February

I’ll go ahead and say it: February is my least favorite month of the year. For my family this month represents notorious gloom, anxiety, and hospital waiting rooms. I had hoped February 2013 might be an exception to our long track record, but I suppose Freaky February is one of those hard to shake family traditions, much like figgy pudding at Christmas or Sullivan dance parties at the beach.

Although I have remained uneasy about February for more than a decade now, February 2010 set the bar for dramatic flair when my dad received a liver transplant in the middle of one of DC’s most historic snowstorms. His surgery was remarkably well timed, given the fact that waiting for an organ is sadly dependent on the passing life of a total stranger. My dad got the call for his organ just hours before the snow began, enough time for my mom to drive him up to Washington from their home in southern Maryland. This wasn’t the first time he had received “the call.” Weeks earlier, we sat with my dad in the pre-op room for hours until the surgeon finally came in and announced that the donor liver had been deemed unusable. We were ready for surgery that first time. We were prepared. My mother, TC, my dear aunt from out of town, and I sat by my dad’s bedside listening as he shared memories from his childhood, acutely aware but accepting of the fact that this might be the last conversation we would ever have with him. When the surgery was cancelled at the last moment, we all entered a post-near-surgery depression. We had geared ourselves up for that big moment, my dad’s last chance at life, and then it was gone: taken as abruptly as it had arrived.


When the second call came, we kept our emotions at bay, cautious about becoming overly optimistic. My aunt had returned home. TC was in Boston for work. This couldn’t be the big moment we had so anticipated. This time, as just my mother and I sat with my father in pre-op, we kept the conversation casual. No talk of death. No overly emotional reminiscing. And then, within moments, before we had fully processed what was about to take place, they rolled him into the surgical room and he was gone.


My mom and I headed out to the waiting room, where we would sit all night, side-by-side, distracting ourselves with the task of writing sub plans; the glare of our laptop screens casting a muted glow over the nearly empty room. That night, as we sat with silent, twisting fears in our bellies, wondering if we had just said final goodbyes, we became forever linked. More than mother-daughter, more than friends, we had formed an ironclad partnership, dedicated to protecting and preserving this family through the best and very worst of circumstances.


I could not have imagined that three years later I would be sitting in another waiting room, this time with my father, as my comrade, my ally, the very essence of my being underwent her own surgery, a bilateral mastectomy to remove the cancer in her body.


I have sat in far too many waiting rooms as the people I love undergo surgery to save their lives. It strikes me as sad that the tummy turning fears I experienced the night of my dad’s liver transplant now cease to exist. Instead, I am a soldier now. I stock my arsenal with humor, quick wit, and caffeine. I know exactly what questions to ask the doctors. I know what answers to expect. This pattern has become so routine that, quite frankly, my attitude about life and death borders on blasé.


It’s not that I’m not scared. The fear of loss continues to be the most profound fear I know. But I live with this fear daily. In three years I have sat in more waiting rooms than I could attempt to count. I’ve WebMD’d my way through liver failure, stroke, brain injury, and breast cancer. I know so many doctors in the DC metro area that I literally ran into one of TC’s surgeons as I sat in the waiting room of my mom’s surgery (which took place in an entirely different hospital).

I have lost enough in the past three years. The fact that I am only 30 makes me laugh out loud sometimes. I have known and continue to know such unimaginable heartache. And as I sat out in that waiting room last week, positioned on yet another cold, plastic chair, I was steadfastly resolved to the idea that I would not, could not lose my mother too. I was given two cheerleaders in my adult life: the two people who believed in me more than I believe in myself, the two that would support me in any and all decisions; the two who insisted daily that I was made of grace and perfection. My husband and my mother. I could not survive another chip in my backbone. I am barely standing as it is.


If nothing else, my mother’s illness is a reminder that I still have a lot to lose. Although she has been with me throughout my lifetime, in the past three years she has navigated with me the absolute roughest and darkest of waters. I was not surprised nor overly emotive to hear her surgery went well. In my mind, there was simply no other option. The three of us, Jack, TC, and myself, cannot survive a loss of that magnitude. She is our anchor.


I never deluded myself into thinking that 2013 would be an easy year. As January approached, my vision of the impending year was that it would be one of very hard work. Thus far, my prediction has been true. We are all on our own private missions. I see it daily in TC’s eyes as he mentally plans his day around accommodating the hours of exercise and therapy he is committed to. I see it in my mother’s eyes as I accompany her to doctor’s appointments and watch her focused and determined, scribbling down notes about her own health in an ever expanding file of medical paperwork. I see it in my own tired eyes when I look in the mirror each morning. As I brush my teeth and wash my face, I slowly summon the energy to be present for another day. Invigorated I am typically not, but I have made the decision to get out bed, and many days that in itself is a monumental effort. I imagine that first perfect cup of coffee, the sticky warmth of frothy milk on my lips, the comforting heat of the ceramic mug, and the aroma of the freshly ground coffee beans. The promise of a day that will hopefully be better than the last. And I keep moving.

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