If the Ghost of Christmas Past had taken my hand and led me out the hospital window to a holiday dinner in my childhood, I would have been no less unprepared than I was for morning.
The freezing walk from the parking lot to the car was like a trip to the airport. The drive to work was like a flight to a far distant land. In spite of the decompression time, opening the door to the studio was a trip back to a previous life.
Imagine opening a door back to high school.
One of the basic skills of a recording engineer is the ability to appear calm when things are coming apart, so I forced my best poker face. But it had only been five days ago, in this very room, that I’d gotten the call that changed everything. Five days ago the worst was behind us and the future was bright. And now . . .
Now, I was back. I pulled myself together. I had a job to do and we needed the money more than ever. I threw myself into it. I was lucky they still wanted me.
I nodded with strained empathy as my second engineer milked the tale of taking over my orchestra session. I all but prostrated myself before the producer and client but they weren’t having it. They were gracious enough to brush it off.
It was back to work and I had precious little time. Suzie had an appointment with the oncologist in a few hours and I couldn’t miss it.
I racked up the 2-inch tape and began to set up the mix. Patch cords, buttons, knobs, and markers held my attention for the next few hours. I pretended that I wasn’t overwhelmed with flashbacks of the last few days. If anyone noticed my thousand-mile stare, they were kind enough to look the other way.
There were 102 pieces of music to mix by week’s end. No one had the time.
The trip back to the hospital was less of a shock. It was more like the inexorable pull of gravity. I had spent the entire day with my mind seesawing between the reality of the studio and thoughts of Suzie. Once I got in the car, the battle was over.
Or it began in earnest. Every question I’d suppressed during the day clamored for attention like reporters at a press conference.
The answers still had to wait in traffic. But my brain wasn’t content to sit by quietly. It invented even more questions. The need for answers was so strong, I had to fight to keep the gas pedal off the floor. I pulled into the parking lot and rode the world’s slowest elevator up to my alternate reality.
At first sight of Suzie’s smile, the chorus of questions in my head fell silent.
She was fine. I’d been winding myself up for nothing. I took a deep breath and vowed to stop inventing problems where there were none. To stop using the pain of the past to build the worst imaginable future.
That smile, that moment was where I needed to live.
We never mentioned the impending test results. Instead, I caught her up on my day at the studio. She filled me in on her boring day at the hospital. The conversation appeared completely normal, as ordinary as we could make it. We laughed. We flirted.
Only the setting revealed the bravado behind the words.
It was late afternoon when Dr. Raefsky finally walked in with a determined stride. His face revealed nothing. His greeting was efficient. He glanced quickly at the chart in his hand. Then, he looked Suzie squarely in the eye and began without hesitation.
The time had come.
“First of all, your bone scan was clear. It showed absolutely no sign of cancer.” He stopped to give us a moment to take that in.
“That’s good . . .” Suzie hesitated. The smile flitted across her face as she glanced at me. The slow, painful nightmare of bone cancer vanished from our radar. Hope dared to flair.
“Yes, your bones are completely clear. You don’t have to worry about that,” he said, then took a deep breath. “However, your C.T. scans were not. They showed multiple tumors in your liver, your kidney and a large tumor alongside your spine. It is too widespread for surgery to be an option.”
The shock hit like a bomb. I reached for Suzie and took her hand. She stayed focused on Dr. Raefsky.
“What does this mean? Do we do chemotherapy now?” Suzie asked.
“Once breast cancer has metastasized to the brain and major organs we are really out of treatment options. Chemo won’t help.” “I’m sorry,” he continued. “At this point, it would only make you more miserable.”
“You mentioned radiation for the brain tumor,” she persisted.
“Radiation would not be effective because the cancer is so widespread. It would cause more damage than help.”
“So, there’s nothing you can do?” I asked. He replied to Suzie.
“We will do what we need to do to keep your pain under control. I promise you will not feel any pain. But as we increase the dosage your mind will be less clear. You will feel less like interacting.”
Suzie nodded. I couldn’t move.
“My recommendation is that you go home and spend time with your family.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I want to hold my kids.”
That was all he needed. He made a mark on his chart. I suddenly understood a final agreement had been struck.
“Okay. I’m going to go start the paperwork to get you out of here and back home to your family.”
He smiled a sad smile at her, then finally acknowledged me as he turned to go. I nodded back.
It was clear he had been expecting me to cause a scene, to fight it. I wanted to explain that I’d never intended to cause trouble. I knew this wasn’t about me. I just wanted to support her. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
“Thank you,” I said stupidly as some sort of apology.
The bed railing was suddenly too much of a barrier. I climbed over it into bed with her and pulled her to my chest.
“Well, you might as well just shoot me now,” Suzie said, laughing.
But the funny thing was, she didn’t mean it.
This is not right, she thought. I just don’t feel that sick.
Even though her mastectomy scars hadn’t healed. Even though she could feel the craniotomy bump on her head. Even though the tests proved she was dying, she didn’t feel bad. Not that bad.
And what about the kids? How would they get along without her?
Sure, the girls thought they were grown, but Billy. Somewhere along the way she’d read a statistic. What was it? A child who loses a parent at six years old retains no memory of the parent. Billy had only just turned five. This would not do.
She wasn’t ready to stop fighting. That was the problem.
She didn’t feel any special faith. She had no secret knowledge. There was no evidence. She had no clue. She had heard Dr. Raefsky’s report for herself. There was no rational argument she could find. This was it. That was all.
But somehow, somewhere, it didn’t feel right.
She could never say it. They would think she was losing her mind. Maybe she was. She would say the things she thought she should say in this situation. What could anyone really say anyway? For now, she would keep her thoughts to herself.
She would fight for her children. That’s all that mattered.
“Don’t say such a thing,” I whispered to Suzie and pulled her even closer. A tear rolled down my cheek into her hair. “Nobody’s shooting anybody.”
“I wasn’t serious.”
“I know,” I said.
But I didn’t really know much of anything. The shock was so complete my brain was barely working. And maybe that was better. Maybe that’s why our natural defenses shut us down. The numbness was a relief I needed. Not thinking was a gift.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
As we lay together, the scene replayed in my head. I settled into the shocked silence of my mind. The world faded away into nothingness. I rebuked any thought that dared to rear its head. I wanted no part of it. I didn’t want to imagine a life without Suzie.
How will you raise the kids alone?
No. Not yet.
You’ll have to quit your job. You can’t be gone that long.
Shut up. Stupid brain. Shock is good. Shock is wise.
She’s the one who holds it all together.
There was no getting around that one. It hung in the silence. Undeniable. Unimaginable. It was the thought that stopped all thought. All was darkness beyond. A place my mind wouldn’t consider.
Not now. Not yet.
I was too afraid to think at all after that. I wanted to exist here and stop time. I wanted to be in this moment forever. To feel her warmth. To listen to her breathe. The silence between us was better than . . .
But there wasn’t silence.
There was a shout down the hall. Urgent voices murmured. Footsteps raced. Something terrible was happening to someone else. What an awful place that we can’t even . . .
The door burst open!
We jumped, wide-eyed at the intrusion. Before we could react, a familiar voice shouted.
At the end of the bed stood a breathless Dr. Rosenthal waving a report. Behind him stood Dr. Raefsky. We’d never seen them together.
“I just got the pathology results back from your brain tumor,” said Rosenthal. “It wasn’t breast cancer. It was a benign meningioma!”
He looked at us with a radiant smile. As if we understood. But we were still absorbing the first shock and the pieces weren’t connecting.
“What does that mean?” Suzie asked.
“It means,” said Dr. Raefsky, “that everything I just told you is wrong.”
“What?” we asked together. They broke it down for us.
“That’s why we came running back here to tell you as soon as possible. We just crossed paths in the hallway and compared notes,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “We assumed it was breast cancer but we did a routine biopsy to confirm it. But it wasn’t.”
Dr. Raefsky jumped in. “If the brain tumor was not metastasized breast cancer, then we have no idea what the other tumors are. They could be anything.”
Well, that didn’t sound good.
“So, where does that leave me, as far as treatment?” Suzie asked. “Do we go back to radiation?”
“No!” said Raefsky. “It leaves us where you were after your mastectomy. With breast cancer caught early and followup chemotherapy.”
It was finally sinking in. This was the golden ticket. It felt too good to be true. But two smiling doctors were standing right in front of us to confirm it. They were nearly vibrating with it.
“We will need to find out what these other things are. But not now,” Raefsky said. “We can schedule those as outpatient procedures one at a time. Right now, we’re sending you home.”
“Go enjoy Christmas with your family!”