Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waiting for Surgery

Cancer is all about waiting – for mammogram and MRI results, for blood tests, for surgery dates.

And while you wait, you go to the dark side.  Terri was struggling, and we knew it.  My sisters and I, having endured numerous breast biopsies, understood all about the agony of waiting.  You can try frantically to fill the hours.  You can clean and work and make out the grocery list.  But in an idle minute, you imagine your future.

You see yourself lying in a Hospice bed in the dining room with the cat snuggled up against you and the grandfather clock ticking away your last minutes.

You hope the church is overflowing at your funeral and that your youngest son won’t forget to tell the congregation about the night you stayed up to nurse his fever and rewind his Barney tape.

However, life marches on without you, and you see it all too clearly.  There are wedding days and tow-headed grandchildren opening Christmas presents.  But you’re not there to ooh and aah.

Worst of all, you see the stunning woman who shows up at the front door delivering a strawberry cheesecake, your husband’s favorite, and the way her athletic stomach lies oh-so-flat, and her back doesn’t bulge beneath her bra line with those little rolls of fat.

“Definitely a step up for him,” you hear the voices.

It eventually dawns on your husband how lucky he is that his new wife doesn’t obsess about money the way his old wife used to.  Of course she doesn’t.  She’s already got money, and plenty of it.  She can redecorate your house and strip that tacky wallpaper off your bedroom wall – the bedroom you shared with that fickle man who fell for the first sleazy tart who laughed at his cat impression.

But really, you concede guiltily, he’s been so good to you.  He stuck by you all these years.  When you fall asleep on the couch, he covers you with a blanket, and the first time you were pregnant, he went out late at night to buy you that package of Skittles.  You want your husband to be happy again.  Just not too happy…

These fleeting thoughts flash by in a second, much like the thoughts of a dying man who sees his life flash before his eyes. 

Terri didn’t share her own private agonies, but we watched her already lean body become rake thin. Then one afternoon in early August, she called my sister Deb.  “The surgery date is set," her voice shook.   "August 17th.”

She wept, and Deb comforted her.  Deb is good at that.  She could soothe a suicidal plane hijacker safely to the ground. 

But with the big date finally set in stone, Terri abruptly stopped crying.  She also, unfortunately, stopped eating.

“Mom!” her oldest daughter Patti scolded her.  “Eat your pizza!”

Terri would choke down a few bites, but she didn’t fool anybody.  For those two and a half weeks, she cleaned and cooked and painted bedrooms with Patti, who was determined to keep her mother busy until the surgery.  She went with Paul to their children’s summer volleyball and basketball games and graciously greeted the flood of friends from her church and school communities who filled her house, not just with food but also their love and support.

And she was kind – even to the few well-intentioned fools who unleashed frightening stories about various relatives who had succumbed to cancer “just like yours.”

One day, in the grocery store parking lot, a woman Terri barely knew accosted her.  “Terri!” she bellowed, barreling straight over to throw her arms around Terri and sob in her neck.  “How could this be happening to you?”  For the next 20 minutes, the woman wailed and deposited her endless problems into Terri’s sympathetic lap.

“What was she thinking?” I fumed when Terri told me about it.

“Oh, you know,” Terri was forgiving, “she was just trying to be nice.”

I marveled at her tolerance and her courage.  “You put me to shame, Ter,” I said.  “You’re so brave.”

“I’m not brave!” she protested.  “I’m scared to death.”

But that was precisely why she was brave.  For two and a half weeks, she got up.  She put on her makeup.  She took care of her family.  She prayed.

And she waited for August 17th to come.