Finding the Sign

12196122_986266481440928_4486158829947549766_n

The morning of the surgery arrived. Everyone was in place. After a quick kiss and a squeeze of his hand I watched as they wheeled him down the long white hall towards surgery. I was adrift in a sea of restless feelings. My lungs restricted as the panic began to rise.

I followed his parents to the waiting room where the Doctor had told us it would be about a two-hour wait. The staff was positive and upbeat, his parents quietly hopeful, and I was a wreck. Nothing held my attention as my mind tossed around scenario after scenario.

It was 10:00 AM and I began to pray…..

Time is not constant. Sometimes it speeds by in a flash, at other times, it slows to a mush of a crawl. Right now, I had a good idea of what eternity felt. At the two hour mark, I found there was less oxygen in the room as my lungs struggled for air and tears threatened to fall. The elderly lady at the information desk informed me that everything was okay. She encouraged me to go have lunch, they would call me. Sometimes surgery took a little longer……

Food sounded terrible. His mother and father decided to find the cafeteria. I continued my vigil. I had the room memorized. Every tiny crack, flaw and dust mote. And another hour stretched out as I wandered the waiting room, looking out the one small window to the dreary, drenched world outside….

Then the surgeon appeared. His young face etched with left over lines of concentration. A smile lifted them away. “He’s doing well. It took a little longer than we anticipated. The tumor had eaten through the bowel wall and it was ruptured. He is a very lucky man. There was a lot of infection, and we couldn’t tell if we got all the cancer. During the process we also had to take out his spleen. In trying to get out all possible cancer it was nicked and we couldn’t stop the bleeding. He has metal marker clips in so they can do radiation for prevention. We removed several lymph nodes and those will be tested to see if the cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. Right now we are moving him to the ICU to make sure he is stable through the night. Give it about another hour for them to get him set up and you can see him.”

I stammered out my thanks as his parents stoically asked a few more questions. Even if Darrell hadn’t seemed to need them, I was grateful they had waited with me. They were staying with his sister and they decided to leave now that he was in the ICU. They asked if I wanted to go with them. I don’t remember what I told them, but it was convincing enough they left me alone. I held it together long enough to say my goodbyes then I fled to the chapel before the panic attack came on.

I was lucky enough to have the place to myself. The storm hit. Tears poured. My thoughts jumbled. The guarantees, the words I needed to hear, had not been forthcoming. I had wanted to hear they got it all. There was nothing to worry about. It was over. He would be fine. The cancer was gone. Instead, it seemed we faced more procedures and still no guarantee he would survive this.

Would I be able to care for him? What if this was going to be a lingering downhill slide? Was I up to caring for a bed-ridden husband? Could I go through the slow process of watching him die in inches? I thought of my great-aunt whose husband had been partially paralyzed by a stroke six years before. She was his constant caregiver. Bathing, dressing and feeding him was a 24-hour job. I remembered her gaunt features and tired smile. Could I do this for Darrell? My heart screamed yes, my mind said no.

I still had young children at home. A movie theatre business to run. Plus my own job at the hospital. My mind scurried to make plans, try to cover all the details. Exhaustion crept over me. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to a time before cancer.

A huge Bible lay open on the simple podium. I looked at it in anger. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted things to be okay, not a cloudy future of uncertainty. I found my legs moved on their own accord and I was standing in front of it. It was open to the book of Job. The voice in my head snorted. I didn’t need to read about Job’s life, I was living the life of Job.

It lay open to Job 33. Line 23 caught my  – If there is a messenger for him, a mediator, one among a thousand…..  I backed up, to line 16, hungrily reading to line 33. Tears fell.  I needed to pray, the Lord in His mercy, could and would pull a person from the edge of the pit of death, so that this person could be enlightened and healed.

I looked up at the jewel tone stain glass in front of me. A simple Cal-lily framed in blue. If even one person prays. I pleaded for his health, for more time, for healing. A peace stole over me. The tears ceased. I wiped my nose. I went looking for the ICU unit.

The Hard Part of Communicating

 

It amazes me how child-like we become in a hospital setting. It is also interesting how much you have time to talk. Things you would never stop to discuss during a normal day become common subjects when facing illness or death.

In a moment of silence, I voiced the subject I knew lay between us. “So are you scared about the surgery?”

“Yes, wouldn’t you be?” Darrell answered solemnly. I scrambled to fill in the silence.

“Do you want me to call your parents to be here?”

He shook his head ‘no’.  “I don’t want to bother them. If they want to come up, they will. It should be their decision.”

“Ugh. I don’t like stoic German genes. Why can’t you just ask for them to come if you want them here?” I got a stoic German glare in return.

“You know, I have only one complaint about growing up. I had it pretty good, but Dad never would say he loved me. Even to this day, if I say ‘Dad, I love you,’ he says, ‘Same to you.’”

I shook my head. In my family ‘I love you’ was said quite often. Maybe not always with sincerity, but it was common.

“Was it the way he was raised maybe?”

“My grandmother said it all the time. Don’t think I ever heard my grandfather say it though. Maybe that’s where he got it from. But it always bugged me.”

I couldn’t believe it. Darrell had grown up with a “Leave It To Beaver” family life. His mother was a stay-at-home mom who had fresh baked goodie always ready for Darrell, his brother and sister when they got home from  school. They had traditional Christmas’s and Thanksgiving with the Norman Rockwell of family gatherings. I was lucky to get a TV dinner or fast food for a late dinner. Christmas was a time of depression and anger in my childhood home.

Yet, here he was yearning for something deeper. I decided I couldn’t stand by and allow him to do this without family support. I gave the excuse of needing a snack and slipped out to the nearest telephone.

“Does he want us there?” his mother queried.

“Yes, I think he does. I know he’s worried about the surgery. He is just too stubborn to ask you to come up. He doesn’t want to bother you.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake. Well, we will be there this afternoon. We were just waiting for him to call.”

I shook my head as I hung up and slipped back into his room, deciding not to tell him what I had done. I wanted it to be a surprise to him. Yet, for all of my judgement on his family’s lack of communication, I was blind to my own.

Before we had gotten married Darrell knew I believed in God. I asked him once, and he assured me he did also. He had attended the German Congregational Church growing up. And the conversation ended there. I had started attending church and hadn’t ever asked him to go. I believed if he wanted to, he would just do it.

Right now I was clinging to the words I would read in the Bible every night. I was searching for a sign in the scripture to reassure me everything was going to be okay. I would slip from the room taking the Bible with me to the waiting room just next door.

After my little ‘good deed’, I wondered how I could comfort someone else during this time of trial. I knew one of the ways to help myself during stress was to reach out to others. I naively asked God to show me how I could help someone else.

I picked up the Bible and headed out.

“So where are you going?” he asked.

Startled, I turned to face him. “Just next door to do a little reading.”

“Okay,” he said, turning his attention to the TV. NHRA racing was on, a hobby of his.

I had just settled in with a warm cup of tea when a young woman stormed into the room. Slamming a Styrofoam cup down on the counter, she angrily dumped sugar into it. I looked away but out of the corner of my eye I saw her glance at the open Bible on my lap.

“How can you read that? I’m so mad at God, I can’t even pray!”

I froze, staring at her, my mind scrambling to think of something to say.

“Why are you mad at God,” I squeaked out.

“I prayed and prayed and prayed, asking him to heal my father. The colon cancer is back. Why would God do this to him. To me.” Tears glistened for a moment, then rolled down her cheeks.

Why God would allow cancer to steal away our loved one’s lives had crossed my mind more than once this last week.  I took a deep breath.

“I don’t know. But I think it’s okay to be mad at God.”

It was her turn to freeze, looking at me wide-eyed. “You don’t think it’s a sin? I mean, I really am so angry I don’t even know if I believe in him anymore.”

I gave a quick mental prayer asking for the right words. “When you tell a three year old they can’t have any more candy, it doesn’t make sense to them. Why can’t they have something that tastes so good? They get angry at you. But you understand. You know they are not old enough yet to understand the reasons. You just have to say no. When they throw a temper tantrum, you don’t hate them. You don’t punish them. You understand. You scoop them up and hug them. Wipe away their tears. Yet you must stand firm.”

It was quiet for a little while.

“So you are saying we are just like children, that we don’t see the bigger picture. But I’m still hurt. He didn’t heal my dad. He’s a good man. I can’t stand the thought of losing him. Why is he taking him away from me? God could heal him if He wanted to. I’m afraid I’ve been so mad at God for so long He can’t forgive me. And I don’t want to pray. I don’t want to forgive him.”

I shrugged. “I think that’s okay. Father God understands. He says He forgives all our sins, when we ask for forgiveness. You just aren’t ready yet. You may never be. That’s between you and Him. But can I ask a favor of you?”

“What?”

“Do you mind if I pray for you and your father?”

She squinted for a minute, thinking, and the anger faded away as the furrow between her eyes relaxed. I noticed for the first time they were a sky blue.  She stuck out her hand, lips turning up into a sad smile. “I’m Sarah, my dad’s name is John. Do you have someone here too?”

The conversation turned towards Darrell and his condition. He was a very private person and he asked me to keep the door to his room closed all the time. Sarah commented she thought someone was dying because that is what the staff usually did for the terminal patients.

“No, he’s not terminal. There is still hope. He also has colon cancer.”

The conversation then turned to statistics, survival rates and symptoms. I realized Darrell was blessed to have his cancer found so early. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to meet up again. After she left I scurried back to Darrell’s room.

As I put the Bible back into my bag, Darrell spoke.

“You know you don’t have to leave the room to read the Bible. Can you read me something from it?”

I froze for the second time that night. “Sure, what are your favorite passages?”

“How about Psalms?”

Obviously I needed to work on communicating with my husband as well.

The Flight Response

The Flight Response

Yup. I was hiding in the bathroom again.

Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this!  I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before.  And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.

It had started that morning.  Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.

The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.

“This is against hospital policy, ma’am.  This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.

Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”

She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye.  When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.

Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.

The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings.  “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer.  The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”

I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy.  I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it?  A misdiagnosis?   There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.

I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”

The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”

Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”

“For how long?”

“Well for a couple weeks at least.”

The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?

Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”

I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.

He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable.  Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.

The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.

A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor.  I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”

The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “

I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….

“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”

He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen.  I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.

The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”

It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.

It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.