Friday, December 5, 2008

The Gift

In at 1 am from my hour long run. It's almost mystical to me how clearing running can be for the mind. I think the only reason more people don't do it is because no one stands to make any money from it, so they don't push it. Like prescriptions (and crack...) Anyway, I'm thinking: my life is so different in the past few years than I ever would have expected.   I was busy raising my babies, and deferring to my husband, who was on a track to get a PhD.  I could never really figure out what to do with my life.  It was never a matter of working hard. I had a strong work ethic.  And I had decent jobs-- just never a career.  I knew I could be anything that I wanted--and that seemed to make the decision of what even harder.  I just couldn’t figure out what to do... and the moves involved with such an advanced degree for my spouse made getting any momentum that much more difficult.  How did I get to where I am--separated, with a solid career, and enrolling in graduate school-- and how could he be so off track?  What was the pivotal point? 
I’ve thought about it before, but for some reason, the answer come to me clearer today...


It is 2001. And I am pregnant to a pretty significant degree. Working out at the Y. I notice a really big shoulder when I look in the mirror lifting some weights-- but really only when I turn my shoulder a certain way. Weird, I think, but that's really all. It's the shoulder I'd injured many years ago at work. Probably just some different muscles taking over where others aren't doing their best, I surmise. No big deal. Not really that painful, just the arthritis I’d gotten used to that resulted from a previous injury...  I probably should have this looked at.


The next time I go to the doctor, I mention it...  Nothing big, I say, just curious. And since I do have insurance for the moment, I figure I should check it out. They managed to fit me in for an x-ray late that afternoon.   I’m covered from neck to knees-- with double vests around my pronounced belly. Should I be concerned I wonder... Probably just the medical community covering their asses as so often happens these days. The vests make me think of when I pick up four-year-old Garrett:  they, too, are much heavier than they appear.  Relieved to get that weight off my already heavy enough body, I head home.   Not long after I arrive, I get a call from my doctor that he definitely wants to see more.  It’s clear that there is a capsule--a tumor-- there.  X-rays are just not advanced enough to give us the answers we need.  An MRI is scheduled for first thing in the morning.  My policy of not being scared until it was clear and unavoidable was beginning to be challenged:  I knew MRIs took weeks--if not longer to schedule.   Getting right in was most likely not a good sign... I have lots of questions.  I am advised that the radiologist will answer any I might have.


And he does.  When I get there, I ask the most obvious question: how safe is this for my baby?  He agrees it is not optimal to do am MRI, but neither is what is going on in my body-- without answers.  The bottom line is that I am 32 weeks or so, and he would give an MRI to a baby that was already born at that stage.  So, padded with so many things to keep my shoulder still that they had to hold everything tight to my body--like you would items in an overflowing closet as you try to close it-- I slide into the tube. I notice I can feel my nose all but touch it.  My breath bounced back at me so quickly... I had no idea what to expect.  I thought it would take about as long as an x-ray.  They did section by section; it lasted an hour and a half.  The noise was unbelievable-- even with earplugs.  The banging resembled an uneven load in a washing machine--only I was in it!  I imagined this is how some sort of nuclear reactor sounded... I began to get a little panicky. They had asked if I am claustrophobic.  I had told them no.  But I wonder to myself if they really get that there is a difference between an elevator or closet and this machine--I mean really!  I decide I must hang in.  Otherwise, no answers.  At least there is a microphone so they can hear me.  The baby needed me to step up.  They ask me to breathe normally.  I am straight with them: they are going to have to talk me though this, tell me everything as it happens.



It’s about 7:00 that evening, and we’re coming in from playing outside with the kids. We always start dinner late this time of year.  It’s beautiful outside at this time of day, with the huge tree in front of our university commons apartment providing enough shade to play a game of kickball in the grass.   The other parents move back and forth from their identically tiny apartments making dinner as well.  Joe cooks while I answer the phone.  It’s my doctor.  I know he follows appropriate and conventional structure of conversation, but I find myself abruptly jettisoned past our initial words to phrases like "...don't want to alarm you..." and "not sure what else it could be..." and "certainly looks and grows like cancer..." What else could it be, I ask? “Well, it could be benign.” “Duh,” I think to myself: that’s the definition of “not cancer.”  I ask, trying to identify if I missed something, which is entirely possible, “but you say it has none of the characteristics of being benign...” I get a simple “That's true." He tells me he’s made an appointment for me to go first thing in the morning to get a needle biopsy. They know I'm coming. They've been briefed. So Joe and I show up bright and early on our 14th anniversary. We see people without limbs. I think to myself, if it's cancer they can cut my arm off now... right now, and I'll take my chances... We spend the whole day. They can't find anything conclusive. Does it hurt, the oncologist asks. Sure, sometimes. I deal... Everyone knows I have a high threshold for pain. He is not encouraged. "How long have you had this lump in your arm pit?" Lump? Did he just say that word? I never knew there was one. My heart leaps straight for my throat. I think of the scene from Terms of Endearment, when the doctor tells the lead character she has a lump... The doctor comes in the room routinely, asking odd questions like do I have any birthmarks. I say yes, one. Then he says, not 6? No, Joe and I both agree. Back to the drawing board. We find out later he'd spent most of the day calling colleagues, and researching hundreds of cases... The one thing he didn't do was make false promises or patronize me. He just empathized, said he couldn't imagine how we must feel. The 5 or 6 times doctors' attempts to get tissue from the needle sticks were futile. I go home without any answers, except to know that I will have to have a surgical biopsy as soon as the baby (Henry...) is past the point of danger if delivered--3-4 weeks away. The one thing I do know is this: Whatever this was had spread through my muscle and bone and joint (benign tumors stop at borders; cancer doesn't care...) and runs from my neck to the middle of my upper arm. No cutting out will eliminate this fully. I do okay the first week. Nothing I can do, can't control the world, need to make dinner and read books and give baths and get on with the business of life... Can't rush things... And the second week was manageable. Distracting, but tolerable. Then one night, it hits me. I know Jane is old enough to remember me if I die, and know how much I love her. And any baby wouldn't know me from Adam... He'd be okay. But Garrett: that's a whole different story. And at that moment I realized how helpless I was and how immensely overwhelming the situation was... I broke down to nothing. Great, I think. I have spent so long trying to figure out what to do in this life, and now it won't matter anyway; Ill never get the chance. 
Of course I am here now; I survived. The doctor didn't tell me then, but they'd figured the chance of my *not* having cancer was about 2%. The surgery to find out what it was had more staff in attendance than I'd ever seen before or since. Nurses for the baby, and for me. Surgeons, oncologists, pathologists, surgical techs, etc. And as the anesthesia wears off, they shake me and tell me it's going to be fine, just something awful, but not deadly. 
The baby is fine.


And I'm thinking about it on my run tonight. Between the sweat, the slight rain, and occasional sprinkler I charge through, it was easy to hide the flooding of my eyes. Blue on black, I think. Maybe I allow them to come to my clearer mind because I am exhausted and offer little resistance to these thoughts descending on me. Or because my anniversary has just passed. Or that Henry has a birthday approaching at the end of the month. Or that I’ve applied to graduate school.  But I finally realize: that was the turning point. The point that it all became (if even subconsciously) transparent.  Is that possible? Something akin to “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone;” I had to make a choice.  But I was afraid I’d make the wrong one. When I realized that, as my parents used to say, I had to do something even if it was wrong, I worked at taking charge of me life.  It beat never making any decisions.  Only in hindsight, I realize, that that was probably when I knew I must move forward from that moment.   Because we have no right to expect --with this unpredictable world we live in-- that there will be a subsequent moment.  The intersection between fear and action was “the point” at which I gained focus. And maybe that's where Joe lost his. Maybe he never got his stride again. Maybe by that time his world, having been collided into by this traumatic event, lost all its momentum... Only he can say. But our lives are worthless if we cannot construct meaning from events like these... And what I have determined is that that very event was a gift.  The universe presented it to me.  Didn't come with a bow, for sure. And I certainly didn’t recognize it at that moment. But it was a gift nonetheless. And one for which I am very grateful.