To Have and To Hold

To Have and To Hold

Though the surgeons had removed most of the tumor from my wife Laurie’s breast, a few malignant crumbs lingered beneath her nipple and the surrounding buffer of tissue that for a decade kept my greedy hands from flat-lining veins and nerve-endings. That first surgery, undertaken a few months before Laurie’s thirty-third birthday, took all day from needles in to needles out. A troop of doctors and nurses excised much of the Stage Zero from Ground Zero and gave credence to the promise they’d issued to Laurie months earlier—this cancer would not be fatal.

Surgery Two was scheduled to take care of the rest.

While the anesthetist numbed Laurie into unconsciousness for her first operation, Laurie remained awake for the sequel, cognizant of the sounds and smells of her incised and cauterized flesh, lucid to the point of surreal. The medical staff wouldn’t allow Laurie full anaesthetization for one specific reason: the baby.

Laurie and I had unknowingly conceived our third child about six weeks after her first surgery. Our sons were six and four then, and we’d been trying to conjure them up a sibling in the months prior to Laurie’s diagnosis. The doctors suggested we put a hiatus to such fleshy shenanigans, however, once the lump metastasized into reality. They kicked Laurie off birth control due to the many what-ifs to which the chemicals might lead, and we welcomed condoms back to the bedroom for the first time in a decade. It turns out that we didn’t need them much: cancer is hardly an aphrodisiac.

Then, about six weeks after the first surgery, Laurie felt well enough to make a suggestion, one with which I agreed. We returned to normalcy after five months of anything but and, for a little while at least, tried to forget about the onset of our nuclear family winter.

After that first post-surgery consummation, Laurie continued to heal—until she began to feel worse. Nausea and fatigue wrecked her into immobility, heartburn scorching her viscera from tummy to tonsils, dizziness swooning her into stasis. One morning, fresh off a gag brought on by brushing her teeth, Laurie asked me if I thought she might be pregnant. We quickly came to the same conclusion: she couldn’t be after the cancer; after everything she’d been through, it just didn’t seem plausible. Still, Laurie asked me to pick up a pregnancy test on the way home from work. When I arrived home late that afternoon, Laurie snatched the test from my hands and hurried into the bathroom, coming out minutes later. “I can’t believe it,” she said and showed me, for the second time that year, a positive sign.

And just like that we were back to seeking out medical opinions. We met with Laurie’s OBGYN early the next week. Then we sat down with her oncologist, her surgeon, her plastic surgeon, and our nurse practitioner, our questions wholly antithetical to those we asked just months earlier. We openly wondered if the last few malignant threads stitched into what remained of Laurie’s breast would affect the pregnancy. Each doctor assured us that they would not. Just because Laurie passed everything else to the baby—vitamins, oxygen, half her genetic code—the cancer was not going to tunnel through the umbilicus as well. The pregnancy, Laurie’s OBGYN assured us, was going to be normal, Surgery Two one of those unforeseen consequences of being human. Of being unexplainable.

Two months later, after the many guarantees, Laurie once again scrubbed her body with antibacterial soap, slipped into a hospital gown, and closed her eyes when a nurse slid an IV into her vein. She looked away when the surgeon scrawled his X-marks-the-spot on her breast in permanent marker, his scribbled hieroglyphic penned just north of where Laurie had only just begun to show, her flat stomach rounding out with the kind of bump we wanted to see. Laurie closed her hospital gown and leaned back. I kissed her. Medical staffers wheeled her out of the room then, but only for a few hours. The baby’s presence turned out to be a timesaver: whereas the entire process lasted thirteen hours for her first surgery, Laurie was out by lunch this time, and we were home before the boys returned from school.

That surgery was Laurie’s sixth in the fourteen years I’d known her, and in the twenty-four months that followed she’d have two more. Each time, the surgeons took something from her: a tumor, a breast, three babies, a mole lanced from her sternum, and four screws that surgeons removed from her scoliotic spine before they broke her ribs to smooth out a barely noticeable hump in her back. She’s known pain killers longer than she’s known me, having already undergone three surgeries before we’d met in college. Our wedding vows should’ve been spoken during visiting hours: With this ring, I thee wed between the hours of eight and eight.

I, on the other hand, have never had surgery, never broken a bone or torn a tendon. My medical scares have been phantoms masquerading as malignancies, random lumps in my body explained away as swollen lymph nodes, my rashes caused by reactions, not disease, my stomach igniting with overreactions to headaches and backaches and the boogeymen of imagination. I’ve never lost a body part that can’t grow back. For these reasons and a thousand more, I’ll never fully understand what Laurie went through, what she’s still going through years later. I was with her for every appointment, each follow-up, each opinion. I was there to strip the drains sewed into her skin of congealed blood, there to offer water when it was time for painkillers, there to dread the mammogram six months later. There to listen, there to cry, there just to be there. But I was never the patient, never the one forced to grapple with what it means to lose a part of one’s body. I was never the survivor, just the placebo, the control in a world stripped of predictability.

Laurie, it turns out, shouldn’t have to be a survivor either. According to the geneticists, the disease snuck in through a loophole that has since been sutured shut, the chances of reoccurrence hovering around six percent. Her cancer, they told us, was a fluke. Though several distant relatives have battled the disease, Laurie’s was random. Doctors couldn’t explain the source of its invasion. One day she was healthy, the next she was surviving. This news crushed her, the roots of her agony buried not within a chromosome, but in misfortune.

And yet there is this: without the cancer, we never would have had our daughter, who we conceived in that one brief respite from disaster.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing at a lump in Collins’ chest, dead center, small, located just above her abdomen. Collins, our daughter, was less than thirty minutes old, fresh out of her first bath and resting beneath a warming lamp. As doctors once again stitched Laurie back together down the hall, I stood next to the nurse, my eyes already watering with worry, flashbacks taking me to the moment Laurie discovered her own lump: Christmas Eve at my parents’ home as she laid in the twin bed I slept in each night as a kid.

“That?” the nurse asked. I knew if I started crying then I wouldn’t be able to stop—not this time. After all we’d been through, after all the guarantees from doctors that the cancer was localized to Laurie’s body, there was this lump in my daughter’s chest. I didn’t know how I would break the news to Laurie.

And then: “Oh, that’s nothing.”

“Nothing?” I nearly yelled.

The nurse leaned in for a closer look, gave the bump a little wiggle, and said, so benignly, “It’s just part of her body. Nothing to worry about.”

A substantive part of parenthood is knowing what’s right and what’s wrong with one’s child—socially, emotionally, physically. For all the routine and stability we try to build into our children’s lives, our fingers are not the ones from which the puppeteer’s strings hang. We are the Pinocchios, and our children are the tiny Geppettos. They create new lives for us, lives we couldn’t imagine, lives with new manifestations of responsibility, stress, and worry. Children teach us not to settle for the first answer, the one filtered through bullshit. They show, they tell, they make us dance on our toes as we’re waiting on hold for the ER nurse to tell us if we should come in for stitches or just slap a bandage on the situation and drown it in low dose acetaminophen. The more we want to know, the less children want to say. I’m a person who wants to know everything, yet the moment the nurse told me that Collins’ lump was nothing was the moment that I decided against further inquiry.

People often ask me why I didn’t follow-up with more questions, why I didn’t consult every nurse in that room, every doctor in that building. How, after all Laurie went through, could I just accept the nurse’s answer and move on? Here’s why: I’d stressed so much by then, worried myself into an IBS diagnosis, found End Times before I was even off of beginnings. In the months following Laurie’s diagnosis—the same months that led up to Collins’ birth—I’d imagined every possible manifestation of life after cancer and found hope in few. Yet, Laurie survived. She healed. She gave birth; she even breastfed Collins, if only on one side. Collins’ lump has been a nonissue for the first three years of her life, and there’s no reason to assume that it will ever be anything but a curiosity.

I’ll still worry, of course, will continue to agonize over the mundane and the mysterious until the day disease soaks into my bones and distills me down into a memory. I’ve been that way my whole life, fretting over problems big and small. Laurie’s cancer red-lined my anxiety, and I went on meds a few months after the initial diagnosis. I needed help because the nature I was gifted is one of apocalypse.

And that’s okay.

Worry is a byproduct of passion, both the carnal and banal varieties, and the day I stop worrying is the day I misrepresent myself. No one has ever worried about someone to whom they are indifferent. Of course, I wish Laurie never had cancer. I wish she never stood in front of the crowd at Relay for Life and told the masses that she was, for the first time, a survivor. I wish doctors didn’t know her name, that she wasn’t part of a study geared to assisting oncologists help future generations of breast cancer patients. I wish the tumor had been a little bit smaller or further away from her nipple. I wish that she could’ve gotten her implants right away and not had to wait until Collins finished breastfeeding. I wish and I wish and I wish. Then I watch Laurie rock Collins to sleep, watch her hold our daughter against her chest, and wonder about all those wishes.


About the Author

Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Pinch Journal, Southern Humanities Review, Superstition Review, Barrelhouse Online, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. Matt is an associate editor of fiction for Southern Indiana Review and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site.

Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels