“Plastic tape is pure evil.”
Jim said that as he gently, carefully, pulled tape from my body. As gently and carefully as he could, anyway. He’d dab an alcohol wipe on the part that was still connected to my skin, then hold the flesh as he separated the adhesive-coated plastic. Occasionally I’d gasp and he’d wince. “I’m doing it as gently as I can,” he’d say. “I know,” I’d respond. “You’re doing great.”
And he was. I was lying on my side in bed and he was kneeling on the floor. My sister-in-law, a recently retired OR nurse, had suggested that changing the dressing while I was lying down would be easier on both of us. It was.
I looked up at him, his tender face full of concentration and care. “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved you as much as I love you right now,” I said.
It’s not just because he’s been taking care of me. It’s not about me. It’s about the kind of person he is. When I’ve felt particularly guilty at how his life has been upended in the last few weeks, he’s taken my hands, made me look him in the eyes, and said “In sickness and in health.”
He meant it. I meant it. He’s proving it.
Damn, I hit the jackpot. I knew that already, but just in case I missed the memo, the universe decided to give me a lesson in the Magnificence of Jim. (This is totally going to embarrass him, but I’ve already called him a saint in two books and other writings, so he’s going to have to deal with it. And no, he doesn’t have a brother, and no, I don’t know how to clone him. Yet.)
Surgery this time was harder. This time. I’ve never had surgery before, and now I’ve had two major surgeries (major according to the medical professionals) in less than two months. The first one was OK because Dr. B. was taking something nasty out of me. I was optimistic. “Yay! We’re getting rid of the interloper!” This surgery, this time, Dr. B. was just taking something out of me, the removal of which means an increased chance of other diseases. Axillary node dissection removes several lymph nodes and tests them for involvement. This means taking out something that might or might not be killing me, but we won’t know until another doctor looks at it. There’s no sense of victory or accomplishment, only more waiting.
This was also harder because not only was it a bigger incision, which will leave a bigger scar, but he also left behind a couple of presents. One will hopefully be removed on Monday. This is a drain to make sure fluid doesn’t collect in my body where the lymph nodes used to be. A long tube exits from a hole under my armpit and leads to a bulb, which looks distinctly like a grenade. Every morning and every night, Jim helps me drain the grenade. He pours it into a nurse-provided measuring cup, we note how much fluid there is, and then he pours it into the toilet. He also has to “milk” it, which means he pinches an end with the thumb and forefinger of one hand and squeezes with the thumb and forefinger of the other, sliding down to force any residue into the tube. After a couple of days of having the tube taped to my side in loops, tonight I realized I could use my robe tie wrapped around my waist to keep it from dangling and pulling itself out. So now it’s there, hanging like an inside-out pocket.
The other gift is on the left side of my chest. This gift we don’t touch. The dressing stays, covered by a huge piece of clear tape that’s wrinkled my skin and turned pink in one corner where it’s caused irritation. This is the medi-port, where they’ll inject my chemo.
I came out of surgery easier this time. I was more alert. I actually saw Dr. B. when he peeked over the drape in the recovery room to check on me. He saw that I was awake and came over, squeezed my hand, and told me I did great. They wheeled me into the prep room where Jim waited. I ate shortbread cookies. One nurse said “Lorna Doon? I didn’t know we had Lorna Doon!” and the other said “We hide the best for our favorite patients.” True? Said for my benefit? I don’t care either way. It made me smile.
The rest of Tuesday was a blur. I slept on a recliner on one end of the couch, again, and Jim slept on the other end. He set an alarm to wake him up for the next dose of medicine. Most of the day was a blur, but I know he cleaned the ceiling fan in our bedroom and vacuumed and put our new bed frame together, a tall frame, a gift from my in-laws that would make it easier to get up and down. Wednesday was better. I took one Tylenol 3 in the morning. I ate. We watched The British Baking Show and My Octopus Teacher and lots and lots of Blacklist. I ate. Again. A lot.
This morning I took Ibuprofen, the regular stuff, and haven’t needed it since. I drank glorious, delicious coffee. I ate more and I pooped a bit – an issue, after surgery. I figured out the robe-tie thing with my plastic grenade. I finally felt like writing.
Overall, a good day. Tomorrow will be better.
Last week I had a particularly bad day. I felt like there is no good with cancer. There is no upside, nothing to make anyone happy they got cancer, and I was all set to spiral into the swallowing abyss of fear and sorrow. That’s not me, I told myself. That’s not who I’ve ever been. I always always always find something positive. And I thought of all the good that is coming out of this horrible experience. I am experiencing love and kindness in such a concentrated and compressed fashion it’s turned this potential black hole into a diamond of humanity’s goodness. When I think of the messages of love and concern, and of the gifts that keep appearing on our front porch, and of the deeper connections I’m making with acquaintances, with people I’ve never met, with friends, and with family, I see hope. I see love.
I am scared. So freaking scared (Sorry grandma…She hated cursing euphemisms. She thought if you’re going to use a word to substitute for another word and everybody knows what that word is, you might as well just use the word.). Now the countdown to chemotherapy begins. I’ll see Dr. B. on Monday to remove the sutures, the drain, and the grenade. On Tuesday, Dr. S., Jim, and I will figure out when I start injecting
poison chemicals into my body that will save my life. The next several months will be devoted to making sure I have several years.
I would not wish this on anybody. I would not wish it on myself, and while I’m not glad that I got cancer, I am glad for everything I’ve learned and am learning because of it. It’s an obvious metaphor for so much else that’s happening. Take every positive thing in your world and magnify it. Embrace it. Celebrate it. Show love and compassion and kindness. Be fierce in your protection of what is sacred and meaningful to you.
We have one life, damnit. LIVE IT.
I have. I am. I will.