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For Better or For Worse

In the midst of caregiving, a chance encounter can be overpowering



"Honey, come into the kitchen with Mommy," I say to my daughter Savannah over the sound of my husband moaning and throwing up. Shit. I just changed those sheets.

"Savannah, come here. Daddy is really sick right now and needs to be alone." My phone is wedged between my shoulder and ear while I wring out another washcloth. The doctor comes on the line, directing me to call an ambulance.

"Tell them to take you to Cedars-Sinai because I'm on call," he advises. "If they tell you it's full, demand to go there anyway. I'll see you in the emergency room."

Some birthday.

"Mommy, Daddy looks strange," Savannah says. Her father Wade is on his back and silent. There is vomit on the floor.

The 911 dispatcher comes on immediately, asking me what my situation is.

"My husband has a brain tumor and he — "

"Where are you calling from?"

"My house. He's been vomiting and — "

She interrupts me: "Street address please."

"Uh, um ..." Why does my mind fail me in these moments? I should be a better soldier, but every time I stick my head out of the foxhole, the gunfire freezes me and my mind seals shut.

"Your address, now!" she says, exasperated.

"Right. 6537 Moore Drive. I think he is unconscious now. His doctor told me — "

Sirens fill the air, their screams timed to the beat of my heart.

An ambulance and two fire trucks pull up, lights spinning drunkenly, like disco balls. Savannah and I step out onto the landing as four men pour out of the vehicles. Four gorgeous men.

"Where is the patient?" one of them demands as he runs toward me. I pull Savannah close.

"Back — he's in the back."

Cologne wafts about me as these beautiful paramedics run past in single file. The air is thick with their pheromones. I feel the heat from their uniforms on my thighs.

The raw strength of these young men is painfully attractive.

My husband has a Frankenstein scar riddled with staples on his head. He has gained 40 flaccid pounds from an abundance of steroids, and is primarily exhausted around the clock. Of course I want four manly men to protect me. I do not want to hold this life together on my own.

Men are swarming through my house and I herd them into the back bedroom where my husband lies helpless. Another paramedic is shouting at him, asking for his name and today's date. Wade gurgles a few unintelligible words as his eyes roll back. A third paramedic claps his hands loudly in front of Wade's face, which only causes him to nod his head backwards. They strap Wade to a stretcher, which seems to glide through the living room on a wave of their testosterone.

Our neighbors are gathering on the lawn; I hand Savannah over to my neighbor Linda. "Where do I fit?" I ask. I meant to say, "Where do I sit?" but I've taken on so many roles since we embarked on this cancer trail that I am confused as to who I am anymore. All we know is exhaustion and sickness. Life is disjointed. All that was will never be again.

In the front seat, I mention to the ambulance driver that it is my birthday. He tells me I can push the siren pedal, pretending it is a throng of friends shouting out "Happy Birthday!" I stamp my left foot gingerly.

"Go ahead, really give it a push!" he says. I slam my foot down, and the siren bursts into bloom, slicing the air with its wail.

"Some kind of celebration, huh?" he says.

At the emergency room, Wade is pushed to the side of the hallway. Every open space has a sick person velcroed to it. Everything smells like loose bowels. Wade's doctor is already downstairs and orders a CT brain scan immediately. Before my husband is wheeled off, he is given a shot of steroids, as the doctor thinks his brain is swelling.

Too many hours later, Wade is resting in a hospital bed. I am snuggling next to him. He is mostly conscious, as the high-dose steroids have done their job.

"How did I get back here?" he asks.

"Your brain was swelling, you were throwing up and went unconscious," I explain. "We came by ambulance. You need to know that paramedics in L.A. have to enter a beauty contest or something — I swear, they were godlike. I couldn't stop staring at them."

I bring out a deck of cards and start dealing. This is our ritual. We play King's in the Corner to avoid facing the truth. I usually win because I cheat when he is nodding off from pain medication.

I am in awe of his fortitude; he doesn't want our child to be fatherless. He puts his body, emotions and soul in front of the firing squad and looks his death straight in the eye. He doesn't believe he will die. I have to believe along with him, silencing my skepticism and getting as far away from Google as possible.

Wade comes home a few days later, his brain still adjusting to a higher prescription of steroids.

"Did you like my present?" he asks over morning coffee. "I thought pretty hard about that one and decided uniformed men might be on the top of your list."

I bend down and kiss the top of his bald head.

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