In Shock

It was time for the phone calls.  My sister and I took the quarters that we’d gotten from the cafeteria earlier in the day, literally dozens of them, to the bank of payphones down the hallway from the surgical waiting room.  We had told everyone else to go ahead and go home; there was nothing else to do here until she could see people, tomorrow.  Tonight she would be in the ICU, no visitors save for family, and so there was no point.

I put the first quarter in and dialed my daycare provider.  I told her the outcome and told her I’d be by around 10pm to pick up Zachary.  She told me not to worry and expressed her condolences.

The next call was to my mother’s boyfriend; he had been at work all day, and had asked me to call him when we had some news.    “I don’t know how to tell you this Don, but they found a tumor in her lungs.  Actually more than one.  The biggest one is the size of a fist.”  I shuddered remembering how the doctor had pantomimed this part with his own, much larger hands than mine.  “No, no idea when she’ll be well enough to go home, I haven’t even seen her yet.  She’s still asleep.  No, you don’t need to come by tonight; they have her in ICU.  No, I’ll call you tomorrow.  I know, I know.”  I stopped because I could hear the soft sound of him crying on the other end of the line.  When were my own tears going to come, I wondered.

The next call was to my cooperating teacher.  I told her that I was terribly sorry, but I was going to have to only stay for half a day of teaching tomorrow because of the outcome today; I wanted to be here as much as possible.   I wouldn’t have come in at all, but I had a scheduled teaching observation the next day (what was I thinking? I should have rescheduled it as soon as we had the surgery date, but I never thought the news would be quite this bad) and couldn’t cancel it at this late date.  She told me how sorry she was and offered any help she could.

My sister was on the phone next to me, sniffling through her calls.  While most of mine were practical calls dealing with the coverage of my obligations for the next few days, my sister had offered to call the family and break the news.  I could half hear her as she spoke with my father, uncle, and my great aunt.  Yes, the news was pretty much the worst case scenario.  No, we don’t know when she’ll be released yet.  No, we haven’t seen her yet.  Yes, stage 3B.

My sister pulled on my sleeve as I finished one of the calls.  She had to go; her daughter wouldn’t go to sleep without her.  I told her to go on ahead, I would be not too much longer, just a few more phone calls and then I would see if there was an update before I left for the night.  She agreed she would come back first in the morning while I taught, and then I would come in the afternoon while Z was still at daycare.  I kissed and hugged her goodbye;  I was alone now.

I called my mother’s closest friends from work.  They were incredulous as I repeated the same answers like a dull mantra to their questions.  No, it doesn’t look like it has spread.  Yes, maybe chemo and radiation.  No, she’s not awake yet.  I’ll call you when she can have visitors.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day, they have to watch the chest tube and see if the output looks good.

I was surprised at how quickly I’d picked up the language of disease.   Here I was now explaining to each caller that cancer came in four stages, with Stage 4 being considered terminal.   Stage 3b, therefore, seemed to be the last possible stop before the terminal designation.  I said the words, but they hadn’t sunk in yet.  No tears yet.

I went finally to the ICU unit and asked if my mother had come up from recovery.  They said that she had, and that while she wasn’t awake yet, I could see her if I wanted to.  I nodded quietly, eagerly.  I wanted to see her.   Would I believe it then, when I finally saw her?  I had repeated the words at least twenty times in the last two hours, but they still hadn’t penetrated yet.

They led me into a tiny, sterile white room.  The difference between the woman I’d left this morning and the person lying here in front of me now could not have been more pronounced.  There were six or seven machines alongside of her, including one thick tube that was coming out from the chest area, leaking thick, red liquid.  The chest tube.  Oxygen was being forced in and out of her lungs via a tube in her throat, mechanically breathing for her, in and out;  ivs were in her arms; monitors were checking her heartrate and vital signs constantly.  She was asleep, but not peacefully so; the look on her face was blank, hollow, not restful, but induced.

I stared at her for a while, before sitting in the chair beside the bed.   Still, nothing.  No tears.  No emotion.  I breathed in and out, trying to match the sound of the machines, their pace, their rhythm.  Was she dreaming now?  Did she know yet? How would she react?    What were we all going to do?

I had truly, no idea.

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