- The First Week of After
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[End Page 78]
We wake up early, you and I, and go to the hospital. Anxious, empty stomachs. In the waiting room, we are the only ones. There is a television in the corner, volume low, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is on. Changed into his sweater, Mr. Rogers shows us how a trumpet is made, takes us inside a manufacturing plant, bending the brass, fitting finger pads; then an employee dressed in a V-neck velour shirt gives a quick performance at Mr. Rogers’s request before packing the finished trumpet up and shipping it off. We are lulled for a time. And then your name is called. We pretend our stomachs do not drop.
We are kind to the attendant. [End Page 79]
You change into a blue hospital gown and are asked to leave your watch, your wallet, your ring, anything metal in the provided locker. We enter the MRI bay. I sit in a chair at a far wall and watch. You are told to lie on the flat, slim bed that slides in and out of the open mouth like a tongue. The technician tells you to hold still because moving will make the images unusable.
You are calm being fed into the massive machine, calm as it clicks and grunts around your head at abrasive, industrial volume. Sitting across the room from you and the chugging, whirling magnets, I will myself to think good thoughts.
Nothing has happened. Nothing is the same. Relieved it is over now, we go about our day. We wait and are not waiting, as if the imaging itself was what we feared, not what comes after.
Now we are eating dinner, watching a movie, trying to relax, remembering to forget. I go to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine and check the answering machine out of habit. I cannot say why I check it then. Why not wait until the movie is over? Why not wait until morning? There is a new message. A doctor’s voice saying please call, leaving all his numbers, even his home phone. And still, even now in this last moment of before, I do not believe the worst. I tell myself it could be nothing.
You do not want to call, but now that we know there is something to know, not calling is not an option. I open the wine, tell you to take a sip before dialing. I look at the wineglass. I do not know where else to look. You dial, and even though it is late now, nine o’clock on a Monday night, horribly, someone answers. Ear to receiver, you nod your head. I watch your hand starting to shake as you write down information that will sit on a small square of paper for months, impossible to get rid of. I stand two feet away and watch your lips. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me. . . . Right here, midsentence, your eyes move to mine, and in this instant I have the feeling that I have it all wrong, that I am misreading the shaking, the tone—that it is not the worst thing and that I just slipped for a moment into that parallel universe that floats next to ours, the one we all peek into when somebody is an hour late driving home in heavy rain, the one most of us back out of, returning to the familiar world where the unthinkable happens to other people. And then the frozen moment passes, and you finish your sentence. I hear you say, Is that all you can tell me, a tumor-like growth? The words have force enough to move matter; they push me two steps back.
It is a simple moment. A tumor-like growth. [End Page 80]
It is two days past Christmas; much of the staff is away, and this doctor’s voice is not even your doctor, he is just filling in, assigned to call, covering for a colleague. The doctor tells us we will have to wait to...