I return to Bangkok a month and a half after my previous visit. The first was a necessity, the second feels like an obligation. I check into my appointment and talk about how far I've come since the incident, how the world didn't crumble around me when I expressed myself, how it was okay to be angry when things happened that were unacceptable. I talk about my frustration with certain aspects of working within this society, with living with so many limitations, with my feelings that I've legitimately lost those that I love so deeply by coming so far away for so long.
In the end, she looks at me and says, "I can't help you. You need to make this decision yourself." The two options she gives me don't sit well. They make me madder than anything I have been coping with for the past nine months, and they really scare me. I talk to the people I know will understand, I cry, and I wait for an answer. Instead of being allowed to wait, however, I am taken on a journey. I know a lot of this is vague. That's just the way it must be shared. Deal. Read.
My friend goes into the doctor on Monday for a backache and comes back to the hotel with two beers. She shoves one into my hand and tells me that the doctor who looked at the MRI is 99% sure she has cancer. This beautiful woman has been my closest friend here (in distance and depth) and my heart is breaking for her. She beat this monster 8 years ago, and now it's back? In her bones? It can't be. I listen to the dreams she knows are shattering around her, listen to the joys she thinks are being stolen from her, and have little to offer but my love, my ears, the beer she tried to give me, and that 1%.
Tuesday I go in with her for the biopsy. The specialist says it will be too difficult to get into her spine successfully without a CAT scan, so we wait even longer. When she finally goes in for the procedure, I read. I read so quickly that I have to reread all 5 chapters because I can't remember a word I've read. I read so hard I don't notice the man staring at me for nearly an hour. They bring her out and take her into a room that I can wait in with her while her back stops bleeding. Biopsy? No go. The needle slipped twice. That back of hers is strong, at least. Tomorrow we'll meet with the oncologist.
Wednesday morning, the medical crew arrives to face the meeting with the oncologist alongside my friend. I come in as well. Options are laid on the table. What kind of cancer it might be, what sort of tests might be successful, what will happen and when. The PET scan is ordered for tomorrow, she's told she can't move around much today, and we move into a new hotel with a better bed and TV so that the coming day of being cooped up will be bearable. The hotel is beautiful. The emotions are a roller coaster. Anger, sorrow, denial, fear, anger, frustration, sorrow, anger, denial...I feel like a pin-cushion, a punching bag, a pillow, a friend who is there for a friend in the shittiest of situations. There's no way I would be anywhere else. I'm not being a martyr, and I'm not asking for praise. I love her. That's that.
Thursday comes. Tuk tuk ride. Sky train ride. Walk. Eat. Talk with a friend and pretend nothing is the matter. Wait, wait, wait. She changes, and lies in a bed while the injection makes its way through her body. I leave her to hopefully sleep in the room they've asked her to rest in. I pace. I pace some more. I cry. Stop that. That's not what you're here for. The nurse comes with medicine. We talk. I act as strong as I can. I go into an appointment for this stupid rash Thailand continues to bestow on me. More steroids. Thanks, but no thanks. Wait, wait, wait. A man approaches and asks to sit with me. He has salt and pepper hair that's heavy on the salt and is wearing a kummah and thobe. He says he was watching me wait yesterday but I didn't look like I wanted to talk. He would be right. He tells me I'm beautiful (ha, thanks). He wants to take me to eat, to spend time with me while he's here helping his brother. While I'm here helping my friend. He wants to talk further. He tells me I am lucky. I tell him I'm not feeling too lucky at the moment but that I appreciate his kindness. I decline his offer politely as the nurse calls me to help my friend out of the PET scan.
She and I wait together while another scan takes place. I tell her about the strange exchange and the nurse calls her back in for a few more scans. While I wait, a Lebanese woman who has just been diagnosed with Lymphoma, sits down next to me and speaks of life, love, and asks about my volunteering. Time seems to trickle by as she smiles through her sadness and shares about her fulfilling life that has just offered her a new challenge. She doesn't seem scared. I want to be like her. As I leave with my friend, I hold this stranger's hand one last time and wish her luck. She says it means a lot coming from me. I don't feel lucky, but I smile at her through sad eyes.
We go down for coffee (chai tea for me) and as we are waiting another man, also from Oman, speaks to me about my beauty (ha, thanks) and luck. We leave. We walk to get food elsewhere and things start stirring up in me. Am I mad? Am I sad? Am I just tired? We eat, we walk, we walk, we walk. We look for something. Something to buy. Something to wear. Something to pass the time. As we walk out of the first set of shops, a man approaches in a turban. He has kind eyes and I smile. He stops dead in his tracks and begins telling my fortune. I'll try to remember some of it: You are not here like the rest of these people. You are not here for travel. You have not found happiness. You have known love but you have been hurt. You do not trust. You know there is something greater. You are very troubled right now, but do not worry, you are very lucky. You will find your answer...
He goes on for awhile and then asks if I want to sit down to pay him for a full read. I tell him that I'm not interested but thank him for his time. We walk away. Five minutes later, we run into him again. He insists on reading me again and offers his phone number. Again, I decline, this time with an apology. We walk on, my friend and I. As we enter a new set of shops another man in a turban makes eye contact with me and says one word, "Lucky." The night continues with some successful shopping finds, a meal that hits the spot, and a crowded trip back to the hotel. As I fall asleep that night, I wish nothing more than to pass my so-called luck onto the person who needs it the most.
Friday morning comes. The day of the results. So much is brewing that the air is thick with a thousand thoughts unspoken. Plans are being made, unmade, and made again. I only lose my patience with it once to remind my dear friend of the 1% that isn't being thought of. The idea is dismissed. Who wouldn't do such a thing? I understand, it's time to be realistic. But I'm not a big fan of that. The taxi ride, luggage in tow, the elevator ride, the awkward conversation to fill the time, and we are called in. Four in a row we sit as the doctor looks at the results. Shallow breathing. Hurried pulse. "It's not cancer."
Everyone catches their breath at once. A sigh here, a cry there, a hand squeeze, a hug. Shock. Relief. That week my life stood still seems to pass before my eyes for what it truly was. I give thanks for the grace in that very moment. The grace that has brought us through a sort of living hell in the land of what ifs to the land of serenity. The land of appreciation for all that I have, we have, truly.
This story is not my story, I am merely a supporting character in this episode in this precious life of my friend. It did teach me things though. It taught me that life is for living, not second guessing. It taught me that you can't do things that you don't like, just because you suppose you're supposed to. It taught me to love more deeply. To take even better care of myself. That it's okay for life to suck sometimes because we can get through it, especially with help from our friends.
So, here's the deal. I miss people. I'm frustrated here sometimes, and I feel really alone, even with a great host family and super students. But, I also know that this is the right time for this journey and that I can choose to stay on this path as long as I want to. Please, don't be strangers while I'm away. You're far too precious to me for that. My life stood still for a week, but I'm back in action now, and everything means just that much more to me.