Monthly Archives: July 2019

Broken Hearts, Steeled Spines

14858674_10209851441695433_1909135423_oOctober 24, 2018

For seventeen years, we have lived with aftermath. 2000’s discovery of my husband’s chronic myelogenous leukemia; 2001’s allogeneic bone marrow transplant with total body irradiation; 2013’s oral squamous cell carcinoma and mandibulectomy, and 2018’s lymphadenectomy and skin grafts–six separate surgeries in one: cancer was cut out of his mouth, and skin from his arm was sewn back in its place. (And cataract removals too.)

There are never complaints. There is no, “Why me?” He is, and ever will be, stoic.

Today, Greg and I went to work for half a day. We gave the PSAT, then ran by Captain D’s and headed down to Jacksonville to Shands. We spent the trip wavering between terror and certainty that he would get cancer diagnosis #4–adjacent to the site of his skin graft in his mouth was a white area that the doctor thought was leukoplakia, which is often precancerous. For a month, he had been watching the spot. I had looked at it twice–the second time, noticing how close it was to the bend where his lips connect, realizing how much of his face would be gone.

I didn’t ask to look again.

I don’t think you can quantify that type of terror, but I want to: I want to capture it, to help you see it, to try to make you understand what it is like to be presented again and again with horror and terror and heartbreak and yet not be destroyed.

I think that there is something to be said for also quantifying the terror, for the full report, because when you say, “We thought we were certainly destroyed,” and you lay out the thoughts, the expectations for destruction, then the fact of the rescue is that much more powerful.

That is, for me, the great truth, the greatest mercy: the fact that we are not destroyed. That Christianity reveals, again and again, survival, perseverant faith–faith that is not of us, is not naturally within us, but is, truly, a supernatural gift of God.

Nurses empty the lobby of an oral maxillofacial surgeon’s office quickly so that the patients don’t have to look at each other for long. People with half of their faces removed, slitted mouths, oozing sores, tracheotomies. The first time we went, I was terrified, me with my normal-faced husband, thinking he would turn into that. Today, on the drive to the hospital, I was fairly certain we were advancing on the road to that, and I knew I had nothing in me–nothing at all–that would power me through the horror once again.

We made the first twenty miles of the trip talking about the quality of Captain D’s catfish–because it is mighty tasty–and our students and the news. We talked about our girls and the pets. We filled the car with chatter, only occasionally asking a “what if” question–opening and shutting that Pandora’s box with which we live.

The last miles, when we’d left the highway and were passing dilapidated houses and abandoned buildings, were the most serious–where, for a moment, we dared to say the word “terrifying” and think the unthinkable. We went “there” thirty seconds, maybe less, before regaining our resolve.

And then, the news: hyperkeratosis, a callous-like thickening of skin. Not leukoplakia. Not cancer.  

A reprieve.

July 18, 2019

My husband and I were tired, physically and emotionally. We woke at 4:40 and drove ninety minutes to the hospital where he would soon have his “horrible” mitral valve repaired. He needed a transesophageal echo (TEE) and a heart cath–procedures he’d had five years ago, almost to the day.

We were so much less weary then.

On our way, there was not a lot of chatter in the car–but neither was there fear or sorrow. There wasn’t even, anymore, a sense of injustice. (Certainly, there is not acceptance, but there are no longer howls and raised fists.) There is, after nineteen years, not any energy for that. We listened to Christian music for the last half hour of the drive, and as we neared the hospital, I offered a wry, “At least we have unshakeable faith,” and he agreed.

The tests completed, eleven long hours later, we went to 13 Gypsies, a tapas restaurant with so few tables that Greg was immediately worried about their profitability. We weren’t celebrating, exactly, because the TEE, according to the administering physician, revealed the “worst mitral valve prolapse I’ve ever seen,” so we knew surgery was imminent. But we were encouraged because the cardiologist said the surgery would not be invasive–that Greg’s chest wouldn’t be cut open eight inches, that another huge scar wouldn’t be added to the Hickman’s “bullet marks,” his left arm’s “shark bite,” or the slit of his throat so expertly hidden in the folds of his chin. 

We were hopeful. We ate cod and corn and thought about the promise of small scars.

July 22, 2019

Because we hadn’t heard from them, I’d called the cardiothoracic surgeon’s office on Friday just before noon only to be told that, because of a snafu at the hospital, they had not seen his chart, and they certainly hadn’t scheduled his surgery–in fact, we had to come in. I had begged them to work us in quickly, jokingly offering cinnamon rolls as an incentive. 

67488594_346642889560592_5477346752929464320_nThey scheduled him for Monday. We talked some on the drive down, hopeful that he could perhaps have surgery the very next day–to spend summer “free days” in the hospital would save some of his nine precious sick days. We were hopeful that we could get this behind us quickly.

We walked into the surgeon’s office with sixteen still-warm cream-cheese-frosted cinnamon rolls. The people in the waiting room went wild; the receptionists were equally enthusiastic. Things were fine. We were fine.

When we were shown into a room, we started planning our afternoon–we were going to head right back home after the appointment. Then the surgeon came in, gave us quick handshakes and then started talking about the terribly dangerous “worst case scenario” surgery that Greg would need.

We were too blindsided to even be confused. No cancer diagnosis had stunned us more. The surgeon kept talking. Greg had mitral annulus calcification, essentially rock in his heart. The surgery would be very difficult because of the location and the fact that even the best surgeons can’t sew into rock. 

Then, the stunner: he told us that during the surgery, Greg’s heart could “break in half.”

He said those words to us.

I can’t even begin to describe what hearing those words was like, the horror.

We just looked at each other from across the room. My mind was still, shocked and silent. My body wanted to flail and thrash, to hit and to strike. 

The first doctor had lied to us. The news was so bad, he just couldn’t tell us. (This happened, too, with Greg’s leukemia diagnosis–the on-call resident could not break the news while seven-month-old Abby babbled from her stroller beside Greg’s hospital bed.)

The surgeon was confident–he could do it–but he was also ethical. He told us to get a second opinion at a tertiary center–Emory or The Cleveland Clinic. 

If Greg could die on the table, he should get to choose which table.

We staggered out into the waiting room and back to the car.

Reeling. Reeling. Reeling.

Greg realized he had left his water bottle–his favorite water bottle–so he went back to get it, giving us a few minutes apart to try to sort the landslide of emotions and fear, to stanch the anger. So much anger: the doctor had lied.

Too, hadn’t Greg endured enough??? Hadn’t we all???

One consolation of a long, trauma-filled marriage is that there is even a routine for the awful. 

We go to Red Lobster.

67374406_2421612021460993_5155584437521481728_nPhone calls filled the drive over. Canceling out the calls of relieved news just four days before, this time we painted dark gray pictures, but did not repeat the surgeon’s words–we did not repeat them even to each other. We called both our girls, who met the news with typical resilience, unemotional but loving. Then Greg’s father and sisters.

At Red Lobster, I asked for a non-perky waitress; they sat us in a corner and brought us warm biscuits, and we ate them.

We are still good at these things: breaking bread and marching forth.

We can no longer comfort each other; it would be a lie to say that we can even comfort our children. 

Early in the summer, Abby had been invited to weekend with a college friend at her home–a place she had never been. They would kayak.

Four days after the heart news, I drove Ab to Middle Georgia, through watermelon fields and big sky, to a home on Lake Blackshear. We were greeted by exuberant dogs, fed pizza, and given cold Dr. Pepper. I left her there, happily distracted by strangers. 

64304014_2569899666581030_5038455022887632896_nDays later, when Abby returned, her eyes shone. The whole family was so nice. She marveled.

She stood in her bathroom, taking off her make up, telling me, “The dad got in the pool, Mom . . . he got on the beanbag with ——‘s sister–it was a big beanbag, and he just plopped down with her. He just plopped.” 

She went on, her voice high and happy, “And the Mom, she was the nicest person. She was super chill. She never got mad. The girls would be like, we are sorry our mom is so tense, and I was like, ‘What are you even talking about?’ Mom, she was so relaxed.”

Glancing over, she stopped herself apologetically. “She was what you would have been if none of this had happened. If you hadn’t been through so much.”

It is one of the sorrows of my life–that this daughter, an infant when everything began, will never know us as we were, before all this.  When we were joyous, relaxed, and, on some days, very close to happy.

She has never known our family to be this. 

But, like ours, her spine is steel. We are warriors, all.

There must be value in that. 

It is sometimes my only prayer: Please, let there be value in that.





That Which Sustains: Art and Amazement

In May of 2018, when all was absolute bedlam–because May is always crazy for teachers, my younger daughter was graduating, and my husband was emerging from cancer #3– Abigail decided she wanted to go to prom with her Duke TIP bestie in Saluda, NC, five hundred miles away. I was game for anything that would allow me to escape my life–the further away, the better–and my younger brother knew of a place in Asheville where I could stay alone and start, again, to regroup.

It had a balcony and trees, he said with hope in his voice, knowing that trees have consistently offered me my sturdiest solace. There was a huge shower; there was good food; there was Tupelo Honey–he softly recited a coaxing litany.

He knew–as everyone knew–that I was lost and nearly dead. The third cancer had decimated us all. We could look one another in the eye and say, “I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing Stephanie Grace”–silently agreeing, disloyal though it sounded, horrific as it is even now to write, that this was worse. Our losses had already been stacked like cordwood–the third cancer set them ablaze.

We had been accustomed to powering through our various sufferings–with gallows humor (the worst: our family joke–if Greg or I die, the survivor can get married immediately after the funeral–a “weuneral”); good food (crab legs and baked goods, mainly); and mindless TV (after my mother-in-law’s heart attack, we watched Family Feud three hours a day).

But our usual formulas had failed.

Despite this, I knew that, in Asheville, I should return to my touchstones, do what the person I once had been would do. I looked on Tripadvisor for “best breakfast,” and I went where my phone told me to go. I ate a tequila donut, drank cold Dr. Pepper, made small talk. I looked at “Explore,” which highlighted a bread festival. I heard my late grandmother’s laughing voice saying, “That’s our kind of festival.” I went there.

Anything I write about my time at the festival is going to sound cliché–there is no way past this. But clichés exist because some human experiences are common, and that day, much of what I felt was: standing in a crowded room yet feeling alone; looking at the river and feeling left behind; envying the innocence of playing children; observing all the happy families, wondering how they stayed that way.

A certain measure of my numbness was my lack of response to the sculptures, to the bicycles in the archway to the brewery. I was in no mood to talk to the bakers about their local sourcing. I didn’t even want to pet anyone’s dog.

The word downtrodden doesn’t fit here, really–but it certainly fit me then, that day in my car. There was nothing I wanted to do, nowhere I wanted to be–I was alone in a beautiful city on a spring day, but it had nothing to offer me. It had all been too much.

Too listless to go back to the condo, I drove to a row of little art galleries, planning to wander around.

Instead, I got healed.

It happened in the third or fourth gallery of the day. There was a family shopping enthusiastically; the shopkeeper was in the back corner painting. I disinterestedly shuffled through some prints, thinking maybe I would come across something for Abigail’s dorm room.

It was on its side, a brown and white water color print–I nearly passed by it, but then, I saw the trees and lifted it up.

Bushes and trees were in line like soldiers from smallest to largest, left to right. But the painting wasn’t about them. The painting was about roots.

The small bushes had shallow roots. Just a few.

But, oh, the roots of the tallest tree.

Its roots were deeper than the tree was high. Twisted wildly, they were beautiful, deep, strong roots. There were so many, so deep in the ground.

I stood in the quiet shop, in its stillness, my tears hitting the floor, the message clear–my daughters’ roots were deep, as were mine.

If nothing else, we had roots.

In my pocket was a $100 bill a friend of my aunt sent to me months before–the accompanying note said it was good to have “pocket money” when things were hard, and I had held tightly to it.

I spent it that day, on the art that brought me back.

The thing is, when sorrow and loss swallow you wholly, you forget who you are. You forget what makes you happy, the things that make you laugh; that food is good and friends are necessary.

After the black pit of trauma and tragedy, for a long time there is a gray, emotionless space, and you are basically so relieved to have quit crying all the time that you don’t care that you are still in a void. You wander around there alone–and sometimes, on good days, you can even believe you may emerge.

You just can’t figure out how.

Art. Nature. Animals. Music. These are the things that can pull you out quickly.

(Not people with all their words–they think they have to use them–and words are not powerful enough against the void, the hopelessness. Certainly, a held hand and a touch on the cheek are helpful, but they aren’t jolting.)

A jolt helps so much. A reminder: this amazing thing is out here.

And, amazed, you find yourself somehow out there once again.

I marvel about this: the power of art and the element of the unknown it includes–think of it: W.H. Price painted some trees in 2014 and, in doing so, rescued me four years later. He will never know this.

Lately, Alexa is playing Luke Combs’ “Houston, We Got a Problem” ten times a day–because when the music swells with the first chorus, I am amazed. Every time. It’s like when those instruments come in, someone sews one more stitch into my soul, and I can take another breath.

I won’t even try to tell you about Eric Church.

It seems absurd doesn’t it? Two country singers and a painter who doesn’t even have a website got me to shore–and none of them will ever meet me or even know of their roles in my rescue.

There’s something in us that wants to thank a gift-giver–to give credit, to pay back. But art makes us unable to–because of the way it is flung into the unknown and appreciated there. That’s what makes it art–that you connect, that you share a secret with the artist. That you know what they meant–that your spirits can wink at one another.

“I see what you did there” is met with, “Thanks, I knew somebody would.”

An echo of heaven itself.