“I have a book to recommend, ” I told my oncologist as my check-up appointment was winding down. Because he’s such a talented physician and because his services are so frequently in demand, let’s just say I’ve been known to bring a book with me to appointments to make the wait a little easier. More than once he has jotted down a title to add to his own reading list.
But for this visit, I had come empty-handed, forced to pass the time in the waiting room reading about Paula Deen’s downfall in People magazine, a story that did little to distract me as I anticipated the test results the doctor would soon share. My choices were limited though: Paula, James’ Gandolfini’s untimely death, or Kim and Kanye’s early baby days. These were July 8 stories; it was now August 15.
Beyond the outdated People magazine, my other options lay firmly in the oncology educational realm—pamphlets and magazines aimed at the newly diagnosed, the family care-giver, the seeker of second opinions. I was just here for a check-up, I reminded myself. A check-up plus test results. The outdated People would have to do.
“Oh, what is it?” Dr. Paxton* asked, pulling his pen from his pocket, preparing to jot the book title down right there in my chart next to the normal test results I had just received. Normal. I was breathing again.
“It’s called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, ” I told him. As he wrote, he asked me for a synopsis. I thought for a minute. “It’s about an older couple who have struggled for years because of some difficulties with their son, ” I said carefully, not wanting to give away the plot. “The man, Harold Fry, is on his way to the post office one day, and through a series of events, he ends up walking for weeks instead of going back home.”
Dr. Paxton stopped writing, waiting for more. As he looked at me, I continued, “It’s a little strange, but it’s really, really good. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people.”
“Well I have one for you, then, ” he told me. As he searched through my medical record for a piece of scrap paper –I swear I wasn’t offended—I reached in my purse to grab the wadded up appointment reminder I had received in the mail. I handed it to him, and he jotted down, Ruth Ozeki and Some Time then handed it back.
“I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s something like ‘Some Time’ or ‘A Place in Time.’ It’s really good, ” he said, referring to Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I later discovered. “It combines 9-11, the Japanese tsunami, and World War II all in one story.”
As we swapped literary recommendations, I couldn’t help but repeat over and over in my head the turns of phrase Dr. Paxton has played with earlier in the appointment. “Goodly weird, or maybe weirdly good, ” he had said, describing my case to me. His casual play with the phrases had bolstered me there as I took in the good news that I was still cancer free.
My doctor and I had been on a bit of a pilgrimage ourselves, I thought later, as I reconsidered my book recommendation. Would he think of me as Queenie? I wondered. And himself as Harold, trying to save Queenie from her cancer. Or would he be offended by Harold’s non-scientific approach to extract a cure. A pilgrimage? What does a pilgrimage have to do with oncology?
But really, the book is not about saving Queenie, cancer or not. It’s more about saving Harold from a life of bitterness and despair and hopelessness. That’s the reason I recommend the book a lot. I actually relate more to Harold, not Queenie.
I won’t see Dr. Paxton again for six months. Hopefully. I don’t know whether he will read about Harold’s pilgrimage or not. But I did buy Ozeki’s book for my husband for his birthday. And for the time being, I am basking in the good news of normal until it’s my turn to read.
*name has been changed
Shimmering beauty, powerful. Marchenko brought me to new levels of awareness regarding the struggles of a special needs family.
—Bill Giovannetti, author of Secrets to a Happy Life