They put me in a room and sat me by a desk, which was empty except for two boxes of tissues. I wondered if the tissues would have been there if it was good news. Maybe there is a good news room and a bad news room – a room with a good supply of tissues and a room where no tissues are necessary. Maybe the nurses admitting people for appointments already knew what the consultant would say, just by seeing which room I was being put in.
The nurse brought in two chairs for my parents and they sat a little further away. I was sat right next to the desk because this was all about me. The two nurses stood as we waited for the consultant to come in. Like in court when the judge is the last person to come into the room. The wait seemed to last forever and at the same time it was nowhere near as long as I wanted it to be.
The consultant comes in and sits down. He opens my file and I glimpse photographs of my diseased, shiny orange intestines. Tunnels and marks and lumps. I look anywhere but at the file. The consultant turns the page and starts drawing a diagram of my insides. He knows them better than I do. I have no idea what’s going on in there. Anything could be happening, at any time.
Being in that room – or living through the entire nightmare, in fact – is like being the lead actor in a play you never auditioned for. All attention is on you. Or, most of it. In that room, my own attention was mostly on the carpet. My mother’s attention was on her balled-up, damp tissue. The guilt weighs heavily on me – too heavy for me to run, not that it would do any good. You can’t run from your own body.
We went into another room, where an ostomy nurse explained what a stoma is. There were at least three people in there with us – a male nurse, a female nurse, and the stoma nurse. Dad kept thinking they were saying ‘stomach’, because none of us had heard of a stoma before. We had heard of colostomy bags, though. And cancer. We had already heard too much about cancer.
They gave us a bag of goodies, including lots of leaflets and a sort of fake stoma – a red, circular sponge I could place on my stomach to try to get used to the idea. I don’t think I ever touched it. The bag of leaflets went in the corner. I guess somebody else probably looked at them, because I couldn’t bear to.
And then – blank. Nothing for the rest of that day. At some point I must have called my boyfriend. He said all the right things, more than anyone ever could. There was probably television, and internet, and lunch. A nightmare masquerading as a normal day.
In the evening I decided I wanted to curl my hair, for no real reason I could put my finger on other than to create a distraction for myself. To make the evening less ordinary in a more ordinary way. Dad was at work. Mum was sitting in the lounge, reading or watching television, or something normal. I was going out with the girls. We were going to the pub quiz at my local. So I curled my hair. Perhaps I thought it would cheer me up. There is a thread of optimism attached to that memory, though I don’t know why there should be.
The evening was warm and the pub was just two minutes around the corner from my house. It was a beautiful summer’s evening, though my stomach was churning too much for me to notice. I was the first of my friends to arrive so I waited outside the door. I remember who turned up first but I don’t remember her actually arriving. I don’t remember the words I said as soon as I saw her but I remember her jaw dropping open and I remember the way she stared at me in disbelief as I told her what the consultant had said.
At some point very soon after I told her, we went inside to wait for the others. They arrived a few minutes later and there was some chatter. Food was ordered. I ate something. The girls talked about something. I listened. I waited for my opportunity to explain why I was so quiet, why I looked so unhappy. Nobody asked. There just wasn’t a good time for me to talk about what had happened. The girls did the quiz and laughed and chatted and ate – and took photographs to preserve memories of the evening.
I can’t look at those photos of us anymore. The three of us smiling for the camera as the fourth stood beside the table, leaning back a little as she tried to fit us all into the frame. My curls dropping out a little as the evening wore on. An obedient stretching of lips into an upward shape, not reflected in the eyes. Nothing at all in the eyes. The asymmetrical blue dress with the sixties-style pattern – red and grey circles, black stripes. I can see it in my mind’s eye and it still brings the weighty feeling of dread to my stomach. The burden of a diagnosis. The looming shadow of a surgery date, sometime – an undefined time, but sometime soon.
In truth, not every consultation room is equipped with tissues. Though I don’t think that really means anything – I’m sure the lack of Kleenex in one room is more likely to be an oversight rather than an omen. But it doesn’t stop me from crossing my fingers every time I go for an appointment: please, please don’t put me in the Tissue Room.