THE THINGS YOU NEVER HOPE YOU HAVE TO SEE
To say that the last few weeks have been tough… is kind of an understatement.
It’s funny, I actually had a post in the queue about what started all of this ready to post, all I had to do was click the publish button, when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t click the button. I wish I could say that, as a writer, I’m able to step back and look past what I’m feeling and just do my job, but I couldn’t. Throughout all of this I’ve had a lot of time to sit down and read, wait, let me rephrase that, throughout all of this I’ve had a lot of time where I’ve had the choice of staring at the ceiling and crying and thinking of things that made my spirit crumble to ash and blow away in the wind or forcing myself to read something that I thought was important once. I’d like to say I chose the second option, but most of the time I didn’t.
When I did, I read these inane articles about strategies I could use to boost my social media presence, about how to make myself more marketable, about the different ways I’m not doing something to make myself more popular or have more followers or have more blog traffic. Fucking blog traffic. That’s what I was worrying about four weeks ago. It was something that kept me up at night. It was something that kept me at my computer at midnight instead of laying down with the man that I adore with every. single. fiber. of. my. being. How many hours did I spend thinking about my blog header or whether or not the articles I posted on Facebook made me look too feminist and serious and unlikable. Complete bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit nothingness. I was neglecting the person who drew me up out of the mud and blood of my crumbling life for… blog followers.
And right on queue, there it was, crisis of faith. A small accident that was completely nothing that turned into everything that no one ever wants to talk about.
I guess I should start from the beginning.
Around four weeks ago, I was sitting and watching P play rugby with his team here in Chapel Hill. It was actually the first time I’ve seen him play in person. I’ve seen videos and photos and talked with his former teammates, but I’d never actually seen him play in person before. Lest we say, I was giddy as a schoolgirl! It was burning hot (as it happens the the South sometimes) and I was trying to contain myself on the bleachers (I’ve got two little brothers who played sports and I’ll just say, I’ve been ejected from a game for badgering the refs– it’s a big sister thing, don’t judge) and honestly just in awe of him and the power these men have in this kind of game. I remember seeing a ruck, I remember seeing the ball leave the ruck and get passed to a back who was running it up the field and the team running behind him.
Throughout the game I’d been keeping my eye on Ps jersey number because, to my endless love, he wasn’t the only big guy with a beard on the field. I remember the ref making a call and I remember play stopping for just a moment, long enough for me to scan through the guys to find P. When I didn’t see him I though maybe he was behind the group of guys waiting on the offsides kick, when I didn’t see him there, I remember feeling a bit of a panic but I didn’t know why. When I looked back at center field, I say a couple of people bending down over someone sitting with his head between his knees. I think that’s when I kind of stopped hearing everything else going on around me and started trying to walk and not run off the bleachers and around the fence to where the team bench was. I watched as P was helped off the field by a member of the opposing team who turned out, mercifully, to be an EMT and the coach of Ps team. They brought him over and had the field medic take a look and perform a few tests on him as he sat there.
The team medic pulled me over and let me know that he almost certainly had a concussion and that he had had his arms pinned down while holding the ball and was tackled, when he hit the ground, his chin broke his fall and what most likely happened was that his jaw bone popped up and hit the bottom of his brain. He was talking and alert, he could remember his name and the date and he seemed ok, just dazed. He said he’d only blacked out for a few seconds and was zoning out when they walked him off the field but was ok after he had sat for a little bit and and had some water. In rugby, head injuries are no joke, he was pulled from play immediately and barred from playing in the next match to give his head time to heal. We watched the rest of the game together and came home and I called out of work to watch him the rest of the day and that Sunday. He seemed fine. Tired and headachey, but fine. We assumed it was a really minor bump and that everything would be fine in a week.
A few days later he started to complain of having a shooting pain in his shoulder. It wasn’t really that strange, we’ve both got enough sports injuries between us to kill a herd of elephants so pains in the shoulder were nothing new. What has new was that this pain didn’t go away. A few days after that first complaint his arm started to go numb and then have the sensation of pins and needles up and down his forearm while also having constant burning pain in his shoulder. When his arm started going numb we didn’t mess around, we went to Dukes Urgent Care facility to see what was going on. The Physicians Assistant there wasn’t sure what it was so he took a few X-Ray photographs and he prescribed a round of steroids and painkillers to see if it was something muscular and scheduled P and appointment with a Sports Medicine Specialist for later in the week. The Specialist performed a couple of strength tests and was concerned because the steroids and pain killers weren’t lessening the tingling or pain and he had developed a noticeable weakness. What concerned him most was the numbness and the fact that P had a different kind of sensation on one forearm as opposed to the other, when he ran his fingers up Ps arm on the bad side, it felt different than on the other. He immediately scheduled an MRI and EMG that day.
It’s the worst kind of feeling to hear a doctor say that he’s not sure what’s going on but that he’s concerned. I think we just assumed that this was a muscle thing and that it would go away after a week or so. When we were told that other patients were being bumped so that P could get in and get test done as soon as possible, I just sort of started to hold my breath and try desperately not to panic. In my experience, MRIs and EMGs and EKGs and tests with acronyms I didn’t understand meant that my Mother had cancer and her heart was beating irregularly or that my brother had broken his hip or that my Grandfather was going to die. I don’t have a problem with hospitals, but I’m not ok with being in them either. Sitting in a waiting room and praying that there was nothing to see was something I, naively, never thought I’d have to do. I’d sat with friends that were in the kinds of pain I didn’t understand, on those occasions I prayed for peace, for healing, for mercy on our frail human bodies and the sicknesses that liked to take hold of us and poison us. Every time I cried and prayed, I cried and prayed for my friends, I made sure I was there, that they weren’t alone… and there I was, alone in a waiting room holding cups of cold tea and praying that there was nothing to see.
We finished the tests late in the day and ate and went home exhausted. We were told we’d wait a week or so and have another appointment in a week or so and see what was going on. We woke up and went on with our lives until we started getting missed calls in multiples. When P finally picked up during a break at lunchtime, we were told that we had an appointment scheduled for the next day and that we’d be seeing a Spinal Surgeon early the next morning. When we arrived, P and I went back into an exam room and he started getting questions like “Have you noticed a loss of control in your bowels?” or “Have you noticed a problem with standing still or walking?” The answer was no to both, but these were new questions, weird questions. These weren’t vanilla, “Have you had a headache lately?” questions, these were questions about time loss and balance control. Muscles don’t control time loss.
Our doctor loaded up the MRI results and started explaining that we were looking at an image traveling down Ps spine. We saw his spinal cord surrounded by a thin cushion of spinal fluid and the vertebrae locked protectively around this precious bundle of nerves and signaling material, it turns out P has a nice big cord and a little bit of space around the cord for cushion. “You’re a big guy,” the doctor explained, nothing wrong with that. “If you look around the dark fluid, you’ll see the vertebrae holding everything in place, when everything is healthy, we see right down into this circle…. here’s the problem though, when this circles shape changes, it means there’s something wrong, ” the next cervical shot showed a little bump in the circle, “Here’s something that’s pulled out of place a little.” I remember thinking that I’d seen MRI shots like this, a little bit of herniation in a spinal disk wasn’t ideal, but it wouldn’t warrant questions of bowel control loss, it just meant that you had to be careful not to exacerbate the problem. “What I’m really concerned with,” the doctor continued on, “It’s here,” the next shot made my stomach drop. There it was. A herniation that was pressing a third of his cord in. “We can’t ignore that, we have to go in and fix it.”
I remember a little of the next few days. I remember getting copies of the test results and MRI images and over-nighting them to Ps family, nearly all of whom work in healthcare in some field or another, for second opinions. I remember getting confirmation that surgery was the only option. I remember being told that this was something that had happened to Peyton Manning and that he was back playing football the next year. I remember the doctor reassuring us that everything was going to be fine, that they chances of something going wrong were low. But I also remember having the conversation that this was the spine and things with the spine are never to be taken lightly.
What I do remember is having to talk with P about what he was thinking about. The conversations we had were conversations that you never hope you have to have. What would we do if something went wrong? What did P want to do? What did I want to do? What would happen if something got nicked, if he came out of the surgery and he could feel his feet. What if something happened and his airway was damaged during the surgery, when they were moving things aside to go in and take our pieces of bone and disk and fill in the space the disk occupied and then fuse it together with screws and a plate. What would we do if he couldn’t take care of himself? If he couldn’t move his arms and legs? If he couldn’t wake up from the anesthesia? We had to talk with doctors about the possibilities of something going wrong. It probably wouldn’t happen, they assured, but… you never know. “Medicine can sometimes be less of a science and more of an art”, we heard that several times as we signed consent form after consent form and scheduled procedures, booked flights, talked with specialists and talked with our insurance companies. It should be fine, but we can’t guarantee anything.
As we went through this process at breakneck speed I kept trying to stay positive and convince myself that everything was going to be fine. “This surgeon has done this a million times, he’s confident, he’s extremely qualified, we’re going to be in one of the best hospital systems in the country.” Over and over and over I spoke those words aloud to myself and to P. Over and over and over again I tried to convince myself that they were true, that I didn’t need to worry, that he would go in, he would go under and he would come out on the other end good as new. But always, always there was this nagging feeling of darkness that waited for just the right moment when I was tired and weak, it reached in and filled me with the kind of fear and sadness that doesn’t serve a purpose, the kind of fear and sadness that isn’t rational. I knew I needed to be strong for P, I knew that everything would be as it should, but always there was this grip on the very depths of my soul that whispered that I’d never had good luck, that things in my life always were to good to be true, that this was going to be something that I wouldn’t be ready for. Not very long ago, one of the shining lights of my high school experience, a beautiful woman who served our school as the front desk administrator, was having a routine surgery when a terrible accident happened and an artery was nicked. I remember the punch in the gut it was to hear about what happened. I remember the deep sadness I felt for what had happened and for her beautiful family. I’d known her son in high school, he was kind and generous, just like her. I remember begging for mercy and peace for her family. One minute something was ok, they next minute it wasn’t.
Hearing someone explain what to do with them if something happened is a soul numbing experience. I think everyone believes they would want to fight when it comes to something like dying, but it’s one thing to think about it, it’s another thing to be faced with pieces of paper that have to be signed in case it happens to you. For better or worse, I’ve chosen to spend my life with a Philosopher who has a very clear stance on quality of life and end of life. Hearing the person you love tell you that there would be no extraordinary measures taken to revive him or that if faced with the possibility of total paralysis he would choose to end things rather than live out the rest of his life as a “burden” to everyone else is surreal and heartbreaking in a way that words cant explain. Deciding in my heart that following his wishes would be the ultimate way that I could show him that I loved him kept me staring at the ceiling every night. I felt a deep kind of hollowness at the thought of the possibility that he could be there one day and not be there the next. I’ve waited SO LONG for him. We hadn’t even gotten started yet. There’s too much we have yet to do. And yet, discovering that I loved him so deeply that making the decision to trust his decisions created a very deep kind of peace that seemed to bubble up as we moved closer and closer to the day of the surgery. I spent those nights holding his hand as we fell asleep and breathing deeply so I couldn’t remember the warmth his hand gave me, the smell of his hair and the peace he settled into as he drifted off to sleep. If something happened, I wanted to remember these things. These things were what is important in this life I’m living. Jobs and money, blog traffic, twitter followers, instagram, keeping up with our friends… none of these matter the way deciding to be present with my partner in life does. So I stopped writing and I started talking with him and making my best effort to spend every moment I could paying attention.
Early on Wednesday morning we woke up and headed into Duke Medical. After check-in they took him back to get him changed into gown and hooked into the IVs he would need for the procedure. His Mother had flown in the day before and when they called us back to sit with him while we waited for the surgeon and anesthesia team to get everything ready it was harder than ever to fight off that sick feeling of fear that had been plaguing me for the last few weeks. I sat there and smiled and made fun of the marker that the surgeon had made on his neck to indicate where the incision would be made. We joked about how they might have to shave off half of his beard to see anything, that he felt breezes in places he shouldn’t feel breezes in while in proper company. He tried his best to smile. We tried our best to smile. All of us were trying not to cry. When they finally came to take him back they told us they’d give us a few minutes to give last minute kisses and hugs. Ps Mom is an incredible woman who has been through absolute hell in her life and here he was, her eldest child, being taken away to be trusted by people she’d met only a few moments before. She held it together beautifully and I made the conscious effort to reign it in and look him in the eye and tell him I loved him and that I’d see him in a few hours. Then he was rolled away and we were left to sit in yet another waiting room. We were given periodic updates and the rest of the time I spent talking with his Mom about herself. For all the stress and fear of that day, it was a precious time for me to be able to speak with her for so long.
When we came around to hour four we started to worry. We had been told that there would be a thirty minute period pre-op where he would be put under and then the procedure itself would be an hour and a half. What was taking so long? Luckily, Ps Mom works in the healthcare field and was able to speak with the waiting room staff to discover what was going on. We hadn’t been told about the hour it would take to prep him after he was under. Once the math started to add up we settled back in only to be called to say that they surgeon wanted to speak with us. We gathered our things and were led into a consultation room. It felt strange to sit in this purposely designed calming space and wonder about the hundreds of kinds of conversations that had taken place before ours. How many people had broken hearts here? How many explanations of what was and wasn’t happening? ….Would we be joining them? After what felt like a lifetime, the surgeon came in and shook our hands. The next words out of his mouth were a complete haze. All I remember him saying is that everything had gone “picture perfect”, as he put it. The disk slid our properly, the bone pieces they’d screwed the plate into were healthy and strong. The plastic filler he’d used to filling the disk was nice to big to help stabilize the entire column and he was optimistic that any future stress would be less than they’d expected because this apparatus was so perfectly anchored. The icing on the top? He was back in the recovery unit and he was alert and talking.
There’s a kind of relief that you only feel a few times in your life. One of my friends explained that, for her, it was seeing her brand new childs face after all of the labor complications she’d gone through. For me, the only measure I have, is the utter peace I felt when I walked into my Mothers room after she’d had her thyroid removed because of the cancer it contained. Seeing her there and breathing went beyond words. Hearing this doctor, a man who had been so kind and patient with us, come in and smile and say that he would be just fine and that we could go back and see him in just a little bit felt like something stepped in and ripped open my heart to let all of the darkness and sadness drain out and packed in a deep, warm kind of peace that I’ve never known. I was ready to see him. Ready to hear him speak. Hear from his own lips that he was ok. I just wanted to see him.
When they called us back to sit with him and wait for a room, we were ready. The nurse led us back to the PACU recovery area and pointed to the area we needed to go to. Ps Mom went ahead of me and got there first. When I came around the corner, I felt my spirit break. He was laying there, in the dark, hooked into machines that were buzzing and beeping, covered in sweat. I’d been prepared to come back to see him up and smiling. What I’d turned that corner to see was my beautiful, strong, courageous man laying prone and pale with eyes closed and blood dripping into a drain from his incision. I’ve never. ever. felt so helpless. There he was. He was fine. They doctor had said so. Picture perfect. Yet… this…. this was the thing you hope you never have to see. This man, this man I love, the strongest person I’ve ever met, prone and in a kind of pain I’d never experienced. I lost it. His Mother was talking in depth with the nurse and I just dropped my bag and held his hand and cried.
All of the stress. All of the worry. All of the worst kinds of conversations. All of the horrible scenarios that had played over and over and over again in my head just drained out as I saw him there. That deep kind of relief and peace that my friends have felt seeing their children? That peace of seeing my Mother breathing? All of that rushes into the hollows of your heart, the deep places of your soul and everything else is burned away. I was terrified that he looked so low but utterly and completely relieved that he was there and telling me everything was ok. Everything that we’ve been through. All of the trails that the last few years have put us through. So many moments where we were scared that nothing could ever get better. All of that burned away. I felt like everything that had happened had led us to a moment that proved to us both that when things were at their darkest, we would be there, together. And so I cried. I felt the power drain out of my bones and a tiredness settle in, but all of that tiredness, all of it, was worth it. He was here. He was alive. He was moving his toes for me. He was making poop jokes. He was there. He was back with me.
So here we are now. We stayed the night in the hospital, we went through instructions on what’s happening with his healing and how to take medications and what to eat and what to do while he takes a few weeks to recover. Right now he’s sitting in his chair, next to his mother watching ‘Bones’ and cracking jokes. He’s in a ridiculous neck brace and exchanging GIFs of Regina George with Mike, Ian and Brian. He back. He’s safe. He’s got a long road ahead of him, but he’ll be ok. We’ve been planning out a routine for the next few months and we’ve put together a plan for six months from now when we’ll start together to get him back into shape to play rugby again next fall. He’s speaking clearly, he’s mostly out of pain.
More than anything, I feel thankful. Thankful that he’s ok, thankful that our surgeons hands were steady and his procedure was successful. Thankful that his Mother flew in with little notice and has endured five nights on an air mattress in the kitchen of our studio and helped me to ask the right questions and navigate all of this hospital stuff since I have NO experience with it at all. Thankful that my parents made an hour and a half drive up after long days of work to come and see P and sit with me to calm me down, like they are so good at doing. Thankful that we had nurses who were so kind and accommodating to us. Thankful. Thankful. Thankful. Thankful that that deep warm peace has stayed with me. Thankful that even though I’ve had to have phone interviews in the car while in the parking deck of the medical center during Ps EMG and then gone in for a sit-down interview and left to go to our pre-op appointment straight from the interview, that I’ve been able to be calm and professional and focused. I know that in the last two years I’ve grown into someone I wouldn’t have recognized I could be three years ago. I’m thankful, most of all, that the person I am now is someone I’m proud to be, someone others are proud to know, someone P is proud to love. I’m thankful that the kind of love I’ve found with him is the kind of love that sits deeper than the butterflies he still gives me when I see him across the room, deeper than the fights we have over little nothings, deeper than the fear of losing him, deeper than the fear of what fate may have for the future that I can’t see. Deep enough that when I was scared and sick and ready to give into despair, all I had to do was look next me me and see that he’s been there the whole time.