Finger in the Dike
Four days before Christmas, 1994, the call came from the E.R. Irene.
“Judy, can you come? It’s so late, I had to bring Tim in again, but I’ve got to get home. I have to be at work early, and I left the kids home alone.”
Nearly midnight. I was reading in bed, Jack rubbing my feet.
“What happened?” I said.
“He couldn’t get his breath, he was gasping. I brought him straight in. They think it’s pneumonia.”
“Okay, I’ll be there,” I said. “You go on home, I’ll come.”
Tim’s voice came on the line. “Judy? I’m okay, you go ahead and get some sleep. They gave me oxygen and meds and they’re putting me in a room upstairs, so I’ll just go to sleep anyway. Can you come in the morning?”
Should I go tonight? No, not this time. Morning? Yes.
“Okay, that’s a plan. I’ll be there first thing.”
Tim was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, swinging his legs, when I got to his hospital room the next morning. He grinned. “They’re kicking me out.”
“Well, that sure was a quick cure!”
“Strong IV antibiotics all night, and now I have pills to go home with. Except I don’t want to go home. Irene’s at work, nobody’s home. Can I come to your house?”
“Sure! We have a new juicer. I’ll make you some healthy juice.”
He wrinkled his nose. “If you must…”
* * *
Tim leaned on me to climb out of the van and leaned on me to go up the three porch steps one at a time, pausing between steps, dragging his backpack. When I opened the door, he closed his eyes and breathed and leaned, then his head went forward on his shoulders and he lurched through the doorway, headed for the red couch under the big window in the living room, under the tree with frozen branches.
He took the brown bottle of Roxinol out of his backpack and set it on the coffee table where he could reach it. I sat on the coffee table and waited for him to arrange himself.
He backed up to the couch and let himself down, feeling for the edge. Flattened his hands on either side of his hips and inched his body back. He shifted his hips sideways on the couch until his legs were twisted off the edge. I reached for his legs, but his hands stopped me.
“No, I can do it,” Tim said. “Just let me rest a minute.”
His head leaned sideways on the back of the couch, eyes closed, breathing. My hands crawled toward him, crawled back into my lap.
Tim opened his eyes and lifted his weak leg onto the couch with both hands, let the other leg follow.
His brown eyes were faded to weak gray and sunken deep into his face, the skin of his face vanilla pudding, soft and white. His face had always been sun-soaked brown and toughened by wind, the face of a man who lived and played and communed in mountains, sailed Sweetheart, the sleek sailboat he had built himself, on mountain lakes, hiked alpine trails, climbed the Cascade mountains one after the other, ran marathons from Mt. Hood to the Oregon Coast. Now he looked like a wasted Pillsbury Doughboy.
He pulled a cushion into place and eased his head down onto it, a sigh going into a groan. His dark hair was sparse and limp on the gold cushion.
I squeezed a dropper-full of Roxinol into his mouth. He smiled and said Thank You with his eyes.
Soon he was asleep.
Handel’s Messiah was on the CD player, so close to Christmas. I pushed Play and tiptoed into the kitchen. The first shattering chord of the Hallelujah Chorus sounded from the stereo. From the kitchen door I could see the top of Tim’s dark head above the gold cushion. His hands shot into the air, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand pressed together, held a baton, conducted the entire oratorio. The triumphant chorus poured over me like hot sizzling grease, scalded my skin and pinned me in the doorway. When the Hallelujah Chorus finished, Tim’s hands flopped back onto his chest, limp. He was asleep. Again, or still.
The heat simmered down in me and finally stopped. I got out the juicer and dragged the bag of organic carrots in from the back porch. Washed carrots and apples, set them ready by the juicer, tried to keep from banging pots or running water. The Messiah played to the end.
The sudden silence woke Tim up. He moaned.
“Morphine,” he said. His legs moved on the red couch, knees up then down, then up, then down, his head twisted and rolled on the red cushion, his mouth drawn down hard, his jaw rigid.
He opened his mouth and sucked in the dropper-full of Roxinol. I sat on the coffee table and waited for the liquid morphine to still his legs and quiet his twisting head. Half an hour went by, Tim writhing and moaning on the couch. The Roxinol didn’t work. We had waited too long.
“Use your hands, Judy,” Tim said. “You’re a healer, use your hands.”
Yes, my hands, they would bring respite from pain, at least.
I no longer believed I would be able to heal him. I thought he felt the same way, after refusing the last time I offered a Reiki treatment.
Now he was asking.
“OK, Tim,” I said. “But don’t call me a healer.”
I knelt beside the red couch, placed my hands on the top of his head, breathed slow and long until the Presence moved through me into my hands and took over. My hands stayed in place, and the rest of me got out of the way.
My eyes had been closed for a short time, or for a long time. Tim’s body was still. He lifted his hands and placed them over mine. He caressed my hands, gentle and sweet, stroked and patted my fingers.
“How could you not know you’re a healer?” Tim said.
Tears shot from my eyes. I wanted to scream at him, I wanted to swear and hit something.
How could you think I’m a healer when you’re sicker every day! I wanted to shout. You’re going away from me, losing it, wearing a diaper, can’t pee, can’t poop, can’t make love. How is that healing?
I said nothing, just sucked tears back into my eyes, felt his warm hands on mine, tried to notice the moment, imprint it, be here with Joe on the red couch next to the big window where the bare tree limbs were covered with ice from last night’s storm.
* * *
January 2. Doctor Chapman came out into the waiting room. Tim lay on his back on a row of armless chairs, his eyes closed. I sat across from him. The doctor wore his usual turtleneck, black this time, under the white coat. A stethoscope poked out of a front pocket. He stood looking down at Tim, then leaned over and spoke close to his ear.
Tim flinched and jerked, but didn’t open his eyes.
Doctor Chapman straightened up and turned to me, his mouth in a tight narrow line, the corners drawn back. He shook his head.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“He’s not doing well on this latest chemo, is he?” he said. It was a rhetorical question.
“Not doing well?” I said. “No, obviously he’s not.”
He hunkered down next to Tim and shook his shoulder. Tim’s eyes creaked open, red-rimmed and tired. He blinked a few times, focused on Doctor Chapman’s face. Tried to sit up, couldn’t. Doctor Chapman slid his arm under Tim’s shoulders and sat him up.
“Can you walk?” he said.
Tim squeezed his eyes shut tight, then open. “Walked in here, didn’t I?”
Doctor Chapman looked at me.
“He might need to lean on you,” I said.
Tim slid his legs down to the floor, slow. Doctor Chapman kept his arm around him and helped him stand. Together they walked one slow step at a time into the office area, Tim’s arm around the doctor’s waist, his head leaning against him. I followed them into the exam room.
Doctor Chapman all but lifted Tim onto the examining table, where he fell back onto the pillow with a heavy sigh.
“Not doin’ so good, Doc.”
“I can see that. I’m thinking of taking you off this chemo. It’s probably doing you more harm than good at this point.”
Tim’s eyes closed. “Was that my last chance?”
“Well, I guess I could try…a different chemo. No guarantees it would do anything but make you sicker, but there’s a chance it could help.”
Tim grinned his V-grin, devil grin. “More fingers in the dike, huh.”
Doctor Chapman started to speak, then focused on Tim’s grin and paused.
“More fingers in the dike,” he said. “But the little Dutch boy saved Holland from a big flood, didn’t he?”
Devil grin. “Temporarily. Until the Nazis flooded it during the war.”
Doctor Chapman’s lips tightened. “Well, it was only a fairy tale anyway.”
“Right,” Tim said.
Dr. Chapman gazed at Tim, contemplating. He rolled his chair to the counter and read through a few pages of his chart, then turned back to us.
He sighed and put his hand on Tim’s knee. “There is one more option.”
Tim opened his eyes. “You got something else for me?”
“Depends on how much you’re willing to experiment.”
“Whatever it takes to get well, I’m your guy,” he said. “Whatcha got?”
“The National Cancer Institute,” Doctor Chapman said. “I’ve already called them, and you qualify for some melanoma trials. Some are closed because you’ve already had treatment, but they have a couple I’d like to recommend you for.”
“Could he do it here?” I said.
“No, he’d have to fly back to Bethesda. Four times for the one I’m thinking of, a month apart.”
A quick glance at Tim; he was frowning, and I knew why. “Will his insurance cover the cost of the trips?” I asked.
“Actually, the NCI will cover the entire cost of his trip plus one companion, including one hotel room and meals for two people.”
Tim sat up with effort, and propped himself on one elbow. “Am I in good enough shape to fly back east?”
Doctor Chapman took out his stethoscope, pulled up Tim’s shirt and listened to his chest. He moved the cup around to his back. “Deep breath,” he said. “OK, let it out.”
He left the stethoscope around his neck and looked at Tim’s face while he took his pulse.
“What do you think?” Dr. Chapman asked Tim.
“I’m game. If someone goes with me.”
“Can Irene take time off?” I said.
Tim was already looking better, a little color coming into his face. “Not four times,” he said. “I’d rather you go, anyway, if you can. Someone has to stay with the kids.”
“I’d want my own room and so would you,” I said. “That could get spendy, paying for the extra room. How many nights would we be there?”
Doctor Chapman thought for a moment, his eyes up at the ceiling. “I’m guessing…maybe at most two-three nights each trip. Maybe more the first time.”
“I think we could swing that, once a month,” I said. “Is it standard chemo? Would it make him sick?”
“It’s not actually chemo,” he said. “The one I’m thinking of, it’s a blood treatment. They’d take blood from other melanoma patients and mix it into Tim’s blood, try to build his immune response with immune cells from other people.”
Mixing melanoma cells into his blood, especially other people’s melanoma, seemed risky to me. I said so.
“Who knows?” Doctor Chapman spread his hands, palm up. “Could be, but on the other hand, they’ve had some amazing results with lab rats.”
“Would they treat him like a lab rat?” I said. “I’ve heard things about those experimental trials…”
Doctor Chapman shrugged. “The limited experience I’ve had with patients in these trials is they’re treated like royalty. But it’s his choice.”
He looked at Tim. “What do you think?”
“How soon can I leave?”
Doctor Chapman laughed. “Let me get you accepted first. I’ll call back there right away, fax the rest of your paperwork, get things going. It shouldn’t take long. They usually want to wait four weeks after your last treatment, and it’s been…” he went to the counter and flipped through Tim’s file.
“…a little over two weeks. So you’ll have to wait a couple more weeks, but that will give you time to build your strength.”
He gripped Tim’s shoulder with one arm in a tight hug, pulled him in close to his chest. “If anyone can pull it off, it’s you.”
Tim’s expression wavered between close-to-tears and intense determination.
“I’m going to pull it off,” he said. He drew in a long breath, squared his shoulders and set his jaw. Doctor Chapman stepped back and gave him a long, measuring look.
“I do believe you will,” he said. He grinned at me. “Take him on home and let him get to feeling better with no more chemo, and he’ll be good to go in no time.”
Tim got off the table without help. Amazing what effect words can have on a person’s well-being. He had walked in half an hour ago literally on his last legs, pale, wasted, barely able to hold his head up. Now he was almost hopping around. Close to death, then vibrantly alive, and the only thing that changed was that words were spoken. Words that let hope begin to filter back in.
I remembered when I was in chemo treatment, and came home after my doctor had used words like “precarious” and “perilous” and “nasty relapse.” I remembered Jack’s quiet observation: “A few hours ago you were a strong, confident, healthy human being. Now suddenly you are dying. What happened? The doctor said a few words, that’s all.”
Jack gave me some different words, reminding me of the path I was on, the structure I had built, my own deep inner conviction, and his, that I was now finished with illness. The illusion was denied, and the illusion faded. Hope returned. Doctors never want to give “false hope,” but that phrase is an oxymoron. No such thing. Hope is always justified.
And words matter. They matter. Words can change everything, for better or for worse.
* * *
Driving Tim home to his mountain house, Irene due to get home from work, he asked the question. “Can you really go with me? At least twice?”
“I have to talk to Jack. I want to go with you, how could I not? But four times…maybe Irene could take some leave time, maybe Wes could go once. I’d do the other two times. But let me talk to Jack first. And you talk to Irene, and Wes. It will be hard for both of them, they’re both teaching, they’ll have to take leave time…and Wes lives in Coos Bay, he’d have to drive to Portland, that adds another day on each end…”
“He’s my big brother,” Tim said. “He’ll go.”
Yes, of course he would. Wes was the most loving person I had ever known, and he adored his little brother, born when Wes was eight years old.
The finger in the dike. Maybe, this time, it would hold.