To my enduring shame, I–who always considered myself a fierce fighter–fled.
It was a warm early July evening in Boston. Darkness of the traditional kind remained hours away.
I sat in a gray chair trying to read an old copy of The Trial. Unwitting irony.
Ten days had passed since another surgeon had examined a scan of my young husband’s pancreas and pointed to a computer screen and gently said, “This is your tumor.”
My husband and I were now waiting for another surgeon to offer his opinion after reviewing the scans and pathology reports and blood test results.
Wordlessly, I had tagged after my husband and the surgeon as they strode towards the conference room overlooking the city where my husband and I had lived and attended graduate school (an M.D. for him, a J.D. for me). We sat an oval table topped with glass. Underneath the glass were photographs of toilets around the world. (Now I know the ideal gift for those hard-to-shop for gastroenterological surgeons on your list).
I sat in a chair next to my husband as they began to speak in physician tongues: CA 19-9 markers, PET scans, micro-metastases, stereotactic radiation, labyrinthine varicosities.
Very much against my will, I was mesmerized by the latter term’s lyrical linguistic qualities. It called to my mind woven lace; delicately intertwined branches; a windchime’s lattice of beads, swirling and glittering as the wind made them clink together.
But this time they were talking about the complicated construction of my husband’s tumor, and how it had engineered its way around his veins and made surgery impossible. Still, the surgeon was recommending an aggressive course of chemotherapy, to shrink the tumor and make it release its clutch on these veins. Then, the surgeon said, he could operate; why, he could even “zap” the tumor directly with radiation while my husband was “open on the table.”
These images were making me physically ill. I thought I would throw up. I clutched my husband’s arm as the two of them talked, and felt my heartbeat go into staccato. A wash of numbing pinpricks worked its way down from my dizzy head to my toes. I judged the distance to the room’s door.
The surgeon turned from a sheaf of papers in his hand and, frowning, looked at my husband, saying, “Of course, these numbers are concerning.”
What he was referring to was protein markers for my husband’s tumor. I would later learn what I gathered from the surgeon’s facial expression and tone of voice: the author of The Last Lecture, which I had not yet read, referred to his relevant protein marker number “skyrocket[ing]” to “a horrifying 208.” My husband’s level had varied between 1700 and 1900.
I knew enough to know that “concerning” was a euphemism I did not want to hear from a pancreatic surgeon.
Well, hell: I didn’t want to be anywhere near a pancreatic surgeon. The feeling appeared to be mutual, as I remained invisible during the physician to physician exchange.
Jim was engaged animatedly in conversation with the surgeon. I pulled at Jim’s arm and leaned towards him and mouthed, “I have to go.”
And I fled.
I fled down the hallway, back to that gray chair, and I wailed. I knew. I knew how this would end, even as my husband the physician believed with his heart and mind that he would become a surgical candidate.
No one else was in the office suite, but for an administrative assistant who handed me one of those tiny hospital boxes of tissues on her way out.
Sure, strictly speaking there was no “fight” option here, other than the figurative, quixotic one-sided “battle” against a deadly cancer.
But I need not have fled my husband’s side.
I got no reprobation from Jim; it came only from me.
When he finally came out of the conference room, he knelt down beside me as I cried, “You never would have left me alone in there.”
He took my hand and looked up and me and, as always, was direct and honest: “We’re made of different stuff.”
That is slightly less so now: this remarkable man taught me to be stronger, taught me how not to fear what nearly every human does, and taught me how to hope, no matter what’s left to hope for.