We Might Get Dirty

The air is stale and the room dark as I scroll through my facebook newsfeed reading posts about my friends and their Easter celebrations. I scan the pictures of friends and families in their Sunday best, special easter baskets, egg hunts, families together. I close out, irritated and blinded by jealously that everyone else is celebrating a “normal” Easter. I stand from my chair, and wash my hands at the sink, then sit back down, closing my eyes and leaning back in the floral blue chair-that-converts-to-a-bed and remember this morning: my babies rushing downstairs to search for their Easter baskets, my toddler looking for the Easter bunny. With a little guidance, they find their baskets filled with chocolate treats and new books. I show my toddler how to unwrap his foiled eggs, a mystery now solved, and show my baby how to read his pop-up book–one more to add to his enormous collection. I relish the precious moments as a fledgling tradition is born. I think about my husband and bite my lip. I don’t want the boys to sense my sadness. I play with them on the floor a few moments more, and then, before it’s too much to bear, I start preparing for my transition from mother to advocate as I dress hurriedly, text my brother-in-law at the hospital, say quick goodbyes to cousins and in-laws and begin the drive I am all too familiar with. Easter is over.

I open my eyes as a doctor walks in; one of many doctors from one of many specialties we will see in the coming days. My husband, pale except for the angry red flesh around his incision sight on his right groin, looks weak and exhausted, his eyes sunken, his spirit nearly broken. The doctor, still rubbing the antibacterial lotion into his hands, directs his questions to my husband but I am the one who answers. He takes out a pen and starts delineating the red areas on the skin of his leg and abdomen–it is spreading now. A post-op infection, making yet another appearance four months after surgery, is not responding to the antibiotics. His fever persists. The doctor speaks again and I start to tremble. I ask him to repeat himself.

“Your husband is septic,” he says, looking me in the eye. “His blood pressure continues to drop and his heart rate very high; that, along with the bacteria in his blood, means his condition is pretty serious.”

He reassures me that they’re monitoring him closely and will continue to try to fight the infection, the bacteria in his blood, that he will recover soon. I try to focus but the room is spinning and I force myself to stand until he leaves the room. I spend the rest of the afternoon in a haze; I make phone calls, write emails, wait for doctors whom I can attack with questions and demand more of–more tests, more antibiotics, more anything–until he is better.

His blood pressure continues to drop. It is now Tuesday morning and we are listening to more doctors in a different room on a different floor where my husband can be even more closely monitored. The resident from the surgical team says they feel they don’t need to operate on my husband since the staph bacteria has been identified in the blood culture and they’re treating it with antibiotic.

“Strep. It’s a strep bacteria, not a staph, it’s in his chart,” I interrupt, pointing out his error. He senses my anger and shifts his weight from his left foot to his right. Before he can speak again, the infectious disease resident rescues him, confirming my statement. A flurry of medical terminology, assurances, and they are gone, punching the antibacterial lotion holder on the wall as they leave. I feel weak. I ask my brother in law if I can sit down in his chair. He stands, and he’s talking with my father in law across the room but I can’t hear them. The adrenalin that has carried me through the last 4 days exits my body upon hearing the doctors’ news and as rapidly as it leaves my body, it is replaced with countless body signals: I am dizzy, thirsty, starving, exhausted. His white count is down I hear again in my mind, there is no longer evidence of bacteria in his blood, I hear the news on a loop in my head in my head as I sit and reach for a sandwich. We feel he is improving. On autopilot, I chew and swallow but don’t taste. I lower my head between my legs slightly and try not to pass out. Finally, relief.

A few hours later we are alone; the beautiful spring day in Georgetown taunts us through the hospital window–his room overlooks a residential street, currently lined with tulip trees in full bloom. The gentle breeze lifts the branches and the petals begin to fall along the sidewalks, dropping on the students, patients, doctors, pedestrians walking hurriedly toward the rest of their afternoon. I gaze at the sun-lit day and then close my eyes, taking a deep breath of sterile air and wishing it was instead the warm, flower-scented wind from outside. I turn back to my husband, expecting to find him watching me, but he is seated, eyes forward, looking tired, lost. I go to him and perch on the side of the bed. I am careful not to let my feet touch his sheets, petrified that I might somehow provoke another infection with the germs that reside there. I rise, jab at the hand sanitizer near the door, give my hands a quick rub and then sit back down.

“How are you?” I ask the rhetorical question, searching his face for signs of the man I married. I know he’s in there, I tell myself as I struggle to find the light in his eyes. His face is still pale, he needs a shave and a shower. His eyes finally meet mine and I put my hand on his cheek. He leans into it and I hear his voice catch as he starts to speak:

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” he whispers, tears forming in his tired blue eyes. “I want to go home.”

He drops his head and tears fall down his face onto my hand, and now I am crying, too. “I know,” I tell him, holding his hands in mine, “soon,” I promise him. But I know he isn’t referring to the hospital, or going home to his parents’ house. I know that now, “here” means cancer and “home” means nothing more than normal; a return to life the way it was before the dermatologist in Buenos Aires sat on the other side of a large white desk in the small gray office and uttered words to forever change our life. That life seems so far away now, so out of reach as we hold onto each other, begging for normal. I curl up next to him on the hospital bed and rest my head on his shoulder, trying to find my normal place, pretending it’s not a hospital bed. I am careful not to pull on the heart monitor, a series of cables attached to his chest in five places, and I keep my feet off of the bed, because it is actually a hospital bed, and he is actually in a hospital. We lay together and I silently plead to leave this place, not just the hospital, but this place of cancer, of unknown, of tumult and pain.

Let us go home.

Wednesday afternoon I am swinging in the backyard with my boys. It is the first time we’ve been alone in months. My in laws are visiting my husband in the hospital; he’s improved enough that I finally feel I can hand over the reigns. Is he still septic? I asked the doctor earlier this morning. No longer septic, she smiled. A friend of my husband’s flew in last night–they flew F16s together years ago–bringing with him support, laughter and a subconscious reminder that my husband is, quite literally, a fighter. It’s almost as if I can breathe again, and I leave the hospital early to spend time with my boys. I nuzzle my baby as he crawls back into my lap. He’s finally getting hair and it’s starting to curl in the back, the setting sun making his fuzzy head shine–I make a mental note to tell my husband this.

My toddler wiggles his way off the swing and runs to a pile of leaves near a young maple tree in the back yard. The leaves are old, brittle. They’d spent the entire winter here in a small heap and are now meeting the small, chubby hands of my two year old, who demolishes them, helping them to eventually return to the earth that made them. He grabs the leaves and throws them at the baby and me, watching my face and waiting for me to reprimand. And I think about it. But then I see the joy in my baby’s face, the pleasure in my toddler’s. I think about why I don’t want him to throw the leaves: we might get dirty. We might get dirty. I think about the last 5 days spent in the hospital–washing and sanitizing hands, doctors in scrubs who sterilize themselves before and after touching my husband. The sterility of everything. I needed dirt, I needed life. Looking into the beautiful, beaming faces of my boys, I realize the ridiculousness of my almost-answer.

I put my baby down in the grass, snatch a pile of leaves with both hands and shower us in leaves. My toddler, delighted, follows suit. We laugh and chase and I am enveloped in giggles. I am breathless, I am dirty, and for the first time in a week, in this moment of dead leaves and dirt, I am actually happy. My toddler points out the camellia bush and asks if we can cut some flowers. We appoint my baby to hold the picked camellias. He sits earnestly in the grass with the flowers in hand, studying them. And as I watch him bury his nose in the bright pink blooms, so gently, so entirely lost in exploring his world, I feel guilty for being here, surrounded by life and dirt and babes. I think of my husband, nauseous and weak and attached to IVs and monitors, sanitized, and I tell myself that soon this will be him. That soon he can tend the plants, throw leaves, pick flowers. Soon, he will leave his sterile room behind. He will smell flowers. He will get his hands dirty.

“Let’s bring these inside for when daddy gets home,” my toddler suggests as he hands me a bundle of blooms and leads us inside.

“Yes,” I reply, scooping up my baby. “Let’s.”

Originally published April 21, 2013