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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com