Wheels, beeps, clipboards, fluorescent lights: these are what decorate the surgery wings of America, or at least, the surgery wing my mom was wheeled into as she prepared to get a double mastectomy to rid her body of cancer.
I had never been in a surgery wing before, not that I remember anyway, and I wasn’t a fan. Not because the air was sterile or the walls were monochrome or the fact that everyone around me was in some form or another ill. What bothered me the most was the nonchalant confidence of the doctors and nurses floating around our tiny cell. This was their world, their lingo, their everyday; they might have been writing a grocery list on that clipboard, they were so relaxed.
It made me wonder if that’s how people felt walking into a church for the first time, if watching doctors speak to each other was the same as hearing Christians toss around phrases like “body of Christ” and “redemption for sins” when all you wanted to know was why someone just handed you a piece of freeze-dried bread and a miniature cup of grape juice. I felt helplessly “other”, and I hated it.
The hours spent waiting for her to be wheeled into the operating room passed slowly. We scrolled through picture after picture on our phone, laughing often and loudly. We called my brother, his voice straining with the ache of wishing he was with us. A few hours in, they took her away for a short procedure that involved shooting iodine through her lymph nodes so the surgeon could see if the cancer had spread. It’s a horrific, excruciating procedure – mostly because of where they have to put the injections. When she returned and described the shots, my sister screamed (really screamed), and I placed my head on my lap, lightheaded from imagining what that must have felt like.
“Girls,” said my mom between laughs, “if you ever have to go through this, just remember, if I can do it, so can you.” My mother, ever the encourager. I hoped she was right.
As awful as the pre-surgery waiting was, the minutes that crawled by in the family waiting room were worse.
And yet, those were good minutes, too. A friend stopped by with a bag full of cookies, chips, and fruit snacks – a welcome gift as we suddenly realized we hadn’t eaten in, well, a long time. Someone else brought us coffee. Another walked with us across the street to a row of fast food restaurants and watched us inhale three sub sandwiches. We were never alone, and that made all the difference.
About halfway into the surgery, her first surgeon strolled into the waiting room. Faded tattoos running up and down his weathered arm, he looked like he could belong in a 90’s biker gang. Turning away from our tense stares, he said as casually as if asking if we would like fries with that, “First half went well. No cancer in the lymph nodes.”
“So–” began my dad.
“Cancer hasn’t spread.”
We all looked at each other and smiled, letting out breaths we didn’t know we were holding. The cancer hasn’t spread. The only thing that would have made that moment better was if it never had to happen at all.
Six hours after they had taken her away, they called us back to the surgery wing, back to the wheels and beds and beeping screens. Only this time, we turned right instead of left, towards the area they put people just waking up.
A wide-eyed nurse looked at us in surprise, as if we weren’t supposed to come yet. “You here for Ginger?” she asked. We nodded, and she pulled back a curtain, showing us a limp, grey version of my mother. My stomach turned a little; I’d seen death, but never death fabricated – someone who looked dead but wasn’t.
I broke from my reverie just in time to see my dad rush to her side and say, “No cancer in the lymph nodes. It hasn’t spread.” Slowly, her face showed comprehension, then relief in the form of two fat tears streaming down her cheeks. Those tears felt like a slap in the face, a not-so-gentle reminder that I wasn’t the only one who was scared today. This was, after all, her body, and the news she just received meant the difference between being hacked into once or several times. Actually, for all she knew, it meant the difference between living one more year or 30.
“Um, do you mind if I go eat something? I’ve been fasting all day,” said a small voice behind us. We jumped and turned around. It was the nurse. “Of course,” we all said, and I remembered it was Ramadan. Maybe she was a Muslim.
I never got the chance to ask, because three minutes later she returned and immediately got to work lifting my mom into a sitting position. We were shocked, breaking into a chorus of: “Can she do that? I think she needs rest. She’s not ready to sit up yet!” She tried to reassure us, “Oh no, she’s fine. She’ll be ready to go in no time,” but her nonchalance just made me bristle.
As she lifted my mom into a sitting position, I saw four plastic tubes fall by her side. A bell started to ring in my head, something was supposed to happen here, but it was all going so fas – “Oh! You’re supposed to train us! You’re supposed to train us to empty these tubes.”
The doctors had inserted four plastic drains in her wounds that would collect excess fluid in the weeks after surgery. As her primary nurses at home, my dad and I were in charge of stripping the tubes, emptying the drains, and recording the levels twice a day. In hindsight, it almost sounds like a bad joke: a pastor and a writer pretend to be medically competent for two weeks, guess who turns the experience into a metaphor first?
“It’s easy!” she said, “Look.” Her hands held onto the end that stayed close to her body while pulling at the other end so all the fluid fell into the drain at once. “The trick is to keep this part from tugging at her skin.” Tugging at her skin?! “You guys will get it no problem.” My head started to spin. Had I gotten it? Had any of us gotten it? I prayed we did, because now the nurse was pulling out her change of clothes. “Just put these back on and she’s ready to go! I’ll go get a wheelchair.” Dutifully, we obeyed.
That’s when we hit our low point. Trying to lift her arm into a sleeve, my dad accidentally pulled at her stitches, causing my tough, strong-willed mother to cry out in gut-wrenching pain, much in the way a child cries out when they fall and scrape their knee. At the sound of her cry, he dropped her arm and fled, and I resumed his place. Plastering a smile to my face, I picked up her arm, “You’re doing great, Mom,” while my sister stood behind her and cried. “Ready? We’re just gonna put your right arm through here…” but as soon as my sister and I switched places, my tears fell too.
Remembering my other parent was still missing, I looked around and found him in a seat about ten feet away: my dad, the one who never faltered, the steady, everything’s-always-fine one was sitting in a corner, cradling his head in his hands. “You okay?” I asked, realizing that the times in my life I’d asked my dad if he was okay were very few. He nodded, “Just got dizzy for a second.” My dad is dizzy. This wasn’t right.
No, none of it was right, nothing about it had ever been right, but it was happening. When the nurse returned, we somehow (honestly, I don’t remember how) got her in a wheelchair. The four of us wheeled her through the hospital, past the beeps and machines and rows of people awaiting their cures. As much as we felt like we were being kicked out, we weren’t exactly sad to leave.
Saying goodbye to our intrepid nurse, we quietly got into the car. Dad at the wheel, Mom and I in the backseat, and my sister following, our bewildered, wearied caravan inched away from the sliding glass doors of the hospital, all of us wondering (and not really wanting to know) what was going to happen next.