I looked back into Suzie’s eyes, the only place where communication still flowed clear and true, and silently confirmed our sacred promise to each other. Together, we would fight this. But such battles take unexpected turns. After waiting for slow, silent hours, we topped another hill on this wild ride and time accelerated with a vengeance. The curtain ripped back and a crowd of pastel-clad people descended on her.
I stepped back out of the way while they packed her up for travel, unlocked wheels, grabbed I.V. poles and moved away. When I stepped out to follow, an E.R. nurse at the rear of the pack stared me down.
“We’re going to have to get her checked into SICU. If you’ll go around to the SICU waiting room, they’ll call you when we’re done.”
“How long will this take?” I had learned to ask questions if I wanted more than a sentence. Medical personnel are a tight-lipped lot.
“About an hour, I’d guess,” she smiled. They also smile a lot. Once again, I was being managed and summarily dismissed. My trust meter was at zero but I had no choice. I watched them roll my non-communicating wife down another maze of hallways until the security door clicked tight and the green alarm light glowed mockingly.
My first goal was to find the SICU waiting room and my second priority was to spread the news. I found the bank of phones set in an out-of-the-way alcove just for this purpose. It was strange that my once-in-a-lifetime phone call was so common here that they’d planned the building around it.
Making these calls was difficult because it meant repeating information that I was having a hard time accepting myself. I tried to find the best way to say it until I realized there was no good way. I took a deep breath, picked the phone up, and dialed mom and dad.
The shocked silence lasted longer this time. I had to stand and wait it out. There were tears. Then questions. Saying it out loud made it all the more clear just how bad it was. When the offers for help finally came, I was ready. I needed all the help I could get.
Since Sandra had already sacrificed two weeks, I asked them if they could come up and watch the kids. They agreed and began making plans among themselves on the phone extensions. I left them to it and called Sandra to repeat the process. It was no easier.
Finally, I called home to see how Rebekah was doing.
“We’re fine,” she said but her energy level was much lower. The excitement of having the place to themselves was wearing off. The night was settling in. “We have our pajamas on. I read Billy a book and now we’re watching TV. How’s Mommy?”
“They’re taking really good care of her,” was the best I could do. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Are ya’ll really okay?”
“Yes.” She perked up, her babysitting credibility challenged. “We’re all snuggled up in the living room together. We’re just going to stay in here” The implication that they were lonely was left unsaid.
“That’s good, sweetie. You’re doing a good job. I love you.”
“Love you, too. Bye Daddy.” I said goodbye and she hung up.
Whenever they complained about unfair treatment, I always told them that life was not fair. It was a mantra at our house. They moaned but it was my way to teach them that life was tough. But this was so far beyond unfair. It was devastating. So far, they had been protected from tragedy but I ached to think of what lay ahead.
I could feel my energy draining. I had to get moving. This was my chance to take care of myself. I’d learned long ago that my emotions ran on food. My engineer’s creed was, eat when you can. I headed for the in-house McDonald’s to find it closed. I grabbed some machine food and headed back. Eating in the waiting room was better than sitting alone in a sea of dark, empty tables.
When they finally called my name, I hustled through the forbidden doors into the inner sanctum. A state-of-the-art SICU is like another world. Or a spaceship.
It was laid out in a horseshoe with the nurses’ station at the center. Even at this late hour, there was abundant staff. Screens glowed and monitors beeped. The walls and doors to the individual rooms were glass so eyes could be kept on the patients at all times. I tried to ignore the other patients to give them the privacy that the walls didn’t provide.
But it was also to avoid seeing the bandaged, bruised and punctured patients with their distant, staring eyes. It was not a place you wanted to come. It was seriously not a place you wanted to find someone you loved. It meant they were very sick.
But in Suzie’s case, it meant she was being watched like a hawk with the best technology available. That was how I chose to frame it. A nurse pointed me to a room with my last name on the glass door. I could see her from across the room.
Suzie managed a tired smile when she saw me. She held up her hand for me to see.
“They got my I.V. . . . on the first try,” she said. I instantly noticed the longer phrases. The steroids were kicking in. It was too soon for hope.
“So, this must be where they hide the real pros,” I said. “Are they taking good care of you?” In answer to my question, a nurse walked through the door.
“This must be the husband.” She spoke to Suzie as if they were at a dinner party. As if I wasn’t there. I was getting used to being relegated to the side of conversations. I nodded when she glanced my way. Social contract fulfilled, she returned her attention to her patient. I returned to nonexistence.
Actually, I was glad for her focus. She checked everything meticulously and offered Suzie a blanket warmed in the autoclave. Susie accepted because a campfire would not have been allowed. Why were these places so cold? The nurse swept out the door on a mission and I cupped my hands around my bitter coffee, trying to leech the last warmth from the paper cup. My clothes clung cold to my skin. I could feel the grumpiness creeping in.
“Here you are.” The smiling nurse burst back into the room and tucked Suzie in up to her chin.
“Mmmm,” she said, squinching her eyes in a smile. That smile.
I thought of all she’d been through that day. I thought of losing that smile. I thought of the minuscule discomfort of a cold hospital, a hospital that was taking such good care of my wife. I remembered my good health and decided it was time for me to toughen up. Nothing had happened to me. Nothing! Sitting beside her, I had no problems. I resolved, herewith, that I would never be grumpy or complain again, for the rest of my life.
The shock of the day had me on my heels but it was time to get back in the fight again.
At that moment the nurse turned and looked square at me. “I just made a fresh pot of coffee if you’d like some,” said my new best friend. That’s when I knew for sure that Suzie was in expert hands. It was time to leave. There was one more job to do.
All the way home I worried about what to say. How could I explain such a terrible thing to my precious children? Up until now, I’d tried to protect them from the worst possibilities. This was tough enough for me to take. But I couldn’t see any way around it.
They were smart kids. They were going to hear people talk. They would hear one-sided telephone conversations. They would see worried looks and tears. Whatever I didn’t tell them, they would fill in with their own imaginations. That could be worse. Right now, more than anything else, they needed to know that I was on their side. That I would tell them the truth. That I would love them no matter what. That we were in this together.
The last time I had done such a terrible job. This time I had to do better.
I pulled into the driveway and didn’t give myself any time to hesitate. When I walked into the living room they had blankets and pillows and stuffed animals piled all around them. They were watching TV with glazed eyes.
I asked them to turn off the TV and come sit on the couch with me. I wrapped my arms around them and gave them a group hug. Then, in short, clear words they could all understand, I told them that their mother had a brain tumor. For Billy, I explained what that was and that it was very serious. That tomorrow she would have surgery to remove it. And that we needed to pray.
Then we prayed.
Afterward, I explained that Granddaddy and Grandmama we’re going to drive up and keep them while I went to the hospital to be with Mommy. I answered their questions. I sat through the tears. And then I got them to bed.
Lying alone in our bed, my brain scanned back through the day. It was hard to believe that it all began here this morning. Suzie waking with speech problems, the orchestra session, the phone call, the argument with the nurse, the decision to go to the E.R., the car parked in the drive with doors open, the separation, the diagnosis, the brain surgeon, SICU, telling the children, this had all happened in less than twenty-four hours.
I stared at that dreaded ceiling again. I prayed. I clung to my small hope. It was all out of my hands now. God and a neurosurgeon would work it out between themselves tomorrow. I’d done all I could do and tomorrow would be a long day. There would be further burdens to carry. Exhausted, I fell asleep.