The trouble with Paige was she never smiled. Even her laughter, and she laughed, sounded like crying. Something inside her rebelled against the notion of happiness.
The thought had been with me for some time when I found her in the office lunchroom, leafing through a magazine.
“There is evidence,” I pointed at the smiling child on the cover, “that smiling has positive health effects. Why don’t you give it a try sometime?”
“Smiling is overrated.” Paige looked up. “Some of the world greatest people have been melancholies. Mahatma Gandhi, John Henry Newman.”
She offered more examples—Jeff, her acquaintance, who taught happiness through stories in school, and Tami who helped at the homeless center.
“We need encouragement of a caring kind.” Paige ended our chat with a wave of her hand. Her short legs, which she’d claimed kept her from walking fast, took her out of the lunchroom in a flash.
I never considered people easy to understand, and Paige, a coworker friend, proved my point in spades. Many times, she stared into a void as if memories surrounded her and carried her mind away. She talked about others’ melancholies, but not her own. Inquiries into her past were met with a sigh and silence, as if talking hurt. She mostly discussed what the world lacked.
Two days later, when she retreated into her office and shut the door, I left her alone. I wasn’t in the mood for cajoling.
She called on Monday, the day after the summer party she’d always ignored. She eschewed anything remotely extravagant, worked twelve-hour days, and donated twenty percent of her salary to humanitarian causes.
“I have breast cancer,” Paige said over the phone.
“No.” I stuttered like a broken record. “Wh-when … how do you know?”
“Wednesday. Found the lump while taking a shower on Wednesday and saw the doctor on Friday.”
“But it could be benign. You get the results back?”
“They gave me the look. The doctor, the radiologist. Nothing from the lab yet, but they gave me the look. It’s cancer.”
She had wanted to see the doctor alone, but I insisted on driving her there. No one else claimed Paige as a friend or family member. She lived by herself in an apartment on the west side of Los Angeles. Alone and loving it, until disaster struck.
She didn’t weep in her oncologist’s office. But she stared into some faraway depth, her strength peeled away layer-by-layer.
“Stage three HER-2 positive estrogen negative cancer,” the doctor said. “Not the final stage, but we need aggressive treatment.”
“Like my mother.” Paige snapped at attention before her eyes glazed over. “And grandmother.”
Her long buried past was here, with her. Words seem pointless.
The aggressive-treatment road was treacherous—surgery, radiation, recovery—but a year later Paige was cancer-free. Three years later, and she’s back to annual physicals, like everyone else. And back to grumbling her dissatisfaction with the world.
published 24 July 2013