My alarm sounded, but it did not wake me from any sleep. Would you sleep under the circumstances? There was not enough NyQuil in the world to dull the racetrack that was my mind. Sarah insisted that she would fly down from Boston to be with me at the appointment with Dr. K. I wanted to stubbornly protect her, but she pushed my protections to the side like the opening of retail doors on Black Friday. I didn’t stand a chance, and there was no better feeling in the world. Even as I tried to shelter her from the fear, confusion and sadness, she stepped out from under the umbrella and let it soak in like a pouring rain. She helped me cast the umbrella of the unknown to the side and together we embraced the saturated reality.
I picked her up at the airport. I saw her face. I tried to be strong, but realized that she was there to give me strength despite her own fears. She saved me that day. Throughout the past 24 hours, I questioned everything I had ever done wrong in my life, but then, in that moment, I only cared about the best decision I ever made. She was here.
I had lived in DC for several years now and never had a need to go to a hospital, but I figured if I have to go to one, Georgetown University Hospital at least had a great name with some smart people. We arrived at the hospital and entered the Lombardi Cancer Center. The feeling started to turn surreal in that I had never been into a cancer center before. Even with my dad having to go to the doctors a lot, he wasn’t near a major hospital, so he frequented the local cancer clinic, but this was something different. I could feel the despair, hope, and even death that lingered in the air. The smell was the ultra-clean, cold, yet fake air and it permeated every corner with the odd sensation of cleanliness in a place where many sick people congregated. It’s kind of like using that one toilet at work, which just happens to be in the middle of the lobby. You can spray Lysol all you want try to hide the smell, but everyone knows you were just in the bathroom. There was no hiding.
The neurosurgeon floor was at the top of the building and we entered to an open waiting room filled with people. We checked in and filled out a stack of forms as I cautiously scanned the room filled with gazing eyes and deep stares. In a mid-back stretch, I turned in my chair and looked at the large picture on the wall. The small group was vibrant, happy, relieved, and celebratory even. Far from the scene I was now a part of. It was the Oprah Winfrey set and Oprah sat in her chair on the right of the scene and a small table divided her from her two male visitors. I knew neither of the gentlemen, but I recognized the face on the left…vaguely…it was fresh to my mind, but I couldn’t pin it. A hallway door opened…”Mr. Archibald…are you ready?”…I looked at the love of my life and no words needed to be said. We were as ready as we were going to be. We entered the hallway and were seated in an alcove next to a light screen used to review MRIs and film. Vitals were taken and as I sat back down, the familiar face from the picture came around the corner and smiled, “Mr. Archibald?” I smiled back and learned the Dr. K was indeed the man in the picture and the other man was a brain tumor patient whom had successful results. Later I looked at Sarah and said, “If he is good enough for Oprah, I think he will do just fine.” And with that, I refused any and all pleas from friends, family and doctors alike for a second opinion. Dr. K was my guy, no matter what.
We briefly chatted about my experience with symptoms, life, who was the lovely lady sitting next to me. It is a great doctor technique to make you feel that we know each other, and who couldn’t use a little banter prior to the big reveal. The thing was, he was genuine…having no choice of who tells me that I have a brain tumor, I am glad it was him. His persona calmed me as much as I could be calmed even as we transitioned from greeting to business. The lighted screen turns on, a glow reminiscent of a failing halogen bulb outside a country store, it flickered, buzzed and then clicked on fully while Dr. K pulled a slide out of a folder and put it on the screen. If this were “Let’s Make a Deal” I would have passed on what was behind Door 1. Hell, I would have passed on Door 2 and 3 as well…but there was no going back to audience seats.
There it was. A walnut sized spot, stared at me and I stared back. “Well, I guess that is it right there?” I had a 50-50 guess, either the walnut was the tumor and everything else was my brain, or the walnut was what was left of my brain, so I was really pulling for the former. The latter would have been a lot less to worry about, but then you would not be reading this now either, so we both win in this scenario.
Dr. K explained the situation and I went from seeing my “neighbor” for the first time to now forming a plan to attack and remove it. Suffice to say, the transition of life and death was flashing through my mind and the last thing I wanted to do was to look at Sarah. I had too…a courageous smile and rivers of tears was the image I saw. I tried to be strong and compose myself as a stone-aged man might have, but I melted like butter in the microwave. I wasn’t sure what was the worst in all this, the physical pain, emotional pain, or just realizing on a daily basis that this is my life…this is my “new normal.”
Dr. K continued that I was to undergo another MRI in order to pin point the tumor for surgery. He and his team would make an incision and cut open a piece of my skull above the tumor and then assess the situation. Now, I don’t know about you but the assessment period seemed to be ill-timed. Assess while my brain is exposed and determine what to do from there seemed more like my kind of road trip: let’s put clothes, provisions and gas in the car and when it is about to get dark, we decide where to camp. However, this seemed like the worst road trip EVER! Essentially there was a road map, but if there is a lot of traffic we were to either slowly proceed, detour, or turn back all together. The variables swirled around my mind, but Dr. K kept moving forward with the plan…I was on a need to know basis.
He explained that I was “on the schedule,” but that I should be prepared to by called at a moments notice in case there were other cancellations. I wondered if these other patients truly “cancelled” and I couldn’t help to ponder if my surgery date would also be “cancelled”. Sarah and I asked questions from my legal pad, but the sponge was saturated, our minds could not absorb any more information. I fell back into the Charlie Brown episode, “wah bah wah wah mah…” We finish the appointment and walked back into the waiting room where I took another look at Oprah’s guest…I didn’t get a car, but there is just something about Oprah and my neurosurgeon sitting together that gave me confidence. If my neurosurgeon were sitting on the set of The Jerry Springer Show, I would have gone for that second opinion.
As we left, we met Robyn, Dr. K’s assistant, and a good friend now in my life. Robyn would come to be my compass in the storm of appointments and post-surgery questions and musings…she was my Google search bar, but with all the right answers and a kindness like few others. Her presence throughout my visits gave me hope, which to this day, I find to be the best gift one can receive.
The rest of the weekend, Sarah and I cried, wondered, and did a lot of soul searching and I knew that when she got back on that plane there was nothing I could do to stop her from crying. Nothing I could do, but live! So, in two days, I learned I have a brain tumor and that I need brain surgery. I guess this is when I started to develop a new form of “normal”…what was normal was certainly altered in a matter of universal moments. Time truly is relative…and my state of relativity was as stable has a snow globe in the hands of a toddler.
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