A trip to Yosemite
We had many adventures over 34 years of marriage, but this day was to be extraordinary.
We were at the hospital in Berkeley, California. Sarah had a hysterectomy and after 4 days in the hospital, it was finally time to come home. I stayed with Sarah each night. They had a handy little bed for me. Neither of us slept much during that period. We both awoke feeling drugged, although only she was taking medications. Throughout her stay we waited patiently for a pathology report, but hearing nothing we passively assumed everything was o.k. We trusted the various pre-surgery reassurances that cancer was unlikely. We were never passive again.
Today was the day of discharge. I brought 4 large plastic laundry baskets to the hospital. Sarah’s room was exploding with flowers sent from her friends and hospice colleagues.(Sarah was the director of the Kaiser hospice program.) I packed the many vases of flowers and made several trips back down the elevator to my car. The vases clanked and made their own almost happy sound as I walked. I was pre-occupied with not breaking the vases. My trip took me past the Maternity ward where I heard laughter. I was in a bit of a stupor due to lack of sleep.
When I got back to Sarah’s room, my daughters Laura and Suzanne were waiting. They helped Sarah pack and get dressed. We began the long wait for the physician to do the discharge paperwork. A strange doctor appeared at the doorway, explaining Sarah’s physician was unavailable this day, so she would handle the discharge formalities.
We asked about the pathology report. The rushed young physician riffled through the paper chart and found the path report. She began to read aloud to us. The feeling in the room was all very light hearted. Suddenly the doctor paused, paled and was clearly unprepared to read the result aloud: A diagnosis of uterine cancer which had spread to lymph nodes.
Our home was nearby in Berkeley and we all drove home in silence.
I worked at a huge health care organization. We were located in a glass tower in San Francisco. I’m guessing 80% of my coworkers were women. When my colleagues heard that Sarah had uterine cancer, I was bombarded with sympathy and questions.
This was all new to me, so it took several days for me to realize I could not work, if at any moment, someone would come to my door asking for me to retell the story, give a status update or, quite often, hear their personal story. I needed to work, but many of these friendly visits sent me into almost panic and disorientation. I wanted to leave my story at the door and I really had to stop the well intentioned flooding of my days with sympathy and questions.
In my mind, I created a huge oak door. The door was so thick that no sound could be heard once it was closed. I visualized closing it no matter what was happening in my real life. When I entered the office tower, I was closed off from worry and fear.
I began to tell my co-workers abut the door and why I had to use it. I only had to tell a few people before everyone new my wishes. They absolutely stopped asking me questions, expressing concern and sharing their emotions with me. At work, I could pretend things were alright.
Four years passed… and we were well down the road on our Cancer journey. -- Radiation, chemotherapy a well known tale.-- But punctuated throughout the treatment was the scan. We had many scans. In those days, scans were sometimes printed on films and we would carry or Fedex them to various consulting doctors.
So, on occasion, I would have a large manila folder with very mysterious films. The same film a professional would look at and point to various shadows, was completely mystical to me. It was as if the doctor could see into the mist, but I could not. At times, when alone at home, I would hold the film to the light and try to guess what could this show? I soon realized it was a fools errand and I stopped.
The only way to understand the results was to get the radiologist’s judgment.
Over the many scans, we learned that while radiology technicians would never reveal what they saw on their screens. Sarah would try to interpret nonverbal signs, but there were really no signs. The technicians were the masters of the blank mask. With 4 years of practice, I learned I could get a compassionate nurse to tell me the results. Rather than waiting several days to see our physician, I learned to plead my case.
As we prepared for the scan, we also prepared for our celebration trip. This was typically a little car trip somewhere. Our destination would be ANYWHERE. We would be happy that we got a clean scan. We made reservations at Yosemite and proceeded with what could be called optimism. Hope is a much better word.
This time my quick feedback scheme with the nurses, seemed to fail. I made numerous calls to the Oncology office only to be told that the results were not ready. Each call, brought a strange kind of anxiety. Not heart pounding, but a quiet fear . It was frustrating, but we had had many good scans and it was 4 years since the diagnosis. Surely everything was fine. We would get another clean scan. We were almost relaxed and prepared only for a good report.
We had been to the Ahwahnee before. It is a truly grand hotel on the floor of Yosemite Valley. This trip seemed perfect for the Fall and was definitely to be a post scan celebration.
Over the past months we had gone for walks to build up strength near the Napa river. We went there during the week and parked in the empty parking lot.
I was always afraid Sarah would fall, so I clutch her hand as if she might tumble at any moment. As we walked, I would take her hand and clutch it near my heart. Without fail, she would force my hand down, so we walked like lovers just holding hands. It was a laughable routine. She would be annoyed and I would acquiesce.
On each walk, we marked certain trees along the river as a destination. The river was quiet during the week with no boats and few people. Sarah was very weakened by the chemotherapy and radiation. At first, we walked perhaps 50 feet and then turned around. We were happy to be outside in the sun, near the river.
Slowly, we built up some distance until we could walk about ½ mile to where fisherman were resting on a bridge with their fishing rods and beer. Occasionaly we would see flocks of sea birds making their way up the river.
In time, Sarah had enough strength, that we imagined walking the Yosemite trails near the hotel. We thought we might “see some color” since it was October. In our imagination, we would stroll up to see a waterfall. We would have a fine dinner in their huge Cathedral–like restaurant. We would be positive and we would enjoy our life together.
The trip began. We were driving along highway 12. This was a strange road, no shoulders and water on both sides. I made this trip frequently. I knew I had to be very careful and I was tense. Huge agricultural trucks roared by constantly. We turned up the radio and listened to Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon.
After a time, we saw a small farm stand a bit off the road. My car made the gravel pop loudly as I turned off the highway. It was a blinding bright day, so the shade of the stand was a treat. They had piles of gourds for sale.
As a boy in Phoenix, I had loved to grow gourds. The variety that came out of a packet of seeds was amazing to me and as an adult I was still excited to see the many different colors, shapes and sizes. And they were so cheap! We bought a big sack, put them with our luggage in the car and began to grind across the gravel back to the road.
My cell phone rang. I answered. “Hello. This is Mike Gorodezky,” I said. My routine greeting often caused the caller confusion since they thought I was an answering machine. True to form, the caller was confused. I said, as I often did at such moments: “This is Mike Gorodezky, really!”
The caller identified himself as a physician with the cancer center. We did not know him. He was calling because one of our nurses had prevailed on him to perform the task. He told me that Sarah’s scan had revealed tumors on her liver. The doctor quickly tried to reassure us and told us our regular doctor would be in touch.
I turned the car off, it was getting warm and I opened the windows. We were still parked at the side of the gravel driveway. Sarah had only heard my end of the conversation, but she new that the cancer had been revealed by the scan. We said very little.
“Let’s go home.”, I said. My tentative optimism was collapsing. I thought going home would somehow make things better.
Sarah said, “No! Lets go on. We will just be depressed. Why go home! Let’s just go on to Yosemite.”
I turned off the music and we drove on to Yosemite Valley.We staggered around for a few days. On a small trail near the hotel, we walked in single file. Surrounded by filtered sunlight and Fall colors, we moved slowly. We stopped a few times talking very briefly. We sat on a huge boulder in full sun. We who loved each other so, could not find words. The memory now is from a black and white movie. Sarah spoke of her fear, but her normal state was fearless. We had rarely spoken of death. It was an unspoken rule.
That evening our oncologist called us at the hotel, but the floor of Yosemite was not a cell phone friendly place. The connection was terrible. Our doctor gave us the apparently standard pep talk that there “is always something we can do” and indeed we did many many “things” over the next 4 more years.
We threw the gourds away when we got home.