My name’s been called, and I realize it’s not the first time. A stocky woman in flowered scrubs leads me to the exam room. “The doctor will be with you shortly.” When she leaves, I wonder if I should sit on the exam table or in the beige chair. I choose the table, then switch to the chair. Someone laughs down the hall. I gaze at the ceiling tiles and the speckled floor. Dr. Lars enters, closes the door, and looks at me. She sits and does not pause.
The word is a liquid heat injection, flooding my throat and heart, stomach and legs. Objects expand in clarity: three diplomas on the wall, a blood pressure cuff near my ear, a jagged edge of tissue paper hanging off the table like a saw. I notice the darkness of Dr. Lars’ brown hair and the white sprigs of gray peeking out from her temples. Her cheekbones seem oddly pronounced, and her hazel eyes are giant. She talks like she is praying in a language I don’t know. Ascending colon. Near the liver. Penetrating colon wall. CT scans. Bloodwork, STAT. Hot tears crowd my lids.
My mind flashes to Adam and the kids, then turns away. I lock the people I love in a mental panic room, then fix my brain on logistics: the work presentation I’m supposed to do tonight. Handout packets in my car. The LCD projector in my trunk. I made a commitment; I’m wearing a skirt.
Mentally, I calculate how long it will take to finish this cancer incident and move on to what’s next. “I’m supposed to give a talk in about an hour,” I say. I should go, I think. Or maybe I shouldn’t. “I'm not sure what to do.”
She hesitates. Looks at me the way a parent might regard a child cradling his dead pet. “If you want to give the talk, you can…but you might just want to go home and be with your family.” Her face is tender. I gather, from her expression, that I should not give the talk. I'm thankful for her guidance, for what she has said and left unsaid.
I organize a list of tasks in my head: call to cancel tonight; tell Adam; call Mom and Dad. The first call seems manageable but uncomfortable. The other two, impossible. Dr. Lars sits patiently. “Do you think…would you mind talking to Adam?” She’s his internist too.
“Of course,” she says. I dial my cell phone and look down as it rings. I don’t know what I’ll say. Before I can rehearse the words, he answers.
“Hold on a sec,” he says, “let me step out of my meeting...What’d the doctor say?”
A vast silence answers me. So large I fall inside it and think I hear an echo. I want to reach for him, to lock into his brown-eyed gaze beneath the hairline that sits like a dark rope over his eyebrows. I want to touch his angled chin, feel the stubble push back when I glide my thumb across. I want to lean against his solid body through the ether.
“You there?” I ask.
Adam clears his throat.
“I’m here,” he answers.
Time hangs, suspended before us: the diagnosis, his reaction, the tipping moment where everything changes.