Not Prepared for This

The surgery was taking forever.  What did that mean?

We’d spent all late morning and afternoon in the surgical waiting room.  The gravity of the situation was clear by the crowd assembled this time.  My sister and I started the vigil, but people came and went to sit with us as the hours passed.  My brother joined us midday.My friend Karen came for a few hours, some of my mother’s girlfriends came and went, and my sister’s husband was there.  We watched the same scenario play out all day long:  family members would be sitting in small groups,whispering or talking or watching the endless supply of daytime television until a doctor would come to the room and speak a patient’s name out loud.  Then the doctor would stride over to the group that made themselves known and deliver the news that the surgery was over, that it went as expected, that the patient was in the recovery room now, and it would be minutes/hours before they could see their loved one.

Finally, in the early evening, my mother’s surgeon appeared at the door.  He didn’t speak her name to the room because there were only two families left; he recognized my sister and I.  We stood up and went to the doorway.  Instead of delivering the mantra we’d heard all day, he said,  “You should step in the hallway with me.”

Somewhere in the back of my head, alarm bells started ringing.

We formed a semi circle around the doctor as he started to speak, looking at my sister, brother and I.

“Your mother is very ill,” he began.  Or did he say “Your mother is very sick.”  I can’t remember which one.  My head started swimming at that point.  Either way, the message was clear.

“We opened up your mother’s chest and went into the area of concern on the x rays.  Unfortunately, what we found in her left lung was a very large tumor and a few smaller ones.   We took a sample and sent it down to pathology.”

I could see my sister’s face burn bright pink and tears were already streaming down her face.  No one moved, or said anything.  The doctor continued.

“Pathology confirmed that the tumor was malignant.  Your mother has stage 3B carcinoma of the lung.”

The air was punctuated by the sound of all of us sucking in air, gasping.

“I’m sorry,” said my mother’s friend, Ruth.  “But what does that mean for her prognosis?  How much of it did you remove?”

The doctor slowly shook his head.  “Unfortunately with a tumor this size, we cannot remove any of it without severely compromising her ability to breathe.  The tumor is inoperable.  We will have to shrink it with chemotherapy and radiation in order to remove it later.”

Again, silence.

“We also took samples of her lymph node tissue to see if the cancer had spread there.  We found that two of them had evidence of cancer cells, but the rest of them were clean.  That is good news; that means that the cancer likely has not spread yet beyond the lungs.”

Good news, indeed.

“I am so sorry I could not give you better news today.  An oncologist will be in to see your mother tomorrow to start discussing treatment options.”

“How long before we can see her?” I asked.

“Oh, she won’t really be up for seeing anyone tonight,” said the doctor.  She will likely sleep for hours still, and then need a great deal of rest over the coming days.”

“I’d like to see her, still, even if she isn’t awake,” I insisted, but I could hear the quiver in my voice.

“It’ll be a while.  They need to monitor her post op vitals for a while and then get her set up in her room.  She will look very different to you; you’ll want to prepare yourself.   But if you want to see her in a few hours, you can.”

The doctor shook our hands, again expressed his regret to us, and quietly left us, still in our semicircle in the artificially bright hallway.

I wasn’t crying.  My sister was bawling uncontrollably, her husband was holding her up.  My mother’s friend Ruth was red eyed too, though she wasn’t sobbing.  I looked at my brother and shook my head slowly.  He was bright red, his face angry with emotion that he was too afraid to express.  But me?  I couldn’t cry, or get angry, or do anything but stand there still, in disbelief.  This couldn’t be happening.  But I knew it was.  Every thing seemed surreal; my head was empty.  Suddenly, one lone thought crept in.

I remember thinking at that moment:  “My life has changed forever on March 25, 1992.”


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