learned the art of distraction by smart phone has something to teach me about finding real connection. Has my generation forgotten so quickly how to make small talk? Have social media made us forget to be social?

I’m called back for my scan, and I smile as the technician is as gentle as she can be. I finish, put my clothes back on, and toss my pink hospital gown back into the laundry pile for someone else to wear tomorrow. As I walk out into the warm October sunshine, I see the matriarch hobbling out in front of me. A taxi is waiting for her, and I trot ahead to open the door of the cab. She smiles, recognizing me as part of her waiting room audience, and offers a genuine “Thank you shug!”  I want to tell her that I’m the grateful one, that her moment of levity saved me, that she inspired me to put down the phone.  I need more words than can fit in the goodbye. She waves enthusiastically as we head our separate ways.

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