Monthly Archives: August 2013

Magic

The steam of the shower clouds the vanity and as I close the mirrored cabinet, the fog receding at the edges, my stomach tightens again.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow my husband’s PET scan results come back. I remember him just before walking out the door on Friday morning, driving alone to Georgetown to make his 9 am appointment on time. He looks good. His polo and khakis, his belt showing off his trim waist, one of the benefits of his plant-based “kick cancer’s ass” diet. That’s the first thing people tell me when they see us for the first time since his diagnosis, how good he looks, always with a note of surprise in their voice, as if to say, “but he doesn’t look like a cancer patient”. His healthy look, it throws people. Cancer patients don’t glow. But this one does. I kiss him and say, “good luck,” as if that’s a thing to say when someone is about to consume a contrast drink to light up their insides in search of tumors, as if it’s an outcome to be controlled. It’s almost as cringe-worthy as saying “Hope you don’t have cancer!”, but I cut myself some slack; it’s our first time at this, after all. He bounds to the car as if going to complete his Saturday to-do list: enthusiastic, focused, ready to move on to the next item.

I’ve barely slept since Friday, and as the fog recedes in the mirror and I take another look at myself, my hair still slick from the shower, gray strands peeking out at the temples, it shows. The hollows under my eyes remain dark, a trait I’ve noticed that has not gone away since that fateful day in November. Regardless of the hours slept, my face betrays me: worry, stress, anxiety—signs of a life held hostage.

My stomach tightens again as I imagine receiving the news tomorrow. Another hospital date. And then I go to the worst place: I ask myself, looking at my tired, changed face, what will I do if he dies?

I’ve ventured down this dark path in my mind before, especially in the beginning, asking questions like, how will I support myself? And, do I know how to plunge a toilet? And what will happen to my boys? I will take them away, I decide, somewhere warm, somewhere to forget troubles. Hawaii. California. Water, surf, sand. A place of dreams. A place to leave the nightmare behind–if there’s a nightmare to be left.

***

I find myself again at the mirror–tomorrow has come today–again staring at the dark circles, dabbing makeup in an effort to hide signs of another sleepless night. Useless. My husband is in the bedroom with the boys–hospital dates merit a day off of work–and I smile as I hear the sounds of coins falling to the floor, rolling on the wood planks, scurrying under dressers and tables. Our baby has overturned the jar of Argentine coins that I can’t bring myself to remove from his reach simply because he loves this game so much. I hear him urging the boys to pick up the coins from obscure corners of the room. At least for a few moments, he fills the role I normally play on the weekday.

My stomach flutters again as I remember why he’s home on a Tuesday, directing boys and refilling coin jars, and as I stand before my reflection, tummy full of butterflies, jumpy and a bundle of nerves, I am taken back to a similar scene six years earlier–our first date. It is winter in Michigan, and the night is enchanting. It has snowed all afternoon on this late December day and the sun sets early, inviting the street lights to bounce off of each unique flake in the city blanketed by freshly fallen snow. The scene is literally dazzling. We have both found ourselves in town for the holiday and have finally made plans for a date; years in the making. As I gather my long, straight hair and pin half of it back, I take a deep breath in then exhale it all out, trying to shake my nerves. This will be big, I think to myself. I feel my whole life about to change.

A knock at the door signals he’s here, and we drive a few minutes into the quaint downtown where a window seat table provides views of Main Street, store fronts covered in thousands of christmas lights and fluffy snow flakes glistening on their way to the ground, fat, shimmery, tangible. As we eat and laugh through a seamless conversation that never stalls, a thought runs through my head: here it is, the rest of my life, sitting across the table from me.

After dinner we cross the snow-covered street to the Irish pub, and I clutch his wooly sweater trying to remain graceful in my 4 inch heels on the icy pavement (he will later tell me he was so nervous that he wore the wrong sweater, I will later tell him it took me three days to pick out my shoes); it’s in vain–I slip but don’t fall, almost taking us both out. We laugh and slush through the snow and cold and enter the warm bar that smells like fried food and beer, both of us trying to prolong the best date we’ve ever had. The sparkling night, the crisp air, the snowflakes landing on cheeks–it’s magic. It is us.

“Mommy, can I brush my teeth?” my toddler barges into the bathroom and stares up expectantly at me, his long curls creeping into his bright blue eyes. He brushes them away and I hand him his toothbrush. Magic.

***

Far from Michigan, we find ourselves once again on the oncology floor at Georgetown, my husband waiting to get blood drawn, the way we always kick off our “dates”. The room is busy, the busiest I’ve seen it yet. Our nurses are all business and no time for chit-chat today, working tirelessly to attend to all the patients in various stages of treatment. I sit on an uncomfortable but last-available stool next to my husband while he waits for a nurse to stab him with a needle and the metallic smell of medicine and the stale scent of illness mingle together as it reaches my nose and I force myself to stay seated, to resist the strong urge to leave. I am so tired of this place.

We head toward Starbucks without asking, now a habit; a hospital treasure hunt punctuated by caffeine. We find it virtually empty, the employees surely enjoying their summer lull; though an elevator full of fresh-faced, buzzing med students in their too-white lab coats point to a school year fast-approaching. In the waiting room at the cancer center downstairs, we wait for my husband’s name to be called. Again we wait to see if the cancer is back. I am beginning to realize I will always be waiting.

A woman in houndstooth suit with red sling backs has her back to me and fills out paperwork furiously. She looks different from the rest of the waiting room, all of whom are sad, tragic-looking. She looks like a first-timer. The rest of the waiting room is full of bandanas, too-large clothing on too-frail bodies, pale faces and tired eyes. “Typical” cancer patients. I’m tired of being here and pretending it’s normal. We don’t belong. I think of our looming doctor visit and my stomach flips again, a wave of nausea overtaking me for a few moments. My husband looks relaxed at my side as he sips a latte and reads a library book, leg crossed ankle atop knee, slightly slouched, very studious as he turns the page, his brow slightly furrowed. He looks more college student than cancer patient and as I glance around the room, I wonder if the other patients question our presence here. I catch a few patients’ eyes but no one ever smiles. It’s a strange place, a cancer center waiting room. People looking furtively at each other, holding gazes for seconds at a time, faces wondering what betrayals other bodies hold.

His nurse appears in the doorway; she calls his name but doesn’t smile. She has never. It’s time.

***

The appointment is over and we are hardwired for the rest of the journey: turn left out of the cancer center, up the ramp, left at the elevators, down the main corridor, up the main elevators to the oncology floor. But on our way, my husband beams. He bounces, he floats. I remember the conversation on our way to the hospital this afternoon. I remember asking him how he felt.

“I feel fine,” he says, shrugging, as we drive down 395. “It’s funny, I don’t even think about it, you know? There are all kinds of things that keep me up at night, but this isn’t one of them,” he pauses for a moment while I point out the bizarre exchange we just made as we briefly flirt with the Pentagon parking lot en route to the 110 toward the Key Bridge, his favorite driving trick. Then he resumes:

“It would make an interesting case study, you know, to see why it doesn’t get to me the way other things do. It’s weird.” Then he reaches over and grabs my hand, “I’m sorry it’s so hard on you, though.”

I try to think of the appropriate thing to say. It’s okay. It’s not hard on me. It’s not me, it’s you. All of which would be lies. Instead I mumble something cliche like “It is what it is,” and we keep moving toward the hospital on another muggy summer day.

“I guess you were a little nervous after all, huh?” I smile at him and ruffle his short blonde hair as we pass a nurse in the corridor. He smiles. “I guess so!” he tosses back, and kisses me without breaking stride. He slips his arm around my waist and we saunter down the hall like high school kids with a secret. A clean scan. Better than a secret. Magic.

We are on our way to the oncology floor, and we are free again.

For now, we are free.

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The Guilty Ones

“I go to her house after work every Tuesday and Thursday, then I come home.”

 He is unemotional as he conveys to me the news of his affair, his body relaxed as he stands in front of me, his wife, and I try not to scream in agony as the pain of his betrayal tears my heart to shreds.

 “For how long?” I force myself to speak.

 “Since February,” he replies, nonchalant, emotionally dead.

 Since February.  Every Tuesday and Thursday after work since February.  I try to piece this together but it just doesn’t make sense.  He was sick.  He was really sick.  I took care of him.  How could he?  How could he?  I remember all the tears I cried in fear that cancer would end my marriage before its time when all this time I should have been worried about the woman across the street?  My mind races as I try to put this together and make sense of the nonsense.  He was supposed to love me; I cared for him, I sat by his bedside, worried over his body, worried over his fate.  What was he thinking?

 I can’t look at him but I scream.  “I’m taking the kids, how dare you!  I loved you!”

 I am frantic as I search for the boys and randomly grab items I think I’ll need when I go—where?  It doesn’t matter, I just need out.  I just need the bleeding to stop.

 My face is wet with tears as I sit up in bed, heart racing, gasping for breath.  The dream has ended but the effects linger.  I stumble out of bed and find life to be normal: boys up early, chattering and demanding their breakfast.  I tend to them, starting the morning routine of pancakes and milk and refills and cleaning up spills, messy hands, messy faces.  I see my husband before he leaves for work and I can barely look at him, anger rising up in chest.

 He leans in to kiss me and I allow it, but then whisper to him with my back to the kids, “You cheated on my in a dream last night.”

 He smiles and says with a shrug, “Sorry!” but as he turns to head for the door, the feeling of betrayal still fresh in my soul, I grab him and whisper a forceful warning: “Don’t ever cheat on me.”  He looks at me with pity and a touch of confusion and says, “I won’t. Love you!” then waves goodbyes to the boys and he’s out the door.  As I watch him go I wonder to myself who the woman was.

 

 “I’ve had those dreams, too,” he replies after another sip of cold beer.  “But I never know why.” 

 An old friend is in our dining room, drinking a beer and settling into the chair at the end of the table as my husband takes his turn to quiet the baby upstairs who has decided he doesn’t want to sleep tonight.  Fighter pilot by trade, this friend is no stranger to life with cancer.   Although it’s been more than a decade, the pain remains, just under the surface.  I see it every now and then when he connects with me over this selfish, indiscriminate disease that stole his brother, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of his nephew, sister in law, family where a father, husband, brother, son used to be. 

 Easter weekend, after my harried text message to our Air Force friends with the news of my husband’s serious turn for the worse after becoming septic, this friend texted back four simple words that made me weep upon reading: “I’ll be there tomorrow”; his insight into our life leaving no room for formalities or indecision.  He sat beside my husband in the small, foul-smelling hospital room and waited patiently while my husband shuffled back and forth to the bathroom, filling in the spaces with his story-telling, reducing my husband to tears from side-splitting laughter.  The best remedy.  And he sits with me now, lending an ear as we wait for the baby to release my husband to us.

 I take a sip of my Corona and taste the lime on my lips, then inhale.  “What do you think it means?” wondering aloud what my subconscious is telling me.

 He shrugs and takes a swig, contemplating for a moment.  But before he can answer we are joined by my husband and the conversation moves away from dreams and back to reality.  We talk and drink and suddenly the room is dark; the sun has set without fanfare and we were too involved in stories to notice.  In the low light of the dining room I hear my husband laugh the way he did in the hospital, the way he’s done for years with his friend by his side.  And I smile as I take another sip, letting the buzz go to my head and feeling grateful for friendships that transcend distance and time and cancer.

 I do a quick google search on my phone while still sitting in the dim light at the table during a conversation that I don’t follow—too many Air Force acronyms and phrases I don’t understand—and read about the meaning behind dreams of spousal infidelity.  I survey a few websites and the answer is the same: the dreamer’s guilt is projected onto the spouse in the dream.  I laugh at the absurd assumption—what could I be guilty of?  I tuck away my phone and let the sound of my husband’s laughter fill my soul as the darkness settles in for the night.

 

 Morning light filters through the downstairs windows as the rest of the world quietly sleeps.  Early-bird dog-walkers and runners take advantage of the sliver of sun to beat the swampy DC summer heat.  But our day started an hour ago, our alarm clock squawking babes, with toys and books strewn about the floor as evidence to our early morning wake up call.  I watch over my coffee mug as my toddler chases sunbeams while he spins around the living room and my baby sits with legs splayed and a book cradled under his big belly, pointing to the pictures as he reads to himself.  Suddenly, a “code 531” interrupts the spinning and quiet reading and, donning fire fighter hats, my husband and the boys must rescue a kitten from a tree.  The boys are all giggles and swirls of jammies and joy and messy golden hair peeking out from under red plastic as they complete their mission between sunbeams and pancake debris.  Their three faces flush with laughter and they bask in the glory of their successful rescue and I know there’s nowhere else my boys would rather be than in the warm, safe embrace of their playful, selfless, loving daddy.  And now it all makes sense. 

 It should be me.

 And I feel guilty that it’s not. 

 Perhaps that’s why our friend and I share this dream, maybe we are both guilty that the better parts of us suffer.  That we can do nothing more than watch—hoping, praying, scheming that the cancer doesn’t win, that good prevails.  His brother should have lived, should have seen his son grow.  My husband must live; he must see his sons grow.  Teach them his generosity of spirit, his love of life; instill in them his enthusiasm for leaving things better than he found it.  Yet I am powerless to ensure it.  All I can do is hope, will it to happen; bargain, beg, steal, cheat.  Sell my soul.  Anything.  Everything.

“Babe, do you want some more tea?” my husband asks, balancing the baby in his arms, the red plastic hat still on his head as he carefully steps over our toddler on his way to the kitchen.  My heart aches, but I smile.

 It should be me.

 Maybe we are guilty after all.

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Ignoring the If in the Room

I carefully choose my steps as I descend from our bedroom, trying to remember where the floor creaks in this new home. After a day that began at 3:30 am with a teething baby, nap time comes as a great relief. But one of the adjustments of this new home is a shared room for the boys, who haven’t quite grasped the concept. At nap time, I settle for the baby in his crib and our toddler in our bed, surrounded by pillows and blankets. He covets his time in “the big bed” and I smile to myself as I remember his disdain for my company when I climbed into bed with him, reading until he drifted off to sleep and then trying to drift off myself, rewarding my long night with a few precious moments of rest. But with ever pillow shift, every adjustment, my three year old wakes and stares at me, first confused and then annoyed—he hasn’t yet mastered the art of subtlety. I allow him his rest and sneak out of the room, avoiding the squeaks and creaks, searching for a place to rest.

I feel the exhaustion clinging to the rims of my eyes and as I reach the last step to the living room, I find the couch occupied. My husband, also invited to the no-sleep party last night, rests peacefully on the small sofa.

Creeeaaakk

I misstep and his eyelids flutter open. He generously scoots himself back on the couch, allowing me some room. I lay with him but the sofa is small, not meant for afternoon naps, certainly not meant for two. I try to find a comfortable nook but end up entangled in him, perched on the edge, trying not to fall.

“If the basement were functional, I’d be able to lay on the queen-sized pullout down there!” I whisper, exasperated but smiling.

I remember the scene from just over a week ago. “What’s hell, Daddy?” I hear my toddler say at the bottom of the basement stairs as I put away dishes in the kitchen one floor up. The basement is their playroom and by far the most used area of this small house. Each word echoes up the basement stairs as I listen, curious for the response.

“Here! This is hell! Right here! H-E-L-L! Hell!”

Someone with my husband’s voice is yelling in frustration and I sprint down the stairs to gauge the situation for myself. I am stunned yet relieved to see it is actually my husband, for once, raging.

“The basement is flooded!” he shouts as he stomps the wet floor to illustrate. “I can’t believe how naive I was thinking this place wouldn’t flood!”

I grab the boys, “time to go upstairs,” I say, trying to be bright, cheery. I call his parents as a request for backup and then call the property manager, already busy with other basements full of water from the fast and furious rainstorms tonight. A clean-up crew will be here within the hour I tell my husband, but he is lost in a world he doesn’t often visit, and so I leave him there, moving boxes yet unpacked that were stored in the basement for a later date, soaking up water, cleaning up the mess. And somehow, I find his rage is calming. He’s finally feeling.

Three days later the basement floor begins to buckle and then three hours later, the floor is gone. The basement, an entire floor of our home, a play space for the boys, now unrecognizable, our things piled up into one corner of the room to allow the rest of the floor to dry.

If“, my husband smiles through closed eyes as he pulls me in closer, coaxing me to rest. I stay beside him but my mind wanders; I look out the window into the yard and watch the american flag billow in the breeze. I shift my gaze to a wall of paintings at the foot of the couch, illustrations of all the homes we’ve lived in during our marriage. Four paintings in as many years. I glance around the cozy living room, only a few ago filled with boxes stacked to the ceiling, and yet it already feels like home. If only I had known that we’d grow to love this house, already, as much as the others.

If.

***

Friday night, hot and unbearably humid, we wait in line for a concert at Wolf Trap. The doors open promptly at six and we make our way through the sweat-soaked crowd to a shaded hillside, sharing our blanket with our friends, our melanoma mentors. This couple that has already lived the life we are living sits next to us and shares stories and wine and we laugh so hard we cry. And I think to myself, If my husband hadn’t had cancer, we’d have never met this beautiful couple….

If.

We sip champagne and smile and act like teenagers on this blanket on the bluff. Harry Connick Jr. sings and talks and dances through his show, and as the sun starts to set and the fireflies begin their nightly dance, a familiar song plays. Our friends find their way to each other and, arms wrapped around each other, sway to the jazzy music. Their song—their first dance on the day they vowed to each other a lifetime—plays into the warm night air and floats up to us on the hill. They sway to the music and I snap a picture, saving this moment in time for myself as much as for them. Because they are still here—together—and still dancing, after so many ifs.

I hear the song but have ceased to listen, my mind is whirring with ifs. If they had known what had awaited them on the day they first danced this song together, if they had known the struggles they’d face, the pain, the tears, the sickness. But if they’d known all of that, they wouldn’t have known the good: the children to be made, the laughs to be had, the sunset dances on hillsides in the summer. The life to be lived.

If.

Screw the ifs, I decide as I turn to the group. The show is ending and I raise my glass in a toast to the two survivors, celebrating clean PET scans and the absence of the uninvited guest in the bodies of these men and in the lives of us all. We raise our glasses in health, and we toast to life instead of ifs. We celebrate the now, and I let go of the ifs–every last one.

Because Ifs are creaky floors and flooded basements and cancer—all the unwanteds and unknowns of life. And love is stepping around the creaks, cleaning up the water, toasting life. So we step, we mop, we toast. We love, we live. Every day. Together.

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