Suzie struggled to control her tears. She was on the phone with her sister, Sandra, curled up on our bed behind a closed door where the children couldn’t hear.
“Looks like I won the race.”
“What are you talking about? What’s wrong?” Sandra asked.
“Looks like I’m the first to get cancer.” They had joked about it over the years. The race was dark humor which allowed them to talk about the unspeakable. Since their mother and both aunts had been diagnosed with breast cancer the same year, they figured the odds were stacked against them. It was just a question of who went first.
This common enemy had made them closer over time. The eight year age difference between them had shrunk as their mother slowly succumbed. With husbands and children, they now had more in common than the difference school years make.
Suzie shared the details of her week and they cried together by long distance. Sandra offered to come up from Georgia to help but there was no need until we knew more. The details of the conversation didn’t reflect the significance of it. The need to tell someone who understood and cared was powerful. This was something they uniquely shared.
Talking about it simultaneously brought some relief and made it real. Putting it into words, the nameless dread felt a little smaller, more manageable, less lonely. The burden they each carried they now both carried. The overpowering feelings of fear lessened. The panic calmed.
Suzie hung up the phone, took care of her children, cooked, had conversations, prayed, worked and lived life for the next week but she has no memory of it. The days, peaceful on the surface, became a long, dark tunnel pulling her into a future beyond her control.
We mark the days that we believe to be significant with holidays and celebrations but that’s not the way life’s calendar works. The most important moments in life slip by like any other. They are here and gone before we have a chance to consider them. It’s only in our memories that we begin to put things in perspective and understand. A date becomes “our first date”. A song becomes “our song”. Otherwise ordinary events become anniversaries because they are the beginning of something important.
This was such a beginning, though it felt more like an ending at the time. I was worried about how to break the news to my parents. I’d heard pastors ease their way into bad news, somehow striking a balance between tenderness and strength. It came from years of experience that I didn’t have. The fact that I, in forty years, had never had to report such truly bad news was telling in itself, but at the time the significance was lost on me.
My brain was barely functioning. After staring at the phone for fifteen minutes, I gave up trying to think, picked up the receiver and dialed the number. You can’t really plan conversations past hello anyway. I would just start talking.
I can’t remember what I said but I got it out somehow. It went pretty much as I’d expected. Mom and Dad were upset. No one wants to see something painful and possibly deadly happen to their children. The unfairness and total lack of control overwhelmed them for a moment, as it had me, and there was silence.
In a few moments, the shock passed and they began to rally as I knew they would. They started asking questions and I filled in the parts I’d forgotten the first time. They asked if there was anything at all they could do.
I said there was nothing. I was wrong. They were barely getting started.
They began to help immediately by telling me how much they loved us. Then they promised to pray and put our names on the church prayer chain. They made sure we didn’t need them to keep the kids. They asked if we needed any money. They wouldn’t let me go until they were sure they’d done all they could and made certain I knew they were there for me.
I said I did. But I was still clueless.
It was years before I found out what happened next. After they hung up, Mom and Dad held each other and cried. They prayed for God to take them instead of Suzie, their daughter-in-law. They had a school friend who lost his mother and was never quite the same. They feared for their grandchildren and, I believe, would have actually made such a trade.
But I thank God that he ignores most of the plea deals we offer him. They were to be far more useful to us than they imagined. After God ignored their offer, they talked over more ways to help. Plans began to fall into place without my knowledge. People were notified. Prayers were offered. As quiet as a whisper, something significant had begun. The course of my life was being softly altered, with ripples that continue still.
Tuesday morning, however, there were no ripples in sight, just work. I had a session and there were bills to pay. By this time I had worked my way up through three chief engineer positions and graduated to freelance, with all of its benefits. Or lack of benefits. I was also a partner in a studio in Brentwood with my good friend Craig Morris and clients were waiting.
Freelancers have no vacations, sick leave, pension plans, stock options or, more importantly, medical benefits. There are only days employed or unemployed. Since my Mom worked in the insurance business I knew enough to have private insurance, which meant a ridiculous deductible and payments high enough to make you sick on their own.
I called this freedom. And most of the time it was a lot of fun. No denying it. But getting there had been an adventure in creative optimism.
The moment you dream of becoming a musician the discouragement begins. It starts with the question, “When are you going to get a real job?” and ends the day you do. School counselors advise against it, teachers shake their heads and parents hide their daughters.
Once you get a foot in the door landlords turn you away, bankers laugh, salespeople ignore you and you play for free. After you achieve some success, publishers ridicule, producers ignore, receptionists glare and label execs dictate.
The lawyers, however, smile – if that tells you something.
Surviving this gauntlet of naysayers is accomplished by developing survival skills to withstand the onslaught. For me, the great source of strength and courage that allowed me to forge on when better people had fallen by the wayside always come down to one bedrock principle.
I simply never allowed myself to consider an alternative because people who have other options usually take them when things get tough.
The odd thing is that this kind of fantasy thinking actually does work. This anything-is-possible mentality stands behind every single singer, songwriter, musician, producer, publisher, and label in the industry. They’ve all been rejected and discouraged yet I’ve watched interns turn into moguls, waiters win Grammys and school teachers write the song of the year.
With such examples as these, it’s no wonder that my initial reaction to Suzie’s mammogram was to wait and see. Without the biopsy there was no proof of cancer. They could be wrong, right?
It was, however, denial with an expiration date. When the biopsy was done I would face it, but not before.
While it kept hope alive, this mental hair-splitting left me in limbo. I couldn’t think about the past because Mom Wade’s history haunted me. I couldn’t think about the future because one alternative was unthinkable and the others were unknowable. So, I tried not to think at all.
After so many years, I was good at it.
When Wednesday morning dawned, we had ignored the unspoken question for so long that action came as a relief. Suzie was notably quiet as we drove the three short blocks to the Donelson Hospital complex. It was across the road from our subdivision and we passed the jumble of white buildings every day. By now they were so familiar they were almost invisible.
The surgeon’s office was in a mismatched red brick building that appeared to have been an afterthought. We checked the lobby directory and took a creeping, creaking elevator to the third floor. Down a dim hallway we found Dr. Gerald Burn’s door which opened to a small waiting room with an overburdened coat rack and several empty chairs.
Suzie checked in and began the new patient paperwork. After she turned the clipboard back in, we were led down a narrow hall, around a corner and ushered into an examination room. As the nurse left, a clipboard banged into its slot on the other side of the door with a heavy clunk.
I sighed. She sighed. I tapped. She fidgeted.
Footsteps came down the hall and went. Indistinct voices murmured. With each new sound we looked up in anticipation, only to find the door still closed. Finally, we heard the clipboard slide out of the rack on the door. We sat up straight and then waited again. The doctor was apparently reading every word. Christmas passed, then New Years, and somewhere around George Washington’s Birthday, the knob on the door finally turned.
Dr. Burns was a commanding presence as he walked into the room, tall with a rich voice and friendly manner. His white, unbuttoned coat matched the ring of white hair wrapped around his head. After Suzie’s last M.D. experience, I watched closely to see how he treated her.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Burns,” he said in a deep baritone. Turning to Suzie, he shook her hand and looked her straight in the eye, somehow managing to convey concern and confidence simultaneously. I immediately knew we were in good hands. No rude, rough-handed, ill-mannered doctor here. He shook my hand firmly and I relaxed a notch.
Our waiting was over. Now, we would get some answers. Now, we would find out it really wasn’t as bad as we thought. Dr. Burns picked up the clipboard, cleared his throat – and read. We waited. He read more. Then, he turned the page.
I reminded myself to be patient. After all, we wanted his best thoughts. I was sure he’d read the entire chart twice in the hall but I guess he wanted to be sure. He turned another page and read on. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax. At last, he looked up from the chart and spoke.
“Well, first the good news,” he began, “The ultrasound of your ovaries looks perfectly normal. You don’t have to worry about that at all. That concern is gone.” We both breathed a visible sigh of relief. I relaxed a little more. It was a setup.
“The mammogram, however, shows three tumors that look suspiciously like cancer. They were undetectable by touch, so the only way to find them was with the mammogram. So the test accomplished its job well. You couldn’t have found these with a self-exam.”
He spoke to Suzie and she nodded. “A biopsy is the only way to be absolutely sure, but considering your family history, it’s likely that they are malignant. I recommend a lumpectomy to remove all of the tumors. With a needle biopsy, there is always a chance that some cancer cells might be missed and this way the entire tumor will be gone.”
He paused for a moment to let that sink in.
“If the pathology report comes back malignant then we will schedule a mastectomy later in the week. There is no immediate emergency but the longer we wait, the more chance the cells have to grow and spread.”
There it was. He’d said the word – mastectomy. I braced myself and looked at Suzie but she didn’t appear surprised at all. He continued.
“However, due to the fact that there are three tumors, there is the possibility that more smaller tumors exist that we can’t find given the state of the art of technology today. The only way to find them is to wait until they grow larger. The problem is that cells can divide and spread at any stage of growth. It only takes one cell to break loose and lodge somewhere else in the body to spread cancer.” Suzie nodded with rapt attention.
“Once breast cancer spreads, the problem becomes much more serious and treatment options limited. Given your family history and multiple tumors, all breast tissue is at risk of forming new cancer cells. The only way to ensure no cancer will form later is the removal of both breasts.”
I was stunned! I looked at Suzie and there was no look of shock on her face. Her mother and aunts had only one breast removed so I expected that would be the absolute worst case scenario now. For years I had braced myself for that but suddenly things were twice as bad as I’d imagined.
I asked questions but his answers were the same. I wanted more information, more evidence. He patiently went through the discussion again for me. What he said made sense again but I was looking for another answer.
“Of course, you can always get another opinion,” he said after my second round of questions. “But that would take more time.”
“No,” Suzie answered firmly. “We don’t want that.” She sounded definite and looked at me for support. Time was something we couldn’t be sure we had.
“No, you’re right,” I finally admitted.
“Then, I can do the biopsy first thing Monday morning, if that’s okay?” We agreed and it was settled, kind of.
When Dr. Burns walked out of the room I was left with even more questions but I couldn’t manage to put a single one into words. The nurse came in and guided us to the front desk where they made sure we knew the specifics.
On the walk down the hall I tried to figure out what had just happened. In the elevator I went back through what had been said. Walking out of the lobby I looked for holes in the logic. I looked at Suzie and saw no shadow of doubt.
On the drive home I spoke my worries aloud. I wanted to talk through it. I needed to think about it. It seemed extreme. It seemed rash. But most of all, it seemed to be happening too fast. We went from talking about a mere possibility to a bilateral mastectomy in a few sentences.
Suzie wasn’t interested. There was nothing to talk about.
I looked over and was surprised by a grim light in her eyes I had never seen before. After a decade of marriage, three children and countless problems faced, I thought I knew her every mood. Sitting next to me, she was transformed again. The Warrior Queen in full battle mode, facing down a trio of dragons, eyes set on the fight.
It’s a look I was starting to recognize.
I, however, was still struggling to find a way to fight. Work had taught me not to accept things without question. Statistically speaking, a music career is nearly impossible. It’s a lifetime of being told no.
But even if no is the right answer, it shouldn’t be the first answer. The best things in life do not come easy. If you push, if you learn, if you are flexible, if you don’t give up, there are almost always things you can do.
Or maybe I was just stubborn.
Maybe? Suzie would say.
Later that week I brought the subject back up. I wanted to talk it through again. I wanted to fix it but Suzie was still not interested.
“Your mother and aunts only had a mastectomy on the right side,” I persisted. “That’s the same side you have these spots. Do you really think a double mastectomy is necessary?”
“Yes, and look what happened to Mother.” It was hard to argue with that.
“I know, but your aunts are still alive after all this time. Don’t you think we should get a second opinion?” I countered weakly.
“No, the first step is to get the biopsy done.” It was unshakeable logic.
“It might not be cancer.” I offered up my last shred of optimism.
“It is. I just know it. Don’t ask me how. Some things you just know.”
Case closed. After seventeen years of marriage, I had learned not to argue with my wife’s intuition. It was pointless and besides, she was almost always right.
I dropped the subject but my mind kept fighting for another way. I still had until Monday to change the world. I swung wild punches at reality for five long days, never landing a blow.