Here we are again. We aren’t married. We don’t sleep together at night. But here we are again. I am in the chair beside you, cold–thanks to the cool air that fills every hospital we’ve ever visited. The doctor came inside moments earlier and told me, for the fourth time, that the cancer has come back. Right now as the anesthesia keeps you asleep beside me, I know something that you don’t.
The noise around me fills the silence of this quiet room. The beeping of your steady heart on the monitor above. The chatter at the nurse's station. The opening and closing of doors. The humming of the blood pressure cuff on again, off again. I sit here, mask on my face, covered by a warm blanket the nurse just placed on me while I wait for you to wake up. I reach over and I squeeze your warm hand every now and then, just to remind you that I am still here. You look so small lying in the bed. The sight of you makes my heart hurt. You are wearing an oversized green hospital gown, torn in the back and missing one of the two ties. Your feet are covered with XL, non-slip booties. We laughed earlier because you are the opposite of a size XL. Standing at 5’4 and weighing 135 pounds you would have been better off with a child's gown and small or medium booties. That’s all we can do now, laugh about the hospital accommodations.
Our lives are different than before. We are no longer together, yet I made you a promise nearly four years ago when this nightmare began. When we were married, I said we would get through this. We may be divorced, but I intend to keep this promise. When I said this, I thought you were better. When I said this, I thought your hardest days were behind you. Regardless, when I said this, I meant it. No matter our marital status, we need each other, and our daughter needs us too.
As you come to, I greet you with a smile. The nurse asks you if you want something to drink and my insides turn. I have to tell you the procedure we came here for, the procedure that may allow you to eat again, wasn’t possible. You hoped that when you woke up the doctor would have stretched your esophagus so you could resume normal eating, instead there was a tumor obstructing his ability to do so. You will have to continue to use your feeding tube, Mickey, as you call him. I feel annoyance building in my gut that the nurse would even ask you, did she not read your chart? I place my cold hand on your warm arm and say, “they weren’t able to do the dilation. I’m sorry.” Disappointment floods your face. “Really?” you sigh, keeping your gaze on mine. You are waiting for more information, but first I'll let you absorb this piece. I try to hold my smile, and after much practice I do. “The tumor is back,” I say, though I never believed it went away, “I’m so sorry.”
I'm sorry this feels like a battle you will never overcome. I’ve held myself together so well in the last two days—first at the ER and now taking on the news of another uncertain future. Right now, I feel as though I don’t recognize myself. I used to panic. I used to cry more. I used to feel more. Now I feel numb. You and I, we’ve become more practical at these appointments. Cancer feels like an emergency, but what we’ve learned is that it is a slow and often painful disease. Cancer doesn’t happen overnight.
As we get ready to leave the hospital, the nurse asks us if she can pray with us. I don’t pray, and you don’t either—though you may be more receptive to it. Of course, you tell her yes. It’s as the nurse says her prayer the first tears escape my eyes. One, then two. Two, then three. Then I quickly feel anger. If there was a God, why has he let you get sick? Why do people get cancer? I stand up and turn, my back now facing you, my back now facing the nurse. I wipe my tears and grab your clothing. I help you so we can leave. I want to escape.
My body radiates. It buzzes. There is a small vibration in me. I have felt it before, maybe it’s anxiety. I know what follows. High emotions. All of the emotions. Sadness. Anger. Despair. Guilt. And then it is followed by a need for action. We have to do something. We have to do something, even though I am afraid there is nothing left to do.
As I drive us home, you fall asleep and I fall back into the dark space I have been before. I cry. I have cried in front of you many times before, I don’t need to hide my tears, but I want to. You are going through enough, I think, you don’t need to feel bad for making me cry, I think. You wake up, and I force a smile. “How did you sleep?” You don’t answer. Instead, you say, “Do you think I will have to do radiation? Chemo?” I take a breath, “I don’t know, we will have to see what OHSU has to say.”
My tears return. “You need to make a will. You’ve been putting it off for years, but you have to do it. It is the only thing you can do for your daughters after you’re gone.” Silence fills the car, “I’m worried about Ashlee,” I say. “I’m worried about Nora,” you say. I don’t feel I have many opportunities to have this conversation with you, and yet I feel bad that we have to have it now. When the news still feels raw. You place your hand on my shoulder, my hands are firmly gripping the steering wheel. I look straight ahead, “Are you giving up?” you ask.
That’s when I realize that maybe I have lost hope. That explains the change in my mental state. The new strength I have. The amount of patience I have been giving. The calm mindset I have adopted–similar to how yours has been from the beginning, maybe you have always had more hope. Or maybe none at all. I am too practical. I know too much. I don’t want to feel hopeful only to be disappointed again. I have done the math in my head and my heart tells me you won’t make it to the magic number. 80% of those diagnosed with stomach cancer don’t make it past 5 years. Here we sit nearing 4 years. I hate math.
Regardless, I tell you we have to keep fighting. I reiterate what the doctor told us today as he got up to leave the room. “This is an emergency, and you need to make sure that you aren’t ignored. You need to be the most annoying person on the phone. You need to nag. You need to demand that you get the care you need, urgently.” I saw the concern in this doctor's eyes. I heard it in the tone of the doctor and the nurse and the anesthesiologist as they spoke. Maybe the only way I have let you down as your caregiver was by allowing you to be the one to make these phone calls. You aren’t pushy, you don’t know how to be annoying. You don’t know how to nag. I may have ended our marriage, but I never wanted to stop taking care of you.
As I tell you this, I can feel the surface of my skin get hot. I can feel my grip on the steering wheel get tight. “I don’t think you know you know how many hours I spent on the phone calling doctors and scheduling appointments for you when we were married. I fought for you. You need to fight harder for yourself.” My heart is racing a little bit faster. I tell you exactly how this is going to go when we get home. “We are going to go to my house, we are going to give our daughter the update she has requested, and we are going to hug her–tight. Then we are going to go to your house, and we are going to call all of your doctors, twice if we have to.” And that’s what we do.
By some miracle, those doctors call us right back and a plan begins to take shape. As the next steps are being put into place, I still feel less hope for a positive outcome. I’m at that point where my practical nature has come in, it has told me to stop dreaming. Like a little devil sitting on my left shoulder, he whispers, stop believing in miracles. Don’t be that person who falls for those tricks. And though I am listening now, I am going to keep pretending with the angel on my right. I am going to keep entertaining the idea that someone out there can outsmart the monster growing in your esophagus.
The fear I face every day is imagining our daughter without you. How will she handle it? I remind myself that there are children everywhere that have lost a parent. It’s ugly, it’s tragic, and then they overcome. Or at least I hope so. These kids grow up and have lives without their dad, they have careers and families. Or at least I hope so. I remind myself that she will be okay, just like you who lost your mother when you were seven. What a terrible coincidence. What a terrible piece of history to repeat itself. I am reminded of what you said in the early days when you were first diagnosed with cancer, “I just wanted her to grow up with two parents.”
The next evening I go to her room and she and I lay on her bed staring up at the exposed beams that make up the ceiling. Her room is dim because it is poorly lit. The walls are covered in cat paraphernalia, a sign of her youth that you and I hope will last forever, even though we know it won’t. She and I are entertained by the hamster crawling around in her lap. Hammy is her newest friend. A pet I imagined would sit in her cage and do nothing more than sleep, but has surprised us all by becoming more entertaining than that. Nora tells me a story about a girl she follows on YouTube who vlogs about her pet rats, FriendlyRatForecast, she calls it. The girl made a video answering a viewer's question about how she handles her pets dying, after all, rats don’t live very long (neither do hamsters). The girl replied saying, “your rat may not be with you forever, but you are their forever. You are their everything.” We sit there, and I begin to name all the instances this holds true in her life. I start with her dog of course, and then I end with you, you are your dad's forever. As we lay there, I ask Nora about her faith.
Although I am not religious or believe in God the way Nora does, I am thankful for her own beliefs if those beliefs will help her through this challenging time. I ask Nora if she prays for you. She says yes. I ask Nora how she will feel if, after all the praying she does, you still die. She tells me in the most matter-of-fact way, “mom, it’s a prayer request. God doesn’t answer all of your requests.” We sit for a moment and I say, “Hmm kinda like a Christmas list, you don’t get everything on your list. It’s just a wish list.” She tells me this is a good example. I ask her why God would give someone she loved cancer and not answer her prayers to heal him. She tells me that God is trying to teach us something. There is a lesson to be learned. God is teaching her, and me, and you.
It is during this conversation that I wonder if Nora is stronger than we thought, or if this line of thinking will change when the day finally comes. When you really die, will she still be this strong? It is only two days later that Nora and I have to have another difficult conversation. One that follows a devastating conversation with your doctor. We’ve just learned that there is no hope for curing your cancer. Once again, we need more tests, but this time we know for sure that you will (sooner but hopefully, later) die from cancer. Depending on the treatment, you may live a little bit longer. Months? Years? We don’t know yet. We sit on the couch and I tell her that you have the choice of how much treatment you want to go through, but there is no surgical option to remove the cancer. The nasty tumor is winning, I tell her. She repeats to me, “that tumor really likes it in there.” She has your sense of humor. Your ability to be light during heavy times. She is also so strong. She looks me in the eye, both of us unable to speak. There is no amount of strength that will hold in a girl's fear of losing her dad, one-by-one tears stream down her beautiful face. I pull her in and together we cry. We cry for you. We cry for each other. And we cry for the future that is so blurry. So unknown. So broken.
We are all here again. Back to the unknown, the uncertainty, the constant instruction to wait. Keep waiting for answers, for tests, for updates, and for a treatment that will work. Keep wondering how much time you have left with us.
Disclaimer: Armando has read this blog, and has given his blessing for it to be shared. Though as a creative writer I don't need his permission, I requested it. This essay was written for one of my MFA classes and is the retelling of an October day in 2022 after a failed procedure.