December 16th is a day that will never be forgotten in our family... the day Jeff was diagnosed with cancer.
This story is Dedicated to my love,
my Sweetheart, my best friend,
my hero, my husband, Jeff.
Snickerdoodles, peanut butter, sugar cookies and spritz cookies…that should finish off our holiday baking. Go on a city drive of Christmas lights. Buy a pair of jeans to match the pink sweater for Jessica. Spend an afternoon in Julian and get hot apple cider. Finish wrapping gifts.
It was December 16th, 2004 and a week before Christmas. I was sitting in the waiting area of the Gastroenterology Department of Scripps Green Hospital writing my list of last minute Christmas ‘To Dos.’ Anna Grace, then six months old, was waiting with me for Daddy to be done with his colonoscopy. Jeff hadn’t been feeling well and hadn’t been eating very much. As he was preparing for the colonoscopy, he told me he was craving a Double-Double from In-N-Out. I promised I would take him there as soon as his procedure was over.
“Mrs. Locher?” Dr. Nodurft was standing in front of me. “May I have a word with you?”
He guided me through a door that led to the examination rooms. I walked down the hallway, pushing Anna’s stroller in front of me. All morning, the nurses that walked by Anna had stopped and made some comment about how cute she was or how happy. There were two nurses standing in the doorway of an exam room, waiting for Anna’s stroller to pass by in the little hallway. This time the nurses didn’t look at Anna. They looked me in the eye. They didn’t smile. They looked down at the floor. For a split second, things started moving in slow motion. Could there be a problem with Jeff? As the cold fingers of dread started twisting in my stomach, I calmly reminded myself that Jeff was 44 years old, in great health, and in good shape. I knew I was being led to the transition room where my slightly drugged up husband would be waiting for me, right? Everything would be fine! Everything would be fine!
I wasn’t led to the transition room, but a small exam room. There wasn’t room for the stroller, so I left it outside and carried Anna in. Dr. Nodurft entered the room with us and another doctor followed behind us. The room seemed to be filled by the exam table and I remember how white the paper liner looked on the table. Did I say the room was small? That feeling of slow motion was starting again and I had a bad feeling. There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with Jeff. Don’t doctors give you bad news in their private office, or in a family waiting room…or in a private, small exam room…
NO! I was cuddling our beautiful baby girl…Jeff waited so long to become a Daddy…nothing could stop him from watching his children grow up…from walking his daughters down the aisle…to watching his son become a father and passing the family name to the next generation…why were they just standing there? But, I knew the answer, didn’t I!?
“As you know, your husband was here today for a colonoscopy. He has been bleeding internally and we needed to find the source of the blood. We found a tumor…” I tried to concentrate on the next words coming from Jeff’s doctor, but I seem to have gone deaf.
“I guess I won’t be taking Jeff to In-N-Out.” I told the doctor about my earlier promise. I smiled and was silent. He seemed to know that I needed a moment to process reality.
I was standing there, holding Anna. I was dizzy and darkness was creeping in from the sides of my eyes. Shouldn’t the doctor take Anna from me so I don’t drop her? I sat down in the only chair in the room.
I knew what my next question was going to be, but how would I ask it? I started my question several times, but only uttered a few disconnected words… “Is…will…it’s not…he can’t be…Jeff is not terminal…” came out more as a shaky statement than a question.
Dr. Nodurft explained we wouldn’t know anything without more tests and until the pathology was completed on the specimen that would be collected during surgery. We talked a bit more and I was told that Jeff was still out and wouldn’t be ready to see me for awhile. The good doctor suggested a nice, quiet spot outside by the reflection pond where I could make some phone calls. He assured me he would come get me when Jeff was awake and ready for a visit.
I sat down by the pond. Nobody was around but the coffee cart barista. I don’t know what the temperature was, but I was cold and shivering. Anna was so quiet…almost as if she knew what was happening. She just looked at me as tears flowed down my face.
I remember thinking of a line from one of my favorite TV shows, "Lost." Jack, the young doctor character, explained that in order to deal with the emotional situations related to his work, he would allow himself to give into his fear/pain/grief for a count of ten. Then he would take a deep breath and concentrate on what had to be done to rectify the situation. I slowly counted to 10, took that all important deep breath and called my Mom.
“Mom?” I could barely get the word out.
“What’s going on?” Her voice was shaking by the end of her question. She knew where I was.
“They found cancer…” came out in one gush of breath, as if I had been punched in the stomach.
Mom was sobbing by the time she finished her “Oh my God!”
I gave her the limited information that I had. “They don’t know how bad…Jeff is being admitted…surgery tomorrow…Jeff doesn’t know yet…”
I guess Mom knew the “10-second Fear Rule” because she was quickly down to business.
“I will call your Dad and get him home…”
“You don’t have to pull him out of work,” I inserted because I knew Dad had used all his vacation time for the year.
“I can tell you that he will not be able to work after he hears this news. I will pack while he gets home and we will be there as soon as possible.” She already had a plan for getting Anna from me at the hospital, picking up Jessica and Christian from school, and staying at our house with the kids as long as we needed. Isn’t that what Moms do best? They take care of business when their kids need them!
The next call was to our church. I knew Jeff would want Father Jim to pray with us before the surgery. I requested Jeff be added to the parish prayer chain. Both requests were granted.
Next, Jeff’s Dad. The receptionist was telling me Jeff’s Dad was out of the office just as Jeff’s doctor walked up. “Jeff is awake and ready to see you.” I would track down Jeff’s Dad after I had a chance to see Jeff.
Anna and I were led to the transition room. I knew my eyes were swollen from crying, but my “10-seconds of Fear” were over (actually, by that time, I had gone through many, many 10-second counts) and I was going to be strong for my incredible husband.
I could hear the beeping of the medical machines from all the patients hiding behind their privacy curtains. I could hear the nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floor. I could smell that unmistakable scent of “hospital.” Our eyes met. I was strong. He looked like he was still out of it. Everything else faded away. My grasp tightened on Anna’s stroller. There was a long pause, smiles from both of us, and almost simultaneously we both said, “I guess we’re not going to In-N-Out.” He had been told. He reached for my hand. Our grasp was strong. Neither of us let go. So many questions. Not many answers. No guarantees. Yet, we both felt a slight feeling of calm, serenity, peace. The feeling was buried by the fear and sadness and questions and that “spiraling out of control” feeling, but it was there. You can call it what you want…denial, hope, naiveté…I call it faith. No matter how small that pinprick of a feeling was, we knew everything was going to be okay. Looking back, I can pinpoint that moment, that first look and coming together of husband and wife during a life-altering situation, as the moment that God stopped walking with us, but gathered us in His protective arms and carried us. Together.
Ironically, as I finish writing this story, I am sitting in a waiting room. Anna is asleep in her stroller. It is one year later and Jeff is having his first colonoscopy since going through surgery to remove the tumor, which came with a foot of large intestine, some small intestine, his appendix and 29 lymph nodes. He was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, has endured six months of chemotherapy, and two additional surgeries. He is still dealing with side effects from the chemo, but we know those will fade one day soon.
“You can come in now.” The nurse is standing at the recovery room door. I had been pretty calm until this moment. I thank the nurse and start pushing Anna toward the door. The nurse is smiling at me and commenting on how cute Anna is. Although I smile back, I think I have stopped breathing.
I hear machines beeping, nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floor, and recognize that antiseptic smell. There are five nurses walking around the room. They all smile at me and make cute comments about Anna. Jeff’s nurse leads me to his bedside. He appears to be asleep.
Jeff’s nurse hands me the report from Dr. Nodurft. The first thing I see is a happy face. The report reads, “Well done, Mr. Locher! Your colon is perfectly normal! Great news. Next colonoscopy is recommended in three years. Let me know when you get back to cycling and we should go sometime!”
A single tear is rolling down my face. “Thank God! Jeff is going to be fine!,” I enthusiastically say to the nurse. I look over at Jeff…he hasn’t moved…his eyes are closed… and he is smiling.
I love you, my sweet husband! Here's to another, wonderful, cancer free year!