One year ago, my husband was finally diagnosed with a massive benign brain tumor. He’d had headaches for years, undergone sinus surgery, been taking massive doses of steroids and been through CT scans and eventually, finally an MRI that found the golf ball sized tumor wedged neatly between his brain stem and cerebellum. It was blocking the cerebral spine fluid from draining out of his head and causing crazy amounts of pressure to build up and press on his brain. Suddenly the pain and vomiting all made sense. Within 48 hours of the diagnosis, we’d been transported by ambulance to the nearest “big” hospital 3 hours away and the thing had been removed. Emergency brain surgery. Those 2 days before the surgery, he was doped up on pain killers and steroids to shrink the tumor. He was groggy and ornery and funny and kind. I’d crawl up into his hospital bed and just hold his hand. We watched the food channel and pined after Lemon and Basil Eggs over Foccacia and baby back ribs. He’d sleep and I’d watch his face.
I’ve never been a particularly religious person, but I found myself on my knees in the tiny hospital chapel the day before his surgery. It was dark and there was one wall covered in stained glass, lit from behind with artificial light. Someone was sleeping near the back of the room.
I closed my eyes and immediately had an image of Tom, Abby and I paddling a canoe on a beautiful still lake with snow-capped mountains in the background.Tom was laughing and splashing us with his paddle, he looked so healthy and happy. Tears streamed down my cheeks, but I had such a sense of peace and joy from the vision. I took it as a sign that all would be well with him. And, I’m happy to say that it was (and is).
There was a serious heatwave happening while we were in Seattle for Tom’s surgery and subsequent recovery. In the middle of his 10 hour surgery, the air conditioning in the hospital went on the fritz and somehow made the fire alarms start going off. We sat waiting as they evacuated parts of the hospital and the firetrucks started arriving. We didn’t know there wasn’t a fire for what felt like hours (it was probably only a few minutes). It was 100 degrees outside, my husband’s brain was open in an operating room somewhere and the fire alarms were blaring. I just started to laugh and laugh and laugh. What else do you do? The release of feelings and sound out of my gut was like something you’ve seen in the movies but always thought was melodramatic. No, those movies have it all right. I laughed and the tears started. I stood up and walked over to a wall and leaned against it. I laughed and cried and slid down the wall until my butt hit the ground. I had a sort of out of body experience where I was in my feelings, but also could see myself sliding down this wall and thinking, “geez Carrie, that’s sort of over the top there!”. Then I laughed at the fact that I was being critical of how I was reacting to the whole thing.
Eventually, the alarms stopped, we were assured that nothing had changed during the surgery and everything was okay. We were the last people in the waiting room. It had emptied out throughout the day. It was quiet. As soon as Tom’s neurosurgeon walked into the room, I realized that I’d been holding my breath. He had a happy smile on his face and before he could even tell us that things had gone very well, I was up and out of my chair running toward him with a hug. He managed to spit out the words “he’s fine” before I grabbed the man up in my hands and hugged him so hard. It wasn’t until I was letting go of him that I realized that I’d basically been grabbing his butt in my fervor of a hug. Yeah, I grabbed the neurosurgeon’s ass.
30 minutes later, I walked into the critical care unit to see Tom. I kept trying to steady myself for the possibility that he might not be the same man. That he might not recognize me. That he might be an asshole after brain surgery. That he might eat through a straw for the rest of his life (and mine). But when I walked through that door and made eye contact with my husband, my best friend, the father of my child, my love, I knew that he was okay. His head was all wrapped up in gauze, he had tubes coming out of every part of him, his eyes looked a little glazed, but he made eye contact with me and said, “Carrie? Carrie? I need you. I love you. I need you.” My eyes shot heavenward and I said simply, “Thank you.” I’m not sure who or what I was thanking, but in that moment, I felt complete relief, protection, love. I felt grace.
The epilogue to all of this is that it is the one year anniversary of Tom’s surgery today. The tumor is completely gone. He’s healed, he’s healthy, he can mow the lawn again (thank god!). Aside from really needing to avoid downhill skiing or other potential hazards for hitting the soft spot on his head, he leads a completely normal and vibrant life. He’s in better health than he has been for years.
These last few weeks leading up to the “tumorversary,” I’ve been giddy, happy, thankful and full of joy. I’d been warned that anniversaries for this sort of thing can drudge up all kinds of old memories, flashbacks, depression. I’m so pleased that this hasn’t been the case. If anything, I’m over the moon, more fully in love with this life, with this man than at any other time in my life.
These lives we live are so fragile. So ephemeral. I had a(nother) fall from innocence last summer. A time to reflect upon the goodness, the sweetness in my life. Despite the grief and pain and fear, I have to accept the experience as a gift. I have the joy of holding this gratitude in my heart, the responsibility of living every single second to it’s fullest, and the wisdom, I hope, to keep it all fresh enough so I don’t forget.