It was on the way home from the hospital that I first met my nemesis, the evil beast that would forever change my life. It stretched out like a dragon across the road, hiding in plain sight, the disguise universally favored by the most heinous of things.
Suzie was in a blessed fog from the anesthesia, her eyes closing and her head nodding. I was talking and filling in the gaps she left in the conversation to provide what I hoped was a distracting monologue to keep our minds off of the most obvious topic. My goal was to get her home, safe, snuggled and as comfortable as possible when my nemesis attacked.
I had no warning before the tires struck the railroad crossing and Suzie gasped in pain. It was the most horrible breast of a crossing, beaten into a car-rattling canyon by the dump trucks and semis that frequented the industrial park.
Tears welled in Suzie’s eyes as she wrapped her arms around herself in reflex, which brought more pain. I reacted by hitting the brakes and sending her into the seat belt across her chest. More pain. I responded by ranting at invisible politicians and city employees who weren’t doing their jobs, which was not the least bit comforting to Suzie in her drugged state.
“Just get me home,” was all she managed to say.
The road had always been our friend and respite from the pressures of life, our way to escape to our dreams and hopes, a place where anything seemed possible. No matter what happened, things were better out there where we controlled our speed and direction and the song on the radio. Punching the gas and racing away from it all was a satisfying act of rebellion.
From that day forward the road would be filled with potholes that we had never noticed before. The asphalt ribbon that came to our rescue would never flow so smooth and easy again. It would be a careful place where we drove in the slow lane and endured the scowls of the road rebels in pursuit of unseen dreams.
All we wanted was to slowly, painlessly get home.
When Suzie woke up on Tuesday morning, she didn’t remember coming out of recovery or going back to Same Day. She didn’t remember Dr. Burns coming in and telling her that she had breast cancer. She didn’t remember bumping painfully over the railroad tracks on the way home or the kid’s careful greeting. The drugs took care of that. She just woke up and knew.
She had cancer.
I woke up exhausted. The dream had shocked me awake and my brain had taken over from there. I spent most of the rest of the night staring at the ceiling and contemplating the meaning of my nightmare. I’d finally fallen back to sleep and the alarm had gone off what seemed like five minutes later. I felt like I’d been beaten.
My brain functioned just well enough to do two things – remind me that I had a session this morning and make me feel guilty for being a wimp. Suzie, after all, had just gone through two painful procedures and then learned she had cancer. Any day I had would be a good one – relatively.
The drive to Music Row took about twenty minutes but it felt more like a trip back in time. When I walked into the control room, I entered a previous life where none of my present problems had reached. The console was still glowing with thousands of lights, switches, knobs, and faders. The musicians still came in telling the latest jokes. The staff complained about the lack of parking, pay and good places to eat lunch. The producer still wined and dined the clients who still had their own musical ideas that disagreed with what was planned for the day.
As I got drum levels set, I thought about Suzie. As I fell into the comfortable routine of running tape, arming tracks to record, adjusting mixes and documenting takes, my mind replayed hospital scenes from last night. As the client debated musical minutia with the producer, I debated about how to tell the kids. I was in the same room but not in the same world. I managed to focus well enough to get the job done but my motivation was to get home quickly. When I finally headed back down Sixteenth Avenue I was relieved to have my thoughts to myself.
Waiting for news of cancer is kind of like waiting for someone to stamp out your flaming hair. Even when it goes well, it’s not great. During the day the kids kept Suzie busy. Children are so gloriously absorbed with growing up that they demand you forget about yourself. Suzie lost herself in their needs.
At the studio, I had musicians and producers making demands. There were constant problems to solve and careers to be made. It was the kind of pressure I normally loved but now I was distracted. Still, it occupied my time and kept me from worrying. Studio problems, at least, could be solved.
At night it was a different story. After the kids were tucked in, Suzie and I talked and snuggled a little longer than normal. We didn’t have big discussions about it because we had nothing new to say. I was certain it would all work out and Suzie was certain it was inevitable. Suzie would eventually fall asleep, an ability I’m very jealous of because the night was just beginning for me.
Staring at the darkened ceiling, the questions I’d ignored all day began to surface. What if it’s true? How will it affect us? What about new advances? My mind, free to roam, came up with endless possibilities. What about Christmas? What about the kids? Who will keep them while we’re at the hospital?
One unanswered question led straight to another, which was usually worse than the previous one. They were the kind of questions a clear mind ignores because they’re too horrible to consider and have no answer. But late at night, when the strong studio coffee began to work on my stomach, I lost control of my thoughts.
What if she dies? How long will it take? How can I work and raise the kids? It turned into a downward spiral of doom and gloom. Hours passed as I tossed, turned and rubbed my head. I wound myself tighter and deeper into my darkest fears.
Toward morning, I realized the futility of worrying and then came the drowsy speeches to myself. “You can handle this. You’ve got to be strong for Suzie and the kids.” When logic didn’t work, I began to rationalize. “Everything will work out. It’s only a biopsy. It’s all a mistake. She’s probably fine.”
Finally, much too late, came the prayers. Lord, help us get through this. God, help me be supportive. Lord, help me be strong. Please heal her. Somewhere in the middle of a prayer, I would finally fall asleep.
We live our lives within the well-crafted illusion of control. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. Our sanity depends on it. We don’t think about the fact that there are bigger forces than ourselves even though we know it must be true. We control our decisions, our lives and our future – right up to the point that the earth beneath our feet begins to move.
We had prepared for this for years. We had family experience. We had knowledge. We made telephone calls. We arranged for help. We prayed. We could do this. By Wednesday morning, however, there was an unstoppable momentum to it all. The clock ticked forward, pulling us along with it. Our control began to slip away. Our options became limited, our choices narrowed. The things we had control over began to look smaller and insignificant. Outwardly, we had our game faces on. On the inside, our anxiety levels began to rise. We could feel the approaching storm. It felt inevitable.
When the time came, we could only do as we’d been told. We headed for the appointment. Suzie never had any doubt about the results of the biopsy but as we drove to Dr. Burns’ office I clung quietly to my last two hopes – a miracle or a mistake. This office visit would settle the question soon enough and I would deal with it then. We didn’t have to wait long for Dr. Burns to open the door. Almost before he sat down, he began.
“Well, the biopsy results were positive but there was some good news. The three tumors were genetically unrelated, meaning that they grew independently of each other.” Three separate cancers. This was the good news? Suzie nodded and Dr. Burns continued.
“If they had all come from the same tumor that would mean it had already begun to spread and had probably metastasized somewhere else as well. As it is, all three tumors are in the early stages and it’s more likely that surgery will be successful.” The possibility that a mastectomy wouldn’t be successful had never crossed my mind. I was not encouraged.
“Since you already have three unrelated tumors, I think all breast tissue is at high risk for developing more tumors. In fact there could be small tumors now that we don’t have the technology to find. Since it only takes one cell, I recommend a bi-lateral mastectomy.”
There was no getting around his logic. The risk of further tumors developing was just too great and the consequences too serious. I looked at Suzie and she had that same unblinking look of steely-eyed determination I’d seen earlier.
“I want these tumors out of my body,” she said with firm conviction. “I don’t want to have to go through this again.”
Her decision was made. She looked at me for agreement and I nodded. There was no choice. Dr. Burns went on with instructions and answered a few more questions but my mind was watching my hopes crash and burn. Engine sputtering. Shrieking dive. Fireball. Column of smoke. It was time to face the fact that Suzie would have a double mastectomy the day after tomorrow.
My remaining hope was that it would be enough.
The most difficult decision, that I had any control over, was how to explain it to the children. I mulled it over as I drove. If I told them before the tests came back then we ran the risk of upsetting them for nothing, on the outside chance that there was no cancer. On the other hand, we had to tell our families and prepare for the probability of surgery Friday. Suzie wanted her sister, Sandra, to come take care of the kids so I could be with her at the hospital. I had to tell my parents and there were friends to call. There was no way the kids wouldn’t figure it out. We couldn’t let them find out from anyone but us. The only option was to tell them where we stood right now. I determined to do it tonight.
Suzie was sitting up sleepily in the recliner when I got home but otherwise insisted she was fine. I gave her a careful hug, more for my own reassurance than hers. The kids, however, were bored from being stuck in the house all day and were bouncing off the walls. Suzie needed some things from the store so I decided to take the kids with me and give everyone some relief. As I pulled out of the driveway, the job before me weighed heavily on my mind. How should I tell them? When should I tell them? How would they react?
I decided to keep it light since we weren’t absolutely certain until the biopsy results came back. I knew it was grasping at straws but I stubbornly clung to it. I could always talk to them again later and explain how serious it was when we knew more. This way they would know about it if someone mentioned it on the phone and not get too upset. Now, how to keep it light? I could mention it casually, as if it were not that serious. It would be good to have the TV off so they could concentrate but that might make it seem too serious. If I waited until after I ate, then it would be dark and that always makes things seem worse. If only I could tell them when they were in a good mood, maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad.
I looked around the car at the three smiling faces and realized there would not be a better moment than this. We were riding together with no distractions and they were the happiest they’d been all day. The sun was shining, they were out of the house and we were planning to get a treat at the store. I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer and, without a clue as to what I would say, began.
I don’t remember the exact words I used but they were met with big round eyes and absolute silence. I tried to fill in the silence with reassuring words but I seemed to dig the hole deeper. I went through the basics as simply as I could, explaining that we were still waiting on tests and weren’t sure but would know soon. Their smiles seemed a distant memory as I looked to see if they understood. I said it could be serious but the doctors were good and everything would be fine.
I added that Aunt Sandra might be coming up to visit and help out, hoping that would cheer them up. They just stared at me and my heart sank. I felt I had utterly failed. I tried to appear upbeat and confident and asked if they had any questions. There were none. Rebekah turned wet eyes to stare blankly out the window, Sandy looked at the floor, Billy looked at the girls and I searched for anything positive to say. I eventually asked them about their day to try and get a comment out of them. Slowly they began to talk about other things.
For better or worse, I’d done it now, and I feared I’d done badly.
Later, after we’d gotten the children to bed, I filled Suzie in on the details. I hoped she might help repair some of the damage I’d done. She was better at sensing their needs. I preferred to think it was a mother’s natural gift, as opposed to the fact that I was just bad at it.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she reassured. “You did as well as anyone could.” She snuggled up next to me in the bed. I put my arm around her, being careful to avoid her stitches.
“I guess there’s really no good way to say such a thing.”
“No,” she sighed.
I was supposed to be helping her and yet, here she was, taking care of me instead. Or I could call it teamwork. I determined to quit beating myself up about it. To be of some use, I had to stay positive. I searched for something good to focus on. It didn’t take long. With Suzie lying beside me and three beautiful kids across the hall, there was a lot to be thankful for.