At the beginning and at the end of my story with leukemia is my liver, oddly enough. It was way-off liver enzymes (and excruciating pain) that were the first real indication that something was very wrong. My stay at Duke was prolonged by four or five days because my liver, once again, was acting up. My doctors went from telling me, “you are going to get to home soon,” to “you can’t leave until we know what is going on with your liver.” I lay there in bed and wondered how could they not see that my sanity was slipping away.
When I went back and counted the days of that first hospital stay, they added up to exactly forty. What a nicely round loaded number. Noah floated adrift on the ark for forty days. Jesus wandered in the wilderness for forty days. What I know now is that Jesus sat and wept with frustration because the horizon never changed no matter where he walked. Noah certainly—literally–climbed the walls of the ark because he couldn’t get away from a situation so far from normal it bordered on bizarre. At the end of forty days, the trauma is set in stone, even if the outcome is good. At the end of forty days, the disease has successfully shrunk your once expansive life into a series of routines that serve as placeholders for reality. Forty days, and you forget that it’s all means to an end because forty days has robbed you of the last sliver of your imagination.
What I understand now is that the trauma of being hospitalized for so long was perhaps even more difficult than the diagnosis itself. After that first, long hospitalization I had eight more that, believe it or not, also totaled forty days. I’m still figuring out how to say “I had cancer” and not feel the panic build. Naming the trauma of being hospitalized has helped. There were two things that happened, not just one. I got sick, AND I had to go into the hospital over and over again.
I came home from Duke on October 5th in my pajamas. I had to wear slippers because I didn’t have any shoes, and I was jacked up oxycodone because the liver biopsy site hurt way more than they told me it would. My Dad and I drove up to the house to “Welcome Home Mom” posters made by my daughters and a front porch decorated with mums, gourds and a lovely wreath that I still haven’t taken down (I have sweet friends). I could barely walk up the steps under my own strength. I opened the door and saw Brownie and the girls curled up on the sofa, watching a Clemson football game. Walking across that threshold was possibly the weirdest moment of my life. I can remember saying to myself, “You are going to have to take this very easy.”
“You are going to have to take this very easy” is a very good mantra for recovery.
And by the way, I don’t want to be called brave, but I will believe you when you tell me I am tough.