My toothbrush clatters into the sink and I fumble to retrieve it. For three days, my legs and feet have been numb and tingly and now my arms and hands feel the same way. Plus, I have a headache and a touch of nausea. I think I have M.S.
I gaze into my own sad eyes in the mirror above the sink and take a deep breath. Stop. Breast cancer today; I’ll worry about multiple sclerosis tomorrow.
But I hope I’m not sick. I won’t tell the doctors. I'm having this surgery today, no matter what.
Downstairs, Dave is nabbing a quick cup of coffee and toast in the kitchen while I get ready to go to the hospital. I hear him closing drawers and fishing around for utensils. The cats are squalling, and he’s talking quietly, so he must be soothing them and getting their breakfast as well. The toaster dings and I can smell the coffee, but I’m not hungry. I’m not allowed to eat even if I wanted to.
I slip off my PJ’s and give my breasts, this familiar body, a last wistful look. I have a moment of panic at the thought that I’ve made the wrong decision. Again, I stop myself. You don’t have a choice. No choice. For some reason, this comforts me. I step into the hot stream of the shower. Teeth clenched against the nausea, I rub my hands together with shampoo and lather up my hair. I won’t be able to shower again for a while.
My body has gone into siege mode. I am yearning for the anesthesiologist who will take the responsibility for my health and my spirits and my family’s spirits from me and let me sleep, unaware, for three hours.
I don’t envy my loved ones that vigil. My husband has told me how weird it will be for him. I have been with him during every other difficult wait – during his brother Steve’s surgery, during his father’s crises. Dave has said, “I’ll be hearing your voice. I’ll be expecting to see you across the room. And you won’t be there.”
Our adult children, Tucker and Casey, have come to be with us for the procedure, but they are still asleep. Dave and I were told that my prep-time at the hospital would be about an hour, so they’ll join us there later. As I towel off and dry my hair, one of the cats weaves into the room and brushes against my leg. He stretches, paws fully extended, in a sunny spot on the rug. I think of the joy of having the kids here, at home, in their beds. I wish this were a normal day, a normal visit.
After I slip into shorts, a tee-shirt, and flip-flops, I re-check the canvas bag of supplies I’m bringing to the hospital. Books, magazines, socks, toiletries and Pink Bunny.
About a week ago, I decided that Casey’s Pink Bunny, a floppy, flannel, tattered rabbit that spent his best years draped over my daughter’s arm from her infancy until she was about eight, would be a comfort to me on this day. I’d thought he might be in a trunk in the attic somewhere, but I found him on the top of her closet; he hadn’t gone too far after all. It made me smile just to see him. I held him to my nose to check for baby Casey scent, but he’d been washed too many times. He was part of her anyway, part of my life as a mother, and I wanted him with me.
It’s time to go.
After stashing my bag in the back of the car, I settle in and buckle up. Dave slides behind the wheel, but then, as usual, darts back into the house. He is gone. Still gone. Still gone. Oh, for god’s sake. Where is he? I get out of the car and march to the back door just as he re-emerges. “I can’t find the directions to the hospital,” he says.
“You just printed them out, “ I manage to bite off.
“I know. They’re on a folded piece of white paper.”
“Is it in your pocket? On the kitchen counter? On the dashboard?”
“No. I’ve looked everywhere.”
“Jeez, Dave. What’s it like to be you?”
“Hard sometimes. “ he says ruefully. “But I think I remember how to get there.”
“Oh, that’s just great.” I’m trying not to snarl because my dearest of men may be suffering more than I am. He has been so brave, never voicing a word of doubt as to the outcome of this surgery. But I know where my mind would be if our positions were reversed and I would be sick with fear at the possibility of losing him. So I am stone silent. Clenching. In annoyance and my efforts not to throw up. My head hurts and the back of my neck has tightened into a rigid bar. Like a junkie, I dream of release and that needle in my hand.
We arrive at the hospital without a glitch. While I sign in and complete paperwork at the reception desk, Dave calls Tucker and Casey to give them our status. He’s still on the phone when a lovely little woman with kind eyes and wispy white hair appears at a side door and calls, “Eleanor?”
I fish my book and Pink Bunny out of my bag. “Right here. And it’s ‘Lea’” I say automatically as I wave at my husband and rise to follow her.
“Wait,” says Dave, his head angled to hold the phone, his eyes desperate at my sudden departure. He reaches for my hand and I walk back to give him a quick peck on top of his head.
“Oh, you’ll see her again before the surgery,” my escort says pleasantly. Once we’ve left the waiting room, she adds, “My name is Louise and I’ll help you get organized. How do you feel?”
I don’t like to think of myself as a whiner, but I run through my lengthy list of afflictions, trying not to sound too obnoxious. I don’t mention my worry about M.S. by name.
“It’s the nerves,” Louise assures me. We turn down a corridor and she directs me into a narrow room lined with lockers and a low bench. She hands me two plastic bags, a pair of gray slippers, a robe and a johnny gown – the same blue diamond pattern on white that I’d worn for my colonoscopy last summer, I note. “Put your clothes in one bag, shoes in the other. The johnny’s worn open to the back. Once you’re dressed, let me know. I’ll be right outside.” She indicates a door to the right and says, “And there’s the loo, if you need it.”
I’m never one to pass up a toilet if offered, so I sink to the seat for a moment and then turn to my knees. Dry heaves. Yuck. But I feel better.
Louise’s voice comes, muffled, concerned, through the door. “Are you all right? There’s a pull cord on the wall if you need help.”
“I’m okay. I’ll be out in a sec.”
Deep breath. Deep breath. I am okay. I get to my feet, flush the toilet, and wash my hands. I straighten the johnny, pull on the thin robe and open the door.
I grab my book and Pink Bunny from the bench and Louise puts the bags with my clothing and flip flops into one of the lockers then leads me around a corner to the first in a row of glassed off cubicles. “Make yourself comfortable,” she says, settling me into an upholstered blue recliner. She unfolds several heated beige blankets and tucks them around me. After taking my blood pressure and temperature, she says, “A nurse will be here soon. Was that your husband with you?”
To my nod, she says, “I’ll get him for you.”
I’ve been holding on, waiting for her to leave, to indulge in some tears. They break through. “Oh, Dearie,” she says, just like my mom would have.
“I think I need to be alone,” I say. “Just for a bit.”
She leaves me with a gentle look of sympathy and I bury my face in Pink Bunny. What a relief to be here, finally. Sobbing, by myself, in this semi-dark room in my nest of blankets. My public face of two months no longer necessary. Today, I hand it over. Time to get this done.
A nurse with a clipboard comes in shortly with Dave close behind her. He smiles, with relief it seems, and gives me a one-armed hug so as not to block the nurse as she checks the plastic ID bracelet I received at check-in. He stands beside me, a hand on my shoulder as the nurse runs through a list of questions and says, “And you’ve had nothing to eat or drink since midnight?”
Shit. No one said anything about drinking. I’ve had boatloads of water so I wouldn’t be hungry, but I’m admitting nothing that might postpone this surgery.
“Nope,” I answer definitively.
Official business complete, Louise returns to lead me to a stretcher in a corridor. There is a flurry of yellow snapdragons and bustling cheer, incongruous in that stark setting. It’s Carey, my college roommate and dear friend, sprightly and perfume-scented with her so-short streaked hair and red-lipsticked mouth, eyebrows raised, smile-brilliant, as welcoming and happy as if she were greeting me at a restaurant for lunch.
Except I know how worried she is. Her public face outclasses mine. I’d seen the color drain from her skin when I told her my diagnosis. She has called me every day, after every appointment. “We are in this together,” she has said.
And then my kids are here, both with set, forced, “everything’s going to be fine” smiles, the same smile I’ve worn for a month now myself, and I dissolve, weeping on Pink Bunny.
Like an honor guard, Carey, Tucker, Casey and Dave walk alongside my stretcher as I am wheeled to radiology. They stand back as Gina, dark-eyed, tan and enthusiastic, steps in for Louise and pushes me over the threshold. The door closes slowly on my family, their faces remaining in the diminishing space between the door and the jam mouthing “Good luck! Love you!” until the crack disappears.
“This will burn,” says the doctor administering the dye. “We need to mark the path from which the sentinel node drains.” At least I think he says something like that; even without anesthesia, a fog has taken me. But I feel the burn and it hurts. Tears run down my cheeks and Gina squeezes my hand kindly, but says, “Oh, now. Be brave. No need for that.”
Excuse me, bitch?
Once the dye procedure is finished, I’m wheeled back to the hall. Steve, Deb, Dave’s mom and my friend Joan have joined the others. They line up beside my stretcher with words of love and encouragement. Steve leans over to hug me, then turns away. He had prostate surgery four years ago. This is hard for him; he is right there in my head with me.
I am wheeled somewhere else. I’ve lost track of corridors, cubicles and waiting rooms. The Team – my team – is waiting for me: the surgeon, Dr. Philipson, and the plastic surgeon, Dr. Alton. Strong, competent, blond, beautiful women in blue scrubs and confident smiles. In my mind, their feet are planted squarely, hands fisted on hips, capes flowing behind them. They will take care of me. I know they will.
Off to the side, leaning against a counter, is a guy with blue eyes wearing a shower cap. Only, it’s not a shower cap, he’s in scrubs. “Just waiting my turn,” he says with a grin.
It’s Ben, the anesthesiologist. The man I’ve been waiting for. He sits down beside me, close, face-to-face. And I don’t have to worry anymore.