I can remember it as if it was yesterday, although more time than I can account for has passed since that telling moment. My voice had been persistently hoarse, a feature I’d made peace with due to my rigorous teaching schedule. However, given that it seemed a little worse than usual, I made an appointment to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
The doctor’s office had the same smell as every doctor’s office I’d ever visited, and walking in to it made me want to walk out of it at first whiff. But, at this point, I knew that wasn’t an option. So, after waiting the usual thirty to forty minutes, I was led to another, smaller room, where I waited again for the doctor who, as it turned out, was very kind.
After he used some special equipment to capture detailed images of my vocal cords, my wife and I waited for him to review the results. It was one of those moments when you know – just by looking at him – that he would rather not have to tell you what comes next. Sure enough: I was diagnosed with an early stage of cancer. Shock gave way to devastation.
It’s hard to use the word fortunate to describe what took place over the next six months of my life, but I know that I was lucky to find myself in the hands of a very gifted physician, Dr. Clark Rosen, a specialist in his field. He had developed and mastered a very delicate kind of microsurgery, a way of excising non-invasive cancerous growths from one’s vocal cords. This was a highly specialized surgical technique; it allowed him to remove the most minimal sections of the impacted cord in the hope of leaving “negative margins,” a term that means only healthy tissue remains, and that area on the cord is “clear” of any cancer cells.
Of course I hoped for the best results, but after the first pass “under the knife” I learned the margins were still positive. I was scheduled for another round of surgery.
Without being too graphic, let me just tell you that this surgical technique required a procedure that – afterwards – felt to me like an entire army of doctors had walked down my throat wearing hiking boots. For several days swallowing was impossible and, of course, I was told not to speak a single word. The thought of repeating this experience was traumatic in and of itself, not to mention having to endure another procedure. But, what could I do? I did not want radiation, or to go through chemo, so back into the operating theatre I went. The post-operative painful effects were, as you might imagine, double what they were the first time.
To make a long story “short,” it was five months and six operations later that I awoke in the hospital recovery room, coming back into my body, and experiencing the first awareness of a pain that was now amplified by what felt to be a hundred fold.
My mind, still groggy from the powerful anesthesia that was used to put me to sleep, began to talk to me in negative images, projecting an endless series of surgeries to follow this last one. But it was my body that was doing most of the “talking.” It was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that it could not endure one more ounce of pain. It wasn’t a threat; this was a cry from the depths of some part of me that felt like it had come to the end of its capacity to suffer. A wave of self-pity washed through me such as I had never known and, as painful as it was to my throat, my body and I began to quietly sob.
At that point, as best I can remember, the recovery room nurse came over, helped set me up a bit in the bed, and put an ice chip in my mouth to alleviate the dryness and help cool the inflamed tissues. And that’s when something happened that literally changed my life; it’s the whole reason why I’m telling you this story.
As I looked around the stark cancer ward surgery recovery room, I could see someone else was sitting up in a bed just across from me. She was thin and elderly, and had obviously been there during whatever time it took me to return to consciousness. As my eyes shook off the veiling effect of the drugs in my body, and became better adapted to the light in the room, I could see that sitting next to her – holding and gently stroking her out-held hand – was an equally elderly man. I thought to myself this must be her husband. Then I turned my attention back to get a better look at the woman who must have come out of surgery just before I did.
To be honest, I don’t know if it was the lingering effect of the anesthesia, or that something in me just didn’t want to really look at her, but I do remember the impulse to avert my eyes when she finally came into focus. Like myself, she had been operated on to remove whatever malignancy had co-opted her body. But whatever the surgeon had opted to do, obviously to try and save her life, required the removal of most of her jaw. I knew this to be true not because of what I could see, but rather by the absence of familiar facial features that were just no longer there beneath the bandages.
Under normal circumstances, I think I would have looked away from her. For one thing, I didn’t want to be rude, to make her more uncomfortable than she already was.
But, as I continued looking at her, I could feel something began to collect in me. It was a kind of quiet conviction that, as best I can express felt like this: rather then avoid these difficult impressions I was receiving, I should go delve deeper into them. And even though it felt contradictory to my usual wish to avoid seeing anything – or anyone, in such a state of distress, I obeyed the intuition. I’m so glad I did. The whole event, my state of being, the room, the smells, her face, every last unwanted part of how I felt– all and everything coalesced into a series of moments and actions whose effects still linger today. Here’s what happened next, as best I am able to tell it.
As I looked at her, I was struck by a number of soul-shaking realizations at once – something like what happens as a wave builds and crests, suddenly releasing all of its pent up powers into a single movement that rushes forward without restraint.
First, I could see, feel that she was in an extraordinary amount of pain; and further, that this intense suffering was more than just physical. She knew she had been disfigured by the operation, and I have no doubt that part of her suffering included the pain – still to come – of knowing that people would never be able to look at her in the same way. But, what really caught my attention in this moment was the fact that she seemed more concerned about her husband’s pain and confusion than her own. It was if she knew that he was stroking her hand more to console himself, than to bring comfort to her.
So overwhelming was this whole impression, so taken was I by her obvious act of compassion that somehow allowed her to put his pain before her own, that I didn’t even notice a massive change that had taken place in me.
My pain, all of my self-centered concerns that had consumed me mere seconds before, all of it…had just vanished; gone, like it was never there, even though I was still aware of the conditions that had created it, and that were still in place.
As best I can state it, in some unspeakable manner I knew that whatever the extent of my pain, it was as nothing compared to what this woman and her husband were being asked to endure in that same moment. Not only did this awareness of their suffering serve, in some strange way, to lift me out of my own, but before I knew it, I was moved to get out of my bed, albeit a little uncertain in my steps, and walk over to them. I wanted to tell them something that I had come to know in just that moment, a single thought that I knew was true.
They both looked at me as I approached her bed, and it was clear that they were wondering what on earth was this strange man, in his flimsy hospital gown, doing out of his recuperating cubical. I smiled at them. And when I was close enough for them to hear me – knowing that I was about to do just what I had been told I must not do – I whispered these words, as best I was able to speak them:
“Everything is going to be all right.”
Ever so slightly, she managed to nod back at me in agreement; his eyes said, “thank you.” And so there we were, the three of us – each in a pain all our own – yet none of us felt alone or overwhelmed. Whatever hurting each of us had been in the moment before had been turned into a wish to help one another through that storm.
We sat there together, in a silent but shared understanding, until a few moments later when the nurse came and scolded me for getting out of my bed unattended.
I couldn’t speak it, but if I could, I would have told her that I didn’t walk across the room by myself. Love helped me help this elderly couple, and in so doing, I too was helped, not only to transcend my own unwanted state, but I was also helped to see, to understand a lesson in love that I will never, ever forget:
In that most rare of moments shared between us we were no longer a set of strangers – three people suffering by themselves in that recovery room. Something greater than the sum of the parts had come and replaced our pain with an uncompromised compassion. An order of love I hadn’t even known existed had brought a healing to us all.
Excerpted from Relationship Magic: Waking Up Together by Guy Finley.
©2018 Guy Finley
Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd.