Last Saturday, I went to the mall, and as I was leaving, I bumped into a former student and her mother. They are the kindest of people, and I was wild-eyed and sad–it was just sixteen days from my father’s death by suicide and thirty-six hours before my husband’s second heart surgery in eight weeks. It was just too much, and they could tell.
“How can we help you?” the mother asked; I mumbled that I didn’t know, that there was vague talk of a fundraiser and that we had a Boston butt–I’d just eaten some for breakfast, in fact.
“We do food,” the mom said. “I’ll bring you a frozen crockpot meal later–that way, you can just pop it in whenever you want.”
I can’t even be sure I was appropriately grateful–tired and overwhelmed, I was mainly just glad to live in a town where people will feed you if you don’t even know their first names.
On Monday, Greg had his surgery/procedure–we had been told it had a 50/50 chance of working, so when I saw the cocky strut of the surgeon’s assistant, I was relieved. It took two plugs, but his heart was not going to be a problem anymore.
They moved him to a room overlooking the water, and we prepared to settle in for a quick overnight stay. I was hoping for an overdue lunch and a catnap–I had only slept two hours the night before and, worried, been unable to eat much that morning.
But then the nurse said, “And you have had ————recently?”
We were confused–and then she added something like, “For the ———- cancer?”
Met by silence and sputtering, she showed me the record. She pointed to his name and birthdate, she pointed to the name of the cancer–he had cancer in a vital organ. It had not metastasized–I remember being grateful for that. My brain jackhammered simultaneous thoughts, over and over saying, above all the others:
Cancer #4 has been here for weeks? And we hadn’t been told at all?
We have wasted so much time.
Cancer #4 is here.
Shaking, I immediately called his oral oncologist and left a message–I thought that the OSCC would have gone to his brain, not traveled south–that was my only stopping point, the only hinge holding me: I’d never read that it could go where it evidently was. I called the hospital’s patient advocate, got no answer; texted my cousin, a malpractice attorney, and even called the hospital’s attorneys–because someone needed to get in Greg’s room and answer questions.
Because it was there in print. He had cancer.
We asked for the charge nurse, and a cluster of people gathered–all appropriately concerned. My lawyer cousin called, and he made me laugh in the way that cousins do, offering colorful language and good advice, suggesting an X-ray.
Greg, still required to be immobile, lay on his bed. “I had an X-ray in October,” he said, “Can you look at that X-ray, too?”
They did. And, in it, his vital organs were intact.
There was still so much confusion–but there was enough relief that as the X-ray tech arrived, I said, “I’m going to dash down and get something to eat.”
I stepped off the elevator, my mind flying–we still had ninety minutes in the business day–a lot of time to pursue answers. Greg had told the nurses that he would have answers before he left the hospital Tuesday–we were not waiting until Wednesday and then driving back to talk to so-and-so–we were not going to be patient or polite. Cancer #4 left no time for that. I was strategizing–who would best help us? Who could sort this out?
Then, halfway to the cafeteria, I spied them–in resplendent businesswear, tags bearing credentials I liked: there was The Powerful Person (TPP), involved in conversation.
And it wasn’t rest that hit me, but there was an immediate sense that now, the puzzle would be sorted.
I took a second to calm myself, tried to remember my cotillion skills, stuck out my hand, introduced myself and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can assure you that the most important thing going on in this hospital is happening in my husband’s room right now. Can you please come there with me?”
And The Powerful Person did.
On the elevator, I gave them the litany of medical tragedies, the testimonies of Greg’s stoicism, the story of my father’s death–and I said, “We have to know if this is cancer #4.”
TPP stopped at the nurse’s desk, then went in and met Greg.
Even now, I just remember how much better I felt: there was an authority present, someone who could help. TPP said the right things, shook Greg’s hand, distributed business cards. Cared–and took control.
So, I left to go eat.
The end of the story is simply this: he didn’t have cancer. A machine or a human had erred. (We still aren’t clear which.)
As people do, our friends and family tried to figure out the why behind this happening: what were we supposed to learn? Was it so we could pray for the person who did have cancer? Why allow us to be shaken so?
I know, of course, that there does not have to be a reason, that things sometimes just happen. That this will one day be just a bad memory, a cosmic joke.
Then, I will testify that in a short 55 days in the fall of 2019, Greg had open heart surgery and complications; he had a second, chancy procedure; my father died by suicide–and, to top it all off, we were told that cancer number four had said hello.
I will remember how awful that felt–that the fear and the powerlessness were overwhelming.
And I will also remember how it felt to hand things over–to let go, to walk away, to say to someone else, “You fix it,” and feel absolutely certain they would.
Tuesday, as we left the hospital–after adding more business cards to our collection–I got a text. It was the mother, checking in–she would being dinner the next day,
I stayed home from work on Wednesday. I was still too shaken and exhausted by our near-miss, and Greg was back on restrictions–couldn’t lift, couldn’t drive. I lay in bed until 11:00 AM then forced myself to do chores. Our normally tidy house was no longer so–I couldn’t do it all: work, grade, tutor, exercise, cook, and clean. I vacuumed, noting that somehow the antique marble coffee table was in the middle of the rug. I washed sheets and the duvet cover, going outside midway through the drying cycle to ensure that the duvet was not eating the sheets, not wanting to deal with that.
I tried hard–to rest and to clean. To keep a balance. I needed balance.
So, later, when I opened the dryer to find that the denim duvet had, in fact, eaten the sheets, I just brought the ball of linens in and set it on the kitchen table. I tried to unknot it, but I was getting nowhere. Greg came over to offer suggestions since he could not help pull. The knot only grew tighter–and, since all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, and I had to have sheets to do that–I felt the frustrated tears threatening: this was all so stupid and unfair.
On top of everything else, I couldn’t even make my bed.
That instant, the doorbell rang.
The student’s parents stood on the stoop, bearing a frozen pork loin, some cranberries and green beans. Their car was running in the driveway. They smiled up at me, offering the food.
“I’m going to need you to come in here and move a table and help me with some sheets,” I said bluntly. (I hope, now, writing this, that I thanked them for the food, Please, Lord, let me have thanked them for the food.)
“A table??? Sheets???” they smiled gamely, confused. The husband went to shut off the car, and then we filed in the house, where, right after we made polite introductions, her husband helped me move the coffee table.
The sheets were still on the kitchen table. My voice quavered as I talked about them–I was still so upset–and then the wife said her husband was great with knots, and he was. Four grown adults stood there looking at sheets with such satisfaction.
As they left, I stood outside with them in the drizzle and tried to convey my thanks, the marvel of the timing–it overwhelmed me that the doorbell had rung just when it did. I ended up crying in her arms, as she murmured that it was all “too much, too much for anyone.”
I would have been embarrassed, had I not been so tired, had I not been so humbled at God’s grace and power.
He had shown me–in less than 48 hours–that he was in the Big–but he was also in the Small.
In that is my rest. In that is my strength.