A Handshake

Normal life attempted to intrude into our ongoing nightmare.  Our daughter had met her first serious boyfriend, and he had driven up to Boise to meet us.  Instead of finding her parents at the cabin in the woods, she tracked us down in a sterile, whispering examination room.  The poor kid she presented to us, Carlos, extended his hand to my husband, and miraculously Chad raised his own in a handshake.  (By the way that is the last thing Chad remembers today, that handshake.)

The two of them arrived at nearly the same time the ER doc returned to the room announcing that we were going on another ride downtown.  Chad’s chemo doc was on-call at the main medical center, and wanted to assess him in person.  Catherine and Carlos decided to meet us across town, and for a fourth time in one afternoon, turned evening, the two of us were loaded onto an ambulance.

Nearing the downtown medical center, the driver, a very nice young man, kept up a light banter with me.  Pulling up to a traffic light I realized we were behind my girl and her new beau.  Why, I’ll never know, my hands were shaking and I wanted to vomit, I asked the driver to give them the siren.  He complied, and we all waved ourselves silly, vehicle to vehicle.

Inside the main ER the verdict came in, Chad was to be admitted overnight for tests.  The last place either of us wished to be–a hospital–looked like home-base for us, at least for the night.  Orderlies rolled Chad into a side elevator to the fourth floor.  We followed in the public lift.  It was while looking for his room number, that I came face to face with a former student.  She was an aide on the floor.  Automatically smiling, I put my hand out to shake hers.  The girl having none of that, threw her arms around me in a big comforting hug.  That gave me no comfort, she must have known of his dire condition.

Punched up with more Dilaudid, my husband managed to talk to his Chemo doctor clearly, lying in his new surroundings.  He admitted that he hadn’t used the bathroom except to urinate for three days.  I heard her murmur, “fleet” again, quite clearly, but without enthusiasm. “Life flight for an enema,’ darkly crossed my mind.

The two kids sat down in the deep window sill of the room, all eyes, slowly acclimating from their new mutual attachment, into the reality of our medical abyss.

Finally, after passing a number of emotions across her face, the oncologist ordered a CT scan for my husband.  She then told us that it would be late before the procedure took place, and that we should go and get some rest.  Her words surprised me.  Darkness had crept in while I was distracted.  It was already ten at night when our worried little entourage was dismissed from the hospital.

The doctor promised she would call me when she knew something.

The Treeline

I still don’t recall exactly how it happened, but the decision was made to life flight Chad to Boise.  Following a 20 minute rollicking drive on dirt roads, the ambulance pulled into the helipad site where a chopper awaited.  Gently the medics pulled the stretcher out of the truck, and from there turned Chad over to the life flight paramedics.

All three, the pilot and the two flight medics exchanged a quiet conversation out of earshot, while transferring my husband onto the chopper.  Then the pilot turned toward me and asked my weight.  If I weighed more than a 110 lbs at that point I’ll eat my hat.  I was pretty skinny by then.  I must have looked it, too  because they invited me to take the co-pilot seat for the fifteen minute ride down.

The pilot then offered me a pair of headphones so that I could hear the conversations between the pilot and the medics and the pilot and the hospital.  At once the word came up front that Chad’s vitals had dropped dangerously.  The medics added that the trouble was the altitude and that they would keep me apprised.  Frozen in that seat, frozen in the heat of mid-day August, I hoped he needed nothing more than a fleet enema when we landed.

The helicopter lifted directly up and over the mountain facing the helipad.  Heavy forest quickly thinned as the terrain turned to dry, barren hills.  Les Bois, French for “the trees,” spoke somewhere in my mind, observing the distinct line of forest ending in a golden hilly desert.  While musing over the vista the pilot asked me which hospital to approach, and unable to think, I told him the wrong one.

Heading to the incorrect facility, (home of the tumor center) I could see ground crew on a painted target waving us down.  Outside the pad, another ambulance waited to drive us to the emergency entrance.  Again my mind released unsolicited thoughts–how much was this all going to cost?  I knew we were racking up giant bills, but of course had no more control over the debt than I did the cancer.

Once inside, he was pulled quickly into an examination room.  The nurse assailed him with a blizzard of questions.  “When is your birthday?  What day is this?”  Chad could answer correctly, but crumpled into severe spasms of pain in the effort.  After two injections of Dilaudud the pain stemmed enough for him to describe his symptoms.

An ER doctor breezed into the room, asking many of the same questions as the nurse, then ordered an abdominal x–ray.  He would contact Chad’s chemo doctor, in the meantime, who was on call at the main medical center downtown.

And that was when our daughter walked into the ER, towing her new boyfriend from Salt Lake City.  We were meeting him for the first time.

Take Smaller Bites

Above arid and baking Boise, we found an oasis, a cabin in the cooler mountains.  Purchased three years before Chad fell ill, we were looking forward to calling the little place home after I retired.  We were both thrilled with the location and he stayed most weeks while I remained in the valley.  For me, the place represented my real life.  It began Friday night when I drove up, and lasted till Sunday when I had to turn into a teacher again.    

But this was the same time when my husband started complaining of a steady sore throat.  Unable to ignore the pain, my husband’s doctor referred him to an ENT for more thorough tests.  The appointment had been set nearly a month out, which left him with too much time to worry.  Hurting and scared, he decided to visit a rural medical clinic near the cabin.  Unable to exactly pinpoint the source of his pain, the Physicians Assistant prescribed penicillin for possible strep throat in case the infection was hiding, and that made his wait-time easier.  Sometimes I thought it wasn’t in his throat at all, though it was in his head.

Despite my doubts, I made the decision to cook up a storm during the week of Spring Break at the end of March.  If he fattened up a little, he’d hopefully feel better. 

I think it was the night I made stuffed pork chops that my husband again complained, “I can’t open my mouth wide enough to eat.” Frustrated by his endless fretting, my sympathetic answer consisted of something like “Take smaller bites.”  I didn’t think much of his squawking because he hadn’t stopped complaining in over a month. My vote went to a canker sore deep in his throat that needed to heal.

The first part of April brought the long awaited ENT appointment and he drove down to town.  I was in class and didn’t hear from him at all that day.  Oddly, when I pulled into the driveway after work, Chad was standing on the front porch watching me drive into the garage.  Again, I passed it off as nothing.  It was a nice day and he is the kind of person that is always dusting up chores to do, so I assumed that was why he was outside.

As I dumped my purse, bag and coffee cup on the table he came into the kitchen not looking any different than usual.  Rinsing my cup at the sink I pleasantly asked him how his doctor’s visit had gone, and he looked at me suddenly with an intense expression reflecting shock and disbelief.  “I have cancer”.  At first I didn’t react, honestly not knowing what I was supposed to say or feel.  I stared back, as his eyes filled with tears.

I wish he could have given me the news in smaller bites. 




Rereading the original draft of my book, River of January, I reviewed the back story that propelled the book’s creation. An impossible crisis pushed me to write the work, but that narrative was cut out of the main manuscript due to length. But I still believe that the story behind the published story is important to share.

The Intensive Care Unit was the largest department on the third floor of the hospital. Reflecting back I never did figure out which direction the ward faced. Was it north toward Boise’s golden foothills or south over the blue turf of the football stadium? Someone needed to open the blinds.

The floor plan in the ward ovaled around like a carpeted arena, anchored by a nurses’ station in the infield. Three quarters of the broad ring had been segmented into tiny stalls–narrow spaces housing mechanical beds. My husband’s particular nook, squeezed into a curved corner, remained either open or sealed by simply sliding a glass door and a privacy curtain. Each morning I instinctively gauged his condition by the disposition of that entrance. Coding patients were afforded some semblance of privacy.

The sparse decor inside clearly signaled “no nonsense.” Two chairs flanked the entrance, with one small footstool. I once tried pulling out that stool to attempt a nap, but sleeping was reserved for the critical only; the nursing staff’s frenzied laps around his bed made sleep impossible.

Unconscious, bloated, with a swollen torso and bulging arms, my husband lingered on the crinkly mattress. Tubes protruded from nearly every square inch of his upper body, pumping in liquid meds and below, pumping out liquid waste material. Attached monitors loudly measured his heart and pulse rates, racketing in a relentless beeping.  I was afraid to ask the meaning of the numbers blinking on the monitor, the din adding to my fatigue. Eventually, I inquired what a normal cardio reading looked like, and the answer wasn’t reassuring. I froze in that nondescript chair, dazed, almost hypnotized, willing his numbers to improve. Still indifferent, that monitor shifted erratically, frequently setting off an alarm drawing in medical reinforcements. 

The cocktail of fluids pumped into his arms overnight had left him bloated to the point that his nose had flattened across his full, stretched cheeks. Fingers that had earlier held my hand from the stretcher now swelled to the size of cooked kielbasa—triggering thoughts of his wedding ring and his watch. My next random reflection recalled both pieces being handed to me the night before, and hopefully safe in my purse. It was a dreamy recollection. 

The worst feature of his bare torso was the ragged, opened split from his naval to his groin, sealed by a stiff grey foam substance, and a thin membrane of clear film covering the diagonal wound. I was told his body was so contaminated in septic debris that the stitches closing the incision would have healed before the toxic substances beneath had cleansed.  So this vacuum packed dressing over his wound kept the area draining and that tube, too had an attached little box, stowed under the bed that beeped and flashed. 

He looked too rubbery and inflated to be real, but with the aid of artificial ventilation forcing his breath, I could clearly hear his intake of air. 

Clinging to these subtle signs I began the litany of phone calls that had to be made to the rest of the family.  His son, my parents, his siblings . . . I hated to upset them all, but knew these relatives had to be kept in the loop. Listening quietly on the phone, my 78-year-old father finally spoke; he and my mom would pack up and come down to Boise from Spokane. I wasn’t prepared for that offer, and asked them to give me a little time. I still wasn’t convinced my husband was going to live. At that moment I had no energy for company, all my focus concentrated on watching his vital signs.

Desperation is a funny emotion. The intensity of it burns on the inside, and we fool ourselves in believing the conjured up power somehow changes reality. Maybe the instinct to inflict mental suffering on ourselves is a primal manifestation of empathy for our loved ones. He bore the physical wounds, while mine lashed and scorched my insides. Over the course of his lengthy critical care, and his slow road to recovery, I had to do something with all the bile stuffed into my psyche. Out of this pain came the healing therapy of River of January and my own recovery through writing.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January