Our turn for a dose of something terrible
We sit in the pre-op area. The temperature is cold and the atmosphere sterile. More waiting. There are others waiting too, separated from us by beige floral print curtains, their privacy maintained by the loud whooshing of recycled air flowing above us. Each patient is prepped and eventually escorted through the sliding doors to the operating room. But we wait like we have been for the past 45 minutes and previous six days. It’s not yet our turn.
Nearby a group of anesthesiologists huddle around the nurse’s station. I’m drawn to their laughter as they pass the time, one in particular who is tapping his feet, in cowboy boots. My blank gaze on Dr. Wild West is broken when the surgeon walks in. His presence feels comforting, like an old friend who has finally arrived after a period of longing and anticipation. His black leather loafers peek from under his blue-green scrubs. They look Italian and expensive, refined, like his demeanor. He greets us with handshakes and proceeds to repeat his medical differential, a list of four possible diagnoses of what has taken up residence in my husband’s chest. He again explains the procedure and reminds us of the risks. He seems comfortable with the plan and that makes me feel calm. Thank you, old friend, whom I met yesterday.
It is now my husband’s turn. I whisper “I love you,” peck a quick kiss, and walk out confidently, putting all my eggs in the “benign possibility” basket.
Hours later the pager I’m carrying buzzes, indicating that surgery is complete. I’m escorted to a small consult room and wait. Anxiety begins to wash over me. Answers are coming. I visualize a stop sign to prevent a downward spiral of negative thoughts, but there is nothing else to focus on besides generic hospital art.
I stare at my legs, stretched straight out, my feet crossed. I notice my outfit, as if I did not dress myself this morning: workout clothes and running shoes. I think, judging myself: “What am I wearing? Where did I think I was going today? Am I underdressed?” I then remember that through the wall in an operating room there is a doctor wearing cowboy boots, and I sigh in relief. There are no rules for this.
The surgeon walks in and removes his scrub cap from his head. Before he sits he explains everything went well and my husband is recovering. Amid explaining what he saw he eventually says the word malignant. I don’t retain anything further. Another handshake, and he dashes off to another patient waiting his turn. The realization strikes me: I have just received the most significantly life-changing information of my husband’s life without him in the room.
I cannot manage to stay in the waiting room, and my instinct is to find fresh air. I make my way quickly into an elevator and through a maze of hallways and sky bridges that connect buildings of varying ages. I see an exit and exhale as I feel the cold air rush against my face with the opening of the sliding doors. I drench my sleeve with tears. While standing outside the hospital entrance in a corner of two buildings, I dial my parents who are at work 900 miles away. I’m completely exposed to the bustling city that is going about its business and unsheltered from the typical Seattle drizzle. My mom is calm on the other end as I shatter into worst-case scenario.
My mom can hear my tone getting progressively more panicked. She hears me doubting my own ability to be the caregiver my husband needs and deserves. She says my name firmly, as if to grab me by the shoulders to shake me out of my hysteria,
“Listen to me. This is going to be hard. This is going to be the hardest thing you do. But you are going to do it.”
And with that I cross a threshold into an uncharted realm of wifehood. Despite the community that I know is behind us, I become acutely aware that only I, the wife, can care for my husband in that sacred space where the fragility of life, his and ours together, is felt every second. I never doubt his ability to fight and survive; my tears stem from not being sure I can alongside him.
My pager buzzes again, which signals my husband is ready for me to see him in recovery. He is groggy and sipping water, in visible pain from his chest tube and incisions from the biopsy. He can’t move. I sit beside him and rub his hair, wondering about when it will all fall out. The surgeon had reassured me he would be by to discuss preliminary results with both of us. Malignant. I anxiously pray he will be by soon, before my husband asks me if I have any information. I don’t want to tell him, and am not sure I should be the one who tells him.
But right then he slowly opens his eyes and asks, “Did the doctor tell you anything?”
I’m shaking, avoidant. “He will be by to explain what he knows.”
“OK.” He closes his eyes.
Phew. I rest my head on the side of the bed and overhear staff discussing the difference between making vanilla and chocolate pudding from scratch. Having worked in healthcare for over a decade, I wonder how many times I spoke of frivolous matters where patients and their families could overhear. Did I ever laugh about something so insignificant the moment a family received bad news and my insensitivity is what they remember about that day? There should be rules against that.
My husband opens his eyes. “Did he tell you what he knows?”
I can’t lie to him again. “Yes. Pathology saw malignant cells. That’s all they know right now.”
“OK. We knew that.”
Did we? Did we really know that? My husband had prepared himself for cancer. I had not. I gently sigh and continue rubbing his aching head, not knowing what to say or do. I need rules for this.
My husband is later admitted to the surgical unit for one night in a shared room. The roommate needs a vascular procedure for his gangrene foot. His TV is blasting a football game and his visitors are equally loud. Through the curtain I can hear him frantically searching for a place to write down a phone number of his long-lost sister. “Not with a Sharpie, please,” directs the nurse. I’m irritated by the commotion and advocate, unsuccessfully, to the Charge Nurse for a room change. She hands me earplugs. I just failed my first caregiver duty.
I return to the bedside rocking chair and look outside the window, the rain now beating down. This shimmering skyline reminds me of another time—the only other hospital experience we have had as a married couple. It is the same view as the birth hospital where our children were born. I close my eyes and pretend I’m there, blissfully postpartum, desperately begging the universe to put us back there and not here. It should be me in the hospital bed and my husband in the chair with our girl nestled on his shoulder looking out at the view, like we were just months before. But instead of leaving this hospital with a baby, we leave with the aftermath of a chest tube and a cancer diagnosis. It is Thanksgiving.
As we gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table to say grace, my mind drifts, and I imagine many meals in my parents’ home far from here. My dad raises his glass, cuing everyone else to do the same, and ends his toast with “Abbondanza!” Abundance, in Italian; an expression of gratitude for the abundance of food on the table. I think to myself, whoever thought to honor the amount of food on a table must have known what hunger felt like.
Cancer happening to my husband and subsequently to our young family is not unfair. Bad things happen to good people every day. Abundantly so.
But if you find yourself sitting in a park with your beloved after enduring darkness, will the sun feel warmer on your face? And will the squeals of your children’s laughter sound sweeter? Abundantly so.
Gioia Gonzalez is usually quite straightforward, frequently sarcastic, and always open to vulnerability (yours or her own). Faith in God, humor, and a good old-fashioned pep talk from her mom is what provides her enduring sustenance while in life’s trenches. In mothering, partnering, and working, Gioia remembers that not every part of every day is good, but every day is good.