When You’re Agoraphobic and Your Husband Gets Cancer
Seated on a cold concrete bench outside Saint Rose Hospital, I saw my brother-in-law and his new girlfriend coming up the walkway from the parking lot. “I like her, but the weird thing is, every time we get together, she’s wearing the same thing,” he’d mentioned to my husband and me a few weeks back.
I thought of that old episode of Seinfeld when Jerry dated a woman who always wore the same dress, so he snuck into her closet because he needed to know if she had several, or owned one, and washed it daily. Only my brother-in-law’s girlfriend didn’t wear dresses. She wore orange athletic shorts. And a white tank top.
Gary and I had spent the previous Saturday night at this same facility.
“Are you okay, hon?” I asked as he tossed and turned in bed. While I ready my will over a hangnail, my husband is the guy who never admits he feels sick. “It’s just gas from the pizza and salad.” This exchange repeated itself every fifteen minutes until midnight, when I realized that it was not just gas from the pizza and salad and that I might have to leave the safety of home and go OUT THERE, a place I tried desperately to avoid.
“I think I better take you to the emergency room,” I said, half hoping he’d decline.
Gary groaned as he sat up, “Can you grab me a t-shirt?”
At the hospital, it was me who couldn’t sit still, repeatedly popping up like a Jack-in-the-box to use the restroom. I lasted three hours before texting my sister, Margi: Gary in St. Rose ER room 21. I have to go home. Please come. Springing up once more, I kissed the cheek of my groggy husband, who by then slept off and on in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV of pain medication. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. But he didn’t hear me; he’d dozed off again.
Gary was alone a short time later when a technician took him back for a scan. He was also alone when first he heard that something was showing up and a doctor would be by to explain.
I mustered enough resolve to return to the emergency room a few hours later, just as the oncologist was making his rounds. “There’s a nineteen-centimeter growth coming off the pancreas. If I were you, I’d Google adenocarcinoma.” The doctor handed me a card with the number of a colleague who took Gary’s insurance plan, plus a prescription for a bunch of painkillers, and disappeared out the door. When I looked it up the next day, I wondered why he hadn’t just said pancreatic cancer.
We arrived for Gary’s first oncology appointment with Dr. Nyamuswa several days later, trailed by an entourage I’d assembled that included Margi, Gary’s older sister, Fran, and our sons Max and Jake. Woozy, I wished I’d stay home. But how could I not go to the doctor on the day my husband finds out he’s going to die?
“Is your primary care doctor an internist?” my sister-in-law asked once we’d taken our seats in the waiting room.
“Huh?” I hadn’t heard a word she’d said.
“He needs an internist. Dr. Wikler isn’t an internist. He needs a good primary care doctor. I’ll text you the name of mine.”
“Dr. Wikler is a D. O. and an internist, Fran. I’m an adult. I think I know how to pick out a doctor.”
I rolled my eyes. Our doctor could have discovered the cure for cancer and Fran would say she had someone better.
The door to the exam rooms opened. “Mr. Meyers?” The nurse called out. Gary gave me a weak smile, then winced as he walked toward her. Fran and Margi followed. I watched them disappear and stayed put with the boys.
While we waited, Max, who’d been living with us as he tried to get sober, began spouting a philosophy on death he’d read in a book about enlightenment. “It’s only ego, you know. If you open yourself up to the universe, there’s nothing to mourn. We’re all gonna die, sometime.” I closed my eyes. He was right. We all die sometime. But under the circumstances, I wanted to strangle him.
Jake put his hand on mine. A moment later my phone buzzed, and I jerked it away. GOOD NEWS! Said the text from my sister.
And it was good news, considering the alternative. George, as my husband had named his tumor, turned out not to be pancreatic cancer, but non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Inoperable, yet treatable with a regimen of chemotherapy. But first he’d be admitted to the hospital for one super dose of a toxic medicine that could kill him.
So here we were at St. Rose for the second time in a week. I’d been sitting outside on the bench for over an hour as they pumped Rituxan into his system, watching the sliding glass doors to the lobby swallow visitors, then spit them back out. All four elevators were doing the same. Periodically I’d get up, standing with the friends and family members of other patients as if I, too, was about to board. But I hadn’t been on an elevator in five years, and when it arrived, I’d retreat to my bench, muttering something about how I’d left my phone in the car.
The stairs weren’t an option, either. Locked on both sides by doors that required card access to open them, I’d read about a woman in San Francisco who’d been found dead after being stuck for two weeks inside the rarely used stairwell of a hospital.
My brother-in-law introduced his girlfriend. “Call me when you get up there,” I said, bringing my palm to my forehead as I scanned the third-floor windows.
Neither of them said a word. She blinked, then laced her fingers through his as they turned and walked toward the gaping lobby doors. Does a woman who puts on the same clothes every day pass judgment on a woman who can’t go to up her cancer-stricken husband’s hospital room?
This wasn’t what Gary signed up for. The night we met through a friend in 1994, I was a thirty-two-year-old divorced mother with two young boys. I’d never been a weekend skydiver or bungee jumper, but I didn’t I have a history of anxiety either, aside from an illogical fear of flying and some short-lived postpartum depression.
In my 40s, an inexplicable dread of things that hadn’t bothered me before (bad weather, traffic, doctors, for example) began stacking up like building blocks. It never occurred to me to get help. I figured if I waited long enough, the anxiety would just go away. And then came my first panic attack. While driving on the freeway, the top of my head began tingling, and my heart started pounding so hard I heard it reverberating in my ears. My knees knocked together, my teeth chattered, I felt dizzy, nauseous, and had an urgent sense of needing to pee.
Although I didn’t yet understand the physical experience of panic, which was more terrifying than anything I’d ever felt, my instinct was to go home. And that’s where I retreated, missing the meeting to which I’d been en route. All the while, agoraphobia waited in the wings, planning its attack like a stealthy military operation with me as its accomplice.
It found me on Saturday, June 29, 2013, two months before the night I took Gary to the emergency room. He and I stood in the passenger pickup area of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, waiting for Max’s plane to land. For weeks my spidey senses tingled until finally, I’d gotten in touch with Max, to let him know we’d like him to come home for a visit. I bought plane tickets, texting the information to his more responsible girlfriend, Cat.
“Hey, you two! How’s sunny California?” I cheerily grasped both of them up in a hug once their flight arrived. “We’re gonna get lunch. You guys hungry?”
“Mom, I need to talk to you when we get there,” Max said, climbing into the back seat.
At the restaurant, Max and I sat out front while Gary and Cat went inside to meet the rest of our party and get a table. That’s when I noticed Max looked sicker than ever, which was saying something because a few years back I’d witnessed him overdosed, unconscious and slumped on a staircase. A chorus began playing in my head: he’s going to die; he’s going to die. Sweat beaded, then trickled down my back.
Max teared up, and I knew this was serious. “I’ve been doing crystal meth, Mom, but just to get off heroin.”
A suffocating flash of panic blasted me like a welder’s blowtorch. He’s going to die.
Without a word I got up, then wobbled to the hostess stand, leaving Max sitting there, bewildered. “I need to find my husband?” It came out as a question. The hostess shrugged her shoulders.
To my right, I spotted a Dodgers baseball cap. Gary. When I reached the table, he took one look at me and stood up.
“Take me home,” I whispered.
Gary spent two nights in the hospital for the administration of the Rituxan, during which I never made it up to his room on the third floor. He continued to teach, calling in sick only once, when one morning we sat together on the bathroom tile in front of the toilet, and I gently forced him to stay home.
He went by himself to chemotherapy and his oncology check-ups, all while assuring me he preferred it that way; just like when he’d sworn to me Jake wouldn’t mind that I couldn’t make the trip to California for his college graduation.
“You want something to eat?” I’d ask him when he’d return home from chemo. He’d say he wasn’t hungry and promptly fall asleep on the sofa where I’d set him up with a pillow and blanket.
One time, he awoke to a Snickers commercial.
“That sounds good,” he said.
“Yeah? I’ll run and get you some.” The minute the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to shove them back in.
I sat in the driveway with tears streaming down my face for ten minutes before I finally pressed the START button, engaging the engine.
When I got to Target, I called Margi. “Stay on the phone with me while I go inside.” Feeling as though I were trying to walk in the deep end of a pool, I headed to the candy aisle where I picked up two bags of Snickers minis.
“Okay,” I told my sister. “I’m good, you can hang up now.”
I slogged to the front of the store. My heart lurched at the sight of the bustling checkout lanes.
What if I get stuck between people in line?
What if I pass out?
They’d call an ambulance, and I would end up alone in the hospital. No one would know who I was, and with me being unconscious, I wouldn’t be able to tell them I lived down the street and that all I wanted was to go home.
What the hell is wrong with me?
You can do this.
Jesus, stop being such a baby.
I’m going to faint.
Fucking stop, it’s just Target.
You’ve been in Target a thousand times before.
I looked down at the candy, then back at the multitude of people in line, picking the shortest one. Slowly, I counted to four breathing in through my nose then out through my mouth.
At home, my heartbeat calmed as I watched my husband make dinner out of two mini Snickers.
Gary does not like change. He doesn’t do well with anything that shakes his routine. If you ask him out of the blue if he wants ice cream, or even a million dollars, his first answer will be no until he can think about it. But cancer? He simultaneously surrendered control and fought with the aplomb of a superhero.
Two years later I look over at Gary who is sleeping so peacefully in bed next to me you’d never know he had an appointment in the morning for the results of his annual post-treatment scan. Then again, I suppose that’s on brand. Earlier, when I’d asked if he’s concerned that his cancer would come back, he told me, “Why worry? Dr. Nyamuswa said I probably would have died an old man before even knowing I had it, that’s how slow growing it was.”
The television illuminates the darkness with the likenesses of women my age, who refer to themselves as housewives despite the antiquation. They spend their time drinking and fighting and socializing, and I think about when I used to socialize, minus the drinking and fighting. As I’m often emboldened to do from the safety of home, I decide I can go out. It’s easy. I used to do it all the time. And I’m still basking in that resolve at breakfast, so I tell Gary.
“I think I’ll go to your doctor’s appointment with you.”
“You sure? You don’t have to,” he says, taking a big bite of toast.
In the car I lay out our route like a prosecutor lays out their case for a jury. “No freeway, take Cactus to Saint Rose Parkway to Horizon Ridge, but don’t take it as far as Eastern, I don’t like that intersection. Avoid left turns and be sure to stay in the far right-hand lane of the road in case I need you to pull over and take me home.” Then I pull out my blue square crochet blob and, despite the queasiness in my stomach, begin working the needle furiously back and forth to distract myself.
Nothing has changed at the doctor’s office. It looks the exactly as it did when I was here a couple of years ago for Gary’s first appointment. The waiting room is large and houses long rows of black vinyl stackable chairs. Almost all of them are occupied, as was the case back then. I am dizzy thinking about all these people with cancer, although surely some of them are friends and family members. Also familiar is the blaring television, still set to reruns of House Hunters. Gary and I find two seats next to each other as I try to lose myself in the prospective buyers’ disappointment that the house they are touring in Ann Arbor, Michigan, doesn’t have as much acreage as they desire. Before I can find out which of the three choices the couple picks, a nurse opens the door to the exam rooms and calls, “Mr. Meyers?”
This time, I follow my husband down a long, unremarkable hallway filled with unflattering yellow, fluorescent lighting and several doors, some open, some closed, on either side. The nurse shows us to a small room. A few minutes later there’s a quick knock before the door bursts open and a beaming Dr. Nyamuswa exclaims, “Good news!” His smile momentarily fades into curiosity. “Oh, who do we have here?”
Dr. Nyamuswa looks to be about the same age as Gary and me, but he has an air about him that is both authoritative and warmly reassuring, like a trusted uncle. His skin is a beautiful rich brown, and he has the most dynamic grin I have ever seen. He wears square, thick-rimmed black glasses typically reserved for the nerdy, but on him emphasize his refined good looks.
Gary introduces me, “Oh hey Doc, this is my wife.”
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you finally.” Dr. Nyamuswa extends a hand that appears to belong to a piano impresario.
I hope he makes this quick.
I think I’m going to faint.
Then I hear the words of my therapist.
Being uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in danger.
I wipe my clammy hand on my jeans before thrusting it in the doctor’s direction.
“Likewise,” I say.
Suellen Meyers is a late bloomer. She became agoraphobic, earned her undergraduate degree, as well as an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University all after the age of fifty. Her work has been published in Multiplicity Magazine Blog, The Manifest-Station, and rkvry Quarterly Journal. Suellen currently lives in Henderson, Nevada, with her husband and her incredibly affable dog, Zoey, but she misses California and wishes she still lived there. Contact her at suellenmeyers.com.