A Slight Touch of Fairly Bad News

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Easter Monday, April 6th, 2015 – 6:32 pm

I knew it wasn’t good that he hadn’t texted me. I was proctoring a state test in our school, and had told him that I would be incommunicado around the time he was getting the results, but I did expect to see a message from him once I fired back up my phone.  Nothing.

I called him on my lunch break. “Well?” I asked.  “So, it looks like I do have a bit of cancer, alright,” he said.  A bit?  I think we’ve joked about that before; you can’t be slightly pregnant, somewhat dead, or have a bit of cancer.  These things are all in definites. So, you’re saying you have cancer, is that it? Jesuuuuuuus!  I don’t say that.  I think it.  “Oh, okay. It’s just a bit. We’ll manage it”. That’s what I say.

He tells me he has to go for a full body scan in a day or two to rule out the chance of cancer being present elsewhere.  Elsewhere? Like in Kuala Lumpur? Or like someplace else in your body?  Because, that would be ridiculous.  I’m holding it together on the understanding that it’s just a bit of cancer on your prostate, but if there’s cancer anyplace else, it had better not be in you. No sir.  He sounds down.  I try to sound caring, but upbeat; I don’t think the mix is good. I suspect I sound glib. I tell him I love him, we’ll talk when we’re both home, and we hang up.

I’m sitting in the tiny break room at school.  There’s another staff member in there, but her back is towards me (on a call, I think). She doesn’t know what’s just happened.  I try to process what has just happened.  My husband, the man who has been my best friend and love for 29 years, has just told me he has cancer (albeit, just a bit).  What do I do now? Seriously, what do I do now? I haven’t had to do this before. I don’t know the right way to do it. Wailing? Total disintegration? Calm denial?  Middle ground – practical minimization – that feels like the way to go.    The three words, “Tom Has Cancer” form in my brain and float out, like a banner, into our reality. I start to cry. But it’s just a bit of cancer, I counter. It’s caught early. He’ll be fine.

Life has shifted, but I’m still on the couch in the break room. The day must proceed. Dry eyes. Back to work.

As I pass her in the hallway, my principal spots my watery eyes and asks me if I am OK. I think to smile and say yes, but instead I say, “Tom has cancer.” I was going to say it and continue on my way, but I think she realizes, more fully than I do in that moment, how seriously not good that is.  She pulls me into her office and gives me a very sincere hug, and more tears come out.  I’ll probably not go straight to the classroom then.  I’ll go sit in my car for a bit and pull myself together.

Sitting in the car, I email my brother, brother in law, sister and Dad (I’ll ask Tom if he wants to tell his mother and sisters himself).  I try to be matter of a fact.  I ask my brother in law, who’s a doctor, what his opinion is.  My sister calls me immediately and we both wonder what the fuck has just happened?  How could this have just happened? What a ridiculously stupid turn of events. Not supposed to happen at all.  Not to my handsome, fit, happy, healthy man.  Total, bloody, rubbish.

After the phone call I sit and wonder some more.  I try to pull myself back to the minimization thing. He’ll be fine.  It’s early days. We know someone who’s been through this and he’s fine.  It’ll be fine.  Then those three words come back into my head, and it’s crying again.  How will we tell our children?  Tom’s on a 24 hour shift at the fire station. I pick up my phone and text him again.  “It’ll all be fine.  Don’t worry a bit,” I type.  “Sure,” he replies.  Is that, “Sure, yes, I know it will be,” or is that,”Sure, it’s not fine at all, but you go on ahead thinking that”?  In case he’s reading my attempts at support and stoicism as a lack of emotional response on my part, I text him back that I’m sitting in the car crying, but am pretty certain that I’m being over dramatic, and it will all be grand.  And, that I love him.  Thirty seconds later my phone screen lights up. “I’m not fucking dying,” he responds.  “I might murder you over the course”, I text back – he does have a history of being an appalling patient.

OK, pulled together, and back in my classroom.  My teacher’s aide, Saoni, tells me she has a stomach ache, and I tell her that Tom has cancer.  I realize I’m being shitty. “Oh,” she says, “will he be okay?”  “He will.”  We get through the afternoon remarkably well.  Young children are wonderfully demanding of one’s full attention, and soon the school day is over.  While straightening up the classroom, after dismissal, my brother calls me from Dublin.  He’s full of optimism, and how great it is that we live in America, and Tom has excellent health insurance, and has been getting comprehensive annual check ups at his fire department.  Maybe, even, that living in America and working at Winter Park Fire Department has actually saved his life.  My brother in law emails me that he is going to do some research into it.  My dad, in Cork, is unreachable. He’s at the removal of a dear family friend who has just died, too young, from cancer.

Saoni, who has been manning the car line, returns to the classroom and grabs my arms gently, and turns me so that we are face to face.  Her eyes are full of tears.  “It just hit me,” she says.  “I just realized how I would feel if I had just heard that my husband had cancer.”  Shit. Maybe I should have been crying more? I envy Saoni her pure reaction.  I’m jealous of it.  But I realize that the purity of her response comes from the luxury of operating in the hypothetical. The reality is more complicated, more messy. I can’t fully feel the weight of it, or travel down the path of it, because I’m too busy denying it, rationalizing it, organizing it. Tom is the one who has to deal with the physicality of the diagnosis.  I am going to be strong for him. To fall apart would be selfish, melodramatic, complicit.  Looking at Saoni’s sad face though, it feels OK to indulge myself in a bit more crying.

I come home and call Tom from the driveway of our house.  It’s okay to tell the kids, he says. I get two of the three, the 11 and 14 year old, who are home, to sit with me.  No big deal.  Dad has a bit of cancer. He’ll be fine. He’d really want you to clean your bedrooms right now, though. They moan a little, and I’m not sure about which part. I think I’ve done well with making it all seem like it’s no big thing.

Our 16 year old comes home from work (super child – full schedule of Advanced Placement classes, and a job).  She already knows.  Tom told her when she’d called him earlier.  She’s teary eyed, wounded.  We hug for a long time, reassure each other that it will be fine, and I go into my room and write this.  That’s how I deal with it in this moment.  I write it down.  Hopefully, soon, we’ll see the bright side of all this, but for now it doesn’t feel good at all.  Seven hours in.

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