When the alarm went off the next morning, it didn’t ring so much as it tolled. This was the day. We had feared this day since Suzie’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We worried about it when her two aunts had been given the same diagnosis. It was in the back of our minds as we whispered about whether Mom would live to see her granddaughters grow up. Then later it was unspoken as we wondered whether she would live to see the birth of her grandson.
In our minds, this day had always been the worst thing that could happen. Put in the proper perspective, however, the alternative was worse. There was no choice this morning. There was no doubt about the outcome of this day. There was no point in thinking about it. With only a deep breath’s worth of hesitation, we rolled out of bed.
We began the now familiar preparations. The motions were the same but the meaning was different. In a way, for me, it was easier. I wasn’t torturing myself with denial. I had a purpose. Sandra was there to take care of the kids and hug Suzie goodbye. Decisions were made. Options were gone. It was beyond our control. Life was in larger hands. The roller coaster began to leave the platform. We were pulled forward by gravity toward a future on rails. There was no getting off.
They say courage isn’t a lack of fear. Courage is doing what you must, in spite of fear. That’s what I saw that morning. I knew Suzie was afraid. I’d seen it through her uncharacteristic tears several times that week. I’d also seen her be courageous before, over the years. In fact, I’d seen her almost every morning for more than half my life now. I had never seen her quite like this.
Her determination was fierce. She didn’t need to talk about it. She didn’t want to postpone it. She was ready to get it done, the sooner the better. I took my cue from her. If I was going to encourage her today then I would have to keep up. She was already there.
The trip to Summit seemed shorter than last time. The iridescent glow of the hospital in the morning sun was no surprise. We knew where the entrance was and how to get to admissions. We expected the warm pastel colors and open spaces. Our appreciation was tempered by memories this time, none of them pleasant.
Even though everything was familiar, a lot had changed since the beginning of the week. There was a rhythm to the place that wasn’t there before. People operated with the smooth efficiency of habit. We were in and out of admissions in no time. The excited descriptions had shortened to tour guide professional. Even the hallways seemed shorter.
The familiar smell of fresh coffee provoked a strong Pavlovian response as we walked into same day again. Even though we would spend the night, the day began here. The nurses were smiling warmly in recognition this time as we walked up to the desk to check in. Once again they consulted the marker board for our room assignment. Today “RITCHEY” was incorrectly spelled in red at the top of the board which meant Suzie was first on the schedule for surgery. Our name is hardly ever spelled correctly but today it seemed ominous.
It was hard not to notice the word “MASTECTOMY” written beyond the room number and Dr. Burns’ name. The nurses knew what was going on and were obviously trying to make things as easy as possible. For all their professional detachment, they were still women and this surgery evoked empathy. Smiles contained a little sadness and instructions were given with a little extra tenderness. It was greatly appreciated.
Soon their businesslike manner and flurry of chit-chat relaxed us. They acted as if this sort of thing were normal around here and there was no cause for concern. For a moment I wondered what parade of horrors these women must see every day if this was normal but the possibilities were too depressing. I kept my mind focused on the trivial matters of getting settled into our room for the morning.
The first thing I did was check the TV. As the screen flickered to life I heard the sound of applause from the small speaker in the remote. I was visibly relieved and Suzie laughed. There had been so many little problems on Monday we had wondered how many of them would be fixed by Friday. I took this as a good sign.
The smell of coffee was still distracting me as I got Suzie’s single suitcase put away. I don’t know why it was so tempting except that it smelled out of place in a hospital. I rarely drank it outside the studio but here it wafted memories of home and family. I grew up with the sound of a percolator and the smell of coffee swirled around every happy childhood memory.
Or maybe I was just cold. Hospitals are like restaurants in that way. The temperature is set by the employees who are hustling around getting warm while the objects of their attention are freezing. At least in restaurants, they don’t ask you to put on a thin cotton gown with extreme rearward ventilation. Suzie accepted hers with resignation and went into the bathroom to change.
It was my chance to drown my cravings so I slipped out and found the mini kitchen. The pot was hot and the smell was rich and I put enough sugar and cream in my cup to make a drinkable dessert. After a sip or two to make walking possible, I headed back to the room.
Suzie was still changing so I headed for the chair and remote control. I was about to settle in for some world-class channel flipping when – BANG! My head exploded again. I’d forgotten the biohazard sharps box on the wall. While my head was pounding and I was juggling a hot coffee cup I heard Suzie in the bathroom – laughing.
“Are you OK?” she giggled from behind the door.
“I’m fine,” I lied. Actually, my head hurt, my hands were burned and I had coffee all over me. I was still wiping myself off when she came out of the door. She was dressed in her southern exposure gown and trying to suppress a smile. When she saw me, she laughed out loud. At least I was good for a little comic relief.
As she got into bed the nurse appeared to take her vital signs. We exchanged glances when the baumanometer worked the first time. This was good. When it was time for her I.V. the needle found a vein on the first try with little pain, even though the back of her hand was still bruised from Monday’s episode. Suzie sighed with relief.
It wasn’t long before our nurse showed up with a pill in a paper cup to relax her. They had anticipated that this would be a stressful time. They had seen this all happen before and were prepared for it, even if we weren’t. It was comforting that things were going smoothly this time.
Before long the pill began to do its job and Suzie’s eyelids got heavy. She tried to stay awake and talk but she was too tired to fight it. I sat and watched her peaceful breathing and debated what else could be done to prepare for this. I could think of nothing. She was as ready as she was ever going to be. All that was left was the wait so sleep was merciful. I was soon wishing for a pill myself.
Instead, I prayed. I prayed as long and hard as I knew how. I prayed for Dr. Burns, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, the rest of the hospital staff, the children and then Suzie. I prayed until I began to repeat myself. I prayed until my late night and early morning caught up with me. It hadn’t taken very long. I fell asleep with chin in my hand and my elbow propped on the arm of the chair. That’s where I was when the door opened and a stranger came in.
“Suzzanne?” a voice called quietly.
“Yes, come in,” Suzie answered cheerily as she popped instantly from a dead sleep to coherent conversation. I’ve always been amazed at this ability which I definitely do not share. As I struggled to open my eyes they got introductions out of the way. Her name, she said, was Francis. She was the wife of a deacon in our church.
I was irritated that she had disturbed Suzie from her peaceful sleep. Well, maybe it was because I had to wake up. It’s hard to tell when you’re so groggy. I was introduced as the husband and nodded silently. I listened as Suzie answered questions and eventually had to explain the whole situation from the beginning.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that our deacon had sent his wife to pray with us because of the sensitive nature of the surgery. It was logical that a woman would better appreciate the gravity of the situation and be more equipped to share Suzie’s concerns about losing her breasts. Definitely not guy territory.
No, in my bleary-eyed state I was just annoyed that a stranger woke Suzie up and was making her rehash the entire tale. It also kept me from having my last few private moments with Suzie before surgery. I knew it wouldn’t be long now before she was whisked away.
I might have protested but I was sleepy and grumpy and afraid of what I might say. Francis had the best of intentions and a scene wouldn’t help Suzie so I kept my mouth shut while all the questions were asked and answered. Then the conversation got sidetracked somehow.
“. . . and then the car just died on the highway and they were stranded, looking at the smoke just pour out and they . . .” Francis continued the tale in one long phrase, apparently without having to breathe. I thought I must have missed something and looked at Suzie for a clue. She was blinking in drug confusion as she tried to follow the story. “. . . they needed a new one but they were having financial problems. It all started with her spending money like water and . . .”
I strained to find a point that related to us but it escaped me. Words cascaded over words in a waterfall of nervous energy. I began to suspect that she was uncomfortable with Suzie’s operation and talking was her way of avoiding the subject. Suzie’s eyes began to glaze over as the drugs pulled her back toward sleep.
“. . . and now their marriage is in trouble and by the way, I wish you two would help me pray for them because they . . .” This was unbelievable! In moments Suzie would have a double mastectomy and this woman was asking for our prayers for a stranger’s finances? As Francis glanced in my direction, Suzie caught my eye with a sideways look of mock horror. I smiled behind my hand. At least she hadn’t lost her sense of humor. “. . . but the casinos were where the real problems started. It just became an addiction and there was no way to stop it . . .”
That was the last straw. I had to put an end to this. Suzie shot me a helpless glance and I started to open my mouth when a knock at the door stopped the monologue and a nurse came in. Mounted cavalry couldn’t have been more welcome.
“I just came to check on you,” she said as the door bumped Francis. “Excuse me. Did I interrupt?” she asked apologetically.
“That’s O.K.” I volunteered a little too quickly. Suzie managed to suppress a cheer.
“It will only be a little while longer.” she continued. “They’re finishing up in surgery now. You’ll be next.” She said and turned for the door.
“I thought we were first on the board today?” I said to keep her from leaving. I knew for a fact that “we” weren’t having surgery but Suzie and I had been “we” for so long that it came out that way.
“Actually, cases are taken in order of need,” she answered me while addressing Suzie. “And while yours is a serious surgery, there was an emergency that had to go first this morning.”
“Of course’” Suzie replied. “I’m in no rush. Believe me.”
I wasn’t actually in a hurry to get Suzie to surgery either but I was stalling to find a tactfully way to tell Francis we were worried about more immediate problems right now. The nurse slipped out and, before I could gather my thoughts, Francis jumped in.
“Well, I really came to pray for you and to let you know that we are here to help.” she started. This sounded better. “Let’s pray and then I’ll leave you two together to get prepared.” she continued. We were grateful for all the prayers we could get so we were glad to bow our heads.
“Our Father, we come to you with humble hearts and ask your blessing upon Suzie Ritchie and her family in this hour of great need. . .” I began to feel guilty for my previous, devious thoughts as Francis expressed a sincere and heartfelt prayer for Suzie and the children and me.
“. . . and bless the doctors and increase their skill and concentration during the operation . . .” I was asking God to forgive me for my lack of patience and trying not to blame it on the situation or my lack of sleep when a siren shocked me back to reality! My head jerked up and I saw strobe lights flashing in the hall through a crack in the door but to my surprise, Francis was still praying.
“. . . and the nurses that will care for her while she’s in recovery and later on. . .” I couldn’t believe it. Could it be possible that she didn’t hear? Next, an automated female voice popped on the intercom speakers.
“PLEASE MOVE QUICKLY TO THE NEAREST EXIT. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. ALL PATIENTS AND STAFF ARE REQUIRED TO LEAVE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY.” the calm female voice instructed while the siren wailed. Suzie was staring at me in alarm and Francis droned on.
“. . . and of course the children at home. Help them to be sensitive to their mother at this time . . .” she continued. Surely she was about done!
“EXITS ARE MARKED WITH RED SIGNS. PATIENTS WHO NEED ASSISTANCE WILL BE HELPED FIRST.” I heard the shuffling of feet outside the door and unintelligible commands down the hallway.
” . . . and we ask that you bless all of the families in our church who are sick and in need and all of those in this hospital . . .”
I wondered who “we” was because Suzie and I had stopped praying long ago. Surely this was a mistake or another test.
“IF YOU DO NOT NEED ASSISTANCE, PLEASE EXIT NOW. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Well, that answered that question.
“OK!” I sang out. “I’m sorry to interrupt but I think there may be a fire. I have to go check.” Francis looked up with a stunned expression and I went out the door before she could say anything else. The hallway was empty which was disturbing and out of place. A stray sheet of paper lay on the floor.
I looked both ways for help since Suzie had an I.V. And was already drugged. I wasn’t sure how to handle her and the I.V. Pole if she couldn’t walk so I jogged around the corner toward the nurse’s station. The automated voice had stopped but the strobe lights were still flashing as I reached the counter. No one was in sight.
“Hello!” I yelled while walking farther. I heard an answer around a cubicle corner where I found an annoyed nurse at a desk with charts in front of her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s a false alarm. You should just stay in your room.”
“Are you sure?” I hesitated. “I haven’t heard that announcement before and . . .”
“They’re still working on the fire alarms in the offices that are still under construction.” she interrupted. “If there’s a real problem we’ll come and get you. Don’t worry.” She was as irritated as I was confused. She was obviously tired of repeating this explanation.
As I stood there fighting my adrenaline-charged urge to do something, the strobe lights stopped. I took a deep breath and went back to tell Suzie. When I walked in Francis had finally given up and was collecting her things.
“Well, you’ll be in our prayers,” she said, a little embarrassed but putting on a good face. “If you need anything at all, let us know.” We thanked her profusely and she was gone. We looked at each other and waited until she was well down the hall before we burst out laughing.
“That was awful,” Suzie said as she tried to compose herself. “I felt so bad about stopping such a sweet prayer but I was getting worried.” She suppressed another laugh.
“I know.” I said as I wiped tears from my eyes, “We need the prayers but I couldn’t just sit here and wait to smell smoke.”
“No.” she sighed and there was a moment of silence as we got serious.
“Of course, the part about the missionaries to China was a bit much,” I said. She collapsed in a fit of giggles again and I joined her. Laughter never felt so good. All the built up tension was released and for the first time in days, things felt normal. It lasted for a few more glowing moments before the door swung open.
“OK Hon’, time to go,” a new nurse said. She was followed in by an orderly with a gurney. “They’re running a little late because of the earlier surgery so they want us to be ready.” Though I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised. It felt too soon because of all the interruptions but when I looked at my watch it was almost lunchtime.
“You can walk with us.” the nurse said. They helped Suzie up and over to the gurney and began to roll. I had to hustle to keep up.
I took Suzie’s hand and felt a hundred inexpressible feelings at once but no words came to express them. There was no more time and nothing more to do. It was my helplessness that hit the hardest. We reached the doors at the end of the long hall.
“This is as far as you go.” the nurse said like she was kicking out a hitchhiker. They stopped long enough for us to say goodbye with a quick kiss and then hit the round stainless door button on the wall. As the automatic doors swung in they started rolling immediately.
“Wait!” a voice shouted from a distance. We all turned to look and Richard Gay was coming down the hall in an uncharacteristic trot. “Just a minute, I want to pray with them,” he called.
“Hang on,” she told the orderly with a loud sigh of impatience. They stepped back and propped against the wall as Richard loped up.
“Thanks,” he said. “The fire alarm held me up. I had to go outside.” He took Suzie’s hand and prayed for Suzie and all the hospital staff and for God’s protection. “Amen,” he said and the nurse and orderly stepped up in quick unison.
“See you in a little while.” was the best parting line I could come up with as I gave her one last kiss. They almost rolled the wheels over my foot as they started moving again.
“Bye Darling.” I heard a sleepy Suzie say as the doors swished closed leaving Richard and I standing alone in the white corridor.
The square, fluorescent light fixtures in the ceiling slid by her view like street lights passing at night. The wheels vibrated the bed beneath her slightly and shoes squeaked on smooth linoleum. She heard voices somewhere off to her right as they neared a nurse’s station. One loud and authoritative female voice rose above the murmur.
“What took you so long?” she demanded. “They’re waiting on you in surgery.” A woman with a stainless clipboard, black glasses, and a withering look slid past Suzie’s view.
“I know, I know.” called a cranky voice above her head. “Some preacher stopped us in the hall wanting to pray.” The words preacher and pray contained equal measures of disgust.
“Well, we’re backed up because that first one ran long. Get a move on or they’ll be growling at me,” she commanded.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” came the muttered reply.
The whole exchange took place as if Suzie wasn’t there and it irritated her. How could they talk about her pastor in front of her that way? If they only knew Richard and what a friend he’d been they wouldn’t talk like that, she thought.
And where did they get off treating her like a load of firewood to be delivered? It was embarrassing enough to be wheeled along like an invalid much less being treated like an annoyance to be gotten rid of. It was infuriating. She wanted to give them a piece of her drug-laced mind but they were down another hallway and around a corner already.
“Mrs. Ritchie?” another disembodied voice said. A face and a clipboard appeared to accompany it. She’d been handed off to someone else. A problem disposed of. “Your anesthesiologist will be by in a minute to talk to you. We’ll keep you here until they call for you in surgery.”
“OK,” Suzie acknowledged. Her anger began to subside. Being treated like baggage was a small indignity compared to what was about to happen. She would endure it stoically like her family always did – like her mother had done.
Her mom hadn’t uttered a word of complaint when she’d gotten cancer or had a mastectomy. It would have been considered weakness and Mrs. Dorothy Wade was anything but weak.
To Suzie this tall, imposing woman had been the living, breathing definition of the word strength. “A strong woman” was how people normally described her. For all practical purposes, she raised three children by herself. Her husband was a navigator in the Merchant Marines, away at sea for months at a time.
From family members, Suzie heard tales of her mother living in the French Quarter of New Orleans and building P. T. boats during “the war”. It was a stark contrast to the church pillar who raised her.
Her mother became the first woman in the factory to qualify to drive a forklift. Regulations classified it as operating heavy equipment, strictly male territory before Dorothy Wade decided it was stupid for her to wait around on a man. There was work to be done and a war to be won. With bullheaded determination, she single-handedly took on the all-male bureaucracy.
They resisted until she proved herself by smoothly gliding the forklift around the warehouse with a deft touch at the controls. When she argued that she could free up a man for “more important work”, they gave in and shook their heads at this tough woman.
To Suzie, this sort of behavior was considered normal and expected. It was with this attitude that she now waited, without fear, for her surgery. There was no hand-wringing or tears. There was no second-guessing. She had prepared for years. She had prayed. It was her turn to be strong.
It was something that had to be done and the sooner the better. If her mother’s cancer had been found earlier then she might still be alive. It was a matter of survival and Suzie needed to survive. There were three children depending on her. She would do this for them.
They were the last thought on her mind when the drugs carried her away.