January 23rd, 2016. Around 3pm. In the Catskills. Not enough snow to cross-country ski, so let’s go for a hike. Me, Alex, Gretchen, Janet. We’re walking up the hill and I can feel myself more breathless and somehow – intangibly – different, to how I normally feel on a walk like this. We’re nearing a sort of cross-roads of paths, and the conversation turns to whether we’ll continue or go back. I’m just not sure. I want to keep walking but I don’t feel right. But should I push myself on or urge a turn back? I have to say something but I don’t know what to say. I’ll start and then it will be clear. But I can’t form the words I’m not sure I want to say. Just sounds. I can see their faces, their increasingly concerned smiles. Janet looks at me encouragingly, but with a puzzled look: “Just take your time, Jess, and try again”. I try to breathe calmly, control slipping away like sand in an hourglass. I can feel my arms stretched out, being supported. Then I’m out.
I open my eyes and there’s Eric, Josh, a crowd of friends, and a small vehicle. Everyone’s being very calm. So I am too. But I know something has happened to me. I don’t know what’s going on but Ed’s in the car so I’m OK. The cheery paramedic sits by me chatting away, just enough to stop me thinking about what’s happened, but not enough to really engage me. I know I’m still on Planet Earth but a tectonic plate has shifted somewhere.
January 26th, 2016. Middeltown. I undergo a five hour operation to remove a grape-sized tumor in the left parietal section of my brain. We know it’s a primary tumor, meaning it hasn’t originated from elsewhere. My fear that an MRI would find me riddled with cancer from head to foot is set aside. But a week or so later, once the pathology comes through, we hear it’s an aggressive, malignant tumor. We also know that its location, size, and good surgery are all in my favor. We tell the kids and I sense I’ve got my gang behind me all the way. The Guardian tells Ed to take all the time he needs. FleishmanHillard, who I’ve spent less than a month with, are instinctively and unbelievably adult, empathetic, generous and caring. My mother asks Ed how long he can take to care for me. He answers: “I’m here for the duration”.
I’m treated at a brand new hospital – Orange Regional Medical Center – which pleases me, negating my fear of hospital super-bugs. I’m lying in a luxurious ICU room, with Ed in a 22nd Century Parker Knoll chair beside me, either watching the bigger-than-we-have-at-home TV selection, or gazing out at the Catskills outside. You won’t believe the care I get from the nursing staff. How are they so genuinely lovely, even while performing really horrible unmentionables like fitting catheters?? As for the machines. I’m floating aboard a magic carpet, masked as a state-of-the-art bed. It carries me off to mushy marshmallow sleeps, induced my anesthetic and fed by regular intakes of oxycodone. My magic carpet can even detect when a part of my body hasn’t moved, compensating by moving the relevant part of the bed, thereby avoiding bed sores. Mmmmm.
Our friends are worried about me having brain surgery outside of the City, but it’s dangerous to move me. Andy Postman calls his former college friend, a noted neuro-surgeon who works somewhere upstate, for his advice. Dr Jeffrey Oppenheim answers his call: “You’re calling me about Jessica Morris? “That’s who I’m scheduled to meet in a few minutes.” Serendipity is alive and well and on my side. I get excellent surgery from our friend’s friend who describes the difference between healthy brain tissue and cancerous as being like looking for vanilla in a jar of mayonnaise. Later I find he’s performed a really good surgery – what is known in the medical lingo as a ‘full resection’. TEFs like mine grow with microscopic tentacles, which is why additional treatments are needed. But still – the surgery was a literal life saver.
I haven’t written Chapter 1 before because this was all unplanned. The blog grew from the dual need to coordinate the overwhelming amount of support offered, and our desire to share updates on my journey with you. At first, Ed emailed family and the friends who’d been with us that weekend, but then more and more people contacted us and so we wanted to find a way to keep people up to speed. But by then we were onto Chapter 2.
In a couple of hours from the here and now of me typing this blog today, we get on a flight to Chicago for the weekend, thanks to the incredible generosity of Ed’s sister Karen. It’s our family reward, a weekend off from the narcissistic, self-absorbed and attention-grabbing TEF. My next post will start with a new round of treatment, with January 23rd very much behind us.
So, many of you are owed Chapter 1. But Janet, Alex and Gretchen’s versions would be very different. While I saw my eyelids close, they saw my eyeballs roll. They witnessed a seizure, with frothing and all sorts of yuk. They kept me upright, and saved me while getting emergency help. And as Ed stayed with me through the surgery and recovery, they took care of our kids – Janet and Josh coping with Emma and Tess and manifold homework/test requirements; Gretchen winning Project Runway for morphing Emma into Emily Dickinson for the Waxworks Show – allowing me and Ed to somehow start to come to terms with the split-second, door-sliding, good-bad, up-down, curve-ball-heads-tails what??
That my life suddenly morphed into.
And what a life. Daughter of Bill and Liz – or Bliz as I like to call them – who are, as I type, somewhere over the Atlantic flying back after a two week visit – who I love beyond anything, anywhere, ever. As I do Ed, Felix, Tess and Emma. And my siblings, their kids, my wider family, my friends. Jaez I really didn’t plan to get corny, but writing about how TEF first made itself known brings a big (non-cancerous) lump in throat.
Chicago is our prize for getting this far, in such good form.
I was at a breakfast meeting yesterday for The Osborne Association, courtesy of Wesley Weissberg and David Goldberg. Go google if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of knowing about this outstanding organization. At the breakfast, one of the speakers said something that really resonated with me: “Having family and support around you is incredibly empowering”. They were talking about people who are incarcerated. TEF wants me to be its prisoner. The fact that I’m not is in large part because of you. Whenever I get glum, I see someone. I interact, talk, think, feel. But it’s more than that. It really is empowering. Every interaction generates energy and motivation and ideas and happiness. I come alive with you. I feel well, alert, intelligent, and with a confidence underpinned by a steely-eyed determination – nay ruthlessness – behind my smile. I’m fighting fit.
Bring on the next Chapter.