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“Okay. We’re going to start,” a voice comes through the headphones.
I lie still because my head is clamped down. I see the plastic cave around me. I close my eyes and try to imagine I’m somewhere else: a tanning booth, shivasana, under a warm duvet with someone I love on a fall evening like this one.
Deep breaths in, deep breaths out. This is my 16th time at an Edmonton hospital having an MRI on my brain. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years. So much has happened since then: My son has gone from a baby to a teenager, I published a novel, I survived divorce and other heartaches, I found love again and married the best man I have ever known. I have lived many lives since I had my first grand mal seizure, my first MRI and received a diagnosis of a low-grade tumour in my temporal lobe. Keeping count of the MRIs helps me feel less anxious about what they could tell me. Only the first one brought any significant news. The last decade or so has brought so much change to my life, but these MRIs have been a constant.
“Would you like the radio on?” a technician asks from an adjacent room into my headphones.
“No thanks.” I’ve had the radio on before and it makes me more anxious. Instead, I sing one of my favourite songs to myself: Bobcaygeon by the Tragically Hip. Gord Downie died of brain cancer in the fall of 2017 after a long public illness. I wonder how many MRIs he had to endure.
The machine I am inside will take pictures of my brain. Over the past decade, I have seen my brain on many computer screens in neurology offices. The MRI makes my brain look like layers of petrified wood from an ancient forest. My lesion, the bits of brightness in the grey matter, looks like a snowflake. It is almost beautiful.
The test begins. The first noise is like a drum playing behind my eyes. The noise lasts for what I think is a few minutes. A sharp, penetrating sound then replaces the rhythmic whirring; if this second sound had a shape it would be two jagged-edged drill bits spinning concentrically and coming together at a point on my skull. I sing in my mind, “I left your house this morning/About a quarter after nine/ Could’ve been the Willie Nelson/Could have been the wine."
The outside noises stop for a moment. Someone stands beside the machine. She lets me out of the tunnel. I can’t meet her eyes because I can’t move my head. She adjusts the IV in my arm and the syringe bumps against the inside wall of a vein.
“All right?” someone asks.
“Yes,” I say from inside my clamp. I don’t know if she hears me.
The woman goes back to her booth and the machine pulls me back inside.
I try to be still but the paper sheet crinkles under my bum as I adjust my legs. I continue to sing to myself, “So I’m at your house this morning/Just a little after nine/'cos it was in Bobcaygeon."
I hear a voice say, “No moving please.”
I do my best to comply.
“We’re going to start the contrast dye now. It will be uncomfortable but not painful.”
I wait. Nothing. Then chilled Vaseline stretches the walls of a vein, heat moves from tailbone to tongue. “It was in Bobcaygeon where I saw the constellations/Reveal themselves one star at a time.”
“You may feel like you’re urinating,” a voice says, “but you’re not.”
I know this sensation from previous exams. It is still unnerving. Fake wetness between my legs doesn’t soak the worn, green hospital gown I am wearing.
I hate this test, this reminder of some ominous potential. My neurologist has explained, “This lesion is in an area of your brain that controls speech and comprehension. If we operate, you could lose your ability to speak. To understand. And we don’t yet know what this is. It may not be that harmful. Let’s monitor it and see.” He has said, “It is smaller than a pencil eraser.” And this minuscule spot or lesion or tumour has necessitated that I take fog-inducing anti-convulsant drugs for the rest of my life and that I have magnetic images of my brain made and analyzed on a regular basis. But I am well and alive and for both these things, I am grateful.
I close my eyes again and see stars. I sing Downie’s achingly beautiful line again, “Where I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.” When I close my eyes and see the pulses of light behind my eyelids, I try to transcend to another space beyond the inside of my head and the inside of this machine.
I am in the tunnel for another 15 minutes, based on how many times I can sing all the lyrics to Bobcaygeon in my head, and the machine makes images of my brain now lit up by dye. The sounds are different than they were before – sharper and punctuated with loud sudden bursts of grinding and squealing. It is harder to keep the song’s melody in my head. I hope the lesion hasn’t gotten any bigger than a pencil eraser.
“All done,” the voice says.
The machine spits me out. The woman comes back and unclamps my head. She helps me sit up.
“We’ll just get this IV out and then you’re free to go!” She tries to sound cheerful. She presses a cotton ball on the place of puncture on my arm and unfurls a Band-Aid to hold it in place.
“You did well,” the woman says as if assessing me on some skill, “You were brave.” She smiles like all of this is normal and hands me a plastic cup of water.
“Thanks,” I hear myself answer. “I have one every year.”
I leave the machine, go to the dressing area, strip, crumple the mint-green gown in a hamper, get dressed and go outside the metal doors with neon-yellow radioactive stickers. It isn’t courage that gets me through these MRIs, it is perseverance. I should get the results in a few weeks. I always hope, obviously, for no change.
I make my way out of the hospital and struggle to remember where I parked. I stand still and take a deep breath. I look up at the stars twinkling in the blue-black autumn sky. I wonder if Downie sang to himself during his MRIs, during his treatments and indignities, as his loved ones said their goodbyes. I hope he got to. Tonight the stars sparkle. I see the Big Dipper. Polaris flickers. I sing the first few bars of Bobcaygeon in the dark.
Diana Davidson lives in Edmonton.