He said it matter-of-factly, like he was telling me I needed to replace the brakes on my car.
Rod was in a recovery room after yet another procedure to determine the source of his unhealth. It wasn’t so much a room as a place to park his hospital bed, separated from other beds by curtains that didn’t go down to the floor, whose top couple of feet were mesh. In the other ‘rooms’ I could see the legs of those attending other recoverers, and their conversations spilled over into our little curtain room as I’m sure ours did into theirs. The only light in the room came from the nurse’s station across the hall from the row of curtain rooms.
A few minutes earlier, they brought me into this curtain room from a larger, general waiting area. The procedure itself was complete; they told me I could wait here until they brought him in to recover from the anesthesia. Against the wall next to the now silent and blank rolling monitor was a single chair for me to sit on.
I had with me a bag containing several things for me to do while I waited. I tried to read, but the dingy room did not lend itself to this or any of the activities I carefully chose to busy myself, so I sat there alone in the dark for what seemed like eternity, listening to the clock relentlessly ticking away the seconds until the nurses brought him in.
When they brought Rod into our little room, I put my stuff on the chair and stood at his bedside, holding his left hand with both of mine awkwardly over and through the raised guard rail, careful not to disturb the needle they stuck in his arm or the IV tubes it was connected to.
Time stood still in our little cave; nothing else existed in those moments of uncertainty. Would this test yield an answer? Would the answer be better than the not-knowing?
The doctor finally arrived, pulling over the curtain at the end of the bed like he was closing a door. Our little space darkened, and with the addition of another person, it suddenly seemed crowded.
He said it again, staring me right in my eyes. Not uncaring, but not compassionate, waiting for a response.
This dark little corner was quite different than the waiting room I had been in earlier while Rod was getting this procedure done. Chairs were in neat rows with side tables dotted between them. Rows were turned alternately with coffee tables between those facing each other while others were back to back. There were a couple of vending machines on the far wall opposite the unattended desk near the entrance. This waiting room was somewhat L-shaped; the short bottom of the L only hosting coffee machines and a tea station, and a bowl with bananas, apples, and oranges for those desiring healthier alternatives (or who didn’t bring change for the vending machines). On the long wall, there was a TV with news or some talk show on – I really don’t remember as I couldn’t focus on it long enough to process or remember anything going on outside of my own experience.
Yesterday I sat in this same waiting room with a couple of friends who came to support me. It was a different test, one of too many my beloved had to endure before finding the source of his discomfort. I was grateful for their company. Had the news been bad, I would have been glad of their support – their presence that would share the burden, their strength that would catch me should I become weak-kneed. It was with mixed feelings that I received yesterday’s news; everything was normal on that test, so we still didn’t know what the problem was.
Today I sat in this same, L-shaped waiting room alone. My friends offered to come sit with me again, but I assured them I would be fine. They had already taken a morning out of their week, and I felt rather silly that I even asked yesterday, given the results. I didn’t want to inconvenience them a second day in a row. I got my crocheting out of my bag as it gave me something to do with my hands that didn’t take too much mental focus – enough to distract but not derail my thoughts – and it was easily interrupted when they came in to take me to the recovery room.
“Rodney, are you awake? Can you hear?”
Getting no response from me, the doctor addressed Rod; he was still in and out of consciousness because of the anesthesia. He was laying somewhat on his right side, the doctor and I were standing at his back. He placed his hand on Rod’s shoulder in an attempt to rouse him, to elicit a response to his question.
I couldn’t see Rod’s face from where I was standing, and he hadn’t said anything since being parked in his designated spot; I had just stood there helplessly holding his hand. The procedure was an Endoscopic Ultrasound; they stuck a camera down his throat into his digestive tract to get a visual of what was going on in there. The anesthesia still had its hold on him, and the procedure itself made his throat dry and sore; this combination made speech difficult at best. Little did we know that he would become an old pro at this test, having to endure this particular test several more times before all was said and done.
“Yes,” he breathed.
I’m not sure he was prepared for how difficult it would be to speak even a single word. He struggled to swallow a couple of times, hoping to soothe his throat so he could ask the one thing now on his mind.
His question sounded more like a statement in his intonation, like the diagnosis was synonymous with its inevitable outcome.
No! Don’t ask that horrible question! They’re wrong, it’s got to be something else, something that doesn’t make you ask that horrible question! I couldn’t comprehend the only word the doctor spoke to me. How is it that he seemed more clear-headed than I when he’s the one with more than one reason to not comprehend. How have you gone from hearing that awful C-word to anticipating your death so quickly –while you’re still under the effects of anesthesia??
“About an hour and a half.”
You coward! You know what he meant! You come in here with a death sentence, and then you smugly avoid the question?!? Rod didn’t respond. Maybe the anesthesia got the best of him after his earlier exertion to speak and he fell back to sleep. Maybe this is what Rod meant, and he was satisfied with the answer. Maybe it was my own subconscious – my own fear – that was presuming this outcome, that wanted to know how much time I had left with my beloved.
Silence hung in the air. We don’t have to accept that word just because some guy in a white coat said it. That’s not us. He has the wrong diagnosis – or the wrong patient. That C-word is not part of our lives, or our future. We’re supposed to grow old together, be there together when the rest of our grandbabies arrive, and watch them all grow up. We’re supposed to be that cute old couple that holds hands at the mall, that visits the Young Married’s Sunday School class bestowing the wisdom of our years on the starry-eyed newlyweds or practical advice to the frazzled working parents. That’s our future. It’s long and full of life, reaping the rewards of hard work and lives well lived. Not this. This isn’t right.
“Are you alright?”
His eyes met mine once again. Alright?!? What does that even mean? I don’t even know what you just said to me. What am I supposed to do with that? What’s going to happen to him? To us? It’s a common word that suddenly isn’t. It’s impersonal; indifferent and detached. It indiscriminately lands where it will, without respect for or deference to its recipient. It’s evil and it’s cruel and it’s cold. And now it has landed front and center in our lives, for however long that may be.
I struggled to respond. It hurt my throat as it scratched its way up into my mouth; my lips forgot how to speak as it clawed its way out of my face.