Friday, December 21, 2012

Great is Relative

Two days ago marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my friend Jean. I am constantly shocked by the impact of her death on me. Maybe it was because she and I were so tightly connected for our teenage years. Maybe because we'd just had lunch together, and had plans for another right after the holidays. Maybe because her life was cut so short. Likely, it's because a brutal murder is something you never see coming.

On the anniversary of her death, I woke determined to make the day good. Not to wallow or be depressed or think about he murder, but think about her life, about taking advantage of the time and relationships I have right now. I ignored the chores calling me and spent the day baking cookies and singing with the radio turned up, making crafts with my kids and teaching my youngest new piano songs. I made it to the end of the day feeling pretty good.

But while the 19th is the anniversary of her death, she didn't die on a Wednesday. She died on a Friday, on the last day of school before the winter break. Her son came home from college and fell asleep on the couch as she set off to the school to take pictures of the choir kids at their holiday concert. It was, in every way, a day before Christmas break.

And today, as I woke the kids, armed them with gifts for their teachers and told my youngest I'd see her at school for her holiday sing-a-long, I tried not to focus on the fact that this was exactly how Jean's day began four years ago.

I turned on music. I made dog treats for my neighbor, packed a few special gifts for special friends, patted my dog on the head and said, out loud in the empty kitchen, "Today is going to be a great day."

And no sooner were the words out of my mouth than I remembered those were the last words Jean spoke to her husband before he left for work, and I wanted to call the words back. To not have a great day. To not feel like the day was full of possibility in the way Jean did, with all the horrid irony it contained.

I texted my son to let him know he'd have to let himself in if the sing-a-long ran late, and remembered that Jean left the house that morning with her son home alone, asleep on the couch. He was the first killed. I wondered if I should stay home, as if my being home or him being home alone would influence what our own day would hold.

Today, it turned out, was the harder day of this week.

Christmas Day is not wrapped up in mourning for me, but the day before Christmas break is... the sweeping of cheer and anticipation and joy and relief pulled by a vague sense that it's all a fragile hope easily popped, that the worst of the worst can happen right when joy is at its height.

We are not meant to live in fear, but God knows sometimes we get stuck there.

Tomorrow, though, it will be Saturday, and this day of "last day before break" will be over and for me, the imminent fear of evil will fade to something more akin to a small ache. Today I am thankful for a dear friend who listened to me tell the story, who didn't tell me I was crazy for clutching my mouth the minute I said it was going to be a great day, who allowed me to feel like maybe it could be great, could be full of joy, free from something crushing that.

For that, I think I'll turn the music up a little more, and sing, even if only to my dog.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Binding the Wounded: Triumph and Tragedy

The Triumph

Thursday I sat in an operating room, my surgeon armed with a needle and a sonogram, seeking out cysts and systematically collapsing them. It was all good news - this collapsing of cysts - but there were still no answers to my original symptoms, and this hung over us. As my doctor moved to a new section of tissue, searching for the other suspicious cysts, he hovered over a section that appeared only grey and grainy on the sonogram.

"Stop there," he told the technician. "Zoom in." Then, "That's it!"

There, in the grey grainy screen was a grey grainy mass, perfectly circular, perfectly solid, perfectly hiding right in plain sight. The tumor that managed to avoid detection on a mammogram, an MRI, and three previous sonograms suddenly was right in front of our eyes.

My doctor's demeanor changed. Everything changed. The calm in the room changed to a flury as instruments were switched out, anesthesia was given, a scalpel produced, and the next thing I know, he is cutting the thing out.

"We have it," he said, pressing down on me to staunch the blood flow, which has poured over the side of me. "We'll send it to the lab, but I'm very optimistic." He smiled at me. "We finally found it."

Indeed, after more than a month, we had an answer.

He left and the nurse bound me up, tape in the place of stitches, followed by chunks of gauze, followed by an ace bandage so tight I could barely breathe.

"Keep this on," she said. "At least 24 hours. The compression will help you heal."

The Tragedy

A little more than 24 hours later, I was sitting in our church watching my children in the Christmas concert, reminded by the day's tragedy in Connecticut how precious these moments are.

Our music pastor began the concert with these verses from Isaiah, and I pondered them as the orchestra played.

"Bind up the brokenhearted."

What does that mean?

The day before I'd been cut open, had part of my body taken out, and bound back up. I was in pain, even now. My skin had turned hideous shades of maroon and black and purple. There was still dried blood under the wrappings. I could not, for even a second, forget the constant ache in my chest.

But I'd been bound. And I was healing.

Tragedies like mass shootings make us ask difficult questions. Where was God when this happened? Why didn't He stop it?

I don't propose to have all the right answers, but I think we have to accept that having free will to make our own choices comes with two sides of a coin. We want to be in charge of our own lives, to make our own choices, but we want God to stop others who make bad ones. He doesn't say, "I'll let you make decisions, but only up to a point." He lets us - all of us - decide for ourselves what path we will take each day.

What He does promise is that he'll be there for us, no matter what we choose - or what others choose that impacts us.

He will bind up the brokenhearted.

Like my own bandages, it doesn't take away the pain. It doesn't stop the bruising. It doesn't reverse what happened. It doesn't keep scars from forming.

But it helps keep out infection from bitterness and anger. It helps heal. If we let Him, He will heal us.

He promised to turn our mourning into joy, our despair into praise, if we ask Him. Maybe not today. Maybe not next week. But eventually.

And that, my friends, is called Hope.

(Background watercolor by Valeriana)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"This place looks like a butcher shop," and other things you don't want to hear your doctor say

When we last left our damsel in distress (that would be me), the doctor was prancing around singing arias about breast centers and proclaiming me "probably" cancer-free. If I had been smart, I would have left with that upbeat proclamation and not looked back.

Unfortunately, I left with a business card for a breast surgeon who seemed way too eager to fit me in the next day. The day before Thanksgiving, of all days. My school work was done, and it being the holiday season and having only three kids in activities, what else would I do with all my free time?

Walking into this office I realized that every doctor and specialist has its own feel. My primary doctor? a waiting room full of sniffles and sneezes and haggard looking people my age. My ob/gyn? a waiting room full of young 20s women with toddlers and car seats in tow. Also haggard looking. My podiatrist? a crammed room of 80+ year olds with walkers and wheelchairs.

The breast center... Well, it wasn't as though I had time to stop and think about what it might look like, but it didn't take a step in the door to realize it also has its own feel. Pink, for one. Everything is pink. The file folders, the baskets, the pens, the ads for pink plaid Scottish kilts and matching fleece for the Walk for a Cure team they are sponsoring.

Also, very plush. And quiet. Hot tea and coffee. Comfy chairs, not that they keep you waiting long enough to sink into them.

And honest to goodness, every single woman who works there has training-bra-sized boobs. It's as though when they hired they said, "We don't want to flaunt anything in the face of people facing mastectomies, so A-cup size only need apply."

If you need to spend time in a doctor office, this isn't the worst place to be.

And also, in the two minutes I was waiting, a woman bounded out of one of the rooms to the person in the chair next to me (obviously waiting for her friend) and said, "It's benign!" And the glow on her face was enough to make a hardened criminal cry.

This is no flu and cold and stumped toe clinic here. It seems the only people here are either on cloud nine that they are fine, or facing the climb of their lives.

I'm the rarity, I think. The one who falls in neither category, who still has no idea what's going on. It's not so much the "probably" that pokes at me, but the uncertainty of diagnosis.

Not for lack of trying, of course. That first visit I had a sonogram that lasted the good part of an hour. The sonograms I'm used to are the ones where you see all this grey fuzz and then suddenly there is a baby there, like some mutated alien, sucking his thumb or stretching her legs and waving. There is a whoosh-whoosh sound of a heartbeat. There is amazing.

This one.. not so much. For one, aside from a baby, I have no idea what I'm looking at on a sonogram. And since there's no baby in my chest, mostly what I saw was grey fuzz. And then these monstrous looking black holes. Which, I can tell you, look ominous even if you have no idea what they are.

I have two doctors at this office - one the sonogram kind of doctor, and the other a surgeon.  The first visit was the sonogram doctor, who told me my original symptoms (the whole reason I went to the doctor in the first place) now took a back seat to these black holes.

"Are those bad?" I asked.

"Well, they aren't good," she said. Cue first thing you don't want to hear a doctor say.

She kept going back to one in particular, and finally said, "I think we need to get an MRI. It's not overly concerning, but we need to make sure."

"Overly." "Probably." Why must doctors speak in such wishy-washy language?

"Is this causing my other symptoms?" I asked.

"Probably not. But let's figure this out first, then we can look at the other."  Which is, I take it, code for, "We found something worse."

Seriously, people, can nothing be simple??

So I left this office a lot less trippy than the one where the doctor pronounced me probably cancer-free. I'm going to say it's just this office, that what they deal with on a daily basis is pretty serious, and a lot less fun than bringing babies into the world, and also, she can't pawn me off on someone else because I am now her job. But when you go to a specialist and they still have no good idea what's going on, and then they find something new, well, let's just say I didn't do a dance on the way to the car.

I could write a lot about the MRI. It was my first experience with one, and I discovered that I'm not nearly as calm and logical as I appear. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that, as I'm sitting in the "holding" area waiting for the techs to clean up from the last patient, I hear one guy say, "Wow. This place looks like a butcher shop."


Is there a lot of blood? Because that's what I think when I hear the words "butcher shop." And why is the lady before me bleeding all over the place? Does this magnetic thing make you explode if you forget you're wearing a toe ring or have silver fillings you can't take out? Are they slaughtering people in there? I considered maybe it was an array of knives, but you can't have any metal in the room with the MRI machine, so it couldn't be that.

My blood pressure was probably on the tad high side when they finally brought me in, but the room looked... clean. Sterile. White. So crime scene cleaners, I've got some referrals for you.

I never considered myself claustrophobic. Looking at the machine, I thought, "How can someone feel claustrophobic in this? It's not that big, it's got big wide open circles on both ends. There's a hole where your head goes so you can look down."

That was before they slid me in. And I panicked.

They really should just give people a valium when they sign in rather than expecting people to predict this kind of panic attack. And the little panic button they gave me didn't help, because there was no way I was going to admit I was hyperventilating and have them pull me out.

I managed. Lots of deep breathing. I did discover that all of the breathing techniques and ideas to help you through child birth pain are no match for claustrophobia.

Back to the breast center. Sonogram doctor comes in and says, "There's no sign of anything malignant."

So... yay? But she is STILL not looking happy.

"We're going to do another sonogram, and then you can get dressed and the surgeon will come in and discuss your options."

So getting dressed - good thing. Options with a surgeon? Maybe not so good, because if they don't see cancer, I have no intention of going under a knife.

Sonogram starts, and cue second thing you don't want to hear a doctor say: "This looks much bigger than last time you were here."

Um... last time I was here was like six days ago.

Finish the sonogram and she says the next thing you don't want to hear a doctor say. "Don't get dressed after all. We'll have the surgeon do another sonogram just to make sure."

So I wait, in my pink paper drape, for the surgeon to come in. I'm not going to give his name but I had visions of him as an elderly, white-haired short guy.

He looks like he stepped off the set of Grey's Anatomy.

Cue the clutching of the paper shirt and the rush of stupid words. "Are you old enough to be a surgeon?"  And also, you are way too cute to be my doctor. But thankfully I didn't say that out loud.

I'd like to say, "And then he looked and declared this entire process a misunderstanding and sent me home."

But he didn't.

He also seemed... concerned. But not in a "rush thee to a hospital" kind of way. I think his exact words were, "If this was something random that came and went, I'd say let's just watch and see. But I think in this case we really need to be proactive. Let's get to the bottom of this."

And yet, I STILL KNOW NOTHING!!!  It is still probably not cancer. Although the surgeon said its possible it's in such early stages the MRI couldn't pick it up.  Which, if true, is good news. Not as good as not cancer at all, but still - catching it this early would make getting rid of it much easier.

But I don't think it's cancer. I really don't. Not in the very least. I think it will all end up being nothing at all, and I will have wasted hours and hours and much money on tests and doctors to find out, "Hey - looks like all is good. You just have abnormal boobs."

Which, really, would not surprise me at all.

I can't tell you how many bookcases I could have bought with the money I've spent on co-pays in the last month. This is what kills me.

Tomorrow I go back and get biopsies on some of those black holes. That means there will probably be another blog post. Hey - I'm not likely to ever write a memoir, so this is as close as I get. And if you've read this far, thank you. And I'm sorry.