When I arrived home that night, two years ago, the cats were at the back door waiting for me. They weren’t hungry – a friend had stopped by to feed them – but they had clearly missed having contact with their people throughout the day and evening.
Paul and I had left the house together before dawn that morning; I arrived home seventeen hours later without him. That night, Paul was in the ICU at the UW Medical Center, heavily sedated and on a respirator, following twelve hours of cancer surgery. I wrote a blog post for our friends and family before gathering the cats around me in bed and falling into a restless sleep.
When I arrived home tonight, Paul was just beginning the Vegetarian Epicure’s potato curry – a particular favorite of mine – for our dinner. Sasha and Lyra came into the kitchen to greet me, seeking the usual homecoming scratch and snuggle. I came upstairs to my computer, where I chatted with Jen and exchanged email with Janeen until dinner was ready. After dinner, we watched TV. Sergei crawled up into his preferred position, nestled in the curve of Paul’s right arm. I settled my head onto Paul’s left shoulder.
It was just a quiet evening at home. How lucky we are to have those.
Paul has also written a post about this anniversary. He writes that I have “become quite a writer, which may be one of the shiniest silver linings in what weï¿½ve been through in the last two years.” The childhood taunt “takes one to know one” comes to mind, though the attached sentiment is quite different. Paul was already quite a writer when we met 25 years ago. I was a bit awed then by his way with words. I still am.
Last year, I took a year-long memoir-writing class at the UW Extension Writing program. The following is part of a piece that I wrote for class about the couple of days leading up to Paul’s surgery. It is the morning of February 27, 2004.
Paul’s instructions were to check in at the UW Medical Center at 5:15 a.m. Our alarm blared on at 3:45; we snuggled together for a few minutes before forcing ourselves out of our warm, cat-strewn bed. Paul showered with an antibacterial wash provided by the hospital. When he hugged me after his shower, he no longer smelled like himself. Paul wasn’t allowed to eat, and I wasn’t hungry. I gathered laptop, books, cell phone. We made our bed. I fed the cats.
Paul and I were out of the house just before 5:00 a.m. The morning was dark, damp and chilly. We didn’t see another car out as we drove through our neighborhood. Traffic was almost non-existent on the Aurora bridge and through Wallingford. Except when I needed my right hand to shift gears, we held hands all the way to the hospital. We didn’t talk much. There didnï¿½t seem to be much to say that we hadn’t said already, many times, in the previous month. I love you. Why is this happening? I’m scared. We’re going to be fine. We listened to Morning Edition, a little bit of normal morning routine on a far-from-normal day.
We arrived at UW a few minutes early; Paul was the first patient to sign in at the surgical intake desk. This time, while we waited, there were no forms to fill out. There was no question about why Paul was there. We sat quietly, holding hands, staring out at the dark through floor-to-ceiling windows. Another couple arrived. A few years younger than us, they looked equally tired and stressed. I’d noticed them earlier in the week in the pre-surgical consultation area, and had overheard them discussing his brain tumor and upcoming surgery with people who looked like they might be his parents. Being the earliest to check in for surgery doesn’t mean you’ll be out sooner, I realized. It just means the surgery will take longer.
An aide clad in blue surgical scrubs walked into the waiting area, and was greeted with four pairs of anxious eyes. He glanced down at the chart in his hands. “Mr. Davis?” We followed him back into a curtained cubicle. He handed Paul a hospital gown, robe and slippers, then pulled the curtains. As Paul changed, I folded his clothes into the vinyl bag that would be taken to his hospital room. A short blonde nurse, wearing pink print scrubs and a smile far too cheery for the hour, bustled in with Paul’s chart, more paperwork and a warmed blanket.
“It’s cold in here,” she stated, “especially when you’re dressed like that and haven’t eaten anything in hours.” She tucked the blanket around Paul’s shoulders, pulled a pen from her blonde curls, and began asking questions from the form at the top of the stack.
“What’s your full name?”
“Paul (Middlename) Davis.”
“Date of birth?” Paul answered this question, then the next. They were tedious, these questions. We all knew the answers, but that was, in fact, the point — to verify that everyone was in agreement about who he was, what medications he was on, any allergies or reactions to anesthesia, why he was there.
“What is the surgery you’re having today?”
Paul exhaled sharply, a failed attempt at a laugh. There was no simple answer to this question. “Well, first Dr. Weymuller is going to cut open the right side of my jaw, from here,” he pointed to the center of his lower lip, ran his finger in a line down to the underside of his chin, then in a curve along his jawline up to the base of his ear, “all the way to here. He’ll remove the squamous cell carcinoma at the base of my tongue, and take out the lymph nodes on this side of my neck. Then it’s Dr. Futran’s turn. He’s going to remove a patch of skin, muscle and nerve from my left forearm, and use it to reconstruct the back of my mouth. After that, he’ll put my jaw back together againï¿½ Oh, and heï¿½ll use a skin graft from my left thigh on the hole he makes in my arm.”
He paused, remembered something else. “They’re also going to do a tracheotomy at the beginning so that I can breath. Do you need me to tell you more about any of that?”
“No, that’s all I need.” They agreed on what was to be done, to which parts of Paul’s body, by whom.
The nurse handed Paul a sheet of paper. “Is all of this information correct,” she asked, “and spelled correctly, too?” Paul had already removed his glasses, so he handed the page to me. It was a sheet of paper labels, printed with Paul’s name and other vital information that the nurse had just verified.
I read one of the labels, then handed the sheet back to the nurse. “The date’s wrong,” I said. “Today is February 27th, not the 28th.”
Shaking her head, the nurse corrected the date on each label in blue ball-point pen. She removed one of the now-correct labels from the sheet, slid it into a bright yellow hospital bracelet, and fastened the bracelet around Paul’s right wrist. He had been admitted.
Within minutes, two more aides arrived with a hospital gurney. Paul clambered onto it, and was swaddled in more warmed blankets. One aide disappeared with Paul’s clothes; the other was to take him to the operating room. I gathered my belongings, and walked along beside the gurney, my hand tucked under the blankets, holding Paul’s hand, feeling that bracelet against my wrist. Coming out of surgical intake, we crossed the skybridge connecting the surgical pavilion to the main part of the hospital. The surgical waiting room is conveniently located in the connecting structure, making it possible for the patient to ‘drop off’ loved ones at the waiting room on the way to the O.R. The aide stopped the gurney near the door, and turned away, giving us some semblance of privacy.
In the six weeks since Paul’s diagnosis, we had done everything as a team. We had been together for every doctor’s appointment, every scan, every fear-filled day and tear-filled night. We had grown accustomed to and taken comfort in spending much of every day together. Had the surgeons allowed it, I would have sat at Paul’s side while they operated. But that’s not the way that hospitals work. For the first time in this ordeal, I could not go with him. I hated that.
I leaned over, caressed Paulï¿½s cheek, brushed a dark wave of hair back from his face. We kissed gently. We were both being brave
“I’ll be with you as soon as they’ll let me, sweetheart. You’re going to be fine. I love you so much.” I didn’t want to let go of Paulï¿½s hand.
“I love you, too.” He stared up into my eyes, and smiled at me. “Don’t you ever forget that.” He squeezed my hand tightly, and then let go.
I stood watching as the aide wheeled Paul away. I wanted to scream. Stop! Stop! Donï¿½t take him away from me. As they reached the end of the corridor and turned toward the elevators, I realized that I hadn’t breathed since letting go of Paul’s hand. Inhaling deeply, I turned and walked into the empty waiting room.
As places to spend a day worrying go, the UW surgical waiting room is quite nice. It’s a lovely room, located on a corner of the building, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing southerly views onto gardens, trees and the ship channel beyond. Soft chairs and love seats are arranged in conversation areas; tables with chairs provide a place to eat or write. A long work surface with data ports provides internet access, and thereï¿½s a large desk on which sits the all-important telephone connecting the room to the operating rooms. I was the first person there, so I had my choice of location. I picked a spot near the corner of the two window walls, from which I could see both the gardens and the door. Scattering my belongings about on a couple of chairs, I pulled Paul’s laptop out of my briefcase, plugged it into a data port, and wrote a short post on our blog.
Clack, clack, clackï¿½
Well, the day is finally here. Paul has just been taken to anesthesia, and I’m in the surgical waiting room. It’s 6:30 a.m. My parents and college roommate Chris will be here soon, and I’m hoping to see lots of other friends throughout the day. Fortunately, UW med center has DSL ports all over the place, so while I’m by myself I’m able to just plug into the system and start writing.
After weeks of actively gathering information and making choices about Paul’s treatment, we’ve reached the point where, at least for today, it’s out of our hands. This experience feels like an amusement park we didn’t choose to visit. The past few weeks were the bumper cars; we could make decisions, and try to choose a direction, but we never knew when or from where the next jolt was coming. And now we’ve gotten on the roller coaster. We’re strapped in, and heading up that first long incline. Clack, clack, clack. Once we reach the top, gravity takes over. We can decide whether to scream or laugh, hold our hands up in the air or hang on for dear life. Clack, clack, clack…
While writing, I realized that I was hungry — a good sign, I thought. I went in search of coffee and breakfast. One floor up, in the hospital’s main lobby, a line of nurses in scrubs and sleepy-eyed, white-coated residents had already formed at the espresso bar. I joined the line, feeling out of place in my civilian clothes. A few minutes later, armed with a slice of pumpkin bread and a double latte, I headed back to the waiting room.
Pulling a small side table near, I settled into my carefully selected chair. I sipped my latte, and stared out at the first hint of the dawn, the mist rising from the water. It was 7:15 a.m. I concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths. My parents and friends would be here soon. All I had to do this day was wait.