My friend Vi is a spooky bitch.
"What's Dr Mumbles' real name?" she asked me sternly, after I'd described the reception I'd received at his office when I rang in considerable and chronic pain. "I'll sort him out," she promised.
From ten thousand miles away.
"Violet!" I admonished. With Violet, you just never know. Sometimes when she fixes her mind on something- well, you just never know. I didn't really want the poor fellow being laid low with the symptoms of chemo poisoning, or something. I needed him to keep treating me, even if he was being a right cow about it.
But I told her.
And honestly, Dr Mumbles did need sorting. I'd been bothering about what I was going to say to him when I saw him on Day 11, because there was going to be trouble from the Bear if Mumbles gave us another dose of Talk To The Knee. Not to mention Only Available During Scheduled Appointments.
He's got a very long fuse, my Bear, but when he blows- look out. Something would have to be said before things got out of hand.
The day had started surreally. Riding along in a chemo-daze, I'd been on top of the death adder sunning itself on the road before I realised what it was. As it struck ineffectually at my departing wheels, I'd started to register the short, lizard-like body and oddly spindly tail, which I'd all but run over. My eyes widened somewhat.
I didn't even know we had death adders up here. For the benefit of my non-Aussie friends, they're named that way for a reason. Not a snake you'd want to bite you on a remote country road, because you might well be dead before you got to the phone (let alone before the ambulance got to you). I was suddenly glad of my sturdy shoes, and my adherence to Biking Rule One.
If in doubt, pedal harder.
I was, unsurprisingly, much wider awake by the time I got to Eagle Bend, but this time when I saw something odd in the grass I chose the other option. If in doubt, stop.
I picked up the $50 note, put it in my pocket and spent the rest of the ride wondering how on earth that much money ended up lying on the ground in the middle of nowhere.
Surreal. But not a bad set of omens for the rest of the day.
The first thing that happened when we walked into Mumblesville at midday was that the receptionist spotted me, rushed over and started grovelling.
This was, um, startling.
"Candy! I'm so terribly sorry I didn't get back to you on the day you rang. I got caught up and I forgot to go through my list of messages to make sure I'd dealt with them all. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and thought oh my god, she's probably in pain again, and I felt terrible..."
Solicitously, she checked how I'd gone with Dr Rosie. Apologised again. And again. Was thrilled that the calcium seemed to have done the trick. Apologised again.
She was so obviously completely devastated by her oversight that I started to feel bad for razzing her up in the blog.
"Thank you for apologising," I said. "It makes a difference."
Choking back a regretful little sob of my own.
"Well, that was nice," I murmured to the Bear as I sat down.
"It's a good start," he growled. There was still Ground To Make Up, in his eyes, and it was Mumbles who'd be doing the walking.
Poor Bear. There he was, all dressed up in his city clothes with boots on, if you please, trapped in yet another oncologist's office on a stifling summer's day. I know I go on and on about how hard this all is on him, but unless you know the man and have watched him struggling with this like I have, it's hard to really understand.
I want you to understand.
When I was quite small, my battler parents took me to the Taronga Park Zoo for the day- an expensive and unusual treat for this little animal lover. From the whole of that day I have only one or two enduring memories. One is of the orangutans, squabbling like toddlers over the rope swing. The other, much clearer, is of the black jaguar.
Taronga's a wonderful zoo these days, with some of the best natural habitat enclosures in the world, but back then it was a maze of concrete and steel boxes. Little heed was paid to the animals' need for a familiar environment. That ignorance was expressed nowhere so baldly as in the big cats' cages.
That poor bloody jaguar. In an area no bigger than our back veranda, that creature of the wide open spaces paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth on the concrete floor, his eyes aglow with frustration and misery. I stood watching him for perhaps half an hour, and he never missed a stride. Up and down that naked cage he marched, every muscle tensed, waiting in tightly controlled rage and despair for the moment when escape became possible.
It was torture. Torture for him. Torture for me to watch.
My man, forced to don shoes and front up for another round of Watch Your Beloved Suffer Agony and Torment, has that same look in his eyes when we head to town to see the doctor- any doctor. Out of his natural environment, trapped in a cage of misery, he goes to a place where even I can't reach him. His eyes become fevered pits of darkness; he paces, paces, and constantly looks for the door.
"He's half an hour late," observed the black jaguar, who never knows what time it is.
Thankfully, at this moment Mumbles emerged and called my name before I had to look for the tranquilliser gun. I determined to look that goddamned doctor in the eye before I walked in his door; I'd stop still if necessary, and wait till he had to look at me.
But I didn't have to wait. Dr Mumbles met my eyes at once. Smiled, even. Held his hand out to the jaguar to shake.
(Didn't get clawed. Phew.)
Violet. What did you do to him?
And so began the next surreal segment of the day. It could have been a different doctor. He was personable. He laughed. He showed genuine interest in my progress, and asked the jaguar how he was travelling too.
I started to relax then. The jaguar was still twitching suspiciously, but I was ready to accept the backflip without question. All positives gratefully received.
Soon we were deep in discussion of how better to manage the pain next time round. He raised an eyebrow about the calcium; placed more faith in anticipating that Day 5 would be shitty, and starting a pain regime on Day 4 to get the jump on it.
Whatever. I'm convinced by the calcium, but I'll be hitting the 4-hourly Panadol/Neurofen on Day 4 as well. And allowing myself an extra, but lower, dose of the Dexamethasone on Day 5.
"You get that drop-away effect when you stop all the side effect suppressants on Day 4 anyway, so that makes Day 5 worse too," he said. "Maybe just stretch it out a little longer."
His eyes were even twinkling. It occurred to me, completely irreverently, that he's actually quite hot. Who the fuck are you, I wondered, and where did you put Dr Mumbles?
Not that I cared. Dr Mumbles could stay locked in the closet in perpetuity for all I cared. Long live Dr Mellow.
I released the jaguar onto the street and persuaded it to follow me to Cafe Cappello, where it found a cool breeze that reminded it of home and succumbed to a good flat white. I fed it spoonfuls of pistachio gelato and watched the hunted look fade from its eyes. Ferdinand smiled beatifically in the depths, asking for more gelato.
No way, Ferdinand. Remember the soft tacos? I'm not falling for that one again.
As I herded the big cat back down the street to the supermarket, we passed a small Sudanese child with a cornetto ice cream, his mouth comically daubed all round with melted bliss.
"He looks like a poddy calf that's had its head in the milk bucket," quipped the jaguar to the child's mother. We all laughed.
The air became a little thinner.
I chained the jaguar's paws to a supermarket trolley and got us through my extensive Christmas grocery list as fast as I could. The pacing and growling was starting again, but dammit, this was my first post-chemo day out and about and I was going to do whatever I could before I dropped from exhaustion.
Helping put the shopping in the car, I was amazed by the transformation in my endurance. I'd gone from beached and ailing whale to close to my normal self in a mere two days. The thought of cooking for Christmas didn't give Ferdinand the deadly lurches any more, though it'd all be soft food this time round out of deference to my delicate mouth. Here it was three o'clock in the afternoon, and I hadn't collapsed in a heap.
I think I could be classed as tolerating the chemotherapy well. Dr Mellow certainly seemed to think so.
And so I seem to have made it across the Valley of Despond. Dr Mellow thinks I'll be fine from here, till round two, and then I'll be better prepared for what it throws at me. There's no real reason to think it'll get harder to cope as the rounds go on, but the unpredictable has been known to happen.
So it seems the magic and agonising Neulasta injection has done its work. Instead of Day 11 being the start of a ten day climb back to health ready for another whack in the face on Day 21, I seem to have been given something of a jump-start. Oh, I'm not 100%- of course I'm not. Today's Day 12, and my legs felt like they were made of porridge when I got on the bike.
Though maybe that was in anticipation of meeting Mr Death Adder again in my travels.
It seems possible to do some relatively normal physical things, like giving the Bear a hand to put a tyre back on the RTV. It seems possible to stay upright and doing things for more than an hour at a time. Perhaps I can even make the odd, tentative plan.
There is life after chemo. Even during it. Thank the lord for that. And whether Dr Mumbles was magically transformed into Dr Mellow through an effort of will at 10,000 miles distance, or whether he was simply having a bad day last time we met, really doesn't matter; I am blessed, again, to have my confidence in my doctor restored.
And now, I think I shall find out whether Ferdinand likes pho soup. And then I'm going to make a Christmas cake.