It is 4 a.m. I went to bed with what I told Trent was “discomfort,” but now the pain in my abdomen is the stuff epidural requests during labor are made of. I know, because I have made those requests, and they were granted quickly, so I have never actually felt this kind of protracted pain in my abdomen, pain that is radiating into my back and up into my rib cage, and deep into my right shoulder. I am not in labor now. I have no idea what I am, but it feels a lot like dying as I drop to my hands and knees on my bathroom floor so that when I do pass out, or die, because I am sure one of those things is about to happen, I will have less distance to travel.
As it turns out I did not die, or pass out even, although the cycle of standing, being blinded by pain, spinning like a dreidel, and reaching frantically for the floor repeated several more times, and by 7 a.m. I cannot lie on my back or my right side, or sit up, or stand. Every movement, and every attempt at a comfortable position, renders me helpless from pain. Still, I insist I am okay, I need to get up and start the laundry, I will call my doctor if this is not better in a few days, I am going to work tomorrow. Trent stares at me with an expression that is a combination of exasperation and abject terror. I try a little harder to ignore the searing pain. Breathing hurts. Tomorrow is our daughter’s first day of third grade. I will be here to see her off, to snap a picture in front of the maple tree she has posed in front of every year since kindergarten, and on our front steps with our house number behind her. I will document this, because it is what I do, because someday when she is 19 or 34, she will look at these pictures and remember where we lived when she was in third grade.
I did not take those pictures, although they do exist. I spent the night before the first day of school in a hospital bed 40 miles from home, after spending the entire day before the first day of school writhing in pain on a gurney in the ER of a small hospital. My attempts to ignore the civil war taking place in my body were unsuccessful, and after consulting the internet, my mom, and my friend who is a nurse, I allowed Trent to drive me to the emergency room. The look on his face changed to determination, fixed on fixing this. He held my hand and drove fast, away from our house I had planned to clean that day, away from our kids and both of their grandmothers, away from any semblance of normal I would know for a while, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time. At the time I was certain I would be home in a few hours waiting for a kidney stone to pass, or some equally painful but temporary annoyance. At the time I was planning to wait out whatever this was–for the remainder of the day. I had no idea the degree to which I would be “waiting it out.”
I have mostly never been good at waiting. I can remember how excited I was when 1-hour photo places started popping up, promising the near instant gratification I craved when it came to my pictures. I would skip lunch for a week in high school just to pay extra for same day processing. I needed to see, to know how things turned out. This is not just about a roll of film, of course. I need to know. I don’t function well with not knowing. While I have read the final chapter before starting the book just that one time, much to my dismay and regret, I have been known to put my entire life on hold to read an entire book from start to finish so that I can avoid the not knowing. I have read “spoiler alert” reviews of novels I just started. Ditto movies. Also, actual stories being told to me about real people. I need to know if there is a death, if the fire department arrived on time, if the baby is going to be okay. I don’t enjoy suspense. I really just need to know how everything ends, and then if there’s an interesting story leading up, fine, I’ll stick around and listen, but please don’t make me wait for the resolution.
Of course real life does not work this way, and waiting is like laundry and the weather: the nature of it may change–how much, how difficult, how dirty–but it’s not going away. No matter how desperately I want to look ahead, waiting is part of the story. And maybe waiting is the story, because I am learning the hard way that it’s the waiting that gets us to the right ending, and the only reason I’m learning this is because I finally started paying attention to the stuff that happens in the middle. Instead of praying, “Please let this be over” or “Please let us get an answer,” I started asking God to illuminate the path I’m supposed to be taking, to show me the things I’m supposed to see on this particular journey. Just yesterday my pastor said during his sermon, “God wants to do something inside us between the prayer and the answer.” Well, clearly. Take Jonah and his time in the whale. Or Joshua and the walls of Jericho. And poor Joseph waited years before all the pieces of his story came together. Waiting is the hard part, and the important part, of every story. I am convinced of this.
Conviction aside, it is still mostly hard for me to wait. I waited almost six hours in the emergency room that Sunday for a doctor to tell me that I might have a ruptured ovarian cyst or I might have a mass in my abdomen, we would have to–yes, of course–wait and see. We had gone to a small hospital a few towns over and a bit further from home because we were confident that whatever was causing my pain was GI related, and we wanted a quick turnaround in an ER known for its short wait times. The phrase “short wait time” makes me laugh a little now, shake my head. I should have known better. There are no short wait times.
I lay there and listened to the doctor explain what would happen next–I would go to the closest major hospital where I would be evaluated by an OB/GYN team, and possibly an oncology team–and I felt the ground beneath me disappear. I was Jonah being swallowed by darkness. I sent my husband home to make arrangements for our kids, to get some things for me, to figure out the first day of school. A transport team came for me, rolled me out of the ER and into an ambulance, and into totally foreign territory. I was Joseph being dragged across the desert into Egypt. A young doctor came in and examined me, looked at my chart, and said I most likely probably as far as she could tell had experienced a ruptured ovarian cyst, but I would have to wait until tomorrow to speak with the lead doctor and get a concrete answer. I was Joshua making the first of several trips around the walls of Jericho.
It was 4 p.m. the next day when the lead doctor finally came to confirm my diagnosis, and another two hours before she finally signed my discharge papers. I listened to her blow off the ER doctor’s suggestion of a “large mass” in my abdomen, nodded while she explained that the pain was due to the excessive bleeding that can result from a ruptured ovary, and that because I most likely slept on my right side it had all pooled there. I held fast to her words, because even though she had not taken additional scans of my abdomen, or rechecked my blood counts, I needed her to be right. I believed her, because in 24 hours my pain was limited to one small area of my abdomen, and because I really regretted not just going to see my real doctor in the first place and wanted to make that happen ASAP, and because more than anything, I wanted to go home and see my babies and sleep next to my husband and get back to normal. But as I have already said, normal was a long way off, no matter how hard I tried to pretend everything was fine.
I had texted my boss from the hospital while I was waiting for my discharge papers and assured him I’d be at work on Tuesday. I had to take that back within an hour of arriving home that night. Even though my pain was significantly more manageable now and not wreaking havoc on my entire right side, I was exhausted and sore and weak. It would be weeks before using the bathroom didn’t cause me to double over, several days before stairs didn’t do me in, and even now, 11 weeks later, I still get sort of nervous when I feel what I know good and well to be a little ovulation twinge or, let’s be real, a gas bubble. But I am getting ahead of myself, because when I finally did get in to see my regular gynecologist the following week, after the blood draw to check my white blood cell count and the ultrasound to examine my ovaries, he sat me down in his office and would not look me in the eye.
I have never been sick. My three hospital stays prior to this event involved a croup tent (at age 3) and two relatively normal labor-and-deliveries. Nothing has ever been removed from me or cut off of me, not even my wisdom teeth. Aside from random colds and the occasional sinus infection or round of bronchitis, and the aches and pains that accompany running and aging, I am the picture of wellness. So hearing this man I trust, this man who left his family the day after Christmas when he was not on call to deliver my daughter, with his eyes averted, say the words, “I’m going to have to go in and look at that ovary,” felt ominous and heavy. He told me my ovary, the one where the cyst had allegedly ruptured, appeared to be the size of a lemon when it ought to be the size of a lima bean. He told me a scheduler from the hospital would call to arrange a surgery date. He told me he had “never seen anything like this.” He admitted he wasn’t entirely sure what “this” was. He sent me back to the lab for more blood work to “check for tumor markers.” He said if he got in there and it looked bad–bad in this story means cancer–he would stop and go to the waiting room and tell my husband, and then he would remove my entire ovary, and we would go from there. He told me to try to relax. I went home that day and held onto my husband, both of us shaking and uncertain and anxious. I laid my head on his chest. I was sad but I could not cry. I still did not feel “right” and now I was looking at weeks of “not right.” Months of recovery and potential treatment. I was seeing myself in every possible bad scenario. I was trying to read the end of the story, see. And I couldn’t. There were no spoilers, just more waiting. And then more waiting after that.
A week passed. I got a message from my online health app that is linked to my doctor’s office: “Your tumor markers are negative. In other words, you probably don’t have cancer, but you still might.” It didn’t say that exactly, but you get the picture. Halfway through another week, I still had not heard from the surgery scheduler. I was furious because what if I did have cancer, and here they are taking their sweet time about getting rid of it. I had questions. Trent had even more questions. At the end of that second week someone from the hospital finally called to schedule my surgery–it would be two weeks from that day, a month after the initial ER visit. I called the nurse line at my doctor’s office and demanded answers. She squeezed us in to see him the early the next Monday. He answered our questions, apologized for the delay in surgery, and scheduled another ultrasound for the next Friday.
Trent went with me to that ultrasound appointment. He said he was going so we could hear the good news together. He said he was convinced all along that I would not need surgery, and he wanted to be there to hear it for himself when it was confirmed. I was not so optimistic. I still felt…off. Not really sick, per se. Not in pain. Just not normal. I was preparing for all the worst case scenarios, even as the ultrasound tech did her thing. “So it was the right ovary, correct?” she asked me. No, I said. The left, even though all my pain was on the right. “Oh, well your left ovary is normal. There’s a cyst on your right ovary, but it looks like the result of normal ovulation.” I actually asked her to look again. To check for fluid or blood or anything out of the ordinary. “Nope,” she confirmed. “Normal.”
For the second time in a month, I heard my doctor say to me, and I quote, “I have never seen anything like this.” And then he said he was canceling my surgery. And then he attempted to explain what he must have been seeing when my ovary was the size of a lemon. His best guess is a pool of blood from the ruptured cyst that hadn’t yet been absorbed, because malignancies don’t just go away on their own, he said. Had he gone in the very next day, the day after that lemon sighting, he feels sure that’s what he would have found: old blood, still hanging around from a score my body had already settled. And had he gone in the very next day he would have made a most likely unnecessary incision in my abdomen. And even though he apologized for the delay, he said, and again I quote, “as it turns out, it was good we had to wait.”
Of course I agree with him. Now. It was good we had to wait. It is so easy to say that on the final page of a story I really did not want to be part of in the first place. It is so easy to say to God, “I see what you did there with all the waiting” when I am no longer waiting, when I’m happy with the ending. I can even say in this situation that it is easy to breathe a sigh of relief, to say I am thankful for the wait when the wait was only a month. But some waits are longer. Some waits do not produce the thankful, relieved feelings. Some–most–waits suck. I know, because I’m still waiting. It’s a different story, of course, a much longer wait for a different ending. But I know this waiting is significant, even as I wish I could peek ahead. I know God is not a cruel teacher. God isn’t sitting on high smiting us with disease and pain and despair, any more than we would do those things to our own kids. There are people who will tell you it was God’s will for you to get cancer, or for you to lose that one person who loved you more than life itself. Those people are wrong. Awful things happen to you because you are human, not because God wants awful things to happen to you. But teach you and grow you when some awful crapstorm rains down on your life? Help you become more of who you were created to be? Slow you down just enough to give you some much needed perspective? Yes, God is right in the middle of that. God is in the business of using crapstorms for his good, and I am fairly certain that came right out of the actual Bible.
I know I said before that there are no previews or spoilers for our real life stories, but we have something even better. We have other real life stories, other plots that have already been resolved, and we know that even when everything seems pointless and dismal and devoid of hope, there was that other time, remember? When you thought everything was pointless and dismal and devoid of hope? And look how that one turned out. Look, I’m not naive enough to make that claim some people like to pull out and throw around during hard times. You know the one. That “all suffering happens for a reason” bull. Not even close. But I know in my own life, in my own story, I am going to look back one day and say, with perfect peace, “Oh. I see now. I see why we had to wait, why we had to wade through all that…crap.” It might take three days, or seven, or even years upon years to understand what was happening between the prayer and the answer, but I believe it’s in there somewhere, in the endless marching, in the belly of a beast, in the pits and prisons and prizes and everything in between, and as badly as we want, need, to see, we will. But first we have to wait.