I used to look for signs, beg for signs. I talked to the moon, the stars, the setting sun. I looked for green flashes on the horizon. I listened to cooing doves, watched lingering hummingbirds, marveled at dancing dolphins. Looked for all of life’s metaphors.
When I hear that during surgery a cancer cell is found in my husband’s throat, I feel like I’ve gone blind. My world spins faster and as I try to hang on, I start to pull out my eyebrows. And then when I make the mistake of Googling to find it’s the deadliest kind of all, my mind goes to the end of the rainbow of hope’s spectrum. I become paralyzed. My thoughts wrap around the axle in my head so tight that I’m immobilized. Stay in the moment, all we have is now, don’t get ahead of yourself, I repeat, but all I can imagine is the worst. I need more time with this man, my captain, my soulmate! I try to reel myself back in but that little fish sloshing around in my noggin squirms away. I can pray, ask for a miracle, but suddenly even the idea of looking for a sign seems like hogwash.
Two of my of my greatest character defects are that I worry and that I like to take control, so after daily haranguing of the UCLA radiology department, Abel got us (I use us/we because my husband Jeff and I are suddenly one person) in on Friday for a PET scan (four days earlier than scheduled. I couldn’t imagine having any eyebrows left had I waited until after the Memorial holiday weekend.) After the PET scan, we leave feeling like we’ve done all we can. As first mate, I’ve done all I can do. I feel I can finally turn things over. Jeff says, he’d already turned things over from the beginning. As a retired Coast Guard Veteran with 31 years of service, I suppose he’s better at this life or death stuff than I am. Now we just have to wait.
They say when you get busy you get better. “Do some writing,” a friend suggests. I know she’s right, but the idea of writing about what’s going on seems so cliché, like I’m taking advantage of this real-life, real-time writing opportunity. But isn’t that what all writers look for – these sorts of tear-jerking, gut-wrenching stories? I don’t wanna.
Instead, I turn to some editing for my upcoming novel (is this a good place to plug it?) and my editor has highlighted the overuse of phrases like “It’s going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right. Will everything be all right? It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be fine. He’s going to be all right.” Is my novel speaking to me? Do I dare take this as a sign?
It isn’t until until Monday night as I lay in my husband’s arms that I ask if I can share something with him. I hadn’t wanted to worry him about my worrying – as if he couldn’t tell. I hadn’t wanted to say anything except that I love him so, so much. “I just want you to know that I’m not afraid anymore. I have hope. I truly believe everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to be fine.” “Good,” he says. “That makes me feel better. Now try to sleep.” I know he’s more concerned about me than anything.
So how have I come to feel this peace – this hope? Exhaustion? (We had the grandkids over the Memorial weekend.) Drugs? (I’ve been taking Xanax at night. I’d called in for a prescription for anti-depressants, but it would take too long to go into effect. So Xanax.) The peace I’ve begun to feel I suppose comes over time. The love, prayers and support of family and friends lift me up. My friend with cancer knows the walk. One step at a time, she says. Do the next indicated thing.
So back to signs and slogans. Stay busy. We wake up to a 5:30 alarm and then Uber to Newport to bring a client’s 66-foot yacht back home to Marina Del Rey. Semper paratus-style, we are prepared with our Starbucks and breakfast sandwiches (we plan to be home for lunch), boat fueled, etc. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day as we cruise at 20 knots up the coast. Sipping on our cooled coffee, we notice we’ve missed the doctor’s call. We try him back and the nurse confirms that the results of Friday’s PET scan are in and that Doc will call by the end of the day. Not soon enough! I ask the nurse to please have him paged. We wait. I stick my head up to kiss the sun.
Just off the coast of Long Beach, the motion is very relaxing. So peaceful, I curl up and start to doze when all of a sudden an alarm sounds. I think nothing of it because this stupid boat always has alarms going off. Quietly and calmly my husband asks me to take the wheel so that he can go down to the engine room to check things out. “Sure,” I respond without even whining about the interruption of my nap.
At the helm, I see all the little flashing red lights. Jeff returns to the flybridge and, again calmly, announces the bilge is flooding and taking on water. He tells me to steer the yacht toward the harbor and then he grabs the radio. “Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles, this is the Yacht Anonymous,” he says into the mic. Adrenaline now rushes through my body. Portside, dolphins are dancing and flipping. They cross our bow toward starboard and as we slow, they surround us, wanting to play in our wake. Now is not the time to play! In the meanwhile, Jeff and the Coast Guard Command Center are communicating back and forth. Jeff hands me the radio and tells me to standby as he goes back down to assess things. The Coastie asks questions and wants confirmation. I can’t understand the codes, besides I forget which button to push. I remain silent. Jeff comes back up to cut an engine. We then limp into the harbor and within moments we’re surrounded by rescue units from the Coast Guard Station Los Angeles and a Long Beach Life Guard rescue boat.
A lifeguard comes aboard to see if he can help. He gives Jeff a hose clamp that’s too big, but Jeff – masterful at taking control — is still able to make repairs and then determines we can get back on one engine. A couple of Coasties do a routine boarding and Jeff shares his info. They thank him for his service before escorting us through Angels’ Gate back into the ocean where we chug home at 8 knots on one engine. It takes an extra 4 bumpy hours to get home, but we have no other plans for the day, other than to hurry up and wait for the doc to call.
I’m finally getting that nap in when Jeff yells, “whale,” and sure enough crossing our bow is a whale — unusual for this time of year. Another sign? I wonder, hoping it isn’t like a black cat or some bad omen. And then more dolphins frolic around our boat as we slow down to play with them.
Finally, we make it to the safety of homeport. We dock the boat and our supernatural fix-it-guy arrives to do his magic. The boat will be ready to sail again before the next adventure.
So has this all been one big sign? Is Jeff like a boat that won’t sink? Are we just cruising along peacefully, semper paratus, responding calm as we can to life’s alarms? Are the dolphins like angels reminding us to take time out to play? The safe harbor is like the hospital, the rescue units are the doctors and nurses taking care of us. And then to be escorted out of Angels’ Gate back into the ocean – is that a sign that God’s not ready for us yet? We’ve limped back on one engine. All we needed was one — just took it a little slower. Making it back to safe harbor is like coming home to take care of the next indicated thing. I dare to hope this is like one giant metaphor, mixed or otherwise!
In the meanwhile, it’s close to 5:00 p.m., and still no call from the doctor. We phone the office which is now closed. But even after no news (no news is good news, right?), I’m able to go to sleep with no medication — my third drug-free night except for the wine on Memorial Day. So the peace must come in knowing there’s still hope. I’ve had signs. There’s still time for God to reverse things or clear things up, or for the doctors to realize they made mistakes or they just don’t have the answers, or it’s a miracle, everything is clean and clear and there’s nothing left for them to do but keep doing check ups. As I’m saying this, I feel my Doubting Thomas stomach twist a little (TMI, I’ve had diarrhea.)
It’s now the next day at 9:20 a.m., and still no call from the doc. I feel a pinch in my gut. I can’t imagine how busy the doctor must be. I can’t imagine why he hasn’t called. I can only hope they didn’t find anything else and there’s no urgency in getting ahold of us. Is the doctor treating this like some sort of Triage – placing the more important cases at the forefront? Why the hell had I pushed for an earlier PET scan only to get the news around the same time, after all? More will be revealed. All in God’s time, not yours.
So it’s business as usual. Keep busy. Wait for the delivery of a new stove and dishwasher. Do some writing, pay some bills, go for a walk. 11:00 a.m., the phone rings. It’s the delivery guy. Damn it! It’s 2:30 and still no call from Doc. Don’t waste your time being angry, a friend says. Finally, Mama calls the doctor and the doctor’s assistant says, “He’s in clinic.” “That’s what you said yesterday.” “Yesterday, he had surgery.” “He never called us back.” “He’ll call by the end of the day.” “When’s the end of his day?” “ 5:00.” “Fine.” I try not to lose my serenity.
Five o’clock comes and goes. Next indicated thing. Since it’s 5:00, it must be Happy Hour somewhere. Jeff opens a bottle of wine and we step out into a lovely evening on the porch. We toast to our love, our life forever more. The phone rings, the texts beep, emails buzz — all from anxious loved ones. But no doctor’s call.
Finally at 6:30, the phone sounds again and this time we can see on the screen it’s him. I set down my glass and wrap my trembling arms around my husband. He puts Doc on speaker and all I can hear is that they didn’t find anything else. Several radiologists studied the scan and determined there’s no more cancer and there’s no need to do anything else and I thank him and the tears roll down my cheeks and I feel like I’ve just won the lottery!
Hallelujah and we’re ready for the next adventure! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! I still have more chapters to write! While I’ve never taken this wonderful life for granted, I am even more grateful than ever and will continue to cherish every moment of our voyage together across this giant ocean called life until the time (at least many, many years from now) we’re escorted back through the Angels’ Gate.
Oh, and by the way I Googled the symbolism of the whale. Whales are associated with things such as knowledge of life and death. Whales seen swimming are a sign of good luck for many peoples (beached whales, not so good).
And then, as far as metaphors go, one of the greatest metaphors in literature was the whale in Moby Dick, a representation of God and his tremendous power. Hoorah!