Category Archives: Military

The Million Dollar Man

“Right this way,” she says, holding her ipad in one hand and clutching her the zippered hoodie in the other.  Today it is a different nurse that ushers us down a different hallway.  We dutifully follow, but I glance to my right at the hallway we usually walk, the scale my husband usually steps on to read his weight, wondering if I should ask her if she’s sure about this route since our room, the room we’ve occupied for every appointment we’ve had since the start of this clinical trial, is not at the end of this hallway.  Instead, we are escorted to a different room, across from the bathroom, in the back of the cancer center.  The new nurse takes vitals, notes them in her hospital-issued ipad, and moves swiftly to the door.  With her hand on the door knob, she turns to my husband.  She nods her head toward the robe she’s left on the exam table.  “I know you don’t usually do this,” she tells him, “but the doctor would like you to wear this today.”

We exchange a glance as he grabs the gown, but he casually and cheerfully answers with an “okay”.

“This is new,” he says to me as he unbuttons his shirt and then loosens his belt, not looking up.  The new room is warm and uncomfortable, and I can’t stop thinking about the bathroom across the hall.  I shed my coat and wait nervously.  The change in venue, the new nurse, the removal of clothes, the uncomfortably warm wait has made me doubt today’s appointment.  An unsettling energy settles between us, filling the space between he, on the exam table in a thin, scratchy robe, and me, perched on an office chair, legs crossed and leaning into the contents of my phone.  Trying to make myself small. I check my phone, distract myself by updating my email and scanning facebook.  My hands are sweating.  Perhaps this is where they issue bad news.  Perhaps the reason for the different nurse and different room is because we will receive different information today.  My husband’s body is different, his scan results are different.

We wait.

Finally, the clinical trial nurse enters and begins her usual process of examining his entire body.   This time, she asks about our kids, asking to see pictures.  No one has ever asked us about our kids before, I think, filing the comment away along with all the other suspicious behavior today.

She finishes her exam of my husband, who now lays on his back, looking up at the ceiling and listening from a horizontal position.  She asks to see a picture of the boys again, tells us the doctor will be in shortly, reminds my husband that he can sit up, and heads for the door.

“Do you have the scan results?” I ask her before she can leave.

“Oh, I haven’t checked them yet,” she replies nonchalantly, “but the doctor will talk to you about them in a minute.  Wow, it’s so hot in here!”

Again, we wait in the overheated room, the fear of the news filling the gaping silence between us.  The doctor enters, followed only by the nurse we’d just seen, and the clinical trial research assistant.  No interns, no fellows.

The doctor gives my husband a hug, a first from our usually “all business” formalities that signals in me that something is wrong; he is preparing us for bad news.  I feel my senses become heightened, I feel the room get bigger and then smaller, my brain get fuzzy and then refocus, as I wait for the shoe to drop.

“Scans are clear,” he starts, standing in the corner of the room, leaning on the sink.  “There’s an enlarged lymph node but only slightly enlarged, so we’re not worried.  And the trial should resume within a few weeks, so we’ll let you know when it gets on its way and then get you back in for your infusion.”

Confused, I look at my husband.  The new room, the new nurse, the request to undress, the doctor’s hug…none of it mattered.  My husband is smiling and relieved and I let myself relax and settle into the chair.  We discuss the trial, my husband asks about continuing to receive treatment, if the doctor thinks we should quit while we’re ahead.  The doctor, initially jovial, surprises us with his curt answer.

“I see no reason for you to leave the trial now, you’ve reacted favorably to the treatment.  Plus,” he adds, irritation edging his words, “you’re getting one hundred thousand dollars of medicine with every dose on this trial, so I don’t know why you’d walk away from that.”

My husband smirks at this an hour later while we sit in the Georgetown Hospital Starbucks with a celebratory latte and tea, surrounded by students.  The girl on my right writes for a few seconds, then looks beyond my husband and I through the glass and out into the hallway.  She seems to be searching for something.  She is oblivious to us.

“I flew F-16s, doc, I’m already a million dollar man,” he smiles over his latte, feigning the debonaire of cocky pilot.  But he’s right.  The doctor’s futile attempt to keep us on the trial simply because it’s “paid for” didn’t impress him in the least.  He’s used to being given high-priced items; and those always come at a cost.  Learn to fly a jet, but then you must go to war.  You must fight for your country, you must put yourself in harm’s way.  You must obey.

Take this million dollar drug for the clinical trial.  Stay alive, hopefully, a little longer than those who came before you.  Try not to get too sick, although you may, we just don’t know.  That’s why it’s a trial.

Suddenly a memory creeps into my mind as I lift the lid on my tea and allow some steam to escape in curls: it’s a sunny September day and I have driven to a friend’s house to pick something up.  She asks about my husband, about his health, and asks more than most.  She asks me how it happened, had he ever had any cancer before this?

Yes, I answer, he had a mole.  A big, ugly, black mole that changed shape and color.  I remember lying by his side under the shade of a rented cabana while the hot sun warmed the white portuguese sand.  He rolled onto his stomach to change position during his afternoon nap. And his mole, always dark and large, was now black and raised and changing shape.

“Oh my god,” I say, raising myself up on to my elbows and doing little to mask my concern.  Holding my bikini top to my chest and removing my sunglasses, I lean in for a better look.  “You need to see a doctor as soon as we get home.”

He grunts and tries to find it with his right hand, but it’s just out of reach, and just out of sight, in a place that no one would ever see it, except his girlfriend, when he’s in a bathing suit, lying on the beach on his belly under a tarp on the southern coast of Portugal, taking a nap.

My friend looks at me as I shake the memory and says, “are you going to sue the first doctor, the one who removed the mole and said he got it all?”

The million dollar question.

“I’ve thought about it,” I answer, scanning the room–musical instruments lining the walls, a musician’s dream–and I avoid her eyes.  We were so assured, so confident back then in Arizona.  “It’s a 1-A,” the doctor waves it off.  We trusted this doctor, the one with whom we’d built a relationship, the one who even let me stand next to him to oversee as he gouged out pieces of my husband’s body.  He was an Air Force vet, he was smart, he couldn’t have made a mistake.

Right?

“It might be worth considering again,” my friend says, her green eyes searing into mine as she lightly holds her barely-pregnant belly, her brutal honesty about to hit me in the face, “you might need that money someday.”

I might need it someday–if he gets sick again, if the Air Force decides to medically retire him, if Congress continues to strip vets of their earned retirement.  I might need it someday if he dies.  Which one of these did she mean?  I don’t stop to think it over.

Students buzz in and out of Starbucks with their books, their college careers on their minds.  And as my husband finishes up his latte and stands to leave, someone writes a message on the giant chalkboard wall behind him: Good luck, Sam!

Yes, good luck, Sam, I think.  Because one day, when kisses are still new and electric, you are napping on a beach in the Algarve, dreaming of your next sea-breeze accompanied meal, planning your future from an extended-stay hotel, drinking Portuguese wine and eating chocolates from 14 stories high, listening to the sea pound the shore, naming nonexistent babies and buying pretend real estate, dreaming of your future together.  And then, Sam, your future actually shows up, whether you’re ready or not.

Good luck, whoever you are, you’ll need it.

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Motorcycles and Flowers

I walk out of the store with two bouquets of flowers and, as I walk to the idling car where my husband and boys wait inside, I wonder if these will be enough for four sites. I think it will as I open the car door and, with windows down, we continue on our journey to Arlington beneath a gorgeous May sunshine.

We are flanked by motorcycles on our drive down 395 toward the National Cemetery. My three year old points out every single one, counting them as they pass. At one point he counts to ten and then decides “there’s too many to count!”, and indeed, there are. Rolling Thunder has hit DC full force, and as we drive below each overpass we see each one lined with people, firetrucks, and american flags, awaiting the informal motorcycle gangs that rally and ride together into the city before the formal noon ride.

The highway bends and we drive alongside the Pentagon parking lot; we tell our son to look out the window so he doesn’t miss what’s about to appear. One more overpass and then a three year old’s dream: shiny chrome, leather jackets, loud engines. Motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, all waiting patiently in the Pentagon parking lots for their noon ride today, Memorial Day Weekend, to commemorate, to honor, to pay homage to and to thank our veterans. What began as a tribute to Vietnam vets has morphed into a pilgrimage of gratitude for all who serve. The sheer number of them is overwhelming, and as we pass, I feel a familiar lump in my throat and I blink back my tears.

We drive onto Arlington and, with visitor pass in the windshield, drive toward our first stop: Section 60. The cemetery is crowded today and tourists on foot are busy trying to see as many “attractions” as they can. But Section 60 is different. Here we find the headstones of those most recently lost: husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends. It’s more than a tourist destination; it’s a stark reality.

We unload the kids and then walk to the site. The cool breeze rustles the flowers in my arms and tousles the curls on my toddler’s little head. Beneath the crystal clear sky and bright sun, reality sets in. The harried departure from the house, the traffic from the Rolling Thunder tribute that made our commute 30 minutes longer–all of those distractions are now gone and we are face to face with a stone bearing the name of our friend; a father, a husband, a son, a brother. I show my son how to place the roses in the vase and he is an eager study. We place the flowers next to his name and then sit, pray, cry. Our sons, too little to understand, allow us just a few moments before reminding us that they are hungry, that they want to play; they allow us a few moments before reminding us that life goes on–because it must.

We visit three more sites–two other friends and one relative; the relative is my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Killed during WWII, just a boy at 22. My grandfather, also just a boy of 20, was notified by chaplain of his brother’s death while in the infantry in Europe. His older brother, his best friend, his protector, the head of their fatherless house, gone. Much like his brothers and sisters in arms who lay in eternal rest by his side, he was not given the chance to say goodbye. My two boys romp around my great uncle’s headstone, playing peekaboo and chase. I cut the flowers and place them in the holder, first placing it on the left side of the stone and then moving it to the right. I stay seated for a moment, watching this scene before me: my two small boys, playing on the grave of my grandfather’s brother and best friend. And I wonder, will they ever understand the sacrifices made for them? Can they? Can anyone, really, until they live it, see it, feel it?

I stand, and my husband pulls me in. With our two boys, there isn’t much time to steep in all that this day, that this place, really means. But he holds me close and whispers in my ear “thank you”. And I whisper back “thank you“, and then louder, “and thank them” as I gesture to the aged headstones, the young soldiers lost during WWII, their names faded, their shape wearing. Those without wives, children, or stories to tell. Suddenly our boys are off, running down the hill, indicating that our time is done. We scoop them up and as we walk between graves of those who fought decades ago, my three year old shouts “Thank you everyone!” as he waves to Section 12. I start to cry. And then I smile. He understands, at least a little. “Yes, thank you everyone!” I say back to him, to everyone. I whisper a silent prayer to our friend, to my husband’s friends, to my family. And then, hand in hand in silence, we walk back to the car.

The motorcycles are still amassing as we drive past the Pentagon on our way home. Again, I am overcome. The sheer number of bikers is overwhelming–all of these Americans rallying together, the camaraderie–it moves me. I notice that in the parking lots there is little more than bikes and people. These riders have come, some from hundreds of miles away, to do nothing more than ride. They ride for our veterans, they ride for fallen comrades, they ride to honor. But mostly, they ride in gratitude. And as we wave to the bikers, my heart swells. Each in our own way, we say thank you.

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