by Hugh Gilmore
Back in September, in a more innocent time, I ordered two tickets for a Christmas holiday matinee of the ABBA jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia!” The date coincided with the anniversary of my marriage to my life-partner, Janet. We’d sit in the first balcony row at the Merriam Theater.
Going to see the show and bobbing our heads to ABBA music seemed like a really silly and fun way to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. And just to top it off, we also arranged an overnight stay at the Bellevue Stratford (now the Hyatt at the Bellevue) Hotel, where we’d spent our one-night honeymoon oh-so-many years ago.
The rest of September, and then October, were ordinary, and passed quickly. We looked forward, knowing we’d have a nice personal way to celebrate, come the Christmas holidays and our anniversary.
But then November got in the way.
Here’s my blurry memory: Some bad PSA numbers were given to me after my annual fitness check-up. A biopsy was arranged. I remember lying on my left side in a sterile, tiled, florescent-lit room and submitting to the first medical invasion of my lower body.
My urologist warned me gently just before each of the 12 clicks that punctuated the taking of a needle biopsy core from my prostate gland. It was uncomfortable, but bearable without sedation. Janet and I walked away, holding hands, determined not to worry about something that hadn’t happened yet.
That was on a Thursday afternoon. The following Monday morning the doctor’s phone call interrupted my finishing a column for the Local. He said I had some cancer. No, wait a minute, that’s not quite the wording: I didn’t “have” it. Instead, he said the tests “showed some cancer.” It wasn’t mine yet. Claiming it as mine would take a while. “Come see me with your wife,” he added, “we’ll discuss the options.”
Three days later I sat across the desk from him, my wife beside me, the two of us bonded in that truly married way one feels when a life event smacks them hard. The doc said, “You have a high-risk cancer. The time for patient surveillance has passed. Action is needed if you want to avoid metastasis. You basically have two treatment choices: radiation or surgery. They both have the same five-year survival possibilities. Heck, maybe ten, but given your age it would not be wise to toss numbers around casually. Figure out how you want to treat this.”
Okay, Doc, sure. We left holding hands like old kids. Orphans in a storm.
Appointments followed. CAT-scans and an MRI. I chose a hospital: Fox Chase Cancer Center because they always seemed considerate to a good friend whom I’d driven there for his radiation treatments a few years ago.
On the hospital’s website I looked at the urology surgeons’ bios and photos. I pictured each face bending over me just before the lights went out. Just before we all went trippin’ together. I picked one for a surgical consult, another for radiation. Thanksgiving arrived and flew past with barely a tip of the wings.
Everywhere I turned I was told surgery and radiation are each equally effective at eliminating most cancers that remain confined to the prostate gland. I asked questions. I read. I studied. I got second opinions. I called people. I tried not to worry. Why worry the people who love me with my worries? Still, the treatment decision was mine. November – terrible, horrible November 2016 – swooned away and December swooped down.
I had chosen: radical prostatectomy, to be achieved by Da Vinci robotic surgery. Rational or irrational, I wanted the cancer removed, completely and totally. The date was set for December 19.
Like all crazy, unexpected things, life alternately sped up and slowed down until the day of the showdown. Sadness hung in wings. I left notes and final instructions in a computer file placed front and center on my desktop. I did not write words of goodbye, though I had to fight not to. I was just going in for a tune-up, right? Like leaving the car at the garage. We had to be there at 6 a.m. At 8 we kissed goodbye in the bustling hospital staging area. They turned a drug line cock. I disappeared.
I came awake. Janet came in the room. I loved seeing her face. I was too doped up to notice much more than that. I came around a few hours later, my brush with eternity still humming in my years. I walked that night. I did everything I could do to get out of there and go home. The next day I did. A catheter and bag came with me. My torso and abdomen a deep, violence-marked black and blue.
Strangely, all through the ordeal, through the needles and instructions and medicines and confusion and pain, whenever I closed my eyes and sank back I pictured being at the ABBA show seeing people waving their arms and singing along and having a good time. It’s not my usual cup of tea, but it seemed heavenly. I just kept hearing ABBA music in my head and it made me happy and gave me something to look forward to that was outside of my own self and my troubles.
And so it came to be on December 28. Sitting at the theater, first row of the balcony, when “Dancing Queen” was being sung, I turned to Janet to tell her how happy I was to be here, to be alive, and be with her on our anniversary, listening to such a touchingly silly song. I started to say, “This is the song I kept hearing in the hospital.” But I couldn’t say it. My voice broke. I gasped only the first few words as I looked to see that Janet’s shoulders were shaking and she had her hands over her face, and she was bent over, sobbing. I put my arm around her and pulled her to me and she lifted her hands away and I saw the held-back sorrow and horror escape her face and we squeezed each other and lightly kissed. We held hands through the rest of the show.
The people around us must have thought, Those two old lovebirds must really like this music.