July 3, 2017: Three Rainbows, Three Tumors

I don’t have to re-read our texts to know what happened one year ago today. I don’t have to search Google photos for July 3, 2017 to know the picture stored under that date. Every moment of this day is locked into my memory.

Our morning went as smoothly as we had hoped. I sent the kids off on the camp bus with a hug and a promise to see them tomorrow. Matt and I drove to the airport, boarded a 10 a.m. (ish) flight, and cruised down to North Carolina. We Ubered (Lyft-ed?) to the Duke Cancer Center, Matt went in for his MRI and lab work, and we were right on time for our 3:30 appointment with the neuro-oncologist.

We waited.

And waited.

I remember this wait. Matt sent out work emails and I reviewed a manuscript. We paced the room. We complained and whined and stuck our head out into the hallway to make sure we hadn’t been forgotten. The nurse promised we hadn’t been overlooked. The doctor was just behind because the office was closed for July 4th and they had overbooked the schedule.

About two hours later, a nurse arrived to complete Matt’s initial exam. Like all the times before, she evaluated his motor skills and he passed with flying colors. She checked his cognition and he cracked eye-roll worthy jokes as he answered the simple questions. She tested his short term and long term memory, those terrifying three words —apple, penny, table. He didn’t do well on the memory portion of the test.

That pinch of worry from the last few days came back as a strangling squeeze around my lungs. I stuffed the rising panic down. Three words meant nothing if the MRI was clear.

We waited again.

At some point, an eternity later, maybe barely a heartbeat later, the doctor walked in with a nurse we’d never met and told us the news.

There was a new tumor.

A new tumor, this time on the right side of Matt’s brain.

The cancer had crossed to the other side of his brain.

Half my vision went gray. I couldn’t hear beyond the ringing in my ears. I looked over at Matt and I don’t know the word to describe how he looked. I’m not sure the word to describe his expression exists in our language yet. There was heartbreak and fear and disbelief and a thousand other emotions. There was hopelessness.

The Duke doctor remained truly positive. The tumor that had been resected in June 2016 hadn’t returned; the tumor that had received the poliovirus had shrunk. We could still fight. The doctor had a plan: Matt would start a new chemo called CCNU, he’d go on a higher dose of Avastin, and receive an infusion of that dangerous black box drug every two weeks rather than every three. We would fight, a three pronged attack: poliovirus, CCNU, and Avastin.

The Duke doctor introduced us to the nurse who’d entered. She’d be our new point person rather than the clinical trial nurse we’d come to know and trust. As of July 3, 2017, we’d officially failed the poliovirus trial. The doctor assured us the poliovirus was still there, still working, we just technically were no longer a part of the trial. In just three months, we’d failed. It was too fast.

We went straight to the Avastin infusion from the neuro-oncologist. Matt was the very last appointment of the day, and we were late. The technician who set Matt up in the infusion chair was perky and positive and oblivious to the news we’d just received. We smiled and asked after his July 4th plans, apologized for delaying the start of his mini-vacation, and somehow didn’t surrender to the flames devouring our world.

Afterward, we took a Lyft to a restaurant with covered outdoor seating and sat outside despite the storm clouds gathering in the sky; we needed to breathe. Matt ordered a glass of water, I ordered a glass of wine, and rain poured from those storm clouds.

At some point in one of my early posts, I wrote that I developed dozens of cute theories to explain or rationalize what we were going through. No theory was cuter or more crushingly wrong than the one I made up one year ago today.

The rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the smallest hint of sunlight brightened that gloomy sky. A rainbow appeared. When that rainbow faded, another appeared in the distance. When that rainbow faded, a third shimmered right above us.

I told Matt this was our sign. I said, “Three rainbows, three tumors, and we’re done. It’s only getting better from here.”

And Matt brightened. For the first time since we heard that there was a new tumor, the smile reached Matt’s eyes. On the phone with his parents later, he told them, “Elaine said, three rainbows, three tumors, and it’s going to get better,” and I knew he’d found hope again, the strength to keep fighting. And that strangling worry eased. We could do this. We could fight this third tumor.

Today is five months since February 3rd. Five months–an eternity, maybe barely a heartbeat–and sometimes, I think I still haven’t quite grasped the fact that he’s not here. Because there’s a permanence to the words “not here” that I can’t fathom, yet. “Not here” is too impossible a concept for a cute theory to explain.

It—all of it—was too fast.

One year ago today, we gave into that darkness. For a few hours, we’d been hopeless. And then we saw a hint of sunlight, three rainbows appeared in the sky, and we chose hope. Again.

We chose hope again. It was always that simple. It was always that complicated.

Three rainbows, three tumors.


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