Finding the Sign

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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 Story Continues

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I like hospitals best on weekends. The weekly hum of diagnostic staff, nurses and doctors is replaced with a quiet hush throughout the halls. Things slow down as the ancillary staff takes the weekend off.

As I went through the glassed walkway to the cafeteria I could see the dreary skies outside the Deaconess Hospital in Billings, Montana. It had been overcast and raining on and off for a week now. It mirrored the darkness I felt on the inside. The only bright spot was when we were able to take Darrell out for a small ride with his sister and brother-in-law. Darrell grew up primarily in Billings, so I had listened, with a smile, when he related different childhood stories. He pointed out places that were still there and their history and other places long gone. I got to see where he had started his own business as a young gas station owner until he figured out it was a lot of hard physical work for little pay.  But still, I admired his entrepreneurship.

Now, we were back in the reality of life and death. The breaking of the monotony of staring at four sterile walls was only done by lab tests, preparing for tests, and procedures.

For instance, he had to drink a gallon of a thing called “Go Lightly”. His bowel needed cleansed before surgery. “I don’t who came up with the name for this stuff,” Darrell joked, “it should be called ‘Going Tsunami’.” This was after about his twentieth run to the bathroom in less than a half hour.

The next adventure was when the student nurse came in to place the IV for the blood transfusion he had to have before surgery. She was a trembling, quiet little blond-headed girl that I thought looked more like fifteen than the twenty-five she said she was. Darrell had notoriously small veins, like his mother, and it was a nightmare for anyone to get an IV needle in his arm.

Patiently he stared at the ceiling, as she tried, failed, blushed and stammered an apology four times. On the fifth try, Darrell did something I had never seen him do. He grabbed her wrist and quietly said, “Enough. Find someone who can do this.” I know I had a dumbfounded look on my face as she fled in tears.

The room door flew open next to admit a tall, Amazonian looking woman in a helicopter life flight suit. Her voice boomed in the small room. “I hear we have a problem in here.”

Darrell growled back. “Yes, I need someone who can put an IV needle in the first time instead of poking me five times.”

The Amazon smiled. “You got an expert here Mr. Gabel. Let’s see what the problem is.”

Within seconds they were best friends. Darrell had that ability to connect to people in a warm, gregarious fashion. Joking around, she proved her expertise by getting it in with one try, while tisking about the new crop of student nurses. She apologized for the little blond, stating that she should have come and gotten someone after the first failed try. Darrell apologized for scaring her by grabbing her wrist. In the end, all was forgiven. The Amazon even checked back before his surgery the next morning to make sure all IV’s were done to her standards.

Meanwhile I was busy making phone calls and dealing with nervous family. In times of stress, we all say things that are slightly, well, off. Take for instance my father. He was always a man of few words, very smart and yet socially clumsy. I grew to understand this, take his wisdom and not be offended. This was one time I failed.

After a long description of Darrell’s health problems, my fears and the impending surgery, he tried his best to comfort me.

“Well honey, you are still young enough if something terrible happens, you can always remarry.”

It floored me. How could he even think that? Didn’t he understand Darrell was my soulmate? I hung up and fled for my stainless steel sanctuary. On the way a beveled glass doorway winked at me in jeweled colors. I held the storm of tears long enough to be able to read a sign that said, “Chapel.”  Cautiously I entered the quiet sanctuary. No one was there. I let loose the flood.

The chapel was  simple and non-denominational in appearance. Wooden pews glowed with a warm polish. A Bible lay open on a podium. One wall was lined with books of all faiths, and pamphlets filled with hopeful words.

My heart cried out in desperation, asking for healing, wanting more time. In situations like this, you sometimes bargain. I asked simply for fifteen more years. Why that number was important, I don’t know. It just was. But slowly I realized, it didn’t matter how many years, it would never be long enough. I never wanted to be parted from him. I wanted it to last forever.

The chapel would become my new sanctuary.

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.