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Let's Have a Margarita

I’ve always been amazed at how certain moments become permanently etched into memory, the way the details become more than just history: they become a part of who you are. I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last Wednesday, but I recall everything about the days that my children were born and the day my mother died. I know precisely where I was on September 11, 2001. There have been so many pivotal moments that stand out, their importance noted for one reason or another. The day that I was diagnosed is one of them.

I had spent the previous six months undergoing a battery of tests to determine what was wrong with me. I had pain and bloating and digestive issues, all of which can be rather ambiguous. But as my ever-expanding belly became a cause for alarm, I became more insistent, pushing for answers from the medical folks. It was the third of July and the clinic was decorated with American flags to commemorate the upcoming holiday. I had seen the doctor, done bloodwork and was directed to the radiology department for a CT scan. They handed me a large bottle of pineapple flavored barium and told me to go home, drink it, and return later that afternoon.

I fully expected to be told that I had a rare intestinal bug or perhaps an ulcer and that a month-long regimen of some pricey prescription would fix me right up. My husband tagged along to keep me company. We had planned to go to the grocery store afterwards, and made a list as we waited for my name to be called. I was surprised when the technician said that I was to return to my doctor’s office since he had ordered expedited results. It seemed odd. Nothing happens quickly on Medical Mountain. I braced myself for what could be bad news, although I figured the worse might be a nasty liver infection or a stubborn kidney stone.

I was ushered into an exam room quickly and the doctor appeared a few minutes later. The report from which he read random excerpts was simple and straightforward: I had metastasized ovarian cancer, stage 4, based on the ACS guidelines. The rest of what he said was incomprehensible, much like a lecture from Charlie Brown's teacher. And there I sat, wondering when my heart would stop pounding in my chest, when my brain would begin to form coherent thoughts again.

I took a deep breath, walked into the reception area, and waved to my husband.

“How did it go?” he asked.

I forced a smile and shrugged. “Let’s go and have a margarita before the grocery store,” I said.

He laughed. “We don’t often day drink. Are we celebrating?”

It was a question that hung in the air until the icy cocktails were placed in front of us. And then, I dropped the bomb as gently as I could, although I am certain that is an oxymoron. We both shed tears and tried not to speculate on the possibilities. But with each sip, the enormity of the situation grew larger and more menacing. We left the restaurant a little tipsy and very worried as we sat in silence the entire ride home. The days that followed were a blur, a whirlwind of appointments all designed to save my life. I tried to remain upbeat, all the while feeling like a scared child. I remember those days well.

And yes, I have battled this cancer monster for four long years, learning to handle the needle sticks and painful procedures, taking the bad news with the good, trying to remember to breathe on a regular basis. I have fallen into the lopsided rhythm of this new normal. So has he.

Life goes on, but it can change in an instant.

A month ago, my husband met with his new doctor, who questioned his years of unhealthy habits and didn’t waste any time referring him to a heart specialist and a pulmonologist. I had been campaigning for him to change providers and was pleased that this new one was so attentive. They ordered tests and scans, including a couple of biopsies. I fully understood the implications. A few days later, I was at an appointment of my own when he called to tell me that he was going in to discuss the pathology results.

“Let me know,” I said.

And I was pulling into our driveway when he did.

“Are you still out?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“I wanted you to meet me for a margarita,” he said.

My heart sank as my mind went to that time when sharing a tequila concoction in the middle of the afternoon meant a way to lessen the blow of bad news.

“Is it malignant?” I asked.

“It is. Lung cancer. Stage 3, based on the size of the tumor.”

I swallowed hard. I wondered how we could possibly be both caretaker and patient, how we would navigate the logistics of the many appointments, the dueling side effects of treatment. And then, I considered the fight ahead: we were going to be soldiers in the same army. I laughed at the absurdity of the thought, but I guess I am the general, and he’s a private. After all, I was here first, and I know the terrain.

People often say that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. I hate that statement, the implication that a loving benevolent Father heaps misery upon His children, but knows when the threshold for tolerance has been reached. I don’t believe that to be true. I do trust that He gives you the strength to pilot your way through the storms, even if He fails to calm the turbulent waters. Instead, He walks across the tempest to meet you where you are, to climb in to the boat with you and guide you on your journey. I am counting on that reassurance, the promise of faith. And now, we both are.

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