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Heads or Tails, Part I

January 25, 2009 by · 1 comment

Linda Cruise

Photo: Fabien F

“There’s the culprit,” says Doctor Wong. “It’s a rather large tumor on your left ovary, measuring ten centimeters in diameter—about the size of an orange.”

Leslie cringes as Doctor Wong shifts the pressure of the ultrasonic apparatus from one side of her vagina to the other. She searches her husband’s eyes for clues, but instead Tom’s gaze is transfixed on the computer monitor’s distilled image of gray, white, and black blotches as they oscillate in and out of focus.

Doctor Wong pauses on Leslie’s right side before clicking the keyboard once more. “You’ve got two, smaller cysts on your right ovary as well.”

After the examination, Leslie gets dressed in the adjoining bathroom. Her thoughts are tangled up in the absurdity of that exact moment, an aberrant turn in her life that makes her future dependent on the digital images found on a computer screen. Just that morning, she could be defined as a loving wife, married for what seems like forever.

A mother of two—overworked, underpaid, overweight, and undersexed—she’s caught up in the busyness we call life. Somehow she copes with the demands of her fifty-plus-hour workweek as a newspaper reporter, fortunate if she can make her daughter’s afternoon basketball game—her son’s Pinewood Derby.

Somewhere in between, she manages to squeeze in processed-food shopping, schlepping kids to and fro in a DVD-equipped mini-van, some spontaneously-combusted meals, and oh, yeah—half-hearted attempts to curb the relentless tide of dirty laundry. No matter that her husband is equally exhausted and stressed.

Once Leslie is dressed, Doctor Wong examines the scans on an X-ray view box, mounted on the wall. She explains, “I’m afraid surgery’s our only option. I’m most concerned about the tumor on your left side, given the fact it’s so large.”

Leslie studies the scans carefully, even scrutinizing the fact that her name appears printed along the film’s edge, just to be certain it’s really hers. Centered on one of the images is an ominous, black mass. She feels her abdomen where she thinks the sphere must be growing.

There’s a hardness—an unnatural sensation she can’t quite place. How could this be? She’s only 38. Still, all of it makes perfect sense, now—the pain she’s had for so many weeks as well as the daily bleeding. There really was something wrong. It wasn’t simply paranoia.

Doctor Wong says, “I wish it were more precise, but there’s only so much we can confirm from the scans. We won’t know what we’re up against, with any degree of certainty, until we’re inside.”
Tom fidgets in the chair beside Leslie, then asks, “So, you’re saying it still might not be cancer?”

“Correct,” replies Doctor Wong. With a grimace, she adds, “But you both need to be prepared—in the event it is.”

Leslie loathes how the doctor sounds so technical and cold when speaking about something as personal as her body—even more so, her reproductive organs from which her children’s flesh and spirit arose. She tries to speak, to ask a question, but it remains unformed in the front of her mind like the glowing glob trapped behind the glass of a lava lamp. Methodically, it seems, Doctor Wong begins to discuss ovarian cancer, the treatment for it, the odds of beating it, but mostly how quickly they’ll have to act.

Numbness sets in. Leslie can’t believe she’s having the dreaded “C” conversation with her doctor while she and her husband sit so passively, so effectively crushed by the weight of two words that the experience becomes surreal. Before she realizes it, she’s been handed some brochures—one on ovarian cancer, one on how to go about arranging for a living will—and a card with the upcoming surgery date, set for the week after next, and ushered out the door.

Just two floors above, in the same hospital, 29-year-old Cindy adjusts her young, bald patient’s pillows one more time before finishing her last twelve-hour shift for the week. The eight-year-old girl barely takes notice of the gesture while engrossed in coloring another of her favorite rainbow pictures.

“You’re always working so hard, aren’t you, Meghan?” says Cindy, smiling. “Who’s that one for?”
Meghan looks up for the first time and returns the smile, minus one and a half front teeth. “Why, you, of course—for being the best nurse in the universe. Hey, that rhymes!”

The little girl’s staccato laugh is contagious. Cindy can’t resist any child’s joyful innocence, yet alone when it exists in one as frail and courageous as Meghan. It’s one of the reasons she became a nurse in the first place, seven years before; but also as much, it’s one of the many reasons why she longs to have her own children. In fact, she suffers daily from infertility’s cruel grip.

“That’s really kind of you, honey, but why don’t you surprise your mom with it? She should be here soon—and you know how much she loves your artwork, too.”

“Yeah, I know, but she says the fridge is all covered up and that she’s got no place left to hang them.”

Cindy yields a gentle laugh. “Did you ever think that just might be her little way of telling you to hurry up and get all better, so you can go back home where you belong?”

Meghan shrugs while looking back at her picture, then up at Cindy with all the seriousness a child should never have to know. “But I still think you should keep it—you know, for when I’m gone—so you won’t miss me as much.” With a pale, wisp of a finger, Meghan points to the picture. “See? That’s me and you.”

Sure enough, when Cindy studies the drawing more closely, she finds two, boxy figures holding hands and brandishing oversized, toothy grins. Not surprisingly, both have hair. They are standing on the crest of a rainbow, arched between a tall building and a cloud, outlined in blue crayon with the artificial symmetry of a cotton-balled edge.

Whatever emotion Cindy takes for maternal instinct just then, she does her best to suppress. She resists the urge to smother this child with hugs, kisses, and tears; because to do so would not only break protocol, but expose the desperateness which coats life’s tender underbelly.

Besides, why should Meghan pay for Cindy and Paul’s inability to conceive a child, even through medical intervention? For Cindy, barrenness has become more than just a void laden by emptiness. Rather, it manifests as interloper—a life-sucking force, not so unlike death.

She is conscious of the barrenness—grotesque, while still unformed—subsisting inside her with all the warmth and weight of a corroding iron anchor. It is as if this lifelessness lives and breathes within her, an entity all the same—a parasite feeding off Cindy’s own viability, to deprive her unborn’s just due.

As a pediatric nurse, Cindy bears the constant reminder that she’s carved out enough time in her life to care for other people’s kids. Each new day greets her with reality unaltered; she remains mysteriously childless. Each new night descends upon her, bearing fretful sleep.

Her dreams evoke images of herself being caught up in the trenches of motherhood, during a time when she might be blessed enough to make it to one of her own son’s baseball games or daughter’s concerts. She dreams of Paul’s fleeting kisses as they pass each other in the midst of their kitchen’s morning madness—those frantic moments just before the school bus honks out front, when their kids scramble for backpacks and lunch money.

The imagining of Paul scarfing down a semi-stale muffin while preparing a coffee-to-go taunts Cindy with such vividness, she drifts toward the edge of consciousness. She recedes again, though, to find herself signing her child’s permission slip for an Audubon field trip, which she swears has happened twice that year already, all the while their poor dog sits sheepishly pawing at an empty, forgotten bowl, left to fend for himself.

Yet, of all these things? She merely dreams.

On the afternoon of her medical exam, Cindy receives the same, distressing diagnosis as Leslie; only, she’s alone at the time, with Paul being out of town on unavoidable business. She drives home along the interstate, barely cognizant of her surroundings, as the drone of the engine paints her senses opaque. Her hands tremble on the steering wheel.

Her breath creeps out of her lungs in woeful gasps. Over and over, the words her doctor dropped—ovarian cancer—surgery—treatment—odds of survival—scurry about in her mind, out and back, in and across, till she finally finds herself alone in her driveway, wondering how she ever found her way home but too deadened inside to really care.

Upon entering the house—a modest cape the mortgage company has graciously allowed them to occupy for years—Cindy checks the answering machine to see if Paul has called. He’s called twice, in fact, both times from on the road, anxious to hear what the doctor had to say.

Half-dazed still, she opens the fridge and spots Paul’s six-pack of beer hiding out behind a casserole dish filled with leftover pasta. To hell with drinking responsibly, she thinks, nudging her hand past the food. After pushing the fridge door closed with the side of her foot, she twists off the bottle’s metal top and pitches it toward the sink, half-filled with breakfast dishes. With head titled back and eyes closed, she downs a third of the bitter quencher in one, drawn-out swig.

Gasping and teary-eyed, she wipes the beer-tainted saliva from her lips onto her sleeve and retreats to the living room. As she flops down on the couch in a deceptive act of solitude, the grandfather clock chimes twice. Despite her desire to push all of it out of her mind, for at least the time being, she can’t help acknowledging that the imagined children of her dreams would be at school for still another hour.

Slowly, she seeps into the surrounding silence; but that’s the last thing she hears. Instead, her brain torments her with questions that have no easy answers. Why me? Why this? How the hell are we gonna have kids, now? How’s Paul ever gonna manage on his own?

Retreating to the bathroom, Cindy splashes some cold water on her face. She stares with detachment at her colorless reflection in the mirrored cabinet above the sink. C’mon, girl—get it together; you’re a nurse, for Christ’s sake!

Surely, she’s used to this type of situation. She knows first-hand how life can seem so unjust and illogical at times. How often had she witnessed an innocent child withering from cancer’s scourge for no apparent rhyme or reason? How many times at the hospital had she heard of one patient being given a seemingly second chance at life, while another wasn’t?

Occasionally, while alone or on a coffee break, she’d find herself wondering if outcomes like those were random or based on choices people made along the way. Were they dependent on nature’s laws of cause and effect—with every action producing a reaction?

Perhaps it was just as her parents had always preached—that there was some greater force at work in the universe, propelling souls blindly along their predestined paths, despite their best efforts to wield control. For all she knew, it could even be like what the little boy in the ward spoke of last week—that God decides our future while sitting upon some big, fluffy cloud and flipping a giant, golden coin—heads, you live; tails, you die.

The phone’s high-tech ring jars her back to the here-and-now. “Oh, hey, hon,” Cindy says to Paul, trying to sound upbeat.

“How’d it go?” he blurts out, his fear unmasked.

She hesitates, wondering just how one’s supposed to break this sort of news. “Well, they found a few masses that need to be removed as soon as possible.” There, I’ve said it. The worst is over.

Silence slices through the phone line until she finally hears the ardency in his words.

“You’re gonna beat this, sweetheart,” says Paul. “We’re gonna beat it.”

“Ye—yes, of course,” replies Cindy, suppressing anguish with a clenched fist against her lips. An anxious laugh escapes her as she is seized with a full-throttled desire to overcome this latest challenge—to live at any price in order to remain the wife and become the mother she believes she’s meant to be. “You’re absolutely right,” says Cindy. “What was I thinking? Sooner or later, everybody’s luck’s gotta change, don’t you think?”

A week later, Leslie comes home from work and hefts the bag of take-out chicken onto the dining room table and announces, “Dinner’s ready!” To Tom, who’s in the kitchen already grabbing plates, she says, “Hey, babe—grab some spoons, will you?” Even before she removes her coat, she begins unloading the bag and opening the containers of mashed potatoes, coleslaw, and biscuits.

Tom enters the dining room, plants a kiss on Leslie’s cheek, and shouts over his shoulder, “Kids—c’mon! Dinner!” As he sits opposite Leslie, a duet of children’s feet drum down the carpeted stairs, their son yelling, “Last one there gets the wings!”

In the hallway, some shoving seems to occur, no doubt some last-minute maneuvering. Then the two children emerge through the doorway—the girl, gallant, a full quarter-stride in front of the boy, both bearing flushed cheeks as tufts of uplifted hair resettle upon their respective heads.

Frowning, Leslie goes through the motion of saying, “I hope in all that commotion you two managed to wash your hands.” With overtaxed nerves, she doesn’t realize just how much this ritualized charade benefits them all. In unison, the children hold up their hands for inspection. The girl stands smirking, a good six inches taller than her younger brother.

Tom picks up the mashed potatoes. “Sit. It’s getting cold.”

The boy jabs his sister with an elbow before sliding into his chair. He grabs the bucket of chicken and asks, “How many can we have?”

“Ethan!” cries the girl. “Didn’t you guys see that?”

Tom looks up with a defeated expression. “Anna, please—just sit.”

“There’s plenty,” replies Leslie, to the boy. “Start with two.”

“I swear, that’s so not fair!” Anna takes her place beside her father.

“Don’t swear, dear,” says Leslie, pulling the chicken bucket away from Ethan, to hand over to Anna.
Rolling her eyes, the girl takes one look into the bucket, then glances at her brother’s plate. “Hey, Ethan’s supposed to get the wings!” But the protest merely yields parental glares.

“Like that deal was for real?” Ethan snickers. “What an idiot.”

Glancing at the son, Tom’s eyebrows rise. “Watch the name-calling, bud.”

Ignoring her abdominal pain, Leslie bites into a juicy drumstick, chews for a moment, then adds,

“Apologize to Anna.”

“Yeah, apologize, butthead,” says Anna, sneering at Ethan with her eyes intentionally crossed.

Leslie’s shoulders sag. Christ, don’t they realize what I’m going through? She glowers at Anna while dropping her drumstick, for mere effect. “How would you like, little missy, to eat only wings, tonight—if in fact you eat anything at all?”

“Yeah,” chimes in Ethan, “you eat the wings!”

Okaaaay—everybody, just take it easy,” says Tom. “It’s been a long week, so could we all please change the subject?”

The four resume their meal in makeshift quietude. Only, for Leslie, the imposed hush reboots her mind’s agitation; her thoughts recoil from one scenario to another, seeking resolution but in vain.
Finally, Tom asks Anna, “You have a game, tomorrow?”

She nods while chewing. “Can you guys go? Coach said I’m gonna be starting point-guard.”
Looking up, Tom gives Anna a proud grin. “That’s great, sweetie! ’Bout time that woman realized a point-guard needs to know how to dribble with both hands.”

“Yeah, well, it’s only because Libby’s been out sick.”

Tom shrugs. “Who cares? What’s important is Coach Bennett gets a chance to see how well you can handle the ball under game pressure. And only a seventh-grader, too. Wow, I’m telling you, Anna, you put that Libby girl to shame.”

Tom—” chides Leslie, “you shouldn’t say such things.”

“But it’s true!” He winks at Anna. “Whoever heard of a point-guard not going to her left?”
Laughing, Ethan gives his dad a high-five.

“Even so,” replies Leslie, “it’s only middle school.”

Tom helps himself to more coleslaw. “Greatness has to start somewhere, doesn’t it?”

Leslie nods toward Anna. “Why can’t you be satisfied with just letting them be kids? I mean, they’re supposed to be teammates—one for all and—and—all that jazz, right?” She smiles, feigning interest as her mind slogs through fear’s minefield of infinite what-ifs.

“All right, whatever,” says Tom. “What time’s tip-off?”

“Five,” replies Anna.

“That should work. I’ll cut out early.” Tom shifts a gaze of expectancy onto Leslie. “And how ’bout you?”

But Leslie doesn’t hear the question.

Tom clears his throat, unnecessarily. “My dear?”

Jerking her head upward, Leslie says, “Sorry—what?”

“Will you be gracing us with your presence?”

“Uh—the game? Tomorrow?” She groans. “I don’t see how that’d be possible.”

Anna whines, “But Mom, you’ve only gone to one and there’s only three left.”

“C’mon, Leslie,” says Tom, scowling, “not again.”

“I know—I know,” replies Leslie, while unwittingly using her fork to peck at the coleslaw, clumped on her plate. “But I have that interview, remember?”

Which interview?”

“I told you this morning. The one with that couple, whose teenaged son got killed last winter break, down in Savannah. The driver was sentenced yesterday—she got five years for negligent homicide. It’s an exposé on how the family’s coping with their loss.”

A half-laugh escapes Tom. “Do you really think that’s such a good idea? I mean, should you really be doing such an emotional piece—right now?”

Tilting her head, Leslie replies, “Darren insisted.”

“Well, then, that Darren Levison is one, inconsiderate—” His voice trails off.

Ethan asks, “One inconsiderate what, Dad?”

“Never mind.” Then, a moment later, Tom scoops up his wine glass with widened eyes. “Let me guess, you haven’t told Levison about needing time off—have you?”

After handing Ethan a second napkin, she mutters, “Not yet.”

Tom gasps. “Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t you think he’s gonna need to know. Surgery’s a week from tomorrow.”

“You don’t think I’m aware of that little fact?” Leslie reaches into the bucket for another piece of chicken. “God, I’m not an idiot.”

Ethan perks up. “How come you guys can say ‘idiot’ and we can’t?”

Tom shushes him, then turns his attention back to Leslie. “So—what’s the plan?”

“Look, it’s not like I haven’t been meaning to tell him. There just hasn’t been a good opportunity. I don’t want to make it seem as if I’m springing it on him.” She laughs nervously. “Besides, you know how Darren is. He doesn’t take this sort of news well.”

Tom sets down his glass hard enough to spill a few wine drops onto the varnished-pine surface. “Christ, Leslie—in case you missed the headline: he’s a newspaper man, for crying-out-loud. News is his business. He should be able to handle it.”

“Yes—you’d think,” she concedes, “but this is personal—it concerns his staff. He doesn’t take that sort of news well.”

“What nonsense!” retorts Tom, throwing down his napkin onto his plate before pushing back against the chair, to lock forearms across his chest. “Levison’s a grown man. If he knew how to delegate in the first place—like a real manager—you would’ve been able to take this entire week off, like Doctor Wong suggested.”

“Maybe, but I don’t see how wishing Darren was more competent helps us any, right now.” Unable to withstand Tom’s piercing gaze, Leslie distracts herself by buttering another biscuit. “You know how angry he gets when I call in just regular sick.”

Tom grunts. “Yeah, what—once a year, if that?”

“And what about that time I tried requesting Christmas off? He threw a fit.”

Tom shoots back, “Yes—and you haven’t asked for it since!”

Leslie hesitates, debating in her mind the merits of rehashing their worn-out argument. Before she even raises her chin to combat her husband’s glare, she already knows the exact expression his tired face will bear—the exact way the chandelier’s dimmed lighting will mist around his countenance, to create an illusionary golden aura.

The convex portions of Tom’s aging contours will appear glossy and blanched, even allowing for time’s marring shadow to saturate the skin’s finer lines and widening cracks. “Well, I’m sorry, Tom, but what’d be the point? We already know his answer. He lives for that paper of his.”

Tom huffs, dismantling the luminous effect. “Then to hell with Levison—and his damn paper! Can’t he see that his employees are people too—that they have real lives—with families—and medical crises?”

Ethan squirms in his seat. “Can I be excused?”

Leslie nods consent without shifting her stare from Tom.

“Me too?” asks Anna.

“Yes, dear,” replies Leslie, flatly.

But before the children can clear out, Tom tells them, “Don’t bother.” He stands, scooping up his dishes, and says, “We’re not the ones in need of an excuse.”

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