I got lost somewhere between the summery naïveté of childhood and the icy realism of adulthood. I got lost in some land of inbetweeners who just happened to be dying too far before their time.
Growing up is weird. Your body is doing this weird thing where it stretches itself in every which way. Plus you smell weird and always seem to be sweating. Changing in front of your classmates in the locker room makes it even worse, too, because your tits have yet to grow, or because puberty slapped you with thighs you aren’t comfortable with yet. Suddenly you have to wear deodorant with names that sound like fairies in a bad Disney movie and you discover bras with padding are both your best friend and worst nightmare.
I was dealing with too small of tits and sweaty armpits caked in fairy deodorant that didn’t really work when I found out I had Histiocytosis. If you don’t know what it is, I would suggest Googling it, because I’m no doctor. The best way I could possibly explain is this: a certain white blood cell in my body had gone rogue and eaten holes in my bones. It started in the skull. It ate two holes there and wasn’t full yet. It moved onto two places in my arm, one on my spine, a couple on my ribs, and one in the shin—that one hurt the worst, because I was dealing with growing pains on top of it.
The easiest way to stop these pesky cells was surgery, at first, but since the cells were apparently starving, I had to take more drastic measures.
My first day in the pediatric oncology infusion room was hazy. I had just awoken from a surgery that placed a medical device (called a “portocath”) in my flat chest where the chemotherapy would be administered. To my horror, I found the device stuck out farther than my own boobs did. I was 12 and flat as a board, which often made me the butt of pimply-faced, sweaty boys’ jokes, and now I had a device under my skin that kind of looked like a third boob, and it was bigger than the other two. It seemed I was the butt of God’s joke, too.
Even at 12 years old, I knew that I was something of an anomaly. The pediatric unit looked like a bad cartoon. There were teddy bears painted on the walls and rainbows shooting across in a random fashion. There was a playpen in the middle of the room, complete with Spiderman toys and train sets, where the younger kids could play, so long as they didn’t trip over each other’s IV cords.
The first few months of treatment, I was constantly asked if I wanted to partake in the arts and crafts time, which I always politely, but sternly, declined. My mother urged me to go — it could be fun! Even if I did want a choker necklace made from cheap beads from Wal-Mart, I couldn’t very well go sit with the 4 year-olds and do it.
I passed time, initially, by reading the few magazines they offered that didn’t have pages devoted to coloring and word searches. But after going once a week for three months, I ran out of two-month old copies of Seventeen and US Weekly. There’s a limited amount of times you can read about George Clooney’s suit preferences without going insane. I eventually gave up and sat silently in the corner, only talking when my loony nurse, Martha, came over to administer treatment and ask, for the fiftieth time, if I wanted a blanket or a laptop to “surf the web”.
By 14, Martha quit asking if I wanted to surf anything and opted to instead talk my ear off about her horses and her children. She no longer cared if I didn’t want to make Popsicle stick and macaroni art — she wanted to tell me about her latest Soap Opera dramas and automotive mishaps. I learned a lot about Martha that year. One thing is that I really hated talking to Martha.
By 15 I had my own cellphone and friends who dared text in class to keep me company. I think Martha got the point, because she started to talk less and less about her award-winning horses, and got more to the point of giving me my chemo and unhooking the needle from my still flat chest.
By 16 I finally had a respectable A-cup, which made it difficult for the nurses to access my port. They’d often remark about how easy it used to be when I was young and boyish. Ah, the joys of womanhood, am I right?
But by 16 it also became more and more difficult to miss school. I was taking anatomy, a class that was advanced for my age, and I also had about a million projects due in my AP English class. I began taking books with me to my appointments, which always prompted a million questions from my doctors and nurses about what I was studying and if it was “interesting”. I was never asked to join arts and crafts, nor was I asked if I wanted a magazine.
16 was a hard age for me because my friends starting drinking. Not one to be left out, I wished so badly to partake, and often did, but with trepidation that could only happen to a chemotherapy patient. The worst that happened to my friends who were caught was a two weeks’ grounding and no cell phone privilege. When I got caught, my mother had to call a poison hotline to make sure I wasn’t going to vomit blood.
By 17, I had gotten better at hiding my drinking. The nurses began asking me about college and what I wanted to do with my life. They never once stopped to consider that the fact that they saw me once a month meant I wouldn’t have to make those decisions, because maybe I wouldn’t survive that long.
I also had my first Real Boyfriend at 17. For the first time, there was a chance someone else would be looking at my now B-cups (other than the nurses at blood draw), so I had to tell him about how I grew up. This only prompted him to give me really sad looks and constantly ask if I was “okay”. I rolled my eyes because this was a normal to me as bras and deodorant and tampons. Chemotherapy was just how I grew up. I had stopped viewing myself as an anomaly a long time ago. Some people had to get prescribed Proactiv for their extreme acne, and I had to be prescribed Zofran for my chemotherapy-induced nausea.
By the time I turned 18, I’d dumped the boy who gave me sad looks. I also had the port removed from my chest. Now it was just all B-cup — all me — underneath my sweater. I said goodbye to the infusion room and hello to adulthood and college. What once was supposed to be a quick-fix surgery had become a six-year “awkward” phase.
Now I’m 19 and having a hard time meeting new people without telling them about the peds hem/onc room or my wacky nurse who liked horses a little too much (if you ask me). They give me the same sad eyes my ex did or they simply nod, not sure of what to say. No part of me blames them. My childhood was so different from theirs. Because, sure, we both had zits and awkward hairstyles, but I also had hospitalizations and enough morphine to last me a lifetime.
Sometimes I find myself missing that stupid infusion room with the unrealistic rainbows. I wish I had tried arts and crafts just once. I miss crazy Martha and the shitty, torn magazines. Part of me wonders if I’m clinically insane. Maybe it’s a side effect from all the cancer drugs. Maybe it’s a psychotic break.
Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for my childhood again. But like I said, growing up is weird.