This morning, I peeked out the blinds at a bright blue August sky as John sat on a loveseat in the Oncology unit. The hospital grounds are a tangle of construction equipment and debris but inside felt orderly and sterile. The first time I looked out those blinds was during the Christmas season last year. To recap, we got married on the 10th of December and on the 11th, ended up at the Emergency Room, where we’d eventually find out John had leukemia. The first line of defense was induction chemo, which meant a 21-day stay in the hospital. We made the best of a convalescing holiday by singing Christmas carols, quite badly but with spunk, to the other oncology patients. I bit back hot tears as John, his daughter, and I belted out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, each blithely in a different key, to an exhausted-looking woman wearing a colorful scarf on her bald head. She smiled weakly but gratefully as she lay in bed enduring chemo - controlled poisoning with the hope of beating cancer.
But today was different. We were visiting Oncology so the nurses could see how well John’s doing. The last time they’d seen him, he was barely breathing on his own, couldn't walk, and only had a whisper of a voice. After his eighth round of chemo, as his immune system bottomed out, he got pneumonia and went into septic shock. He ended up in a coma, with a machine breathing for him for nearly 2 weeks. The whole experience still doesn't seem real. It's not that I thought we were totally in the clear after chemo. We both knew that while he was in remission, the cancer could come back. He'd have to keep taking a new-but-promising chemo drug and would explore participating in experimental immunotherapy. Still, we were cautious but hopeful, neither having even a glimmer of the Sisyphean task ahead.
Thankfully, miraculously, John survived. Like any enthusiastic story teller, I tend to exaggerate but this is an actual miracle. The ICU surgeon held his head inches from John's face before intubating him and said his parents had raised him to be honest so he felt John should know he only had a 50% chance of surviving.
Once John came out of the coma, he was extubated and spent about 6 weeks doing physical, occupational, and speech therapy. In early August, he was able to come home. So you can imagine why he wanted to show the nurses who'd helped save his life how well he's doing. They were shocked and delighted. Then on the way out of the hospital, we ran into Julie, one of the ICU nurses. I will never forget the compassion she showed me during the most terrifying days, her kind blue eyes always heavy with the gravity of John's condition. We squealed and hugged today. Her jaw dropped when she saw John. He smiled politely but looked at her blankly. I realized that when Julie had taken care of him, he was still in a coma so he didn't remember her. Once John understood who she was, he thanked her profusely. My heart swelled watching her marvel at how far he's come.
As I looked out those blinds this morning, I thought about everything we've been through and asked John what now-him would tell just-diagnosed him. Without skipping a beat, he said:
- Listen to the doctors.
- Don't feel sorry for yourself.
- It's a marathon, not a sprint.
I added, "And be nice to your wife." ;)
P.S. Two days after John came home, his father passed away. We're having a memorial service on Saturday.