Thirteen days ago, Bill and I were on our way home from a 19-day adventure in Maine. We had stayed in three different spots along the coast of Maine, made a pilgrimage to L.L. Bean, and traveled up into the rugged wilderness of Moosehead Lake. The trip was beautiful as only Maine can be, and as we began the last leg of our journey, we were both ready to be back home. I missed Casey, our adorable 18-year-old cat. I wanted to continue editing a manuscript I’m working on. I needed to mentally prepare myself for going back to school. But none of that happened.
The last little bit of our trip was a short one. We were driving from Sturbridge, Massachusetts back home to New Jersey, a trip that should take around two hours and 45 minutes. But during this short drive I was in pain. Severe abdominal pain. So much pain that we considered making a detour to the ER in Hartford, Connecticut. But we made it home and Bill drove me straight to the ER. By then, I was doubled over with what felt like a gallbladder attack, or at least what I remember feeling like a gallbladder attack. I haven’t actually possessed that particular organ since 1991. After eight hours in the ER, I was admitted and taken to a room around midnight. Most of the time in the ER is a blur to me: painkillers that didn’t kill my pain, testing, waiting, being doubled over, more painkillers, waiting, being discharged, seeing everything go sideways before vomiting, waiting, seeing everything go the other way before vomiting again, being told I needed to be admitted.
The first day in the hospital was a blur. I was put on a clear liquid diet but I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep. The second day was Sunday and I awoke cranky from lack of food, headachy from lack of caffeine, and sore from the worst bed I’ve ever slept on. Sometime that morning a priest came in. Thankfully he was not there to give me last rites, but only to ask if I wanted to receive holy communion. “Okay,” I said. He proceeded to give me communion and then to annoint my hands with oil. Then he made some small talk about where I was from and what church I attend.
“And how are you doing?” He asked in a general way to show he was concerned without prying into any medical specifics.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “I have all of this severe pain but I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. They might want to do further testing, but I really don’t know.”
The priest considered this, then asked, “Who’s your oncologist?” Huh? Millions of confused thoughts came to the surface of my mind at once, all entering a centrifuge that spun them around until only one answer squeaked out of me.
“I don’t have an oncologist,” I said.
“But this is the oncology unit,” he answered. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
But how could I know? I was wheeled into the unit after midnight in severe pain. Yet suddenly my surroundings made sense. The lady across the hall who never stopped coughing. The man next store who had a constant stream of visitors and I heard the word “hospice” being whispered among several of them. The other man whose daughter gently stroked his hair and kissed him several times on the forehead as he was being wheeled away for a test.
Cancer. Those bodies and souls had been touched by this horrible disease. But I had not. I don’t want to get all dramatic and say that I suddenly realized that I wasn’t really sick or I that I had an epiphany where I realized that all of my troubles did not add up to a hill of beans compared with these people. Although there were shades of that feeling, the thing that really happened was that I felt cracked. As if somewhere in my soul a window was unlocked and opened ever so slightly. Then a small breeze began to circulate around corners of myself that had never been touched by anything but darkness. I became emotional watching the news. I watched Facebook videos and cried. Then John McCain died and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness, particularly when I read what his daughter had written about him. I was reliving my father’s death all over again.
I am not used to this feeling. I am not one to cry at random news reports or sad videos. I was raised by the great uncracked. I was told throughout my childhood not to cry. Yet something inside my over the course of those days in the hospital opened a portal to my tears. And although the emotions were new, they felt right. They seemed okay. Maybe even normal somehow.
Perhaps this is how other people feel. Perhaps walking around with a wall around my emotions was not the healthiest thing for me. Perhaps I am now more open to all of life’s murky emotional waters instead of holding them in and allowing them to become moldy. Maybe the breeze now drifting around my emotional landscape will encourage normal emotional health.
I got out of that hospital three days later and I’m physically fine. But I’ve been changed emotionally, tiptoeing around with my new feelings and trying to make sense of them. Ever onward I now go, into the great emotional unknown.
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