She scrunched over her omelet at the opposite end of the counter, reading the local newspaper, sipping coffee, splashing salsa on the eggs. We were the only ones eating at the L-shaped counter – no waiting for those seats if one chooses to display one’s solitude at the famously busy breakfast diner. As she stirred to leave, I noticed 2 white, plastic bracelets on her left arm, similar to the yellow one that I wore for cancer a month ago. My curiosity overcame introversion as I quietly asked if she would mind telling me what the white stood for. One of them was for Gabby Giffords, our U.S. Representative who had been shot in the left side of the head last January. The other was for aphasia (difficulty or inability to speak). I pried more, “Do you have a family member with aphasia?” “No, I have it”, she replied very clearly. I noticed then her right arm was severely contracted. I commented that she probably related strongly to Rep. Giffords’ injury, at which point she glared at me and said, “What are you, OK?” “Um, a physician.” Now I was regretting the intrusion. She suddenly brightened and told me that June is National Aphasia Month. No idea there was such a thing I told her. She then described her stroke more than 20-years ago. This woman probably my was age. I commented that her language skills were remarkable and learned more – she couldn’t speak for 2 years and still is in various forms of therapy. I would have never known she had aphasia except she punctuated her speech with “OK” as some people do with “uh” when searching for a word. She raised 3 kids during and after the stroke, went through a divorce, and functioned as well as anyone else in that diner that I could tell, including me. Amazing. I had been perseverating in my head just after having stitches removed about the possibility of fluid collecting under my mastectomy. I hurt. I was worried. And this woman not only survived a massive stroke but continued to work on her functional ability and wanted me to tell everyone about National Aphasia Month because so many of the 2 million people with aphasia cannot speak for themselves.
Later that day, after too many hours of running around doing errands because I had been house bound for a week, I headed to the pharmacy checkout and saw “Ruby”, a 30-ish year old technician who frequently hands me my meds. Oh fuck – she was wearing a head scarf, clearly bald, pale, facial skin showing the effects of chemo. After I checked that no one else was around, I put my arm across my flattened chest and discreetly said, “I have breast cancer. How are you doing?” “Colon cancer. I’m really doing OK.” OK? OK!? She looked like shit. “I’m almost done with chemo and most of the metastases are gone.” (Mets! Stage 4!) “My blood counts are doing good, and I’m handling work fine.” Somehow I managed to overcome my shock, stay out of doctor mode, and express my empathy and encouragement. She seemed genuinely grateful. I stumbled to Safeway next door and was sobbing by the time I hit the coffee aisle.
These 2 women have had/have life-threatening illnesses and are more than surviving. If I were Ruby, I would be on a beach in Hawaii
smoking ganja soaking up all the sun and sea in my last days. Screw me for being such a weenie, so weak, so vain for having chose reconstruction when I could have just had a flat chest and moved on with my life (and weight loss and fitness).
Or I could draw strength from their stories and buck up. Right now I’ll just sit here and cry a bit because I have developed a seroma on my right side. Such a small thing.
Hey, did I mention it’s National Aphasia Awareness Month?