Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Waiting Rooms.

Some days I feel dark.I have become intimate with waiting rooms over the past few months.  But none have gotten under my skin so deeply as the one at the Cancer Agency where E had the PET scan.

It was a small crowded room packed with patients waiting to be tested and their respective support groups.  And me, the consummate Groupie.  We got there early so there was ample time for E to fill out the intake form and for me to get restless and bored.  The chairs were stiff and awkwardly close.  The lights were unbearably bright.  Mocking and cruel. The air was weary. This was not a place to linger nor languish.  Here, you waited, got it over with and then got the hell out.

We waited.  And waited.  Waited some more.  At one point, I fell asleep and may have snored, ever so slightly.  E gave me a little love nudge.  I bolted upright and looked around, momentarily confused by my surroundings.  Oh yes, we’re still here I thought.

E’s name was called precisely at the appointed hour.  I gave him a quick peck on the lips, squeezed his hand and watched as he followed the nurse through the heavy metal double doors.  What lay beyond was all a big mystery to me.  I wanted to keep it that way.  Others had gone before him and they all came back okay.  So would he.

I settled in for the 2-hour wait.

I managed to read a few pages from The Color of Water before succumbing to the call of slumber.  My eyelids fluttered and slowly closed.  My head sagged heavily onto my chest like a two hundred pound pumpkin.  Not a pretty sight.  In the end, it was the drool trickling from the corner of my mouth that brought me back to wakefulness.  I wiped my chin with the back of my gloved hand, closed the book and slipped it into the side pocket of my purse.

Then I did what I do best.  Observe.  Witness.  Listen.

There was a painfully thin older woman in her seventies surrounded by her family, who were helping her fill out the daunting intake form.  Her son patiently went through the form question by question. Sometimes answering for her.  And like E and I, sometimes guessing at questions with possible multiple answers or ones that simply didn’t make sense. Close enough was good enough.

There was the young man waiting for his beautiful wife.  She was one who had gone through the double doors before E. When she emerged, he jumped up and was immediately at her side.  “Ah, my beautiful wife,” he declared as he kissed her cheek and took her hand. They sat in the hallway together for a moment, holding hands.  Then he returned to the admitting desk with questions about the “reports to the doctor.”  “Would they get copies as well?” he asked.  Once assured that all was in order, they left. He, with his arm around her waist, and she, with her head snuggled into the sweet spot in his neck.  It took my breath away.

There was the athletic looking woman with the grey hair and backpack slung over here shoulder.  She stood next to the wall with her equally fit friend and made arrangements to meet up afterwards.  There was the heavyset woman who sat quietly knitting.  The middle-aged man in the leather bomber jacket and faded jeans reading the paper.  The teenage boy with the headphones and rapper-style hip-hop jeans, who paced the hallway in step to the music he was listening to.  The young happy bubbly girl barely into her teens, who greeted her anxious parents with a big smile and a reassuring, “It wasn’t that bad.”

And there were others too who came and went during my wait that dreary afternoon in the middle of February.  All there for the same reason.

As I write this, my eyes well with tears at the memory.

The Big C is an equal opportunity invader.  It strikes randomly and carelessly.  Unapologetic and audaciously so.  Old women confused by the questions on forms.  Girlfriends with backpacks and sensible walking shoes.  Beautiful young wives with handsome thoughtful husbands.  People killing time by reading newspapers and books.  Knitters of scarves and baby blankets.  Middle-aged men in denim and leather.  Young teenagers, whose walk on this earth too new to leave footprints.  And yes, even bluegrass musicians who play the upright bass with passion and heart.

The rich.  The poor.  And everything in between.  The happy and optimistic.  The pessimist and naysayer.  The sad and lonely.  The newborn and the ancient one.  There are no precise demographics. No one can pinpoint the target audience.  By touching us all in some way, the whole thing seems so common. Perhaps that’s the divine irony.  There are no favorites here.

The thing that struck me the most while I was waiting.  Hit me in the gut so deeply and profoundly. It was what all these people had in common that I did not possess.

Bravery.

Take that Big C and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Escape Artists.

A and E grinning from ear to ear at her high school graduation.

A and E grinning from ear to ear at her high school graduation.

Sometimes I just want to escape.  Get away from it all.  Take off. Break out.  I have fantasies about this.  They usually go something like this.

I’m in the truck, or some other vehicle with an automatic transmission, heading towards work or some other obligatory destination.  I come to a traffic light. It’s red. I stop.  That’s when it happens.  Instead of waiting for the light to turn green so I can follow the prescribed relentless path.  Otherwise known as my daily routine.  I hang a right on the red and keep on going.  To where, I don’t know.  My only thought is, I’ll know when I get there.  I briefly consider my family, and those I love.  The ones who clutch and cling and cleave to my hungry heart.  I shake those distracting binding thoughts from my head. Toss the rattling chains to the curb.  I hammer on the gas pedal.  Accelerate.  Take a deep breath.  Off I go.  A free bird.  Untethered.

Of course, I’ve never done that. Like John Donne once said, it’s “a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain.”

This daydream of breaking free had exponentially grown since E received his diagnosis back in December.  Like everything else that had happened since then, I wasn’t the only one looking for some escape hatch.  A magical rabbit hole to dive into. E too was looking for a way out.  Even if just for a little while.  A small respite away from the all-consuming Big C was all we both needed.

So in the middle of February, E and I left town. Split. Vamoosed. Set sail.

The truth is, we didn’t go far and our little escapade had an underlying medical purpose.  But for two full days we were in a cancer-free zone.

It was divine.

On Monday, February 18 E was booked into the Cancer Agency in Vancouver for a PET scan.  This is one big mother of a test.  Head to toe 3D color imaging.  Nothing can hide from its radiating nuclear eyes.  If cancer is there, the PET will reveal it.

That was Monday.  Before that we had two glorious days of fun and play in Vancouver.

Our oldest daughter A lives there so accommodations were taken care of.  What we didn’t expect was the pampering she provided.  We were eternally grateful.  She gave us exactly what the medical profession couldn’t.  Love.  In massive doses.

Saturday night was a “date night” orchestrated by this wonderful girl of ours.  We hadn’t had one of those in ages.  If ever.  E and I didn’t really date. Everything we did was kind of topsy turvy, upside down and backwards.  We met in a country bar, fell in love, found our groove, had our youngest daughter and got on with day-to-day life.

Everywhere we went that weekend, we were enveloped by such grace and love.

We had many close encounters of the angelic kind. Starting with The Fish Shack.  Being both popular and trendy, it was crowded. Filled to the rafters.  No room at the shack for us.  Despite the generous gift certificate from our daughter, we weren’t up to standing in line and waiting to have dinner, no matter how good the food.  But before we could even consider hightailing it out of there, the young restaurant host had a table set up just for us.   Once settled into our cozy table for two, we were greeted by our waiter who was gracious, witty and downright entertaining.  The food was great, but he made the experience extraordinary.  We felt like royalty.

After dinner we strolled arm-in-arm up the street to the Vogue Theatre, where our daughter was working.  She had seats for the early show waiting for us.  It was improv night with Colin Mochrie and TheatreSports.  This was a new experience for both of us.  We’ve been to scads of music concerts and festivals over the years but we were Live Improv Comedy virgins.

They say laughter is the best medicine.  On that particular Saturday night in Vancouver, this cliche proved to be true.  We laughed ourselves well that night.  Not physically.  E still had cancer.  It wasn’t a night for those kinds of miracles.  Seas didn’t part.  Water didn’t become wine.  Yet supernatural things occurred.  Spiritual healing took place.  It was a night of joy.  Merriment.  Glee.  Our spirits were uplifted.  Our hearts lightened.  Worries held at bay.  We were just us.  Not the guy with cancer and his wife.

On Sunday we hung out with our daughter.  She cooked homey comforting food for us.  It was like being back at 204 in Ma’s kitchen.  Brunch and Sunday night dinner.  Sandwiched in between was a trip to Ikea.  We returned to the apartment with shelving, a hanging lamp and other Ikea accoutrements. I languished on the sofa like the Queen of Denial while E and A assembled everything with the infamous Ikea allen key.

I treasure the memory of that evening.  Just the three of us.

It’s funny how you can shut things out when you need to.  For those 48 hours, E and I were free.  Unencumbered.  Immune.  Safe.  The untouchables.   Monday would come soon enough.

As I breathed in the delicious aroma of beef stew simmering on the stove, I thought how wonderful it was that we were here in this place, at this time, with each other.  This made me happy.

It was the perfect gift.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Take Two. Let’s Try This Again.

E and his band mate A wait to go on stage.

E and his band mate A wait to go on stage.

Sometimes I just want to start over. Tear out the page. Crumple it up.  Toss it into the nearest garbage can. Press delete. Delete. Delete. Begin again. Change everything. Rewrite the story.

Never have I wanted to do this more than with this story about E.

After the holidays, we settled back into our old familiar routine.  The one we enjoyed before the thunderclap of cancer struck. It was as if all that crazy-making stuff never happened.  Monday to Friday focused around our work.  Weekends were filled with errands, chores, family meals, music and church.  Smack dab in the middle of January we celebrated E’s birthday with joy and profound gratitude.  After the roller coaster ride of December this mundane life of ours felt good.  Humdrum was welcome.  The unremarkable everydayness had lulled us into believing that things were back to normal.  It was life as usual.

Not so.

Truth was, E’s appointment with the Radiation Oncologist was scheduled for the end of January.  There was no denying, nor getting around that.  This was “the meeting” where we would get the lowdown on this scary disease that had invaded E’s body.  The results of the CatScan and the biopsy would be explained to us.  This was where rubber would hit the road.

The Cancer Agency sent E a package of information to prepare him for this meeting.  He filled out the forms, read the brochures, watched the DVDs and composed a list of questions.  I borrowed a snazzy digital recorder from one of my colleagues to tape the session.  We were prepared.  At least so we thought.

I met E at the Cancer Centre on the afternoon of his appointment.  It was a mad rush from work to the Centre with five minutes to spare. I flopped down in the seat next to him expecting a long wait.  My plan was to scarf down a sandwich before meeting with the Oncologist.  Two bites into my cheese and lettuce and we were called.  I quickly stuffed the sandwich back into my bag and followed E and the intake nurse into “the room.”

We exchanged pleasantries with the nurse while she took E’s temperature and checked his blood pressure.  A few minutes later the Oncologist appeared.  It was one of those jaw dropping moments.  She was nothing like what I was expecting.  I was thinking someone more like Einstein or the original Dr. Who.  Someone who looked like they could cure cancer.  Not pose for the cover of Vogue.  She was drop-dead gorgeous.  Tall, slim, perfect skin and hair.  Beautiful smile.  Stylishly dressed from head to toe.  And by toe, I mean kick-ass high black leather boots.  She was lovely in every way and immediately put E and I at ease.

I switched on the recorder.  She began with a round of standard questions to determine E’s overall health.  What other things besides the mess in his mouth were causing him grief.  E rhymed off the litany of ailments that had been hurting, aching, paining, irritating and gnawing at him over the past two years.  It reminded me of the Skeleton Song we all sang when we were kids.  With the toe bone connected to the foot bone.  Was there anything that didn’t hurt I wondered?

After the inquisition, the Oncologist probed and prodded his neck and throat checking for lumps and bumps.  Looking for signs.  Was the cancer on the move?  Spreading like wildfire to the rest of his body or behaving itself and staying contained in the front of his mouth?

Modern medicine is full of wonders to behold.  Technological marvels that are mind-blowing.  Like the probe that allowed us to see inside E’s nose and throat.  More like science fiction than science seeing this strange interior world so close-up and personal.  Beyond the uvula. It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

After the examination the doctor discussed “the next steps.”  This took both of us by surprise. We thought we’d be leaving with a surgery date and a pep talk on how this would soon be behind us.  A little inconsequential blip in our lives that would be over with a quick snip and a stitch.  Not next steps.

E wearing one of his favorite Hawaiian shirts.

E wearing one of his favorite Hawaiian shirts.

What we quickly learned was that the results from the CatScan and biopsy weren’t one hundred percent definitive.  Inconclusive.  They didn’t know the full extent of the disease. Whether it had spread to other parts of his body.  So this uncertainty meant more testing.  Big Kahuna examinations.  MRI and PET Scan.

The drive across town to home was dismal.  Again I was alone in the truck.  A Gloomy Gus.  Consumed with worst case scenarios.  The wind had just been kicked out of our sails.  We had just spent the month believing that things were going to be okay.  E was back to normal.  He was feeling great.  Healthier than he had in a long time.  This wasn’t such a big deal, we thought.  Certainly not deadly.  Nothing to worry about.  A piece of cake.  Walk in the park.

For two smart people, we were seriously naive when it came to the Big C.

Back at the house, E and I spoke briefly about the appointment.  I asked him how he thought it went.

“Not good,” he said.

Then I knew we were in big trouble.