On a fall day last year, two young parents got in a car. They had bags packed for the day: a chemo bag, which the man’s mother had lovingly packed with a portable fan; phone charger; Cliff Bar; and other things a person might need for sitting through a chemotherapy infusion. The couple also had a backpack, which had water bottles for both of them. They had their iPhones, of course, which housed thousands of pictures and videos of their two kids, who both had red hair and who were still so little that one had just moved out of her crib. They had lists of questions, stacks of after-visit summary reports. They had two carseats in the car, but the kids weren’t in them for long. Before getting on the highway, the couple had dropped them off at school. The man had waited in the car while the woman walked the kids inside: he was too weak to pick them up. He wanted to go in, but he had to be judicious about how he used his energy.
The couple had fear, and also some hope.
They had two appointments that day: one with supportive oncology; the other with medical oncology. The woman had taken the day off work, for which she had written sub plans; made copies; and paper clipped them neatly in stacks on her desk. The man didn’t technically take the day off — he tried to work and take calls when he could.
The couple left early, as they usually did. They knew there would be rush hour traffic. They knew they couldn’t be late. So, they trudged along slowly on the highway, making small talk. The talk felt heavy. They tried to talk about everyday things. Talking about their kids was always a safe topic, but it also felt heavy… the future was uncertain. To talk about the kids meant to implicitly recognize that the man might not be there. To talk about anything more than the appointments that day felt almost unbearable. Even to talk about that day felt harrowing: why were they meeting with supportive oncology? Did they know something that the couple did not? What would this checkup with medical oncology bring? Was it scheduled for some specific reason?
The woman felt lost. She missed her friend, her husband. She wondered what he was thinking. She wanted so badly to crawl inside his head and know what was there, so she could experience it with him. And she wanted him to be inside her head. She had only briefly – and in small snippets – let herself think about becoming a widow. It was only just recently that she began to imagine what it would be like to be a single parent: how would she do everything? To imagine it felt like betrayal. Imagining a life without the man felt wrong — it felt like she had given up. But part of her also knew that imagining it was part of survival. Part of her knew that she had a responsibility to the man, but also to her children… she loved them all. She didn’t know how to manage it all. So, it came out in talk that felt heavy.
“I can’t believe this traffic,” she said.
“It’s Chicago traffic. There’s no telling what it’ll be like.”
“What time is supportive oncology again?”
“I think it’s at 9 a.m.”
“Gotcha.” Pause. “I hope she has something that’ll help you with sleeping and eating.”
“Yeah, me too.”
There were also moments of laughter, some awkward, some genuine. They turned on WBBM on the 8’s to listen to traffic… the man always knew to do that. He could interpret the other language of Chicago traffic patterns, series of names that represented highways with letters. The woman had never understood it. She was quiet during the traffic report, and then always asked, “So, what does that mean?” She remembered a time where there were no smart phones. When she and the man both had the same flip phone: he had the blue one; she had the pink. They printed off Mapquest directions when they drove to see each other. She remembered how listening to traffic on the 8’s was even more important then: there was no app to list future traffic jams or list how long each jam would be. She wondered at how life had changed… how this same man was now sitting in the passenger seat. How much life had changed in the time she had known him.
Every other time they had driven on these same highways to this same hospital, they would wind their way to the top of the same parking structure.
“Usual spot?” the man would ask knowingly.
Simply acknowledging that there was a ‘usual spot’ was a way for him to connect with his wife… which, she knew. It wasn’t the connection they wanted: they wanted the connection they had always had. But it was something.
It was a spot angled on the left. They had parked in that same spot four months earlier, when they had first come to this place. The man had driven that time. He had been yellow.
They couple had fear then, too — but also some hope.
But today, they didn’t go in the parking structure. They went to the valet. The woman got out and requested a wheelchair. The valet – in an exceptionally kind gesture that belied how many times he had likely performed this exact task – calmly retrieved a wheelchair from a long line of wheelchairs stacked within each other, waiting to be used. The man – in an effort that belied how fatigued and demoralized he felt – opened his own door, pushed himself out, and stood waiting for the wheelchair.
“I feel like this is giving up,” he said.
“You won’t use a wheelchair forever,” the woman assured him. “Just today.”
And she believed it. She believed what she said. When she thinks about it now, she’s not sure that the man believed her. She wonders if he knew something — even then — that he didn’t want to admit even to himself, and therefore, he couldn’t begin to admit to anyone else.
As she pushed him into the lobby, the couple felt the sunshine on their backs. The warmth was a stark contrast to the very serious physicians walking with very serious purposes; and very sick patients walking with canes and walkers, some with oxygen tanks, walking to very serious treatments. When the couple had walked in four months ago to this very atrium, they had felt like they didn’t belong. Now, they knew that they did.
They took the elevator to the 5th floor. The 5th floor meant hope. The 5th floor meant transplant.
The woman wheeled her husband into the small waiting room. Cancer booklets and brochures stood neatly and cleanly stacked in clear plastic containers, which covered a console table. The leather chairs invited her to sit, but she felt like it was wrong: her husband was in a wheelchair. He couldn’t sit in one of the leather chairs. So she stood. But that also felt wrong. She looked down to talk to him. She looked down, which she hadn’t done in the whole time she knew him — he was almost a whole foot taller than her. It all felt wrong. It all felt like it was happening to someone else.
The nurse called them back to her office. They talked about pills. They talked about sleep and ascites. And she suggested medical marijuana. The man had strong feelings about that — he didn’t want to. But he was also sick of feeling sick. His wife urged him to consider it. The nurse looked at them hopefully.
“What exactly do we need to do?” the woman asked.
“Well, it’s expensive,” the nurse explained. There was money, and lots of waiting. And the man wasn’t even sure if he wanted it, or if it would help.
“But if you say you’re terminal,” the nurse went on awkwardly, “then it’s all expedited. It’s much cheaper. And you can renew it one time.”
“Terminal?” the woman said. “What does that mean?”
“It means your life expectancy is less than six months.”
The nurse went on to say that nobody really knows how long they’ll live, and that things can change and that’s not necessarily going to happen. But all the woman heard was six months. She suspected the man did too. Everything after that was like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Demoralized – but also strangely hopeful – the couple left the appointment. They took the elevator up to the 6th floor. The 6th floor felt scary. The 6th floor felt like death. People on top of more people waited for life-saving chemotherapy infusions, when really, it felt like they were waiting for death. They looked like death. They sounded like death. There were lots of blank eyes. Lots of heavy hearts. There was also lots of love — loved ones there with their people. Lots of running to get little cups of water; lots of papers being read as everyone tried to hold up the heavy air between them; lots of bags packed, just like this couple had done.
There was lots of fear, but also some hope.
For this man, today was not a chemotherapy day. Today was a checkup day. So the woman pushed her husband down the hall to another waiting room. Pushing him was awkward: they couldn’t talk easily. They couldn’t hold hands. The man’s shoulders were hunched, and his head hung low.
“Are you okay?” the woman asked, realizing how ridiculous it sounded.
“I don’t feel right,” the man said.
She parked the wheelchair next to where she could sit, and look at him at eye level when they talked.
“Let me check in, and I’ll tell them that you don’t feel well.”
And they waited. They waited for what — they didn’t know. But while they were waiting, the man slumped lower. He moaned.
“I don’t feel right,” he said again.
“Okay — I’m going to request that they bring you back right now,” the woman said.
She wondered if her husband heard the fear in her voice. She wanted to stay calm without seeming removed. But how? How could she possibly carry the weight of the air and the weight of life and the weight of this backpack full of their lives… all at the same time? And how could he? How could he carry the weight of the air and the weight of his body and the weight of facing his own mortality in the middle of this waiting room that meant nothing to him?
A nurse opened the metal, sterile waiting room door.
“Come with me,” she said plainly, but with urgency.
The nurse took the couple to a break room: they hadn’t been ready for this patient. There was no exam room available. And in this break room, there was a long table, a few chairs. There was a sink and a few disorganized spoons and forks and leftover sugar packets. The man’s oncologist came in the room immediately.
“Hello — I’m sorry that you were waiting while you didn’t feel right. What seems to be bothering you?”
The man pulled his head up — the weight of it seemed to overwhelm him — and he had to look up awkwardly to meet the gaze of the doctor. He narrated his symptoms.
“Cover one eye,” the doctor said. “Can you see this?”
“Yes,” said the man.
“Cover your other eye,” the doctor said. “Can you see this now?”
“No,” said the man.
“That worries me greatly,” said the doctor. “I’m going to activate our stroke team.”
The man released his heavy head, and the weight took over. He looked down. His shoulders sunk lower.
The woman thought, “Okay — okay. It’s just another setback. I’m sure there’s nothing really wrong. I’m sure this is all just okay — they’ll do a scan, and it’ll be fine.”
She thought of their kids. What were they doing now? Were they outside? Were they thinking of them? Were they sleeping or eating? Did they have any sort of understanding of what was happening to their family, even if they couldn’t articulate it?
She thought of her husband. What was he thinking? How could she be there for him? Words seemed inadequate… they seemed almost comical. She wanted to touch him, but she knew he didn’t want to be touched.
For a second, she thought of the worst. She thought about being a widow. What if he died? She thought about him dying. Would it be painful?
But she stopped. “He can’t die,” she lied to herself.
More doctors swarmed the break room. Nurses showed up. They wheeled the man, with his wife beside him, down sterile corridors. They walked through double doors and more double doors and finally to a room with signs on the outside. One of them read “Caution”.
“You’ll need to wait outside during the scan, but then you can come right back in,” the doctor said.
The woman kissed her husband. She waited outside. She didn’t wait long, but she hated the thought of him in that sterile room by himself. Was he cold? Worse: was he scared?
“You can come back in now,” the doctor said.
The woman walked back in.
“It hurt to lay down,” the man said.
It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be in pain.
“Are you in pain now?”
The couple waited while three doctors stood behind a wall of glass, reading the MRI results. The couple could see the doctors’ faces, but not the computer screens. The man was hunched over, his head and the air around him still heavy. The woman searched the doctors’ faces for any sign of the scan results. Was he having a stroke? Was he dying?
The tension was awful. It was worse than awful — the woman felt the weight of time and of mortality. She felt the love of her marriage. All of life seemed to collapse on these moments. A sort-of life montage played before her eyes — meeting her husband; getting engaged; the birth of their children. She remembered completely insignificant moments that played no major role in their life together. She remembered fights they had; trips they had taken; dinners they had made. She didn’t know if she forced herself to think of it, or if the thoughts were there like an old friend, trying to comfort her.
She remembered her devotional, and how a recent passage had told her — in moments like these — to repeat, “I trust you Jesus.” So, she did it. She put her hand lightly on her husband’s shoulder, and she repeated it in her head. She wanted to make space in her brain and in her heart to think about what her husband must be thinking. But she knew if she did that — if she didn’t keep herself from imploding — that the compression of these moments would consume them both.
The doctor came out from behind the glass.
“Your MRI is clear. You’re not having a stroke. But we’re concerned enough that we would like to admit you for observation.”
The man let out an agonized sigh. His wife knew that this news was almost as bad as having a stroke. It was just as demoralizing. It was another something that chipped away at his humanity.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor continued. “I know you’ve been in the hospital a lot.”
The man accepted it. His wife wanted him to cry — she wanted him to let himself feel… because then maybe they could connect again like they wanted to. She wanted so many things. She knew he did, too.
What happened next… the woman couldn’t tell you. A year later, she doesn’t remember. And how could she not remember? She wants to remember.
If the man were still alive, she’d ask him. And he’d remember. He’d say matter-of-factly what happened, and then joke that he’s shocked the woman doesn’t remember, too. They’d laugh about it, and how – at the time – it all seemed so serious. They might say it as they sit down to watch TV or sit down to dinner or sit down to read a book to one of their red-headed kids. But he’s not here. The memory is gone.
And the woman is left with that backpack; the water bottles; the after-visit summary reports; and her iPhone. She has Cliff Bars, and the two red-headed children, who have memories of their father. The boy asks every night for his mother to tell him a story about Daddy. And when she struggles to recall a story, she remembers this one. She’s not ready to tell it to her son yet, but it’s vivid. So she searches for parts of her mind that she didn’t know were there, and she retrieves another story. And that’s the one she tells him.
She has lots of memories. And, of course, she has fear… but she has plenty of hope.