As the days went by my body began to recover and life started settling back into a routine. My black eye from my first surgery was completely gone and on the outside you would have never known what I had just been through. After I had sat in bed and done nothing for what felt like an eternity it was time to return to work. I still had not heard if I would get to keep my job but my boss told me we should go back to business as usual until we found something out for sure. (To be clear, we never went back to business as usual, we just kept working in spite of the life threatening tumor. My boss’s parting gift to me as I left for the Mayo clinic was a laptop with desktop remote so that I could work from my hospital bed. Which I did. He is kind of a workaholic and operates under the impression that everyone else is too.)
I knew that my request for special leave had been initially denied but had received an email from my boss while at Mayo saying that there was an appeal process which he had applied for on my behalf. I mentally crossed my fingers and hoped that this would work. Maybe obstinance was the key to survival in the University administration world.
On my first day back my mom dropped me off outside the building like I was being dropped off to go to homeroom. She had made me a lunch and kissed me and called goodbye to me as she drove off. (reminder, I’m 29). I waited until she had turned the corner and then started walking towards my building which I was not supposed to do. I was supposed to be working in the much nicer building next door in a temp office because that building had an elevator. I was still not allowed to climb stairs and it was driving me crazy. I reasoned that I felt fine, I would just take it slow, one flight at a time, stopping at each landing to let my heart rate come back down before advancing. I work on the third floor of my building which does not have air-conditioning and it was now early May. This was a great idea.
I gave the fancy building next door one last disapproving look then set my jaw and began to walk towards the front door of my somewhat older establishment. I had forgotten that there is half a flight of concrete steps outside leading into the building and once inside there are another eight steps to get to the ground floor. (The devil’s in the details and I had neglected to consider this is my meticulous calculation of “oh it’s just three flights”.)
I was already panting by the time I got to the bottom of the stairwell but there were people around, if I stopped now I would look ridiculous. I could feel my pulse in my head but I decided I would just take the first flight until I was out of sight and then I would stop.
As I staggered to the second floor my head was starting to pound and I was seeing stars. I stopped to catch my breath and leaned hard against the handrail. I began thinking about the fact that three weeks ago I would have ridden my bike to work and then carried it over my right shoulder while bouncing up the three flights in less than a minute’s time. Now I was huffing like a pack a day smoker and clinging to a bannister for dear life. As I contemplated rolling back down the stairs and calling my mom to pick me up, my thoughts were interrupted by our maintenance man Maurice, “Well welcome back Steph! I haven’t seen you in a while, I’m just walking up to your floor, I’ll go with you.”
And what was I supposed to say? “Oh no Maurice you go ahead, I just want to loiter in the 2nd floor hallway for a bit.” So I took off after him. As we rounded the bend I could feel the pressure in my head spike with my heart rate but I was almost there. I crested the third flight and gave a sigh of relief. I had done it, nothing bad had happened. I was fine. I had just shown those stairs who was boss! I was the stair master! I was just having trouble seeing, why was Maurice at the very end of a long black tunnel?
When I came to I was lying on the scratchy carpet of my office floor and Maurice was about to lose his mind. “You just turned white, your nose started bleeding, and you fell to the floor. You looked like that blonde chick in The Ring!” (he really said The Ring, I thought it was a random movie to reference.) I reassured him multiple times in soothing tones that I was fine and that I could get up. In reality I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck but I wanted to wipe the blood off my face and I remembered how many roaches I had seen crawl across the carpet in here. I was not interested in meeting one down at eye level.
As I splashed cold water on my face in the bathroom and frantically rinsed the tell-tale signs that I had tried the ascent to my office too soon I could faintly hear the words of Dr. Moore mocking me, “your body will make you slow down.” But I was tired of slowing down. I had sat in doctor’s offices, laid in hospital beds, and tiptoed around my parents house like I was supposed to for long enough. I was tired of being treated like a China doll that could break at any moment. I was ready to be normal again. My body could try to slow me down all it wanted but I was pushing forward, even if the cart was sideways.
When I was sure that my face was clean and that no one would know I had fallen I looked at myself in the mirror and smirked,
I would climb those stairs again tomorrow…
and the next day….
and the next….