Tag Archives: cancer

Into the Sun: Santiago Part III

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I wake up and, for a moment, forget that my husband is sick and thousands of miles away from me. For a moment, that split second between asleep and awake, it feels like a normal day.

It’s nice, that split second.

A phone call from my husband – “they’re keeping me here” – and the day turns into an obsessively-referenced check-list. Flight is booked, cell phone plan changed to include international capabilities. Lists of emergency contacts compiled and distributed. Neighbors alerted.

“Why do you have to go get daddy?” my oldest asks at lunch.

“To bring him home,” I say, a weak smile on my face. And I silently will it to happen.

I put them down for their nap and tell them I’ll see them soon, hoping they accept the relative term. They do, and soon slumber peacefully a floor above me, unfazed by the contingencies and changes and rushing and doing. They will be happily distracted by their grandparents, and they will cry when I come home.

My suitcase is packed – though for a week or a month I just don’t know – and while I bide my time during afternoon naps, waiting for my mother- and father-in-law to arrive from errands and work respectively, I survey our home. The house is filthy. There is, suddenly, so much to do. I dust, I sweep. I clean windowsills. I clean baseboards. How could I not have noticed this filth? I berate myself, I blame myself. I slice bananas, store them in freezer bags and shove them into the freezer. We can’t waste it, I tell myself. As I slice the sixth or seventh one, I think of my husband. Of how far away he is. Of how little I know of what’s happening to him – is he alive? –, right this second, whike slicing bananas for smoothies.

I put the knife down, stow the cutting board, and remember our goodbye at the airport only two days before.

I’m so glad I hugged him like it was the last time. Just in case.

***

My father-in-law drives me to the airport, filling the air with chatter to take our minds off of our unexpected reality. I am grateful, and as I watch the sailboats rock back and forth in the Potomac, I long for summer.

A rushed goodbye, a strong hug. “Take care of my boys,” I tell him, “I’ll take care of yours.”He smiles and within seconds our lives are heading in opposite directions.

***

“You bought a one-way,” she says, a frown on her face, “I can’t let you go, you don’t have a visa.” Her crimson red blazer clashes with her burgundy lipstick.

“Reciprocity,” I tell her, “we have reciprocity with Chile.” I stay calm, I know I am right.

“But that’s only if you buy a round-trip. Not a one way,” she barely looks up. “I’m sorry, I can’t let you check in.”

I take a deep breath. It was too easy, I think. It was all too easy.

“I need to go, and I need to leave tonight. My husband,” my voice breaks and my eyes fill. I am embarrassed, but I can’t stop myself. On autopilot, my body is functioning with only one objective: get to him. I start again:

“My husband is hospitalized in Santiago. I don’t know when he’s coming home. I need to go. I’ll buy a return ticket for whatever day you choose. Please.” I don’t look at the passengers checking in to my right, but I know they are staring. I fumble with my phone while the attendant calls her manager, my tears splashing on the counter. I wipe them away with my sleeve.

After the exchange of a credit card and curt sympathy, she slides me a slip of paper with a number scribbled in blue ink.

“Call this number when you know you’re return flight. They’ll waive your change fee,” she gives a side glance as if to emphasize the discretion I must show. I slide the paper into my pocket.

“Thank you,” I say to her, but she has already moved on the next passenger.

***

The plane climbs steeply into the DC skyline as we lift up and over the Potomac and fly right over the spot that I know they’ll be. I squint and see little dots on the docks, I imagine it’s them. I saw you! I’ll say. I waved! Did you see me?

The dots disappear and we fly straight into the sun, streaks of orange and pink streaming forth, taunting the plane as it chases the sunset.  Pink and orange, their favorite colors.  A sunset for my boys. I make a note to tell them. It was your sunset, I will say.

In Atlanta I have a two hour layover and long walk down a stark, modern corridor to the international terminal. At some point between the bathrooms and my gate, I pass a hanging sculpture – a corn cob with a dragon tail that looks like a giant flying penis. I stop dead in my tracks. I take a picture. I send it to my brothers with a witty hashtag. We have a ball with this picture. I find my gate and a seat. I sit down, and I laugh. I laugh and laugh, uncontrollably, at the absurdity of the sculpture, until I begin to cry. I pretend it’s from laughing so hard at the flying corn penis, but now I cry uncontrollably, just waiting.

I cry for him, and I cry for me.

What’s next? I think.

What’s next?

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Spin–Santiago Part II

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The whoopee pies stay in the freezer, our special treat waylaid as I frantically search for the ipad and sit the kids, both in the same kitchen chair, in front of its glowing screen. They oblige without complaint, barely noticing the frenetic pace at which I work to “secure” them. I need them to not move, to not need, while I call…

…everyone.

I FaceTime my husband from the bedroom upstairs, but there’s a ten second delay that feels like light years instead of miles between us. The doctor thinks what? Tell me what you said after “tomorrow”? We end the call and email instead.

I pace the small bedroom as I wait for his doctor to answer his cell phone. I hear muffled restaurant sounds in the background: dishes, conversation, chairs scraping. He is surprised I have his number – I’ve been careful to only use it in emergencies – but receives me graciously.

“Yeah, this isn’t good,” he says once fully briefed.

The players are all ready, we’ve run this play before. My mother tells me to call her after each person I talk to, an exhausting request. I text her instead. My mother-in-law asks if I’m okay. “I’m so tired,” I hear myself say. And for the first time tonight I realize the predominant response to my husband’s illness is exhaustion, my body immediately recognizing this emotion and how it felt before, the last time this very thing happened. The last time my husband was hospitalized. The last time, when he almost died.

I ask her how she’s doing. She doesn’t answer. I promise her news and we hang up without goodbyes.

I put the boys to bed and grab laundry. All laundry. Any laundry. Dirty clothes. Clean clothes. Nothing is safe. It will all be washed and folded and stowed before I go to sleep. I will make a pile of “if I go” clothes to throw in a suitcase. Let’s see, I think, it’s spring time in Santiago right now. I grab some sandals. Throw in some tank tops. Add a scarf, just in case. The pile is moderate; enough to get through a week without having to do wash. I have no idea what I’m preparing for.

Late into the night I wash, dry, fold, repeat. I immerse myself in television shows and redundant tasks. It feels nice, this forgetting. But then they end and I turn off the television and close up the house. I have ticked everything off my to-do list: doctors have been contacted, my husband’s medical history sent via email to the hospital in Chile, flights from DC to Santiago checked and cross-checked for departures and price, but mostly expediency. Now I wait. It suddenly feels so cold. So lonely.

I wonder, just for a second, if he will come home.

I turn on the heat before I go upstairs.

***

The warm water drips from my face, and I force myself to gaze into the mirror as a harsh, blunt thought takes over my brain: run away, it says. I take this line of thinking and run with it, farther than I should: could I leave? Where might I go? Would I take the kids? The scenarios appear in my head but don’t stick, draining away with the running water. I stare into my own eyes, not recognizing the woman looking back.

Love, there is so much love between us. But as the water runs down my face into the chipped enamel sink below, I wonder if I have the strength to surmount another journey into the unknown, into the depths of illness and cancer and set backs and questions without answers…again. I dry my face, holding my head in my hands for a moment, the soft fibers cushioning the contours of my cheeks, my nose – the face he knows so well. The face he loves. Of course I will stay, I remind myself.

Of course.

I check the weather in Santiago as I peek in on the boys; they sleep soundly, the faint whisper of snores from their puffy, perfect little lips. I brush hair out of faces and cover them with blankets, daring to kiss those gorgeous, smooth cheeks. I turn on the small heater in their room. It is so cold.

I crawl into the cold sheets of my bed and lay back, closing my eyes. But I am spinning, spinning. I try to hold on to something, anything, but I have done this before and remember this sensation. There is nothing stable, nothing certain. I check facebook. Tell me a story, I demand to my small iphone screen, tell me something good. Yes, show me a video of a mink in a bathtub, I want to see that.

I finally close my eyes, remembering how my life went from static to spinning in a matter of moments: a special dinner out with my boys tonight, turning a Sunday without daddy into a “date.” The Mexican restaurant is warm and my youngest devours his platanos and tamales without protest.

“I have a special treat for you when we get home,” I smile at them, getting in close to see the twinkle in their eyes. They don’t disappoint: their eyes light up in tandem, their grins spread wide across their little faces. We are happy. We are normal. We are safe. I check my phone as the dishes are cleared and the check is delivered.

Something’s wrong, he writes, I have a high fever, I’m going to the hospital. Can you call me?

That is how the spinning starts.

***

Sleep is still elusive but now I refuse to check the clock. The blankets are so warm, the pillow so soft, but I spin and spin. There’s a helicopter circling above the neighborhood, the frantic choppers whirring loudly. It disappears save a faint buzz.

I am almost asleep when it roars back into my ears, reminding me that it never really went away.

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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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Texas Stars & Songs to be Sung

I just don’t like cancer, the voice says.

Something distasteful.

You’re in this right now, we’re not ….we just can’t drop everything and be there for you.

An inconvenience.

That’s what this disease is to some.

***

Very well written, he writes, but our readers like content that’s a little bit lighter, more up-lifting.  Try again, but on a completely different topic.

 Too sad.  Too real.  Not happy enough.

That’s what this disease is to others.

***

I feel the heat through my boots, the only warm spot on my body.  I tilt the sole of my shoe up to be sure it’s not melting.  I snuggle into my jacket and stuff my hands deeper into my pockets to keep them warm.  Looking across the campfire, my brothers are laughing; my husband nurses a beer with a bemused smile on his face.  Beyond their fire-lit faces are the faint outlines of trees, dark silhouettes against an even darker background.  And beyond the trees reaching their branches toward the sky, a blanket of black.  Every now and then the quiet Christmas Eve night is punctuated with howling coyotes.  We stop to debate their location and numbers.  We listen again, but this time, nothing.

“They’re on their way,” my youngest brother grins over the flames.  We laugh at him but I catch my other brother peek over his shoulder.  We’re still new here.

Only when I look up do I notice the stars.  Oh, the stars. The big Texas sky has no competition here, surrounded only by sprawling farmland and coyotes; it sparkles and shines over the city dwellers at the campfire.  The volume of stars, the sheer vastness of the sparkling sky, the years and years that separate us from them–it stuns, and I can do nothing but stare.

A rustling in the leaves nearby startles for a moment, but I quickly remember.  “Come here, pup,” I call to the black shadow shivering in the distance.  Skittish but sweet, he wiggles his skinny body slowly to me between tail wags and then licks my hand obsessively before rolling onto his back.  Our mascot for the week, the dog found us while we explored the surrounding woods and followed us home.  His protruding rib cage, his fear of us coupled with his yearning to be touched, it spoke to all of us and we immediately adopted him into the family.

“Lay by the fire, little guy,” my brother calls out, but the dog isn’t convinced.  Instead, he heads back to his pile of leaves, watching us from a few yards away.  I imagine him content as he listens to the laughter, creeping out of his nest every few minutes to sneak a few graham crackers.  I wonder if he sees those stars.

Two days later we walk the muddy path to the neighbors–neighbors who live a quarter mile away.  My boys are delighted that we have to open the gate each time we go visit, and that we must close it behind us.  Our dog follows, and we step over cow manure and around mud puddles under a bright Texas sun and cloudless sky.  We are headed to the farm.

When we arrive, it’s as if we’ve come home.  The farmer and his wife, whom we met a few days before, welcome us with open arms.  The boys stop a moment to greet the longhorns, then seek out the grandchildren and eventually they all find their way into the chicken coop.  The five children take turns scooping feed into a pitcher, pouring the feed into a cup, dumping the cup down the gravity shoot, and watching the hens peck at it below.  No eggs today, but my son remembers exactly how he held those eggs a few days before.  “Very careful,” he says slowly, annunciating his words to show me just how careful to be, “like this,” he says, cupping his little hand and making a slow scooping motion.

One of the granddaughters exits the coop with a peck-marked hand, a present from a hungry hen.  I peek inside to find the garbage pail of feed mostly empty and tumbled onto the earth.  I right it, and see my oldest still stepping diligently onto an overturned bucket so that he can reach the feeder.  Working hard on the farm.

I overhear my mother’s conversation with the farmer’s wife right outside the coop.

“I don’t know who had more fun, my husband or hers!” she laughs, her brown eyes shining.  “He loves to talk about his farm.”

I know instantly that she is talking about the farmer and my husband.  Wanting to glean as much as he could about this farmer’s organic operation, my husband asked if he could spend Christmas Eve morning at the farm. “I want to be a farmhand!” he joked, then dialed the farmer and set the date.  He was going to learn the secret to growing perfect basil.

“After your husband left, I asked my husband if he had a good time,” the farmer’s wife speaks to me over the head of her grandson whom she bounces back and forth as she holds him.  “And he said to me, ‘we need more of him in the world'”.  I smile but then turn back toward the coop.  I can feel my eyes burning with tears.

“Yes we do,” my mom agrees from outside the coop, next to the farmer’s wife.

I nod slowly as my boys shuffle past me back to the yard.  I watch the hens peck the dirt, unable yet to turn around.

Yes, we do.

***

Our last night at the cabin my brother wants to watch the stars.  We put on our layers, our hats and mittens and jackets over pajamas, and wander outside, then tilt our chins to the sky.  In between sips of beer and bouts of laughter that makes my sides hurt, we try to pick out constellations.  My husband and youngest brother point upward, gloved fingers tracing pictures in the sky.  My mind wanders back to Christmas morning, a hug in the kitchen while red and green wrapping paper is torn and tossed aside, while Christmas music plays in the background.  I hold him tight and whisper my secret into my husband’s ear.   “I’m so happy you’re healthy”, and he doesn’t miss a beat when he replies, “me too.”  I hold him long enough to remember the pain and uncertainty of last Christmas, but I release him before I get drawn into the past.  His clinical trial is a few months from over, and we are miles and miles from where we started a year ago.  We steal a quick kiss under invisible mistletoe.

Our baby waddles over to my mom, handing her a new book.  “Read this?” he asks, then settles into her lap before she can reply.  As she opens the book, I can see the happiness about to burst right out of her.  Nothing can touch us today.  Today, we have it all.

“There’s Orion’s Belt,” my brother declares, sweeping his hand across the sky.

“We already said that,” my other brother replies, and instantly I am brought back to the present.  I laugh–we’re older but we’re still the same–and take a sip of cider, then breathe in the frosty air.  The dark night has surrounded us.  I look down a dirt road, the one that leads to the farmer’s house, and I squint to see if, just maybe, the dog will appear.  He never followed us home, content to play on the farm.  He’s found a proper home, and I smile to myself in the dark.

But I whistle one more time, just in case.

***

We are on the road early, trading in county roads for highways and Texas stars for street lights as we drive to the airport to head home to DC.  Between the sing-alongs and cow-sightings, I lean my head back and stare out the window.  As the fields fly past the window, and farms turn into strip malls, I see the months of 2013 falling away.  An unbelievable year, one I can’t wait to end.  But then I sit up straight; I remember the sunsets we watched, the family we visited, the new friends we made and the bonds we strengthened with old.  I remember the songs we’ve sung, the hugs we’ve given and received, the parties we danced, the vows we witnessed, those that we’ve lost; the laughter, the love.  The stars.  Oh, the stars.

Yes, cancer is inconvenient, and so distasteful that I wish we could spit it out of our lives.  It isn’t uplifting; it’s too heavy and too sad…

But as we pull into the rental car drop-off and my boys belt out their favorite song, I ask my husband to leave the car running, to let them keep singing, to take just a minute.  Because in spite of the inconvenience, the heaviness, cancer brings into focus the most important elements of life, like the beauty in songs from the mouths of babes and keeping the car running to finish a song.  It realigns our priorities, like finding a good dog a good home, and sharing a coffee and conversation with a farmer at his kitchen table.  It has turned every single day into something to celebrate.

I watch my husband lift half a dozen suitcases out of the trunk and stack them precariously onto the luggage rack.  He closes the trunk and pushes forward, two boys in tow.  They are all singing.

No, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything; not even for years of stars in the Texas sky.

Sometimes, you just have to finish the song.

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Missing the Life

The table is set, and our maid is furiously working in the kitchen to finalize the Thanksgiving prep.  Through the embassy my husband secured a turkey, though I told him it was an exception made only for our guests.  I close the glass french doors to the balcony; the sun streaming in on this hot summer day in November is inhospitable and I turn on the air conditioning unit located above our dining room table.  I light the candles, all shades of fall and markedly out of place on this summer day in Buenos Aires, but it is Thanksgiving, and I aim to give our argentine guests an authentic taste of the holiday. I check the time–they will be here soon.

After two bottles of wine and a sampling of everything from the turkey to the stuffing to the pumpkin pie, our argentine guests are laughing and playing with the baby on the floor while our toddler sidles up to their teenage son, curious about the smartphone he holds.  The argentine general reaches for the baby and brings him to his lap, cooing and beaming, wishing aloud for a grand baby of his own.

His wife leans toward me.  “Look at this,” she says with a loving smile, “he can’t keep his hands off babies.” She links her arm through mine and launches into a story, one of many she keeps handy, about her husband and his weakness for kids.

She heads toward the kitchen before they go to thank our maid for her efforts and delicious cooking, and just before they exit our apartment and slide into the elevator, doles out the biggest of hugs.

“Thank you,” she looks me square in the eye, “this has been the most lovely experience we’ve ever had.  Thank you for showing us this tradition of family and love.”

“Just a typical Thanksgiving full of screaming kids and too much to drink!” I laugh and blow her a kiss as the elevator closes and we hear them descend, knowing this is my last scene of the day.  The boys, napping, and the maid cleaning up–the perks of diplomatic life–allow my husband and I a moment alone.

“Do you think they suspected anything?” I ask him as we sit in the living room, overlooking the park four stories below, alive with argentines and their beloved dogs in the summer sun, while the remnants of the meal lay scattered about the dining room table, awaiting their second showing.

“I don’t think so,” he leans back in his chair, a fresh glass of wine in hand, wistful.

 

I remember the toast he gave as he started off the meal, awkwardly attempting to explain Thanksgiving to our guests, the argentine general and his wife and son, and ending with a toast to those things for which we are thankful.  His eyes stall on me as he expresses his gratitude for his family, and I know he is remembering our visit to Hospital Aleman yesterday, the news, the waiting room, crowded, solemn.  Remembering the follow up trip to Starbucks as we digested the information: cancer in the lymph node, at least one, possibly more.  A follow up with the surgical team scheduled.  A breakdown in the back of the coffee shop, a fellow patron staring while desperately trying to seem uninterested, a second trip to the napkin holders to dry my unyielding tears.  He stops mid-sentence during his monologue, trying to compose himself, finishing the toast with strength and poise.  I glance at our guests, managing a weak smile.  I hold my breath, and they do not notice.  But if they look closely, I’m sure they’ll see his cancer all over my face.

***

It’s a date I always remember.  The birthday of my high school best friend; I remember the year I made her a cake and she told me it was her favorite gift.  No matter the year, no matter that the depth of our friendship has dramatically changed, I always remember.

This year, however, I remember differently.

Driving in the car with my husband, the boys in the backseat, we are on our way to dinner, to the home of friends who now live in DC but once lived with us in Buenos Aires.  It’s dark, even though it’s early.  I glance at my iphone before heading inside and notice the date: November 23.  But tonight, I don’t remember my high school friend and her inclination for fast, tight hugs and high pitched squeals.  Tonight I remember November 23 one year ago, in the dermatologist’s office in Buenos Aires.  A seemingly ordinary Wednesday.  Waiting in a crowded room with other patients, all looking just as anxious, as I resist the urge to vomit in the nearby bathroom.  It will be a false alarm, I tell myself.  We are called by the doctor into her office, separated from the waiting room by paper thin walls.  I feel the eyes of all the other patients burning into my back as we wait, holding our breath.

It’s cancer, she says.

An hour later we are seated at the Starbucks across from Hospital Aleman in downtown Buenos Aires, trying to make sense of the spanish phrases, make sure we understood, make sure there was no possible way that my interpretation was wrong.  An hour after that, I am home in our downtown apartment, in the arms of our maid, crying in the kitchen.  Having lost her husband to cancer five years earlier, she is all too familiar with my fears.

“Have faith,” she says, looking at me through sad brown eyes, before escaping into the laundry room.

“Should I cancel Thanksgiving?” I ask my husband as I pick up the toys scattered in the living room, moving books back to their shelves, righting pillows, folding blankets, trying to put my life back together.

“No,” he says without missing a beat, “why would we do that?  Besides, everything’s ready.  And it’ll be fun.”

But neither of us are convinced.

***

Our friend’s home is a treasure trove of reminders of their life in Argentina–wild game hung from the wall, antique maps framed in the entryway, cow-hide rugs warming the dark wood floors.  The welcome is warm and the kids whirl themselves into a frenzy of toys and games of chase as the adults take turns watching and drinking and holding the baby.  While our hostess busies herself in the kitchen, I settle in with an argentine red and her birthday gift, a picture book of their time as a family in Argentina–a highlight reel of their adventures, their travel, their once-in-a-lifetime memories made.  And as I look at them, posed in front of glaciers, standing at the Chile/Argentine border, drinking Malbecs at estancias, riding argentine horses, I feel something I haven’t in a while: longing, an ache, and the sting of envy.  I see in this book what our life should have looked like.  I see the memories we should have made.  I close the book.

On our way home, I ask my husband if he remembers which day he was diagnosed.  It’s  not a fair question; I know it was a year ago today.  And I can’t decide if he is truthful when he replies that he’s not really sure.  We are both playing chicken, seeing who will blink first.

“I miss Argentina,” I say after he reveals nothing, “I buried it somewhere down deep, and tonight it all came up to the surface.”

A phone call to our dermatologist friend, a Thanksgiving meal, and three days later, our life in Argentina is over after only six months.

“I know,” he says with a side glance as he turns on his blinker and slows at the light, one more turn before we’re at our DC townhouse.  “Did you see their book?  I can’t believe all the things we’ve missed.”

***

The boys sleepily fill up on Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch–a full day of romping with cousins and friends has left them utterly exhausted.  My husband steps into our galley kitchen but I intercept him with a tight squeeze and he doesn’t let go, burying himself in my shoulder.  This morning his rash was back–my pits are the pits!, he puns–and this afternoon his leg has swollen.  The cancer is gone, yet somehow it lingers, always lingers.  We sway back and forth to music only we hear, and I catch our oldest son staring at us over his sandwich.  I wink at him, toss him a smile.

He stares silently for a few seconds, elbows resting on the rustic dining table that he’s covered with stains, then drops his sandwich, a smile spreading across his rosy cheeks.  “You guys look like you’re married!” he proclaims, pointing out our embrace, getting his sidekick to look our way, his face covered in jelly.

We laugh but my husband still doesn’t let go.  My toddler, growing up, already learning what love looks like.

“Well that’s good, because we are!” I laugh, and breathe in the scene–two beautiful towheaded boys, a warm, sunlit home, the boys’ artwork taped to every available wall.  They have lost interest in us and begin shouting at each other, each one mimicking the other with growing volume until they end the game in a fit of giggles.

I am still wrapped in the embrace of the man I married only four years ago, and from this vantage point it’s pretty clear:  we actually haven’t missed a thing.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Thousand Paper Cranes

The rain falls sporadically in large drops on formal wear and the wind theatrically blows small yellow leaves through the courtyard of the textile museum as we watch the couple in front of us–she in flowing ivory, he in a crisp suit–read their vows. Occasionally she sneaks a glance at the looming clouds, wondering whether they will merely threaten or unleash atop her unprepared guests. My husband, on my left, holds my hand and traces the ridges of my knuckles with his thumb, then plays with my engagement ring. I know he is remembering us.

Moments earlier, an unconventional reading takes place, one chosen from Story Corp. It is an interview between a wife and her husband battling an aggressive form of cancer. At the mention of the word I immediately become nauseated. Keep it together, I tell myself, not now. I move my eyes from the two gifted story tellers at the microphone to the small white pebbles forming the aisle to my right, trying to focus on them instead of the emotionally driven story coursing its way through the microphone and into the crowd. My husband clears his throat, shifts subtly in his seat. My right hand clenches my purse while my left, still wrapped safely in his, remains composed. Amazing, I think, that my subconscious will throw all my anxiety and fear into the right side of my body–the solitary part–, allowing my husband to believe I am, at least outwardly, unaffected. When the reading is over, I notice I am sweating despite the rapid drop in temperature and cool fall breeze. A deep breath. It’s over.

The couple before us beams at each other as they are pronounced husband and wife, and the crowd collectively beams back. We stand and applaud at the union we’ve just witnessed, iphones poised for the perfect shot. As they exit the ceremony by way of the pebbled garden path, a breeze blows her dress and it billows softly, perfectly, before she is lifted into the air by her new husband. I know she feels weightless in his arms, buoyed by love and the feeling that the world, for this moment, has stopped spinning–just for them.

After a brisk cocktail hour beneath a setting November sun and a canopy of old elm trees, we are ushered into an intimate tent adorned with soft lights, a small dance floor and the cozy feel of family. After several glasses of wine, the couple seated beside us are our new best friends, and the wife my unwitting confidant. The bride graces us with her presence and we swoon, adoring her dress, the wedding, the music. She graciously fawns over us, telling us what amazing women we are, how she knew we’d hit it off. Then, to me, she says, “I am so happy you live here!”, and for a second–a split second–I have forgotten the life-changing event that brought us back to DC.  “Me too!” I smile back, grabbing her hands in mine. And for that split second I mean it, not because it’s a great place to be if we can’t be in Buenos Aires, not because it’s a great place to receive cancer treatments, but because it’s a place full of people we love. It’s a place brimming with friends we have yet to meet. For a split second, it is simply a wonderful place to live.

But as she leaves, beckoned by the neighboring table, she steals the excitement, and I feel the sincerity draining out of me. I return to my seat, reach for the champagne. I remember now. I turn to my new friend, and her soft brown eyes seem so trustworthy that suddenly I am blurting out our dirty little secret.

“My husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re back in DC and not in Argentina.”

She looks at me without blinking. It seems as though she’s stopped breathing.  And just as suddenly as my outburst, the DJ speaks.

“Will the happy couple please come to the dance floor for their first dance?”

The intimate crowd cheers and applauds, encouraging the newlyweds. My new friend continues to stare, and though I shift my gaze back and forth from the dance floor to her, “look,” my eyes say, “this is what we’re doing now, we’re watching them,” she doesn’t break her gaze. Finally, she begins to nod slowly, then turns her face toward the dance, toward happiness. With her back to me, I chastise myself for my impulsiveness. I question my sanity. I have another drink. The bride is ethereal as she dances with her husband, the first dance of their married life. He accompanies her as every groom should, like the luckiest man on earth, happy to simply bask in the warmth of her smile. A lift straight out of the movies has the crowd emoting and clapping, her dress swirling around and around–a photographer’s dream shot. The iphones come out, blocking the view. The dance is over and they are breathless and weightless, floating back to their table, lost in the crowd.

My new friend turns back to me. “I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I had no business doing that to you. You didn’t need to know that,” though I know it can never be unsaid. I feel my husband at my back but don’t turn around; I’ve betrayed him, his secret. Tonight, seated among strangers, he was healthy. No one knew. No one needed to.

“I work with survivors of trauma,” she starts, “I understand your need to share your story. Trust me, you are not the first person to say something like that.” Her words fight against the eighties music montage thumping against the dance floor. I smile at her, wondering how to get out of the conversation that I began, and scan the crowd, hoping to find a way out. My eyes catch on the hanging mobile over the dance floor–a thousand origami paper cranes. All different colors, they twirl softly in the whisps of night air that manage to crash the party. A nod to the groom’s Chinese heritage, the cranes swaying over the dancing wedding guests symbolize good fortune, happiness and prosperity, a proper wedding wish. But Japanese culture celebrates the legend of senbazuru, where folding a thousand paper cranes grants one recovery from an illness and a lifetime of health. Though I doubt the bride included the cranes for us, I can’t help but hope someone is wishing for my husband’s lifetime of health.

A familiar song comes on. “Let’s go!” I rise and the guests at our table follow my lead, and we dance in a circle around the newlyweds under the promise of a thousand paper cranes.

A few hours later, the couple dashes out of the textile museum’s front steps through a sparkling send off on to their next destination. They leave in a bubble of joy and pleasure and we bask in their wake as they climb into their getaway car. Once they’re gone, our sparklers fizzle out and the guests hold nothing but metal sticks. We throw them into ash trays, say our goodbyes, and my husband and I depart for home. My new friend waves goodbye and promises we’ll see them again soon. And in spite of my penchant for over-sharing, I believe her.

In bed that night, my body still drowning in champagne, my husband holds me. He pushes a piece of hair from my forehead, then leans down to kiss me. “Do you think they know what those vows meant?” he asks as he settles back against his pillows, covering us both up with the warm comforter.

“The only thing that matters is us,” I hear them both say, staring into each others eyes and forgetting their guests, and I am amazed that they have both written the same line in their vows. And I am equally amazed by the accuracy of the sentence, especially coming from a couple on the precipice of their union.  They already have marriage all figured out.

“No,” I answer my husband, “I don’t think they know what their vows actually mean. But,” I tilt my face up to his, “neither did we.”

My mind slips back to a few evenings before, where my husband, afraid for so long, finally let go.

“I read that email, did you read it?” he asks me in the basement where we spend our evenings side by side on the couch once the boys are in bed. I know immediately he is referring to the email from a friend who emailed with research about the longest study of Ipi. An optimistic note, an email to show that his drug has been shown to prolong life–prolong life–for ten years.

“No,” I answer, looking anywhere but his face, “I just couldn’t.”

“Well, I did, and it scared the shit out of me,” he drops his head so I can’t see his tears, but his voice catches and his body, so strong for so long, yields to the fear he has buried deep down. I wrap him in my arms, trying to protect him from studies with ten to fifteen years of life extension as their probable outcomes. I cushion his weight and he drapes himself over me, his head buried deep in my shoulder, his hands gripping my back in anguish, in fear. It’s not enough. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, it will not be enough.

A lifetime. Great grand babies. One hundred years. Maybe that would be enough.

No, I think, our vows did not prepare me for this.

The champagne is manifesting now in thirst and the beginnings of a headache. I reach over my husband to the nightstand for a sip of water. I settle back in by his side, remembering the cranes dangling like a wish over the wedded couple. As I curl myself up into him, just under his arm, one leg draped over his, I hope they never know the full weight of their wedding vows. I close my eyes and feel sleep wash over me, slowly drowning wedding vows and breakdowns and the need to share my traumatic secrets. And right before the last wave of sleep covers me completely, I wish for them a lifetime of health.

And one thousand cranes.

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Side Effects

“This is it? Where’s the entourage?”, I joke as the doctor moves past me to his chair in the corner, trailed only by the nurse practitioner and research coordinator today. The cramped room, normally packed with interns and fellows, all eager to examine my husband’s betraying body, seems strangely vacant even though there are still five of us for today’s checkup.

The joke goes unacknowledged.

“A number of people have died on your arm of the trial,” the doctor dives in, “most were frail, old; probably dying due to high toxicity in the body. I would’ve have allowed them to participate, but it’s a national trial and I don’t have much oversight. So, in any event, your arm of the trial as been suspended pending further review”.

I feel the blood drain from my face and then heat creeping up my neck; I grip the seat of the chair with my arm locked at my side, a reflex to keep myself from falling. I try to listen to the words he’s saying as he continues, but I only hear the word “died” on repeat in my head. I try to focus on the doctor. I remind myself that my husband is healthy, alive, sitting next to me.

I take a breath.

“How many people died, exactly?” I ask, hoping I seem unaffected.

“Around six or so, out of four hundred”, he says.

“And how many of them were old and frail, in their eighties, as you said?”

“I can’t say for certain”, he responds, crossing his leg, left ankle atop his right knee. He wears a pin in the shape of a heart with the letter M on his lapel. I focus on this as he speaks, “and this was all in the first twelve weeks of dosing.”

“So, to clarify, none of them after the initial twelve weeks?” I press him, wanting to know if my husband is at risk.

“Again, I can’t say for certain, but I think most of them did. We’ll know more after the review in six weeks, at which point we’ll let you know if the trial will continue or if we’re done,” he uncrosses his legs and sits a little straighter, pointing his body toward the door.

I glance at my husband, seated by my side, a buffer between the doctor and me. He has not spoken. My silence is his cue.

“So, I might be done with the trial in November? And then what happens?” he speaks, shaking off the surprise, stepping into his proactive patient role.

“Then that’s it, you’re done,” the doctor says, opening his hands. Ta-da!

Just moments before, I think to myself, we were scribbling notes about TSH levels, waiting for blood work results, thinking my husband’s high TSH levels were indicative of a pituitary gland side effect. We were worried about the wrong side effect.

We recap the news but it is clear that there is little else to discuss at this point. The doctor rises, shakes my husband’s hand, then mine.

“See you in six weeks,” he says as he strides out of the small room.

Some chit chat ensues, some tying up of loose ends. The nurse practitioner mentions a waiver she’ll provide for my husband for work, the research coordinator tells us to follow up tomorrow for the blood work results. All light and fluffy comments: have a great week! and see you soon!

We walk out of the cancer center at Georgetown and into the autumn sunlight, handing off our valet stub and waiting for our car’s return. I rest my purse on a cement pylon and lean into it, supporting the weight of the news. The breeze blows the first of the fall leaves across the circle drive and the scent of crisp leaves mingles with freshly-laid asphalt–a strange combination. I watch as college co-eds traverse the parking lot in groups, excited chatter, their enthusiasm written on their faces. An odd juxtaposition, these young students, entering and exiting the cancer center. I feel our life changing again, I feel us entering another state of flux, and I watch book bags full of knowledge bounce in front of me on the backs of students whose biggest challenge is a paper, an exam, an unrequited love. I watch them jealously, longingly.

“How are you doing?” my husband asks, leaning into my sight line and trying to make eye contact.

“How are you doing?” I volley back, wondering which part of this news hit him the most.

He shrugs as the car pulls up, scattering the co-eds, and we are back in motion.

“It’s just ironic,” he throws over his shoulder before he slides into the driver’s seat.

I remember a few hours ago, lunch on the other side of the Potomac, sitting across from my husband at an overpriced by lovely restaurant in the heart of our town–our favorite. I sip my latte and listen as he explains all of his career options and possible moves come the end of his clinical trial in May. I gaze out the window as the city bustles with lunchtime traffic, taking another sip. He continues exploring every option, every possibility. I pepper him with questions. The waitress delivers our lunch but he doesn’t slow down–too much to consider. I see a nanny walk in front of the window, talking on her iphone while pushing a stroller that cradles a sleeping toddler.

He pauses a moment to take a bite, then looks up and asks, “so, what would you like to happen?”

I consider the question as I cup my latte with both hands, trying to warm my chilled body with the hot ceramic mug. I am not ready for the cool weather.

“I’d like to not move for a little while,” I smile at him. I remember the four different homes in less than eighteen months, then shrug, “but I don’t know how much control we really have once the Air Force decides to put you somewhere after the trial.” I look again out the window, the tree-lined street hinting at the change of season with a few stray leaves, the busy pedestrians in long sleeves. The sky is a crisp blue, and despite the changing season, the sun still warm.

“I love this city, and I’d like to stay for a number of reasons; our family and friends are here,” I pause a moment, flashing back to the backyard party we threw a few weekends ago, a crowd full of faces who love my husband all gathered under a dark mid-September night sky, smiles lit up by patio lights and candles, raising their glasses to toast to his health. Knowing true friendship—one of the best side effects of cancer, I think to myself, then continue. “I’d like to know where our kids will go to school, I’d like to not pack up our stuff again, but namely, I’d like you to have continuity of care. Doesn’t that count for something? Can’t we be to stay here for a while based on that alone?”, I ask, hopeful.

“Well, in theory,” he leans back in his chair, his turn to contemplate the city just beyond the window, “but at least we have until May to figure it out and weigh all of our options”, he finishes his last bite and then picks up his coffee. “It is a great town,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

We are driving home again on this all-too-familiar route. “I stay in the left lane, right?” my husband asks as we leave Georgetown, crossing the Key Bridge. I nod but the question is rhetorical, he knows this part of town all too well. He is preoccupied by the news, distressed about what this means for our “plans”. I am preoccupied with six deaths. Always back to dying. The familiar sense of the unknown settles between us. Our life, only a few hours ago, was headed in a certain direction. We had options, we had time. And now on the drive home, it’s all up in the air–again.

***
Now it is morning, and again I clutch my warm mug and wrap my sweater tighter around me as I try to shake off the morning cold. My son brings me a credit-card sized brochure that he’s pulled out of his daddy’s wallet–he is always leaving it within their reach.

“Look, mommy! My favorite book!” He flashes the small packet and it registers as something important. I ask him for it, and his small hand presses it into mine. He watches me for a second, then decides to read another favorite book. I open it up: a credit card-sized quick-reference for my husband listing all of the possible side effects of his treatment.

All the information anyone would ever need, all in this tiny little brochure. And yet, even now, I am still unprepared for the side effects.

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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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