Hospital, Melbourne, 2015
I remain in an empty waiting room while a nurse hurries away to determine my husband’s whereabouts. He could still be in the operating theatre or in recovery. “Perhaps he’s been taken to the ward.” She intones this like a question, her voice rising slightly, her expression expectant. As if I’m supposed to know.
I pace the grey carpet, my feet tracing shadows made by the sinking sun. It’s been a long day of waiting, mostly spent trying to calm my heart and the anxiety that gnaws unrelentingly at my gut. Nearly five hours since Martin went to theatre. Five hours during which a crack medical team and a high-tech robot would work to remove the cancer.
The idea of the robot had made us laugh at first. I had mentioned the 1960s TV show Lost in Space and its arm-waving robot, frantically warning young Will Robinson. One doctor quipped that the theatre robot wasn’t as sophisticated. We’d all laughed as if that was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. That had been when Martin and I were taking it all in our stride, playing it down, looking on the bright side.
“You’ve taken this better than most,” the specialist had said when he delivered the news. We didn’t tell him that we’d lost two relatives and Martin’s best friend to cancer in the last 18 months; that my son is a childhood cancer survivor and that I had lost my mother to breast cancer. There’s only one way to take a diagnosis of cancer in our family. You get on with it.
But the day of the surgery, I’m not getting on with it very well. As Martin prepares to go into theatre, he and I can’t meet each other’s gaze. I don’t want him to see my anxiety and he never wants me to witness his. We know those unwritten rules. Instead, we repeatedly assure each other that it will be fine, privately knowing that we can’t be certain.
I wait alone all day. Family and friends call and message, but mostly I’m in the company of strangers—medical staff, patients, visitors, the woman in the café who serves me endless cups of coffee. Now in the quiet room, the effects of exhaustion are declaring themselves and my emotions threaten to wash me away. All day, lyrics from Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately flit across my mind, sometimes settling long enough to pull me back to our wedding day, when we had used the song for what passed as the bridal waltz.
Although it was nearly 18 years ago, our wedding dance is a ‘forever moment’ etched in my memory: the gentle tinkling piano as the song starts, the sweep of the string section, my head against my husband’s shoulder, drawing in his scent, his arms around me in a secure hold. I am filled with confidence about this man who has entered my life unexpectedly. He has embraced my children as his own and my eccentric extended family too. He makes me laugh. He makes everything better. He is my rock.
Ever steadfast, in the weeks of testing and of managing the uncertainties of what was to come, he has never complained. But for me, what ifs clang around my head and I have no answers to any of them. My anxiety thickens and sets like concrete. The nurse returns and gives me directions to his designated room on the ward, where I can wait until he’s brought from recovery.
So, I wait. And wait. Alone in his room, I muse on the song’s line: Have I told you lately that I love you and ask myself if I had told him. I say it routinely, of course. Most people do. But had I said it in a way so he knew it beyond doubt? It was easy for my tears to breach my resolve to stay strong. Weakened by fatigue and my self-doubt, I give into them, close my eyes and picture us swaying to the music.
An hour later, Martin is wheeled in. An oxygen mask covers his face. Tubes snake from under the blanket, a drip feeds into a cannula, the surrounding skin is bruised. Hearing my voice, he lifts the mask and speaks, woozily telling me that he’s okay. The rest of what he says is garbled and mainly consists of an incoherent complaint about the view from his room. I fail to make him understand that he’s looking at a black pulled-down blind. I hold his hand as he drifts in and out of awareness. Before I leave, I stroke his face and tell him that I love him, but he’s deeply asleep and he can’t hear me.
I trudge back to the carpark. Van Morrison accompanies me as an internal soundtrack on the long drive home then on into my restless sleep.
Next morning, I rise early, planning to ring the hospital and check on his progress. Before I get the chance, the message tone on my mobile phone chirps. It’s from Martin. The message is simple: I love you. I call him to tell him the same. In that moment, the song’s lyrics resonate even more—my heart is filled with gladness and my troubles are eased.
I am slow dancing with my husband all over again.
© Lucia Nardo.