I'm good at compartmentalizing, but this tore me down. I learned how much I could feel, but also how strong we were
I was reading in bed when Leslie called from the bathroom.
“Jim?” she said, walking into the room. “I feel something.”
I closed the book and looked up. She was … fondling herself. “You mean like a lump?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s right here. Can you feel it?”
It was definitely a lump. I mean, there’s no other description. Nothing on one side, something on the other.
My role with my wife is to foil her panic, and so I suggested she call her OB/GYN, because otherwise she wouldn’t sleep the whole weekend. She doubted that the gynecologist would be open on Saturday, but I told her to call anyway, and if she got one of those “If this is a medical emergency” messages she should treat it as such, although secretly I suspected it was not any kind of emergency. She’d had a mammogram the previous year, at age 39. Surely it couldn’t be too bad.
And then I put it out of my mind. I do that. I compartmentalize troubling things. It’s a gift. Things worry me from time to time — sometimes very important things — and I push them into a little box “to be addressed at a later date,” although the later date rarely comes.
When my mother told me she had breast cancer, I just felt numb. I said words of comfort. I gave hugs. But inside I felt nothing. The comfort was a rote response to a scenario that my brain recognized to be happening, like a computer program spitting out the answer for x when y = mom has breast cancer. I cared, I was concerned, but the care and concern existed outside of any announcement. I cared because she was my mother and I knew she was upset, but the idea of “breast cancer” wasn’t real to me. Nothing to worry about here.
She had cancer, though; there was no denying it. Later, when I apologized for my detached response, she surprised me by saying she thought I’d been very supportive. I’m not sure if I should be sad that my mother felt my lame response was enough, or if she just understood me so well that she could still feel the love and worry under the layer of numbness. Probably both. Men have been lowering the bar for so long in supporting their women that I’ve reaped the benefits by skating through life. But I did care, and I did want to help. It just seemed unreal to me.
On Saturday, my wife found that indeed her gynecologist did have office hours and agreed to see her. We shuttled the kids over to my parents and went to visit her.
The doctor thought it felt like a fibrous cyst, but she couldn’t draw the fluid she needed to prove it. We waited nervously as she attempted, and failed. So she gave us a prescription for an ultrasound and told us to have it done wherever was convenient. We chose the same hospital, for convenience, and waited till the appointment on Tuesday of the following week. My wife was visibly upset afterward, telling me the lump was looking less and less like a fibrous cyst, but you never know until the hospital biopsies it. We waited. And waited.
It was the Friday before Halloween when we called the hospital for the results.
What does that mean? We didn’t know. I ran interference with the kids while she talked to the radiologist. I could only hear her voice from the other room.
“Am I going to be OK?” she asked.
Later, I learned that the answer to her question had been, “There’s a chance.”
My wife composed herself and we arranged for the kids to be taken to my parents’ house for “a movie” or something. I told her to go upstairs and lock herself in the room until I could talk to her.
And she cried. My children left the house and she cried such a torrent of tears that I thought surely if cancer did not kill her she would die of asphyxiation. “I don’t want to die,” she said through sobs, and it cut my heart from my chest as I imagined my life and the lives of my children without my wife, their mother.
In that moment I did not feel numb at all. I felt devastated. As it turns out, I do have a heart. Thanks for letting me know, God. Next time just send an email.
I imagined giving my oldest daughter “the talk.” That awful “Christmas Shoes” song was already queuing up to fill the airwaves on 94.5 FM, where Christmas music plays from Halloween through the end of New Year’s Day. From that moment on it became, at least to me, “The Day My Wife Was Dying.”
“They said it’s spread,” she told me.
I failed to compartmentalize. My compartments were full. The need to confront what was in front of us was too pressing. And I cried with her, at least as much as I felt comfortable crying, fearing my tears would make her even more afraid.
In the end it was my mother who helped save us from our despair, or at least gave us enough breathing room to make it through the weekend and get to our next doctor’s visit. That conversation stemmed the flood of emotion long enough for us to get actual information.
My wife hadn’t relayed the story quite right. “Invasive” didn’t actually mean “the cancer has spread,” as she had interpreted it, but it was the name given to the most common kind of breast cancer there is, the kind that starts as a tumor and can move. It didn’t mean she was going to die immediately. It’s actually the same breast cancer my mother had, and survived. She had gotten a partial mastectomy and radiation and was good as new, or at the very least certified pre-owned. That much got us through the weekend.
Now, it’s been 10 weeks since my wife learned that she “was dying.” And yet, she is anything but dying. Or perhaps she’s dying, but just like all human beings die, slowly breaking down inside and out. That’s acceptable. I can compartmentalize aging. That’s a cinch. There are no talks to children about buying Christmas shoes to meet Jesus when you still have 50 more years to live.
And so any news apart from the news that she’s dying becomes good news, which lends you an interesting perspective. “Oh the tumor is three times larger than you first thought, but her prognosis is the same?”
That’s a gross generalization. Not everything is “good” news. Each new tidbit adds to the time and energy that will be extracted and exacted, and each little twist in the diagnosis will make fighting the cancer that much more of “a big deal.”
Of course, this is not what someone told her when she called. The hospital handled this poorly. They weren’t expecting her to call. The wrong woman answered the phone, put news bluntly to her that she was not capable of understanding, and then stopped returning her phone calls when she got upset and later refused to apologize for how badly it was handled. That hospital — the hospital where my two children were born — is dead to me. If you can’t summon the compassion to deal with a woman with a cancer diagnosis, then you picked the wrong field on career day.
But this is not a “death sentence.” My wife can beat cancer, even if the odds are it will come back. Playing the odds isn’t cynicism; it’s just a statistical issue. The fact that she’s younger means she’ll take chemo better, but her odds of recurrence increase each year. But you know what? If it does come back, it can be treated again. You keep fighting, in life, and in a marriage.