I’m sure you know how it works, too. You’ve been somewhere or experienced a certain thing, it gets stored in your memory vault and if you ever go back to it and do it again, you have a visual in your mind of what it looks like, smells like, feels like. Its a comfort of familiarity that allows you to enter back in with a greater sense of ease.
We’d done brain surgery before. It was in our memory vault and we knew it all too well. I found comfort in knowing what the routine had in store for us. I already knew what the waiting room would look like; where the wall outlets were for charging my phone; what smells came from the cafeteria…
Heading into surgery that day, I anticipated seeing the pictures that my mind had stored for me. I was prepared for that. However, while the sun still slept early in the morning on December 11, I was dealt a different picture than what I had expected when we walked into the hospital. The waiting room I knew from two years ago was no longer a waiting room. None of it was what it had been. Perhaps it no longer even existed! While we were away, an entirely new wing had been built and was the new home to the pre-op area, operating rooms, post-op and recovery locations…and, of particular interest to me, the new waiting room where Chris’s parents and I would spend the next 12 hours of our lives.
I looked around and thought the place looked nice, but remained convinced that we would surely end up moving back to where we had been last time, once the main event got underway.
But, when the woman checking my husband in told me that the all-encompassing room which appeared around me would be it, my final destination for the day until Chris was out of surgery, I told her to get right out of town! I shown my eyes wide at her and may have even slapped my hand down on her desk. You see, I was wound up pretty tight already at 6 a.m. And then, with curved lips and high eyebrows, she peered at me over the top of her glasses and told me she wasn’t going anywhere. She could have waved her finger at me just then and gotten away with it!
I whirled around, found Chris’s parents and announced that where we were, right then and there, was it. They shared my surprise and the three of us surveyed the room in a bit of a panic as we tried to decide where we wanted to stake our claim for the day, as it was quickly reaching capacity. It’s amazing the way humans scope out other humans in a brief, frantic way and decide in a second’s time if they want to be near one another or not based on how they look and what they are doing at that given moment.
Well, I can’t speak for them, but that’s what this human did. That’s right, me. I’m unsure if my natural instincts paid off or not. But, it didn’t matter. By the end of the day, everyone in that room with us would be a source of aggravation, whether they were sitting quietly, but breathing too loud; parading around obnoxiously while talking on their phone; or simply eating a sandwich. We’d out last every body that started off with us that morning.
As it turns out, 12 hours is a mighty long time to wait in a room for the man I love. I’m feeling the word, excruciating. I remember that waiting room as if I’d been cooped up in it only just yesterday and not five months ago. And I remember how I felt a victim of it, but also a survivor, because every time I passed by it afterwards, I’d peer in and look upon the other “waiters” with pity. Yes, pity. I’m not a fan of the word, but that’s the best one I’ve got. Compassion, yes. Concern, sure. But pity packs the punch. I’d exhale a deep sigh and think, “God. Was that the place where I waited?” It looked different from the other side. And, that place wouldn’t offer me comfort again. I’m saying, God forbid we ever have to undergo it a third time, but if so, they better had build a new wing.
So, why not picture it with me a moment? It was a long room, separated in areas by dividers that looked like pop-up mini walls. Clusters of three or four chairs and an occasional seat for two, were positioned around a coffee table here and there. Windows lined the long side of the room that overlooked the front of the hospital and the parking lot. A couple of fake Christmas trees were plugged into the wall and their twinkle lights shown in the still early-morning darkness when we arrived. They were positioned near the water cooler and check-in desks in an attempt to offer a quick nod to the upcoming holiday. Read: We acknowledge that you’re in the operating room waiting area and likely you’re under duress and also its during the month of December, so we’d like to try and lighten your mood with some decorations… I appreciated the gesture, but the irony was just too much. I longed for my ceramic Christmas tree that Chris bought me at the Hallmark store the day he had his MRI. Yep, that MRI. The one three weeks prior that revealed to us why we were there, in the waiting room at the University of Colorado Hospital, that day.
But its OK, because I had packed it in the trunk of our car for when we got settled into Chris’s room in ICU.
And, I want to be clear that the hospital staff who we had the pleasure of interacting with all day were wonderful. I know my edge might be showing in my writing a little, but its just because I’m still mad that we had to be there. Its possible that I might still be for a long time.
From the moment he got called back for surgery preparations, the nurses were very thorough in keeping us informed of his progress. We knew when the IV was in place; we knew that he was positioned on the gurney; we knew approximately how soon we could come say our, “See ya laters….”and if there was time to run to the restroom or not, first. I appreciated their communication. I know the three of us were as eager as ever to show him some love before it all began.
Chris’s parents and I positioned ourselves so our eyes faced the two double doors which led back to where he was. Somewhere within that labyrinth of pre-op and recovery pods with curtains, beeping machines, nurses at their stations, giant doors that sound like space-inspired suction makers on a Sy-Fy Channel Original and all the sterile everything…was my husband, asleep in a peaceful oblivion. I came to a realization as the day went on that he was better off than we were, quite honestly. And, I’m sure by at least the ninth hour of waiting, I’d have dashed back there, through those loud suction-y space doors and begged to be put under, too!
We felt encouraged after we’d said our, “See ya laters” to him. Chris’s positive energy and laughter put us at ease and we had no reason to believe that round two would be as rough as round one, and certainly not more so. We felt sure we’d hear from the Operating Room correspondent when she’d call me on my cell phone with her bi-hourly check-ins that he would be done by, oh, say 11 o’clock or noon.
We situated ourselves in our seats with our coffee and tea and magazines and earphones and cell phone chargers and trail mix and Twizzlers and we began doing the math. Let’s see…it was 9 o’clock now…it takes about an hour for Dr. Breeze to even get into Chris’s brain where the tumor is located…oh, and by the way, the good doctor wasn’t even scrubbed yet when we saw him only 30 minutes ago, before they wheeled Chris away from us, so he’d need time for that, so, OK, maybe we give him an hour and a half, until 10:30, when he might reach the tumor. That means we’ll expect to hear around 11 o’clock that he’d reached it, dismantled it, and was stitching Chris back up. Sweet! We’ll be settling into ICU and unpacking my Christmas tree by mid-afternoon!
Perhaps that was the dream I dreamed during the five minutes that I dozed off while watching American Pickers on my phone when it began ringing with an actual update from the actual Operating Room correspondent. At just 10 o’clock all was well and Dr. Breeze was ready to begin his decent into my husband’s brain. Excuse me, what? This was not how we had planned it out. What had he been doing for the last hour? Getting another cup of coffee from DazBog out in the hospital atrium?!
I digress. I know he wasn’t.
The first of many disappointments that would arrive that day. But, while still on Oblivion Highway, with Hope as our destination, let me tell you about the pastor and his wife and their crew of around six, that made their camp right next to us, about 50 feet away. At first, I looked upon them with reverence. He had the style of a Baptist minister from a movie out of the 1960s, with a five piece maroon color suit and matching wing tip shoes, some gold sparklies around his neck and fingers and wrists and a little flower pinned to the left breast of his suit coat. Sharp sunglasses, though inside with no sun, made it impossible for me to see his eyes, but he carried himself with quite a stature of dignity. His wife walked next to him, with her arm in his. She was a shapely woman in a well-trimmed dress with coordinating round-toed pumps. Her hair was done up the way they do and she had just the right amount of bling. The pair walked with esteem out through those Sy-Fy doors, he carried a bible in his left hand, and I thought, “Oh, thank goodness, a man of God. That will be nice.”
And nice it was. But only at first. I wonder if it was family or friends or a combination of both who arrived within moments and joined the couple. They were without the poise and collectedness that the pastor and his wife possessed.
I’m sure that if they were watching us as closely as we were watching them, they would’ve caught us with our eyes wide, brows elevated, chins positioned further down than normal and with our mouths slightly open as we tried to behold the sight before us.
We watched as they unpacked their bags, purses and backpacks. They turned their I-Pads on to what seemed the highest volume and oh my, did they proceed to laugh and carry on over their Judge Judy program. (OK, perhaps it wasn’t Judge Judy, but I’m fairly confident that it was a daytime court program, by the words they spoke in response to it.). They waved their fingers about, they stomped their feet and strutted their stuff. I feel like I’m describing a scene from Where the Wild Things Are.
I was grateful for the connection I had with the outside world while Chris was in surgery. My phone was lit up for quite a lot of the day and that was a wonderful distraction. My mom, who stayed with our boys while we were in the hospital, sent me pictures of them discovering the location of Kevin, our Elf on the Shelf. And when we weren’t stealing a few minutes on the phone, she emailed me words of encouragement and cute things my children had said on their way to school.
My sister texted me helpful, and discreet yoga positions that would keep our circulation flowing and our energy positioned in a healthy direction.
Friends checked in. I responded.
I showed Chris’s mom a couple recipes that caught my eye in my Food Network Magazine.
She showed me what was new in jewelry from her In Style Magazine.
Chris’s dad read us a couple tidbits of inspiration from his devotional as well as the contents of a few messages sent from old friends.
We grabbed lunch and ate it in the cafeteria because food wasn’t allowed in the waiting room. We took issue with this rule because for folks like us who were in it for the long haul, well, you do the math. And to make matters worse, the pastor team across from us did not heed the eating rule. They were unapologetic while unpacking their smelly cold cuts, stuffing them between two pieces of bread and devouring it all in front of us without reprimand. Again, if they had looked up at us looking at them, we would’ve looked like the scene in The Breakfast Club when John Bender watched Claire eat her sushi in front of him. Chin’s dropped, eyeballs wide, elevated brows, an aire of disbelief….
Innocent people arrived and we silently observed their goodbyes to their loved ones who were about to undergo surgery of some kind or another. Then, as we entered into the second half of the day, we watched some of the same people receive the news that the ones they were waiting on were in recovery and they would be reunited soon.
I wanted to be reunited.
We watched the clock.
We waited for our regular updates that came in every hour and a half from the Operating Room correspondent. And, as I listened to her voice each time she called to tell me that my husband was doing fine and all was well, a part of me held on desperately to her voice, knowing that she most likely had her eyes on him. I am much smarter now, by the way. With two of these experiences in my bag of tricks, I know better than to believe the Operating Room correspondent when she says all is well and fine and good and that the doctor is still working. OK, I believe that the doctor is still working…and yes, Chris might’ve been doing fine, but surgery wasn’t. I would learn this all to soon. That my naivete and hope was in vain.
Our mid-afternoon deadline that we had set earlier in the morning had long come and gone. By around 3 p.m., as we awaited our next update, it didn’t come.
My sister advised us to have fake smile contests to pass the time. So we did. Can you imagine? Chris’s mom and dad and I, in all our frazzled and emotional glory, trying to best each other’s fake smile. It worked for a few minutes and made us chuckle. Not a real chuckle though. You know, it was the really surfacy kind that you realize you don’t have time for, nor want to have, but because of the human condition and our tendency to acknowledge what is funny, we did, but then just came to the conclusion that we were done for. Our crazy was starting to show and the only cure was a good report from someone. ANYONE.
The clock ticked right up to and over the 4 o’clock hour with no news.
Our friends and family on the outside began sending text messages in search of updates that we didn’t have. We all thought Chris must be done by now. Had something gone wrong? We tried to psych ourselves out by believing that he was surely almost finished. That things had gone so well they simply forgot to call us or were just waiting until he was stitched up to tell us the good news!
Yea, OK. That sounded good for a minute. We went with that.
The waiting room was beginning to empty out. All the other people had come and gone and come and gone. We had watched the sun rise and set from that room. .
When 5 o’clock approached, I watched it slowly come up, tick past the 12, and disappear.
At seven minutes after five, I told a girlfriend of mine who had checked in that I had grown weary. My crazy had subsided and I was flat out weary. I didn’t know how much more waiting I could endure. There wasn’t much fight left in me after almost 12 hours. And that’s when she she started sending me funnies. Like funny sayings and jokes along with an image of Captain America’s shield and a note that read, “Cap is pulling for you,” followed by an image of the Tardis from Doctor Who, telling me that the Doctor was too. Her little gestures made so much of a difference in pushing me through.
But then 6 o’clock came. It had been more than three hours since our last update and I felt like my head might just roll off. The questions I had about my husband and the doubt of hearing anything good or when we’d hear anything at all, for that matter, coursed through my thoughts with a force that no amount of praying or deep breathing or calling out the name of Jesus was about to touch. I’m reminded of the scene from the 1996 film, Twister, staring a young Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, where they fastened themselves to a pipe that went deep into the ground with a long leather strap. It was their only hope of survival as they anticipated the approach of the funnel cloud that could quite possibly be their demise. They squeezed their eyes shut tight, let the storm pull them upside down and waited for it to be over.
The height of our storm, during the moments when we found ourselves upside down, holding on for dear life, came within the last 20 minutes of waiting. I do believe we were still holding onto something sturdy, however. Our attention had been fixed on my phone, awaiting a phone call, so it was to our utter surprise when Dr. Breeze came barreling toward us from the front doors of the waiting room! Not the Sy-Fy doors where we had imagined. Except, we didn’t actually imagine him coming through them, not seeing him at all for that matter until later sometime. This was quite a turn of events.
His pace was fast, his body rigid. He was still in his scrubs from head to toe and his face wore an expression of concern and exhaustion. We were in shock and jumped to our feet at the sight of him. Chris was in recovery, the doctor told us. They had closed him up about an hour ago and he was doing well. But, in keeping with the brain surgeries that my husband has, the tumor was not what Dr. Breeze had hoped for or anticipated. Contrary to the first one, which revealed a rock-hard tumor which could only be chipped away at like a paleontologist in a fossil bed, this second go-around revealed a “vascular” tumor, meaning bloody. Every time the doctor went at it, it bled, and each time it bled, he had to wait until it stopped to try again, thus, the very, very long day. Both surgeries were described as a glorified biopsy.
As Dr. Breeze gave us the report, I felt my emotions rise up and try to push out, but each time they did, I stuffed them back down. Like stuffing a basketball into an empty soup can. I really needed to be cool, though, and hear him out. He told us he had a plan for post-op, although I can’t remember what it was now. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, because when I flat out asked him if he thought the tumor was still benign, or without cancer in it, he said “yes.” There was no reason for him to believe otherwise, as the samples he gave to the pathologist were so similar looking to the tumor of two years ago, which was cancer-free.
I might have also learned to not believe the inclinations of the neurosurgeon, either. Gosh, I’m so smart now!
We listened to his words, asked a few questions, kept our heads on straight for the most part and when he told us we could see Chris in about 30 to 40 minutes, I hugged him. I just hugged him and then began to cry. I thanked him for his commitment to my husband and with that, he was gone.
And I wonder how the chair below me didn’t break as I sat upon it with the weight of the world now perched precariously on my shoulders.