Friday morning we had a long conversation with our oncologist. It was one that we were both ready for, or, at least, one that we, together, knew we needed to have. Over these last few weeks, as I’ve watched Chris’s body stop working as it should, I’ve been so burdened by the thought that things must be much worse than we had anticipated them becoming. The changes in his body didn’t seem like mere expected symptoms of something amiss inside anymore. The changes had taken over his ability to move easily, to sit, to be awake, to even breathe well.
Communicating with Chris about my observations and thoughts has been difficult for me, in very large part because I’m not a student of medicine and the body, and I don’t know if what I’m observing and wondering is valid. Our interpersonal dynamic has been touchy in these matters. I’ve worked subtly while being here at the hospital, attempting to extract information from our various doctors, trying to ask questions that lead to some clear answers while not being too pointed in front of Chris. I’ve been afraid of his fear, and I’ve been afraid of his misunderstanding, and I’ve been afraid of him perceiving me as being controlling or belittling. I see the irony in that–trying to shape a conversation so that he hears something I think he may not understand is manipulative and controlling. I can’t say I’ve navigated the waters of this new territory between us well. Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. It’s been tricky and sensitive and painful in new ways. We have new insecurities, new grievances with one another.
But Thursday I read some things on the internet that I couldn’t hide from Chris–scary things pertaining to the symptoms he has. I’ve avoided Google this entire time, amazingly enough, but I had a term from the surgeon, and I decided to look it up. I had to understand more of what was going on with Chris. So I read some things, and I cried. He asked me why I was crying, and I had no choice but to tell him. It was scary prognosis stuff. Without an actual diagnosis, we haven’t been given any sort of prognosis in this process. Chris was still under the impression that he had a GIST (a slow-growing, very treatable) cancer. But that is not where we are. We both received this new information, in the quiet of our room, and purposed to talk extensively with Dr. Windsor the next morning.
I told Dr. Windsor what I had read. He didn’t rebuke me for googling, but he said that he is unwilling to attach a timeline to Chris, in part because we don’t yet know the cancer type, and in part because of his young age and relative health. But, yes, he said, Chris is very very sick; his cancer is very advanced. If Chris were 70, he said, we would be talking about hospice, not treatment. He doesn’t believe Chris’s cancer is curable.
But, he still has hope that treatment could meaningfully affect Chris’s life. If we can determine the best treatment. (Chris’s tissue sample is being studied now at MD Anderson, and is apparently marked as a priority.)
All of this information came to Chris like the initial news of his cancer: it was shocking, painful, so very heavy. It has come to me in the same way, but more gradually and over a longer stretch of time. The news is difficult even to call news, because there are still no real answers. But the reality of Chris’s present health and the danger he is in is much more clear to us now, and mutually understood. I admit that a certain burden has been lifted from me: the burden of quietly bearing something so heavy apart from Chris and without his knowledge. Now we, together, are living these days, one at a time, in light of this extremely hard reality.
Our conversation with Dr. Windsor was not our only conversation on Friday. We got to spend time getting to know our beloved Dr. Jijelava, the Georgian hospitalist who “continues to delight” Chris. He shares with Chris a love of Orthodox iconography and has offered such kindness and hospitality to us here. We got to know our nurse Jennifer a bit, and enjoyed her company throughout the day. Our dear friend Riley came to be with Chris Friday afternoon when I went home to see the kids, and Father Michael even came by to serve the Eucharist. Chris, Riley, and Michael had sweet time together that afternoon.
There was, of course, the difficult conversation that Chris had with his parents over the phone. It felt, he said, like that first call he made to them from Chicago in August when he had a CT scan for what he suspected was appendicitis. A new grief has broken over everyone.
Conversations are needed still with our children. How do we talk about with them something we can hardly explain in any concrete terms? How do we dignify their personhood by keeping them in the light of the truth, while considering their youth and the toll of anxiety? We need wisdom.
Today we read Hebrews 11 and 12 together, about the sanctifying, merciful discipline of God towards his true sons and daughters; about the cloud of witnesses, the saints, who endured mocking, scourging, imprisonment, and death for the sake of being resurrected to a better life, those of whom the world was not worthy; about Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup–his precious inheritance for such a temporal hunger and relief. Father, hear us now: we are no better than Esau, but we do not want to sell our birthright for a bowl of soup. Give us the courage and endurance to walk in the way you have set before us, to a glorious end. Lead us closely, good Shepherd, and kindly.