Three years ago on this date, I was given a gift so profound that it changed my life. It taught me gratitude, patience, appreciation, and how to find my own grace under pressure. It was the kind of gift I never imagined I’d be asking for in my 30s, but one I went down on my knees to beg for behind closed doors.
That gift was my husband’s life.
After over a year of illness, a misdiagnosis that was almost catastrophic, and a three week period of waiting, Brian went under the knife to remove a life-threatening tumor from his colon: a tumor that was the size of a grapefruit. It had slowly been draining the life out of him, denying him the right to eat, withering him down to 120 pounds. Weak, sick, exhausted, we finally went for a third opinion and found the cancer that had been killing him. He was 30 years old. We were terrified.
It’s become a tradition of mine to remember that day here on AbbyGabs by sharing the post I wrote to celebrate Brian’s first year cancer free. It’s one of the hardest posts I’ve ever written, but it felt important to me to preserve those moments somehow, so I could look back on them one day when they begin to go fuzzy in my mind.
It’s three years later. We have moved on with our lives. The “C” word is rarely spoken in our home. We laugh all the time, we eat too much, and we enjoy the life we’ve built together. And it all hinged on the outcome of October 25, 2010. Here is our story.
The alarm clock blares into the darkness. It is 4:15 a.m. We wake in the same position in which we fell asleep: flat on our backs, staring at the ceiling, our hands still clutched together between us. It brought enough comfort in the night to allow us to sleep, even for a few short hours.
My husband gets up without a word. The shower and the antimicrobial surgical soap are waiting.
I make the bed, wake his Aunt Tina, start the coffee maker. I debate for 5 solid minutes over whether I should lay out his clothes for him. I decide to do it. This isn’t a normal day, so why should I act like it is?
Dressed and completely awake, we decide to get an early start to the hospital. The interstate is deserted. I’m unused to driving in the dark, and the empty highway startles me. Our headlights slice through the pitch black, and only road signs greet us along our asphalt path. For twenty minutes, we are silent. The radio plays quietly in the background. Tina asks me a question, I answer it. Brian sits in the seat next to me, hands folded in his lap. He tries to appear calm, but I can see the nerves dancing under his skin.
As we pull into the parking lot the sky just begins to turn pink. Morning has officially arrived. We gather our belongings–bags and afghans and books and sweaters. Changes of clothing. Warm socks. We trek to the sliding glass doors, a small caravan of modern day nomads.
The fluorescent lights are much too bright. I feel like I want sunglasses. Tina takes our stuff and makes a beeline for the waiting room “to get us comfy seats near the coffee maker.” I smile. Brian and I head the other direction. I stare at the dark blue veins under the skin of his hand as he signs his name and hands over his driver’s license. I rub my fingers down his back. He smiles weakly.
We sit. We wait. It feels like days, but it’s only minutes. He plays Angry Birds. Tina and I make small talk. I want to stand up, pace, fidget. Finally, they call his name. We walk back to finish the paperwork. I could let him go alone, but I can’t abide it. So I squeeze in to the little cubicle with him. I listen as he answers the same 25 questions he’s been asked so frequently these last few weeks. He jokes with the nurse who taps away on the keys of her computer. We sign where we’re told to sign.
They send us to another office. Here we go over how the surgery will happen. What the doctors will do. What we can expect. This nurse has less information for us than she likes. She keeps looking as his file, glancing at her computer monitor, swishing her mouse in search of more facts.
“Did the surgeons tell you what recovery was going to be like?” she asks gently.
No. We don’t know what to expect because they won’t know how bad it is, and they won’t until they open up my husband’s abdomen.
She nods once, plasters a smile on her face, and continues to walk us through the surgery plans she’s aware of.
At this point we are separated. They take him back to prep him. I can’t go. It’s the first time we’ve been separated since the cytoscopy. I feel the panic start to creep up and I stamp it down quickly. No time for that now. He kisses me, squeezes my hand, and disappears through the thick wooden doors.
Thirty five minutes later my parents arrive. Dad hugs me, Mom squeezes my arm. I tell them all that has happened. They ask if they will get to see him before the surgeons take him to the OR. I say yes, we should get to go back any minute. Moments later they come for me. We pick up our bags and afghans and books and sweaters and head to his room.
Brian lays on the gurney in his blue cotton gown. It looks so thin, I immediately want to ask for a blanket. He has a shower cap on his head, and blue booties on his feet. He’s already got an IV in each arm. His skin looks grey in the too-bright lights.
Mom goes over to him immediately and smooths back his hair. “How ya feelin’, kiddo?” she asks. She’s been so strong throughout this whole ordeal. My heart swells. Dad and Tina talk about everything but why we’re here. The C-word hasn’t been used once today. We’re denying its existence even as we are trying to eradicate it from my husband’s body.
One of Brian’s surgeons knocks and comes into the room. He is young and handsome and calm and kind. Brian and I share a secret smile–he’s known in our house as Dr. Superman. I can feel Brian’s nerves begin to settle as Dr. Superman walks us once again through the procedure. He reaches out a hand to me when he mentions how unsure they are of the outcome. “We won’t know how much the tumor has spread until we’re able to get a good look at it. It could be attached to his colon. It could be on his bladder. If it has infiltrated the wall of his bladder we will have to remove it. I don’t think that will happen, but you need to be prepared for that.” He gives my hand a squeeze. My heart is in my throat.
The activity in the room increases. There’s no room for us in there anymore as nurses and doctors hover over my husband. We’re allowed to kiss him goodbye. I lean over him and we lock eyes. A tear escapes even as I swallow a sob. “I love you to the moon and back,” we say. And we’re ushered back to the waiting room.
I can’t stand it. I can’t sit there and wait. So I leave Tina and my parents and I head to the financial aid office. I spend an hour asking questions, filling out paperwork, discussing our options with a social worker. I get a sense of calm knowing I’ve accomplished something. When there’s nothing left to do I go back to the waiting room.
I keep waiting for the phone at the nurse’s station to ring. It doesn’t. Why aren’t they calling? Shouldn’t they call for an update? It’s been nearly 2 hours and I’m beginning to worry. I’m contemplating getting up and asking the volunteer about it as Dr. Superman rounds the corner in his scrubs. He looks grim. My heart begins pounding so loudly I can’t hear anything else. He asks to speak to us in a private room. Episodes of ER and Grey’s Anatomy flash into my mind. The private rooms are bad. They only take you to the private rooms for bad news. My knees buckle. Someone steers me by the arm.
Dr. Superman turns the knob on the private room’s door and it is locked. “Well, I don’t have a key,” he says. “And I don’t want to keep you in the dark anymore. The surgery was a success. We got the entire tumor.”
I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until it all comes out at once. The tears that have been living behind my eyes for 3 weeks come out in a flood. My Dad is smiling, my Mom is crying, and Tina has a look of relief on her face I didn’t anticipate. She never looked worried for a second before this moment. Now I realize she’s been holding me up for days.
I hear only bits of everything else Dr. Superman says. The tumor was larger than they expected. His surgical scar will be about 10 inches long. The tumor was the size of a Nerf football and was only attached by a fiber to his colon. Brian is going to be fine. He won’t even have to endure chemotherapy. Dr. Superman gathers me into a hug and his reputation as a superhero is solidified.
We flutter back into the waiting room like so many birds. We are light on our feet, there’s a song in our hearts. We each grab for a cell phone and begin the process of spreading the good news. I call Brian’s Dad first. Then my brother. Then Brian’s boss. I email and Facebook and text message. I could literally dance a jig in the middle of the hospital.
We’re told Brian is on his way from recovery to his room on the top floor. We grab our bags and afghans and books and sweaters and head for the elevator. We beat him up there. We stand in the hallway, afraid to occupy a room this isn’t rightfully ours yet. The nurses see our posse and begin rounding up chairs. It’s a private room, and we’re all impressed that Brian will be treated like a VIP while in house.
I hear the elevator doors open and a gurney coming down the hall. There is my husband, back in his blue cotton gown. The booties and shower cap are gone. They maneuver the bed into the room, plug in all his equipment, and retreat. I dash to his bedside, lean over him and say his name. I’m desperate to touch him, to connect with him, but there are so many wires.
Groggily, his eyelids open and I all see is ocean blue. He takes a moment to focus on me, and smiles weakly. “How’d I do?” he asks.
I run my fingers carefully through his hair, down his face, and smile at him, wanting him to see nothing but joy and excitement and exhilaration in my face. “They got it, baby. They got it all. You’re gonna be just fine.”
“That’s good,” he says, and drifts back to sleep.
My family talks quietly in the background. I watch my husband sleeping, and I allow myself to take in everything I see. I wrap my fingers around his bony wrist, stare at his chest as it rises and falls, wait for the pulse I can see in the vein of his neck. I’m no fool. I know recovery is going to be long and difficult. I know he’s going to wake up when the drugs wear off and he’s going to be in tremendous pain. I know we’re going to be living at this hospital for a week, maybe more.
But nothing could tramp down the feeling of good fortune in my heart. On that day, and every day since, I am the luckiest girl in the world.
It’s October 25, 2010.