You learn that an apt metaphor is a tidal wave. It’s not the sudden frothing walls that pound the reefs of your homeland because it begins with more subtle signs. There are foreboding ripples that might or might not signify the shitstorm to come. They accrete and recede, though they tug at you more strongly with time. Even when the wave itself hits, it does not immediately knock you on your ass. It picks you up, it takes you somewhere you don’t want to go, but in the first push it still leaves you deluded that perhaps you can get out of the damn thing with minimal collateral damage.
And then it rips you violently to places a wave should never go, uprooting everything familiar, so that the only operative question becomes: how much can be rebuilt and how much is permanently changed?
Amidst the developing wreckage of this unwelcome ride, you occasionally find yourself suspended, almost clinically assessing how the hell you got here, where you might land when it’s all played out, if you’re capable of keeping your head above water until you’re turned loose. And then, destructively, you hindcast through self-immolating moments during which you wonder if you did something to cause the wave in the first place.
You learn that entering a pediatric oncology ward is nearly crushing.
It starts with a receptionist outside the door, who doles out stickers signifying if visitors are healthy or sick. Because sick can equal death. Before you are the familiar trappings of a medical office for kids – a few toys here, a smaller table and chairs there, pictures of baseballs and princesses and dinosaurs scattered about. They are the same but not, for they are all suffused in something you cannot see but you can’t help but feel. You know what happens here.
When you are shown to an office to await the lineup of consults from which your daughter’s plan will begin to emerge, it too is superficially familiar. There is a computer, a couple chairs, the ubiquitous high table covered in disposable tissue, the blood pressure cuff and otoscope. There is even the noteboard barely visible beneath pictures and drawings and thank you notes all haphazardly arrayed in a pastiche that, without scrutiny, might appear uplifting. Some of it is. But some of the pictures are of children and contain the words In loving memory of.
You learn that once academic and distant clichés about medicine are now disturbingly front and center.
There are too many moments of how the hell could that doctor could think that while this one thinks this? You again find that your scientific training is both blessing and curse. You put your daughter’s new physicians through questions akin to an oral qualification exam, horrified when formulaic recommendations about your daughter’s brain surgery break down under logical scrutiny. You’re pissed off and deeply worried when the oncologist seems nervous and the endocrinologist illogical, and yet you know from experience that the fusion of science and human often leads exactly here, so your anger and fear gives way to some understanding.
Then you are buoyed when the surgeon you feared was too young and inexperienced seems anything but. You push him hardest of all, yet find him impossible to dislodge from a foundation of equanimity, intelligence and compassion. You trust him and right now that is the most valuable commodity on the planet. You go home still nervous but now grounded, ready to set the plan in motion.
Then, the next morning, you talk to another surgeon, this one a thousand miles away but his intelligence and experience leap from the phone. He tells you to do something completely different. The wave rips you from the previous night’s fragile mooring, and you are careening once again through a terrifying and constantly shifting landscape.
You learn that a broken heart can be unaccountably full.
The broken you expect. It’s the full that is surprising, humbling, overwhelming. People you have never met track down medical referrals, send you messages of support, say they will keep your daughter in their thoughts and mean it. Friends disconnected for years send notes so heartfelt and kind that you simply dissolve in place. A girl you held in your arms two decades ago, her tiny fingers still learning to grasp, now holds your girl in her arms, keeping her away from the paralyzing monotony of serial doctor consults, keeping her happy and laughing as always. Friends and family from near and far instantly mobilize to shower you all with support not just verbal but tangible. They send gifts, they make meals, they find doctors, they cover everything at work, they offer to shop for you, they make plane reservations to visit. Many say they would do absolutely anything and you know deep in your soul that they mean every word.
On the first day of the wave, one of your closest friends – a surgeon himself – says that you will all emerge from this stronger and better people. Only now do you start to believe him. Only now do you start to realize that he was right.