I can’t stop thinking about you.
Last night, at about midnight, the phone aroused me from my happy slumber. It was Vance, the on-call resident, needing advice from me, as the supervising physician, on how to help a worried mother—you—who’d called our family health center’s after-hours service about your daughter’s worsening asthma.
It was March 2020, and COVID was coming. The virus hadn’t yet reached my small suburban community in Pennsylvania, but already businesses were waning, streets were emptying, clinics were closing. Fear was widespread.
A collective refrain sounded: “Shut it down”—the university, the restaurants and, most of all, the public schools.
Running to make my Tuesday biopsy appointment, I tripped, landing viciously on my hands and knees at the corner of Madison Avenue and 79th. Embarrassed, I was helped up by a gray-haired lady in her eighties. For an instant, I wondered if I’d get to be her age.
Walking into the clinic, I saw my husband, who’d insisted on meeting me there. My beige pants were slightly ripped and bloodstained, my knees tingling and smarting.
“Eleven years ago, I wasn’t as old as I am now—which is a funny thing!” Virginia Mitchell tells me.
She’s dressed as if she picked her clothes using yellow Benjamin Moore paint samples: bright canary shirt, mustard pants, daffodil leather shoes. Last week’s theme was purple, topped off with a violet scarf; another time it was green, accented with a chartreuse ascot.
Once I spent days, which became weeks, which become months, by myself in a small house in the village of Oshikango, Namibia. Two years prior, I had arrived there as a newly minted college graduate, eager to begin my new NGO job of teaching high-school science and HIV education.
It didn’t take long for the bubble of confident competence to burst.
For the biopsy my doctor ordered, I am clad in a pink hospital gown, strapped into a chair and wheeled to a machine designed to press my breast into a flesh-panini, then stick it full of needles which, lidocaine or no lidocaine, I feel.
The pain is so intense I would gnaw my own breast off with my teeth to never feel such pain again.
The last time I had alcohol was on a blustery night in February of 2020, right before my college-age son’s musical. I’d traveled from Los Angeles to his rural Ohio college campus, and I drank two glasses of cheap chardonnay in the college café with its burgundy walls and snug booths.
Editor’s Note: In the midst of last summer’s COVID pandemic, medical student Jordan Berka interviewed patients at a Bronx family health center, collecting personal stories from its diverse community. Today’s issue of Pulse is the product of one such interview. Rev. Rocke’s words are her own, approved by her for publication.
My name is Reverend Hyacinth Rocke, and I reside in the Bronx. I was born in Barbados. My husband died a little while ago, and I also just lost my mom. I have three children, four grandsons and one great-grandson. I am an associate minister at Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zionist Church in Mt. Vernon, New York.