"We're ready to see you, Mr. Stoecker."
We follow the doctor, who is thirty-ish, has dark brown hair and blue eyes and wears the Dockers pants, white shirt, tie, and Rockport shoes that is the uniform of med students and residents, into an exam room. The doctor takes the desk chair, Gary the seat by the desk, and I the chair next to his. I cross one leg tightly over the other. I automatically scrunch up my shoulders around my neck as if I am standing outside without a coat on this chilly day. Why I do that in the cold when I know my neck doesn't stay warm is beyond me. It's not cold here, but my body's response is the same. The payoff is also identical—sore knotted muscles. The room is decorated what interior decorators might call "Office Contemporary," with its coral and blue colors, mini-blinds and privacy curtain with a geometric pattern hanging to one side of the exam table. But you never forget where you are. In addition to the exam table, there's the stainless steel sink, several medical texts, boxes of rubber gloves (latex-free), a memo taped to the wall to staff that lists "important" phone numbers for emergencies, cabinets marked "gowns" and "gauze," and the X-ray light panel. Missing is that hospital smell. The odor of antibacterial floor cleaner and whatever else hospitals use to keep the germs in check does not reach my nose. The top of the desk is pretty spare with a computer, pad with a drug company logo—and the big manila envelope that bears Gary's MRI scans poking out from under his thin patient record file. Another resident, his blonde hair thinning, stands by the door because the room's small size doesn't permit him to stand or sit elsewhere.
The doctor sitting at the desk starts with the basics. "How are you feeling?" "What problems are you experiencing?" Then five minutes into the visit:
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news but I can't hold it back any longer." The doctor leans forward in his chair.
"You have a brain mass."
Thud. The suspense is over. Yet, I feel no sense of relief, no shock, no panic. Nothing. I brace myself for tears that do not well up in my lids. Where are my tears? Shouldn't I be crying at a time like this? My eyes are dry, dry, dry. I react as if the doctor told us that Gary suffers from a cold.
We stand near the light panel to view MRI scans that look like a series of line-up photos, left, right, front, back views. The doctor points to the felon. We look at the tumor, a white spot aglow on the MRI scans showing Gary's brain from different angles. I do not place that tumor, set it up with all the implications, inside Gary's head. I relate to its existence or its presence as if looking at photos of people I have never met. A rendering of the thing, but not the thing. The doctor tells us more: It's about the size of a golf ball, here in your left temporal lobe. He traces its location with his index finger on Gary's skin from the area just above his left ear to the hairline at his temple. As the doctor does this, the white mass on the MRI is no longer disembodied. Gary has a tumor. My abdominal muscles tighten.
Just when my mind lurches into coming up with questions, the doctor tells us more: That explains your symptoms since that area of the brain controls speech and memory. You may have seizures. You need to be hospitalized right away. A neurosurgeon needs to remove the tumor.
"Is it cancer?" There. The "c" word is out there with us in the exam room. Gary looks at me and then at the doctor. I had to ask. I do not like not knowing. I cannot pretend that the unspoken, because it has not been articulated, does not exist in the realm of possibility. I want it all there, word for word, sentence for sentence, because without the facts I torture myself with worst-case scenarios.
"We won't know until the surgeon removes it and the pathologist has a look at it."
The Thing could be cancer.
"Hospital? Can we go to dinner first?" Gary says. "We have a 5:30 reservation." His short-term memory had kicked in.
"Not a good idea. We need to get you started on medications to decrease the swelling of your brain." The doctor goes back to the MRIs clipped on the light panel. "Normally, we should see the ridges of the brain—the folds—along the outside. Your brain is so swollen because of that mass that the ridges are gone. The slight pressure you feel over here"—the doctor taps his index finger on Gary's temple—"is because the tumor here is crowding your brain."
Surgery. Cancer. Life-threatening. Loss. Gary slumps in his chair. I move closer to him and cradle his head.
copyright 2008 Delia K. Cabe