MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

For Better, For Worse

Published under Voices.

It’s a very curious and lonely thing, facing a pancreatic tumor and a divorce at the same time. You know intellectually that your marriage is over, that the person you’d always imagined would be by your side holding your hand if you ever had to face something scary like this isn’t there anymore.

But a part of you, that part that’s been formed by years of long habit, still expects to look and find that person there. “For worse” may have finally overtaken “for better,” but there’s still this part of you that can’t seem to keep a handle on that. And you wonder how it came to this, how two otherwise reasonably intelligent people who work daily communicating with words for a living couldn’t seem to figure out how to communicate well enough with each other to keep their marriage from falling apart.

In between dealing with all this, you have to remember that there are also children very recently torn apart by the inability of their parents to hold their family together, and to put balm on the little soul-wounds that crop up to remind you that these small folk are still hurting, however well-adjusted they might seem on the surface. And you’re torn by guilt; your heart breaks a little bit when your six-year-old says apropos of nothing in a quavering little voice at the dinner table one night, “I’m doing mostly okay with Daddy not living here anymore. Really. I’m alright.”

Hardest of all are those times when you have to be a brave mother for your children and you’re not feeling especially brave yourself. Your oldest daughter, a young adult now herself, has been aware of the situation from the beginning, but there comes a night when you finally have to sit down with your four younger children and explain to them that one of the tests found a tumor on your pancreas, and this means you will have to have surgery, and maybe chemotherapy after that, and there will be more doctor appointments, although they have grown tired already of Mommy being so often at the doctor these days.

The older two know enough to equate “tumor” with “cancer” and soon they are all sobbing hysterically and clinging to you, and all you can do is blink furiously to hold back your own tears for the moment as you try your best to comfort your babes, and look helplessly at your own mother over a crying child’s shoulder. You swallow down your own helplessness and fear so you can comfort and reassure these small people who depend so on you. You are their center, they need you to be strong for them, and so you are. As your mother is for you. This is as it should be.

But later that night, long after tear-streaked faces have been wiped with warm cloths and kissed, and little heads have nodded asleep on pillows, and the small hands clinging desperately to your hands and arms have relaxed in sleep enough that you can untangle yourself and slip out of bed, you draw a warm bath, and light a vanilla and lavender candle, and soak in the tub and finally let your own tears and fears and aloneness flow out. And somewhere in the dark, in another room, your mother cries, too.

And the next day comes along, and the next, and you keep putting one foot in front of the other. You read blogs written by cancer survivors about the importance of maintaining a cheery, positive attitude and berate yourself for your own relentness bitchiness and irritation at your body for betraying you by getting sick. You read about how cancer changed these peoples’ lives in positive ways, and you wonder if you will ever feel as though you’ve been given an unexpected but nonetheless delightful gift, rather than feeling that all this divorce and sickness is just punishment being heaped upon you by an angry God for whatever misdeeds you committed over the past 40 years.

When you go to your doctor appointments, the waiting room is packed with other people there for the same reason, more or less, and you surreptiously study them, as if this is all just a very interesting anthropological project and you are merely an observer and not one of the subjects. Some are there alone, like you, but mostly they are not. You see couples, some young, some old, holding hands in mutual support, and you feel keenly the loss of your own partner.

Sometimes, it’s easy to tell which of the pair is sick and which is well; one of them will be pale, or gaunt, or wearing a jaunty cap or scarf where hair used to be. Other times it’s harder to tell, and you suspect of those couples that they are still in the diagnosis stage; besides, you’ve been here enough now to have noted that the ones who have already been through surgeries and treatments and many appointments have an air of resignation or at least of patient tolerance, while the new ones are still enveloped in that palpable fog of fear and uncertainty.

On the night before you have the first of three days of scans that will help the surgeon determine whether that little tumor on your pancreas has metastesized, you find yourself being short-tempered with your mother, who deserves that treatment less than anyone you know. She, after all, is the one who’s been holding your hand through this, doing her best to fill the void where your marriage used to be, and support you in every way.

You are grateful to have the sort of mother who will not only drop most of her life to come and stay at your house in the wake of all this trauma and help you care for your children and keep your house clean and be there to support you so you aren’t carrying all this burden alone, and doubly grateful that you and your mother actually like each other and get along well enough for this to be a help rather than a hindrance. You apologize profusely the next morning for your errant grumpiness, and because she is your mother and she loves you, she graciously accepts your apology.

You go back for your first scan four hours after being injected with a radioactive something that will not, as your six-year-old hopes, grant you any cool superpowers. The tech directs you to the bathroom to empty your bladder before the first scan, and although you just went a few minutes ago you obediently go into the bathroom anyhow, so as to have a few minutes of solitude behind a locked door. You are scared of what this scan will show. So much of the future is riding on it.

And in those few moments in the white and sterile bathroom, you allow a few tears to have their way, and you offer a silent prayer to whatever deities might be listening that these three days of scans will reveal no metastases, that your tumor has stayed politely confined to the pancreas where it can, perhaps, be easily removed. You pray, and you hope, and you wish that someone was there to pray and to hope with you.

But no one is there, so you open the door and walk into the scanning room, alone.

– Kim Voynar
October 22, 2009

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