I had never measured life in minutes before.
This week, my stepmom and I had to do some quick maths when my father told us how long the initial session of her new chemotherapy protocol was.
Thankfully, Daddy gave me the heads up so I could download two French comedies my stepmom had expressed an interest in. If I can entrust the formidable Guillaume Gallienne from the Comédie Française with keeping her spirits up, maybe the treatment will be bearable.
As it turns out, her bedside soon becomes as popular as the Paris Métro during rush hour, with various nurses from other wards coming by to say hello and have a chat. At one point, one who is pregnant and set to give birth in November compares belly sizes with my father. They’re about the same but only one is a food baby.
And of course my father, stepbrother, and I are take turns so my stepmom is never alone for long. Even when she’s napping, a reassuring presence helps.
“Great movie but I haven’t had much of a chance to watch much of it yet,” she tells me as I return bearing cakes from a pastry shop I discovered on Rue Gay-Lussac.
I had gone for a walk to clear my head and happened upon comfort in cake format, which I knew would be a hit with my father who only ate hospital lunch leftovers. And turned down my offer of going to fetch him a sandwich. When faced with the evidence of food however, he always rises to the occasion and eats it, especially cakes.
“Dad, you need to look after yourself else you won’t be able to look after anyone else,” I keep reminding him several times a day but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t even hear me, so consumed is he with keeping track of his wife’s complex medical schedule, medications, and pharmacy orders. He absorbs all the information about side effects and risks so she doesn’t have to worry about any of it. He prepares himself for all possible complications so she is free to focus on getting better.
And he lugs around her entire cancer treatment history with a copy of every exam she’s ever undergone since the diagnosis hit a year ago. As a former computer engineer, he is meticulously organized, pragmatic, practical.
Most patients do the same thing, that way information is available in a heartbeat in an emergency. Even though hospitals and doctors have everything, Dad can often get to the info quicker than they can.
My stepmom looks exhausted and the treatment is nowhere near done. We’re chatting away about my work, which she’s always been curious about. She’s shown an active interest in the literary editing I started doing a few months ago; the magic of poetry is that it does capture the imagination.
“So that’s 150 poems in total, over three books,” I tell her as I watch her face change.
Alas, this has nothing to do with our conversation.
Time stands still as I spring out of my chair.
“Hi, patient’s not feeling good here, chest pains, definitely anxiety, possible panic attack, perhaps more,” I tell the nurses.
Before I’ve had a chance to make my way to the corridor to let my stepbrother know what’s going on, there’s already several people around my stepmom’s bed.
“We’re getting the doctor, you guys stay out here,” one of the nurses tells us. Dad, meanwhile, is chatting away with a lady from Martinique who is waiting on a patient. She’s over 80-years old, has already lost her son to cancer, and is now accompanying another relative to chemo. My parents are the affable type and wont to strike up conversations with random strangers wherever they are so this is nothing out of the ordinary.
My stepbrother and I know how to remain unflappable under pressure. He’s a chef, I’m a tour director and journalist; we both have that switch in our brains that enables us to detach and deal. Also, the best place to have health complications is in a hospital so we’re not worried. We decide not to interrupt Dad right away.
After the doctor has seen to my stepmom, she comes to update Dad and we find out there are some things our parents ‘forgot’ to tell us. We knew my stepmom had a valiant heart but her arteries aren’t in great shape and her father was cardiac, which I didn’t know.
Like us, Dad is calm and composed, factual as he liaises with the doctor. Not a hint of panic or worry on his face, possibly the holdover from a whole career spent managing systems that went down nationwide every now and then. I wonder if, for him too, there’s a storm raging inside behind the cool computer engineer exterior but I know better than to ask.
I stand by the ward door and wave at my stepmom making goofy faces to reassure her. She tries to smile but doesn’t quite succeed; her face is pure terror.
The ambulance crew comes, two women in their mid 20s, one man in his 50s.
He explains they’re transferring my stepmom to cardiology ICU in a hospital used to dealing with pathologies linked to cancer.
“Can at least one of us ride with you, please?” I ask. The hospital is far, we live even further, and it’s rush hour so cabs are pointless.
“Sorry no can do, there are insurance implications for passengers unaccounted for. We don’t bend the rules unless the patient is critical,” he replies gently.
My stepbrother, father, and I start getting organized as I give the man my most expressive face. I know ‘les garçons’ as my stepmom calls Dad and her son won’t ask for any help out of pride but I have no such qualms. And I do have a face that does away with the need for language when necessary.
The ambulance crew move my stepmom to the stretcher, strap her in, and the man looks at her with a smile.
“Alright then, we’ll take your husband as you lot seem to be having many logistical challenges to contend with,” he tells her. “The kids can sort themselves out.”
At this point, I bite the inside of my cheek hard so I don’t burst into tears. The terror on my stepmom’s face lessens somewhat and my father is smiling benevolently. As we make our way down the corridor and to the elevator, I gently place my hand on the man’s shoulder, “Hey, um… thank you very much,” I tell him; I’ve lost all my other words.
My stepbrother and I watch the ambulance speed off with light and sound, feeling a little bereft and unsettled. We do not talk but wait for our respective buses on opposite sides of the street, lost in thought. His car is a two-seater so he will bring Dad back home later and I’m going back to my parents’ condo.
A few hours later, my stepmom texts me.
“No need to postpone your departure to the Netherlands. You’re getting on that train to Amsterdam tomorrow,” she writes. Her son and my father have told me the same thing so I know pushing back is pointless.
They are keen on seeing me settled in Europe and the sooner, the better. And they know how much I’ve been looking forward to being with my friends again; those frequent stays in North Holland have been key to keeping me going.
So I pack my bag.
After two nights in cardio ICU and surgery to put a stent in her artery, my stepmom is already home; chemo is set to resume as soon as possible.
And I, meanwhile, have been tasked with bringing back the Dutch sour candy she loves so much but cannot find in France as it’s not exported.
“Here’s your house key,” my friends say when we stand outside the home they moved into just a week prior.
Love can and will see you through anything.
And my family, our lives, my life are living proof of this.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.