Before You Proceed
As I sit in the soft-lit glow of my mother's hospital room, silently observing the rise and fall of her recently war-torn chest, I can't help but consider the impact that this past month has had on my family. She finally appears somewhat comfortable, taking a hard-earned nap after having the right lower lobe of her lung removed yesterday. Cancer is a bitch. Cancer is a burden. But sometimes -- even with cancer -- you can find a silver lining. Everyone has been impacted by the devastation of this (or any) disease and its effects, whether personally or professionally. Below is the first part of a series of pieces that document what happens when your world is shaken by a life-altering illness and coping with the weight of it all. It was never intended to be a published piece, but rather,was an email I sent to myself -- cheap therapy, I suppose -- two days after her initial diagnosis. My mother's story of her second battle with cancer, although woven differently in its details, shares a common thread for many. Thank you for who allowing me take you down this journey with me -- and to those who have fought, who are fighting, or have succumbed: this is my tiny way of honoring each of you and your loved ones.
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The Phone Call
The strangest thing happens when people catch wind of horrible news. They suddenly become unable to appropriately verbalize what they are trying to say. There is a lot of I'm sorry; there is generally a look of absolute pity; and they almost always ask, "Are you okay?"
Of course I'm not okay. I'm at an absolute low point in my existence. In one three-minute phone call, I've been taken from a state of wonder and possibility to the horrendous reality of death and disease. But I won't tell you that. I won't say that aloud. When bad stuff happens, you're supposed to remain optimistic. You are supposed to say things like, "My mom is a fighter; she will get through this." You're supposed to welcome warm hugs and thoughtful messages. But you can't do those things forever, because you know too freaking much. You find it nearly impossible to hope that maybe it was a false positive result, because you understand just how far technology has come. You can hardly listen as people ask you how she is dealing with it, because you know that she is pretending to be strong so that you don't worry. She even told you to make sure you eat your dinner, for Christ's sake, after handing off the news.
So you do what you did last time, when you were 18 years old and without a worry in the world: you try to play the optimist. You smash the news into the corner of your brain and convince yourself, tear streaked in the locker room mirror, that you can work the rest of your shift because everything is going to be okay.
But it won't be okay. At least not the same way it was before. Because she's older now; and she's sicker now; and she made it perfectly clear in very plain language that if this thing on her lung is too far advanced, she's going to refuse treatment. So you smash her words into the corner of your skull and refuse to believe them. You'll be okay. It will be okay. I'm okay.
Putting on a Brave Face
I deliver the diagnosis, first to my very-pregnant sister, and then my husband. I make it through with total lack of affect. My voice cracks a little while I tell Joe the news, but recover enough to convince him (or maybe myself) that I'll get through the next three hours of work without any problem.
My pep talk to myself is total BS. I can sense it from deep down inside, I'm about to burst but I shouldn't. That's not my job. I'm the sensible one. I've got rose-colored lenses. I'm supposed to keep it all together while everyone around me falls apart.
I woke up Friday morning and put on extra-dark eyeliner. It was a trick that I used in 2004 when I thought I was going to have a rough day. I wouldn't cry if my eyeliner was thick. Then everyone would know. Everyone would see how I really feel, what I was going through. I couldn't let that happen. Not again.
But I'm a different person now than I was back then. I've gone through the best and worst days of my life. I've learned what it means to love unconditionally. I've seen lives hang in the balance, and I've helped them transition into the afterlife. I am not the same. I will never be the same.
So when I walked into the unit, pretending to be totally fine and capable of caring for two critical patients, I could feel that lie start to unravel. With one look at my best friend at work -- she knew why I took a call during my busy shift, and from the look on her face, she knew the news before I could tell her. With one glance, I unraveled. My face was hot and my brain became dizzy and I could feel my knees buckle from under me. This time, I found out the news -- but I was not alone. This time, I knew what to expect. This time, I was left with no surprises.
They hurried me away into an empty patient room and sat me down on a trashcan while I hyperventilated. My words were incomprehensible. I don't remember exactly what I was trying to say but I do know that it ended with the fact that I cannot do this again...
Three of my best friends stayed with me despite the chaos on the unit. They wiped my tears. They made me laugh. They assured me that we would do whatever possible to get through one day at a time. My boss came in and told me that she had covered my assignment, and she took me off of the schedule for Saturday. The funny thing about nurses is they don't know how not to nurse. I couldn't have been in a better or worse place at the time. They insisted that I not drive, and my husband picked me up after speeding from the office to get me.
Softening the Blow
"Hey baby... I'm so sorry... are you okay?"
I'm still not okay.
He brought me a dozen roses and two pounds of chocolate. He understands that nothing he says at this very moment is going to help me, so he holds my hand silently. We grab some food at a mediocre chain restaurant, and I order a margarita the size of my head. After two sips I realize that if smashing the news into the back of my brain doesn't help, neither will drinking it away. I proceed to have water with my french fries, and we make fun of the very-corporate general manager and how he is a classic television trope.
Joe brings me to the standalone department store across the street. We gently poke fun at everything from the clothes to the customers to the fact that a standalone department store even exists in 2015. We enter the appliance section and pick out a $4,000 refrigerator for our imaginary house, and then make fun of people who spend $4,000 on something as stupid as a refrigerator.
We leave empty handed, and my headache starts to subside after laughing and wandering for an hour.
I call my mom when I get home. I lie and say that I just arrived from work. She doesn't know how I handled the news, and at this point, she doesn't have to. I understand that lying about how I feel is just as bad as her lying about she is, but I do it anyway. She tells me not to worry. She insists that I not change my life because of her -- that I absolutely must lead my life and pursue what I was already planning. And then she reminds me, just before we hang up, that she told the doctor her wishes: If it's "bad," and there is not treatment that will help, she wants nothing to be done.
"I've raised my girls. I've lived my life. And honestly, baby, I'm just so damn tired of it all."
I agree with her. I tell her we have lots of steps before that happens, and that we need more details before we can make a plan.
I'm Not Okay
I hang up, still wearing my scrubs, and start pacing around the living room. Joe asks me how she is doing, and I remain silent. I pace from the living room to the kitchen. I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Once I enter the bedroom, I can feel every emotion inside of my inflating, like a bubble that's inevitably going to burst.
And then pop.
I ruptured. Wide open. Spilling out from the very depths of my being. It was volcanic, and I began melting. I dropped to the hard wooden floor in my underwear, bargaining with God. I begged him. I asked him why he would do this again, and why to her. I asked him to give me her struggle and her pain. I couldn't breathe. I could feel my breath shorten, and my gasps were labored. My husband ran into the room and threw himself around me. I covered him with snot and tears and expletives. He held on so tightly that I could feel his hands gripping into me for dear life. It was as though he was holding on so that I wouldn't escape myself any further. It was almost an hour before I quieted down. Before I could feel myself coming back into a rational and reasonable state again. Wherever I went in that very moment, it was not within myself. The old me had bled out, and now I was reborn. I was back to being myself, but a new and different version. I couldn't be the old me anymore.
BC: before cancer -- that's how I am going to have to exist.
Joe helped me to my feet and I stood in the bathroom: hot, red, stripped in every sense. I looked at how green my eyes appeared -- they always had a catlike glow when I cried, accented by a glassy reddish-white periphery. I took shower that was too long and too hot for 11 p.m. on a Friday in August. When I crawled into bed, the heaviness of the day weighed down upon my body. I closed my eyes and fell asleep instantly, not waking up until 10:45 a.m. the next day.
"Are you okay?"
I will never be okay. I will never be normal. I will never be the person I was before that day. There will be really great moments and unspeakably challenging ones, but I am not ever going to be okay.
But really, who wants to be "just okay" anyway?
Today I am feeling quietly concerned but calm. Yesterday I was motivated to overcome the challenge at hand. Tomorrow? Who knows. Every single day will be punctuated by a different emotion, a different version of the woman who I am.
Please don't be sorry. Please don't feel badly. And please don't ask me if I'm okay.