I just wanted to be home, in my bed, but that was more than an hour’s drive. It was 8:30 at night, my location a tasteful bathroom at a world-class performing arts center in Beverly Hills. At this point in the evening, I thought I might be looking down into a margarita at this elegant fundraiser. Instead I was staring into a toilet bowl, retching.
“Are you all right?” a concerned voice asked.
Anyone in my position likely would be in this condition because they’d had too many shots of tequila.
“I’m sick,” I answered and apologized that anyone should have to hear the repulsive sounds I’m making. I explained that I’d come to volunteer at the event and gotten sick. “I’m embarrassed,” I add.
“Don’t be. It could happen to anyone. I just wondered if you were okay.”
The person didn’t ask if there is anything she can do. I don’t know what I would have said anyway. “Oh yes, can you drive me back to Ventura. I need to go to bed.”
I just said, “Thank you,” and went back to staring into the toilet and flushing the disgusting contents of what felt like my entire G.I. tract.
I’d been looking forward to this event for months – the second Tex-Mex Fundraiser. I wasn’t a volunteer just tonight but had made myself available anytime The Foundation or Stand Up 2 Cancer needed me to play my role as survivor/advocate for anal cancer. I showed up because of my work and my status as someone who lived through what Farrah didn’t.
Even though I’d survived cancer, sick isn’t something I’ve ever totally accepted. I generally push myself to appear normal, when I feel anything but. Pelvic radiation has left me cancer free but with a plethora of malfunctioning organs– bladder, female, bowel. I often think of Farrah who died before she had to experience this. Even now, as wretched as I felt, I knew she’d have traded places with me.
If she had been in my condition, someone would have taken her home, cared for her, apologized for her, missed her. I felt none of that, just a sense as I heard the mariachis, the clinking glasses, the laughter that I’ve made a terrible mistake being here. I'm sure everyone thought I'd already gone home.
I’d arrived at 3:30, a half-hour earlier than expected. I’d felt slightly ill the night before and that morning, but I’d given into sleep, hoping that this too would pass. The nausea, that comes on sometimes for reasons I don't understand, was annoying but not incapacitating. Right before I left the house, I threw up, but then I felt better.
You can do it, I assured myself.
I did feel better for about an hour and a half, while I sat folding the events’ multicolored cloth napkins. This was a job that required little physical movement, so masked a bit of what was to come.
I marveled that my advocacy, educator self was just where she needed to be, as I listened to a conversation about private schools and heard about kids who were precisely the age of those who should be getting the preventative HPV vaccine. Outside from a video that I knew well, I heard the familiar voices of Dr. Haddad and Dr. Reinherz talking about HPV and the therapeutic vaccine for which Farrah’s Foundation had helped fund the research.
One of the napkin folders, a well-dressed woman slightly younger than me looked my way. I had explained earlier who I was, so she asked, “HPV. I didn’t know that was the type of cancer that…” She hesitated, changing direction. “What exactly does the Farrah Fawcett Foundation do?”
So I explained the Dana-Farber connection and a little more about my diagnosis, treatment and the counseling I offer to the frightened, devastated women who contact me through the Foundation. I told her about the relationship between HPV and anal cancer. Next to me, a younger woman, who had been talking about what sounded like her pre-teen or teenage children, heard the words “vaccine” and “HPV.”
She reminded me that all would be well with the younger generation if they "just use condoms".
I explained what we know about the transmission and that condoms aren't sufficient, that only the vaccine would prevent HPV infections. "The vaccine prevents cancer."
I addressed the issue of how the virus was transmitted. That celibacy until marriage seemed like a good idea for other STDs. I suspected that was what she was expecting of her children. I broke down the thought process. If both people were virgins and had never experimented in the past and never would in the future…
“There’s always the reality of cheating, divorce, rape.” And just for the sake of her children’s health, I added. “Of course, some people don’t know, but oral sex is one of the ways it’s transmitted.”
In fact, oral and anal sex are two of the behaviors that some kids think are safe - behaviors they are unlikely to run by their parents.
The napkins were folded and off the two women went. I wondered if they would question their assumptions or block out the unpleasant woman they’d just spent an hour with.
I never got to find out or see them again, or anyone for that matter. The sickness (the result of my radiation) was abrupt and, over the hours, draining. I rested on a couch in a nicely appointed room that the house manager found for me. I waited for improvement, but, when none came, finally made my way to my car. As I walked passed the twinkling party lights, I chalked up one more thing that this cancer had taken from me. I slipped out unnoticed.
When I finally made it to the parking lot, dehydrated and weakened, I guessed that the garage attendants saw me as just another drunk party-goer,
I struggled to pay my fee. Again and again the machine spit out my credit card with about the gentility that my stomach contents have been ejected ten or so times in the last four hours. Finally, I pressed the “phone” button to ask for help.
A disembodied voice told me that there were people to help me “in the booth.”
Booth? I desperately looked around and saw none. I stuck my Master Card in again, daring the machine to reject me. Couldn’t the woman hear how sick I was? I called again, hoping some human would come to help me. No.
“I don’t see it,” I pleaded. Finally, with some vague directions from the voice, I found the helpers. The guy used another machine, which worked. At that point I realized the diminished state of my problem-solving skills.
My GPS guided me out of the town of beautiful people, and in less than an hour and a half, I staggered into my house.
My son and his wife had spent the evening there barbecuing and watching my dogs. Our plan had been that my son would have a fire going in our outdoor pit, and we would have a relaxing glass of wine together while I regaled them with stories of celebrities I’d met and ordinary people whose lives I’d influenced. I imagined at some point, someone – maybe the SU2C board or Alana, Farrah’s doctor or even Ryan O’Neal and I would have an interesting conversation or two about what it was really like to survive Farrah’s cancer, and why this fundraiser was so important. I’d hoped for a few photos to put on my website too.
Instead, I headed straight for the most elegant place in my world – my bed – fortified with guidance from my son, advice I should have given myself. “If you feel sick, Mom, stay home.”
When I could get myself to look at the photos of the event, what I’d missed made me even more disappointed. But as the days went on and I regained my health and strength, I was thankful that I’d been guided home safely.
I think even more now about Farrah and what she would have thought and felt. She would have understood. Perhaps, she would have been like the woman in the stall next to me who asked me if I was okay.
For that matter, maybe she was.