On the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, Suzie was sitting in a hospital hallway when she got the feeling that something was wrong. Donelson Hospital had so outgrown its facilities that even the halls served double duty. Plastic chairs lined one wall and the passage now functioned as an overflow waiting room.
She felt naked in the hallway, dressed only in a breezy, three-sleeved, wraparound hospital gown and white socks. A diverse group of men and women were scattered down the corridor trying not to notice one another. Discretion was the only privacy to be found.
Along the far wall were several patients lying on gurneys. Nurses and technicians threaded the gap in between. Suzie had already been admitted, stripped, prodded, sonogramed, and mammogramed. Now she was waiting to go home. She had been waiting too long.
“Mrs. Ritchie?” a woman in scrubs called, leaning out of a doorway. She got up and sidled down the aisle, aware of the row of eyes watching her as she stepped through the door. “We need to run you through one more time,” she said as they walked back into radiology.
This had never happened before. The tension must have shown on Suzie’s face because the tech immediately began reassuring her. “It’s not unusual. Nothing to worry about,” the woman said as she motioned her to the machine. “Sometimes the film gets smudged. We just need the right side, Hon”. It was intended to be comforting but somehow it had the opposite effect.
One more time, Suzie went through the process a radiologist would describe as “uncomfortable.” Painful is what Suzie called it. She stepped up to the seven-foot tall stainless steel frame and placed her right breast on a flat metal square. The technician slid the opposing side of the vise-like clamp into place and flattened out her breast until it hurt and then went just a little farther. Tears came to her eyes as the tech quickly stepped behind a console and pressed some buttons. Suzie was dismissed to the hallway to wait with a growing feeling of dread. This time she paid no attention to the throng around her.
When she heard her name called again, it was a man’s voice. He sounded annoyed. She looked up and saw a tall, dark-haired technician dressed in a white lab coat holding two large sheets of black film. She followed him into a small room.
“Mrs. Ritchie? I need to examine you. Please come in and lie down on the table,” he said curtly. There were no introductions or explanations. He had the bedside manner of a butcher. Moving her gown aside, this stranger proceeded to roughly knead her breasts. After a few moments he looked at her in disbelief and huffed, “Can’t you feel that?”
“No,” was all she could quietly reply, fighting back tears. She wanted to tell him that her doctor couldn’t feel anything either. She wanted to tell him that her breasts had always felt that way. She wanted to hurt him as deeply as he’d hurt her.
Instead, she said nothing.
She doesn’t remember walking out of the hospital. She can’t recall driving home or calling her sister or telling me. The next three days disappeared from her memory.
Suzie was sitting in the living room surrounded by the kids when I got home from the studio. Kids don’t miss much. She smiled bravely when she saw me, but her red eyes revealed the answer to my question before I asked it.
“What did they say?”
She took a deep breath before she answered. “They found a spot on the mammogram of my right side.” I bent down to hold her but she was sitting in a recliner and there was no easy way. I awkwardly reached across the over-stuffed arm and hugged her.
“I’m sorry darling,” I whispered.
It had finally happened. I had been expecting this conversation for years. Late at night, we had rehearsed it several times over the years. I would wake up to hear Suzie crying quietly in the darkness. I knew she was remembering her mother.
Mom Wade had died of breast cancer. It had spread to her lymph nodes and then gone painfully down her spine. It took seven years. Suzie’s two aunts had quickly gone for a check-up and found breast cancer as well. Within a year they’d both had mastectomies and additional radiation treatments. They survived because it was found early. All of these memories came back to haunt Suzie in the darkness and she would need to be held.
“What will you do if that happens to me?” she’d whisper.
“We’ll get through it somehow.”
“You won’t leave me will you?” The question always came as a surprise.
“Now that mother is gone, I don’t have anyone here but you,” she would say and pull a little nearer.
“No darling, I won’t leave you,” I would answer and hug her close. “I love you. It’s always worse at night. Things will look better in the morning.”
That’s what Dad had always told me when I faced boyhood problems and imaginary monsters in the dark. It was usually true. By the next morning breakfast would be the only concern on my young mind and I’d forget.
But that afternoon was different. The sun was still shining as I sat beside Suzie and the kids. It was afternoon and I knew we wouldn’t wake up in the morning from this bad dream.
I tried to put my shock aside and be a strong shoulder for her to cry on, but she wasn’t crying. She had already called her sister from the bedroom where the kids couldn’t hear. By the time I got home, all the tears were gone. So much for needing my shoulder.
“Is there any doubt?”
“No, not in my mind,” she answered with a look of steel-eyed determination. “When the radiologist called me back for a second mammogram, I could tell by the look on her face. The technicians usually know first but they can’t tell you anything. They have to let a doctor do that.”
“They set up an appointment with a surgeon on Thursday.”
“Surgeon?” Things were moving too fast for comfort. “Don’t they need to do a biopsy first?”
“Yes, but if they have to remove tissue that means a surgeon.”
“Oh. . .”
Our conversations sometimes went like this. After college, Suzie worked as a medical transcriptionist for the Crippled Children’s Service of the Mississippi State Board of Health. It now goes by the unwieldy but politically correct name: Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN)
Her favorite part of the job was going to weekly clinics and assisting the doctors because she got to see the kids they were helping. She was as familiar with doctors and medical procedures as I was with changing guitar strings.
I, however, had a thousand questions. Who was the surgeon? Where was his office? What did the doctor say again? Isn’t there a chance it might be benign? Wouldn’t it be a needle biopsy?
She had no answers. We would just have to wait.
I had known about this possibility for years. I thought I had prepared well but I didn’t anticipate the emotional shock of the moment. A numbness set in. A hundred thoughts piled on top of each other creating an impasse. What if she . . . No, don’t think that. What about the kids if . . . No, don’t think it. How will I be able to if . . . Every thought led to a question that was unanswerable, unthinkable. My mind locked up and emotions flooded the vacuum.
Time seemed to shift into some strange new gear. The world moved on, unconcerned, but I was stuck in some Matrix-like moment. Everything else was apparently normal while I was in slow-motion.
In fact, it was too normal. The kids were watching television. The networks didn’t pre-empt any shows with the breaking news that the most important person on my planet had cancer. I sat, hanging on to my recliner like it was going to move.
Through the window I could see the neighbors coming home from work. The low angled sun was setting, scattering rich, yellow beams against their houses. The clear blue of the fall sky deepened. Birds flew. It was a beautiful dusk. Peaceful. Surreal. As the sun angled lower, I struggled to move, to think. I felt there was something I should say or do or remember. Nothing came.
After an immeasurable time, Suzie called from the kitchen that supper was ready. I don’t know why I was surprised. Her children needed food so she had cooked. Impending cancer or vegetative husbands didn’t matter. Without my permission, life had moved on. The kids hopped up so I picked my useless self out of the chair and did the only thing I could manage.