I hold the phone in my hand just a fraction of a second too long after my mumbled “thank you.” The receptionist, large, dark chocolate brown with kind eyes immediately gets up from her seat and comes around to the outer door—enveloping me in her mighty arms, my head against her shoulder, her hand in my hair. She is a stranger to me, but her contact is welcome. I had expected the word. We both had. We all had. But we had done such a wonderful job of glossing over it—knowing the risks of another hour of surgery.
I pulled away. Turned away. Stood looking out the plate glass window trying to regain my composure before your mother returned from the Ladies Room. I thought back to the last glimpse I had of you, embarrassed in your blue surgical bonnet. I bent over to kiss you, whispering my love, and stepping back so the nurse and orderlies could wheel you into the operating room. I thought, fleetingly, would this be the last time I would see you? No. No. I wouldn’t think that.
Before the parting I had entertained you. I pulled silly toys from my purse and lay them on your blanketed lap, careful not to jostle the intravenous umbilical. A Lego motorcycle rider. A bouncy ball in green and orange. A large plastic die. A tiny monkey doing a somersault. You seemed to relax a bit now that you were no longer keeping company alone with the constant beeping of the monitors. We played. You peered down my cleavage and mouthed double entendres unseen by your mother, reading in the corner behind you. We laughed and joked.
Before the hospital we kidded morbidly about what to do with your body in the event that you didn’t make it out alive. You told us to clean out your bank account—one way tickets to Scotland where we could spread your ashes over the highland cows (heeland coos). I thought perhaps we should be able to return so perhaps you’d like to live on a shelf in my son’s room for a year or so. Then I decided that we should stuff you and create an art installation of people frozen in time at the hands of a local taxidermist.
Looking out that window, none of it seemed funny.
We made our phone calls, your mother and I. We sat together as the waiting room emptied out. We sat silently, each with our own books, pretending not to notice whenever the other would steal a glance at the multicolored electronic board—your initials still in pink, marking your place in the operating room. This hour, the worst. It seemed as though we’d crossed into an episode of the Twilight Zone. In that waiting room minutes became hours and hours became days. Shadows lengthened. The receptionist closed down. Occasionally a security guard would pass through. Still, your initials, alone on the board now, marking time in the operating room.
I felt a fist-sized ball of hurt in the pit of my stomach. I thought of all the complications we had discussed. I imagined the worst of all and wondered how I could possibly live without you. I felt selfish. How dare you bring me all the way down here and then leave me alone? I fought off anger and worry and sadness and despair and when we finally looked up to discover an empty board we rose in unison and silently moved to the elevator to find your room.
I spent the night fretfully at your side. I wouldn’t leave you now, no matter the condition of the sleeping arrangements. I had the rest of my life to sleep. I wanted to be there to hold your hand, to stroke your hair through your horrible sickness and pain, to do what little I could to make this first night just a bit more bearable for you.
Now, it has been 24 hours. You are home and I am home. Our homes are not the same homes and I miss you. I worry for you. I want to hover and fret. I want to distract you. I want you to distract me. In a few days we will have more test results. You promise me they’ve gotten it all.
Cut. Or burn. Or poison.
That is what you do to Cancer.
Can you promise me you won’t leave? Can you promise that?