The next morning I headed to the surgeonís office, located on the same floor as my primary physician. At the far end of the hall a small plaque on the door read, "Dr. James Griffin, General Surgery." I gave my name to the receptionist and took a seat, my brain too full of bothersome buzzards to take interest in any golfing or boating magazines on the side table. As I waited for my name to be called, female relatives on both sides of my family who fought breast cancer came to mind. I remembered reading about how the risk increased for women never having borne a child, and my heart pounded harder. My clammy hands grew colder. God, please, help me through this. Please donít let it be cancer.
"Helen?" A nurse stood at the far end of the reception counter, file folder in hand. She was dressed all in white, with gray, permed hair but no makeup. A gentle, compassionate smile illuminated her timeworn face as I approached.
"Come with me."
I followed her down the hall and into an exam room.
"Iím Adele." She closed the door and gestured for me to sit.
I did. "Nice to meet you."
After taking my blood pressure and pulse she said, "The doctor will be in to see you soon," then left the room.
I didnít wait long before the door opened and a middle-aged man entered. He wore a white doctorís coat and half-frame reading glasses perched near the end of his nose.
"Hello, Helen?" He reached out toward me.
"Yes. Dr. Griffin?"
He nodded, and we shook hands. Then he leaned against the exam table and opened a folder.
"Your mammogram results showed a number of cysts. Large ones. I suspect they've been painful for you?"
"Yes. Sharp pains. All the time."
"Un-huh. I believe you have what is called fibrocystic breast disease. Thatís where the ducts fill with fluid once a month but then donít empty again as they should. Theyíre usually benign."
I thought, "Why me?" but didnít say it.
"It might surprise you to know that thirty to forty percent of women have this conditionóI prefer to call it that, a condition, rather than a disease. Iíd like you to have an ultrasound to confirm the findings before we do anything. The nurse can make that appointment for you, and Iíd like see you back here in a month."
"Okay. So after the ultrasound, then what?"
"Weíll aspirate them." He peered at me over the top of his glasses. "Mostly to make you more comfortable, but also weíll send the fluid to pathology, at least this first time, just to make sure."
"Iím guessing that aspiration is done here, with a needle?"
"Yes. Itís an in-office procedure. Any other questions?"
"No. Not that I can think of now. Thank you." I stood up.
"Fine. Youíre welcome. Just stop and ask the receptionist to schedule your ultrasound and make an appointment with us for next month." He took hold of my elbow and escorted me back into the hallway. "And donít worry, Iím pretty sure there's no cancer."
My appointments made, I left the office more relaxed than Iíd been for a week. No surgery, no hospitalization. I wouldnít have to concern myself about who would keep an eye on Mike. Thank you, God. Thank you so much!
I drove directly home, my brain void of buzzards and filled with hope. I took a pain pill for my neck and was sorting leasing company files so I could prepare invoices and change of address notices when our home phone rang. I ran to the kitchen to answer it.
"Hello. Is this Helen?"
"Yes . . . " I did not recognize the voice.
"Hi Helen. My name is Jerry Blanton. I own the Porsche+Audi Store in Bellevue, and I'm in the market for a good office manager. I'm told that would be you and that you might be available. Are you interested?"
"Gosh . . . " I had to think quickly. We could use the income, but itíd likely be stupid to add more stress to my already long list. "Not right now. Sorry, but Iím totally burned out from where I've been. I wouldn't be good at it. Maybe in six months, but right now Iíd have to say no."
"Sorry to hear that. Well, thanks for your time. Good luck to you."
I thanked him and we hung up, leaving me curious. I returned to sorting and invoicing.
Mike came home a little early that day. I told him about the curious phone call and, especially, the good news about my visit with the surgeon. He shared my joy over the surgeonís report and fed Duchess while I started dinner.
At the table, Mike asked if a Porsche demo came with the job in Bellevue. I laughed off his inquiry, and changed the conversation to getting the yard landscaped. We knew it would take heavy equipment to shove the dirt piles around, smooth it out, bring in top soil and sod, and so forth. We decided that now, considering the hot summer forecast, was not a good time to have a bulldozer creating clouds of dust in our cul-de-sac or to expect tender new plants to survive. Fall would be better and, besides, we would first need to get some quotes to determine how much help we could afford.
"Iíll call some landscapers and ask if they do free estimates. I can sketch out our ideas to show them, too."
Mike nodded his agreement.
In the days that followed, Iíd take a pain pill and attempt to make a dent in my list of choresólease company billings and bookwork, house cleaning, laundry, ironing, sewing, spraying weed killer, spending a few minutes each day with Duchess and my music. Yes, my music. I would sit at the organ and finger my way through songs Iíd always wanted to learn, relieving every-day stress by slipping into the right side of my brain. Iíd attempt to improvise and when that didnít work Iíd concentrate on learning the theatre-organ style of playing until my neck pain insisted I stop.
Mike continued weekend shooting competitions with the Gun Club and began ordering custom target pistols and grips from a gunsmith in Colorado to replace the ones lost in the burglary. The insurance company covered much of the cost, but any difference not covered by Mikeís plat-drawing income, came out of our judiciously squirreled-away savings. Once he ordered yellow-tinted specific-focal point glasses for target shooting, which ultimately drained $350 from our savings that I hadnít expected. I never did believe he simply forgot to tell me about it.
The next week Cowner called. He was back from Mexico and said he had decided to close the leasing company. "Iím ready to come get my furniture and files out of your way," he said. "When can I do that?"
We settled on the following Saturday morning. He was there with a truck and a helper by nine oíclock. Mike helped move the desk and file cabinets to his truck, then Cowner came upstairs to talk to me.
"How much do I owe you?" he asked.
"Well, nothing. I was happy to do it."
"You deserve to be paid for your time and trouble," he insisted. "Isnít there something you need for this wonderful new home that I can pay for?"
I knew he was determined to compensate me. "Well, we do have custom drapes coming that Iíve only paid half-down on . . ."
"Fine! How much?" He interrupted.
"$700," I said.
"Write out a check for the balance, but make it out to the drape company, not to yourself." He sent his helper down to the truck for the leasing company check book.
"Anything else? Can I give you something? Want a file cabinet? The desk?"
"No. But, if you donít want to keep that old, white Chevy Pickup truck, Iím sure we could make good use of it."
"Wonderful! Whereís the title? Iíll sign it over to you."
He and I and his helper returned to the truck and I located the title. He signed it off, and wrote out a quick bill of sale on a slip of paper for one dollar. Both Mike and I thanked him profusely before he and his helper drove away. Three hours later someone left that old pickup next to our driveway, key over the visor.
We transferred the title the following week, and that old truck served us well, bringing plants from the nursery and fencing from the lumber store.
Too soon it was the middle of August. By then Iíd discussed our landscape needs with a few contractors, ultimately deciding that weíd have to wait until spring before doing anything. I knew we couldnít afford it right now unless I started bringing home a paycheck, and this was my hiatus, my recovery time from burnout. I opened my pocket calendar to jot down a reminder to myself to contact the landscapers again, and noticed that the next day was my follow-up appointment with the surgeon to learn the results of my ultrasound.
The visit was more than I expected. Adele put me into an exam room, handed me a long strip of sheeting, and told me to undress down to the waist and "put the cloth strip around your neck and over your chest. Stylish, ainít it?" She giggled a little.
I returned the effort. "I take it heís going to aspirate today?"
"Yep," she answered, still a grin on her face. "Iíll be right here with you. Itís not that bad, really. Heíll inject a mild anesthetic, then extract the fluid. Itíll be over before you know it!"
The door opened and Dr. Griffin entered. Adele picked up a stainless steel tray with syringes on it and held it out for him.
"The ultrasound confirmed these are liquid cysts. Definitely fibrocystic breast disease." He looked at me over those low-slung bifocal glasses. "It also showed me pretty much exactly where they are located. Iíll inject some pain killer first . . ."
He went about his work, cyst by cyst, removing the back part of the syringe from time to time to shoot the liquid into a glass container Adele would hold out for him, then reattach and remove more fluid. The container had cubic centimeter measurements on the side, and Adele would remark humorously about the volume from time to time. I learned to like that woman and her comforting manner. As she prepared my fluid for pathology, I prepared to leave the doctorís office, wearing seven or eight precisely placed Band Aids® beneath my bra.
As the anesthetic wore off, the pains came alive, sharper than before, and would be so for a few weeks. Then the process started over, each month adding more pressure, more pain. I would endure the pain and the yearly aspirations, hoping that the rumored relief of it subsiding with menopause would be true. I was glad I didnít have a job to go back to that day after such an ordeal. I would go home and rest.
Mike woke me up when he got home. I asked if he would mind going out for pizza because I didnít feel up to fixing any dinner, and he instantly agreed. We made the jaunt to the local pizza shop and right back home.
His road jobs were winding down for the season. With a lighter workload, slipping into insulin reactions from too much exercise wasnít as much of a threat as during the busy hot summer schedule. The days were cooler now, and he gladly helped me prepare a flowerbed alongside the driveway one early evening after dinner. I planted a few of my favorite hybrid tea roses there, and pampered them daily until signs of dormancy showed in September.
I signed up for a pastel painting class to be held one evening a week at a junior high school a few miles away. The first night I entered the classroom to find one single studentóa little red-haired lady, sitting on the only tall stool that wasnít turned upside down on top of the big table. My eyes connected with hers. "May I sit next to you?"
"Why, yes. Of course." She smiled.
I walked over to her and set my purse, notepad and pencil on the table. "Iím Helen," I said, lifting the stool beside her to the floor.
"Iím Mally," she replied, then asked, "Have you painted with pastels before?"
"No, just toyed around with them." I climbed up to sit on the stool. "How about you?"
"Oh, a little. This instructor is rumored to be a very good, so Iím anxious to see what I can learn."
We chatted about our interests in art and hobbies and pets. Before we knew it the stools were all repositioned to the floor and filled with adults, ready to learn pastel painting, and the teacher was passing supply lists to each student. We learned that artistsí pastels are pigments, not chalk. We learned that a pastel painting differs from a pastel drawing, in that the entire support, or surface, is totally coveredólayer by layer. We learned that first we would do a pencil drawing, then transfer it to the final support.
We all took notes and left class early that first evening, clearly understanding what supplies to bring the following week. Over the next several classes Mally and I became further acquainted, chit-chatting our way through her pastel pond-in-the-woods scene while I diligently penciled out on drawing paper the perspective and intricate forms of Neuschwanstein, Mad Ludwigís castle in Bavaria. My reference material was a magazine page Iíd saved years before.
Mally worked on Canson paper. I chose a large velour board, but, as recommended by the instructor, I couldnít start painting until my drawing was complete and approved by her. "Do a good drawing, and youíll have a good painting." She would announce it repeatedly in the weeks to come.
I enjoyed the classes immensely, looking forward to passing a report on to Mike when I got home. He didnít seem particularly interested until the evening I told him about a German Language class about to start. "We could take it together," I said, knowing of his interest in all things Germanóhis heritage by birth. In the past I had heard him claim English, Irish and Scottish as his ethnicity by adoption.
"Okay," he agreed. "Sign us up, as long as it doesnít interfere with your art class."
"It wonít. Itís on a different night."
We started the class in mid-September. The first session went fine. We bought used text books offered by the instructor and listened to him read short phrases aloud, first in English and then in German. We left the class that night with dreams of speaking a new language.
The following morning, after Mike had gone to work, I pulled out the German book and began studying the first lesson. I was deep in concentration when the phone rang. It startled me.
"Helen?" A manís voice responded.
"Yes . . ."
"This is Jerry Blanton. You may not remember, but I talked with you six months ago about the office managerís job here at the Porsche+Audi store in Bellevue."
"I do remember." Could he still be needing an office manager after all these months?
"Oh, good. Are you in a position to interview for the job now?"
A recap of our dwindling finances dashed through my mind. "Well, I suppose I could. Itís probably time I got back to work."
"Great," he said. "Could you make it over here this week? Say, Wednesday or Thursday? Whenever you say will be fine."
"Yes, I could do that. How about Wednesday morning around ten? Would that work?" I waited for his answer, paper and pencil in hand.
"Perfect. Iíve got it on my calendar."
"Me, too." I got the address and driving directions from him and our conversation ended with courteous thanks to one another.
I told Mike about the interview appointment when he got home from work. He was happy for me.
"Will you get a Porsche for a demo?" His love of fast cars came through.
"Iíll have to land the job first, Mike. And I doubt that their office managerís car would be such an expensive piece of inventory." I knew that if a Porsche came home with me, Mike would pressure me incessantly to let him drive it, which would be against all employee-demo rules.
We laughed it off. On Wednesday I completed the interview and was hired, all the while suspecting that Blanton had made his decision long before I ever walked into his dealership.
In response to my questions, he advised that the only other office employee, a female named Flo, would assist me, that the bookkeeping was done in hand-written journals, and that I would have complete authority over accounts receivableóapproving or disapproving customer charges and collecting amounts dueówith the goal of lowering the total dollar amount owing.
Blanton explained to me how incompetent his current office manager was, which I saw for myself the first day I started work. It was reminiscent of my first day at the Volkswagen store. Again, I found myself suggesting that if this employee were to get out of my way, I could begin organizing the office and bookwork much sooner.
Blanton obliged. "Heíll be gone tomorrow."
And he was. My job began in earnest, organizing the record-keeping and training the one helper. Blanton gave me a company gas card and the keys to the previous office managerís demo, an Audi sedan. He asked what kind of a car I preferred to drive.
"A station wagon," I responded. My favorite vehicle for easy loading and unloading of all sorts of cargo, like my accordion and its accessories, groceries and other shopping, our dog and, of course, extra people. Within two weeks I was driving a brand new Audi Fox wagon, which also nicely carried the tub of paperwork Iíd bring home from the office!
My workdays were full and passed quickly. I would haul home a large plastic bin from the parts department, filled with bookwork, then sit up past midnight to finish entering and calculating numbersóexcept when we had evening classes scheduled.
On those days I would either pick up fast food on the way home from work or rustle up something quick to eat before we headed for school, so Mike wouldnít fall into insulin trouble while I was at my art class or during our German language lessons.
It worked well for two weeks, then Mike began falling asleep in the middle of our class. Could he be bored? Maybe it was from sitting in a warm classroom after having spent the entire day outside in the fresh air.
"You fell asleep right in the middle of class tonight," I said to him on the way home after our third lesson.
"Did I? Well, guess Iím tired."
"Can you try not to do that again?" I asked. "It really embarrassed me."
"Iíll try," he said.
But his trying wasnít enough. The very next week he fell asleep again. We discussed it further and decided it was best to withdraw from the class. We could do that the following week.
The next morning, as I was packing his lunch, he called to me from the three-quarter bathroom off the master bedroom.
"Honey, could you come look at something?"
I walked into the room. "What?"
"Look." He pointed into the toilet. "My poop is black."
"You must be bleeding somewhere inside," I said, "because I havenít fed you any spinach."
"No, canít be that."
"Yes, it can, Mike. We need to get you to the doctor."
"No. I need to go to work!"
"I donít think you should. I can drive you to the hospital right now . . ."
"No! Iím fine. Iím going to work." He was adamant.
"Okay then." I didnít feel good about this, but knew that when it came to disagreements, Mike always won.
He picked up his papers and lunch bucket and left for work. And I got ready and headed for my job, however convinced that something was seriously wrong. My hands stayed cold all the way to the Porsche store and well into my morning routine. Not more than an hour at my desk, Flo stuck her head into my office. "Line three for you, Helen."
"Thank you." I pushed the button. "Hello?"
"Honey?" It was Mike. He sounded worried.
"Whatís the matter?" The chill returned to my fingers.
"I donít feel good. Iím going home."
My gut churned. "Iíll meet you there. Drive carefully." I told Flo I had an emergency at home, grabbed my purse and demo keys and headed for the freeway.