The first thing that bothered Suzie was her conscience. She’d put off her yearly check-up for an extra six months because she felt so good and that, of course, made her feel bad. I admit I hadn’t been exactly encouraging.
Doctor Goodman was the kind of tall, dark, and handsome OBGYN that a husband hates, as if there were any other kind. I tolerated him because he delivered our third child, Billy. Suzie required an emergency Cesarean and I’d seen first hand what an excellent physician he was. He would soon prove it again. As for the rest of the process, I tried not to think about it.
“I can’t be sure if it’s enlarged or not,” Dr. Goodman commented over his chart, “but ever since Gilda Radnor I’ve been very cautious about ovarian cancer. It’s probably nothing but I want an ultrasound just to make sure.” He scribbled again. “I’m also putting you down for a mammogram. I see from your chart that it’s been eighteen months since your last one.”
It wasn’t a question. He said it as a statement of fact. Doctors, even kind ones, get used to resistance on the part of their patients and have a sleeve full of tricks to benevolently manipulate us. After all, they don’t usually prescribe ice cream and a day at the beach. So, without looking up or inviting discussion he just scribbled an order and moved on. It was as if he’d chiseled it in stone. And with that stroke of a pen, he changed everything.
“Okay” Suzie answered, and it began.
The waiting room was not as small as it seemed, crowded with uncomfortable pregnant women, too comfortable toddlers and one young father-to-be who was trying not to acknowledge the chaos that would soon be his life. The only seat for me had been in play corner, otherwise known as no-man’s-land, so I got acquainted with a sticky-handed little girl who used my leg to steady herself while showing me fascinating sticky toys and asking incomprehensible questions about each one.
Her exhausted mother performed the socially required stream of corrections and apologies from across the room but neither the girl nor I believed she was serious. I feigned interest to keep from thinking any of the thoughts that called from the back of my mind where I’d pushed them. I shifted my brain into mindless neutral.
When Suzie’s laughter wafted around the corner to the waiting room it was music to my ears. She was bantering with the nurse from the other side of a counter when I stepped up to the waiting room window. She acknowledged me through the gap with a smile but without a break in the conversation. She didn’t look concerned with the exam, a good sign.
“Wait a minute while I set up your appointment,” the nurse said as she rolled her chair toward my window and picked up the phone. I knew Suzie was due for a mammogram so I made the assumption. She was folding paperwork and unzipping her purse while the nurse near me called Donelson Hospital and went through her routine. Then she tucked her head into the phone, covered her mouth and quietly said, “Possible CA.”
This was my first hint.
My subconscious filled in potential matches for the abbreviation while I stood watching Suzie tuck folded papers into her purse. A thought from somewhere in the back of my mind shouted the word cancer. A long nanosecond later my brain did a double-take as the meaning finally hit me. What? Suddenly the nurse had my undivided attention. She calmly wrote down the time on a card and smiled as she handed it to Suzie. Suzie took it with a bright smile and thanked her, apparently unaware of the CA comment.
It wasn’t so much the idea of a test to check for cancer but the fact that the nurse couldn’t say it out loud that was alarming. Like when Suzie and I spelled words so the kids wouldn’t understand. Something to be whispered in secret. Too fearsome a truth to be spoken aloud. The name that shall not be mentioned.
I didn’t mention it either. Suzie came around the counter, through the waiting room door and smiled as we walked through mommies and toddlers. I didn’t mention it as we took the elevator and walked to the car. I asked about the appointment and listened. She told me about the upcoming sonogram and mammogram as if it were nothing to be concerned about. Just tests. I didn’t mention it when I told her I had a session that day and couldn’t come with her.
“No problem,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
As the blue Volvo 740 cruised down the interstate, I was at peace. The monotone moan of the tires and the steady whisper of the wind had put everyone else to sleep. Suzie was nodding beside me and the kids were piled up like puppies in the back seat.
The angelic looks on their faces belied the truth of what was happening. They were gathering strength. Soon they would be awake again––a laughing, poking, playing, whining, giggling, plotting, wiggling threesome.
At thirteen, Rebekah was the oldest and surrogate mother of the back seat. Sandy, ten, was my aspiring singer and chief instigator. Billy, at five, was content for the moment just being spoiled by his sisters. Soon, an elbow would fly, three blond heads would pop up in my rearview mirror, and I would have to answer the eternal question, “Are we there yet?”
For the moment, I could enjoy the quiet and let my thoughts wander. There was nothing else to do. No studio could reach me about work. I had no list of unfinished jobs or deadlines stealing my fun. There were no bills I could pay and no phone calls I could make. They were all several hours behind. It was just me, a sunny day and a familiar highway. I felt free.
There were no worries about what I would find at the end of the road, either. Thanksgiving had been the same every year since we moved to Nashville to chase my musical dreams.
After four hundred miles we would turn left at the “hole-y” church. “Hole-y,” because of the circular ceramic pieces that decorated the front––one of the kid’s running jokes. Then we would climb the rolling hills of the street where I’d begun my paper route each morning during high school. We would bump and crunch to a gravely stop in the driveway.
The back door of my parent’s house would swing open to the smell of something wonderful. My mom and dad, Emma and Bill, would smile, laugh and make a fuss. Climbing the back steps, there would be hugs and comments on how big the kids were getting. My brother and his family would be there. There would be catching up and eating to do.
At some point, Suzie would politely suggest that I bring the suitcases in and catch my eye with that look that privately added emphasis. Beds would be assigned. One by one the kids would fall asleep, and then the adults, until finally Dad and I would be the only ones left.
I was a night owl because of late nights spent at the studio and Dad because of his back. An old work injury kept him in constant pain but you would never have known it when we were around. He was glad to have someone to talk to and distract him. We could go for hours.
Lately, he’d been telling stories that I’d never heard before. Now that I had three kids I got the adult versions. There were tales of war in the Pacific and Korea, of embarrassing moments or mistakes he’d made––things he thought I could understand now. He would talk of a blinding Colorado blizzard or of stealing fresh pineapples from a field in Hawaii after an exhausting training march. He would tell of riding out a Pacific typhoon on a groaning troop transport and arriving at the fire-blackened hills of Iwo Jima. He’d lived a lifetime by the age of eighteen. They were amazing tales to hear from the gentle and funny man I’d grown up with.
Sometime during the night, I would tell him about Suzie’s tests to come when we got back to Nashville. He would promise to pray. I knew how it would go before I ever crossed the state line. It was a given. It was the last time I would ever be so sure of the future. Nothing would ever be the same again.