Tucking myself into the back corner of the extra large service elevator, I collapsed into a ball much like a pill bug exposed to the light. The industrial padding protecting the walls scratched into my back, the soft sound of Bach irritated more than comforted. An elevator at 4:30 in the morning is a lonely place. Extending my finger forward, I debated which button to select. Up for my son. Down for my husband. Each faced a life-altering event. The buttons offered no advice. With whom would I stand in the next hours? How is such a decision made?
Before I made my selection, the doors slid open and a white-coated gentleman entered. An abrupt-nod my direction and then with confidence he forced us up. Up to my son. My choice blessedly taken from my hands. Relieved, I relaxed into the wall and watched each floor number pass. Three. Four. Five. The doors opened and I followed the man into the bright hallway. Quiet. Too quiet. I blinked at the empty nurses’ station. I rotated a full circle. All I saw was the man from the elevator fade away at the end of the hall. Then sounds exploded around me. Beeps, buzzes, hurried voices, wheels squeaking down the freshly polished floors. Smells entered my consciousness next. Antiseptic. Harsh. Burning the throat and the eyes.
“Can I help you?” a voice said behind me.
Swirling, I stared at the haggard looking nurse. “Um,” I stuttered, closed my eyes, inhaled and tried again. “Converse.”
Her left hand jutted out as she pointed down the hall. “Room 503. But you better hurry. This one’s going fast.”
I didn’t have to be told twice. I ran to room 503. Shoving the door opened, I squinted at the lamp glaring bright light my direction. “Brian,” I whispered just loud enough to drown out the noises within.
“Mom, hurry,” a panicked and excited voice called from the dim recesses of the room. “She’s coming.”
Arriving at the foot of the bed, I watched as my granddaughter plopped into my son’s hands and began the first of her many wails. A rare combination of fear and awe filled my son’s face as he lifted the gooey bundle to his wife’s breast. The miracle of life is just that: a miracle.
I moved into a new corner and watched as my son became a father. I’m supposed to be able to use words to describe the emotions that swirl in such a moment. I discovered that no words exist. How does one describe a combination of pride, fear, excitement, dread, shock? How does one describe that sense of being replaced but replaced in such a glorious way?
Bathed, poked, prodded, weighed and swaddled, the bundle rested in my arms when the bubble of contentment burst.
“Mom, where’s Dad?”
I had not forgotten my husband and his own fight. But, I had left that knowledge, that realization, on the threshold of my granddaughter’s birthing suite. Uncertain news seemed counter to all the light in this room. Do I mar my son’s joy with the truth occurring five floors down?
“Um,” I stuttered again. “Remember that stomach ache he’s had for several days?”
My son either chose not to hear my trepidation or he was too caught up in his own sunshine to see the darkness in my countenance. I’m glad. I’ve always been glad of that. He deserved – they all deserved – to bask in the light of new life for as long as possible.
“Yea,” he answered me as he took the bundle from my clutches and settled her into his arms.
“Well, it got much worse so he decided to see someone. He’s there now. He’ll be here soon.” I said the words but knew the lie would find me out soon enough. My lips found the edges of the baby’s closed eyes and I allowed them to linger a touch too long. When a doctor entered and took my son’s attention, I slipped out the door.
Back in the elevator, I punched the button. Heaven was on the top floor. Hell, the bottom. Poetic.
The lights are even brighter in an emergency room. The sounds louder and more frantic. The smells less antiseptic and more putrid. I required no assistance in finding his room. Number nine.
He lay in the bed as pale as the white sheets. Spiraling out of the flimsy hospital gown, tubes provided hydration and pain medicine. A steady beep assured me he breathed. What we believed started as a gall bladder attack became more. So much more.
Even though his eyes were closed, he was awake. His fingers gripped the blanket and his jaw clenched with tightness. A female doctor stood at the foot of his bed analyzing those creepy black-and-white images of his insides.
I tiptoed across the space, collected his hand in mine and prepared.
With her head buried in the charts, she started talking. She spoke another language. Each word seemed to have more syllables than the last. Latin became Greek became Latin again. When English was spoken, I recognized only a few words: tumors, pancreas, oncologist. She said something about fingers. When her face finally rose to greet ours, I know what she saw. The proverbial deer in headlights.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked the two idiots staring at her.
We had hundreds of questions and yet in that moment we had none. Shock is an interesting experience. It’s momentarily paralyzing. I felt feeble-minded. When scuba diving, the diver always knows which direction is up. Just find the light and move that direction. This, though, was like sinking in a mire of goo. Which way was up?
Pain medicine finally making its way into his system, Dave’s hand slipped from mine, and the doctor seeing we were not going to ask intelligent questions, disappeared. Clutching his hand tighter, I scooted my body next to his and tried to find my brain. Dave’s the calm, rational partner. He’s steady. I flounder. If I had been in that bed, he would have drilled the doctor with questions. He would be on the phone, finding the best and brightest. Me? I rested my cheek on his shoulder and pretended all was well. I pretended that a simple gall bladder surgery awaited us. You can only pretend for so long. That’s one of life’s many lessons.
Minutes or hours later, an orderly shocked us awake. As guilty as I would later feel for that brief rest, the time in la-la land helped me to find my own strength. As they rolled my husband to yet another test, I got to work.
My first call was to my brother-in-law, a physician many states away. Voicemail. Sister-in-law next. She’s in the same city as the brother-in-law. She can find him and have him call me. She answered. Interesting how we speak louder when the topic is critical. She listened. She worried. She explained that she was away and not able to find her brother for me. Dead end. I may have hit a wall but I had renewed energy to face this, to find a way out of the goo.
My husband works at this very hospital. I leveraged that. I called his coworker and demanded he find the boss. She called me within fifteen minutes and the ball began to roll. The CEO called the best oncologist on staff, got him off the golf course and over to us. Baby-sitters for our daughter and dog-sitters for our dog were arranged. I repeated the same words over and over again: tumors, pancreas, oncology. Supporters arrived and my phone buzzed in my hand.
“Rick,” I heaved out. I gave my brother-in-law an abbreviated version of the day’s events. He stood on a mountaintop in New Mexico as he listened to me. My words moved faster out of my mouth but he caught every word, every nuance. With his call, I now had someone who could speak this mysterious language. I wanted a translator yet I feared the translation. There is a measure of safety in not understanding everything. My brother-in-law would take the safety of ignorance from my grasp. He would dumb it all down. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to understand. I didn’t want to be faced with choices that confused and frightened me. As trite as it sounds, ignorance is bliss – at least for a while. You don’t know just how dark things are until someone tells you.
Rick gathered the reins of intelligence gathering. As he biked back down the mountain, he used his own status as “Medical Doctor” to contact the oncologist and ask all the right questions. With him now in control, relief unfolded in my body even as Dave re-entered the room in more pain than before. They injected more blessed morphine into the dripping bag. With friends surrounding us, we tucked the blankets around him and I settled in to wait for the wisdom of my guide.
Another of life’s lessons: Don’t get too comfortable.
I munched on a burger while Dave slept. All the assurances of those around me lulled me into hope. I showed pictures of my new grandbaby. I regaled my guests with the bravery of my daughter-in-law. I spoke to our ten-year old with promises we’d all be home soon. I lay my feet on the corner of his bed as if about to watch a movie. I hoped.
My day had started with a phone call at 3:29am and would end with a call at 7:15pm. Forced out of my stupor of ease, I held my breath and the phone with equal force.
“June,” my brother-in-law said, “I’m booking my flight now. I’ll be there soon.” No more needed to be said. My brother-in-law is not one to over-react. His response and his urgency told me all I needed to know. I disconnected without a single word. What was there to say?
Just as I cannot give words to my feelings on the birth of my first grandchild, I cannot give words to the new emotions railing inside me. Fear, of course. But also fierce anger. No one should go from the fifth floor of heaven to the first floor of hell with a single elevator ride.
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....