Mom and I return home from clinic at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center. Two days are down with three remaining in this chemo cycle, the sixth of 14 over 10 months. Mom throws her bag over her shoulder -- heavy with unopened water bottles; her black book containing labs, treatment protocol and doctors' contact information; and the sandwich I'll try to eat right away before nausea consumes me. Mom unravels my walker, opens my car door, helps me slide out with my leg brace, and carries my IV pump which will deliver medicine to protect my bladder.
My heart rate accelerates as I labor up steps in reverse and on my behind, because it is safer this way. Groggy and depleted, I shuffle into the house towards my favorite spot for the next six hours: the couch.
I have been visiting my aunt and uncle's home in upper northwest Washington, D.C., not far from NIH, for Passover seders and Hanukah parties my whole life. Aunt Flojo gave us a house key when I began treatment. "Stay whenever you want. The key is yours."
The short couch had been yellow and covered in plastic until their kitchen renovation. Then, it was re-upholstered with brown fabric, drenched with a furry beige blanket, and moved to the 12-window nook overlooking the swimming pool.
Barney, the elderly Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, sees me and hops off the couch. I collapse and Mom takes off my shoes and swivels me and my brace to face the television. Then I lie at the angle that minimizes nausea, my legs outstretched and my toes resting against the opposite side. It's as if the couch was custom-built. I drape the blanket and brush my fingers where it and the couch meet. They are both so soft. I sink down, dreaming of never touching this couch or blanket again.
Years pass. Aunt Flojo's annual Hanukah party stops, continues, and then stops for good. The couch's other frequenter, Barney, passes away. I return to eating shrimp and other foods that had caused nausea, as my chemo associations sink into their own far-off and ever distant clouds.
My aunt and uncle live abroad for the better part of a year and need a house-sitter. Like so many other opportunities they've made possible for me -- educational, professional, adventurous and cultural -- I grasp this one. This time, the house key remains on my keychain instead of Mom's.
There are so many rooms and pieces of furniture, but I'm drawn to the couch as if by muscle memory. This whole year I watch sports, movies and Breaking Bad; write stories and practice speeches; and read books there. I observe the snowfall through a window and in my slight reflection, I also see myself on this same couch and in this same position from 13 years ago. Instead of chemo's awareness leading to nausea, it now leads to thankfulness.
Barney looks down and barks. Once again I have stolen his couch.