Between Sisters Page 46


“I’ll go get a consult.” He clutched his clipboard and hurried out.

Claire sighed. “You’re being you again. It is stress.”

“I hope it is, too, but I’m not taking the prom king’s word for it.”

A few moments later, the nurse was back. This time her smile looked forced. “Dr. Kensington has reviewed your material for Dr. Lannigan. She’d like you to have a CAT scan.”

“She. Thank God,” Meghann said.

The nurse nodded. “You can come with me,” she said to Claire.

Claire looked to Meghann, who smiled and took her arm. “Think of us as conjoined.”

The nurse walked out in front of them.

Claire clung to Meghann’s hand. The walk seemed to last forever, down one corridor and another, up the elevator and down another hallway, until they arrived at the Center for Nuclear Medicine.

Nuclear. Claire felt Meghann’s grip tighten.

“Here we are.” The nurse paused outside yet another closed door. She turned to Meghann. “There’s a chair right there. You can’t come in, but I’ll take good care of her, okay?”

Meghann hesitated, then slowly nodded. “I’ll be here, Claire.”

Claire followed the nurse through the door, then down another short hallway and into a room that was dominated by a huge machine that looked like a white doughnut. Claire let herself be positioned on the narrow bed that intersected the doughnut hole.

There, she waited. And waited. Periodically, the nurse came back, muttered something about the doctor, and disappeared again.

Claire started to get cold. The fear she’d worked so hard to keep at bay crept back. It was impossible not to fear the worst here.

Finally, the door opened and a man in a white coat walked in. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Something came up. I’m Dr. Cole, your radiologist. You just lie perfectly still and we’ll have you out of here in no time.”

Claire forced herself to smile. She refused to think about the fact that everyone else wore lead aprons in the room, while she lay with only the thinnest sheet of cotton to protect her.

“You’re done. Fine job,” he said when it was finally over.

Claire was so thankful she almost forgot the headache that had steadily increased as she lay in the machine.

In the hallway, Meghann looked angry. “What happened? They said it would take an hour.”

“And it did, once they corraled a doctor.”

“Shitheads.”

Claire laughed. Already she felt better with that behind her. “They certainly teach you lawyers to be precise with your language.”

“You don’t want to hear precisely what I think of this place.”

They followed the nurse to another exam room.

“Should I get dressed?” Claire asked.

“Not yet. The doctor will be here soon.”

“I’ll bet,” Meghann said under her breath.

Thirty minutes later, the nurse was back. “The doctor has ordered another test. An MRI. Follow me.”

“What’s an MRI?” Claire asked, feeling anxious again.

“Magnetic resonance imaging. It’s a clearer picture of what’s going on. Very standard.”

Another hallway, another long walk toward a closed door. Again, Meg waited outside.

This time, Claire had to remove her wedding ring, her earrings, her necklace, and even her barrette. The technician asked her if she had any steel surgical staples or a pacemaker. When she said no and asked why, he said, “Well, we’d hate to see ’em fly outta you when this thing starts up.”

“That’s a lovely image,” Claire muttered. “I hope my fillings are safe.”

The tech laughed as he helped her into the coffinlike machine. She found it difficult to breathe evenly. The bed was cold and hard; it curved up uncomfortably and pinched her upper back. The technician strapped her in. “You need to lie perfectly still.”

Claire closed her eyes. The room was cold and she was freezing, but she lay still.

When the machine started it sounded like a jackhammer on a city street.

Quiet, Claire. Still. Perfectly still. She closed her eyes and barely breathed. She didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the moisture drip down her temple.

The one-hour test lasted for two. Halfway through, they stopped and set up an IV. The needle pinched her arm; dye bled through her system, feeling ice-cold. She swore she could feel it pump into her brain. Finally, she was let go. She and Meghann returned to an examination room in the Nuclear Medicine Wing, where Claire’s clothes were hanging. Then they went to another waiting room.

“Of course,” Meg grumbled.

They were there another hour. Finally, a tall, tired-looking woman in a lab coat came into the waiting room. “Claire Austin?”

Claire stood up. At the suddenness of the movement, she almost fell. Meg steadied her.

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The woman smiled. “I’m Dr. Sheri Kensington, chief of Neurology.”

“Claire Austin. This is my sister, Meghann.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Come this way.” Dr. Kensington led them down a short hallway and into an office that was lined with books, diplomas, and children’s artwork. Behind her, a set of X-ray–like images glowed against the bright white backlighting boxes.

Claire stared at them, wondering what there was to see.

The doctor sat down at her desk and indicated that Claire and Meghann should sit opposite her. “I’m sorry you had problems with Dr. Lannigan. This is, as I’m sure you know, a teaching hospital, and sometimes our residents are not as thorough as we would wish. Your demand for a higher level of care was a much-needed wake-up call for Dr. Lannigan.”

Claire nodded. “Meghann is good at getting what she wants. Do I have a sinus infection?”

“No, Claire. You have a mass in your brain.”

“What?”

“You have a mass. A tumor. In your brain.” Dr. Kensington rose slowly and went to the X rays, pointing to a white spot. “It appears to be about the size of a golf ball, and located in the right frontal lobe, crossing the midline.”

Tumor.

Claire felt as if she’d just been shoved out of an airplane. She couldn’t breathe; the ground was rushing up to meet her.

“I’m sorry to say this,” Dr. Kensington went on, “but I’ve consulted with a neurosurgeon and we believe it’s inoperable. You’ll want second opinions, of course. You’ll need to see an oncologist, also.”

Smack.

Meghann was on her feet, pressed against the desk as if she were going to grab the doctor’s throat. “You’re saying she has a brain tumor?”

“Yes.” The doctor went back to the desk and sat down.

“And that you can’t do anything about it?”

“We believe it’s inoperable, yes, but I didn’t say we can’t do anything.”

“Meg, please,” Claire was absurdly afraid that her sister was going to make it worse. She looked pleadingly at the doctor. “Are you . . . saying I might die?”

“We’ll need more tests to determine the exact nature of your tumor, but—given the size and placement of the mass—it’s not a good outlook.”

“Inoperable means you won’t operate,” Meg said in a don’t-screw-with-me voice that was almost a growl.

Dr. Kensington looked surprised. “I don’t believe anyone will. I consulted with our top neurosurgeon on this. He agrees with my diagnosis. The procedure would be too dangerous.”

“Oh, really? It might kill her, huh?” Meg looked disgusted. “Who will do this kind of operation?”

“No one in this hospital.”

Meg grabbed her handbag off the floor. “Come on, Claire. We’re in the wrong hospital.”

Claire looked helplessly from Dr. Kensington to her sister. “Meg,” she pleaded, “you don’t know everything. Please . . .”

Meg went to her, knelt in front of her. “I know I don’t know everything, Claire, and I know I’m a blowhard. I even know I’ve let you down in the past, but none of that matters now. From this second on, all that matters is your life.”

Claire felt herself starting to cry. She hated how fragile she felt, but there it was. Suddenly she felt like she was dying.

“Lean on me, Claire.”

Claire gazed into her sister’s eyes and remembered how Meg had once been her whole world. Slowly, she nodded. She needed a big sister again.

Meghann helped her to her feet, then she turned to the doctor. “You go ahead and teach Dr. Lannigan how to read a thermometer. We’re going to find a doctor who can save her life.”

TWENTY-FIVE

A FEW YEARS AGO, CLAIRE HAD GONE THROUGH A foreign-film phase. Every Saturday night, she’d handed Alison to Dad, gotten in her car, and driven to a small, beautifully decorated old movie house, where she’d lost herself in the gray-and-black images on screen.

That was how she felt right now: A colorless character walking through an unfamiliar gray world. The sounds of the city felt muted and far away; all she could really hear was the thudding, even beat of her heart.

How could something like this happen to her?

Outside the hospital, the real world came at her hard. Sirens and horns and screeching brakes. She fought the urge to cover her ears.

Meghann helped her into the car. The blessed silence made her sigh.

“Are you okay?” Meghann asked, and Claire had the impression that her sister had asked this question more than once. Her voice was spiked and anxious.

She looked at Meg. “Do I have cancer? Is that what a tumor is?”

“We don’t know what the hell you have. Certainly those dipshit doctors don’t know.”

“Did you see the shadow on that X ray, Meg? It was huge.” Claire felt tired suddenly. She wanted to close her eyes and sleep. Maybe in the morning things would look different. Maybe she’d find out it was all a mistake.

Meghann grabbed her, shook her hard. “Listen to me, damn it. You need to be tough now. No getting by, no giving up. This isn’t like cosmetology school or college, you can’t take the easy road and walk away.”

“I’ve got a brain tumor, and you throw quitting college at me. You’re amazing.” Claire wanted to be angry, but her emotions felt distant. It was hard to think. “I don’t even feel sick. Everybody gets headaches, don’t they?”

“Tomorrow we’ll start getting second opinions. First we’ll go to Johns Hopkins. Then we’ll try Sloan-Kettering in New York. There’s got to be a surgeon who has some balls.” Meghann’s eyes welled up, her voice broke.

Somehow that frightened Claire even more, seeing Meg crack. “It’s going to be okay,” she said automatically; comforting others was easier than thinking. “You’ll see. We just need to keep positive.”

“Faith. Yes,” Meghann said after a long pause. “You hold on to the faith and I’ll start finding out everything there is to know about your condition. That way we’ll have all the bases covered. God and science.”

“You mean be a team?”

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