I was alone. Not in the sense that there was no one around – in hospitals there are always people around. But even amidst the doctors and nurses teeming about my hospital bed, I was more alone than I had ever been.
My daughter and I had been staying with my parents. I needed time and assistance to recuperate from the latest, and most extensive, in a long series of medical interventions. It was Mother’s Day. I’d have laughed at the irony of the situation if I hadn’t been hemorrhaging internally. That probably wouldn’t have helped.
I had woken shortly after one in the morning to an apparent murder scene, horror crystalizing as I realized that it was only me. I eased down the hall in the dark, leaning against the wall to stay upright. I called out to my mom in a high-pitched voice that I didn’t recognize.
Alarmed, she quickly rose from bed. My mother had worked in the medical industry her entire career. I considered her to be a consummate professional, unflappable – but when she turned on the light her expression and white countenance betrayed her stream of consciousness. I was in trouble.
The emergency room nurse apologized as she misdirected the transfusion catheter in my hand for the second time. It stung, though I hardly noticed – that was the least of my worries. In an air of silent panic, I was numb, quietly contemplating whether or not I would make it out of there alive.
Memories of my daughter flooded to the surface. She swung within grasping distance and then away, laughing from her seat on a playground swing. The chains squeaked at their hinges, the same sound I remembered from childhood. A light breeze danced with her silken hair. Her sweet face was sun-kissed and her large brown eyes sparkled at me with amusement. The music of her little voice filled my head. How I loved her.
I thought of her, still fast asleep – her long black eyelashes and cherub face. Would she be frightened to wake and find me not there? I pushed the thoughts away, tears brimming in my eyes.
At 28, things were not at all how I’d imagined they would be. Life is like that – it has a tricky way of giving you exactly what you’ve asked for, though the devil is so often hidden in the details. One ought to exercise caution in the wishing, as double-edged swords underscore every yearning.
I had wanted for the pain to stop. Over the years it had grown exponentially, and with an oppressive hostility, to the extent that it had me on my knees. No one had been able to determine what was wrong. I often wondered if it was all in my head. It took half a lifetime to finally meet the person who’d shine some light – but, by then there was significant collateral damage.
I considered that no one knew I was in a hospital, fearing for my life. Virtually all of the relationships in my life were failing. This filled me with a bleakness only worsened by the realization that I was partially to blame.
❋ ❋ ❋
When you’re unwell, life can become pretty isolated – especially if you’re an expert on detachment à la yours truly. The answer not readily available, people become skeptical. They scrutinize your need to withdraw and are oft inclined to take your limitations personally.
Over time I became tired of trying to explain, so I stopped. There was no way for anyone to understand anyway. So I dug a deep hole. I climbed inside to be alone with my pain, my only reliable companion. People fell away, and I was too exhausted to do anything about it. What I did have left I used for self-preservation, for my daughter.
The man who helped me was a tenured specialist prominent in his field. I’d wept during our first encounter, overwhelmed with gratitude to finally have someone who listened and understood what I was saying, who didn’t patronize me or treat me like I was exaggerating my plight.
“We’ll get you sorted out,” I remembered him saying, that first day we met. I wanted very much to give my daughter a sibling, had asked when he thought that might be possible. With one hand on each of my shoulders he said, “You need to be patient,” then added, “it’s going to take some time.”
Over the next six months, none of the treatments had worked. Things actually became a lot worse. He assured me that surgery was the best option – they were 99% sure it would work. I was cautiously optimistic.
Before the procedure I had walked down the long corridor into the operating room. I wasn’t wheeled in on a gurney like in movies. I just walked in, rolling my IV stand alongside me. It was then that I, well – lost my shit.
There were massive lights overhead, apparatuses whose purposes I could only guess, trays of glinting surgical paraphernalia arranged neatly on every surface. Machines and computer screens lined the walls, purring and blinking as if to say hello. And there were people – a staggering number, everyone busy in preparation for my arrival.
In unison they turned to greet me, like they had all known me for years. Was I supposed to remember their names? Shake their hands? I was ushered to the bed at center stage, where nurses laid me down and began to cover me with blankets. I was shaking. The lights were so bright. I tried to breathe, in and out. Breathe.
They strapped my arms and legs down, adjusted the position of my torso. Someone tried to make a joke to ease the tension. It occurred to me that the young anesthesiology student was going to see me naked. I was about to be unconscious and naked and carved up in a roomful of strangers, my insides projected on the monitor over there.
I felt like a small child then, drowning in my own fear. My eyes began to well up, overflow. I couldn’t breathe. It was all too much.
I tilted my head back just as my surgeon entered the room, his small entourage in tow. The room surged with obsequious attempts to gain his attention, all for which he barely seemed to notice; in the operating room he was like a rock star. His eyes met mine. With concern sunk deeply into the lines of his face, he came quickly to my side. He placed a hand on my forehead.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said. I searched his face for any sign of uncertainty. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I realized that I was fully hyperventilating. There was a lot riding on this – the moratorium I had been caught in prevented me from living my life. I pleaded to him with my eyes. In turn he nodded to the anesthesiologist. Then, darkness.
I woke briefly in the recovery room to him standing beside me. I was surprised to see that he was holding my hand, more surprised that my hand was connected to my arm, my arm in turn to my body. Anesthesia is crazy shit. I smiled drunkenly up at him, the meds doing their best to pull me back.
He took a deep breath, furrowed his brow. This was serious. On the wall behind him, the black limbs of a clock stood still. “We didn’t find it,” he said. The revelry I had anticipated in honour of my salvation crumbled, fell to the floor like dried up sand. A wave of panic rose inside me.
He looked down for a moment, as though my wide eyes were too much for him to bear. “You have some very serious problems,” he said, this time not looking away. I wasn’t prepared for this. The clock ticked on the wall. “We’ll talk more later,” he assured me, and with a final squeeze of my hand he turned away.
As he walked out of the room he removed his surgical cap, ran his fingers through his silvery hair. Despair washed over me, threatened to drown me for good this time. I cried until the resultant blend of sorrow and surgical pain plunged me back into unconsciousness.
When I learned the particulars of my situation, what was confirmed and what was suspected, I booked a private MRI and paid for it myself. Another six months of suspended animation was unfathomable – years of my life had already sluiced down the drain. No more waiting.
I got in relatively quickly. When the scan was over I collected my disc of images on the way out. Once home, I examined the slides one by one, cross-sections of my body, as though I’d been sliced by a butcher’s blade. It was obvious to me before setting foot in my doctor’s office. Bingo – a diagnosis.
When it was confirmed to me by my specialist’s intern a week later, I felt enormously relieved – though only for a moment. The relief came on quickly and dissolved just as fast.
“Oh, you poor girl,” the intern said. Something about her tone made me nervous. “We could continue with the medication and therapy,” she paused, “and more surgical procedures.” Beyond that there was no definitive cure, aside from one – but that happening for someone my age was virtually unheard of. “I’m so sorry,” she said as she left the room. The door handle made a loud click, and with that I was condemned to a lifetime in purgatory.
Alone in the examination room, I began to sob into my hands. I hurt all the time. I couldn’t take my daughter to the park. I couldn’t even bath her anymore or take my dog for a walk. I could barely leave the house, and when I did I was so stricken that it wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t do it anymore.
As though sensing my distress, my physician entered the room. There began an outpouring of medical jargon. Words like precancer, the formal diagnosis I’d already memorized; words like pain management, medications, surgical procedures, complications. I felt the colour drain from my face.
He stopped talking, leaned forward. The air in the room hung as if in anticipation. “Are you done having children?” he asked. The tenderness in his tone somehow exceeded that inherent to his already exceptional bedside manner.
It was a redundant question. He had explained to me just moments before that attempting to carry another child would likely be the end of both me and the unborn. Still, he wanted it to be my decision.
“I can hardly take care of the one that I have,” I said softly, looking into my empty lap. Tears had made splatter marks down the front of my sweater. It was the first time I had admitted it aloud. “I can’t live my life this way.”
He waited a long moment, never breaking our gaze. “Okay,” he said. Then gently, “You’ve been through enough. You don’t have to jump through any more hoops.”
It’s a strange thing to laugh and cry at the same time, both of which exploded from me then. I closed my eyes and hugged him fiercely, thanking the man who would finally help me.
I had a couple of weeks to wrap my head around it, the fact that I’d never again feel that delightful flutter. Someone had once told me that not giving your child a sibling was the worst thing you could do to them. I tried to mute those voices, replace them with gratitude. I was fortunate to have had the experience once, though the relatively uncomplicated pregnancy confounded even my specialist. My little miracle.
The days immediately following the operation were a murky haze punctuated by sharp bursts of pain. The slightest movement sent a red-hot poker straight through me. This, despite being hooked up to a morphine pump that I could self-administer with the press of a button – and was encouraged to do so, frequently. It didn’t matter. What had been cut out of my heart hurt much worse.
When I closed my eyes, I saw my son. He ran toward me on a beach, kicking up sand and small pebbles. His sun-bleached hair was dishevelled, backlit by light that softened his edges and made him seem ethereal. Waves hit the shore with a vengeance, gulls called out overhead. He laughed as he ran into my arms. I hoisted him up, a corona of sunlight framing his smiling visage. My son, the apparition. I loved him so.
I wanted to go home. Each time there was a shift change a new nurse would pick up my file, flip through it, and then remark at how young I was. They’d look confused, as though they’d grabbed the wrong chart. I wanted to go home.
In order to do that, I had to be able to walk on my own, function. I pushed the help button to ring for a nurse. There was no one else to help me. Alone or not, I had to suck it up. I had to get back on my feet.
And so I haunted the halls of the women’s cancer ward, walking back and forth, around and around until the desk nurse told me to go back to bed. I didn’t belong there.
What a sharp contrast from happier times. I had walked the hospital walls three years previous, though the experience couldn’t have been more different. Then there had been a kaleidoscope of emotions, blurred with excitement and anticipation. I wasn’t alone then.
And the pain was necessary, and expected – I’d always regarded the discomfort of childbirth as important. Its low resonance remains at the core of your being forever afterwards, a dull sensory memory that never fully goes away; the invisible external line that tethers you to your young for the rest of your days.
I begged my doctor to let me go home. When he finally discharged me, it wasn’t long before my daughter and I went to my parents’ house. She was a busy toddler and my then-husband was even busier. I was supposed to recover over two months and there was no way I could take care of her on my own.
❋ ❋ ❋
I guess I didn’t recover right, I thought, as the emergency room nurse pulled a needle from my arm. That’s why I was there – I was too eager to get back to life. I did too much, too soon and it landed me back where I least wanted to be. And I was alone. I swore if I made it out of there I’d recover properly, I’d be patient. I promised myself I would never again be so alone.
I made it through that terrifying night, and the next day – the worst 24 hours of my life. At one point, a nurse came in to evaluate me. She checked my chart, made the standard comments about my age. She asked me if I had any children. I braced myself, knowing that I’d have to get used to this.
“A daughter,” I said, my voice thick with emotion at the thought of seeing her again.
“Well, maybe you’ll have to try for a boy next,” she said.
Her comment was tantamount to being kicked in the stomach. I sat and stared, mouth agape, unable to comprehend how someone could be so cruel. She only smiled with genuine warmth, made a couple of notes, and wished me good luck as she spirited out of the room.
It’s been five years since that day and I still remember it with vividness, as though it were just yesterday. I remember that nurse and what she said. It’s taken five years, but I finally understand her meaning.
I understand that anything is possible. I understand that life can be hard and that I shouldn’t face it alone. I know about resiliency and gratitude, the importance of patience. To be careful what I wish for. I know that life can take you to unexpected places and that no matter how deep your sorrow, there can be light again.
I understand that there is hope.