“I don’t think I can do this.”
The drive back to Bismarck was quiet. Joanie spent most of the ride with a Kleenex in her hands, occasionally picking up another one after she had shredded the previous one. We both looked at the Interstate highway before us, not seeing anything of the scenery passing by the windows. Both lost in the thoughts of what we had learned from her doctors in the morning. We didn’t talk about what we heard. She had a book in her lap that she would pick up once in a while, look at a page or two, not really reading, and put it back down in her lap. She didn’t offer any of what she was thinking to me, and the only thing I heard from her for a good part of the trip was an occasional sigh. As before, I didn’t press her about what she was feeling or thinking. I had learned she would tell me when she was ready.
I was thinking about what I had heard. It was frankly overwhelming when I thought about the prospect of her having to endure such a violent and traumatic surgery. She was facing the fact that she could lose control over two vital bodily functions, and that it could be for the rest of her life, even though they had told us if everything went right, they could hook up her bowel and that function would return to normal. I know it scared the hell out of her, as it did me. I was also thinking about what would happen if she decided to not go through with the surgery, and what would happen to her if she didn’t. I knew it was our only option.
As I drove, I remembered my mother, Marie, from a similar trip a long time ago. In the fall of 1986, just a short time after my father Wes’ funeral, mom had surgery for uterine cancer, something that none of us kids even knew she was scheduled for. I hadn’t even been aware of the diagnosis. I drove her down to Fargo for the surgery and remained there for the week. The surgery went off without a hitch on Monday of that week, and on Friday when she was being discharged I went with her to meet with her doctor. Her doctor told her that the operation to remove the grapefruit size tumor from her uterus was a successful one, but then he dropped the next news on her, and that was that he wanted to see her back after she had healed up from the surgery to begin talking about chemotherapy. He explained in plain language to her that while the surgery removed the mass, chemotherapy would be used to attack any systemic issues.
When she heard that, I could see her jaws tighten. She told the doctor she’d have to think about it. He told her, of course, that was okay, but again told her the reasons they wanted to do it, and asked her to give herself some time to heal, and to not rule it out.
I sat there watching her as she clenched her jaw and knew what she was thinking. She was thinking about her daughter, Judy, and how she had watched her die from cervical cancer, and how much she had suffered from chemo and other treatment options she had endured.
I remembered that drive back to Carrington that day, and the similarity was striking. Mom didn’t say much on the ride back, except after we had been on the road for about 45 minutes she said to me, “I don’t think I can do this.” I waited a moment or two wondering how I was going to respond, then I said, “I know this is difficult, and I know it is your decision to make, but I want you to remember you have kids that love you, grandkids that love you and they all want to see you around for a while. Just don’t make a final decision right now.” She nodded her head, as if in agreement, but I found out later she would make a decision and it wasn’t the one we wanted her to make. She died about 9 months later, and I wept.
It was getting dark now as we passed Jamestown and as the miles clicked by, all we had were the headlights, music and the noise of the road. I don’t think we said but a few words until we crested the hill just east of Bismarck when the lights of the city laid out before us, and we knew we would be home in a few minutes. She said, “I’m so glad to be home to see my kitties.”
We pulled up in the driveway around 7:30 that night, and she could see Muffin in the window of the kitchen, and she smiled. I told her to go in, and I would bring the bags.
Once inside, she was greeted by her two Siamese friends, and went straight to the bathroom. I brought the bags in, dropped them on the floor, sat down at the kitchen table and took a deep breath, also glad to be back home.
About that time, the phone rang. It was her Uncle Dick from Birmingham checking in to see how things were going. I handed phone to her, and after just a few minutes of small talk she looked at me with an unforgettably, sad look on her face, and said, “Here you talk to him.” She couldn’t talk about it with him, and so she left it to me to talk to Dick about the bad news. It was a role I was to fill for many years. I talked to him and told him what I understood the situation to be, and that we would keep in touch with him as we knew more.
Ordinarily when we would return from one of these trips, the first thing Joanie would do after getting home would be go to the bathroom, put on her sweats, turn on the TV, and head for the couch for some lap time with Muffin. This night was different.
She was clearly nervous and agitated and was pacing around our small kitchen/living area, all the time shredding a Kleenex in her hands. Muffin, her favorite, sat off to the side, seeming to sense that something was wrong, and was just staring at her.
I sat at the table and scratched Peaches as Joanie quickly went through the mail, not really paying any attention to what she was looking at, and continued to pace and shred Kleenex for a few more minutes. Then she stopped and looked at me, her cheeks red, and with tears streaming down her face, she shrugged her shoulders and said, barely audibly, with a cry in her voice, “I don’t think I can do this.” I felt my heart break as I stood up, put my arms around her and hugged her close, feeling so sorry for her now that the anger, fear and confusion that had consumed her since the doctors broke the news was erupting to the surface.
I held her there for a bit, and then with my hands on her shoulders, I looked into her teary eyes and said, as softly as I could, “Joanie, you know this is your decision to make, and I know it is a difficult one, and whatever that decision is, know I’m here to help you with it and I’m not going away.” I then said, “But, please remember you have some people who love you and want you to hang around for a while, and that includes Dick and Ann, Ginny and Ed, your good friends, Muffin and Peaches and me.” She wiped away some tears, blew her nose lightly and smiling slightly, she looked at me and said almost wistfully, “I know.”
I told her she didn’t have to make a decision right then and now, and that she had time to think about it. She nodded at that, took a deep breath as if she had gotten something off her chest, and told me she was going to get into her sweats now and relax. I went out for a smoke, thinking to myself, “I know what she’s going to do, and I can wait, I don’t need to press.”
When I came back in she was on the couch, but hadn’t turned the TV on. Instead she had put some of our favorite Harry Chapin and Jame Taylor CD’s on the player. Looking at me, now much more relaxed, she asked me if she could have some wine. Somewhat surprised, but happy to see her that way, I said, “You bet your ass,” and grabbed a bottle of her favorite Chardonnay from the rack and a couple of glasses and joined her on the couch. We spent the next hour or so, with the tension of the day slipping away, sipping wine, listening to the songs and stories from Chapin and Taylor we both loved, and feeling more in love with each other as the night wore on. We were forgetting for the moment, and it was right.
That night when we went to bed, we held each other closer.