My husband’s out-of-the-blue diagnosis was confirmed seven years ago. It was a suffocatingly hot morning, the last Monday in June.
For weeks beforehand I had a profound and decreasingly punctuated sense of dread.
I was at the wheel of the now-retired mom van, thinking about one daughter’s upcoming high school graduation and her stresses, when I was visited with the unmistakable thought, “These worries will soon seem like nothing.”
Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven seven weeks earlier: a dream in which I visited someone I loved in a hospital room I’d never seen. Completely still. Quiet. Sterile white. In the bed a man I assumed upon waking, distraught, had been my father, although I did not see his face.
I think Jim sensed something, too, although he did not communicate it to me in words any more than he communicates with me now by traditional means.
I realize now that he did not tell me what lay ahead until he had ruled out all other reasonable possibilities.
He knew a probability that had hovered not far from zero had suddenly become 100 percent.
Until then, it was best for me to remain oblivious.
Don’t be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It’s better not to know.
Or was it?
For more than two decades, until that final Thursday night in June, our marriage employed a device known as the “Steph news blackout”: if something would endlessly worry me but was likely to turn out fine, or simply not worth my mental energy and tendency to catastrophize, Jim would take it upon himself to resolve it.
In tandem with the news blackouts, Jim, who would have been the first to say he was not a natural joke-teller, had an approach reminiscent of his tale of the vacationing parents:
The parents go on vacation and leave their son with his grandmother. Mom and dad call home the first night to check in; their son answers the phone and says: “The cat died.” The father, sobered, says, “You know, you could have eased us into that. The first time we called you could have said, ‘The cat’s on the roof,'” the next time, maybe ‘The cat’s on the roof and we still can’t get her down,’ and then we could have been more prepared.” “OK, dad, I understand.”
The next night, the parents call home again and ask how things are. The son answers, “Grandma’s on the roof….”
Thursday night: “I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this is a tumor.”
The surgeon, Monday, just after noon, in a windowless white room, pointing to a computer screen image of my husband’s pancreas: “This is your tumor.”
We moved to another state where Jim began his medical practice. Our first child was born two weeks later. We had a house in the woods at the edge of acres of conservation land. To get to it one had to wind around a long driveway.
Winter was coming. Jim had some people come by the house to give estimates on plowing. I went to the door, baby in arms, to let one of them in.
When he left the house I said to Jim, “Not that one. Do not have him come back here.”
Two years later I was driving on the rural road to our home, now with a second baby in a car seat. We were diverted by a police barricade. It was an armed standoff involving the person who, without doing anything but asking if Jim was home, had made me uncomfortable enough to tell Jim not to have him come back.
Days before my father died a year ago, a nurse thought to mention a certain phrase he haltingly had spoken, which would not have been particularly meaningful to me had Jim not spoken the exact same words in his hospital room days before he died. I called my older brother and suggested it might be a good time to fly out.
What do I do now with my intuition? What do I do now when I feel diffuse dread?
Atul Gawande wrote in Complications, a memoir of his surgical residency, “It is because intuition sometimes succeeds that we don’t know what to do with it. Such successes are not the result of logical thinking. But they are not the result of mere luck, either.”
I think the real danger is that I am now conditioned for the heaviest of shoes to continue to drop, horrific echoes of the once steady and reliable thunking of Jim’s size 13 shoes on the wide pine floorboards in our bedroom.
But intuition, particularly conditioned intuition, can be the enemy of hope.
It may also be illusion.
Maybe what I have thought of as intuition was actually based on observations I didn’t even know I’d made. Maybe I had seen the winces of persistent muscle strain-like pain flash across the face I knew so well. Maybe I had seen my husband hold himself differently in some infinitesimal way. Maybe I had seen micro-flashes of concern in his bright eyes and his unlined face.
Maybe I had seen or heard the first wave of tremors which would signal my father’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease.
Maybe the plow guy, or even his truck, had at some level reminded me of some distant defendant I had observed in a criminal case. Maybe I’d once read something detailing crime statistics involving men with red pick-up trucks.
Ultimately I think experience is more trustworthy than intuition. (They don’t call me my office’s “institutional memory” for nothing.) Of course, a devastating run of life experiences can also be at war with hope. But I shall try to surrender to neither foreboding intuition nor scarring experience.
Yesterday I was with a dear friend who, with some trepidation, gently asked me if I knew my ring–the one Jim gave me 23 years ago and I have never taken off–was missing its center stone, a bright cobalt sapphire the identical shade of the silk dress I wore on our first date as teenagers.
I took off the ring, its center starkly bereft of its ballast, to make sure the surrounding stones would not escape as well. Almost immediately I felt the ring’s absence. A subtle divet circled the base of my ring finger.
After nearly two hours retracing steps and grid-searching waterfront docks and brick sidewalks, heart lifting and then falling at each of hundreds of pebble kernels glittering in the parboiling sun, my friend Judy found a lucky penny in the street. She held it aloft toward the sun, cast her eyes upward, and asked Jim for a little help.
I gave up hope of finding the sapphire soon thereafter.
And then, within minutes, I lifted from the ground a brilliant fragment of beveled blue, its underside clouded by a dusky silver-gray sheen from 23 years’ inattention to the thin gold prongs which held it in place until it was time to catch my attention by letting go.
What were the odds?