Twelve hours seems like eternity when someone you love is lying on an operating table. The view from the hospital’s waiting room window takes on an otherworldly quality and the big hand on the clock moves in jerks–did it just go backwards?
8am – My mom is in pre-op, the mood festive. I blow up and tie off a rubber surgical glove, gifting her this bright blue balloon. Stephanie jokingly tapes the instructions about where tumor samples should be sent to Gabriele’s chest. High tech cancer analysis will help determine her future treatment and we don’t want any screw-ups.
10:30am - Dr. Nick Nissen, the lead surgeon, makes the first cut in what will be a peace-sign-like incision in my mom’s abdomen. Nick, a friend of mine long before my mom was diagnosed with cancer, has assured us that a nurse will call from the O.R. with updates, and this is how we know she is off to the races.
1:00pm – In the large, open waiting area, we all sit around a table cluttered with coffee cups and munchies from Starbucks. I am trying to work, my computer on my lap, when the doors to the O.R. open and Dr. Nissen walks out, his face serious. Ho-ly-shit…what’s he doing here?
“We’ve hit a snag,” Nick says as he sits down, swirling a pink stir stick around in his styrofoam coffee cup. The tumor, he tells us, is wrapped around my mom’s aorta and he doesn’t know if it can be untangled. To my left, Simone starts to cry, small choked sobs that sound like speeded-up hiccups. She is, I’m sure, remembering the day twenty years ago when another surgeon came to see us with the awful news that my dad’s kidney tumor was wrapped around the vena cava and could not be removed. That day, the doctor simply closed up my dad and asked how long we wanted to keep him on life support. I grab Nick’s arm. ”Don’t quit!” I say softly, afraid of scaring him with the intensity of my need. “Please. Don’t. Quit.” Nick promises to keep trying and I realize how unfair it is to yoke all our hope around his neck.
“What are the chances of getting it out?” I ask, my reporter’s mind needing information.
“50/50 at best” he answers, grim odds when you are talking about life. Tears cut off further conversation.
3:15pm - Rich’s cell phone rings. A nurse has moved us to a private waiting room, where I imagine they sequester families about to get bad news. Rich listens, says thank you, and hangs up. ”They’re proceeding,” he says. Huh? Proceeding how? But there are no more details. Steph, Simone and I walk back to the public waiting room to stand sentinel outside the door to the O.R. We close our eyes in meditation, trying to funnel energy into a room we’ve never seen. But although I can feel my power well up and out, like pure, life-giving water, it does not flow to my mom but instead diverts to Nick. And so I lean in to reality and concentrate on his skilled, steady hands–the only hope my mom has.
6:30pm- Simone and I are back in the private room when Rich’s cell phone rings again. He listens and then gives us a weary smile. ”The tumor is out!” he says. Simone and I take off, running down the hallway to where Steph is still sitting. I grab her from behind, falling to my knees as the news tumbles out. Crying and laughing, my sisters and I are bound together by relief in a way that feels almost holy.
10:30pm - The surgery is over and Nick comes to see us. His baby blue surgeon’s hat has swiveled around on his head so that the bow is in the front and I can see him as a kid, before grown-up things like Whipple procedures and liver transplants took most of his time. He describes my mom’s tumor as an ugly invader–the size of a cantaloupe–pressing hard against her vital organs. ”It’s amazing that anyone could be walking around with that inside of them,” he says. Amazing is a perfect word to describe my mother.
11:30pm - My mom is transferred to a large, white room in the ICU, the monitors surrounding her bed whirring and beeping like an electronic forest. We are allowed to see her two by two–first Rich and his son David, then Simone and her husband Chris, and finally, Steph and me. Intubated and heavily sedated, an IV line protrudes from her neck in a vaguely Frankenstein-ish way and several red, penny-sized marks mar her forehead where some apparatus must have been holding her still during surgery. Even though the numbers flashing on the monitors are her only signs of life, we tell her she has kicked the tumor’s ass. We say how much we love her and that Thanksgiving is now looking good for a family celebration. But there is no response. Then the nurse walks in.
“Are you in pain, Gabriele?” she asks and I see my mom’s head nod almost imperceptibly. The nurse repeats the question, louder, and again my mom’s head moves up and down. I look at Steph, who is standing at the bottom of the bed gently rubbing my mom’s feet. She too has seen this small, reassuring sign and we both smile.
The time is just after midnight–and Gabriele will live to fight another day.