The Kangaroo and the Pocket

Linda A. Dougherty

© Copyright 2021 by Linda A. Dougherty

Photo of a kangaroo with a baby.

In early May 2018, my life circled in the same holding pattern as it had been since I was diagnosed in October 2015 with follicular type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was exercising, eating a careful diet and taking natural supplements to boost my immune system. Every day I went into a local middle school where I work as a one to one special education aide. Every six months I saw the oncologist, had blood work drawn and we hoped it would stay that way or a miracle would happen. Cancer steals your life in unexpected ways even before it kills, or almost kills you. But, you learn to live with new rhythms in your life.

That warm spring, my special needs student and I were busy reading books about Australia because that was what the seventh grade geography class was studying. We read about koalas, wallabies and kangaroos. He was especially fascinated by how tiny newborn kangaroos, the size of a bean, crawl up their mothers fur after birth and nestle into their mother’s pocket for the next six or so months, growing larger and stronger while suckling their mother’s milk.

Ah, the baby kangaroo….he’s so cute!” he’d say over and over.

“Yes, they are,” I’d nod.

By mid-May, everything changed. The cancer had transformed, as they call it, in my back to Diffuse Large B Cell, and was growing quickly, wrapping its tentacles around my lowest right rib while it snaked through muscle next to my spine. Pan knifed me and I had to leave early from school one afternoon bent over in a wash of tears. In a whirlwind of an MRI, a CT biopsy, a PET scan and other tests, my last step to prepare for chemotherapy was to go into Brigham and Women’s Hospital to get a port installed in my chest. It was the easiest and safest way to infuse me with chemotherapy drugs as well as take blood work each time.

It’s like a little pocket,” they explained.

A week before chemo was scheduled to begin, I sat alongside a line-up of other middle-aged men and women, waiting to be prepped for having shunts or ports stitched into their bodies. In the small curtained cubicle, I lay, with my salt and pepper curls tucked into a cap, with a hep-lock taped into my left arm, and my johnny-clad body buried under a couple of layers of blankets to stay warm, I waited.

The only real concern on my mind was: “What the heck am I going to blurt out while under anesthesia?”

It was a question mark because the few other times I have been in that unguarded state for surgery, I apparently provided entertainment for the operating room personnel. I know because I had a biopsy at thirty and the doctor told me afterwards, laughing, that she’d asked me to tell her a joke as I drifted off into the netherworld. “You kept on saying the same line over and over,” she said with a grin. After that, my theory was that surgical personnel find benign entertainment in anesthesia-induced stupor much the way I entertained myself as a newlywed finding my husband was an active dreamer who talked. He’d mumble crazy dream fantasies at my side and I couldn’t resist egging on the dialog with questions until he woke up sufficiently to grumble, “Stop talking!”

The second time was years later while having cataract surgery on my left eye. I remember suddenly seeing clouded dark figures in a haze and the bright orb of the operating room overhead light but it was all garbed in the drug induced sense of peace from whatever coursed through my veins. I felt nothing except the prickling cold of the operating room. Disembodied voices seemed to float all around me in something like white noise. I managed to whine, “cold, cold”. The doctor snapped, “Stop talking! I’m almost done and when you talk I can’t stitch!” I managed to finger spell “cold, cold” then swirled back into darkness just as I heard another woman’s voice say, “She’s signing!”

The next day, the doctor remarked with a smile, “Guess you don’t have much experience with opiates!” “You were supposed to stay awake during the surgery so I could ask you to do certain things but you were out like a light.” “I asked the anesthesiologist how much he gave you and he said the lightest dose possible.”

Then Dr. A. said, with a twinkle in her eye that I could not miss even with one eye patched up, “You were talking the entire operation!” She chuckled and I wondered just what I’d said. I didn’t ask.

They wheeled me into the operating room and bustled about, readying everything. The doctor who’d introduced himself to me in the prep area popped his head over me, telling me it would be about thirty minutes. They were efficient and assured. I wasn’t worried about the procedure or even chemo, but the question danced around in my thoughts, “What are you going to say, Linda?”

Now, it’s not like I have deep dark secrets….but……still….besides not liking the taste of alcohol, it is one reason I never drank even in college, well except for the quarter can of beer that made me silly…… a loss of control. If I’m going to be a jerk or a clown it will be volitional, not with the help of any mood altering substances, thank you very much!

The sedative worked quickly and I submerged into that state of blankness. After the surgery, as I started to slowly surface, one question was on my mind.

Can I put a jo, jo, jo, jo…..kangaroo in my pocket?”

WHAT?” The nurse paused in her tidying up the area and looked at me with one eyebrow dangling high. “What did you say?”

I tried again. “Can a put a jo, jo, jo, jo….kangaroo in my pocket?” I was earnest. This was an important matter. The question made perfect sense to me in my state. She kind of snorted and turned away. I didn’t understand why she was ignoring my perfectly intelligent question.

Even more insistent, now tapping the port, I tried once more to ask my all-consuming question, “ I said, can I put a kangaroo in my pocket?”

She didn’t even turn her head, and with the last few words of my question, I floated up further out of the blank world of sedation towards reality.

I started to think about school and reading about kangaroos. “Joey….that was the word I was trying to say…..why couldn’t I say it?” I began to laugh. Now I knew why the nurse ignored my question….it made no sense! The nurse turned her head a bit and said, “They’ll take you to recovery now.” I chuckled all the way to the recovery room thinking about having a kangaroo in my pocket.

Back in school two days later, I told my operating room story to David *. He laughed about me thinking I could put a kangaroo in the little pocket I explained to him I had put inside my chest. My student, with all of his challenges, could laugh along with me and laughter is healing.

I found lots of reasons to laugh at myself that May and June as chemo burned my scalp and I awoke to large clumps of curls every morning on my pillow. I laughed at the bald head that stared back at me in the mirror. The eyelashes that fell on my cheeks. The eyebrows that disappeared. I joked on Facebook about coloring my skin green or purple to look like a movie alien. I told all my friends my story about the kangaroo and the pocket.

I thought about the suffering of so many around me, sitting at the cancer center, maybe going through a second round of chemo and hoping it would work this time. I prayed for people I saw sitting quietly around me, waiting like me for their next turn in an infusion chair. I thought about the doctors, my oncologist and how searing it must be to know that not every patient will make it. I thought of the nurses who are with their core of patients each time they have to hook one of us up the stand with bags of life giving poisons. So, I decided I wanted to bring levity and even fun into my sessions.

My nurse chuckled when I told her about the kangaroo in my pocket, so I judged her to be worthy of my plan. Before my second treatment, I drew a two and a half foot long French waiter balancing an olive capped martini glass on a tray. (I do love green olives) I introduced him to everyone as Maurice who was serving me cocktails (although I don’t drink) and I taped him to my IV cart that was serving me a cocktail of drugs every three weeks from early June to my last round on September 30, 2018. The nurses loved it.

A month later, I drew a cartoon of my nurse, Grace, with a Star Trek phaser shooting my cancer and taped it to her “command center” computer cart that controlled the choreography of five drugs languidly moving into me one after another.

In August, while swathed in a mint green paper gown, Grace held one of the bags aloft to get a better flow, and I commented, “You look like the Statue of Liberty.” That gave me an idea. The next time, a Statue of Liberty holding a bag of chemo topped with a photo of her head in a crown was waiting for her. By now, other nurses would pop their heads in to see what the next bit of fun was. Maurice still manned his post next to me, serving me his three-hour or more long supply of cocktails.

After months of chemotherapy, they did a PET scan to see if the pesky cancer cells were surrendering or still putting up a fight. The doctor beamed in relief as he told me that indications were that the cancer was completely gone but they would continue the treatment until the scheduled end just to make sure. My next cartoon was copied and printed lymphoma cell photos from the internet cut into an amorphous blob with the caption: “ I’m melting, melting…..Oh what a world, what a world…who would have thought that some little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness.” 

I saved my masterpiece for the second to last time in the infusion chair. I was going to see my oncologist before the infusion. Again, Star Trek, particularly stoic Mr. Spock was my inspiration. I drew a body clad with a uniform that I was later told by a Trekkie was not the original Star Trek series uniform. I printed Dr. J’s smiling face from a photo posted on the hospital website, used a black marker to restyle his hair and scissors to snip his ears into more Vulcan-worthy shape. His fingers frozen into the Vulcan greeting, the bubble read, “Live long and prosper.”

I told him I’d been having fun and had something for him. He chortled with surprised glee when I unrolled his Spock image and asked, “Is this for me?” He kept looking at it with a watermelon slice grin on his face.

I’m going to hang this up in my office!”

His nurse practitioner told me in early September that many nurses and other doctors went in to look at it thumbtacked to his office wall and took photos of it. She sent me a photo because I neglected to take one before giving it to him and told me, “Dr. J loves it”.

Maurice now lies rolled up on a shelf in a room where he’s lived since September 30, 2018. I am hoping never to need his services again. The port is long gone with only a thin whitened scar to remind me I wanted to put a kangaroo in my pocket.

* His name was changed due to confidentiality laws in education and to protect his privacy and no, he never knew I had cancer. I just told him the pocket was to give me medicine and he was happy.

My thanks to my many special needs students who have brought so many smiles to my face over the years. Thanks to all the doctors and nurses at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

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