What do we do now?
The doctor’s dictation from May 7, 1996 read, “IMPRESSION: 1. Probable invasive cervical carcinoma.”
All we heard that morning was the word “cancer,” and with it, in a flash, came all of the dark images, and stories the mind is capable of inventing, or recalling, when it becomes personal, and not just a tale of something that is happening to someone else.
Joanie and I left her doctor’s office late that Tuesday morning, stunned and shocked, feeling like the air we were breathing was all of a sudden somehow heavier. As we walked slowly out of the clinic into the bright noonday sun, to the car in the parking lot, no words were spoken. We had our arms around each other, but we were both trying to get our heads around the word cancer, what her doctor had said, and what it meant for her. I had never felt so helpless in my life. She never did talk about how she felt that day. I didn’t press her on that either. I knew she would talk about it when she was ready, and any demanding from me that she do so would be met with resistance from her.
What Joanie was thinking about as we walked to the car, I don’t know. I do know my mind was racing from one thing to another. I thought about my sister Judy who died in 1984 when she was 42, a short three and half years after she had been diagnosed with the same thing that Joanie was now facing. I thought of the last time I had seen Judy a few months before she died, and I thought this can’t be happening to Joanie too. Joanie only knew Judy a short while, but we didn’t talk about her that day and we never did.
Joanie was silent as we drove away, fidgeting with her hands and looking straight ahead out the windshield as we left the clinic parking lot. I suggested we get lunch. She thought that would be a good idea. Nothing else was said on the short drive to one of our favorite haunts.
It was towards the end of the lunch hour rush, so there weren’t many people in the place, and even if there were, I don’t remember either of us paying any attention to who was there. We found a table and ordered a glass of wine each, which under the circumstances seemed okay, and took a deep breath. While the news was so overwhelming for both of us, I decided I would let her lead me where she wanted to go rather than trying to drag anything out of her. It was something that served me well over the next 12 years as a caregiver.
The wine came and we ordered a sandwich to split, since neither one of us was really that hungry. She then looked at me and asked, “Well, what do we do now?” My answer was, “I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone has an answer right now.”
As we began to talk, I cautioned her about was borrowing trouble based on what little we knew. We talked about the fact we didn’t know what stage the cancer was, we didn’t know how large any tumor might be, or if it had been found early enough for easy treatment, or how serious it was, and how that wasn’t information we would know until the results of the biopsies were in and that wouldn’t be until the next day. Her doctor had put a rush on the lab work and we were to return to her office the next day.
We talked about fact right now the only thing we knew for sure is that we didn’t know anything for sure, and that for either one of us to begin imagining things that may or may not happen was fruitless and would only serve to make us crazy. It was then I told her that we needed to avoid what Fritz Perls, the Gestalt therapist, called, “mind fucking.” We talked about how we were going to think positive thoughts, and assume it was going to be something we could take care of and go from there. She agreed with me, but I knew that was easier said than done, especially when it came to that word and her life.
We finished our wine as she talked about who she should call and what she should say and what to do next. I just told her that she could call whomever she wanted and say whatever she wanted to and as far as what to do next, we’d deal with that the next day when we met with her doctor.
We both went back to our jobs that afternoon thinking that the next day, with luck, we’d find an answer to the question of what we do now, and begin to make a plan.