“Are you writing this down?” my mother used to say, when I described something strange and irksome that had happened to me. My husband has since picked up the chorus. And when another writer tells me about some disagreeable experience, I have been known to say, “It’s all material.”
I have been using this line on myself a lot lately, since I received the surprise of my bizarre diagnosis. It’s been a lot to deal with, physically and emotionally. But it also offers a lot of material.
For example, phlebotomists and nurses. I have been spending a lot of time with both, the phlebotomists as they draw relatively small amounts of my blood for lab tests, and the nurses as they draw a pint each week—standard treatment for my condition. Because I want to distract myself from those unpleasant needles, I like to talk during these procedures. And because as a writer I’m always eager to poke my nose in other people’s business, I mine these moments for whatever slices of human drama or character-defining details I’m able to extract. Because who knows when I might be able to use them?
So far, I have filed away:
–The nurse who claims, as she’s sticking me for my very first blood drawing, that she’s afraid of needles.
–The nurse whose husband complains that she spends too much on the novelty cakes she bakes for her friends’ celebrations.
–The two nurses at the office where they put in my PICC Line. One at my head and one at my feet, they roll my gurney to the operating room, a route that takes us down narrow hallways, around tight corners and through just-wide-enough doors. Throughout the journey, they gossip as if I’m not there—only, because I am, they talk around all the actual content.
“I’m not surprised she didn’t come back,” says the nurse at my head.
“Yeah? How come?” asks the nurse at my feet.
“Because remember what happened?”
“Sounds like a great story,” I pipe up from my prone position. “Wish I could hear the details.”
I’m not trying to scold them; I really do want to hear more. But they shut up.
–The nurse who comes to my home to change the dressing on my PICC line, dropping by on Saturday afternoon, between one son’s karate class and another son’s violin lesson. She’s a slight, sweet-faced woman, who talks to me tenderly and handles my wounded arm as gently as anyone has ever handled any part of me.
When I tell her that my condition is interfering with my running, she says, “You should take up kickboxing. I love it.”
“What do you love about it?” I ask.
“It’s a perfect workout,” she says. “Cardio and strength-training combined. Plus you get to hit people and you don’t get in trouble.”
–The phlebotomist in Boston who plays Gospel music and never cracks a smile. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she says, “If you’re doing this for the long-term they’ll probably put in a port, anyway.”
–The phlebotomist in Providence who smiles constantly. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she nods sympathetically.
“I’ll just use a butterfly,” she says.
As the tube fills, she says she likes the way my purple cardigan looks with my yellow t-shirt. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting those colors together, but it works!” she says. “I’m always wearing purple with green. My husband says they don’t go, but I like them.”
“They’re Mardi Gras colors,” I tell her. “It’s your inner party girl coming out.”
–The highly competent nurse who has been drawing a pint of my blood each week for the last three weeks, and who I hope will draw all my pints forevermore. She is kind, careful, competent, and so relentlessly serious that I feel compelled to make wisecracks, and chalk up a personal victory each time she cracks a smile.
“That’s where my garden attacked me,” I tell her as we survey my inner arms on my third visit.
Her face lights up. “You garden?” she asks. “Flowers or vegetables?”
I tell her about my salad greens and radishes, and she talks about her raised beds, her kale that wintered over, the volunteer arugula that sprouts in her compost, her favorite heirloom tomatoes, and this year’s asparagus.
“The first time I saw asparagus growing I thought it was a joke,” I say. “It’s like a kid’s drawing of how vegetables grow.”
“I know,” she says, laughing. “Right?”