[If you’re just starting this story, go here: Charlie]
They’ve told me his surgery will take six hours. Six hours in the waiting room. Six hours if it goes well. They didn’t say this explicitly, but if it goes less than six hours that would mean it didn’t work. Such a benign way to describe something I can’t even let myself think. Doctors here talk about “outcomes.” If Charlie has a “less than optimal outcome…”
I know it sounds like I’m in denial, refusing to name it. You think you would?
I’m stupidly hopeful that Sheri will appear, running in breathless, apologizing for— explaining—some ludicrous thing that happened, asking rhetorically “Is he already in surgery?” But I’m not hopeful enough to come up with scenarios. They’re just too unlikely. What was that principle we learned in philosophy? Bottom line, it meant go with the simplest explanation. Did a pack of charging rhinos cut her off from the hospital? Did one of them slam her to the pavement and now she has amnesia, or a broken leg, or amnesia and a broken leg?
She left me. She left us.
Oh, my God, my wife left me and our son while he’s undergoing brain surgery.
That, I can name.
I don’t know if I can handle this, she kept saying. She was freaking out. I wasn’t listening. I mean, I was, but I heard only What if our son isn’t okay? What if Charlie doesn’t come through it? I took her to mean, I’m scared! I’m overwhelmed! One of the nights she was saying that, I held her in bed for hours, smoothing her hair, listening but not listening. Not hearing. We ended up having sex, almost by habit. You touch that long in bed, not asleep, it starts to feel like foreplay, it turns into foreplay. But maybe that wasn’t listening, either.
A door opens in my mind. Or a draw bridge. I get to second-guess every word, look, conversation, argument, action. Everything.
Or I can sit here thinking about if Charlie…if the doctors can’t remove this tumor…if he…
She left because she thinks he’s going to die.
She meant “I can’t handle it if he dies.”
I couldn’t hear that because I couldn’t say he might. I knew he might. They told us, Dr. Kisack looked me in the eye and told me “Charlie has a forty-five percent chance of surviving this surgery.” She couldn’t say “about fifty” or “just a little less than fifty.” Forty-five. No more, no less. But that’s a percentage, based on other “outcomes,” based on other people’s children, parents who were sitting in waiting rooms like this—waiting together—and they’d already said goodbye.
I didn’t say “goodbye” to him. I didn’t say “goodbye” to her, either.
She said, “You go in with him. He wants you. I’ll park the car.” She was driving. It made sense.
I squeezed her arm and said, “Thanks.”
The waiting room is about two-thirds full. I’ve barely registered anyone else, but I notice now because a doctor just came out to talk with a family. I’m guessing mom, dad, and their two-year-old who was quietly coloring/scribbling. A quiet two-year-old. Maybe he’s a pro, too.
They nod and the doctor talks more and they nod. I’m staring but they don’t notice. I’m not even in their world. The dad’s brow furrows. He’s a handsome man, Ralph Lauren oxford, the first hint of gray in his black hair. He has his arm around his wife’s shoulder. The child keeps scribbling, paying no attention. Their other child will live. Their marriage will live.
I can’t sit here. I walk out quickly into the vast lobby. I’m resisting the urge to go search the parking lot again. It’s not that I’m saving my dignity; searching would encourage me to hope.
But she’s gone. I have one thing to hope for today.
I walk. I walk through Whale Level, where the happy sea mammals on the walls bound in the frothy waves and smile their dolphin and sea lion smiles at the children walking by. I go up a flight of stairs and walk through Giraffe. Giraffe feels heavier than whale, but that’s because I know this hospital well; Giraffe is long-term care. If you consider that everyone coming to Children’s Hospital has a major health concern, maybe minor in the biggest picture but major enough that they were referred here, that means after oncology, long-term care pulls the hardest on me.
Charlie spent time in Giraffe a few years ago, before his remission, in our early, frantic days here, what I think of as our rookie year going through all this. We came because our pediatrician had referred us to get more testing. We had no idea why. She would tell us nothing concrete, only that she had “concerns.” But when we got here, when we went to Otter for Charlie’s blood draw and other labs (I always argued they should name that area “Shark”) and got those results back and were given papers and stickers and name tags in lanyards, we were sent to oncology. I swear to you, that is how we had the news broken to us. And I love Children’s Hospital, I don’t believe Charlie would have survived these last three years without Children’s, but I think I would have preferred a friendly lab tech or even the Otter receptionist to say, “I’m so sorry, but Charlie’s test results came back and he now has an oncologist.” We were merely told to report to the receptionist at Antelope. Antelope isn’t exclusively cancer, of course; it’s the floor on which they have the oncology department, but Antelope has come to mean “where the kids with cancer go” for parents like us. Children’s Hospital parents.
Parents like me, I guess.
Giraffe, though. Giraffe has a greater variety of diseases and conditions they treat. Giraffe has the kids whose diseases and conditions they can’t identify or the orphan diseases they recognize but still don’t know how to treat, much less cure. Giraffe has the little boy whose mother told me he had an allergic reaction to his medication that caused his skin to bubble and blister. When she talked to us, he was recovering from third-degree burns over eighty percent of his body. No one knew why. The doctors kept trying to find drugs that they could use to treat his original condition—which, shamefully, I no longer remember. But I prayed for that boy every day for longer than a year. I don’t know when I stopped; I didn’t decide to, I just got distracted one day and then the next and sometime later realized I wasn’t praying for him anymore. I saw his mom for a few visits after first meeting her, which for us meant six weeks or two months, and we would stop and chat like old friends who know each others’ secrets. Then I never saw her again. Giraffe means them.
Most of these levels have endless hallways, staggered by reception areas for specialties within each department. Every one has happy art, the encouraging posters and signs and slogans. I’ve never seen a waiting area in Children’s that didn’t have toys. Some have game consoles and fifty-inch monitors. Others have puzzles and simple board games. Most also have art supplies: paper, crayons, and stickers, and you can ask the receptionist to check out scissors. Of course, some have dire allergy warnings and forbid certain things. No, I take that back—they all have these warnings.
I’m passing one specialty after another, not quite power-walking but striding hard, circling each floor before ascending to the next. Here on the fifth floor, you find the parents’ lounge and even sleeping rooms. Designated showers for long-termers. A refrigerator with clear instructions on how to label your food—full name, patient’s ID, date stored. A few computers, a printer. I walk past my favorite spot in the hospital, a nearly-hidden door that leads to a little sitting area, almost a balcony, where you can quasi-relax in closer-to-comfortable chairs and see the ocean. Where you can imagine what you could be doing with your child, had you drawn different cards. But I loved that sitting area because it was the place where I felt like Sheri and I could go and experience a tiny bit of privacy. A hint of privacy.
But I’m not going to sit out there alone. I keep walking.
The sixth floor is all administrative offices. We spent some time there, early on, to work out some financial assistance. Next to Superhero Saint Nurses, I appreciate the people who work in that office most. I think they must take hours and hours of training on how not to shame parents who are suffering both their children’s health crises and now fiscal crises…often caused by those health crises. I remember Jan and Cinequa, Helga and Amber (short for “Ambrosia”—do not make fun of her!), every one of them, because of how well they treated us, offering us unwavering kindness and guarding our dignity when our insurance kept trying to drop us.
Conversely, there’s a special place in hell for insurance companies who, when they realize that they cover kids with brain cancer—or any cancer—try their damnedest to disqualify them. Us. I’m not making this up: we had an agent call our home every single week for a year, fifty-two calls, asking questions like “Has Charlie’s condition resolved itself?” Seemingly a parent’s ignorance, or even an exhausted slip of the tongue, could be enough for them to fire up the machinery that would toss a child fighting cancer out into the cold. I will not digress about these people, but in my cosmology, the accounts office was made up of souls who would be going the opposite direction in the afterlife for having played the opposite role in our lives.
An urge pulls at me to step in and visit Helga and Cinequa. Both spoke like they were Charlie’s grandmothers. But they would ask, “How is Charlie?” and “How is Sheri?” If they could just know so I wouldn’t have to explain and they would say, “Oh, you sit down, you’re our Hall of Fame Dad, we wish every child had a dad like you!” Because they said that to me on days much easier, it turns out, than today, on days when I thought the sky was falling merely because we couldn’t pay for the medical care Charlie needed. They found ways to work that out. They accessed funds and found assistance and created payment plans. God, I wish they were equally omnipotent in other areas.
The end of this hall past their offices gets weird. Some strange art got hung here, different than in any other part of the hospital. I mean different. If you could put performance art on a wall, it would look like this. Some is Barbie-related. Another section relates to anorexia and bulimia. They’re all mixed medium, with spiked heels and shards of glass and jagged Diet Coke can shrapnel sticking out. If you ran up this hallway without noticing them, you could slash yourself. One of the works depicts self-cutting.
I’ve wondered so often who bought these and how it went.
“Hey, I got some great pieces for the hospital!”
“You know we’re Children’sHospital, right? Happy hippos?”
“Yeah, but these address serious issues the kids face.”
“We have three-year-olds who’ve already suffered trauma.”
“Okay, fine. HR? No? The legal department, then?”
They have an exit at the end of this hallway where parents don’t come and go. It leads to a parking lot parents don’t use. I’m tempted to go out there now. Standing in that lot, you could pretend to be outside any nondescript business in the world. Brick wall, no signs other than “Finance and Accounting” and “Human Resources.” But this door requires a key code to enter from the outside and there’s no access to any other part of the hospital through that lot. “Staff Parking only.” It’s no accident. The time I exited here, I practically had to walk through downtown to find my way back to the hospital campus. The people who work in these last few offices don’t have to see any of us—or our kids—unless they choose to. I’m pretty sure they also keep the hospital running, on a macro level, so I try to keep that in mind.
I rest my head against the door and look at my watch.
It’s been maybe an hour and a half since I left Charlie in surgery. Surgery time is a separate existence, different than any other passage of time. It’s harder to kill time without her. Sheri. It’s hard not to think about Sheri while thinking that it’s hard to kill time without Sheri. I am not going to spend these hours trying to figure out why my wife left.
My wife left. Am I a single dad now?
Damn it, damn it, go to hell damn it! That’s not even the question.
Am I a dad now?
By the end of the day? Will I still be?
The door opens outward. I almost fall through the doorway. A man sticks out his arm, a blue suit-coated arm, and breaks my fall, then steadies me with the other. He fills the doorway.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaims.
I push against the door frame to right myself. His grey eyebrows furrow and his head tilts forward, worried. His coat has subtle pinstripes. His purple tie matches the square in his chest pocket. I see these up close because I’m in his personal space. I step back inside as quickly as I can.
“No, I’m sorry. I fell on you. Thanks for not letting me hit the pavement.”
He chuckles. “Seems the least I could do. Were you going out?” he asks, still holding the door open.
“Oh, uh, no. I was just…waiting.”
He notices the buzzer in my hand, then looks up at my face. How can I describe the change in his expression? I’m dressed for my-kid-is-in-the-hospital-take-me-seriously: tie, oxford, slacks, loafers. I think that threw him for a second. But I’m not his peer, not a professional in one of these offices, nor on business with any of them. I’m not that kind of “pro.” I’m on the other side of the bridge.
Ha. “Bridge.” Make that “chasm.” There is no bridge. Pity, but no bridge.
“How much longer?” he asks.
I choke back something between a laugh and a moan.
“Four hours or so, they estimated.”
“How could you know that?”
He raises his large shoulders, a nearly-apologetic shrug.
“I’ve been here a while,” he says.
“I’ll leave you in peace. I hope…” he nods back at me, “I hope it goes well.”
He offers me his huge hand, so I shake it.
I’m walking back up the nouveau art hallway when he calls out.
I turn around and he catches up to me in two long strides.
“I’m John. Here’s my card. In case you need anything. And what’s your child’s name?”
“Thank you.” I take the card. “I’m Mike. He’s Charlie.”
He gives my shoulder a pat, which causes me to picture him playing college football twenty years ago. I’ll have to look him up to check my hunch.
He enters the second-to-last office on the hall. I glance at his card. “John D. Freeman: Vice-President, Corporate Development.”
I wonder what need might qualify for me to call John D. Freedman? I know he meant it, but I can’t conjure the situation. My needs are either too big or too small.
I study the paintings again. Does he pass them on his way to the cafeteria? Does he like them? Does he—
The buzzer vibrates in my hand. I jerk back and it falls to the carpet.
Oh, my God.
I’m running, one motion to scoop it up and sprint.
I should have prayed more!
God, have mercy on my little boy.
No. No thoughts. Just hurrying—dodging—not colliding with children—fast as I can, not hurting anyone—because I have to get there—even if…
I swing around the last corner to the waiting area, take in that the nurse and surgeon are talking to—Sheri. She has her back to me.
–OhmyGod, did I make all that up?
–She’s shaking. I’m going to vomit.
“What—what happened?” I blurt into their conversation, then suck for air.
“He’s okay. He’s okay, Mr. O’Brien.” Dr. Kisack’s mask is pulled down around her neck. Her face looks sweaty.
“But how—you said—” gasp, “six hours—” gasp, “and it’s—”
“We’re not always right,” she answers and smiles a little. That shuts me up. “I was just telling your wife, I don’t call things ‘miracles.’ I’ve never used that word for surgery, I believe literally never. I just don’t think that helps us explain or understand anything. But your boy had a medulloblastoma growing rapidly in his cerebellum, so rapidly that we halted other treatment and moved directly to surgery. Now he doesn’t. I still had to operate, but the tumor was half the size we expected and all the places we thought it would be most difficult to cut out, it almost looked as if it had withdrawn. I can’t explain that. There are many things I can’t explain within my field of expertise, though I hate to admit to any of them.” She glances up at the ceiling then back at us, a whole different conversation spoken only in her head. “This is one. But I’m happy to give you the news.”
“So he’s going to be…?”
“He’s going to leave here with no more cancer in his body. It was a simple procedure to remove the tumor, contrary to all expectations. I can’t promise you anything after today. As you know too well, this type of cancer has a significant rate of recurrence. We will run all the tests we can to make certain we haven’t missed anything. But at this moment, to the absolute best of my knowledge, Charlie is cancer free.”
My knees wobble. The floor and walls spin. Doctor Kisack reaches out to steady me before I discover whether the ceiling is spinning, too.
“I’m sorry. Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…” I can’t figure out how to finish the sentence.
“This is a very normal response,” she reassures me. “I truly am glad I could give you good news, even if I don’t fully understand it. Nurse Jackson will take you to see Charlie when he’s ready to move from Recovery I to Recovery II. He’ll be asleep for some time still and very groggy after that, but he’ll want to see you both. I told your wife Charlie was asking for her even after we thought he was under. I’d never seen that before. Patients talk in their sleep sometimes, but he just willed himself awake for one more moment, right after you left. He’s a determined child. That will serve him well.”
“We can’t thank you enough, Doctor Kisack,” Sheri says, grasping both her hands.
“Take care. Take care of Charlie,” the doctor tells us, patting my shoulder once more before she turns to hurry off.
Charlotte steps in.
“It will be about half an hour before we can move him to Recovery II. I’ll leave you to celebrate a little. Or just breathe again. Hold onto that and I’ll buzz you again when it’s time to come see Charlie. You’re doing great. The hardest part is over.”
I can’t keep myself from glancing at Sheri, but she has her eyes closed. Maybe breathing.
“Charlie, you’ve been wonderful,” I tell her. “Thanks for taking such good care of our son.”
She beams at us.
“That’s why I do this. It doesn’t always turn out so well, but I pray every time that it will. He’s a great guy. To still have such a sense of humor after everything he’s been through? I’m so glad he’s going to be okay. I’ll see you soon.”
She leaves me with my wife. Children’s Hospital revolves around us, the nurses and doctors striding past to get to their next patients, the moms and dads walking slower with their babies, some pushing IV poles or wheelchairs. Some aren’t going home today. Some aren’t going home again. Our Charlie is coming home with us.
Time to man up.
“I’m sorry. I thought you had…left—I know, God, that sounds horrible. I jumped to a terrible conclusion when you didn’t get back before he went in. Just all the stress and fear going in there, they actually let me go in with him—not that I’m excusing it, my thinking that–I just couldn’t figure out what could’ve… Are you okay? What happened?”
“I did.” She glances at me, then looks away. “I was halfway to Bellingham.”
I have nothing left. I need to sit down now. I land hard in the nearest open chair.
She doesn’t follow right away. My chair is against the wall, so I let my head drop back and close my eyes. Will she be here when I open them? She came back, so I think she’ll wait until Charlie wakes up. I think.
But what do I know?
I hear someone settle next to me. A moment later, I can smell Sheri, the conditioner she loves and her perfume she wears only for formal occasions, her version of “take-me-seriously.” I bought her a bottle one Christmas and concluded I’m glad it’s for formal occasions.
“Do you want to talk to me?” she asks, a serious question, not to start a fight.
“I don’t know.”
We sit here. I feel minutes drifting by. Is Charlie really okay? Is this our last time sitting together waiting to find out? Is this our last time sitting together? I don’t have the energy to start this conversation. I don’t have it in me to find out.
Charlie is okay. That’s enough for now.
That’s all for now.