Firefighters vs. Lymphnodes

I blink and rub the sleep out of my eyes, rolling over onto my pillow. I am alone in bed. I hear the sounds of my boys playing downstairs, squeals of delight over wind-up cars and trains. Sounds of happiness, of life. I check the time: 7:55 on a rainy Tuesday. I feel embarrassed that I’ve slept in while my mother in law tends to the boys but I remind myself that I was up twice last night with my one year old son, trying to quiet him and get him to sleep. It’s as if he senses my worries and internalizes them himself. I roll onto my back and think that perhaps by quieting my mind and spirit my baby will rest.

In my groggy mind, this seems an acceptable solution. I stretch my arms overhead, yawning.

Rolling out of bed, my feet hit the carpeted ground and two steps later I’m in the bathroom where I splash icy water on my face. I study my reflection in the mirror as I brush my teeth and I don’t recognize the woman I see: Her eyes puffy from bouts of tears, her gray hairs peeking through at her part. She is a stranger. I hear my husband enter the bedroom and then I hear the squeak of the mattress coils. I rinse, drop my toothbrush into the holder and open the bathroom door. He is lying on the unmade bed in his winter coat with his jeans on.

“I have some bad news,” he says.

I feel my stomach tighten as I brace for impact. After all that we’ve been through in the last three months I wonder what he could possibly tell me at this point that we haven’t yet experienced: A cancer diagnosis, the loss of his job, being forced to leave a life and home that we loved in order to receive the best possible cancer treatment. Financial stress, emotional stress, physical stress — what’s next?

“I woke up this morning with some aching and the chills. I have a fever,” he shudders slightly and wraps his coat more tightly around him, “and I found a swollen lymph node,” he absent-mindedly taps on his left groin, the only remaining place in his abdomen where they reside. The phrase “lymph node” hits me like a slap in the face. I want to sit down but don’t want to appear affected so I remain standing, hoping to seem strong. We were warned about the fever, possibility of flu-like symptoms when he started the immunotherapy clinical trial last week. But up until now, we’ve been left blissfully alone by the side effects. As if my husband could out run, out smart, out “happy” them.

But a swollen lymph node? The last time a swollen lymph node made an appearance my husband was whisked to the local hospital in Buenos Aires for a needle biopsy, an ultrasound, a PET scan. He was diagnosed with melanoma, and within 7 days we found ourselves on the other side of the hemisphere for an emergency lymph node dissection in DC.

“So, can you drive me to the hospital?” He looks at me from the bed, cuddled up in his coat and blankets, and I just want to lay down with him, wrap my arms around him, make it go away. I tell him I will and hurriedly smooth my dirty hair back into a ponytail but the elastic is no match for the curls and stray hairs. No shower today, I tell myself. I give up on my hair and dress, then exit the bedroom in search of my boys. I find them in the baby’s room, still in their pajamas, blissfully ignorant of the anxiety swirling above their precious heads. They are happy to see me and I cover both little faces with kisses and “I love you’s” before leaving them with their beloved baba. We head downstairs and out the door, another drive to the hospital, another unknown, to start the day.

It’s rainy and gray as we head downtown. We are in prime rush hour and forced to listen to mind-numbing morning radio shows. One of the djs is talking with food in his mouth and then belches on air. I turn it off, disgusted. We’re stopped at a red light and a man with a cardboard sign that reads “Navy Vet, homeless, hungry” starts walking between cars. “Do you think he’s really a vet? And homeless?” I ask my husband. He shrugs and I feel like I should look for some change regardless of his story. But the light turns green and so we roll on towards the hospital. I glance in the rearview mirror as the homeless vet drops his sign onto the wet pavement. He bends to pick it up and then he’s gone, swallowed by the traffic.

My husband starts to chatter away next to me. Anyone else would attribute it to his positive attitude and normally they’d be right. But I know him, and I know this effort to seem light and positive today is a cover. He’s nervous. I hold his hand as I change lanes. “Everything is okay,” I smile at him, giving him a squeeze. “I know,” he repeats, “Everything is okay.” He squeezes my hand right back.

After twelve hours at the hospital, six different doctors and more than a dozen recitations of my husband’s complete medical history, the only thing we can be sure of is that my husband is responding to antibiotics. His fever subsides, his eyes no longer dull. Not one doctor can agree on what may have caused it, but “infection” is the diagnosis that makes them all feel comfortable. Infection of what, no one can say. And the lymph node is concerning to no one but me. I ask for a needle biopsy, I ask for an ultrasound. The latter I am granted, though whether it’s because they feel it necessary or simply wish to stop me from asking I can’t be sure. When the results are in I am told that the ultrasound showed my husband’s lymph node to be “enlarged.” I am irritated by the waste of time and obvious answer. But it doesn’t matter, because visiting hours are over and I am forced to leave. They are keeping him overnight for observation. I feel useless and powerless and angry — no one knows my husband, no one cares. He will be left alone in his room — just him, his thoughts, and his roommate, who reveals himself every now and then from behind the curtain through a belch or the sound of his urine hitting the plastic bedpan while his swollen feet dangle over his bed. I feel the anger surge again as I ask myself why we are made to endure one challenge after another. Why can’t my husband just be well, sleep in his bed with his wife, wake up with his babies? Why can’t our life just be normal?

The next morning I am driving again in rush hour, again toward the hospital. Today is bright and breezy, hints of spring hitting DC and beckoning to tourists. The cherry blossoms will soon bring with their sweet blooms an influx of traffic, confused metro riders, higher-priced hotels. I find myself stopped again at the light with the homeless vet. He is back again today with a new sign and I find myself admiring his perseverance. I reach for my purse but drop it, startled, when I’m honked at. The light has turned green and this city doesn’t wait. I push the pedal down, missing another chance.

This time I do not look back.

Two days later I am in the kitchen, the afternoon sun warming my back as I prepare our Friday night favorite, pad thai tofu. I am mincing garlic and surrounded by noise: Jack Johnson Pandora station, my mother in law on the phone in the other room, my boys — all of them — rolling around on the floor playing a game; some mix of cars and zoo animals. Their jackets are lined up neatly near the front door, lying on the floor, their boots placed directly below them. They are ready at a moments’ notice.

My mother in law enters the kitchen, still on the phone. She is still talking when she pulls the phone away from her ear, removes the glasses from the top of her head and squints through the lenses to verify the identity of the caller on the other line. Without pausing to give warning, she yells “WHOOOP! WHOOOOOP!” into the family room, and then exits, offering no explanation to the voice on the other end, nor does she take the other call.

There is no mistaking this signal. In a flash my husband is running from the family room to the front door, holding our smiling, bouncing baby in his arms. He’s yelling something I don’t quite understand but it doesn’t matter, our boys do. Our toddler, squealing, abandons his toys and races after them yelling “Go! Go! Go!” I hear more squeals, I hear the rustle of jackets, the stomping of boots, the squeak of the front door opening. I toss the garlic into the pan; it sizzles and I take comfort in the familiar smells and sounds of what is now our home. I don’t look up. I hear the door slam and they are gone. I smile to myself, amazed that my husband can turn the otherwise mundane task of picking up his father from the metro into a great adventure.

“Babe?” he calls from the front door.

I drop my knife and run to the hallway, adrenalin pumping through my veins. I realize I am expecting bad news. A new habit.

“I forgot the keys to the firetruck. Can you toss them to me?”

I grab the keys to the Ford Explorer sitting forgotten on the table. Relieved, I toss them to my husband, who is radiant. Such joy, such life, such love he has for those boys. I hear the sound of metal against metal as he catches them in his left hand. Before I can speak he’s gone again, taking the firetruck on a rescue mission: Operation Recover Didi is in effect; there’s no time for chit chat.

Two days ago I was in the hospital begging for someone to check his lymph node to assure me this wasn’t melanoma’s return. I watch the SUV back out of the driveway and see my toddler wave through the window, beaming at the chance to be a fireman again this afternoon. I am not afraid of the lymph node, at least not today. Today is about Friday night dinners, rescue missions and firefighters.

And today, the firefighters win.

Originally published March 20, 2013