Barely a week has passed since a loved one was admitted into the hospital, since that first X-ray showed “something” which needed to be looked at more closely with more scans and tests. It hasn’t been an entire week since we first heard the word: cancer.
It seemed so easy for the doctors and nurses and technicians and janitors to punctuate their sentences with cancer. That first night, the ER doctor who introduced the vile word into our vocabulary, used it so frequently that I wondered if he had a nervous tic. Maybe my mother-in-law didn’t really have cancer? Maybe this doctor told all of his patients that they had cancer and that is why he worked the night shift? I reasoned the nurses had the same affliction.
I remained at her side that first night into the uncertain morning of the next day until my husband could take over and I could go home to our children. Sleep eluded me as fear stalked my every movement. I took a shower.
As I was groping in my underwear drawer, my hand pushed through the impractical to the very back. I grabbed a fist full of incredibly large, too-thin, stretched-out lycra in dull tones of beige I still keep for those monthly times of granny panty necessity. I put them on and relished the comforting feel of their gaping coverage. The granny panties climbed a solid two inches out of the waistband of my jeans, so I threw on an extra long sweater.
I don’t know if it was the granny panties or the long, cozy sweater and jeans, but it helped that confusing second day of an unsynchronized doctors’ dance on a day when no one seemed to know the choreography nor even speak the same language. My head spun and my heart plummeted each time a doctor confidently spoke of cancer only to have the next doctor backpedal.
Each night I collapse into my bed, more confused than the last. I try to drown out the uncertainty, the seemingly unanswerable questions. Sleep continues to elude me.
There are a lot of words I need to say, some words I should never say, and even more words I find tripping out of my mouth before I have time to cautiously consider them. After the truth gets all tripped up and jumbled in my mouth, I tell lies to soothe her, and I am not a liar. But it is easier to hold her hand, open my mouth and paint a picture of a future we both know becomes an impossibility with each passing day. I speak of her young grandchildren’s weddings and the birth of her great-grandchildren years after those far-from-now weddings. I speak of the spring, the summer, next fall and Christmas as if those too are possibilities, when the reality is that they slip further out of our grasp with each day.
I focus on the small comforts of a new routine, the warm, encompassing, wrap-around-squeeze of my hideous drawers, the softness of jeans worn perhaps too many consecutive days, the contradictory security of feeling lost in a over-sized sweatshirt or sweater.
I learn to apply make-up at stoplights along my 15 minute hospital commute each day, several times a day. I appreciate the simple beauty of a couple of swipes of concealer, mascara and lipgloss. If it cannot be applied in those 15 minutes, it is not worth wearing at the hospital. I question if it is worth wearing at all. I carry a toothbrush and hairbrush in my purse along with tissues, gum, a notebook and a bottle of No-Doz.
I discover intimate things about her each day, which I treasure: the softness of her hair on my cheek, how she likes the impossibly thin skin on her hand rubbed in little swirling circles, how vulnerably beautiful nudity can be, the raw depth of her wounds, that pain and fear change her voice to a child’s. I will remember these things years from now, these little gifts of new discovery.
Sometimes the world is scary. Sometimes there are no answers to your questions even though you continue to search endlessly for them. Sometimes you run as fast as you can to the light, but you cannot escape the darkness. Sometimes the only thing you can do is wear granny panties and hold her hand.