THE DAY OF LIGHTNING
From Dr. Ziebold’s office to Dr. Levitt’s was a nerve-wracking five minute drive.
“Dr. Ziebold and I’ve already discussed your case. We agree the growth in your colon should be removed immediately,” Dr. Levitt, the soft-spoken surgeon, told my wife, Rita, in a no-nonsense voice. We were at Dr. Levitt’s office on the recommendation of Dr. Ziebold, Rita’s gastroenterologist. Normally lively and vivacious, Rita had had her life turned upside down by a recurring pain in her stomach. Gone were the gossipy afternoons on the phone with her friends, and the morning and late afternoon puttering around the backyard garden she loved so much. She even stopped calling her folks in Kolkata with whom she regularly chatted, and through whom, maintained a link to the old country and shared her feelings of nostalgia. The colonoscopy done an hour or so ago showed a large growth in her colon, threatening her digestive system. Is it malignant, though? We wondered.
“I’ll know only after I get the biopsy results next week,” Dr. Ziebold told us.
We had just moved to Austin from Indianapolis, and didn’t know anybody in town. Rita was excited about the move. We lived in Indianapolis for a couple of years, and didn’t particularly care for it.
Rita chose to have the surgery the next day. That night, as I helped her pack her bags for the hospital stay, I noticed she had become unusually reserved. We went downstairs after we finished packing and turned the TV on but kept the audio turned off. We did not want the senseless chatter from the tube to interfere with our private thoughts.
“Don’t worry, sweetie, God will take care of you.”
“I hope so,” she said, her voice hesitant and subdued. I felt she wanted to say more but didn’t.
In the next few minutes, I made a number of telephone calls canceling all our social engagements in the upcoming weeks. Rita was a party girl and was very popular among her friends. I figured she would need time to rest and recover.
We had not yet told Millie about these developments in her mother’s life. She loved her mother dearly. Until she graduated from high school, she often sat by her after she came home from school and played with her as if she was one of her toys. She would squeeze her cheeks, and mumble sweet nothings to her. Rita feigned annoyance, but I knew she loved her daughter’s affection. Millie carried on this habit even after she got married and left home and visited us from time to time. At this time though, she was on her honeymoon in Bora Bora, and we did not want to get her worried by giving her this news.
“We’ll call her after the surgery,” I said, and Rita agreed.
Soon after we arrived at the hospital the next morning, Rita was wheeled away for a battery of pre-operative tests while I skipped out to run some errands. When I came back, Rita had already returned and was hooked up to an IV in preparation for the surgery.
“I tried to call Millie, but this phone wouldn’t let me,” she said.
I remembered she had agreed not to call her before the surgery.
“We can use our calling card,” I told her.
I called Millie’s hotel in Bora Bora, and had the operator connect me to her room. I handed the phone over to Rita.
“Hi sweetie,” Rita said.
“Hi Mom, what’s up?” Millie was surprised to hear Mom’s voice.
“Oh, nothing much. Hey, listen, I’d a colonoscopy yesterday. They found some growth in my colon, and it needs to be removed immediately. I just wanted to let you know I’ll be going in for surgery in a few minutes,” Rita said, her voice slow but unwavering.
“Can I talk to Daddy?” Rita held out the phone for me.
Millie always looked to Daddy for details.
“Hi Millie, how is it going?”
“Hi Daddy, what’s going on?”
I went over the details of Rita’s stomach pain, and how it led up to her colonoscopy, and the doctors’ advice for immediate surgery.
“What’s Dr. Ziebold’s prognosis?”
“He’s not sure yet. He’s waiting for the biopsy results.”
“Call me after the surgery.”
I gave the phone back to Rita as a nurse showed up to take her away.
“Sweetie, I got to go. Talk to you after the surgery.”
“Good luck, mom.”
I kissed Rita good luck, and as I watched her gurney disappear around the bend, my mind reverted back to the only other time Rita was hospitalized since we got married. That was when Millie was born almost 27 years ago. It was a cold December morning. When she signaled to me the time might have finally arrived, I felt a strange sensation run down my spine. I took her to the hospital in a hurry. It was a quiet time of the year, and the hospital was almost deserted. She was admitted as soon as we arrived, and a nurse took charge of her. A few hours later, I held her hand and gave it a good squeeze as she was wheeled off to the OR on a gurney. A short time later, Millie showed up as a bundle of sheer pink, secure in the crook of a nurse’s arms. It was a moment of ineffable joy for me.
With Rita now gone for surgery, I turned back, and with my laptop slung across my shoulder, dragged my sluggish feet towards the waiting room downstairs. I sat down on one of the chairs lined up against the wall and blankly stared at the fleeting images on an overhead TV directly across from me. There were a few people on my left and a few on my right, all quietly waiting with anxious looks on their faces. They left one by one as the doctors came by and gave them the results of the surgery of whoever they were waiting for. Soon, I found myself alone in the stark silence of the waiting room. Dr. Levitt had said Rita’s surgery would last two to three hours. Time hung like motionless grey mist on an autumn morning. The evening was beginning to darken outside. The fireflies had started to emerge from the nearby bushes and made futile attempts to light up the world. Except for the occasional shuffling of flip-flops in the corridors, there was no other audible sound anywhere around. I opened up the laptop to check my emails. I wanted to take my mind away from the ceaseless streams of morbid thoughts that kept pounding me. But, no such luck. I closed the laptop and went back to staring at the TV. All I could see were fleeting images switch back and forth like a quiet game of ping pong.
As I sat in silence, my mind took me back thirty-five years to a day on the Jadavpur University campus in Kolkata where Rita and I were both students. She was in a purple sari walking with a group of friends, giggling and chattering. I was in a hurry to get to my class when my eyes fell on her. I was overcome by her mushroom-white skin, black hair, dark eyes, and her sparkling smile. In an instant, my world turned upside down, but I was too shy to walk up to her and introduce myself. The heavens must have been on my side for I saw her again a few days later, looking equally gorgeous, in the National Library where I used to go from time to time. I am not going to miss this opportunity, I said to myself. Suddenly I was overpowered by a daunting fear and frayed nerves. My legs were shaking, and my hands had the tremors of a diddering old man. I felt a vague turmoil inside. In the silence of the library while curious minds were engaged in intellectual pursuits, I decided my pursuits must take a different path. I gingerly walked up to her, and almost in a whisper, introduced myself. My world, our world, was never the same again.
I don’t know how long my reverie lasted. I came to myself at the sound of ding-dongs from the wall clock, heralding the pitiless march of time when I caught a glimpse of Dr. Levitt walk past the window on my right. I froze up. He shuffled into the waiting room noiselessly and sat by me. There were just the two of us and utter emptiness all around. He looked at me in breathless silence, and in a slow measured whisper, said, “It was bad.”
His words fell flat on my ears. There was just one question roiling within me, nothing else mattered. The answer to that question held the key to the secrets of my world from that point on. I tried again and again to work up the courage to pop that question, but it kept getting seized up inside. I looked at his serene face. In my mind’s eye I saw images of his lips, curling and quivering, as if they wanted to say something but were hesitant. I imagined he needed help to give voice to those lips. I must help him, I kept saying to myself, and then I couldn’t wait anymore and blurted out.
“Was it malignant?”
“But, how could it be, she took such great care of her health?” I almost screamed.
My heart sank to the deepest depth of despair. In the sightless soundless universe in which I suddenly found myself, I hurtled headlong towards a bottomless pit of emptiness. I struggled to hold on to something to break my free fall, but there was nothing to hold on to.
“Are the affected areas all removed?” I asked in a subdued whisper.
“I’ve completely removed all the affected areas of the colon, but I couldn’t remove the tiny lesions on the liver,” Dr. Levitt sounded almost apologetic.
I fumbled for words, but they curdled in my throat. I was speechless while Dr. Levitt carried on his monologue. With each drop of bad news that left his mouth, I felt a vise tighten its grip on me.
“What’s the implication?” I asked.
“I’m awfully sorry, but this will significantly cut short her life,” he said.
My face went numb. I sat petrified.
"She’s going to take it very hard," the words fell out of my mouth effortlessly.
“I’m not going to tell her now, but she needs to be told soon,” Dr. Levitt said.
How can I tell her? Isn’t she the same girl who, togged up in a gorgeous red Benarasi sari, and decked out in gold and diamond, and a makeup fit only for a princess, was waiting for her Prince Charming to wade through knee-deep monsoon waters to come and rescue her thirty-three years ago? Isn’t she the same girl to whom the Prince Charming had made the solemn vow to live together happily ever after?
“You tell her when the time is right, I can’t,” I said.
Dr. Levitt stayed with me for about ten minutes. He left the room just as quietly as he had entered. Thousands of miles away from the quiet seclusion of that waiting room, a lonely man’s kinfolks in India were unaware of the storm that was raging in the life of one of their own. I craved crumbs of sympathy and support, but they were too far to reach out and touch. Being friendless in a new town, there was no shoulder for me to lean on. Should I tell Millie now and wreck her honeymoon, or should I wait until she returns? My conscience kept sending conflicting signals.
I reached out for the phone in the corner. I tried to punch Millie’s hotel phone number, but my fingers kept hitting the wrong buttons. After a few tries, I heard the phone ring, but nobody was picking it up. I was about to hang up and redial when a female voice came on, “You’ve reached Hotel Bora Bora, may I help you?”
“Could you connect me to Millie’s room, please?”
I heard her phone ring.
“Hello?” she said.
“The surgery is over,” I said.
She did not hear my response because there wasn’t any, only squelched sobs that might have been dissolved in the chatter of the line noise. But I heard her. Her cries rose above that chatter. I let her cry.
It was close to 7:00 p.m. Rita was still in the recovery area. Rather than aimlessly wander in the empty corridors, I preferred the solitude of the waiting room. I remembered the summer we drove down to Daytona Beach, Florida. We were stretched out on lounge chairs on the sands close to the waters. It was late in the evening and dark, but we could still see the approach and retreat of the waves and hear the rolling sounds that tore into the silence of the night. The whitecaps drew a sliver of white strands along the shores against the backdrop of pitch black darkness.
“Oh, this is so good, I could spend the rest of my life like this,” Rita said.
“Yea, I know the feeling.”
We were lost in our thoughts, taking in the sand, surf and the winds.
“Promise, you’ll never leave me alone,” her words took me by surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“You won’t leave me as a widow.”
“We’ll get a pair of swings and hang them from the rafters in the porch. In the evenings, after the sun goes down and the world is still, we’ll climb on to the swings and swing away the hours, reminiscing about our first encounter and the years gone by,” she said.
My eyes welled up as the memories came flooding by. It was past 7:00 p.m., time for Rita to come back to her room. She would be on the second floor according to a hospital staff I had spoken to earlier. I went upstairs, but Rita was still in the recovery area. I waited in the adjoining lounge.
About fifteen minutes later she was wheeled into her room. She was in deep sleep. I stood by her, staring at her placid face. I remembered our Florida trip and the sands, surf and the winds. I remembered the waves and the breakers. I also remembered what she had said about the swings and swinging away, reminiscing about our life together. I figured she was not about to wake up. I stepped out to be close to people. The nurses were running around tending to other patients, and the doctors were making their nightly rounds. Soon I got weary of them. I longed for a different crowd, but it was very far from there across the seas. I went back to Rita and waited for her to wake up.
For the next couple of days, Rita seemed to be in a daze from the heavy medication she had been under. She was weak and fatigued and could barely talk.
“Did they remove the growth?” she asked when she came back to her senses.
“Yes,” I said which was essentially true. I didn’t want to get into the details of her situation; I wanted Dr. Levitt to do that. I was somewhat surprised she didn’t ask about the nature of the growth. Maybe, she was afraid to ask, or maybe, she assumed with the growth gone, she was rid of her problem.
Five days later, during his regular morning visit, Dr. Levitt told Rita about the malignancy of the growth. He told her he had completely removed the affected parts of the colon but could not remove some of the very tiny lesions on her liver. Rita listened to him with rapt attention. She lay motionless in the bed, her face devoid of any expression, her glazed eyes fixed on Dr. Levitt for the longest time. I wondered what was going through her mind as she listened to him. Knowing how emotional she had always been, I had thought she would bawl unrestrainedly when she would hear all this and break down beyond control. Clearly, I was wrong. I had never seen this side of Rita during the thirty-six years we had been together. It was as if a spiritual calmness had grabbed hold of her. Before he left, Dr. Levitt told her Dr. Finlay, an oncologist, would see her later in the day to discuss her treatment regimen.
After Dr. Levitt left, she remained just as calm as she was when she was listening to him. I sat by her, holding her hand.
“Sweetie, we’re into it together. I promise I’ll leave no stone unturned until I get you completely back to normal,” I said.
Soon after she was released from the hospital, sluggish chemo drips commenced their invasive journey into Rita’s body. Intense search for the latest among the arsenals of new medicines kept Millie and me turning massive number of web pages, and the nutritionist’s regimen kept replenishing Rita’s dwindling energy with unflinching regularity. I assured Rita no adversary was powerful enough to vanquish her indefatigable husband. Rita smiled and said, “I know.”
Regardless of my assurance or maybe because of it, Rita herself believed in her ultimate triumph and had plans for changes in her lifestyle after she came out of the ordeal. She put up with the pain and discomfort of her treatment without so much as a whisper of a complaint and waited for the better days. Sometimes we had moments of joy and euphoria due to positive turnaround in her condition that lifted our hopes and aspirations. For two years, Millie and I stood side by side with her, and together, we fought tirelessly to ward off the scourge that portended to destabilize our lives. Ultimately, however, Rita’s will to live was no match for her obdurate enemy, and her husband’s claim to invincibility was just that, a claim, and a woefully futile one at that. Despite her extraordinary tenacity, courage and optimism, one somber afternoon everything became abruptly quiet except for the anguish of her husband and daughter who were by her side holding her hands.
Shiv Dutta‘s publications have appeared or will appear in Under the Sun, Connotation Press, Tin House, South85 Journal, River & South Review, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hippocampus Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Epiphany, The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Front Porch, and other journals. He has also produced 45 technical papers and two technical books. One of his personal essays was nominated for Pushcart Prize.