One and a half weeks after from the scariest thing imaginable, Dana dances and struts her way through Whole Foods, pumping her arms like an excitable child or majorette. Part of the show is out of necessity; she hasn't quite regained her strength and grace. Her natural walk is slow and stilted, making it clear that something is off.
But as my wife bops comically down the aisles, she couldn't seem any more like herself. Dana dances – that's what she does. Even with a hairline of industrial grade staples, she's all smiles, sidestepping shoppers, generating double takes. Maybe they think she's crazy, but who cares? Grasping normalcy so soon after a craniotomy merits a mild act of whimsy. I should be dancing, too.
Instead, I push the cart, basking in her light. Soon I will go back to taking these moments for granted. Right now, I'm cataloguing them. The months leading up to surgery were agonizing. The days and nights following the operation were pitch-black, nearly hopeless, as I watched my love unable to eat, sleep, smile, see, do anything. I spared everyone the details, relaying only positive moments from the hospital. Bleak as it was, I knew, in time, we'd resume our lives.
And here we are, out and about, shopping, laughing, on the road to recovery. But for all the joy and relief, Dana and I are well aware: She isn't out of the woods. And she may never be.
- – - – - – - – - – - -Imagine a room populated with 100 people, every one of these unfortunate souls with a brain tumor. Roughly 99 of these tumors likely fall under the category of gliomas: malignant clusters formed from the glial tissue of the nervous system. Gliomas are differentiated by cell type, grade, and location. Gliomas are undifferentiated in being merciless, nearly impervious life-shorteners.
Upon first being told of the possibility of having a glioma, Dana – shaking and sobbing in the emergency room – did what many do when seeking answers . . . she consulted Wikipedia:
"Now, we don't know if it's that," cautioned the doctor. "But I can't rule it out."
From that moment, we lived in dread – not just of surgery, but in battling the resilient nature of the beast. I knew the danger. Despite surgery and chemo, my father lost his life to a glioma at the age of 52. The thought of another glioma taking my wife at age 30 filled me with paralyzing rage. I wouldn't even say the word out loud.
I dubbed it The Thing, named after the alien impostor from John Carpenter's classic film. I pictured it as an actual being with a conscience, stealthily overtaking the people I love. As it had with my father, The Thing altered Dana's behavior, causing sudden mood swings, irrational thoughts and behavior. Helplessness is watching your partner turn inside out while constantly having to remind yourself – It’s not her.
Though I held out hope that surgery might fix everything, I remained a realist. Even with the greatest care, the best you can do is to keep The Thing in check, as Kurt Russell does at the climax of the movie by way of flamethrower.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Again, the odds against glioma: 99 to 1.
Now we know: Dana is the 1 percent.
The abnormal tissue excised from Dana’s brain is what’s known as a neuronal neoplasm, a less aggressive and exceedingly rare type of tumor. How rare? Most nights at the restaurant I work, a meek neurosurgeon, Dr. Mike, eats at the bar. Occasionally, I’d pepper him with questions on Dana’s condition, and Dr. Mike would respond with dry, detailed answers I would struggle to follow.
When I told him the results of the biopsy, Dr. Mike slowly removed his glasses. “Neuronal neoplasm . . . I’ve never seen one,” he said with both awe and envy.
According to scant information I’ve found online, when successfully removed, the prognosis is excellent – however – the miracle workers (truly) at MD Anderson couldn’t remove all of it. Remnants remain around the hypothalamus, a place too delicate to venture. Due to its less threatening nature, Dana and I were instructed to monitor the situation by way of MRI every three months. If the tumor remains unchanged after a couple check-ups, the MRIs get spaced to every four months, then six months, then yearly, and so on.
The doctors are optimistic that Dana may not need further treatment. That said, if it dares to act up, we will blast it with a flamethrower. No more getting taken by surprise. We are watching you. You will never creep in silence again.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
It's now four weeks since surgery, and Dana doesn't recall dancing at Whole Foods. Her natural, auburn hair has since sprouted, concealing the six-and-a-half inch scar. (It's weird but we both kinda miss the staples.) She walks normally, and no longer searches for the right word. Back to work and cleared to travel – if you didn't know the events of the past four months, you might never catch on. Everything seems the same.
Nothing is the same. Though Dana has sailed over the highest hurdle, an indefinite number of smaller hurdles loom in the distance. Life has been abridged with physically demanding tests, yet-to-arrive hospital bills, and the kind of stress that murders regular thought. Fortunately, we are armed with family, friends, cats, dark humor, anti-anxiety meds, and Breaking Bad.
And we have never been closer. Our love DESTROYS monsters.
We live in the woods now. Better embrace it.
(Photo: Shannon Jenkins)