Posts have been sparse this year – my writing focus has shifted and I’m not ready to post the work yet. But I am excited to share with you a piece published today in the Huffington Post. Here’s the link:
The Monday Before Surgery
Mid-weekend, in one frightening shared epiphany, Ramona and I remembered our lack of legal status.
“We don’t have a single piece of legal paper to document our” – I counted on my fingers – “twelve year relationship.”
“Our mortgage?” Ramona suggested as a joke.
But we both knew, in a medical crisis, a house document did not count as proof of domestic partnership. If something went wrong in surgery, Ramona and I were unprotected. Critical decisions would default to my feuding parents. They loved Ramona, they supported our relationship, but we could not take the chance that sanity would prevail. We could not count on their ability to agree on anything, never mind trust in their willingness to step aside and let Ramona make decisions.
Monday morning found me in the office of a lawyer friend filling out medical power of attorney papers and answering questions I expected (“In the event you are unable to make decisions for yourself, who would you like to designate as your guardian?”) and questions I didn’t (“Do you want to be resuscitated in the event that you stop breathing?”).
The second Monday appointment found me in a dentist chair. Two temporary crowns needed to be replaced with permanent ones. The procedure had been scheduled a month before, and I considered blowing it off, but learned in pre-surgery information that permanent crowns were recommended during intubation. Intubation. A word I had never used in conjunction with myself.
The dentist asked from behind her mask, “How was your Christmas?” Tilted back in the chair, I didn’t know how to answer. Good? But the next day sucked? I went for direct. Her eyes crinkled. Over the next months, I would witness many people absorb this information, feel the weight of each one.
By the time we arrived at the third Monday appointment, Ramona and I were worn out. Cursory research had yielded the information that the surgeon was well respected and liked by colleagues and former patients. Since his hands would be in my belly the next day, I wanted to more than like him.
A little after 4 p.m., Dr. Donald “Call me Chip” Wiper came into the waiting area and ushered us into his office. Over the next hour and a half, he was respectful and patient with Ramona’s many questions.
Gone was the shocked, silent Ramona from Friday. Today’s Ramona was scared, steely, and determined to know everything. I let her take the lead. My tongue still tingled from Novocain. She had started with the inevitable, “Are you sure there hasn’t been a mistake?”
Dr. Chip, who must have been asked this same question everyday of his practice, responded as if explaining the process of validating biopsy results was the most important thing in our world. Which it was. When Ramona asked about the progression of clear cell ovarian cancer, he moved to sit between us on the couch and drew a diagram, which he then gave Ramona to take home. (I later discouraged her from placing it on the refrigerator.) He was encouraging, even while emphasizing the aggressiveness of this type of ovarian cancer. We would know more after the biopsy of the internal organs and lymph nodes, he told us, but early indications were promising. As we listened to him explain the surgery and outline the recommended course of chemotherapy, our confidence in him grew.
During the drive home, we confessed: we had already fallen in love with our doctor. Dr. Chip was our age (late-thirties, early-forties), sandy-blonde handsome, and smart. A hottie. We honored “the bisexual within” despite the seriousness of our situation. We recognized the emerging crush was emotional, but he had spoken with both of us, building a relationship with both of us. When I explained the medical power of attorney papers, and recounted my morning in the lawyer’s office, he had acknowledged the extra stress we were under.
“Thank you for bringing the papers in. Unfortunately, they are important. You should probably take an extra copy to the hospital.” He paused. “I’m sorry you had to do that today, or any day, actually.”
That night, after the long, long day of appointments with the lawyer and the dentist and the surgeon, when Ramona and I were in bed and all the calls had been made and there was nothing left to do, I fell apart. I didn’t want to lose this life we had built.
I felt Ramona smile against my neck. “Thank God,” she said, “I’ve been the one killing you off. Now it’s your turn.”
She had been trying to kill me off since Friday, the day we got the diagnosis. “I can’t imagine a life without you,” she whispered each night into the dark as we held each other. Which meant, of course, she was imagining a life without me and it was freaking her out. “You are everything to me. What if you die?”
I hadn’t known what to say to this woman who was my partner and my love and the stoic in our relationship. It had always been my job to worry about our future. Now her stable world was crumbling and I didn’t have an answer to “What if you die?” I could only wrap my body around her and tell her I loved her and tell her we’d know what we know when we know it. I was surprised by my own calm faith.
© 2011 Cathy Kidman
Ramona arrives in my hospital room just as Dad is leaving. She gives him a kiss. He says, “Goodbye Hon” to me and is gone.
She brings me a large, iced mocha with whipped cream. Now that the surgery is over, I can resume my caffeine intake and I choose to do so in style.
Ramona looks less worried than the night before. She’s smiling, got some sleep.
She has been trying to kill me off since Friday, the day of the diagnosis. “I can’t imagine a life without you,” she said into the dark when we were lying next to each other. Which meant, of course, she was imagining a life without me and it was freaking her out. “You are everything to me. What if you die?”
Ramona is the stoic in our relationship, the rock, the stable one. It’s my role to worry about our future. So I don’t know what to say to this woman who is my partner and my love and whose world is breaking apart. I don’t have an answer to “What if you die?” I can only hold her tell her I love her and tell her we’ll know what we know when we know it. I am surprised by my own calm faith.
The night before surgery, after the lawyer appointment and the dentist appointment and meeting the surgeon and fighting with my mother and packing my bag, when we were in bed and all the calls had been made and there was nothing left to do, I cried. I worried about what they would find when they opened me up. “Ramona, I don’t want to die. I really want to live.” Ramona held me and whispered into the dark, “I know, hunny bunny.” When my tears eased up a bit, she hugged me and half-laughed, “Thank God. I’ve been the one killing you off – it’s your turn.”
Three months earlier, our thirteen year old cat Abby, a black and white short hair with a pink, pink nose, became ill. A lump appeared on her head. Then on her belly. Followed within hours by others. An active mouser, she merely nosed her food and rarely left her spot on the couch, gazing at us with confused eyes. “What’s the matter Abby?” Ramona murmured while scratching Abby’s ears, hoping for an answer.
By the next day, a half dozen dime and quarter size lumps had taken over her abdomen and chest, disconcertingly solid under her soft fur.
“It’s a form of aggressive cancer that cats get,” the vet informed us. “We’ll run the biopsy if you like, but most likely treatment at this stage will not be in Abby’s best interest.”
We took her home. The vet told us to make her comfortable, we probably had a few days left. Within the week, Abby was beyond comfort. She could no longer make it to the cat box we moved from the basement to the first floor. She peed where she slept, mewing in distress. More lumps emerged. She stopped eating. She did not lift her head from her paws.
Ramona was bereft. This was her cat, the cat my sister asked us to watch “for a little while” and eleven years later we were still watching. The cat who followed Ramona in the garden, woke Ramona up each morning by licking her eyelids with a sand paper tongue and vocally greeted Ramona at the door each night. The cat who’s little round body, night after night, year after year, formed a tight ball on the pillow, furry cat butt firm against Ramona’s head.
“Ramona, move over.”
“I can’t. I’ll wake the cat.”
We could not deny the truth. Abby was dying. Ramona settled into our oversized, two-person chair with Abby on her lap. She asked me to bring her the phone. From the chair, Ramona called work. “I can’t come in. I need some time off.” I was speechless. Ramona currently works for the post office. Her job is attendance control. As a former police officer, it combines her need for order with a latent sense of justice. Ramona never misses work. No matter what.
Twelve years earlier, Ramona shot a man who got out of his car with a super-sized 357 handgun and started shooting at her police cruiser. Both survived. For two days following the shooting, the two days Ramona was scheduled to be off, she was in a series of nonstop interviews, investigations, and post-shooting therapy. On the third day, Ramona got dressed to go to work.
“What are you doing?” I asked, although I already knew.
“Getting ready for work.”
“No you’re not. You shot a guy. With a gun. Don’t you get some time off for that?”
Ramona paused. Considered. “No.”
We were near the futon couch – the kind that folds under itself to create the seat and never quite stays put – and I jumped on her. Pinned her to the couch as it slid underneath us.
“You are not going to work. Call the Chief.”
Sitting on Ramona, I grabbed the phone, dialed the station and asked for the Chief. Kissed her and handed over the phone. “You can do this,” I coached.
“Chief, I can’t come in. I need some time off,” she said in a rush.
The Chief apologized to Ramona. Should have thought of that himself. The police department didn’t often have shootings, protocol was loose. Take ten days, he told her, come back after Memorial Day weekend.
“We have Memorial Day off together?” I asked, disbelieving. Her job schedule ensured that we never had holidays off together.
“Yeah.” She was quiet. I was still sitting on her. “Thanks, Cathy. I do need time off.”
“This is what partners do, hunny bunny.” I kissed her again. “Memorial Day, huh? In December, shoot the guy in the red suit with the reindeer, okay?”
“Got it. Can you get off now?”
Each day for three days, Ramona the attendance control-freak stayed home for Abby. She used her annual leave time to sit unmoving in the chair, Abby wrapped on her lap in the red Mexican blanket from one of our favorite vacations. Tears rolled down her face as she stroked Abby, whispering her love. “It’s okay. It’s okay. You can go.”
On day three, the vet came to the house. Dr. Linda is a kind woman who exudes empathy and to whom this visit does not seem routine. She does this all the time, put peoples’ pets to sleep. Watches adults blubber as loved cats and dogs die. Yet, here she was, full of compassion, in that moment with us. The moment we let Abby go.
Linda joined Ramona, Abby and me at the chair. I held Ramona’s hand, said goodbye to Abby. Kissed her little head in the soft spot between the ears. Ramona told Abby how much she loved her, what a good cat she’d been, how much we’d miss her.
The effects of the injection were fast. We watched as Abby’s breath left, taking her spirit with it, her small black and white body all that was left. I saw Linda to the door, thanked her. Ramona sat with Abby, her hand moving along the black fur wet with tears.
Later, we buried Abby in our back yard, in the place under the cedars and hostas where she lay every sunny day.
The morphine effect remains satisfyingly pleasant as I lick the whipped cream off the straw of my iced mocha and contemplate how lucky I am to have Ramona here with me. She called in to work and said she couldn’t come in. For me.
I will learn later, though, that this is not exactly what happened, even though it was her intent. Our relationship isn’t recognized by the US Postal Service and the federal Family Medical Leave Act. What Ramona really did, in order to be at the hospital and care for me, was track down her old therapist to get a note stating “Ramona is undergoing a great deal of stress and requires two to three weeks off.” She is approved to take time off for herself, not for me, the unacknowledged family member, the one undergoing surgery and treatment for ovarian cancer.
But I don’t know this. At this moment, I am thinking, I have not died on Ramona. We have another day.
A few weeks after my surgery, I will talk with a friend about Abby and Ramona. By then, we will know that my prognosis is good, the cancer caught at an early stage. Rare for ovarian cancer.
“Abby took the worst of your cancer,” my friend will state, matter of fact. “She knew how much you mean to Ramona. What losing you would mean.”
I will picture Ramona, her three day vigil. Say a mighty prayer of gratitude for Abby.