It is almost 10:00 PM, and I’m trying to put Tara to bed here at the Faulkner Hospital. Like her four-year-old son, Tara is not an easy person to get to bed. Teddy’s bedtime routine usually takes over an hour. It starts with a bath, then dragging him out of the bath, followed by chasing him around to get dressed. (At what age does running around naked become unacceptable? Strike that, actually. Knowing many people who read this blog, I’m afraid to solicit feedback to that question.) Then it’s another episode of Cat in the Hat (ugh) coupled with requests for milk and a snack. Cue the whining as the episode draws to a close. We then travel upstairs, sometimes throwing him over my shoulder if needed, to the bathroom where it’s brushing the teeth and then “bedtime.” However, bedtime in Teddy’s room usually involves one book, two songs, and then three really big hugs. I only wish it was over at that point. After traveling downstairs, we find ourselves responding to at least seven shouts of “I love you so muuuuuccchh.” After about 15 minutes of quiet and apparent submission, Teddy will belt out one more “Love you so muuuuuuuch.” Finally, he gives in to the agony of sleep and peace reigns in the Shuman household. In all seriousness, I could easily write the sequel to the “Go the F%$k to Sleep” book.
I often wonder where this “endearing” behavior comes from, but tonight reminded me once again: it comes from Tara. Lying in her hospital bed, all drugged up on narcotics, you would think that the sedative properties of the medication would take her to “la la land” by eight o’clock. Nope. Just like Teddy, she fights it. Despite the advice of five nurses, her husband and mother, Tara wants to stay awake. No milk for Tara, but rather ice chips were the beverage of choice. Saltines were her snack. Instead of a book, I was asked to read today’s blog to her. And as we finally dimmed the lights to the room, I watched her mumble the patented Shuman “I love you so muuucch.”
But before she drifted off to sleep, Tara smiled at me and said, “When this is all over, we’re going to Spruce Point together.” For those of you that don’t know, we were married at the Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor six years ago. It is an event we talk about often, and a place that is near and dear to our hearts. Last night, Tara asked me to dance to one of the songs that was on her “Kick Cancer’s Ass” playlist. As we danced in our bedroom, she said that we, just us, were going back to Spruce Point sometime after her surgery to renew our vows. Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to the Disney trip with the kids too, but she didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me to go away with just my wife for a weekend. Anyway, I smiled and said, “I’m in.” A lot has happened in the past 24 hours, but one thing is for sure: we took a huge step today towards our celebratory weekend in Maine.
[Side note: I’ve been typing for about 30 minutes now, and I just got a “Love you so much” from Tara. She really is just like her son.]
It couldn’t have been five minutes after I posted my first blog today when Dr. Nakhlis came into the family waiting area to give us an update on the first half of the surgery: the double mastectomy. The big news we were waiting for was any indication if the cancer had spread. “The sentinel node is clean,” she said to me, Anne, and John. Tears. Hugs. A very huge sigh of relief. Only breast cancer can make you appreciate those words, words I never ever imagined would make me tear up. Through all of this, I learned that if the cancer spreads out of the breast, it travels to the lymph nodes first. So, what the good doctor was saying was that the cancer appears to have stayed in the breast. Anne was too funny. She was hysterical. Through the waterfall of tears, she made Dr. Nakhlis repeat it over and over to her. She hugged the doctor so hard, she may have lifted her off the ground… and definitely scared our caregiver in the process.
Soon after our meeting with the doctor, we sought out the other members of Tara’s entourage (at this point up to seven by the way, with the arrival of Rachel’s husband Matt and Tara’s BFFL Brianne) who were scattered throughout the building. Full disclosure: Anne’s joy can easily be misinterpreted as inconsolable grief, so imagine the reaction of poor Sean, Rachel, and Matt as they sat in the cafeteria and see their mother walking towards them with uncontrollable tears. But, like I mentioned in my past post, her reaction is the reaction of a mother watching her daughter fight cancer. It’s overwhelming. And her joy is pure joy that can be overwhelming as well.
About an hour later, we got a phone call from Dr. Chun, the plastic surgeon. We joked that Dr. Nakhlis probably called her and told her it would be “safer” to share good news with Tara's family over the phone. In her words, she said things went “beautifully” and even better than expected. More great news. So, by 4:00 PM, the tumor was out and the new boobs were in. Tara was slowly waking up, and her family was relieved beyond imagine.
After visits from our angels-in-residence Kathy and Carole, I was fortunate enough to go back to the recovery area and see Tara. I was so happy. As devastated as I was to leave her four hours earlier, I was equally as elated to be reunited with her. “Good news?” she asked. “Good news,” I said. Typical Tara, she asked how everyone else was doing. Then she kept asking me to scratch things: her eye, her nose, her ear. Evidently the anesthesia makes you itchy. I think that’s a side effect we can all live with after this day.
At 6:30 PM, Tara was admitted and transferred up to her room at the Faulker. Tara's friend from high school and current Faulkner nurse-extraordinaire greeted us on the floor and kindly hooked us up with a quiet room at the end of the hall. Boy, we do know a lot of people here. Only Anne and I remained, as most of the entourage said goodbye by this point. They deserved to go home to rest, but their real work was ahead of them: getting Teddy (and Annabel) to bed. Thanks guys. I know that was not fun (see paragraph 1). Tara was and remains in some pain. There is a lot of pressure that she says feels like “an elephant on her chest.” I successfully resisted to the urge to make a wise-ass remark asking how she knew what that felt like, and I’m proud of myself for that. The blue button has become her best friend, as the pump of narcotics provides some short-term relief. For the past four hours, I’ve sat here and wondered how the hell she did this. Seriously, how the hell did she do this? Four hours in surgery. Double mastectomy. Reconstruction. IVs. Breathing tube. Elephants on the chest. Weird pump thing with Velcro straps around her calves that makes noise every 60 seconds. I always said that my wife amazes me more and more as we get older, and today just epitomizes that fact.
We got good news today. As I sit here and write and let the good news sink in, it’s a relief, but it’s a bit overwhelming as well. We are cognizant of the fact that there are cancer patients out there who did not get good news today. And our hearts, our prayers, and our hope go out to them. And we realize that even though we did receive good news today, a long fight lay ahead and there will be days when the news is not so good. What is comforting is that we have heard so many stories from caregivers and survivors who have won this battle even after hitting some major bumps along the way. Those stories will remind us to enjoy the victories like today, and fight through the challenges of tomorrow.
Tonight, just like Teddy, Tara eventually gave in and submitted herself to sleep. As I sit here and watch her rest, I look forward to our Spruce Point trip. I always wanted to renew our vows at some point, and I figured that we would when we’ve been married for 20 or 30 or 40 years. But, if there is anything this past month has taught me is that life is too precious to wait decades to reaffirm my love and devotion to my wife. I’ll tell her how much I love her tonight, as she sleeps. And I’ll do the same tomorrow morning when she wakes up. And instead of promising to renew our vows this year or in 30 years, I’ll do my best to live them each and every day from the moment we wake each morning to the moment Tara decides it’s time for sleep.