Our Jeep joins a pride of Land Rovers and vans partially surrounding a cheetah. Never before have I seen this feline in the wild. With my travel companions I watch the animal run its tongue across its spotted face, now striped with blood. Standing, I peer out our vehicle’s open top. Even on tiptoes I can’t quite see the dead beast hidden in the tall, brown grass. When our guide tells us that it’s a gazelle, I sigh. In my first two days of safari, I have fallen in love with these small, graceful creatures, tan backs separated from their white bellies by a bold, black stripe.
A slight movement to my left draws my attention. Behind the semicircle of vehicles lurks a hyena. It takes a step or two, then waits in the shade of a sausage tree with seed pods hanging like deli salamis. No doubt the beast is not dreaming of cured meat but of the cheetah’s fresh kill.
I focus my binoculars on the cheetah. Quit dilly-dallying, I want to shout. You’re going to lose your meal if you don’t consume it quickly. There’s a hyena stalking you.
I understand the cat’s desire to stretch out its meal, to enjoy it bit by bit. After all, here I am in Kenya, trying not to think about the “abnormal cells” that a pelvic exam detected lurking deep within my body. The doctors assured me there’s time enough to think about that when I return home, I scold myself. For now, I watch the drama before me. Two drivers move their vehicles out of the line. Perhaps by giving the hyena a clearer view of the cheetah, they will speed the climax. But still the hyena waits.
Nearby, a lilac-breasted roller bird poses atop an acacia tree. More acacias and date trees dot the landscape. We are in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, and I learn that a “mara” is a plain sprinkled with trees far more spread out than the cheetah’s or hyena’s spots.
The cheetah returns to its meal, head buried in the carcass, back glinting in the sun. The hyena begins to stalk actively. What are those abnormal cells that are stalking me? Pre-cancerous or worse? Suddenly he turns and races toward the cheetah’s dead gazelle. I brace myself for a fight, but the cheetah merely backs away, giving up its prey to the stronger, dominant beast.
If the surgery I’m going home to reveals that those lurking cells are malignant, I won’t back off like that. Not without a fight. No easy giving in for me.
The hyena grabs the carcass with its teeth. As it dashes away to an open grassy spot a hundred yards away, I see bright white, either the gazelle’s underbelly or, perhaps, a ribcage already picked clean. Just then I cough into a tissue. Glancing down, I see red. I’ve been coughing all winter, but never before spit out blood. I push away my instinctive fear and watch the cheetah, head down, walk toward the dirt road. Vultures move in toward the bloody grass.
Our driver bumps the Jeep along a rutted trail to view a lone giraffe and a nearby elephant with a yellow-billed oxpecker on his back. After the photographers—gentle, non-predatory stalkers—are satisfied, we turn back toward a watering hole. A flock of blue helmeted guineafowl squawks noisily as the cheetah slinks to the water and drinks. Are these black-with-white-polka-dots birds with blue heads and red crests taunting him, the loser to a stronger predator? Or are they expressing discontent that he has invaded their territory? Go away, cells. Leave me alone. I didn’t invite you to invade my body.
The cat slurps up his consolation prize—water can’t be as tasty as blood—then lies down. In the distance the hyena still gnaws on his stolen gazelle. When, at last, the cheetah walks away, we drive on.
Three days later, I stand in line at the cashier’s counter of the Nairobi Public Hospital. During our one night in Kenya’s capital city before two more safari weeks, I am checking out that coughed-up blood. A doctor has already examined me and ordered a chest X-ray and blood work, but my husband and I can’t seek out those parts of this unfamiliar building until I’ve paid. Unlike the hyena, I have no patience for this waiting game, surrounded by scores of people carrying who-knows-what germs. I try to focus my thoughts on the animals we’ve seen so far, but instead I picture the soiled cover on the examining table. Maybe it’s just a stain that’s been through many wash cycles. I take comfort in knowing I was fully clothed when asked to sit on it.
At last I reach the head of the line, hand over my Visa card, and follow instructions to another building. More waiting, more wondering, more careful watching as a nurse dons plastic gloves before sticking a sterile (I hope!) needle into my vein. Then to yet another building for the X-ray. Finally, the data gathered, we return to the examination area. Blood work, all negative. The doctor holds the X-ray up to the dim light and pronounces it fine. My husband and I exchange a grateful smile while the physician writes out a prescription for an antihistamine and cough medicine. More waiting at the hospital pharmacy—first to pay, then to get the drugs. Relieved, I stop worrying about the cough, though the “atypical cells” continue to prey on my mind.
During the next two weeks, trying to ignore the skulking cells, I gawk at a young zebra suckling its mother, at a giraffe so young its umbilical cord is still evident, at a bull elephant whose “fifth leg” hangs almost to the ground. From a hot-air balloon, I thrill to the sight of thousands of wildebeests and hundreds of zebras on the Serengeti plains. My cough persists but, fortunately, no more blood shows, and I am reassured by the negative X-ray that now lies in the bottom of my duffel bag. I cough during our visit to a Maasai school. Another day, I cough during the Uruqw ceremony in which, robed in a beaded goatskin outfit and offered a three-goat dowry, I am “married” (after 51 years).
We return, jet-lagged, on a Wednesday night. Thursday morning I am at the hospital for my pre-operative exam. Friday morning the nurse calls to tell me that the doctor has seen “a little goober” on the routine chest X-ray. She has scheduled a chest CT scan. She pauses in her instructions while I cough.
Tuesday morning the gynecologist calls: surgery has been canceled until we find out more about the lung. I pull the Nairobi chest X-ray from my waste basket and take it with me to my primary care physician that afternoon. He takes the X-ray with him while I disrobe. Yes, something was there, he tells me.
After seeing a pulmonologist and undergoing various tests, the original atypical cells in the pelvic area seem to be the least of it. There is definitely cancer in both lungs. As I await the next scan that will give the doctors more data, presumably enough for a treatment plan and prognosis, my head vacillates between two scenes in Africa.
In one I gaze at a sleeping lioness surrounded by five drowsing cubs shaded from the midday sun by an acacia tree. One cub lifts its head, rises, and crouches with forelegs straddling his mother’s back leg, his tail looped lazily over hers. The little guy leans over to grab her teat. She raises her leg and pushes him away in a seamless motion that seems to say, “Not now, buddy. This is my time to rest.” Leave me alone. Let me continue to be the healthy, fit 70-something-year-old I was six months ago.
In the other scene a lioness watches wildebeests march silently across the horizon. Slowly she moves closer. Waits. Watches. Takes a few more steps in stalking mode. Pauses. Contemplates her next move. Finally, with lightning speed, she sprints toward the herd. Our driver moves forward and I wonder why he chooses the direction he does, until the lion arrives almost in front of us, young wildebeest in her mouth. We think it is dead until we hear sounds and see legs flailing. The driver repositions the Land Rover, and now we can see a placenta lying nearby. This is a baby making a valiant, though ultimately hopeless, fight for its life. We watch, horrified, as the lion toys with its prey.
Another young wildebeest, separated from the herd, attracts her attention. The lioness drops the first animal, either dead or dying, and steals toward the second. By now I recognize her stalking posture. Within minutes she bounds forward and grasps the bewildered wildebeest by its back. In the shade of a different tree, she kills it with one swift motion.
Back and forth I swing, from optimism to despair and back again. Will this disease torment me, play with me, only to kill me in the end? Or will it take me quickly? Will I have the strength to fight for my life as the naïve, newborn wildebeest did? Or will the doctors help me manage it, perhaps as a chronic disease, with the same grace that the mother lion controlled her hungry cub? In the days to come, will I be the predator or the prey?
B.J. Yudelson, a former writer for not-for-profit agencies, lives in Rochester, New York. Since retirement, she has found her voice in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Colere, Eclectica Magazine, Forge, The Griffin, Jewish Action, The Legendary, Soundings East, Tiny Lights, and in the anthologies Flashlight Memories, A Quilt of Holidays, and Longest Hours. When not writing, she visits nine grandchildren on two coasts, tutors first graders in a city school, and travels with her husband. Her favorite place to be is in her solo canoe, searching for loons on an Adirondack lake. Unfortunately, for the past ten months, fighting cancer has interfered with her preferred activities.
© 2014, B.J. Yudelson