Tag Archives: melanoma

The Deep End

He waves at me from the edge of the pool, oblivious to the fact that he trails far behind the skills of his swim class compatriots, grinning from ear to ear.  He’s wearing the new bathing suit he helped pick out yesterday at the store, having outgrown last year’s.  The instructor asks each child to jump, one at a time, and swim to him.  But my son can’t swim – that’s why he’s in class – and doesn’t appear to realize he will not be caught by the instructor.  I glance up to the second level, looking at my husband as he and our baby peer through the glass at the swim classes below.  I want to ask my husband what to do, if I should warn the instructor that our son hasn’t done this before, but I can’t get his attention, his eyes fixated on the line of swimmers awaiting their turn.  One by one each child jumps and more or less swims to the instructor.  Finally, it is our son’s turn, and he leaps without hesitation – he’s done this before, always into the arms of his parents or grandparents, always caught just in time.  I watch his smile disappear first, then his blond hair, under the water.  The warm air strangles me as I wait for him to come up.

I remember sitting in my in laws’ home just over a year ago while they were away; my mother with us having flown from Texas to DC to help out.  My husband is almost two weeks post-op, missing seventeen lymph nodes from his right groin and still trying to determine which clinical trial he should enter.  We are homeless, staying with my in laws indefinitely until the Air Force decides what to do with him – what to do with a young Air Force officer and a stage III cancer diagnosis.

And I remember the night, one of the many in which I couldn’t sleep, I descend the large stair case and finding my mother, also not sleeping, on the couch.  I look at her, relief washing over me – someone is here just for me, someone whose job it is to fiercely love and protect me, and I break down.  I sob in her arms, soaking her shirt, unable to verbalize the pain and fear that grips me.

I am drowning in my husband’s recent cancer diagnosis, the loss of our life as we knew it, the uncertainty of our future, of his health, of his life–it all swirls around in my head between sobs.  Eventually, I choke out the words, “I’m so scared.  I can’t do this!”

And she holds me, crying herself, and tells me, “Of course you can, and you will.  And I wish I could take your pain away.”

I watch my son come up for air, choking and gasping with eyes wide.  He finds his instructor and is soon slashing through the water with one hand, the other gripping tightly to the instructor.  He looks over at me, and I smile at him, throwing him a quick thumbs-up.  He smiles and pushes himself up and onto the edge, sitting next to the others.

I settle into my seat, surprised at his recovery.  But glad for it.

A few moments later the kids are asked, one by one, to float on their stomachs and put their face in the water.  When it is his turn, my son searches for my face, then bursts into tears.  I know this reaction; I’ve lived it.

I go to him, this sweet child of mine visibly shaking from the fear of knowing what comes next.  No longer will he jump unabashedly into the pool, expecting someone to catch him.  From now on, there will forever be a question attached: will someone catch me?

“I can’t swim in the deep part!” he cries, his three and half year old body trembling with fear and cold from the water still dripping down his back and into big puddles on the floor.

I fight back tears as I scream in my head: I can’t swim in the deep part either! thinking about the last year and a half of so many sleepless nights, so many visits to the hospital, the oncologist, so many explanations of why we are back in DC and not in Argentina, where we should have been living for another two years.  I can’t do this, either! I want to yell.

I hold him, soaking my clothes, soaking my hair, and tell him how much I love him.  “You can do this,” I tell him, “you’re in this class because you’re going to learn how to swim.  We know you can’t do the deep part yet – but you will!  Each week you will get better and better, and then it won’t be so scary.”

I hug him again and ask him to just go sit with his class, to keep his feet in the water, see what happens.  He does, and within minutes he is back in the pool, but always with his eyes on me.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I tell him when he breaks down again, “I will be right here if you get scared.”

And this reassures him just enough to sit, his feet in the water, and watch the others.  But no more jumping.

And I know just how he feels;  we’ve struggled to swim, we’ve come up gasping for breath, looking for something to cling to, someone to save us, too.  It has taken awhile to get our confidence back, to feel safe and secure, to know who will catch us and who won’t.  But if we can keep our feet in the water, there’s the promise that things will improve – that deep parts won’t seem so scary, that cancer will stay away, that our life will get a little more “normal” every day, and we will feel confident letting go of the edge.

On our drive home from the pool, I sit next to my husband with two sleepy boys in the back seat.  “Stay awake, guys,” I call to them over my shoulder, and they smile, keep their tired eyes focused on the world beyond the glass. I send a text to a couple we’ve just met, and I remember, suddenly, that I did not share with them my husband’s cancer diagnosis.  I did not include cancer as part of our conversation; it only took me a year and half to omit.

I feel myself slowly lowering into the deep end, and not feeling quite as scared.

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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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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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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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Seize the Date

April

I am sitting in an overstuffed recliner on the oncology floor next to my husband. My feet are up and I’ve been “working” on my ipad for the last half hour. The dosing station of about a dozen small rooms, comprised merely of retractable curtains as walls, is relatively quiet today. I look to my husband and find him sleeping, surely enjoying this mid-afternoon quiet; the guided imagery session we received earlier seems to have worked for him. I return to my work but then, on my periphery, I see a flustered motion. I shift my gaze and see a man rush past our door but then turns as he realizes this was his intended stop. He enters the room, gives me a cursory glance, then continues searching. He spots his target and takes long strides to the corner of the room. His shirt is wrinkled and he holds his rain-soaked jacket wadded up in his left hand. I notice his wedding band. He grabs a small stool, cozies up to the voice on the other side of a drawn curtain. I hear the quick exchange of a kiss. My heart skips a beat. He is me.

I lean back in my chair and think back to an hour ago; I am washing my hands in the bathroom down the hall. Lost in mechanics, I am gazing at my soapy hands as I rub them together, left over right, right over left, lacing fingers together, running them underwater, saving some bubbles and then beginning again. Rinse. I hear a dragging, shuffling sound outside the door as I shut off the water, paper towel between my hand and the metal faucet as I’ve been instructed by the hand-washing posters found in every hospital bathroom. I hear a rattling sound, then another shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag.

Knock, knock.

Lost in my imagination, trying to conjure up a sight to match the sound, I am flustered in spite of knowing the bathroom was their final destination. I open the door and catch my breath.

She is small and porcelain white, almost translucent. Her young eyes smile at me and she speaks: thank you, she says with an accent–Scottish? British? Did I imagine it?– as turn off the light and begin to exit the bathroom. A bright pink bandana covers a shiny scalp underneath. She is clutching her IV pole in one hand–rattle–and receiving what I assume to be chemo through a port in her chest. She looks to be only a few years older than me. Standing in the doorway to the bathroom I feel an overwhelming urge tell her how sorry I am, how I can understand a tiny amount of her pain; I want to hug her, to help her. I want to tell her how guilty I feel that she holds an IV pole while I hold the door. But I don’t. Instead, I reach across her and turn on the bathroom light. A quick smile at each other, as if I have done a great deed, and I leave.

My husband stirs and I am brought back to the present. I can hear the man speaking to his wife behind the curtain. Soft voices, then laughter. Her IV starts beeping and the nurse rises from her post to check the problem. “Air bubble,” she informs as I hear the snap of the tube back into place and the “beep” of the machine as it begins to administer the drug. The nurse has begun to make small talk and I, with no other distractions, listen.

“Where’s your baby girl today?” she asks, and I hold my breath. A baby girl who needs her mommy, a mommy that needs her baby girl.

“She’s at daycare, they’re open until 6 so she’s okay,” the mother replies, relaxed. Now they are back to soft voices and little laughter and I recognize this: it’s a “date”. My husband and I often laugh about the irony of our “dates” being spent on the oncology floor at Georgetown. But with our two little ones waiting at home, we take what we can get. We have created a small and simple routine but one that serves its purpose: we are here for immunotherapy but happen to get some respite from the overwhelming life of parents of young children. And I realize now that, though we are by far the youngest people on the floor, we are not the only ones trying to turn the paradigm on its head.

I think back to our “date” today: we arrive at the hospital and valet the car, then head to oncology to get his blood work done. It’s a quick procedure and I catch up on my magazine reading; I sit down next to him and try to bury myself in an article but I find myself surveying the other patients: across from us, an old woman wrapped up in a mystery novel while she reclines in the chair, wearing a turtleneck and sweater and winter coat; I remember being told that chemo makes you cold. To her left there is an older gentleman, wearing a baseball hat and reading the newspaper. He gets up to use the bathroom and grunts at us, and I’m unable to discern if he’s trying to be friendly or warning us not to engage. My husband squints his eyes shut and clenches his teeth; he still doesn’t like needles. The nurse is done quickly and we grab our coats and he jokes with his nurses on the way out the door, laughing and smiling as if they were his audience, his adoring fans. And I think they actually are.

We laugh over our teas outside the Starbucks in the student center as we wait for his infusion cocktail to be ordered at the pharmacy; we are recalling a fit of hysteria we had just minutes ago in the exam room. Even as we sip our tea, we can’t keep from laughing as we joke now about the morning I found him standing at the stove, pouring his tea, looking up at me with his entire face–even his ears–swollen and red, looking like the caricature on the cover of MAD magazine. The recounting of this story now reduces us to tears again–not funny 4 weeks ago, but hysterical today. We laugh again as we imagine what the doctor, two nurses, medical student, research coordinator and oncology fellow all thought when they walked into the exam room and found us laughing so hard we were crying.

May

On a proper date, we are seated outside a restaurant on a cool Saturday evening on Memorial Day weekend. Sitting along the sidewalk watching fellow patrons and seeing the bustle of the Saturday night crowd makes us feel a bit more metropolitan, a bit closer to our city living in Buenos Aires where we felt at the center of it all. Over a cocktail and a beer, we reflect on the last year of our lives.

“I can’t believe this is our life,” I say as I twirl the straw in my glass, mixing the basil with the cucumber in my martini, “and yet, I can’t believe this is our life.” A mama bird pecks near our feet trying to quiet the chirping baby by her side. I toss her a few crumbs.

He understands immediately what I mean. “I feel really blessed, you know?” he squints as his eyes mist over. “I make pancakes for the boys on a Wednesday just because I can. To be able to spend this much time with them….it’s a gift.” He takes a sip of his beer and then clears his throat, adjusting in his chair. “It’s a gift.”

My eye is caught by an older couple that walks out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. They are arm in arm, and he leads her gently and politely down the steps as they embark on their journey. Dressed to the nines, they have a rhythm that exudes years of love, companionship, care. With his free hand, he gives me a nod and tips his hat, then returns his focus to the love of his life.

The sun is setting and the breeze picks up, making our date colder than it should’ve been. We watch the setting sun a few moments longer, then scrape our chairs against the sidewalk and stand, ready to leave. My husband grabs my hand and leads me around the table and into the street as we move toward the parking garage in the fading spring light. The cold wind whips through the cement structure, a frigid reminder of our summer drought. We’ve spent the last year chasing summers just out of reach, moving to Buenos Aires at the start of winter and moving to DC just as spring had sprung south of the equator. In one year with two moves and three winters, I am starting to feel brittle. Another gust and we pull our jackets tighter around us and huddle together for warmth and I ask “Will it ever be summer?”

July

The day is hot and muggy and the cold hospital air is a relief. Now in the maintenance phase, my husband’s treatments are spaced out, allowing us to wander away from this disease on a much longer leash before being reined back in. Today’s visit is just a checkup, no infusion, and we are both lighter. Our new home occupies a large place in our hospital date conversation, but I’m grateful for a refreshing subject. He is seated next to me with book in hand but doesn’t read it. He’s enjoying his free coffee from the Kuerig machine for cancer patients and the ability to speak to each other without little hands and voices filling spaces between us. One of the perks of a date in the oncology wing.

A man walks into the waiting area, his youth making him an anomaly. He is dressed for work and carries a briefcase and his intense face relaxes into a smile as he spots his parents, sitting together and obviously waiting for him, to my left. His voice booms as he describes his battle for a parking space, which, as he explains, is why is late. He pulls out an enormous stack of papers from his briefcase–research–and begins to talk about what he’s found online, what they need to ask the doctors. I hear him mention “melanoma”, “Ipilimumab”, and “late-stage”. My heart aches. I realize quickly he’s talking about his father, the very old man who doesn’t speak, seated between his wife and son. I surmise his diagnosis is new. I want to comfort them, to hug them, but I do neither. I am lost in thoughts about what I might say to them when the nurse calls my husband. I realize I’ve forgotten why we’ve come.

“Finally!” he whispers under his breath, a commentary on the hour-long wait we’ve had. Hour-long but full of conversation and free coffee and laughter. An extra hour of together.

“Ready?” he asks me as he gathers his book and stretches out his hand.

“Ready,” I say as I reach for his hand and look at the family next to me. I offer them a smile as I pass but they are too distracted to notice me.

And I know just how they feel.

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The perseverance of peas

The drive back from the hospital is becoming routine, and so redundant that it’s difficult to distinguish between trips. Except for today. Today there are two things that stand out; first, the lack of traffic at 6:15pm on a Tuesday afternoon, which makes the highway drive almost pleasant; we have spring break to thank for that. The second distinguishing factor tonight is the sky. “Look at that,” my husband says, leaning towards me from the driver’s side and pointing out the mass of gorgeously golden, puffy clouds, with rays of sunshine escaping at all angles, sparkling and almost tangible. “Look at how the light filters through the clouds. Wow,” his mind is elsewhere for a half a second, taking him somewhere far away from the rolling concrete, and then suddenly he snaps back to the present. “Hey, writer, describe that!” He teases me as he tosses me a glance and a smile. I roll my eyes, feigning annoyance, but make a mental note of the gorgeous sight, the much needed beauty. The high after so many lows.

I remember yesterday–a lifetime ago–I was making the same drive in reverse, alone, to the hospital where my husband was admitted for the second time in as many weeks for what they presumed to be side effects from the immunotherapy. And as my husband lays in a bed, waiting for two days for someone to tell him something, anything, he tells his story–the story of his body betraying him at every turn. He waits for news, for decisions, for diagnoses, that never come.

While he waits, I drive toward the black hole of a hospital where time is suspended and then lost. Rolling down the road, I notice the daffodils, bright against the freshly fallen snow. They line the streets in bunches–where one was planted last year there are four more in their place. Their yellow faces have fallen and they seem cold and fragile under the weight of the heavy wet snow that has accumulated since the morning. As I drive back to the hospital, wet snow hitting the windshield, I’m irritated. It’s spring, it isn’t supposed to be snowing. I try to remember if my husband had brought his plants in last night. Spring is a time for growth, warmth, for new beginnings. He shouldn’t have to worry while he’s lying in a hospital bed if his kale and sweet pea seeds are warm enough. He shouldn’t be in that hospital bed at all.

I turn left off the exit ramp, checking my mirrors but not seeing. I flash back to last week, the day after my husband returned from the first hospital stay since the treatment started. He and my toddler and father in law are crowded around two large, square planters on the back patio. I am holding our baby in my lap, listening to his coos while swinging on the back porch swing and observing the scene. My baby bounces up and down, singing a song whose words I don’t yet understand. It’s a true spring day–the birds are flitting, the air feels damp and warm against our skin, and the breeze is inviting and rich. A perfect day to plant. A perfect day for life.

My husband and father in law assess the dirt and discuss the lack of potting soil–will this affect the self-watering mechanism of the planter if they forgot to purchase topsoil? Time will tell. The engineer in both of them is ready with pencils, precision, and patience. Gardening has become my husband’s escape, his sanctuary. I surmise that giving life and sustaining life provides him a form of comfort, of healing. I watch as the scene unfolds in front of me: my husband makes small holes in the dirt with the eraser side of the pencil, my father in law hands my toddler a seed, who in turn drops it in the hole. After the work is done, me and my baby applaud the tremendous accomplishment. As they pat the soil down in place, a robin frantically chirps nearby–a warning cry. We are not welcome here, but the robin is too afraid to do more than sing.

“When will the peas and kale be ready, daddy?” my toddler looks up at my husband with earnest curiosity, his long golden hair curling out underneath his baseball hat, lifted by the gentle wind; every word he hears becoming engrained in his mind.

“Soon, buddy, very soon. They just need a little sun, a little water and a little love.” My toddler is satisfied with the answer and grabs his daddy by the hand, ready to head inside.

The image fades as I realize I’m at a stop sign and I can’t remember how I got here. Lost in a memory and now lost in the words of a Lumineers song on the radio. “Keep your head up. My love,” they are singing through the car stereo. And they are singing to me. The tears are too strong for the lump in my throat and I release it all, feeling the pain of it; the searing pain of “in sickness and health”, of snow in spring. I try to remember where I’m going. Hospital, I remind myself, to the hospital.

But what a difference a day makes, I reflect from the passenger side of the car, now nearing the house we call home. When we left the hospital this afternoon and walked into the bright sunshine, the warm air smelled like freedom, the construction workers in the hospital parking lot contrast against the blooming pink cherry blossoms brought us joy. Everything is possible. The sun is out, and yesterday’s snow forgotten. The drive home is normal, and we’re making plans for tomorrow.

We walk through the door of my in laws spacious home and are greeted with sounds of boys. My baby, a moment ago happy in the arms of his grandfather, is now anxious and whining, eager to get into my arms. Our life clicks right back into “play” from the momentary “pause” and we pick up where we left off. Our toddler, wearing his footed pajamas, cowboy hat and boots, comes rushing towards us, shouting so excitedly that we don’t understand him at first. His baba quiets the crowd so his can proceed with his announcement. He tries again:

“Daddy!! The plants are growing!” he squeals, already leading my husband outside . “Let me show you!”

Snow, spring, hospitals or home, what perseveres is life.

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Firefighters versus lymph nodes

I blink and rub the sleep out of my eyes, rolling over onto my pillow. I am alone in bed. I hear the sounds of my boys playing downstairs: squeals of delight over wind-up cars and trains. Sounds of happiness, of life. I check the time: 7:55 on a rainy Tuesday. I feel embarrassed that I’ve slept in while my mother in law tends to the boys but I remind myself that I was up twice last night with my one year old son, trying to quiet him and get him to sleep. It’s as if he senses my worries and internalizes them himself. I roll onto my back and think that perhaps by quieting my mind and spirit my baby will rest. In my groggy mind, this seems an acceptable solution. I stretch my arms overhead, yawning.

Rolling out of bed, my feet hit the carpeted ground and two steps later I’m in the bathroom where I splash icy water on my face. I study my reflection in the mirror as I brush my teeth and I don’t recognize the woman I see: her eyes puffy from bouts of tears, her gray hairs peeking through at her part. She is a stranger. I hear my husband enter the bedroom and then I hear the squeak of the mattress coils. I rinse, drop my toothbrush into the holder and open the bathroom door. He is lying on the unmade bed in his winter coat with his jeans on.

“I have some bad news,” he says.

I feel my stomach tighten as I brace for impact. After all that we’ve been through in the last three months I wonder what he could possibly tell me at this point that we haven’t yet experienced: a cancer diagnosis, the loss of his job, being forced to leave a life and home that we loved in order to receive the best possible cancer treatment. Financial stress, emotional stress, physical stress–what’s next?

“I woke up this morning with some aching and the chills. I have a fever,” he shudders slightly and wraps his coat more tightly around him, “and I found a swollen lymph node,” he absentmindedly taps on his left groin, the only remaining place in his abdomen where they reside. The phrase “lymph node” hits me like a slap in the face. I want to sit down but don’t want to appear affected so I remain standing, hoping to seem strong. We were warned about the fever, possibility of flu-like symptoms when he started the immunotherapy clinical trial last week. But up until now, we’ve been left blissfully alone by the side effects. As if my husband could out run, out smart, out “happy” them.

But a swollen lymph node? The last time a swollen lymph node made an appearance my husband was whisked to the local hospital in Buenos Aires for a needle biopsy, an ultrasound, a PET scan. He was diagnosed with melanoma, and within 7 days we found ourselves on the other side of the hemisphere for an emergency lymph node dissection in DC.

“So, can you drive me to the hospital?” He looks at me from the bed, cuddled up in his coat and blankets, and I just want to lay down with him, wrap my arms around him, make it go away. I tell him I will and hurriedly smooth my dirty hair back into a ponytail but the elastic is no match for the curls and stray hairs. No shower today, I tell myself. I give up on my hair and dress, then exit the bedroom in search of my boys. I find them in the baby’s room, still in their pajamas, blissfully ignorant of the anxiety swirling above their precious heads. They are happy to see me and I cover both little faces with kisses and “I love you’s” before leaving them with their beloved baba. We head downstairs and out the door, another drive to the hospital, another unknown, to start the day.

It’s rainy and gray as we head downtown. We are in prime rush hour and forced to listen to mind-numbing morning radio shows. One of the djs is talking with food in his mouth and then belches on air. I turn it off, disgusted. We’re stopped at a red light and a man with a cardboard sign that reads “Navy Vet, homeless, hungry” starts walking between cars. “Do you think he’s really a vet? And homeless?” I ask my husband. He shrugs and I feel like I should look for some change regardless of his story. But the light turns green and so we roll on towards the hospital. I glance in the rearview mirror as the homeless vet drops his sign onto the wet pavement. He bends to pick it up and then he’s gone, swallowed by the traffic.

My husband starts to chatter away next to me. Anyone else would attribute it to his positive attitude and normally they’d be right. But I know him, and I know this effort to seem light and positive today is a cover. He’s nervous. I hold his hand as I change lanes. “Everything is okay,” I smile at him, giving him a squeeze. “I know,” he repeats, “Everything is okay.” He squeezes my hand right back.

After twelve hours at the hospital, six different doctors and more than a dozen recitations of my husband’s complete medical history, the only thing we can be sure of is that my husband is responding to antibiotics. His fever subsides, his eyes no longer dull. Not one doctor can agree on what may have caused it, but “infection” is the diagnosis that makes them all feel comfortable. Infection of what, no one can say. And the lymph node is concerning to no one but me. I ask for a needle biopsy, I ask for an ultrasound. The latter I am granted, though whether it’s because they feel it necessary or simply wish to stop me from asking I can’t be sure. When the results are in I am told that the ultrasound showed my husband’s lymph node to be “enlarged”. I am irritated by the waste of time and obvious answer. But it doesn’t matter, because visiting hours are over and I am forced to leave. They are keeping him overnight for observation. I feel useless and powerless and angry-no one knows my husband, no one cares. He will be left alone in his room–just him, his thoughts, and his roommate, who reveals himself every now and then from behind the curtain through a belch or the sound of his urine hitting the plastic urinal while his swollen feet dangle over his bed. I feel the anger surge again as I ask myself why we are made to endure one challenge after another. Why can’t my husband just be well, sleep in his bed with his wife, wake up with his babies? Why can’t our life just be normal?

The next morning I am driving again in rush hour, again toward the hospital. Today is bright and breezy, hints of spring hitting DC and beckoning to tourists. The cherry blossoms will soon bring with their sweet blooms an influx of traffic, confused metro riders, higher-priced hotels. I find myself stopped again at the light with the homeless vet. He is back again today with a new sign and I find myself admiring his perseverance. I reach for my purse but drop it, startled, when I’m honked at. The light has turned green and this city doesn’t wait. I push the pedal down, missing another chance. This time I do not look back.

Two days later I am in the kitchen, the afternoon sun warming my back as I prepare our Friday night favorite, pad thai tofu. I am mincing garlic and surrounded by noise: my Jack Johnson Pandora station, my mother in law on the phone in the other room, my boys–all of them–rolling around on the floor playing a game; some mix of cars and zoo animals. Their jackets are lined up neatly near the front door, lying on the floor, their boots placed directly below them. They are ready at a moments’ notice.

My mother in law enters the kitchen, still on the phone. She is still talking when she pulls the phone away from her ear, removes the glasses from the top of her head and squints through the lenses to verify the identity of the caller on the other line. Without pausing to give warning, she yells “WHOOOP! WHOOOOOP!” into the family room, and then exits, offering no explanation to the voice on the other end, nor does she take the other call.

There is no mistaking this signal. In a flash my husband is running from the family room to the front door, holding our smiling, bouncing baby in his arms. He’s yelling something I don’t quite understand but it doesn’t matter–our boys do. Our toddler, squealing, abandons his toys and races after them yelling “Go! Go! Go!” I hear more squeals, I hear the rustle of jackets, the stomping of boots, the squeak of the front door opening. I toss the garlic into the pan; it sizzles and I take comfort in the familiar smells and sounds of what is now our home. I don’t look up. I hear the door slam and they are gone. I smile to myself, amazed that my husband can turn the otherwise mundane task of picking up his father from the metro into a great adventure.

“Babe?” he calls from the front door.

I drop my knife and run to the hallway, adrenalin pumping through my veins. I realize I am expecting bad news. A new habit.

“I forgot the keys to the firetruck. Can you toss them to me?”

I grab the keys to the Ford Explorer sitting forgotten on the table. Relieved, I toss them to my husband, who is radiant. Such joy, such life, such love he has for those boys. I hear the sound of metal against metal as he catches them in his left hand. Before I can speak he’s gone again, taking the firetruck on a rescue mission: Operation Recover Didi is in effect; there’s no time for chit chat.

Two days ago I was in the hospital begging for someone to check his lymph node to assure me this wasn’t melanoma’s return. I watch the SUV back out of the driveway and see my toddler wave through the window, beaming at the chance to be a fireman again this afternoon. I am not afraid of the lymph node, at least not today. Today is about Friday night dinners, rescue missions and firefighters. And today, the firefighters win.

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