“The First Week of After”

by Margaret Malone

Photo taken by Racineur in Montréal, Québec

Photo taken by Racineur in Montréal, Québec

We wake up early, you and I, and go to the hospital. Anxious, empty stomachs. In the waiting room, we are the only ones. There is a television in the corner, volume low, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is on. Changed into his sweater, Mr. Rogers shows us how a trumpet is made, takes us inside a manufacturing plant, bending the brass, fitting finger pads; then an employee dressed in a V-neck velour shirt gives a quick performance at Mr. Rogers’s request before packing the finished trumpet up and shipping it off. We are lulled for a time. And then your name is called. We pretend our stomachs do not drop.

We are kind to the attendant.

You change into a blue hospital gown and are asked to leave your watch, your wallet, your ring, anything metal in the provided locker. We enter the MRI bay. I sit in a chair at a far wall and watch. You are told to lie on the flat, slim bed that slides in and out of the open mouth like a tongue. The technician tells you to hold still because moving will make the images unusable.

You are calm being fed into the massive machine, calm as it clicks and grunts around your head at abrasive, industrial volume. Sitting across the room from you and the chugging, whirling magnets, I will myself to think good thoughts.

* * *

Nothing has happened. Nothing is the same. Relieved it is over now, we go about our day. We wait and are not waiting, as if the imaging itself was what we feared, not what comes after.

Now we are eating dinner, watching a movie, trying to relax, remembering to forget. I go to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine and check the answering machine out of habit. I cannot say why I check it then. Why not wait until the movie is over? Why not wait until morning? There is a new message. A doctor’s voice saying please call, leaving all his numbers, even his home phone. And still, even now in this last moment of before, I do not believe the worst. I tell myself it could be nothing.

You do not want to call, but now that we know there is something to know, not calling is not an option. I look at the wineglass. I do not know where else to look. You dial, and even though it is late now, nine o’clock on a Monday night, horribly, someone answers. Ear to receiver, you nod your head. I watch your hand starting to shake as you write down information that will sit on a small square of paper for months, impossible to get rid of. I stand two feet away and watch your lips. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me…. Right here, midsentence, your eyes move to mine, and in this instant I have the feeling that I have it all wrong, that I am misreading the shaking, the tone—that it is not the worst thing and that I just slipped for a moment into that parallel universe that floats next to ours, the one we all peek into when somebody is an hour late driving home in heavy rain, the one most of us back out of, returning to the familiar world where the unthinkable happens to other people. And then the frozen moment passes, and you finish your sentence. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me, a tumor-like growth? The words have force enough to move matter; they push me two steps back.

It is a simple moment. A tumor-like growth.

* * *

It is two days past Christmas; much of the staff is away, and this doctor’s voice is not even your doctor, he is just filling in, assigned to call, covering for a colleague. The doctor tells us we will have to wait to hear from someone else, wait until we are contacted to schedule an appointment with neurologyneurosurgery or neuro-oncology. The strange new words, I imagine, will not be awkward for long.

Here you are: the same person I have loved for so long. Same thick, framed glasses, brown hair, blue eyes. Same sweet and devilish face, oval like an egg. And now, a moment later, you are different. You are crying, and I hold you, trying to shield your body with mine, trying not to cry because I cannot quite understand what is happening. I do not want to go to the dark places with you. You are now living the thing you feared most, this worst thing, a tumor-like growth, whispered in your ear, and maybe in a sick way you were ready for the news, expectant without realizing.

Somehow I am able to find momentary pockets of clean air where I will not drown, where I am able to believe there is nothing really wrong. We are in our living room still decorated for the holidays, fir tree in the corner with its little colored lights, a few presents, now unwrapped, still under the tree. Then the reality finds me, smacks me, screams the truth in my ear. Over and over again I disconnect, then reconnect, breathing the truth in and out like a lung, partly convinced that this is not happening, except there you are, acting like it is.

We crumble on the couch, knotted up into one body, and reach for the wine. My immediate, primal instinct is to have sex with you, right now, right away: there’s a desperate urgency to be pregnant with your child. But you are crying in my arms. You have just been told tumor-like growth, and the words would still be waiting for us as soon as the sex was over.

Instead we talk about what scares us and how this isn’t supposed to be happening, how we are just getting started, how you don’t want to die and I don’t want to be here, alone in this life without you. And not knowing what else to do, we go to bed. We sleep a little. But really, we don’t sleep at all. Lying next to you, I wait for that moment I’ve felt before inside a dark, uncomfortable dream when everything is out of control, no way out, and all of sudden it is obvious (a miracle!) that I am dreaming: I must simply wake up and it will all be over. This is the moment I wait for.

* * *

In the morning you e-mail your parents because you cannot bring yourself to call. You don’t want to say the words, and I wouldn’t want to either. Nothing yet from any doctor, but friends start calling and leaving messages, wanting to know if we have the MRI results, if we have heard, how we are. We ignore them or call back and flat-out lie: no word yet. Without anybody noticing, we begin to separate ourselves.

You go to work because calling in sick would require an explanation you are not ready to give, because saying it out loud might puncture the new protective membrane we’ve built, might make everything more real.

There is nothing else to do: the waiting is present, whether we sit with it or not.

I have this week off work, but now I wish I didn’t. Terrible images I cannot control loop through my mind: nobody asleep next to me in bed, a friend in a suit standing at a podium, a eulogy about your potential. I shake my head to get rid of them. It works. I will do this a lot. Also, I begin to have a cavernous, unnamable desire without aim. I want. And want. I want to be in a crowd. I want to be alone. I want something good and simple to fill me up. I want everything to go back to the way it was before. I want a healthy husband. I want a happy life. I simply want.

I begin to feel horribly sick, then sicker as the day moves on; my throat is raw, and I cannot swallow. I ignore it because you have been diagnosed with a tumor-like growth, and here I am, complaining because my throat hurts.

I drive to the store, where I see strangers pushing giant metal carts. In the lot, I park as far from the entrance as possible. Every moment I am here, I am not home alone without you. I try to think of something to buy, some reason I need to be here: a focus. I wander through school supplies and kitchenware and lighting until I realize a new kitchen trash can is what we need. I work with deliberation. I pull down a white plastic bin the size and shape of R2-D2 that says PUSH where his face should be. I stare at R2-D2 for a long time, trying to look like I am considering trash cans, trying to ignore the rising burn in my belly from what is really happening and the nothing I can do about it.

How lucky we were when we were rushed and hurried, longing for time to slow down. Standing here in the trash can aisle, having all the time in the world, is the loneliest place I have ever been. I buy R2-D2, even though I know he is all wrong. He will never work. I take him home. I take off his PUSH head because it will not fit under the sink.

The day is heavy and insensible, and finally you come home. You are raw and alive and different, and you are here with me, right now, in this moment. You call your parents and tell them what you could not say out loud earlier. You pace back and forth in the still-decorated living room and you say the words without breaking down until after you hang up.

Dinner is rice and veggies and more red wine. We eat at the coffee table, candles between us. You tell me your day, and I tell you mine. Already, in just twenty-four hours, our humble rented house with its small bedroom and door-less closets, its bathroom right off the kitchen, its young birch trees in the front and aging giant alder in the back, is our sanctuary. Somehow we are safe here.

* * *

Again, in the morning, you leave and go to work. I take R2-D2 and his PUSH head and return him to the big store. I buy a small, ugly, plastic white trash can, pointless, and I know I will not keep it. It is just a reason to be here today and to come back and return it tomorrow. I won’t even take it out of the trunk.

I drive four blocks from the store and call you at work on my cell phone to ask permission to do what I am about to do. I park in front of our good friends’ house, Jack and Louise, nervous, relieved, sickened. This will be the first time I tell the truth to anyone in person. I sit on the very edge of their living room chair, clutch my purse to my lap like a disgusted visiting grandmother. I do not take my coat off, do not cry or feel sad, just separate. I say the words, brain tumor, still unconvinced that it’s not exaggerating, still thinking I am overreacting. We don’t really know; it’s just a tumor-like growth. It could be a kidney bean or a wad of gum.

I am not a smoker, but sometimes Jack is, so I ask for a cigarette and the three of us sit in mismatched chairs on his run-down porch, and I smoke, the rush to my head, and wonder how I am supposed to be acting, how my friends are supposed to be reacting. A still life, the three of us. Sitting on a house porch. Nobody talking. Smoking.

My throat is now painfully worse. I cannot swallow. I go to urgent care, and by coincidence the person who treats me is your nurse practioner. In the safety of the windowless examination room she says the strep test was negative. She leans on the counter with the glass jars of swabs and tongue depressors.

She looks at me and says, “I just received his paperwork this morning.”

She is very kind and sad for us, and it makes me feel less alone until she says, “He is just so young,” and I understand this means she knows something, that it is bad, knows that you are going to die.

When you come home from work later, I don’t tell you. From here on out I do not share everything. I keep some of the worst things to myself.

When you come home I hug you, kiss you, ask if you’ve heard anything, which I know you have not. I picture your paperwork moving from one desk to another, hands moving paper to other hands. The phone waits patiently on the built-in shelf in the living room, next to the lamp and the answering machine. The only message is from my mom, who says, when I call back, her voice cracking, “I just don’t want anything bad to happen to Brian.”

Our nighttime ritual begins to cement: dinner at the coffee table, wine and candles. Sometimes TV, sometimes not. We go to bed. The antianxiety pills prescribed to you yesterday help you fall asleep but they don’t help you stay asleep. You tell me you wake up again and again throughout the night, thinking, tumor-like growth.

We wait for the call.

* * *

We get up, have coffee. You go to work. I wash the dishes, walk the dog and begin to understand that if I disappear into each small moment, each action, if I become the action itself, I will not have to think about what is happening. I won’t think about you alone at work, struggling with the impossible, about you fighting to stay positive, then being dragged down into the hopeless, lonely, black well of fear, a cycle that repeats moment after moment. While all I can do is shop for a trash can.

Back to the big store. I return the small, ugly, plastic white trash can that never left my trunk and repurchase R2-D2 and bring him home again. I also buy his PUSH head, even though I know it will not fit under the sink and I will have to find a place to store it.

I do what I can to get through each day, but it is only to get to the evening, when you are by my side. It is a miracle every night you come home from work and we are together again. We eat dinner and drink wine and talk in a language it seems nobody else can understand. It is like falling in love backward. Like traveling in reverse through our shared life until we arrive at the platform of the first moment we understood what was happening: foolish, unstoppable, bodies falling through space, never wanting it to end.

Together in the safety of our little house, still decorated for Christmas, we talk about the worst-case scenario. There is only one. It is always on the tips of our tongues. I notice that the greater the depth of emotion we reach, no matter how bleak, the more we coalesce: two trees with one trunk, shared roots. Again and again I say to you, “Miracles happen every day.” I am convinced that you will survive if I can keep the bad thoughts away.

Still there is no word. The phone just sits there.

* * *

It is Friday, New Year’s Eve, one hundred years since Monday morning’s MRI, and at last you have the day off. Even so, in the morning I make myself leave to have my hair cut, an appointment left over from the life of before. For whatever inexplicable reason, though only a handful of people know, I tell Lucy, my hairdresser. Telling her feels like betraying you; still, I do not stop myself. I wait for her reaction, her opinion of our circumstance, approval of our fear. I don’t know why I care. Yet Lucy tells me it’s going to be okay. She says it’s no big deal. She’s had two clients with brain tumors. Removed, no problem.

This is all that is said, but it is a welcome startle: I am overreacting. It is almost nothing, almost common, almost arthritis or a broken bone. It is nothing! I drive home brimming with a blind, inexplicable sense of hope. I suddenly feel sure that everything is going to be fine. I go home and tell you, “Everything is going to be fine.”

This becomes our mantra. We say it again and again. You say it to me; I say it to you. With repetition, it evolves. With repetition it adapts, like fuck, with its myriad meanings. For a while it means You’re going to survive and Yes, there will be surgery, but it’s going to go well. It means, There’s no reason to be afraid. It means, Can we talk about something else for while? It means, I don’t want to talk about it. It means, Please stop talking about it. It means, Shut up! Sometimes it means, This is not fine, nothing is ever going to be fine again, but let’s pretend it will. And then there are times when it means, We’re fucked and you’re going to die and I’m going to be widowed and childless at the age of thirty. And then sometimes we say it so much, it means nothing at all. Just words; they are powerless. Can they change what is set in motion? Can they guard against picturing your funeral? Will they keep me company if you are gone?

And remarkably, at times these words simply mean that everything is going to be fine. Everything. Is. Fine.

The feeling of hope I gain from Lucy amazingly stays with me, a strange pocket of faith that you will survive, no matter what we are told, no matter what the diagnosis. I sense there is something big and unnamable we are gaining, something else we will never get back. It is an endless cycle: every momentary feeling of hope, pain, grief and joy lives and then dies, again and again. All of this too much to understand, but I feel the truth of it beating under my skin, hurting just enough to let me know it’s there.

As we always do, we name the year to come. During most of December we’d planned to call 2005 The Year of Travel and Good Fortune, hoping for a coming year filled with an abundance of both. But after the phone call four days before the year turns, we decide to not tempt fate, to not risk wasting a perfectly good wish on travel, and at the last moment we rename 2005 The Year of Good Fortune.

We spend the last night of the year in front of the fire, drinking more wine. We each make a list of any traits we want to let go of with the exit of the year, fear high on both our lists. We read them to each other and then burn them in our fireplace; it’s a relief to watch the flames overtake the paper. Here is something that we have done. Here is something we can control. We lie on the couch wrapped around each other, touch being the only safe way of knowing for certain that we are together, that you are still here. We fall asleep around ten and wake up when the kids down the street light off fireworks at midnight.

* * *

Again, today, of course, we will hear nothing. It is New Year’s Day, another holiday, and we do not expect anything until next week. The waiting is becoming a strange kind of comfortable. The waiting now familiar, what we know. If nobody ever calls, maybe everything is fine. Maybe everything can go back to the way it was before.

We try not to leave the house except for necessary supplies: people food, pet food and wine. Every small thing is a reminder of the kind of normal that is disappearing. Our dog laying his heavy head on your slippered feet. The bare-treed backyard through our kitchen window at sunrise. Our neighbor’s old truck engine cut, back door slammed, home from another day of work. These are the moments when the worst thoughts come, moments when I am alone and disarmed.

In an attempt to avoid complete isolation, we invite Jack and Louise and their two-year-old daughter, Georgia, over. You are nervous about having anyone in the house, even our good friends, afraid you might break down at any moment, lose control and have to ask them to leave. To avoid this, Jack and I take Georgia to the store to buy groceries for dinner. Louise stays with you to give you a reiki treatment, your first. You are now willing to open yourself to anything that might help.

At the market I push a kid-friendly shopping cart shaped like a car, with Georgia the driver, through bright aisles of food. I don’t want to see anybody I know. I do not wish to be spoken to. I must not appear friendly or kind. More than anything, though, I am concerned that Jack and Georgia and I will be mistaken for a family. One more thing I cannot control. I give off a hostile vibe in the produce department when Jack gets Georgia a second apple juice sample. I cannot allow shopping for food with a friend to be easy, enjoyable. I do this to honor you, to bare my allegiance. Everything must now be prioritized, and a tumor-like growth is never bumped to second place.

When we come home from the store you look different, like it went poorly, like you feel horrible. It is obvious: I abandoned you. And then you tell me I am wrong, that you feel good. You feel empowered. You tell me Louise taught you to imagine a snake that can sink its fangs into the tumor and kill it.

Seeing you so open and alive, so driven to conquer, I have the sudden, overwhelming sense that we will fight and get through this. And we will write it all down, everything that happens, everything we feel, so someone else can read it and know they are not the first. Not the first to be afraid or to imagine the worst, to hope for a miracle, to drink too much or blame himself, to blame God or find God, to blame the environment, blame stress, blame working too hard or not hard enough, to conclude that this really is the worst thing and that even if it is, to conclude further that it does not have to be the last thing. We will tell them, “You are not alone.”

* * *

Today is a flawless, blue-sky, cold winter day.

Today, six days since the phone call, is the first day I realize this is not happening to me. As foreign and unimaginable as this experience is, it has taken me until today to truly understand that this is not happening to me. I am here, in the middle of it, overwhelmed with grief and determination, so lost in the possibility of our life changing into a life I do not know, or worse, a life without you, that it takes me all this time to understand: this is not happening to me.

It is happening to you.

Understanding this makes everything more difficult, intricate and beyond my control. You are the person who has to find your own way through. You are the person with the brain tumor. You and I, we are not having the same experience, and I will never know what this is like for you.

I look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and see the cavernous, deep-purple half-moons beneath my eyes, the void and sallowness of my skin. I fool myself into thinking that I am handling this well. That I can pull this off without falling apart.

If you ask, I might say, this experience is a gift I can use to better understand everything around me. I might say, maybe I am on a journey to learn about me, you, marriage, us. If you ask, I will probably not say that I am just pretending, or that I can’t carry this weight. I will probably not say that I want to understand the experience but not live it, that I want the meaning, not the lesson. And if you ever ask me, today or twenty years from now, would I give it all back if I could, then I might tell you the truth: we are losing as much as we gain, and it is not a fair trade.


margaret malone 240Margaret Malone’s writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, Swink, The Wordstock Ten Anthology, latimes.com and elsewhere. She is co-host of the impossible to describe SHARE (www.sharepdx.blogspot.com) and in January 2010 she was awarded an Oregon Literary Fellowship in Fiction. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is finishing up a collection of stories. This essay is an excerpt from a memoir she is writing with her husband, “The Year of Travel & Good Fortune.” Her website is www.margaretmalone.com and she can be contacted by readers through her email, themargaretmalone [at] gmail [dot] com.

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