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When the doctor gave Alice Stanhope the news, she was thinking about Zoe. Was she all right? Was today a bad day? What was she doing? In fact, Alice was so swept up in thoughts of Zoe that when the doctor cleared his throat she startled.
“Sorry,” she said. “I zoned out for a second.”
Dr. Brookes glanced at the nurse on Alice’s right, who sat with her hand close to, but not quite touching, Alice’s. The nurse’s role in this hadn’t been entirely clear until this moment, when she scooted a little closer on her chair. Clearly she was here to translate the medical speak. “Alice, Dr. Brookes was just saying that, unfortunately, your test results … they’re not what we hoped for. Given the ultrasound, and now these test results, I’m afraid…”
On the wall clock, Alice noticed the time: 10:14 A.M. Zoe would be in third period. Science. Or would she? Some days, if she wasn’t feeling up to it, she skipped a class or two in the middle of the day. Alice always covered for her. In fact, if it weren’t for this appointment, she might have suggested Zoe have a day at home today. Instead she’d watched as Zoe packed up her books and bravely headed out the door. In a way, the brave days were the worst. The strained smile, the I’m fine, Mom, was somehow more painful to take than the I ache, Mom, I can’t face the day.
Alice looked at the nurse, whose name she’d forgotten, and apologized again. She tried to focus, but Zoe lurked in the shadows of her thoughts—so much that the nurse started to look a little like Zoe. The nurse was older, of course—thirtyish, maybe—but she was pretty, with the same chestnut hair and pink lips Zoe had, the same heart-shaped face. She even had Zoe’s pallor, off-white with purplish shadows under her eyes.
“Would you like to go over it again?” the nurse suggested.
Alice nodded and tried to concentrate as the nurse talked about a “mass,” a CA 125 score, a something-or-other-ectomy. She knew this nurse—Kate, according to her name badge—and Dr. Brookes didn’t think she was taking it seriously enough, but Alice simply couldn’t seem to conjure up the required feelings of fear and dread. She’d been through it too many times. The irregular Pap smear, the unusual breast lump, the rash no one could seem to diagnose. She seemed to have a knack for attracting illnesses and ailments that required just enough investigation to be financially and emotionally draining, but—and she knew she ought to be grateful for this—always stopped short of the main event. Now it was happening again. She was prepared to go through the motions—as a single mother, she was committed to looking after her health—but what she really wanted was to get it over with, so she could get to work.
“Alice,” Kate was saying, “I’m concerned that you’re here alone. Is there someone I can call for you? There was no emergency contact listed on your paperwork. Perhaps you have a family member or a friend…?”
“You don’t have anyone?”
“No,” she said. “It’s just my daughter and me.”
The doctor and nurse exchanged a look.
Alice knew what they were thinking. How could she not have anyone? Where are her family and friends? They probably couldn’t wait to leave so they could talk about her. Alice couldn’t wait to leave too.
“How old is your daughter?” Kate asked finally.
“Zoe just turned fifteen.”
“And … Zoe’s father…?”
“… isn’t in the picture.”
Alice braced for a reaction. Whenever she imparted this particular piece of information, women tended to wince and then offer a sympathetic noise as if she’d told them she’d broken a toe. But the nurse didn’t react at all. It raised her slightly in Alice’s opinion.
“What about your parents?” she asked. “Siblings?”
“My parents have both passed away. My brother would be less than useless as an emergency contact.”
“Are you sure,” she started. “Because—”
“He’s an alcoholic. A practicing alcoholic. Not that he needs the practice…”
Not so much as a smile from either of them. Dr. Brookes sat forward. “Mrs. Stanhope—”
“Ms. Stanhope,” Alice corrected. “Or Alice.”
“Alice. We need to schedule you for surgery as soon as possible.”
“Okay.” Alice reached into her tote and pulled out her day planner. She flicked it to today’s date. “Is it possible to do a Friday, because I don’t work Fridays. Except the first Friday in the month, when I drive Mrs. Buxton to her Scrabble meeting—”
“Mrs. Buxton?” Kate said, suddenly animated. Alice realized the nurse had mistaken her for a potential support person.
“Oh no,” Alice explained. “She’s eighty-three. I look after her, not the other way around. It’s my job. I mean, I’m not a nurse or anything. I keep elderly people company, cook and clean a bit. Drive them around. Atherton Home Helpers, that’s my business.” Alice was rambling; she needed to get it together. “So … the operation … is it a day procedure?”
There was a short silence.
“No, Alice, I’m afraid it’s not,” Dr. Brookes said. His eyes were incredulous. “A salpingo-oophorectomy is major surgery where we take out the ovaries and fallopian tubes. You’ll have to stay in the hospital for at least a few nights. Maybe up to a week, depending on what we find.”
Something hardened in the back of Alice’s throat. “A … week?”
“Oh.” She stopped, swallowed. Tried again. “Well, uh, when can you do it?”
“As soon as possible. Monday, if I can arrange it.”
Alice felt a strange jolt, a lurch, into awareness. Kate’s hand finally touched hers, and maybe it was the shock, or maybe their earlier moment of camaraderie, but Alice allowed it.
“Maybe your daughter should be here,” Kate said. “If she is going to be your primary support she probably needs to—”
“No,” Alice said, pulling her hands back into her lap.
“This will be hard for her,” Dr. Brookes said thoughtfully, “and we will be mindful of that. But at fifteen, she might be able to handle more than you—”
“No,” Alice repeated. “Zoe doesn’t need to be involved in this. She can’t handle this. She isn’t like a normal teenager.”
Dr. Brookes raised his eyebrows, but Alice didn’t bother explaining further. Doctors always turned it around on her, making it seem like the whole thing was her fault—or, worse, Zoe’s.
“Zoe won’t be my support person,” Alice said, with finality. “She doesn’t need to know about any of this.”
Dr. Brookes sighed. “Alice, I don’t think you fully understand—”
“Maybe there’s someone else, Alice?” Kate interrupted. “A friend? Even an acquaintance? Someone to drive you home from surgery, to be at these kinds of appointments?”
Alice shook her head. Dr. Brookes and Kate conferred with their eyes.
“We can get a social worker to contact you,” Kate said, finally. “They’ll be able to attend appointments with you, they might be able to organize meals, or even get access to special funding to help with out-of-pocket costs.” To Kate’s credit, she wasn’t reeling off a speech; she appeared genuinely engaged in what she was saying. “The thing is, Alice, you are going to need someone. We need to do more tests, but the current information we have indicates that your condition is very serious. You have a mass in your ovaries, your CA 125 levels are up in the thousands, and you have a buildup of fluid in the abdomen, indicating the cancer may have already spread. Even in the best-case scenario, if everything goes well in the surgery you will most likely have to have chemotherapy. We will do everything we can, but I promise you … you are going to need someone.”
If she’d felt a jolt earlier, this was a cannon, blowing a giant hole right through her. “Cancer.” Had they used that word earlier? She didn’t remember it.
Apparently appeased by her expression—finally the reaction they’d been waiting for—the doctor began to explain it all again, a third or maybe fourth time. Once again, Alice zoned out. Because … she couldn’t have cancer. She was barely forty, she ate well, exercised occasionally. More importantly, she couldn’t have cancer. She had Zoe.
Dr. Brookes finished his spiel and asked her if she had any questions. Alice opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She thought again about what Kate had said. You are going to need someone. Alice wanted to tell her she was wrong. Because if what she was saying was true, Alice wasn’t going to need someone. Zoe was.
Copyright © 2017 by Sally Hepworth