A Little Bit of Death


Wednesday we went in for her pre-surgery physical. Looking at my wife I could see she was still in denial—I wished I was too. They explained exactly what they were going to do and approximately how long the surgery would take. The surgery was scheduled for seven o'clock Friday morning. We went home with a list of do's and don'ts for the following day.

I know she didn't sleep Thursday night. Hell, we didn't even go to bed until after midnight. We talked, she cried, and I did my best to try and convince her it would be all right.

Friday I kissed my wife and watched her and a nurse walk down the hall together. I was shown to the waiting room and told that the doctor would be down after the surgery, which should take about three hours plus or minus. At three and a half hours I started questioning why it was taking so long. It was just after four hours when Dr. Reynolds finally showed up. He shook my hand and motioned for me to sit.

"There was more than we originally thought," is how he started our conversation. "It had progressed into her lymph nodes so we had to take most of the nodes under each arm besides her breasts. We removed about thirty percent of her right lung but we believe we got it all. She's going to be pretty sore for a couple of weeks. Listen, no matter what, I'm confident she will make a full recovery." I was in shock. He said I could see her when she came out of recovery, which should be in about an hour and a half.

She was pretty much out of it throughout the day and into the night, so I just sat by her bed and held her hand. I felt sad because there wasn't a damn thing I could do for her. Our life going forward was going to drastically change, but I knew together we'd make it. We were a team.

At two in the morning I felt her stir. The nurses had been in to check on her almost every hour. Lana had either slept through it or wasn't quite all there.

"How are you feeling?" I asked. Then I thought about what the hell I'd just said. It was a stupid question, except at the moment that's all I could think of. "I love you," I added. She smiled, licking her lips. I poured her a glass of water and gave her a little through a straw. She was still feeling the after effects of the anesthesia. I told her to rest; we'd talk later. She took one look at all the wires and tubes going into each arm, shook her head and, I think, fell back asleep.

I told everyone to stay away until at least Sunday, she needed rest and there would be plenty of time later for visiting. I was able to sneak Tina in Saturday night, and we had a little family get together with the door closed. It helped Tina to she see that her mom was okay.

I was sorry, Tina was sorry, everyone was fucking sorry, that is except the doctors who had blown it since day one. And if I heard the phrase, 'doctors are human and make mistakes too' once more I was going to puke. My anger grew each time I took Lana to chemo and watched her lose whatever was in her stomach afterwards. Life sucked.

When she lost all her hair, Tina said we should both shave our heads. We were about to do it until Lana stopped us. She said it was bad enough one of us was bald and couldn't do anything about it. She let it be know she would be angry if we did it, so we relented and all bought matching hats.

The test results after her third round of chemo came back looking pretty damn positive which lifted all our spirits. Instead of going out to dinner, I brought in Chinese and the three of us celebrated. We'd beaten it and life was going to go back to where it was before this nightmare began. Well, that was the plan.

Lana had been working part time, and sometimes even that was too much for her. But after getting a clean bill of health it seemed to reenergize her, and four months later she was back teaching full time. She even talked about reconstructive breast surgery. I told her if and when she was ready. It was not important to me, as long as she was healthy again.

Everyone said she was the poster child for breast cancer and even though she had two different types of cancer, she had beaten the odds—her cancer was gone, or at least in remission.

When the test results came back clean six months later she started talking again about that condo on the beach. We'd gotten stung pretty good with medical bills even with insurance, but the more she talked the more I wanted to make it happen for her.

We didn't consider time-shares or stuff like that, and found being even one block off the ocean made one hell of a difference in price.

My brother was the one who found it. It was a fourplex that was going into foreclosure. When we first looked at it, I thought it should have been condemned. It was a block in from the ocean, was big, needed everything, and still way out of our price range.

My dad was the one who called the family meeting.

"It's a wreck and probably overpriced at that, but with a little hard work it could be a great investment. I've already talked with Jenny and she and David said they would be in for twenty-five percent if we decide to move on it. It would be like our own private beach house. I think we'll even be able to put a deck on the roof so we'll not only be able to see the ocean, but with the roof being three stories high, we should have a pretty decent view in every direction.

The look Lana gave me said it all. There was no way I could refuse her after what she'd gone through. We opened up a bottle of wine, and Tommy and I decided to let Dad do the bargaining. Thank God, we did.

It was touch and go with the owner, but with him dropping his price thirty thousand and us putting second mortgages on all our homes, ninety days later we were the proud owners of our own money pit.

"We're going to do only what has to be done right now," my dad announced, as we looked at the long list of things that had to be eventually done. We'd taken on a daunting task and sometimes over the next year and a half I wished we hadn't.

I was tired of scrimping and wanted to splurge just once in a while. "Steve, we can't go out tonight, we've got to use that money for the hardwood floors that are coming next week." She was a tough money manager. When I secretly sold a few childhood mementos, I bought my wife a new dress and took her to dinner—though kicking and screaming.

"Steve, you're wasting money that could be better used elsewhere."

"I know, but I just had to do this." We had great sex that night.

The first night we actually stayed at our beach house was wonderful. We packed a picnic lunch and ate up on the newly constructed roof deck. Looking through her binoculars, Tina said she thought she saw a pod of dolphins—I kind of doubted that. After Tina went to sleep we christened our new bedroom. We had running water, toilets, air mattresses for beds, but few other creature comforts. Who cared, we were happy.

A week later, after church, I took my two favorite women out for brunch. The Sea Turtle Hotel was located right on Neptune Beach and the restaurant had a wall of windows facing the ocean. We got a table right next to the windows and started to enjoy their buffet.

"At theses prices, eat as much as you want, and what's left we'll stuff in Mom's purse," I told my daughter as we made our way through the line. Forty-five minutes later I was stuffed, but happy.

"Look Dad, dolphins," Tina said, with a little glee in her voice.

There they were, two bottlenose dolphins moving up the coast, and then we saw him. It was a lone swimmer out about thirty-five yards from shore. He saw the fins on the dolphins and thought they were something else.

He started swimming towards shore like his life depended on it. He wasn't that great of a swimmer, and the splashing and noise he was making got more than a few people's attention, as the dolphins were almost upon him.

Everyone there knew what the guy was thinking, and after what must have been only a minute and a half a totally exhausted man flopped face down in the sandy shore.

"Do you think we should tell him?" a man at the table next to ours said out loud.

"No, let him think he survived a near death experience. He'll have a great story to tell his friends and family, why ruin it for him." Everyone went back to their meals, but I knew how lucky he must have been feeling about now.

At the two-year mark we were close to completing all the major items on our beach house list. When we first bought the four-plex we had a blind draw to pick which unit would be our own home away from home. Lana and I got the top left unit just above my folks. Tommy drew the unit next to mine and my sister got the one that was left. We opened up a bottle of champagne and toasted our good luck.

Luck, it's a strange word because it swings both ways. You've got good luck and then there is the other kind, which never seemed to leave us alone.

Just before her third annual visit with her oncologist Lana had lost a little weight, often saying she was not hungry. She sometimes felt weak, but we thought it was just because she was not eating well and working non-stop at our beach house or at her school.

She had been cancer free for three years and although you never forget, it was finally starting to be something from our past. The week before her doctor's appointment she went for a full body scan, her doctor called it a PET scan just to make sure nothing was going on. Her doctor was going to discuss the results of the scan at her appointment.

She didn't call me at work after her appointment like she normally did. I considered her yearly appointment with her oncologist now just a formality; something her overly protective doctor required, like the PET scan.

I was just getting ready to walk into a staff meeting when the receptionist said she had a call holding for me on line one.

"Connie, take a message, will you?"

"Steve, it's your mother-in-law."

"All right, send it over to my desk. Please tell the rest of the people at the meeting I'll be there in a minute."

"Hi Helen, how are you and Rob doing?"

"Steve, you've got to come home, right now!"

"Helen, I'm just walking into a meeting, tell Lana I'll be home about four thirty."

"Steve, you have to leave now!" She was starting to get on my nerves. She'd always been a little pushy but this was going beyond even her normal self.

"Helen," was all I got out this time when she hit me with the bomb.

"Steve, will you shut up and listen for a second? Lana's cancer is back." I was dumb struck.

A brief word with my boss, and I was out the door almost running. Thank God, my car knew the way home because my mind refused to totally comprehend what I'd just been told.

Three seconds after walking through the front door I was holding my sobbing wife, trying to make out what she was telling me between her crying bouts. The one word I did make out made me also start to cry.

We stayed that way for probably twenty more minutes before moving to the couch. Lana was still having a difficult time talking so I sucked it up, put on a brave face, and started lying through my teeth.

"It can't be right. You've been clean all this time. It's got to be what they call a false positive, that's all.

"But what if it's not?" she said, trying her best to stop crying.

"Then we'll beat it the same way as we did before, together." She looked at me with such sadness in her eyes, my heart about broke.

"Steve, I don't think I have it in me to go through all that again."

"Lana Moore, I don't want to hear any talk like that. Do you honestly think I'd let anything happen to you? As God is my witness, you and I are going to be living in our beach house this year and for many years to come. You have my word on that." She smiled, but that was the last smile I saw for a hell of a long time.

They all had their own ideas why cancer may have come back. It didn't make any difference why; I just wanted to know what they were going to do about it. A biopsy confirmed our worst fears—Lana had lymphoma, and for the second time went under the knife.

Everyone in her elementary school sent cards and stuffed animals, telling her to hurry back. This time, however, she never went back.

I laid my wife to rest in a small private cemetery plot near her beloved beach. Before she died she had fought like a woman possessed, we all did. We sold our condo in town and moved into the beach house full time. Just looking out at the water gave her a sense of peace when little else did.

My mom said I was a rock for my wife and Tina, but inside I died right along with her. She lost weight no matter what we did and the chemo hit her extra hard this time around. Tina and I both shaved our heads, which put a little smile on her face—only it was too little, too late, for the three of us.

I yelled and screamed; pleading with anyone who would listen that there had to be something else we could do. I badgered her doctors, "Isn't there some new experimental drug floating around we could try?" I wasn't giving up and was mortified they were.

I fought calling in hospice until the very end. When they show up that means there is no hope left, and I wasn't about to let her go, not just yet. I made a comfortable area for us up on the roof deck, and every night I would carry my wife up the stairs where we would spend an hour or two watching the sun go down, enjoying one another's company. I prayed to God to let me wake up from this nightmare, but like all my other prayers it went unanswered.

Walking with my dad one day on the beach he told me it was time.

"Steve, you have to let her go, for her sake and your daughter's. Hospice will make her remaining time peaceful, without any pain."

I knew he was right, but this was my wife we were talking about. How could I let her go?

I was in denial, this couldn't be happening, not to her, not to us. I pleaded, I bargained, I shouted at Lana's God. I told him I would do anything if only he would make her well. In my anger, I wondered how this God that Lana believed in so deeply, that was supposed to be so kind and loving like Lana said, could play this cruel trick on such a wonderful person as she. My mother said I was going through the stages of grief. I retaliated saying I didn't care what it was called; I only wanted my wife to be whole again. Through it all Lana held fast to her faith. She said it gave her some measure of comfort and peace. I was glad for her because I was in hell.

Her last days were both tranquil and sad. I was glad she was at peace and finally without pain, though I was racked with it. Those last two days I never slept a wink. I wanted every available second with her.

"Steve, I'm scared," Lana said, during one of her few lucid moments while looking up at me from her bed. "I'm leaving the two best things that ever happened to me." She was so weak it came out in a voice just above a whisper. "I know you're going to be strong, if for no other reason than for our daughter. You're going to have to be both parents now." I held her feeble hands. "And you have to promise me that every night, before she goes to sleep, you kiss her for me. Tell her that she was the most important thing in my life, and that I'll always be watching over her." She was too weak to even cry anymore, but I did see a single tear drip down her cheek. God, I loved this woman.

Somewhere around three thirty in the morning, with me sitting on the side of her bed and Tina asleep in a chair by her bed, Lana took her final breath and we died together. We were looking into each other's eyes when the ends of her mouth turned up slightly and she closed her eyes and passed on to what I hoped was something better. I did nothing for the next hour. When I woke our daughter, I told her Mommy had passed on and was no longer with us.

She cried, I cried, and we spent the next twenty minutes holding each other looking at our wife and mother. How the nurse knew Lana had died, I'm not sure. Maybe it was the lack of noise or she heard our tears hitting the floor—I don't know, but she walked in, checked for a pulse that wasn't there, and took charge.

The funeral was supposed to be small and simple. I hadn't counted on every one of her students, past and present, and fellow teachers attending, along with most members of her church. More people than you could have imagined loved her. I was going to say a few words and tried my best to get them out, but my dad ended up having to finish what I started.

It was just family and the minister at the gravesite. We put flowers on the coffin, and threw a handful of dirt on it when it was lowered into the cold concrete vault. A half hour later we were at my parents' house watching food being served.

Everyone was sorry, so they told me, and if I heard another person say at least I had my daughter I was going to scream. Taking me out on the back deck, my dad gave me a beer and a chair.

"I thought you might need a little air." He was right about that. "You may tell me I'm full of shit when I say it's going to get easier and easier every day, but it's true. We will do everything in our power to help you with Tina, but she's going to need you, not us. Tell her you love her and that you are going nowhere. And when you get up in the morning and feel you can't do it any longer, dig down deep, and remember you're doing this for Lana too." I had always seen my dad as a hard ass, but today he opened up his heart to me and gave me what I needed to get through the next couple of months.

Smells, that's what I lived for now. I didn't touch her side of the bed for the first month. Every night I would fall asleep on what used to be her side. With her pillow over my face, I would close my eyes, inhale her scent, and pretend she was still there with me. Sometimes my brain would even cooperate, and I'd have a dream about her. We had shared a large walk-in closet so even my clothes had a hint of her essence. I wanted to kill my mom when she came in one day and washed all my bedding. I lost another piece of her.

In a way it did get easier, I no longer wanted to lie down and die to be with my wife. Tina went back to school, and when she made the honor roll she said she did it for her mom. My family took care of what I couldn't, but after nine months they stopped giving me any more slack.

My brother told me to get laid, and if it had to be an escort so be it. I told him I wasn't interested and went back to feeling sorry for myself, which consisted of making myself and everyone around me miserable.

The one thing I did do, though, was to turn the law firm of Collins, Collins, and Hathaway loose on everyone who had ever touched my wife. I wasn't looking for any big payday. I just wanted them to remember my wife's name every time they went to shrug off a patient without putting much credence in what was being said. I had promised Lana I wouldn't sue her doctors. But now I wanted my pound of flesh.

When my boss asked me if I was growing a beard, I told him not really. He informed me that unless I came to work shaved, and look like I belonged there, not to come in any longer.

"I didn't hire a homeless man to sell policies because if I had, I'd be paying him a hell of a lot less than you're making." That was my first eye opener. The next one wasn't so nice.

When all I did was mope around the house, my dad went into his place one afternoon and brought out his 45-caliber handgun. He cocked it and handed it to me.

"Put it in your mouth and aim for the top of your head. Use both hands so you don't miss because I sure as hell don't want to take care of a fucking vegetable for the rest of my life. And if you don't mind, please do it outside on the back deck. It's going to be messy, and I'd rather clean up the backyard with a hose than have to clean up a kitchen or living room."

I just looked at him like he was crazy. "I'm not going to kill myself." I handed him back his gun.

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