Thursday, October 22, 2009

More About Love Than Disease

Dave bends over one of four turkey-baster-like bulbs suspended in white cotton sacks from the imposing fifties-style bra that protects my new scarred, but implant-enhanced, breasts. Each rubber globe is attached to a two-foot long drain that snakes from my side. It is Dave’s job to “milk” the tubes and measure whatever fluid has collected. This will be an exciting new phase of our relationship.

Some men might shirk from such a task. Not my husband. A failed chemistry exam his junior year in high school crushed his hopes of being a doctor. He is positively giddy about exercising those untried medical skills.

His eyes are bright behind wire-rimmed glasses as he extracts bulb #1 from its pouch. He has drawn up a chart, to be typed later, with blocks to be filled in with dates, times and fluid amounts. My plastic surgeon is a babe – a babe he’d like to impress – and surely his attention to detail will not go unnoticed. Of course, he wants to take good care of me as well.

As he squeezes the tubing through his thumb and forefinger, I wince, anticipating a tug, but he is very gentle. He holds the bulb, trailing its accompanying drain, up to the light so we can study the level of liquid.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“Um, 32?’

“Maybe it’s closer to 34,” he says, writing down that number on the chart.

This is not an exact science.

He repeats the process three more times. Our heads are bent close together, both of us watching his fingers and the movement of pink fluid through the tube.

I love Dave’s hands. Where both of us show our age in graying hair and lined skin, his hands haven’t changed in the thirty-seven years we’ve been together. They are strong and boyish, olive-skinned, and I have kissed those hands many times in the past few days after they’ve plumped my pillows, placed on my lap a tray of juice and melon garnished with a green sprig of fresh mint, helped me dress, washed my hair.

“I wish I could do this for you,” he has said of the cancer and surgery. “I wish it were happening to me instead.”

I know what he means. I know he hates the fact that he could not protect me. But, oh, I am grateful for the roles Fate has allocated. I can do this. I could not stand to watch Dave or one of our children endangered.

Many people, after asking how I’m doing, will ask, “and what about Dave? Is he okay?”
He has a good game face, and I think it’s sincere for now. My prognosis is excellent and now that I’m home, he can contribute to my well-being. “I can’t have the disease for you, but I can keep the house clean, cook, and take care of you.” He is the best of men.

When we were younger, often he’d wake to the sound of me sniffling into my pillow because I’d brought myself to tears in imagining him lost to some disaster. “How did you kill me off this time?” he’d ask in a voice of kind resignation.

I’d bawl, embarrassed that I’d bothered him, but glad, so glad, to have him with me, alert and well and whole, in our bed. “A car accident,” I’d sob. “The police had just called and I asked Steve to go with me to the hospital.” This happened more times than I care to confess. Dave would always pull me close and nuzzle my hair, kiss my cheeks, and say, “It’s not going to happen. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was as if I were practicing, hoping that if I lived through enough of the calls and funerals in my mental-movies, I’d be able to deal with it better when I had to. I’m not sure what made me stop those sad fantasies. As we got older, perhaps I worried I was putting too dangerous a possibility out to the Universe.

After the bulbs are empty, we go downstairs and Dave sets me up on the back porch. He arranges a backrest of pillows on the wicker loveseat and brings me a glass of ice water with a wedge of lemon on the rim. I write a few thank you notes while he does a crossword puzzle. I read a little. Some friends stop by. After an hour or so, I feel as whiny and petulant as a child needing a nap. It’s all I can do not to cry. I look desperately at Dave and catch his eye. He rises from his chair saying, “Great to see you! Lea needs to head in for a rest now.”

A new phase of our relationship indeed.

After I give good-bye hugs and kisses, Dave walks the guests to their car while I head inside and upstairs. I stop in Casey’s room to fetch her pink bunny from the top of her closet. I’d put him away soon after returning from the hospital in the belief that I didn’t need him anymore. Guess I was wrong. It still hurts to stretch my arms, but I want Pink Bun, so I stretch anyway and then shuffle to my bed clutching the flannel rabbit just like sleepy Casey used to do as a toddler.

Our bedroom is brilliant and aromatic with the colors and scent of countless flowers. Yellow roses, lavender irises, sunflowers, delphinium, lilies, snapdragons. A garish royal blue feather boa is draped over one window – a gift from my friend Gail who demonstrated with a flourish: “When people ask how you’re doing, flip the boa dramatically over your shoulder and say, ‘I feel marvelous!’”

A photograph of a sandy beach, with cobblestones arranged to form “LEA,” is on my bureau. I cried when Hallie gave it to me. So thoughtful, so enduring, my name in stone.

A teddy bear from our neighbors sits in the window, a healing angel from Sharon on my bedside table. I’ve received books, pajamas, meals, pies and brownies. Every day, Dave serves me a plate of daisy-shaped melon and pineapple, remnants of several “Edible Arrangements” from dear friends. A wooden bucket next to my bed is crammed with cards, not only from those I love, but some from my sister’s friends, from Carey’s friends, from relatives I rarely see, from acquaintances I know only from committees and meetings. I have been embraced and buoyed by waves of kindness.

But right now, I feel lonely and sad. I wish Dave were here.

He is downstairs, playing the piano ever-so-softly. Is he playing for fun or a lullaby for me? The song is Tom Waits’ “Serenade,” one of my favorites. I think of this song as the sound track of our lives: it is beautiful and poignant and Dave plays it often. I hold Pink Bun close and sniffle at my good fortune in all the love that surrounds me, and in this dearest of men at the piano.

“Serenade” ends and he shifts to something else. The melody is familiar; what is it? He’s playing it slower than usual, soulful, heart-felt. Ah, it’s The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

Since my return from the hospital, as Dave has bustled about, joyfully bearing the newest lovely arrangement to my side, vacuuming, or making the bed, I have said, “Honey, do you know how much I love you?” He always says yes, but too often in taking him for granted, I’ve been snappish and dismissive. Does he see beyond that?

The piano is quiet. I hear footsteps on the stairs. As if he’s felt the pull of my loneliness, Dave has come to me. We smile at each other as he enters the room.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Careful, That's My Mother in There

by Guest Writer: Casey Sylvestro

Four or Five martinis? Okay Ben, Dr. Sleep. One cosmo - two tops - and my mother is unfit to operate a stationary bicycle let alone have conversations concerning signing away her life and well-being. And judging by the drowsy droop of her eyelids and the baby sloth smile sliding over her lips, I’d say the 3rd martini effect you described has just kicked in.

Dr. Ben, the anesthesiologist, says the cocktail he has dripping into Mom’s IV will leave her with lowered inhibitions and drug-induced amnesia as well as a sense of peace. A nice improvement over the weepy, nauseous, muscle-tense anxiety she’s been feeling for the past two hours or so. Thank you, Ben.

When Tucker and I first walked into the hospital a couple of hours ago and saw our mom lying on her gurney, she started crying. She looked so teeny under all the blankets, and being skinny anyway, the hospital gowns kind of hung off her narrow shoulders. I didn’t like seeing my mom anxious and scared (after months of being strong and brave) and in pain from the stupid lymph node dye they’d injected into her right boob. I understand that they needed to see what they were removing to test for the possible spread of her breast cancer, but when I peeked through the door and saw my mom lying alone on the MRI table, clutching my Pink Bunny and looking weepy, I couldn’t help wondering why she would be left by herself. Where did that young and somewhat irritatingly perky nurse in the flowery scrubs go? Her company would have been an improvement upon being alone and scared on a chilly table, awaiting needles filled with dye.

After maybe thirty minutes, Mom came shuffling out of the room, confirming that it had not been much fun, and that the site of the injection was still burning. A sweet, older lady nurse arrived with the gurney and helped Mom gingerly lower herself onto it. Mom asked for more heated blankets to combat the shivers she’d started having to coincide with the headache she’d had all morning. We (Dad, Tucker, Mom’s friend, Carey, and I) fell into stride behind the gurney and marched down to Pre-Op.

Mom’s “room” was a little cubicle sectioned off with a flimsy wall and standard
hospital-y looking curtain. All those curtains look the same: that flowery, thin material that you find in doctors’ offices, school infirmaries, and nursing homes. If dentists had cubicle curtains, I bet they’d have them too.

Mom, of course, had to go to the bathroom. The nurse assigned to her (to us) came and escorted her to the ladies. Twiddling thumbs ensued. Hospital humor. Poking at and touching things we probably shouldn’t have; the hospital staff wouldn’t have had any reason to assume Sylvestros shouldn’t be trusted to behave appropriately in any given uncomfortable situation. Anything to lighten the tension, really.

When Mom came back, she looked slightly pinched, and confided that she’d had dry heaves. Luckily, (weirdly) it made her feel better and she settled down into her bed, looking tiny and exhausted, barely flinching when the nurse inserted an IV needle into the back of her left hand. Impressive. We waited for the surgeons and anesthesiologist to come and talk to us and answer any questions we might have.

Dr. Ben, the anesthesiologist, is the person I have been most anxious to meet. I insist that my Aunt Debby, a nurse practitioner, be there so she can look at any paperwork that may have medical language and fire any questions at Ben that Dad, Tucker and I hadn’t come up with. I don’t like having Mom sign a form that states she understands the risk of death from anesthesia, even though Debby assures me that all patients have to sign it before going under. I’ve heard stories about people having routine surgery and, because their anesthesiologist was a bonehead, they never opened their eyes again. I also read Coma last summer, a book about evil doctors purposely comatose-ing their patients. I’m not an elephant, but certain things you never forget. So I’ve been adamant about wanting to meet the man who was going to put my mother to sleep while the surgeons removed the cancer from her body. I wanted him to know that I would be very, very angry if everything did not go 100% textbook with my mother. I wanted to make sure he knew that I know where he works. I would find him. And I wanted him to see my face. And know that THAT face would haunt him if anything happened to my mother.

As it turns out, Ben may be my new favorite person in the whole world. A quick glance at his left hand tells me I can’t dream too far, but his blue eyes, sparkling behind his glasses, are tender, caring and incredibly warm and comforting. He reminds me, looks only, of Miranda’s boyfriend Steve on Sex and the City.

Dad, stroking Mom’s hair the entire time, keeps a running dialogue of medical questions about bodies and drugs and disease. Such a nerd. He catches my gaze as he says to Ben, “I love biology. I would have been a doctor if I hadn’t failed Chemistry.” (Dad would have been the BEST doctor. Talk about an amazing bedside manner.)

Ben’s sense of humor, and his clever way of integrating stories that illustrate how experienced, impassioned and skilled he is into his assurances of how fine my mother will be and what good hands she’s in, has won us all over. I think he likes us, too. He holds eye contact with whichever one of us he’s speaking to and makes sure to answer all of our questions thoroughly and in laymen’s terms. We all understand exactly what he’s telling us.

Well, most of us.

At this point, Mom’s enjoying the effects of her fifth martini. Actually, probably more like her seventh or eighth. The preparation of the operating room is taking longer than expected, so Ben gave her another dose of his fun cocktail. (I want some.) She’s slipping in and out of sleep, the occasional groggy wake-up making us chuckle with her utterances of “Am I drooling?” or “Oh. Why are you still here?” and “Where‘s Ben?” and (my favorite) “Gimme the Bunny.”

I’ve been crouched next to the gurney, holding her hand almost this whole time. The surprisingly firm grasp she has and the intermittent squeezes she gives my fingers makes me ask her if she’s awake, but no answer. Maybe not awake, but I like to think she’s aware and giving me squeezes on purpose.

The two surgeons who will be operating on my mother come in for a brief chat. Both are women. Both gorgeous. The surgeon, Dr. Philipson, who will be performing the double mastectomy, is a sunny, outdoorsy looking blond with a no-nonsense air about her. I find this extraordinarily comforting. I don’t want nonsense either. This is my most precious of people she will be cutting open and I want her to be very sure all the parts go back exactly where they should. I also want her to be certain she gets everything OUT that doesn’t belong inside my mother. So that vibe she’s giving off of “I know exactly what I’m doing, so let’s get the show on the road” is precisely what I would want from the surgeon taking care of my mother.

The plastic surgeon, Dr. Alton, who will be performing my Mom’s reconstruction, looks like she stepped off the pages of a Maxim Magazine. Also blond, hair pulled back into a knot, with pearls and carefully applied makeup, she looks fresh and powdery. Appropriate for a plastic surgeon, I think.

Together they describe what will be done while my mother is under, and assure us that they expect it to be easy and smooth. Nothing about what they describe sounds easy OR smooth, but not being a surgeon, I’m not going to question them.

Both surgeons march away to the operating room, and Ben slides back in place. It is showtime. Mom rouses enough to receive our kisses and hugs good luck (not goodbye). I’d been pretty good up to now, but hugging Mom sets the tears loose I’d held trapped behind my eyes all morning. Tucker’s holding it together, but he has that tight smile that I’ve seen before in not such fun or easy times, and he comes to stand next to me with his arm around my shoulders.

Dad has his summer tan, but I can still see the teary redness of his face as he’s kissing Mom - One. Two. Three. Four times before we watch her wheeled around the corner, and out of sight. She is clutching my Pink Bunny, much, I imagine, the same way I clutched Pink Bunny for comfort when I was two. Pink Bunny brought me comfort for bed; Pink Bunny’s bringing Mom comfort for bed. I never went to bed to have cancer cut out of me though. Hopefully, there’s still enough comforting power left in his love-softened felt and worn satin ears for that big a job.

Jamming his handkerchief into his eyes and puffing out a huge breath, Dad joins me and Tuck in our walk back to the waiting room.

“That was NOT fun.”

No, Dad, it was not.

Walking into the waiting room makes me dissolve into tears. Seeing all those expectant faces: Debby, my uncle Steve, Gram, and our friends Joanie and Carey. Almost everyone’s wearing pink, the Breast Cancer color. Steve’s pink button down shirt, Joanie’s pink button down, Deb’s pink cable knit Polo sweater. Pink bracelets, pink ribbons, Pink Bunny. Everyone settles in for the long wait. Ben said probably three and a half to four hours for the surgery and that no news is good news, so relax in the meantime. Yeah, okay, Ben.

Tucker’s googling on his iPhone, Joanie’s reading the book Mom wrote about our trip to Italy, Dad’s doing crossword puzzles (although I haven’t seen many squares filled in). The waiting room reminds me of an airport gate: rows of chairs, back to back and lining the wall, comfortable enough for short periods of time, but not for a lengthy sit.

Staring into the huge tropical fish tank on the wall, I notice a fat little red fish head down against the back wall. Dead. Honestly, people - this is a hospital waiting room. There shouldn’t even be a dead PLANT around. I comfort myself with the thought that everyone is too busy saving the lives of people, too busy tending to my mother, to worry about cleaning the fish tank.

Not being a stand-around crowd, we gather our bags and venture down to the hospital café after much debate of whether or not to leave the hospital and go get pizza. I’ll be damned if I am leaving my mother here and my sentiments win out.

On our way in to the cafe, who should show up but Carey’s son, Malcolm, and his wife, Liz. Last summer, my father was ordained online to marry Malcolm and Liz. As I hug Malcolm, whom I haven’t seen since I was maybe fourteen, and thank him for coming, he shrugs and says, “Well, we love your parents.”

Yeah. Who doesn’t?

Seated at the tables in the café, which to be honest really could be a far cheerier place with a little love (again, probably more important things to worry about in a hospital, but this is where my head goes), there are about a dozen conversations happening at once. Each one has the undertone of “I will talk about anything as long as it takes my attention away from what’s going on in Operating room 2C.”

Lisa and Lauren, my two cousins’ girlfriends, have joined us - both the most wonderful of girls and dearest of friends. They are a nice distraction, as is the food in front of me, until I notice that I have no cell phone service. Panic. Dad gave his cell number to the surgeons in case we needed to be reached. I call this to his attention and he bustles outside to check it. No news, but I am through with Pandini’s Café. Lisa and I grab our bags and head back up to the waiting room. We sit, adjusting ourselves in the oversized, snuggly chairs (Ha. Ha. Ha.) and Lisa eyes me down.

“You looked like you were ready to run out of there,” she says.

Yes, well, I may not be able to do the surgery myself, but I can be close by in case something happens.

It’s been one and a half hours. Maybe two. At least one more hour to go. Every sound of an opening door, every footstep down the hall causes my head to snap up. Mom’s was the last case of the day, so we really have the waiting room, if not the entire floor, to ourselves. Very quiet. Everyone trickles back in from the café and settles in with… whatever. Lisa and Lauren read celebrity gossip magazines. I diligently take notes for, well, this. And honestly, if one more Michael Jackson story comes on the TV, I’m going to throw my chair through it. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind throwing chairs around the room anyway. I feel like that might help alleviate the tightly wound ball of anxiety pressing to explode from my stomach.

My mother is a hallway away, stretched out on a table, asleep, while doctors root around inside her. No way do I want to be in there to see that, but I want to be in there to keep holding her hand. To make sure she still has her hold on Pink Bunny. To make sure she knows that she isn’t alone in there and that we’re all here waiting for her to wake up. I know she knows, but I want her to know. I want to be standing at Dr. Philipson’s elbow saying, “Did you get it all? Are you sure? CAREFUL please that is my MOTHER you’re mushing around there.”

I’d like to sit tapping my foot as Dr. Alton begins her reconstruction. “Remember, Mom said a smidge bigger. Are you SURE you understand exactly what she wants? Do you know how to not go huge? (Can you even order small boobs from a plastic surgeon?) And make them perky.” What good is going through all this if you don’t get great boobs after all?

I know these women are skilled surgeons. I know that. But I want them to know that they have my mother in there. And she is not just every other patient they’ve ever had. She is different. She is far more irreplaceable and important than anyone they have ever had on their respective tables. Same to you, Dr. Anesthesiologist Ben. Remember. I will haunt you.

Dr. Philipson walks in, startling all of us. Oh god. It’s way too soon. It’s been like two and a half hours. Dr. Ben had said no news is good news. I know it’s bad. She’s had a reaction to the anesthesia. Her lymph nodes have cancer. I think my heart stops as my friend Amanda’s face flashes through my head; she lost her mom to cancer. My roommate Karis flashes through my head; she lost her mom four years ago. I don’t want to be them. I don’t want to be them. I cannot be them. I am not a girl who can go through life without her mother, her best friend. No, no, no, no!

“Wow, are you all here for Lea? What an important lady!! Everything went smoothly. Dr. Alton is finishing up right now. Lymph nodes are negative.”

I love Dr. Philipson.

The sigh of relief around the room feels like a whoosh of air. My dad starts talking to Dr. Philipson as I cry - I am my mother’s daughter. I choose that moment to look at the fish tank. The chubby red fish is swimming around happily, scooping up stones from the bottom and spitting them out. Apparently, he was on the same sleep schedule as Mom.