Time Taken

Jill Boyles


A chill wind thrashes the city streets. The few leaves that remain on branches quiver as others whip through the air and skitter across streets and sidewalks, pushed into dark corners of buildings where they huddle with other broken, brittle ones. The bus stops a block from the clinic, and she bends into the wind, her wig threatening to take flight. Pushing the wig down with one arm, she propels herself forward with the other, chanting, My strength is like iron, my strength is like iron, my strength is like iron. The raw wind whirls in her ears. The stooped position hurts her back and makes her dizzy as her heart throbs from the exertion it takes to put one step in front of the other, as if she were wading through water. A leaf blows onto her leg and clings for a breath before being swooped away. When she reaches the clinic, the automated doors open and inside, she leans against the wall and waits for the dizziness to pass and the throbbing to quell.

Inside the examination room, the fluorescent lights’ buzzing creeps within the quiet. She sits next to the desk and looks at the doctor’s stool where the oncologist should have been sitting by now. On the other side of her is another chair on which she has laid her jacket, the scent of wind diminishing in the sterility of the surroundings. She tries to rub out the buzzing with the palms of her hands. Her wig slips, and she straightens it.

There’s a knock on the door, she imagines, and the oncologist walks in with a grave expression on his face and tells her he’s sorry, but the test results show…. Anxiety, already alert in her gut, begins to stir the throbbing of her heart. No, no, she tells herself. The doctor will say he’s happy the test results show…. My strength is like iron, my strength is like iron, my strength is like iron. But what if, what if? She glances around the room for diversion. An examining table, a set of drawers, a sharps container, a mirror, a desk. Above the desk, a calendar with an autumn scene of mallards flying through a cloudless, blue sky. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she would mentally mark off the day before going to bed. Another day accomplished, a life lived twenty-four hours longer. She was grateful for the seven days that added up to a week, but then came chemo and radiation, and the fecund effects from those treatments produced a recalcitrant offspring: nausea. Even during her drug-induced sleep, the nausea sat at the edge of her consciousness and inched its way toward the center of her awareness, forcing her to retch. Stronger than the nausea was the pain that blazed up and down her spine, burning hydromorphone in its path. Morphine finally tempered the fire, but when the dosage dropped, the fire flared. At these times, she refused to cross off the days, angry at having lived. She stared out the window from her bed, watching the sun set down on possibility, and push it deep within the horizon.

Time stretched before her during treatments. Sometimes she closed her eyes and fell asleep, thinking she had slept hard for a good hour only to discover fifteen minutes had crawled across the face of the clock. Too sick to read, she watched TV. Mind-numbing morning shows that trickled into afternoon shows that trickled into evening shows. She often thought about how she viewed time before got the cancer, recalling her laments about not having enough time in the day, wishing time to be tangible, something she could hold on to and control.

Instead, time had remained elusive in its measuring of how many clients she treated at the clinic where she worked as a psychologist. An endless succession of people sought refuge within the four walls of her office, and the pressure from insurance companies to treat them commensurate with the efficiency of a worker at a fast food restaurant left her enervated. She also felt as though her work were only a bandage to these people whose real suffering stemmed from a sick world. What awed her was that despite their inner torments, her clients had a cache of hope they dipped into to buoy the medication and therapy. In her almost thirty years of practice, she’d lost only one client to suicide—a twenty-three-year-old woman presenting with major recurrent depression. This young woman would sit with shoulders slouched and arms crossed. Her long hair, a thick curtain. Her pain was like gauze wrapping itself around her. Looking back on her sessions with this client, she speculated if her probing had caused that gauze to unravel tender wounds too soon. She used to imagine a scenario to assuage her guilt over the woman’s suicide. She would break the code of ethics and part the young woman’s hair, gently lifting her chin. She would tell her that with time, everything would be all right. And, that’s how they would work together—with time.

The door opens. Her heart thumps. My strength is like iron. A teddy-bear-smocked nurse enters. “You okay? Have enough magazines?” A pocket exposes part of a stethoscope.

“I’m good.” My strength is like iron, my strength is like iron, my strength is like iron.

“Sorry, the doctor’s running late. He’s coming from the hospital. No fun waiting for test results.” The nurse juts out her lower lip.

“It happens.” She’s curious if the nurse knows the results. Her heart thumps.

“He’ll be here soon.” The nurse reaches over to pat her knee before leaving. She notices a pink ribbon pin on her smock and thinks about breasts, those centuries-old time bombs. One of hers went off 23 months ago but not with a bang. A small tumor showed its edge on a mammogram. So she went with the oncologist’s recommendation to save the breast by extracting the tumor and having radiation. But then another bomb went off in the same breast and then both were cut clean like in a guillotine.

She flexes her left calf and grabs the soft muscle. She used to run the Kick Breast Cancer 10k race with her friend who was a ten-year survivor. The start and finish of the race were across the street from a golf course, and every year, male golfers yelled, “Shut up! I’m trying to golf!” The racers always laughed, and one year, her friend yelled back, “Men get breast cancer, too!” The route took runners down streets blocked off by police and past an oil refinery where she and her friend held their breaths through the acrid air. After the race, long lines of tired, sweaty women waited for their free massages and manicures. Her friend died two years ago when an unrelated cancer unpacked its bags in the lining of her stomach.

Her heart thumps at the thought of chemotherapy slumbering while cancer cells divide and grow, flooding her bloodstream, lurking behind vital organs. During her chemotherapy treatments, she practiced visualizing the chemo gobbling up cancer cells like in the old video game Pac-Man, racking up points to earn an extra life. Invariably she would look at the clock and forget all about her practice as she watched the second hand tick away the seconds, rapidly claiming the present only to discard it to the past—never satiated, eating and eating, always eating.

If her treatment were early in the morning, she would find an empty recliner. If her treatment started past ten, she would have to sit on a plastic chair a nurse brought in from some undisclosed location. The treatment room was small and therefore unable to adequately accommodate all the patients, so those in extra chairs were squeezed in corners and walkways, making the layout of the room awkward for the nurses who hooked up different bags of chemo to treat different types of cancer. As she watched them, she imagined the nurses’ hurried movements stirring the air dense with fear.

She doesn’t mind going to her treatments alone and prefers it to having her friends take off work to drive her and bumble at keeping her company. They live in a different land from where she had once lived, so they don’t understand this one and acquiring the language to live here is something of which they are incapable, but maybe someday, although she hopes not, they would live here, too and learn to speak the language. She does allow her friends though to take turns spending nights with her after these treatments. Other help comes from a home nurse and not her brother who said he would visit her, clean the house, do the shopping but never did. The psychologist in her understood his behavior, but the sister in her thought him a coward.

In that little treatment room, the patients weren’t cowards, for the treatment could be worse than the disease. During those times, she thought death should come swiftly, so she imagined lining up all the patients who were bald. Then, all the people wearing scarves, then wigs like her, then those who still had hair. She tipped over the first bald person and all fell one by one into the next. Gracefully executed, the patients died valiantly.

Valiantly was not how she was dying with her cancer. She sat for hours with an IV needle jammed into her bruised skin because she refused to have a port, not wanting the physical reminder of being a cancer patient. Her veins continued to break down with every treatment, and the nurse had to put a heating pad on her arm, so the heat could act like a magnet, pulling the veins to the surface. After twenty minutes, the nurse removed the heating pad and inspected her arm before inserting the needle into the intended target. Most of the time, the veins rolled, so the nurse had to move the needle while still in her arm in various directions, rooting around for a vein like an anteater’s snout sniffing for termite nests. After the last such rooting, she had the operation for the port.

She pulls down the neck of her shirt and feels for the port, about an inch-and-a-half down from her collarbone on the left side. Outlining the circular device with her finger, she pretends that all she has to do is press its center like a magic button to rid her body of cancer. An ache in her lower back calls her to the present, so she stands, arching first and then, with one hand on the wig, folding over her knees. The fingers of her other hand dangle by her toes for a few seconds before she straightens, slowly so as not to set off a dizzy spell. In this standing position, she notices her reflection in the mirror and walks over to it. Gray flesh stretches over bone only to hang in a tiny pocket under her chin. Washed-out hazel eyes float in their sockets. The black, shoulder-length wig sits askew on her head. She moves closer, the lights’ buzzing slipping back into the quiet. The juxtaposition between her skin and hair color gives the effect of a receding face. She witnesses it withdrawing further into the mirror like a bird flying toward the horizon, becoming nothing more than a dot. Her heart thumps.

She pulls her shoulders back. My strength is like iron. She adjusts her wig. My strength is like iron. When she puts her hands down after fixing her wig, the ring on her right hand becomes entangled in hair. She pulls her hand away, and stuck in the ring is a strand of hair she yanks free and drops; it drifts through the air and settles on the floor. She twists the ring her mother gave her for her sixteenth birthday back and forth to watch the light reflect off the garnet—more like a beacon, she now thinks. While most teenage daughters rebelled against their mothers, viewing them as sentinels standing at the entrance of young womanhood, she didn’t. Her mother imbued tranquility, and if she had judged her daughter’s behavior during those tumultuous teen years, her mother must have kept it to herself.

At age twenty-four and just out of graduate school, she married. When her husband proposed, he gave her a diamond that dwarfed the stone, and she should have seen this as a clue to his character, but her father liked him well enough. He could fix his own car and made a decent living as an architect. Her mother, however, was wary. She used to say that any man who would rather live in a world of blueprints than in the world of life would not know how to love properly. A week before the wedding, her mother had died.

Two years later in October, she gave birth to a daughter. In the living room, she sat in a rocking chair next to the window rocking her baby and contemplating the bare cherry tree standing in a crown of leaves. She imagined months from now when it would bloom fragrant blossoms. She nuzzled her nose into her daughter’s neck to breathe in her scent and thought about how that scent would change or if her baby would lose it altogether like the cherry tree’s fragrance. Unlike the cherry tree, she thought, her daughter would never renew her scent. She also thought often about her mother while she rocked her baby, and the love she would have shown her granddaughter. Yet, she wouldn’t have wanted her mother to watch her son-in-law care for his baby daughter like one of his architectural plans, something to be designed and measured to his specifications.

The next spring was rainier than usual, but then came a couple of weeks of sun, and she watched the buds on the cherry tree turn into tiny, pink blossoms. When the blossoms swelled lush and fragrant, she took her baby out to the tree. See, she said to her rubbing a petal between her fingers, soft like your skin. See, she said again to her baby while smelling a blossom, its scent is like yours. It’s a pity, she thought, the short lives of blossoms, and hugged her child for good measure. On a warm afternoon not long after, she opened the window to let in the cherry tree’s fragrance while her daughter slept. About an hour later, she checked on her daughter, and as she approached the crib, she noticed that the baby’s head drooped unnaturally toward her shoulder. She placed her hand on her daughter’s chest and felt warmth. Believing this a dream, she picked her up, but the baby’s body didn’t curl to hers.

The cherry tree blossomed a few more times before the marriage died, and she left the tree and her husband behind. She wanted another baby and had polished that desire for some years, but then it sat unattended until it lost its luster.

A knock on the door jolts her to the present. My strength is like iron, my strength is like iron, my strength is like iron. Her heart thumps to the chant.

The oncologist walks in with hand outstretched. “How are you this morning?”

“Fine.” She shakes his hand, plump and dry.

“Good, good. Good to hear.” He taps his gold wedding ring against the bottom of a file. The buzzing from the lights steals into the tapping. My strength is like iron thump my strength is like iron thump my strength is like….

“Eating?” He pulls the stool over to him and sits. She tries to gauge his facial expression, but he’s looking at the file he has just opened.

“Some.” My strength is like iron thump, thump.

“Hmm.” He flips through papers and pulls out a pink one.

My pink slip, she thinks. Her heart thumps to the death humor. My strength is like iron….

“We have the results of your test.” He looks at her. His eyelids don’t blink, and in that space her heart constricts so she can feel its beat whirl in her ears. My strength is like iron….

“Unfortunately, it’s not the results we had hoped for. Four tumors were found in your back.” Her heart magnifies the thumping, stifling his voice.

“My back?” Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. She arches it, recalling the ache she had felt earlier.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. We can do radiation again and then another round of chemo. We’ll treat the cancer more aggressively. What do you say?”

“How long?” She wonders if he can hear the thumping.

“We can get you checked into the hospital this week and start you on a schedule of radiation three times a week for four weeks. Take a month off and then start the chemo. As soon as you give the say so, we’ll begin.”

“How long?” Her heart thumps, his eyes blink. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

“With treatment, four months. Without, a month, maybe.”

She looks from him to the calendar and then to the picture of mallards fleeing from winter across an indifferent sky and where they pierce the air, wind rushes in waves about them, cold and baleful as they fly toward that throbbing conflagration surging in the beyond.




Jill Boyles‘ work has appeared in Calliope Magazine, Focus on Dalian, and The Minnesota Women’s Press, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and was a finalist for the Jerome Grant.



Back to Table of Contents