It was January of 2009 when a brief true story I wrote, Tenderness, was published in Brevity: A Concise Journal of Literary Nonfiction. For roughly five happy years, I viewed myself as a writer. Not one who writes. An honest-to-God writer.
During those years of immersion into what I began to think of as a writing life, I was interested in everything and wrote every day — blog posts, essays, and flash fiction. I took on-line writing classes, submitted my work to a variety of small publications and got enough acceptances and encouragement to make me feel thrilled that I had at last found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Then, in the summer of 2013, my husband, Buck, noticed a pea-sized lump on the side of his neck. It felt soft and moved around under my touch. Over the next several weeks it didn’t seem to grow, but it didn’t go away.
In an unrelated visit to Buck’s dermatologist, Buck asked Kevin to take a look at the lump. “Huh,” he said. “How long has that been there?”
“I think I first noticed it a couple of months ago.”
“Have you had a cold or anything? Been sick?”
“Hmm, well, we generally expect lymph node swelling to resolve within about three weeks. You ought to have your regular doc check it out.”
“Okay, will do.”
I was in the room. When Kevin said, “Don’t wait,” I felt something slip in my comfortable world. It wasn’t what he said so much as the way he said it. He put space before the sentence, brought his face closer to Buck’s, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
The men continued their otherwise routine exam. I pulled out my cell phone and made an appointment with our local internist for the next day, August 8th.
We saw the young doctor, who felt the lump and reassured us that it didn’t feel like anything worrisome and would probably resolve in a few more weeks. Nonetheless, he scheduled Buck for a cervical lymph node CT scan on August 14 and referred him to a local general surgeon for possible biopsy.
At our September 3rd visit, the surgeon said, “Good news, I believe you have a reactive lymph node — no need for a biopsy or other measures. Watch it and call me if there are any changes or if you have concerns.”
So that’s what we did. But the weeks rolled by, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s came and went. We made another appointment with the surgeon and saw him January 8, 2014. He remained sanguine about the lump, said that cancerous lumps are usually fixed and hard, but this one was a “roly poly rascal.” I guess Buck and I just kind of sat there looking at him, so he rambled a bit about statistics, how he felt sure that there was less than a ten percent likelihood that this was anything to be concerned about. When we didn’t exactly jump for joy over that speculation, he suggested we give it a little more time and then if it hadn’t resolved, he would schedule another ultrasound. We agreed, and left.
It seemed to us the lump was getting a little bigger. In fact, maybe now there were two. March 3 I called the surgeon’s office to ask them to schedule another ultrasound. It was done on March 11. Two days later I called the doc’s office to get the results, but had to leave a voice message. After growing frustrated with no returned calls, Buck and I went to the doc’s office and asked for a copy of the ultrasound. Reading it on our way back to the car, I felt a rift in my life open.
“Findings: Ultrasound is performed of the left posterior neck. Patient has palpable abnormality and multiple nodules are present. These may represent lymph nodes, but they lack the normal fatty hilum. One of the largest lymph nodes has a longitudinal dimension of 2.2 cm and a short axis of 0.7 cm and 1.3 cm.”
“Impressions: Numerous nodules in the left neck, likely to be lymph nodes, but all lacking normal fatty hilum. Recommend CT soft tissue of the neck with IV contrast.”
The surgeon was on vacation in Hawaii. We saw him next on April 23. He began to sing the same lullaby until Buck asked him about the lymph nodes missing part of their structure. He jumped up to go look at the ultrasound (which it was nakedly obvious he had not seen). He frowned now and declared maybe it would be wise to schedule a biopsy and see what’s going on.
Uh, yeah. So we scheduled it, but then decided we would rather have it done at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville where we’d been going for close to twenty years for our annual physicals as part of their executive health program.
And then we were off to the races. By the first week in June, Buck was in chemo , eventually followed by a 15 day course of radiation for a rare type of lymphoma called Mantle Cell. It was months before I realized I wasn’t writing anymore.
The sensational news is that it actually was caught much earlier than usual, at an early B category, and had not spread to his bone marrow. The best news of all is that he remains in complete remission more than five years post-treatment. We continue to trek over to Mayo every six months for PET/CT scans to be sure if it comes back they are ON it to knock it back.
Buck turns 82 in about three weeks. This is sobering for us both. And his recent so-called “minor surgery” for hernia repair in late September had complications that haven’t completely resolved yet. It’s led us to conclude that the idea we’ve toyed with to sell Longleaf (our home and 90 acres) and move to Jacksonville near Mayo is an idea whose time has come.
I’ll try to tell the story of our “Great Upheaval” which I’m halfway laughing about as I type. That sounds suitably medieval! Actually, we’re up for the challenge. I told Buck earlier this week that my “word” for 2020 is READY. He smiled as though I might have gone slightly daft, then decided to play along. “Mine,” he said, “is MOVE!”
This was the short version of a long story. What I really want to say is this: I don’t know if I can write again. But I am humbly here and am going to just show up as often as I can and try my best.