All In My Head
Not like I don’t already think about it all the time, but this past winter, my frenemy, mortality, came calling. And it wasn’t a polite rap on the door. It was more like a break-in.
After a summer of negotiating a house sale sans realtor, selling a home I loved, leaving the woods and hill I adored, and moving into a small rental with 3 cats and husband while we waited for our new house to be constructed, I experienced a bout of depression and vague stress-related symptoms. Stubborn me, I don’t trust realtors and besides, I thought my husband and I deserved all the proceeds from the sale of our house, and as I worked toward that goal, my spirit bottomed out. I’m the type who gets through the crisis, then collapses after. This time, the physical manifestation included a weird light-headedness. My doctor, Dr. Y said “anxiety, it’ll pass.” I got a second opinion from Dr. X, who said he thought I was fine, but “let’s do an MRI to be safe.”
The MRI showed everything was fine with my brain, or to quote myself. “Nothing’s there.” Yeah, my husband thought that was funny, as in, of course, there’s nothing there. But there was a spot on the bone, the doctor said, of no consequence. I figured they saw a bump from the forceps used during my birth. If I run my fingertips over my skull, it maps like an amusement ride with its various bumps and unique indentations. I thought it made me special.
A few weeks later, I received the MRI report in the mail. To my horror, it read, “spot on bone – cannot rule out aggressive lesion, bone scan should be ordered if clinically warranted.” Seems Dr. X left that doomful language out of his phone call. What the hell, I thought; and despite my intermittent hypochondria and for some odd reason, I STILL didn’t worry. Until I went for my yearly physical with Dr. Y, who had also read the report. “We need to follow up on this.”
After one bone scan, one CAT scan, one meeting and a phone call with a neurosurgeon, I was scheduled for surgery. Head surgery. Whatever this “thingy” was had wavy edges and apparently everyone but me knew that if something shows on up on a bone scan, it’s not good.
Christmas, January and part of February plus the preliminary days leading up to the Christmas phone call from Dr. Z (neurosurgeon) caused internal freak-outs and sleepless nights, while I pretended to be fine. I made jokes about it with my coworkers, nibbled on the occasional valium, practiced deep breathing exercises with very little success and cried more than a few times.
In the midst of this worry, my dear father passed away. I hadn’t told my mother what was going on with me, so when I drove the 300 miles to New Jersey to be at my father’s bedside, she asked, “what’s going on with your head?” I looked at my sister and asked, right in front of mommy, “who told her?” It had been one of my brothers. The sweet innocent, he didn’t know I was keeping my head issues a secret. So I told mom the truth, that they weren’t really worried about me, but that the “thingy” had to come out. “I’m fine, ma.”
The week of my dad’s final illness and the following week of his funeral, I thought very little about myself, I felt better and worried less. Most humans, when faced with familial or emotional hurdles, rise to the occasion, and I’m sure that’s how I operated. On auto-pilot except for the grief I felt upon losing my father. Or maybe I was grieving for myself?
Before Surgery Day in mid-February, my massage therapist, sweet Samantha, suggested I should envision the hospital bathed in light, and that I should call on my angels, which didn’t mean winged beings must attend my surgery. She meant I should summon through intention, a team of incredible caregivers who would see my spirit and be guided to say and do all the right things throughout my brief hospital stay. Because my dad had recently died, I believed that wherever he was, perhaps he had a magical, saintly power to intercede on my behalf so I called on him, too. I arrived at the hospital at 8:30, surgery lasted 1.5 hours, and I was home by 3 p.m.
During my process – let’s call it a healing process, I had lovely conversations with nurses and told jokes with the surgery team before I passed out cold (never have I conked out like I did on whatever that dreamy anesthesiologist shot into my veins.) When the nurse came to fetch me and my gurney for the ride down the hospital halls to the operating room, I sensed the temperature drop. Cold. Why? Oh yeah, because they keep it cold in those operating rooms to minimize germ-age. Don’t they keep the morgue cold, too? I wondered if I was somewhere near the cadavers. My dad’s death had strangely desensitized me toward the morose aspects of mortality. My destination was otherworldly, as if I were in hospital limbo, put into a holding pattern where the surgeon would cut the skin on the outer part of my head, drill away the bone on my skull, remove whatever was growing inside, and replace the destroyed bone with a titanium plate while I temporarily ceased to exist, no awareness, no dream-state. I admit that I love saying that I have a titanium plate in my head. It’s usually where I insert “ do you believe this shit?” I never saw it coming. Of all the things to worry about, a head lesion wasn’t on the list. There are so many things that can go wrong with the human body, I simply hadn’t visited this particular possibility.
Post-surgery, I played the good Catholic girl routine. No complaining, yes I feel fine, no I don’t need anything, and when asked was I ready to go home – I jumped off the cot like a 10-year-old, swiftly and surely pulling my clothes on, making jokes all the while. “I just went in to pee, and it was like Michael Myers in Austin Powers – it took forever and I never seemed to be done,” I told Charlie. We laughed. But it wasn’t really funny. Nothing was, because with bone biopsies, a patient can wait up to three weeks for the results. I left the hospital still not knowing if the lesion was a malignancy.
During those first days at home, I barely wanted to leave the sofa due to post-anesthesia syndrome, read: extraordinarily exhausted, and I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror because I was not permitted to wash my hair and I’m a “wash your hair every day girl,” have been since high school. Oiled with anti-bacterial goop to one side like a giant comb-over, only a strip of my hair had been shaved, artfully created to be hidden beneath the longer hair on top. That was depressing enough; but my heart pounded every time the phone rang with the display indicating a mysterious phone number. “Oh my God, it’s the doctor’s office,” my teeth chattered. It would turn out to be a sales person or someone confirming my dental appointment.
March 5th, almost Spring. My follow-up appointment day with Dr. Z. The expected “results” phone call had never come. Was he waiting until my appointment so that he could give me my diagnosis face-to-face with my husband there to support me when my legs buckled after hearing the bad news? Or maybe he wanted to give me the good news in person to boost his already huge (I assume) surgeon-like ego. Come on, doc, spit it out.
“It’s a meningioma.”(For a moment, my husband thought that meant cancer.) But I remembered my reading and etymology and knew that “oma” only means “tumor,” and I had read about meningioma’s. Mary Tyler Moore had one. Sheryl Crow has one. The doctor added, “Benign.”
Cool, I’m okay. I felt like the heroine in a Lifetime Channel movie. Charlie and I pressed our arms up against each other in silent glee, and I offered a quiet nod to my dad and the angels.