The thing I remember being the most resentful about after Thursday, November 6, 2008 was the fact that I didn’t get to finish my chicken wrap that night! That’s right, out of all the events that transpired on the night Chris was diagnosed with leukemia, the one that stands out is not being able to eat my entire King Caesar wrap from Tropical Smoothie! Is that too much to ask before having my life shoved into a blender?
It all started when the phone rang while I was eating. After getting home from a quick trip to grab dinner, I had settled on the couch to watch Scrubs while I ate. I had taken maybe three bites when I heard the familiar techno ring attached to Chris’s number. I scrambled to get the plate out of my lap gracefully, while simultaneously digging through my bag for the phone before it went to voicemail. Swallowing, I flipped my phone open and hit SEND. “Hey babe, what’s up?”
“I need you to pick me up from Urgent Care and take me to the ER…now,” he replied calmly.
“OK, I’ll be there in a few.” Later, I remember thinking that for a phone call which led to the most devastating event of our lives, the conversation was fairly anti-climactic.
It wasn’t a shocker that he was at Urgent Care in the first place; I was the one who insisted he go BACK to Urgent Care just a few hours earlier. Shortly after leaving the house he had called just as I was trying to get myself out the door in time to make it through traffic to my seven o’clock class. Apparently there was some mix-up between the clinic and his insurance company. He tried explaining what was going on but was too exhausted and frustrated, and all I got was that the insurance company had denied coverage and the clinic was refusing to see him. He had been there over a week before for what they diagnosed as a throat infection and this hadn’t been an issue, so I knew something was up. He had never dealt with insurance issues before and was so tired, he just wanted to come home until we could straighten it out.
Thinking that he just needed a different course of antibiotics, as he had been on penicillin for over a week and was worse than before, I knew if he came home he wouldn’t feel like going back out to the clinic that night. I told him to stay put while I called the insurance company. After 20 minutes of answering questions via pushing “1” on my phone, I finally got to a real person. Looking at his account, it seemed that my charming, laid-back (albeit slightly absent-minded) husband had forgotten to pay his premium the week before, so his coverage was in the process of being cancelled. I really wasn’t all that shocked to hear this.
I was able to make a payment over the phone; however, it wouldn’t post to his account for 48 hours. Son of a bitch! Thankfully, the woman on the other end of the phone was really cool; either that or she really wanted me to shut up after my frustrated “I really don’t want my husband to die today!” She offered to call the clinic so he could be seen that night. I gratefully thanked this saint of a customer service agent, happy that he was going to be checked out by another doctor, and I hadn’t missed my class for what would have amounted to a lot of energy and no outcome.
I got to the urgent care clinic within ten minutes of hanging up from our latest phone call that evening, I checked in with reception and had a seat in the waiting room. I don’t think my ass was in that chair long enough for the support braces to register my weight before a nurse came and motioned for me to follow her. We walked along the corridor maze to the back corner of the building, stopping at an exam room that was the size of my refrigerator. Just inside the door, there were three nurses standing together murmuring over paperwork on a clipboard with grave intensity. Behind them in the corner, another nurse was talking to my husband who, while still looking like he’d been hit by a Mack truck, was fully-dressed and standing up under his own power. Chris introduced me as his wife and one of the nurses in the huddle turned around and said, “Go straight to the ER at Sentara; they’re expecting you. Do NOT stop anywhere, not your house, a gas station, or anywhere else. Go directly to the hospital.”
“Oh…okay,” I replied oh-so-eloquently. Her delivery caught me a little off-guard, causing mild confusion by the fact that no explanation was offered up as to the reason for, nor expediency of, our venture to the hospital. Nevertheless, I didn’t ask any questions figuring that since Chris was conscious, alert, and mobile he’d fill me in sooner or later.
As we walked down the hall and through the waiting room, Chris’s body language made it clear that he wanted desperately to get the hell out of that building. He had grabbed my hand as soon as we walked out of the exam room, practically dragging me through the waiting room. Once we got through the doors and hit pavement, my curiosity got the best of me. “What’s up, dude?”
He was barely able to get the words, “The doctor thinks I have leukemia,” before finally breaking down after what have must have been an eternity of holding it together in front of the clinic staff. Given that he still had a vice-grip on my hand, my first response was to squeeze his hand reassuringly and say matter-of-factly, “Well damn…okay, we can deal with this.”
Once we got in the car, he explained that the doctor had done a CBC (complete blood count) and the results were typical of that of a patient with leukemia. Regardless of the fact that he was hysterical, he tried to find some amount of humor by telling me the doctor followed up his grave diagnosis with, “I really hope I’m wrong and in three weeks you’ll come back for a follow-up and call me an asshole for scaring the crap out of you.”
He lit a cigarette, remarking that he might as well smoke now since it might be the last chance he’d have for a while (and he was definitely right on that). I tried to calm him down, which was really just my way of keeping me from falling apart too, by reminding him that the ER needed to conduct further testing to confirm or refute the possibility of leukemia. Until then, we just needed to try and chill out. I tried to be sensible about the whole thing, reminding him that it wasn’t a definite diagnosis but if he did in fact have leukemia, we would deal with it together as a team, just like we did everything else.
Before embarking on the “FFFFUUUCCCKKK!!! My husband has cancer!” freak-out, we needed more information and I was able to hold myself together relatively well by focusing on that. I didn’t want to worry anyone, or admit the possibly impending doom out loud, so I didn’t make any phone calls as I sat in the ER waiting room while he checked himself in. I did send a short text to a friend of mine who I taught English with at the middle school I worked at as a special education teacher. Paige and I had known each other for years, but weren’t extremely close and just happened to be teaching together out of sheer coincidence. In the three months we had been working together, we went out for drinks after work a few times a month and had gotten together for dinner once with our respectively nerdy husbands (who happened to hit it off…imagine that?). I don’t know why she was the one I chose to let know what was going on. I think I really needed to tell someone just in case his diagnosis was true so there was one person who wouldn’t be caught completely off-guard if/when we had to break the news. Paige was the most logical choice in this respect because at least I could pretend I was telling her as a “heads-up” in case I had to miss work the next day. Her reply was pretty short and to-the-point and I told her I’d get back to her once we knew more. Okay, someone on the outside knew…I could go back to keeping my shit together.
From the moment he broke the news on me in the clinic’s parking lot, I realized this – Chris was the one who had just been told that he may have a disease that could potentially kill him in a relatively short period of time, and dealing with your own mortality is a pretty heavy thing. I’ve been down that road and knew that the only thing I could do was to stay rational so that he could process the intense possibility of having a life-threatening illness in whatever way his brain needed to. In other words, he had dibs on flipping out at the moment so I had to be the cool, calm, collected one.
Once we got checked into the ER in what became the shortest admin-time I’ve ever experienced, the doctor ran another CBC, which confirmed the first doctor’s suspicions. After he dropped the leukemia bomb on us, we were given a little bit of time alone together for our new reality to sink in. Chris began crying and going on about all the time he had wasted in his life and what he should’ve done differently. I didn’t necessarily think this was the most productive thing for him to do but he obviously needed to get it out. I let him wallow for a little while before giving in to my inner voice and finally telling him to shut up – thinking like that was not going to help him battle this at all. I actually got kind of tough with him, which may seem like a bitchy thing to do to a dude who just found out he had cancer…and it kind of was.
“Stop! I’m not going to sit here and listen to you feel sorry for yourself about all the things you haven’t done with your life. If you need to use this as motivation for what you’re going to do in the future, that’s the best way to channel this energy. I will completely support you in any and every way to help you kick this cancer’s ass, BUT I can’t sit here and support or indulge your personal pity party. YES, you have cancer and YES, it sucks big time! You cannot change anything that you did, or didn’t do in the past, so this conversation is pointless. So what’s it gonna be, a solo pity party or tackling this head-on as Team Venture (his nickname for us)?”
He cracked a smile and gave me a HUGE hug. I didn’t feel like such a bitch after that for practically yelling at the sick dude to suck it up. He whipped his face, took a couple of deep breaths and grabbed his cell phone, dialing his best friend’s number. “Hey man, I got some bad news today. I’m at the hospital with Liz and the doctors say I have some kind of leukemia.” I could hear Wayne’s voice but tried not to interject, letting the two of them have their conversation. After Chris filled him in on the evening’s events, I heard Wayne reply, “Well, at least now you can smoke weed.” Both Chris and I burst out laughing – it was probably the best tension-breaker I’ve ever heard in my life…and it worked.
After hanging up, we decided to take a break from reality and turned on the TV. Appropriately, or not depending on how you want to look at it, an episode of House happened to be on. It dawned on me that maybe Chris would be upset by the similar plotline, but when I asked if he wanted to change the channel, he declined and I didn’t argue with the decision. For some reason, watching a random fictional character sit in a hospital bed dying of an unknown disease brought a sense of comfort into the room.
About an hour after breaking the news to us, the doctor came back in and explained the implications of his abnormal blood results, specifically the low hemoglobin (red blood cells) count, the high white cell count, and the low platelet (clotting factor) count. At this point, his immediate concern was the lack of a sufficient amount of platelets in his blood which could lead to internal bleeding. He announced that the quickest way to check for such bleeding was to perform a rectal exam. Whew, this was my out!
I told Chris I would give him some privacy while the doctor did the exam; help him preserve some of his dignity. He started to tell me it was okay to stay, but I hauled ass out of the room so quickly, he didn’t have the opportunity to get his entire thought out. In reality, my own freak-out was bubbling at the surface, and while I was doing a great job of concealing it, I really needed a few minutes alone to lose my cool persona.
I didn’t even make it through the doors of the ER before breaking down and crying hysterically. I managed to make it out of the exam room, and really hope that as Chris was rolling onto his side to get his initiation into the world of rectal-violation, he didn’t see the plastered smile on my face melt into a grimace. I was a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ER lobby door when the oldest couple in the entire Colonial Capital got between me and sweet freedom. Considering I was holding my breath in an effort to stave off hysteria and violent hiccups, I just about shoved the two of them out of the way. Surprisingly, the old man’s peripheral vision, processing speed, and reaction time were on-point, as he quickly ushered his Golden Years’ mistress to the side just as the door’s automatic sensor kicked in. I slipped by Mother and Father Time, took two giant leaps through the lobby, and was outside where I could fall apart without the fear of my claustrophobia kicking in too.
I got outside, lit a cigarette, and called my mommy – I don’t typically refer to her as this, but I was definitely having an “I need my mommy!” moment. By this point I was so far gone I was hyper-ventilating, which is not very productive when you’re trying to simultaneously suck out all the nicotine you possibly can with each drag AND initiate a phone call. Given the fact that my anxiety had a stronghold on my diaphragm making talking nearly impossible, when my mom picked up the phone she only knew it was me on the other end by the sobs she heard. She instantly went into mom-saves-the-day mode, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
“M, M, Momm(hiccup)mmyyyyyyyy…Chris…hospital…leukemia!” That’s about all she could decipher over the phone so she decided to come straight over. I managed to get out which hospital we were at and, given that the facility had just opened to replace the town’s very outdated community hospital, a landmark to help her find it.
Two hours later, we were walking circles around the parking lot; her trying to talk me through this and me chain-smoking. Being a very pragmatic woman, she was going through all the research hospitals in the mid-Atlantic region we could look into, the variety of ways we could cut our budget to accommodate the impending medical costs and loss of income, and a whole assortment of other practical issues that I would have to manage. On what was easily our eighth lap around the parking lot, I looked at her and asked, “Can I really do this?”
“Yes, of course you can. You are a strong woman and you love Chris very much,” she said as she gave me a comforting hug. It was at that point that my anxiety took a break and I was able to breathe again. As it turned out, she was right…but never again did my favorite wrap taste as good as it had before that day.