Once the decision was made it was like getting on a roller coaster. Up until that point, while we waited in line, I could imagine the possibility of turning around, fighting the crowd and walking away. But now we stepped up and found our seats. The safety bar swung down and locked firmly into place. The doctor gave us the warning to keep our hands and feet inside the car at all times. And slowly, soundlessly we began to move.
Whatever subconscious reasons I had to keep this private were now gone. Denial was revealed as the fantasy it was. Time allowed for no more games. I picked up the phone, took one last stalling breath, and called my parents.
Suzie called her sister Sandra who booked a medical emergency airfare for the following day. Then Suzie called the church and asked to be put on the prayer list. It was a remarkably short to-do list when the insignificant was deleted. All that was left was the blood work.
Suzie had a full pre-op blood work-up the week before and we assumed that would be enough. Nope. It turns out to be the simplest way for a surgeon to check on your general physical condition. A way to find any complications that might have popped up without doing a full physical exam.
It’s only significant for two reasons. First, Suzie’s veins were already in less-than-new condition thanks to last week. Also, her veins tended to “roll”, which is phlebotomist’s talk for blood vessels that run, juke and hide at the sight of a needle. More on that later.
The second significant thing was a surprise named Seton Tomyn.
We were sitting in the small waiting room outside the lab, deep in our own zone. We hadn’t noticed the tall, athletic man with a full head of neatly-trimmed gray hair walk in. Suzie is just over six feet tall so she tends to like tall guys and our associate pastor was no exception. She spent half her life as the tallest girl in school and the center on every basketball team so it’s nice for her to have to look up at someone for a change. Seton stood head and shoulders above most.
“I was here checking on another church member and saw you two sitting here. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she said. “Well, no actually.” We three were alone in the room so she decided to unload the whole story. It felt good for her to tell someone. We were both expecting some generic platitudes of concern but that’s not what happened.
“Oh, don’t worry. You can beat this,” he said.
He was full of confidence, without a doubt in his eye. We’d heard so many “I’m sorry’s” and so many grim warnings from doctors about the dangers she faced, we were both shocked.
“Uh, really?” Suzie answered.
“Sure!” he said. “My mother had that surgery twenty years ago and survived. Imagine how many more modern treatments they have now.”
“ I guess so. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
There’s no way I can explain the power and relief of that moment. We were experiencing something for the first time that we wouldn’t completely understand for years. Science has learned that one of the most encouraging things that can happen is to talk with someone who has survived what you are going through.
“Have they talked to you about the exercises yet? You know how they have you walk your fingers up a wall?”
“Yes.” Suzie was familiar with the physical therapy regimens because of her mother.
“Well, my mother’s physical therapy was washing clothes and reaching up to hang them on a clothesline!” We laughed. “We didn’t have a dryer in those days. She was having to clean her house and raise her children. That was her therapy.”
We shouldn’t be laughing. We should be serious and worried and prayerful. We should be looking to buy sackcloth and ashes in bulk. But we couldn’t help it.
You know how thriller movies add funny scenes to let the audience laugh off some of the tension? You know how you laugh much harder than you should because of the adrenaline? That was us.
“You can do this,” he repeated. “Do you mind if I pray with you right here?”
How could we mind? He placed a hand on Suzie’s shoulder said a short, serious, uplifting prayer and then he was gone. Out the door and off to the next person.
He had no idea how much it meant. I saw him years later and thanked him for being the only one who gave us hope. He didn’t remember it. In fact, he didn’t even remember me. To him, it was just a friendly conversation with a familiar face. To us, it was just the right thing at just the right time. It was as perfect as if it was scripted. But it was not the last surprise waiting in the dark times ahead.
A nurse with a clipboard called Suzie’s name and I tagged along into a small office. She introduced herself as the anesthesiologist’s nurse. From the page, she began to ask another long string of questions with a slightly different theme.
“Have you ever had general anesthesia before?”
“Did you have any problems?”
“No.” And so on.
I settled in for the duration when melodic bells began to play on the speakers overhead. I recognized Brahms Lullaby. Suzie and I looked at each other, confused.
“Oh, a new baby’s been born!” the nursed smiled and explained. “It’s something new at Summit. They find that it helps to remind us all that good things are happening here too, while we’re dealing with all of this.”
All of this. Nurses, I’ve discovered, are very good at saying something without actually saying it. But we smiled in spite of “all of this” and continued to be surprised at the happy change of perspective. It never seemed to get old.
Thursday morning I woke with a jerk and heard the clacking of the lift as the roller coaster began to climb the first hill. I hadn’t been able to find a replacement for the day’s session on such short notice. I had to go in for what the producer assured me would be a quick session but first I had to pick up Sandra at the airport. I would be greatly relieved when she got there.
Suzie’s sister, Sandra, and her husband Ken were almost like second parents to us in college. They had two girls and a house in the suburbs of our college town when Suzie and I first met. Suzie moved out of the dorm and into their house to save money during her junior year. This meant I spent a lot of time there too and they included me in their now extended family with apparent ease. They became the model of what we wanted our life to be when we got married.
Sandra would be terrific with the kids and a great comfort to Suzie. Sandra had been the one to take care of their mother until she died. She would understand and Suzie could use a woman to talk to about this. The only real problem was the fact that Sandra held a black belt in housekeeping. So, Suzie started the day with one burning desire–to clean house.
I left her finishing up and drove the short trip to the Nashville airport. On days when the weather dictated, the jets from BNA were still low enough to rattle our windows on take-off. Sandra was tall, slim and easy to spot through the crowd at the gate. She had Suzie’s features and short-cropped, sandy colored hair. She appeared unruffled from the early morning flight through Atlanta. But when she saw me her strained smile and worried tone gave away her true emotions.
She wanted details as we picked up her bag. She had packed it with a string of small surprises for the kids, to appear as needed to cheer them up. It relieved me to know they would have such attention while we were at the hospital. It was also a relief that Suzie would have Sandra to talk to while I went to work today.
I wanted to stay at home and listen to the two of them catch up on things in that refined southern accent they probably didn’t realize they shared. Instead, I said goodbye without sitting down, for fear I would be late if they started telling stories. It made leaving both easier and harder as I headed for the door.
“Don’t worry darling,” I said. “I’ll be back soon. It’s going to be a short session.”
“Yeah, right!” she laughed. “I’ll wait up.”
Short sessions were a running joke around our house. When a producer told me it would be a short session it meant he’d forgotten something and would remember it as the tape rolled. He would then take the official position of “just a little longer,” which would stretch into “one more thing,” which would then become an all-nighter. The only time a session was truly short was if a well-prepared producer booked more time than he needed when the artist was better than expected. It was a rarity so when a producer said, “It won’t take long” it meant “Bring marshmallows, this is a camp out”.
Things went about as I’d expected as we did vocal overdubs on tracks I’d never heard, with a prospective artist I’d never met, in a studio I’d never seen. Everything took a little longer than usual. The second song we tried was a tear-jerking ballad and the producer wanted the lights dim to “set the mood,” something I hate. I’d spent so many days in darkened, windowless studios over the years that I’d begun to feel like groundhog boy. Working in the dark was especially annoying in an unfamiliar studio. But I dimmed the lights without comment and felt my way back to the glowing console. Some buttons and meters were lit, others had LED indicators so you could tell which switches were depressed but the knobs were a maze of shadows.
The singer was having trouble with the ballad. They’re always the hardest, so my job was reduced to repetitious boredom. I sat in the dark for four minutes, pressed three buttons–locate, play and record–in quick succession, then sat in the dark for four more minutes.
I couldn’t talk because my job was listening. All I could do was think. In a studio full of people, I felt a wave of loneliness wash over me and realized how long this night could be. I would be here until midnight. After Sandra went to sleep, Suzie would end up in bed, alone, on the night before a double mastectomy.
The reality of it hit me hard there in the dark listening to a sad song about losing someone. I was failing Suzie. She would be alone, awake and staring at the ceiling during the worst hours of her life and it was my fault. I hadn’t thought ahead, hadn’t wanted to think ahead, and I, of all people, should have realized how this night could go. The console meters blurred as tears welled up in my eyes and began to roll down my cheek. I was suddenly thankful for the dark.
I turned my head toward the tape machine, wiped my eyes and took a deep breath. No one noticed. I had rationalized that I needed to be off next week to take care of her after the surgery so I needed to work now but it rang hollow. I would be here in the dark listening to this sad, stupid song and she would be alone in the dark with all of her fears and no one to comfort her. I was letting her down.
My conscience began to remind me of all the other times I’d been sitting in studios instead of being there for her. It beat me up unmercifully as I tried to find a solution. There was none. This would be one of the worst nights of our lives. I could see it coming and there was nothing I could do.
I was lost in my self-incriminating thoughts when I heard it. Or did I? Was my imagination playing tricks in the dark? I strained even harder to listen. After a moment, yes, there it was again. It wasn’t my imagination. The singer’s voice cracked. He was getting tired!
It took a few more minutes before the producer stopped me and asked the artist to come in. He didn’t want to quit. The young ones never do. He talked the producer into letting him try an up-tempo song instead but the writing was on the wall. I would get to go home early.
As they finally gave up and I heaved a sigh of relief, the producer turned to me and asked for a rough mix of every song on the project. That would take at least an hour but it wasn’t all night. I slapped the tape into rewind and prepared to hear that ballad one more time.
When I got home Suzie and Sandra were still talking in the living room about old friends from Forest. After a few minutes, Sandra excused herself and I realized she had been waiting up with Suzie until I got there.
We stayed up for a midnight snack, the cutoff hour for food before surgery tomorrow, and traded stories about our day. I left out the tears. Suzie finally got up and insisted on cleaning up the dishes before we went to bed.
Something about leaving her kitchen a mess when she left tomorrow bothered her. It’s a problem, I admit, I’ve never quite understood but neatness is one of Suzie’s few bad habits so I tolerate it.
When we finally climbed into bed she snuggled tightly under my arm and I silently thanked God for letting me be here. I squeezed her and told her I loved her and we whispered into the night. Then, there was a long silent pause.
“Will you still love me?” she asked.
“Of course I will darling,” I said as I stroked her hair. “I didn’t fall in love with your breasts.”
“You didn’t?” she prompted.
“No! I fell in love with your mind during those long talks we used to have and still have. After all this time I never get tired of talking to you. I fell in love with your heart and the way you cared about me like no one else. I fell in love with the way you helped me study engineering for hours even though you hated it. I fell in love with what you believed and who you are.”
“Hmmm,” she said and snuggled closer.
“Of course I like your breasts,” I whispered. I slid my hand down and she let it wander. I kissed her lightly and then more passionately but tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry darling,” I said. The silent, tremor of her suppressed tears shook the bed. Once again, out of ignorance and inexperience but no lack of love, I’d ruined the moment. I pulled her back under my arm and we snuggled close together until I heard soft rhythmic breathing. We fell asleep in each other’s arms.