Tuesday, March 07, 2017
For those of you who also love my Betty
And now I'm going to tell you about the past month.
It is February second, and I am in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
I'm a sucker for stained glass and achingly high ceilings.
My dad was Catholic, and when I'm in a church, I light a candle for him. So I am wandering around St. Patrick's, wondering which saint would be the best one for my dad's candle.
I look for Saint Michael, because that's my dad's name, but then Michael was an archangel, right? How does that work? Does he get a niche with candles?
Before I can examine all the saint options, my phone rings. It's my mother's doctor. I answer quietly. Are you allowed to talk on a phone in a church?
She tells me that my mom's CT scan revealed a mass in her lung. And that she needs a further scan to determine what it might be.
I am too well aware of the fact that Mom has smoked for 60 years.
I start to cry while we are talking, and in the end, I can only whisper, because otherwise, I will wail.
And then I feel so lucky to be in a church. I sit on a pew and sob. I know I'm an adult with children of my own, but I am not ready to let go of my mama. I am not ready for my children to lose their Nana, one of their biggest cheerleaders, reading companions, night-time snugglers.
As I cry, I pray, which is what I do in crisis. I did this every time my dad attempted suicide and went missing. Every time he wound up in the hospital and I held his hand and stared at the monitors.
I beg, and I tell God that I know that I really suck in that I only pray when I need something and it is true that I am not religious and don't go to church and am not going to start. But please, please let my mama be OK. Please.
Unable to stop crying, but with a train to catch, I find the nearest saint, and light a candle for my mom. I figure the living need it more than the dead.
There is a gift shop near the door, and I stop in. I buy a St. Patrick key chain.
Because I am also a sucker for colorful stuff with saints.
The following week, Betty has a PET CT scan. They have her drink glucose and put her in a lead-lined room. She'll be radioactive, so she has to stay in there alone. She can't be around babies or pregnant women for 24 hours.
The technician explains that cancer uses glucose at a faster rate than normal cells. So this test will show if her mass is using glucose, and how much.
Her mass shows up as using glucose. This means it is growing, although not rapidly.
We are fortunately able to get an appointment with a recommended pulmonologist within the week.
The nurse takes her vitals and tests her breathing, which shows that she has reduced capacity for her age. The doctor shows us the scans of this new, growing mass, which wasn't present three years prior. He says removal would be the preferred option, but her reduced lung capacity makes that very risky.
He says he needs to consult with the radiologist to see if he can get to it for a needle biopsy, so they can know what they are dealing with. If not, and they deem surgery too risky, they would consider radiator or chemotherapy.
I ask if it could be an infection, and he says yes, there is a remote possibility. But this is not the kind of thing where he'd give antibiotics and wait to see what happened. We need to start treating this ASAP.
He calls me to say the radiologist can do it.
Betty has the biopsy.
I call to get results, and am told we have to meet with the doctor. The first appointment he has available is 4:40 pm the following Monday.
As in yesterday.
Betty spends the month letting go of things she loves. You like this? Take it. Here, have this. I should sell my Indian paintings. They're valuable.
At some point I realize what's going on and I say, "Mama. You're not planning on dying, are you?"
She denies it, but I don't believe it.
Finally, finally, the Monday that was yesterday arrives. We drive to Sibley, and finally, finally sit down in the room with the pulmonologist. Who we like, and who, incidentally, has a nice head of hair.
He shakes our hands, sits down and says, "It is not malignant. It is an infection. You dodged a bullet."
I start to cry. I exhale all of the breath that I have been holding for the entire month.
He explains that it takes six weeks for the culture to grow, but they think it is a kind of nontuberculous mycobacteria. This means it's a wee bacteria that's like TB, but not. And it is not contagious.
It's around us, in the air and the soil and what have you. But this one has now set up camp in Betty's lung.
Older women are the population that this typically happens to, turns out. Them and people with compromised immune systems.
He writes down a lot of complicated names, all of which are possibilities. These require 18 months of triple antibiotic. They are, as the treatment suggests and my google research confirms, very hard to kill.
But for now, we wait. They monitor her with another CT scan in May.
It is not cancer. This is the most important thing. It is NOT CANCER!
My mom says, "What should I do now?"
The doctor respons, "Go home and celebrate. And buy a Powerball ticket."
Later Betty says to me, "I'm not going to die."
And that, my friends, was our month.
It was an amazing reminder to me to hold my loved ones tight. To be kind. To appreciate the people I have while I have them.
To love big, with the realization that nothing is forever.
That was our month, and I'm so grateful to be on this side of it.