In many ways I’m a creature of habit. Sometimes I wish it weren’t so. But at times it’s a blessing. I slipped as easily into this new routine as my favorite summer flip flops. Driving across town to the hospital that first night felt familiar. Like I had done it a hundred times already.
Truth was, I had. Flash back a decade. Same time of the year. Same weather. Same heavy feeling in my chest. Except a different vehicle. Different driver. This cross-town trip had been part of our daily evening routine those last few months of Ma’s life.
I hated that this was so easy to do.
E was still in the ER when I got there. It was a different wing with a large flatscreen TV and chairs set up in rows like it was movie night at the local community centre. The chairs were full of patients and their respective support groups. Beleaguered husbands and wives. Friends and lovers. Sundry others. Some of the patients were hooked up to IV’s on portable stands. The place was bustling with movement and activity. Even those with IV’s were shuffling around. They reminded me of the Walking Dead. Eyes wide open but with no particular destination. Just a scent embedded in their nostrils and an indestructible urge to follow it. E wasn’t one of those.
I found him in a hallway propped up on a gurney and hooked up to a couple of IVs. Fluids and antibiotics. These would be his primary sources of sustenance for the next five days.
He greeted me with his usual wide toothy grin and rascally blue eyes. He looked better than he had in days. It was a relief to see him smile. Maybe things were turning around, I thought. In a way they were. It was a subtle shift. But I could feel it the second I saw him. After more than two decades with this man I could read him like a cheap paperback novel. Smiles like that do not lie.
“I’m feeling much better,” he said as I leaned in to kiss him.
“You look a million times better,” I said. “What’s with the hallway?”
“Waiting for a room. I could be here all night.”
“I’m just glad you’re here being taken care of,” I said.
I stood next to his gurney while we visited. Moving aside for passing orderlies or nurses pushing stretchers through the narrow corridor. It was noisy and more like a Pub then a hospital. The season aside, there was something uncannily festive in the air. I kept my gloves on while we visited. Partly because I was chilly but mostly because I felt submerged in germs. People were coughing and hacking all around us. My imagination was running rampant. I couldn’t shake the fear that I’d catch some crazy incurable virus or ugly transmittable disease and land up in a gurney next to E. Although I couldn’t think of anything finer than lying next to him, one of us had to remain healthy.
I don’t know how long I stayed with E that first night. Time takes on a different dimension in situations like these. It stretches on endlessly. And it flies by in a second. I only know I left when we were both too tired to visit any longer. I kissed him goodbye and headed home.
This would be my afterwork routine for remainder of the week.
When I visited E the next evening he was in a private room. The lights were too bright. Glaring and jarring. It was like a science fiction movie. It hurt my eyes. Assaulted by fluorescent lighting. E was still hooked up to the IV and looked so small lying on a normal sized bed. I had grown used to seeing him in small cots and gurneys. To see him looking so frail and vulnerable took my breath away. He looked like a little old man. Just like his Old Man in fact, the year before he died at eighty-seven.
Where was my E? How had he gotten to this place so quickly? Was he really this feeble? Rail-thin and boney. His cheeks sunken and sporting shocking grey stubble. And his voice. It sounded just like his father’s. Not E’s. Who was this old man that had taken my love hostage?
I took a deep breath and forged on.
We chatted leisurely about his day as if we were in our own living room unwinding after work. He was full of praise and gratitude for the care he had been given by the nurses. All things considered he felt good. He jokingly referred to his portable IV stand as his dance partner. He sashayed her through the hallways, he laughed. Round and round in circles just to get some exercise. For a moment, I was jealous of a steel pole and a plastic bag full of saline water. E’s mouth was still in pain and his tongue was swollen. Yet things were improving. He ate green jello.
I kissed him on the cheek. Not the lips. I didn’t want to touch his mouth for fear it would hurt. It was difficult to imagine that my kiss would not bring pleasure to his lips.
I stepped out into the dark rainy night. Alone.
On Wednesday night everything changed. Originally, E had been scheduled to have a CAT scan after the surgeon gave him the results of the biopsy, which wasn’t supposed to have been for another week or so. But because he was already in the medical stream the doctor ordered the CAT Scan that day.
The surgeon had been in to see E earlier in the evening. M arrived right after her last class. She was curled up comfortably on the little leather couch under the window, her grey flannel knapsack resting next to her feet. She was chatting quietly with her dad when I walked in the room. The lights were still blaring. There were no soft shadows cast. I took the chair under the hanging TV.
I had barely taken my seat when E broke the news.
“I don’t know how to say this,” he said. “So I’m just going to say it the way the doctor told me. I have cancer. It’s the early stages. The doctor said he can take care of it. He’ll get rid of it. Don’t worry.”
Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.
I wanted to throw up.
“That’s better news than it could have been,” I blurted. “And if you’re going to get cancer, this is the place to be. We have the best of everything here.”
I rattled on. Spewing the fragmented bits and pieces of information I had picked up from work. One of our clients at the Agency was the BC Cancer Foundation so I knew something about treatments and research. How advanced our Province was in this field. While the advertising crone spouted lines of optimistic copy from a recent campaign, all the wife wanted to do was ram her fist through the wall.
On the way home, M and I stopped into the little Mexican cafe up the road from our house and picked up beef burritos. We sat in front of the television and ate in silence. The room reeked of salsa, refried beans and fear.
On Thursday night my sister and her boyfriend came to visit. She had called E earlier to see if there was anything she could bring him. He wanted KFC. He wanted solid food. Anything but green jello and tomato soup. He craved something nasty. Junky. Greasy. Chicken licken good. She walked into the room with the illicit contraband concealed in a brown paper bag. You could smell it the second she got off the elevator. E’s eyes widened with delight. And gratitude. He opened the bag immediately and ravenously started in on the chicken. It hurt his mouth but he didn’t care. It was the first solid food he’d had in a week. Green jello doesn’t count.
It was good to see him eat something that didn’t require a straw. We were like proud parents feeding solids to an infant for the very first time. Grinning from ear to ear. It was a surreal visit. If not for E being hooked up to a monitor and IV, we could have been drinking tea and chatting around our kitchen table. The conversation ebbed and flowed. Intermittent at times. B regaled us with stories of his misbegotten youth. We laughed. We stared at the floor. We were silent. Then it was time to leave.
I kissed E on the cheek, whispered I love you and said goodnight. I didn’t look back.
I had Friday off but still had to get up early for a doctor’s appointment that I had booked weeks earlier. I was sitting in the clinic waiting room taking Instagram photos of my boots when my photographic musings were interrupted by a text. It was E. He was getting sprung from the joint. Hallelujah.
By the time I got to the hospital he was going through the check-out process with his nurse. It was the first time I’d seen him upright in five days. Without the IV stand, he looked like himself. E had returned.
E drove us home. The sun was shining for the first time in five days. It was a large blue sky. Just like the ones that hung over 204 when I was growing up.
Things were looking up.