Skipping Across the Abyss
My husband knocked softly on the bathroom door. “It’s happening again.”
I turn off the bathroom sink and yell through a mouthful of toothpaste, “What’s happening again?” In our house the phrase “it’s happening again” could mean many different things like, “Our daughter put an empty box of Frosted Flakes back in the pantry…again!” or “Mochi has gotten into the dirty clothes hamper and is choking on your panties…again.” Unfortunately, my husband was not referring to these benign annoyances. This time he was talking about his left hand. Over the past weeks it had taken on a life of its own; twitching and jerking, opening and closing, flopping back and forth like a Stumpknocker dropped on the bottom of a Jon boat awaiting certain death. I spit out the toothpaste and follow him to the couch. In April of 2013, my husband was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer. Since then, we have experienced brain surgery, chemo and radiation but nothing quite like this.
“Does it hurt?”
“Like a mother fucker!”
My husband is a Yankee, thus the language. Everything is a “mother fucker”. The sentiment is expressed loudly and with abandon. Southerners cuss too but with the proper amount of guilt. He makes me jealous.
“Can I do anything?”
“Just breathe, baby.”
His eyes lock on mine. I take slow deep breaths. He follows.
“It feels like my arm is on fire!”
“I’m sorry baby.” I say this a lot lately. Because it is all I can.
I hold his right hand and watch his left continue to flop and twist.
“Don’t worry it will end soon.” And I believe this because in the past, it has. This time it didn’t.
As we sat staring at his hand, his arm began to lift, my husband turned red and he blurted, “Watch out!” Suddenly his arm coiled back, grotesque, deformed, into a position not humanely possible. His face stretched and contorted. As if a bolt of electricity ran through his body, he flung back onto the couch with his possessed arm twisting like a severed snake, his body flailing and jerking, my heart beating wildly in horrific panic.
“OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” I heard myself say. Where was the home phone? Where was the Goddamn phone? He NEVER puts the damn phone back where it goes! I finally find the phone and dial 911. I hear silence on the other end. GOD DAMN IT! I can hear my husband grunting in the background, his body jerking on the couch. I find his cell phone. I can’t remember the password! By this time I can’t see…I can’t think. I stumble across my cell phone and stab 911 and wait. And wait. And wait. It is ringing but no one is answering. I hang up and force a moment of calmness. Breathe…breathe…you must be doing something wrong if no one is answering…now carefully dial 911…now breathe and wait…the phone is ringing and ringing. The whole time I am watching my husband, a ghoulish Gumby doll, drooling and writhing. Then he started choking. Strangling. My husband isn’t breathing. And the phone keeps ringing. I dart out the front door, a crazed pajama clad women, wailing in the driveway. A red pickup jerks and chugs towards me.
“STOP! STOP!” I’m bent over sobbing, waving, screaming. He rolls down his window.
“PLEASE! SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH MY HUSBAND!!” He steps out of his truck.
“Hello? Hello? What is the emergency?” 911 finally! I throw the phone to the pickup man and run back inside. He follows.
“Where do you live honey?” The pickup man asks.
“ We live at 215 S. Lakewood!”
He goes back and forth with the operator. My husband goes limp. I roll him onto his side like the operator says. Then I cry.
“It’s going to be okay, honey. I promise. Your husband is having a seizure. It looks like he’s dying, but he’s not. I promise. My little boy has them too. I know…”
My house is suddenly swarming with firefighters, heart monitors, IV’s and questions. “What happened? How long was he seizing? Is he on any meds?”
The pickup truck man hands me my phone and squeezes my hand.
“Everything will be alright”
There are rare occasions when you feel immense love for someone you barely know. There’s a deep and profound sense of the goodness…the God in that other person and there are no words that can do this feeling justice. So I just say “thank you” and hope the pickup man knows how much I mean it.
“Dan, Dan can you hear me?” The medic looks at me. “You try.”
“Baby…baby look at me. This is Rhonda, your wife…” He stares at me, confused. His gaze travels around the room. It is clear he has no idea who he is much less I. He tries to pull the IV out.
“Stop baby. Keep that in.” He looks at me like a little child. He tries to get up. “Dan. Dan look at me. I’m Rhonda, your wife. Stay still. You’re okay.” I crumble. He did not know me. He could not speak. He didn’t know where he was. My God, just that quickly I have lost my husband…I didn’t think it would happen like this… I didn’t expect this. What I did expect was for the medics to tell me that my husband has had a stroke. I turn to the paramedic restraining him. “Why doesn’t he know me?
“This is normal. He’s had a tonic clonic seizure. He’s in what we call a postictal state. He’ll come around.”
“So he hasn’t had a stroke?”
“No, not that we can tell. We’re just trying to get him stabilized.”
They continue to work my husband and my husband continues to stare around our house like a frightened rabbit.
“Dan.” My husband turns towards me.
The medic smiles. “That’s a good sign.”
“Hi baby.” He looks questioningly at me and tries to snatch out his IV. “No, Dan leave it alone. You’re okay. You had a seizure but you’re okay…” He stares at me wide eyed and lost.
“Okay Rhonda, we’ve got him stabilized. We can transport him downtown. Do you want to ride in back?”
I look down at my pajamas covered in grinning monkeys and bananas. “Can I change my clothes?”
“Sure. It’s going to take us a few minutes to get him in the ambulance.”
After throwing on the dirty clothes piled in a heap on the bedroom floor, I climb in the back of the ambulance. I look down at my husband and he looks back; he is actually seeing me. He kisses the air towards me. “Dan, do you know who I am?” He nods at me. I smile at the paramedic. “You had a seizure but you’re going to be okay. We are taking you to the hospital.” He still looks confused but smiles.
“So you’re husband is an artist right?”
Now it’s my turn to be confused. “Yeah, how did you know?”
“The firefighters recognized him from the newspaper article about the fundraiser. We’re really sorry you guys are going through this.”
“Thanks. Brain cancer sucks.”
“Cancer sucks. We’re they able to get it all?”
“As much as they could see. The problem with glios is the cancer they can’t see. In 99% of the cases it comes back. Most people die within a few years.”
“I hope he’s the 1%.”
“Do I have cancer?” My head swings towards my husband. Shocked. Broken. The paramedic whispers, “Oh shit.”
“Hey baby! How do you feel?”
“I’m tired. Do I have cancer?”
He leans back against the stretcher and stares out the window. We continue in silence.
“I remember. I have brain cancer.” He squeezes my hand.
And just like that, my husband was back. But I was lost. Something had snapped in my mind. I had “gracefully” dealt with the fact that my husband would probably die a slow death from a disease that would kill his brain long before his heart. I had “gracefully” dealt with our children being fatherless. I had “gracefully” dealt with our family ending up penniless. I had dealt with brain surgery, chemo, lost hair, lost libido… our dreams of the future. But none of these had broken me like this seizure. Why?
All I can figure is that, at that moment, I thought my husband was dying. My brain, without asking my permission, had gone into shock as if he really had died. While the paramedics were working Dan, I had planned his funeral, told our kids and family, started looking for a cheaper house, quit grad school, gone on Family Medical Leave, called a lawyer about filing medical bankruptcy and wondered how I would ever face tomorrow, much less, years without my love. Even though that was not the case, my mind did not know it.
For those weeks I walked around in anguish and nothing could shake it. I felt like a giant wave of grief was towering behind me and no matter how fast I walked, it would eventually over-take me.
My deliverance came on a Saturday as my husband and I strolled around the Farmer’s Market. He, the one with cancer, greeted everyone and pointed out all the things that used to make me smile: ripe Mr. Stripy tomatoes, dew covered blueberries, gardenias bushes bursting with white buds… when not even a giant bunch of fresh collards, dirt still clinging to their crisp leafy goodness, could make me smile, he grabbed my hand and headed home.
As we turned the corner, we ran headlong into my husband’s dear friend and his wife. As the guys were talking about Dan’s hatred of seizure meds, the wife turned to me, grabbed both my arms and looked me square in the eyes. “How are you doing?”
At that moment, I didn’t feel like I had to lie. I didn’t feel like I could lie. I explained how my mind had broken when I thought Dan was going to die, and that I had not been able to recover. Without the slightest hesitation she said, “It’s because you are a survivor. You needed to be at that moment. Now you can let go; you can go back to being a normal person that’s not in the middle of crisis. Let me tell you something, if I know anything, I know this. You can let that person go, Rhonda, and when or if you need that warrior women again, she’ll be there. But for now, let her go. Let her go, Rhonda.”
And so I did. Just as quickly as the survivor in me had taken over, she left. And what she left was the me that loved and trusted, that smiled and believed. The me that always knew, I’d find a way, to skip across the abyss.