The shock of Dr. Raefsky’s statement resonated like a flash-bang grenade through the night and into the next day. We were numb. Thinking was difficult. Unfortunately, as the pieces fell into place things looked even worse.

We didn’t talk about it because we didn’t know what to say. We talked about the weather, the kids, the food, TV. Using distractions, we circled around the truth.

Not accepting it. Just hoping it would go away.

We didn’t tell anyone else because the tests hadn’t been done. Talking about the truth was difficult enough. Spreading rumors and possibilities would just hurt everyone involved. Including us.

Friends wanted updates but the constant telling of the same bad news got depressing. Focusing on the problem made it seem larger and it was big enough. So, we talked about nothing while we thought about Armageddon.

Or rather we tried not to think about it. Which is impossible.

We began to develop some strategies to get us through the day. More out of desperation than anything else. It’s not like we were doing a research project. We were just grabbing at straws and looking for a little relief.

One of thing things that worked was a strategy that flipped things upside down. It went like this: To have to wait a day is to have a day to wait.

Suddenly, waiting wasn’t torture. It was a blessing. It was survival. It was the goal, our purpose, our mission. Besides, there was nothing else to do.

And thinking wasn’t an option.

Test day began before breakfast when a happy nurse and an orderly came with a wheelchair. They launched into familiar hospital banter designed to get people moving without thinking. The hospital staff had this kind of conversation down cold. Talking about things that don’t matter must be a separate class in nursing school.

They moved through the backstage area of the hospital to industrial-themed patient elevators big enough to hold gurneys. More stark white hallways took them to radiology where the bone scan was up first.

They injected a gamma radiation tracer element into her I.V. The risk was minimal and the radiation was less than a C.T. Scan but the idea was weirder. The next step was to wait for the element to absorb into her bones.

Suzie tried not to think.

Then they placed her on a flat table with an arm that hung over her and slowly scanned from head to toe. The key word was slowly. She had to lie still for about an hour. But she could breathe normally and talk. The technician stayed in the room with her since the machine emitted no radiation. That was inside of her already.

Suzie purposefully thought about nothing.

The result would be a ghostly image with a surprisingly clear picture of her skeleton. Suzie saw it later and it would have been spooky in a normal world. But now it was just another page of weird in another chapter of weird in the big book of weird her life had become.

The test was easy. And painless. And that was enough.

Then it was on to the next room and the next test and the next thought to ignore. For a class valedictorian, she was developing a talent for not thinking at all.

I never developed Suzie’s Jedi mind trick to turn it all off. I sat in the room and wound my spring tighter until I couldn’t sit still anymore. Then I left to explore the hospital.

My game was to see if I could map it all out in my head. I found the basement and the loading docks and the chapel. I walked past the administrative offices, the vending machines, and the florist. I once stood for a moment at the newborn nursery window until I got the creepy feeling I was a security risk.

I wasn’t but they didn’t know that.

I determined to walk until someone stopped me, which they occasionally did. There were coded keypads and stern faces to keep me out of trouble.

But there were plenty of things to explore if the goal was just walking to exhaustion. It didn’t matter if I only discovered the maintenance office or the nurses smoking on the patio. Mileage and movement were what I needed.

It kept me busy and breathing. It burned off the adrenaline that was making me shaky. It changed the channel in my mind.

But the main thing it gave me was a sense of control. I knew I had no control over my life. I was riding someone else’s roller coaster. But no one told me where to walk. Left or right was my choice. It was simple but it helped. I developed a motto.

Control what you can.

Suzie’s next stop was for CT Scans, a series of x-rays merged by computer into a 3D image. Separate rounds were taken for chest, abdomen, and pelvis. Including the brain scans already taken, by the end of the day they could virtually reconstruct her entire body. Whatever was hiding would be found.

But it wasn’t easy.

This time she was placed on a narrow moving bed that slid her into the hole of a large, white donut. Inside she could see an x-ray device circling around her with a loud whirring sound. But the hard part was breathing.

The technician warned her that any movement would force them to start over. Then, he left her alone in the room with a disembodied female voice intent on making her pass out. This nameless dominatrix had just three phrases.

“Breathe in.”

“Hold your breath.” (Read War And Peace. Do your taxes. Watch your life pass before your eyes. And finally . . .)


Whoever programmed the voice apparently had the lungs of an Olympic swimmer. The technician checked in every so often over a speaker. Probably to make sure she was still alive, making it necessary to continue the test and holding up his lunch hour.

“Are you ready?” and “Are you okay?” were his two phrases. One less than the machine. And delivered with less emotion.

Pant. Pant. “Yes,” was her answer. Suzie is genetically incapable of complaining. It would only slow the torture down. At least the oxygen deprivation made it easier not to think about what the diabolical machine might reveal.

The whirring began again.

My pilgrimage continued.

Parts of the hospital were still under construction. There were doors with paper labels taped to the wall where brass plates would be. There were sections of plastic covered carpet to keep out the dust.  Clear plastic covered bare stud walls and doorways were festooned with wide ribbons of clear plastic.

I wandered back by the chapel in the basement and stopped to pray. The quasi-religious space felt a bit like the Church of the Unknown God but I guess God knew who He was. There was a prayer rail with a padded kneeling space and it felt appropriate. Even though I’d been praying silently all day as I walked, I hoped God would reward my persistence, if not my faith.

All of the usual questions came back. Why? What? How? But they were all familiar by now and posed no significant challenge. It was God’s business when we were born and His decision when we died but I still put in my requests.

When I ran out of words, I finally stood, disappointed at my lack of eloquent arguments and theological acumen. But the truth was simple.

I wanted Suzie to live. If he wanted to take her, He would. I wouldn’t quit asking until then. He knew it. I knew it.

That’s all there was to say.

When they finally wheeled Suzie back into the room, she looked worn out.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Hungry!” she said emphatically. “I can finally eat.”

“Well, let’s get you something,” the nurse said.

There was a room service menu available at all hours. Once again, the hospital felt like a resort. They negotiated over the details for only a moment and the food was on its way.

After she ate, I asked her about her day and she asked about mine.  It was a comforting habit from our first years of marriage when we were both working hard. It was designed to keep us connected. The rule was to tell it all, no matter how boring.

This time, however, it was obvious we were leaving out our worries and fears. There was no point. It was understood.

Suzie said she missed the kids. They always took up a lot of our daily conversation and now they were obviously absent.

The rest of the night was quiet. After the bustle of SICU, it felt like they were leaving us alone on purpose. Maybe there was just nothing to check on. Maybe they were giving us space.

We watched TV until we were tired and then turned the lights down low. They were never off so the nurses could see to check on Suzie. From my foldout bed below the window, I could see the stars.

The sound of Brahm’s Lullaby echoed through the halls and Suzie made a happy noise in the dark. It occurred to me that this new baby would always celebrate a holiday birthday. I mentally calculated the date.

It was December 20th. Five days before Christmas.

Reader’s Club Home PageChapter 30: The Ghost of Christmas Past