In this exclusive Salon excerpt from her new memoir, “A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles,” Williams recalls her first post-remission checkup — shortly after the cancer death of a good friend.
The city is turning green early this year—winter had been so warm and mild, so damn near snowless—it couldn’t resist bursting into color well before the official first day of spring. I lived to see the cherry blossoms after all. Cassandra’s boys have now left the children’s [cancer support] group. On their last night, the kids and Emily threw a going-away party for them. There was cake, and the kids made cards and sang songs and played games. It was so sweet and warm and joyful that every time I think about that going-away party—which is almost daily—I feel like my heart’s being smashed in pieces. The boys are off somewhere else now, playing soccer and greeting the spring. Their first spring without their mother.
I’m here today for another set of scans. They call my name and I head back to the women’s waiting area to change. I surrender my clothes and walk past tiny examination rooms filled with snugly wrapped sick people. “Would you like a warm blanket?” the nurse says, proffering it, along with a stress ball, as she gestures to my chair. Don’t mind if I do!
I settle in as she tries to jab a long needle into a vein in my right arm. “There’s nothing there,” she says, puzzled. Her face is furrowed with concern. “Can you squeeze the ball again, my love?”
I have known her about a minute but, okay, I’ll be her love. I take a quick glance at her name tag: Marie. I’ll try to make my broken veins behave for you, Marie, but they were uncooperative, stingy little guys even before the cancer. The few IVs and blood draws I had in my old life were almost always punctuated by frustrated mutterings from the phlebotomist du jour. I swear to God, if I ever decide to become a junkie, I am totally sticking to smoking my heroin.
Now, however, my veins have achieved a whole new level of reluctance. Because of the trial, I have to come in every week for either monitoring or treatment. The nurses take alarming amounts of blood—dozens of vials at a time. I’ve been jabbed in a variety of exciting locations about my person. The crooks of both elbows. The middle of my forearms. The backs of my hands. Once, for a particularly memorable test of lung function, the artery in my wrist. My veins have been tapped and sapped on a more consistent, unrelenting basis than a keg at the end of Greek Week, and they are becoming hardened and blown out. Sometimes, I imagine Dracula stealing into my bedroom on a moonless night, slowly lowering his mouth onto my neck, and quickly pulling away with a disgusted, “This is BULLSHIT.”
Marie reties the piece of tubing around my left bicep this time, and I give the stress ball firm rhythmic squeezes as she firmly smacks the crook of my elbow, searching for a point of entry. Beads of sweat are forming on Marie’s forehead now. She pushes the needle in and begins rooting around under the skin. I gasp in surprise at the sharp, clean pain as a tear spontaneously slides down my face. Marie looks horrified.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” she says, “and you’re a tough one, my love. I’m so sorry, but I have to stop.” She pitches unsteadily forward toward the sink as she adds, “I’m having a hot flash.” She places a paper towel under a stream of water, and dabs at her neck and forehead. Apparently, I’ve just given my nurse menopause. “Would you like one too?” she offers, but I decline. She composes herself and asks, “Do you mind if we try it in your hand?” I look away as I feel the needle go in. I always thought “You can’t get blood from a stone” was a figure of speech. I am a stone.