What Are You Waiting For?

I began a routine of driving home from school, entering the house, saying hello to my mother, and crawling into bed with Chad for a nap.  As he lay recovering physically, I needed to begin a recovery of my own, in my mind and spirit.  I had been diagnosed with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.  And I felt disordered.  I had order in my schedule, in my classroom, in the care of my husband, but my insides were wasted.  What this girl needed was an existential anchor and a path back to me.

My solution didn’t look like redemption at first.  And that statement requires some explanation.

Prior to Chad’s illness, prior to his father’s death, my husband found himself frequently back in Miami.  The reasons always concerned his father, but sometimes the trip was a medical emergency, sometimes an issue with the house.  Regardless of the errand, my husband packed up boxes and boxes of family mementos and shipped them to Idaho.  We, my daughter and I, enjoyed an archival Christmas each time the mail arrived.  By the time Chad’s father, Chum, had agreed to come west and live closer to us, half of our bedroom was furnished with plastic containers of Chumbley memorabilia.

Here I was, a basket case, and my room was jam packed with historic documents.  I am a historian with an active interest in research.  I teach advanced placement history.  I am operating under deficiencies near a nervous breakdown.  Still I couldn’t add one plus one and see the route to my recovery in front of my face.  It took a student to help me along.

When my course reached the Great Depression era, I always described Chum’s air race.  People did all sorts of activities during those years to make a little money.  I showed the kids the trophy, discussed the drama, and reveled along with my students over Chum’s daring.  In the same vein when we talked about the world’s descent into fascist hell, I shared Helen’s story of dancing across Europe with a backdrop of swastika’s and regimented Italy.  Inevitably one or another student would remark, “Sounds like a movie.”  And I would always agree.

A boy, a junior asked me why I was waiting to commit the story to book form.  My pat answer was not to offend anyone in my husband’s family.  This self-assured young man, Ethan, who thought more of my abilities than I did, looked me dead in the eye and accusingly challenged, “That’s just and excuse.  What are you really waiting for?”

At that juncture, my husband was lying prostrate in bed, a close colleague had died of a similar infection, another colleague’s husband dropped dead officiating a soccer match, and this boy wanted to know what I was waiting for.

I began River of January in May 2011.  The prose was terrible–more venting and judging than describing all the characters.  An editor fired me because the book stunk, and I continued to re-write, a friend helped me line by line, and I continued to rewrite, another editor asked if I was kidding with this book, and I continued to rewrite.

And dear readers, through all that time and uncertainty, Chad grew stronger and I gradually began to recognize myself in the mirror.

Writing has healing properties of enormous power.  I just hope River reflects the strength and the determination that restored my life.

Fifteen Minutes

A number of years ago I attended a seminar on President Lincoln.  The title of the course was “Controlled by Events.”  That name puzzled me when I first read the brochure.  Abraham Lincoln, in my mind, was the most dogged, determined figure in American History. Because of his resolve, the Union was saved.  I later learned that the title came from a moment when the President admitted that he couldn’t manage outcomes once the dogs of war were released, just grapple with the aftermath. Now, after our battle with cancer and my husband’s close brush with death, I realize what our 16th president meant.

Through rigorous exertion Chad, my husband, succeeded in sitting up for fifteen minutes-a significant milestone. Soon after, his doctors determined he was ready for transfer to a rehabilitation hospital. This move was designed to teach Chad how to function again.  Seriously, the man could not lift a styrofoam cup, brush his teeth, shave, or comb what was left of his hair.

The nurse notified us by nine in the morning that he was scheduled for transport to the new facility sometime before lunch. Of course that meant the orderlies arrived around two in the afternoon, and Chad was tucked into his new bed in the new hospital by three. Not too bad for hospital time.  But what we heard at the new facility left me despondent, and Chad frightened and frustrated.

One by one, therapists visited us until six that evening. They introduced themselves, and gently informed us that sitting up for fifteen minutes was only the beginning. His relearning would test his endurance, reaching new levels of exertion. Critically frail, Chad grew deeply stressed because what they were asking seemed impossible. I vicariously felt his fears, and could do nothing to allay them.

I couldn’t do anything about anything.

I bumped along the currents of endless medical advice. After all, he couldn’t come home until he reclaimed something of his former body.

There he lay, bag of feces on his belly, an open, seeping surgical cut, from his naval to his groin, and the hospital was forcing him to get up and live again.

The looming deadline ahead for me was school starting again. There was no question that I had to work. We had to have the insurance, and the income if we were to survive this disaster financially. The medical bills were piling up, and I had no choices but to accept my nightmare. Then events, for a change, turned for the better.

One of my students lived behind our home, and I had hired her to tend our dogs while I spent days at the hospital. It turned out her mother was a registered nurse, who, just steps away, could be at our house within minutes. Wow, what a miracle for when he came home. Secondly, my seventy eight-year-old mother informed me she was coming to care for Chad so I could return to work. Honest to God, I didn’t want to bother other people, but had no other options. And both our neighbor and my mother assured me it was no bother, and they were glad to help. Both parties kindly offering the gift of their time and skills.

After two more excruciating weeks in rehab, I got to bring him home.  That night my mother chauffeured by my brother arrived at our door. I was sure my husband looked so much better after four weeks of hospitals and treatment. But when the both of them came in, and their faces betrayed shock by his poor condition.

In the end, unlike Lincoln, my husband survived our intense, little war. Trapped in the maelstrom, careening from one disaster to another we had no future.

Events controlled us.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.


Biscayne Bay Syndrome

After eight long days in the ICU, days that included an excruciating extraction of his oxygen tube from his throat, grasping to remember his name, the president’s name and mine, the doctors agreed to transfer him to a regular room.  However, when the medical staff says move, they don’t actually mean it.  “Move” is code for “prepare for an unfulfilled expectation.” 

Teams of orderlies had to be placed on reserve, much like medication, liquid food, or a lab procedure.  As a part of hospital protocol, a regular room also had to be requested on the floor where cancer patients were treated.  So, again, we waited.  Chad, severely weakened, barely with the strength to move his head, drifted into and out of sleep.

To pass my time, and with some effort, I tried to read the new “Time” magazine. It was a special issue commemorating American history, featuring Benjamin Franklin on the cover, (a step in the right direction from the crap I usually consumed).  My comprehension skills limited, I looked at the pictures, and read the captions. 

After an anxious five or six hours, my husband finally moved into his new room.  Promptly a nurse’s aide came in with a bottle of something brown in her gloved hands.  Heavy set, tattooed, and very young, she cheerfully announced Chad’s bath time.  Now I wasn’t sure what I expected, but in one casual, shocking motion she unsnapped his gown and there he lay, naked, emaciated, emasculated and thankfully unaware of his condition.  Jesus taken from the cross.  Horror, shock, embarrassment, pick a word, froze me in place.  Callously robbing him of his modesty felt too much.  My poor Chad was too weakened for the embarrassment I felt for us both.

A regular in the hospital now, my face became familiar to the nurse’s station and cafeteria.  The halls antiseptically bare did feature artwork from former cancer patients.  I noticed underneath the framed pieces were the names of the artists, and their death dates.  I shuttered each time I walked by.  Another source of anguish came from watching other patients creeping along the halls, getting out of their rooms, ambulatory.  Chad’s door had caution signs saying wash your hands, wear gloves and a mask.  Another notice stated “Fall Risk.” 

Daily, the medical staff quizzed him with questions such as, “do you know where you are?”  He often answered, “Miami.”  He warmly told his oncologist that he could come along fishing on Biscayne Bay with him and his son.  Studying the nightmare from my front row seat I repeatedly despaired, “we’re never getting out of here.”  When the room finally emptied, I would try to explain to him that he lay in a hospital bed in Boise, to which he’d yell “knock that off Gail!  My son will be here soon.”


To maintain that we fell back to sleep after talking to the oncologist, would overstate the minutes until the next phone call.  Our rest was uneasy, more trance-like accompanied by surreal images.  Soon the strained quiet shattered, when the anticipated second call arrived.  This time my sleep had been thin, and finding the phone a simple matter.  It lay where I had placed it no more than forty-five minutes earlier.  Again, for a second time that night, my girl and I lurched straight up in bed.  And for this call my voice flowed clearly, warmed up from the previous conversation.


“Mrs. Chumbley?”  I am Dr. blah blah.” (Sorry)  “Your husband requires emergency surgery on his colon as a life saving procedure.  I can’t perform the operation without your permission.”

“Yes, of course.  You have my permission.  Thank you doctor.  Should I come down to the hospital?”

“This surgery can take hours.  The morning should be soon enough.”

“Thank you again, doctor.”

“You’re welcome.  Someone will call if there are any problems.”  My silent translation, “if he dies.”

I hung up the phone, and lay back down.  We both silently thought our thoughts, worried our worries, until lightly drifting off.

A thin sleep resumed.  Mine was filled the strangest dreams of the classroom, childhood friends, my parents.

Promptly, at six o’clock, I opened my eyes, just to roll over and see Catherine’s pretty blues looking straight back at me.  “We should get down there,” she whispered.

Quickly dressing, she drove me back to the hospital.  And though still very early, the day promised to be another scorcher.  She asked, “Do you want me to come up with you?”

I thought for a moment and then I told her no.  Not yet. I needed to see how he looked and what the surgeon had to say about his condition.  “You go back to bed, honey,” I encouraged.  ” I will call when I know something.”

That decision proved to be a good one.  When I found the ICU, his nurse explained to me that though he had survived colon surgery, Chad was still dangerously septic, in critical condition.  When I pulled back the turquoise curtain to his room, the body in the bed bore little resemblance to the guy I married.

This ravaged body bore testimony to his own hellish night of scalpels, staples, and anesthesia.  Now under an induced coma, his bloated and distorted figure would have better suited my earlier, anxious dreams, than the cold reality of morning.

Fear and Euphoria

The doctor told us that it would be awhile before any tests were performed on my husband.  She quietly, carefully explained that she would call me if there was news of his condition.  For the moment Chad was hooked up to a drip for pain and another for fluids.  Then this quiet, unassuming doctor made it clear we were dismissed.

Stepping outside, the three of us lingered along the broad circular drive.  The night was warm, still hanging on to the day’s exceptional heat.  I remember almost laughing when I told Carlos about the art of timing.  He unwittingly had walked into a hellish ordeal that had actually barely begun.  Making our way to the public parking area, my girl suggested I sleep at her house since it was so close to the hospital, maybe a five minute drive.  We didn’t know what the night would bring and I needed to remain close.

Soon seated in Catherine’s living room, glass of wine in my hand, I suddenly felt like me.  I somehow slipped back into my personality again when I wasn’t looking.  There was no one needing my help, no one calling my name, no one griping about how awful they felt.  For the moment I was free.  So bowed down by responsibility and fear, the absence of demands jolted me back from that alien world of caretaker.  I felt nearly giddy with my momentary freedom, not willing to contemplate what was happening in that hospital room a few miles away. Bidding goodnight to room mates, new boyfriend, and my daughter, I toddled off to bed, setting my cellphone on high.

Sleep, however remained elusive, with the adrenalin of fear, then of euphoria swirling around my mind and body.  At 1:00 AM the cell phone shrilled loudly.  I fumbled around the floor next to the bed, aware that my daughter was next to me.  Flipping the phone open, I graveled out a hoarse hello.  Catherine sat up.

“Mrs. Chumbley?  I have received he results of the CT scan and it is clear that the colon has ruptured, feces is spreading through his body.  Chad is in grave condition.  He must have surgery.  You will soon receive another call from a surgeon, Dr. ???, (I honestly can’t remember his name.)  He will perform the procedure and will require your permission.

“Should I come back?”

“I don’t see anything you can do at this point. The surgeon will call for authorization and that you can do by phone.”

“Oh, okay.  Thank you.”  I hung up.

“Maybe we should go back down,” my daughter whispered in anguish.  I thought that over.

“No.  I think we will get more sleep here than in the waiting room at the hospital.”

We drifted back off to sleep.

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.

An Ordinary Moment

Neither one of us had asked for this nightmare.  He was chronically sick, chronically scared, in such horrible pain, over-medicated, and our lives transformed into daily endurance tests.  Chad was trying to cope with more misery than I could fathom, and I was trying to cope with him.  That insight gave me needed perspective, and helped me (at times) to function.  Above all I did love him and knew for a fact that he would care for me if our situations were reversed.

I recall remarking to a friend at the hospital that I hadn’t signed up for this.  He took on a wry expression and responded sagely, “yes, yes, you did.”  He was right, of course, I had indeed.

Trying to mimic normal to the best of his ability, Chad rallied one afternoon, and announced he was going to use a birthday gift card to buy a new golf club.  There is a beautiful, forested golf course near us, and his card was redeemable at the pro-shop.  Though I shouldn’t have let him drive, it was a short dash and we both desperately needed a respite of ordinary.  This errand meant that I had, perhaps about an hour off nursing duty, so I began to watch a saccharine-sweet movie on my laptop. It hadn’t escaped my attention that romance novels and fluffy sweet films were becoming my obsession.  My only escape from this impossible situation.  If Chad was asleep, or in this unusual case out, I plugged in some trite nonsense and buried myself in garbage. 

I was so lost in a trivial DVD that I didn’t notice the time.  Becoming aware of the extended quiet it occurred to me he should have returned home.  A little more time passed and I finally heard the car tires on the gravel.  I hit the pause on the film, embarrassed to be caught watching such nonsense, and hurried to meet him at the door.

He slowly rose out of the car and his posture and carriage looked oddly off.  His gait was peculiar as he ambled to the house, bow-legged, his chin in his chest.  Hobbling straight for his bed, he mumbled he didn’t feel well and I let that pass.  He fell into bed and instantly dropped off to sleep while I stood by and watched him.  So very strange.

Quietly returning to my insignificant movie I could hear his light snores, and I tried to underplay how weird he looked when he walked in the house.  Abruptly I heard my name . . . Gail, Gail, Gail, and I darted to his bedside.

He was twisting back and forth shouting there was something wrong inside. 

When My Worst is My Best

The tumor institute quickly became far too familiar, an unsolicited home away from home.  He’d press the down button on the stainless steel elevator, lowering us into that stark, beige basement–the waiting room.  An ordeal.  I pretended to be brave. 

The smell in the unit was a combination of baby powder and rubbing alcohol, probably from the hand sanitizer dispensers positioned everywhere on those bland beige walls.  Fox News blared from a 12 inch television in the corner— while stunned patients and family members stared.  Health magazines and pamphlets were scattered on cookie cutter office chairs and faux-wood end tables. 

We didn’t belong in this surreal place and neither of us were prepared for what was coming. 

Walking phantoms, hairless and fragile, shuffled awkwardly, angular-ly across the nondescript carpet, escorted by unnaturally jolly nurses dressed in flowery scrubs.Patients ambled down one of two passages traversing this subterranean ward.  A straight hall toward the right led to the radiation wing while to the left lay the chemotherapy suite. 

I might have giggled when I imagined we had entered an episode of  the Twilight Zone, encountering wraith-like aliens in a windowless underworld. But there was nothing humorous about this place.  People lived or died here, and I somehow grasped that I couldn’t accept this room, with its contrast of sick men and women tended to by a cheer leading squad. 

And that marked the beginning of my own hell–a disassociation reflex that formed to shield my mind.  I couldn’t process this unexpected, horrifying reality. 

For Chad, well, he was just all eyes, trying with all his might to make the hospital and his condition seem smaller, incidental, a bump in the road—but our surroundings betrayed his assurances. 

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.