An excerpt from The Thank You Room (Chapter 2: Michael)
THE DOCTOR WAS mercifully terse. No chit chat. No platitudes. “The pathologist believes you have synovial cell sarcoma.” Only eight-hundred cases in the United States per year. It’s rare, it’s aggressive, and I’m sorry.
If I left two pages blank now it would better describe what happened next. Blink, blink, blink. And, Oh my God.
I found Dad’s eyes first. They were calm and sad and tired. He was wishing he did not know the chances for me, the terrible possibilities. The medical statistics.
Then I looked at Mom. I missed the moment where she was scared. I did not see my birth flash into her eyes or my childhood or all the life we had waded together or all the dreams for me she had seen come true or all the ones she hadn’t. I only saw the flash of determined unquenchable faith. We’ll get through this. We won’t curse God. It is just another wave of pain, and we can ride it.
“Will I . . . . I mean, do you die from that?” I asked the doctor.
He looked to the floor, weighing every awful word. He was pretty unfamiliar with synovial cell sarcoma, but from what he understood the percentage for survival was around fifty to sixty percent.
“I can’t handle this,” I said. I did not reach for faith as Mom had. There was no flash in my eye. Whatever light had flickered around in there and ignited the death question – it was snuffed completely by the answer.
Dr. Eckenrode explained that he would have to pass me on in the medical network as this disease was beyond his training. He wanted to refer me to a specialist in Omaha, Nebraska, an orthopedic surgeon/oncologist who specialized in my very rare type of cancer. Omaha was a familiar city to us. My younger sister lived there, and it should have felt right. But it felt awful. It was five hours away, and thinking about the next step was almost impossible. I had just been told the worst news of my life. I had not been able to jump to cancer patient in my visions yet. At least, I did not want to.
We nodded along but inside I was screaming and panicking. Surely I would actually die before we could get into this specialist’s office. There could not be life outside of this exam room, outside of this moment. And if we admitted there was – if we agreed to this referral and stopped our jobs and handed our children to their grandparents for weeks at a time while I received cancer care in a city five hours away – then we were surrendering to this awful reality. And I did not want to do it.
While Dr. Eckenrode made the necessary phone call, Michael and my parents and I attempted to grasp the news. You always hear that those moments are like a nightmare. But I have frightening nightmares a lot. This was nothing like that. Because in a nightmare – the really scary kind in which my toes are falling off or my face explodes – I always know I am dreaming and that if I just think the right thing, it will be like a key unlocking the door to my subconscious, and I’ll awake. Then shortly after that thought, I always do.
But there was no waking from this. It wasn’t real. But it wasn’t a dream. It was some alter-reality apart from both, and it was impossible to face.
“If only I wasn’t pregnant,” I said. Maybe then – maybe – it would make more sense.
“God must have known,” Mom said. “He has perfect timing.”
I reached for something familiar then and quoted a movie. We quote movies a lot in my family. A five-word one-liner from a great movie can say a lot because it comes with all the history and context of a two-hour film and our reactions to it, not to mention the discussions we held later about the movie. So when Mom suggested that God understood and possibly even planned this completely ridiculous predicament I naturally responded just as Grace had in Return To Me when she finds herself the heroine of a tragedy.
“Well, what was God thinking?” I cried.
But none of us knew. We could not even fathom.
Dr. Eckenrode returned to the room to say that the doctor he had suggested could not see us after all as he was on medical leave. I did not want to see him anyway, but now I was really bothered. He’s sick? My link to life after this moment is sick? It was such a bad omen. Then – a glimpse of light. The doctor in Omaha was referring new patients to a doctor in Kansas City. His name was Dr. Rosenthal, and he had been trained by the Omaha physician.
Kansas City was closer to home. I felt less daunted by the idea of it. As though – at least for now – I did not have to venture quite so far into the valley of the shadow.
The doctor left the room and Mom and Dad moved to the bed where I sat cross-legged and Michael sat beside me. They said a prayer that I do not remember. And then I asked Mom how in the world I was going to live now. She said I would do it as I always had, with the full knowledge that every moment is precious and belongs to God. Was that the way I always had? I wasn’t sure now. I thought I had counted the moments before, but I never truly believed anything would shorten them. Not like this.
The four of us remained there in barely broken silence for several minutes. The nurse came in and handed me a box of Kleenex. Her eyes were so compassionate. She told us to take as long as we liked. Then she asked us where we had parked.
“If you want,” she continued, “you can pull your vehicles behind the building and slip out the back.” We readily agreed. We were all in our car. And Dad left the room to get it. Mom offered to step out as well so Michael and I could have some time. Then she walked into the hallway and stood completely alone.
It was not until my parents left the room that I saw Michael’s eyes.
In Michael’s eyes I saw myself. Our story played like a movie in my mind. The first day I met him when I stood in the back of our fifth grade classroom and introduced myself as the new girl, our shy but faithful friendship from that day on, the unshakable feeling that we belonged together forever. Our pretty wedding on my parents’ verandah. Not one single breakup. Very few fights and so much laughter.
“I’m sorry,” I told him in that moment. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” His eyes mirrored my tears and my fear. But they were more determined than mine.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” he said. He assured me he could handle whatever was ahead and that we would do everything we had to do.
I had seen that look when we were dating and it felt like forever might never begin. I had seen it before our first son was born when Michael breathed with me every single hee hee hoo. Mom said I stopped breathing if Michael paused to take a drink. I loved that look. Because everything else went away. It was just him. It was just me. And that was all I had to think about.
Today, of course, I wondered how many more times I would get to see it.
I did not know what to do from that point. We sat and cried. There was no more for anyone to say. There was no reason to keep sitting there. But we did not know what to do. Finally, awkwardly, we gathered our legs beneath us. We stood up. We held each other. And we walked outside the room.