A hospital cafeteria is not the most glamorous place to have an existential crisis.
A gloomy alley in Paris would be far more interesting, or perhaps gazing out upon an ocean vista as the sun slides into oblivion for another day, or even sitting next to a cozy fire with a sympathetic dog. Being surrounded by beige walls staring down into a plate of beige food while exhausted-looking people in scrubs scroll through their phones doesn’t exactly inspire the kind of Camus-worthy poetic angst people clutch to their trench-coated bosoms generations later.
But I’m guessing I’m not the first one to question the Meaning of It All while waiting for a loved one to come through surgery.
To be clear, the weltschmerz had been building for some time. Years ago, when my husband—my partner for nearly half my life, my favorite person, the only one who knows how to set the sprinkler system—was diagnosed with a rare tumor deep within his most masculine parts, we were faced with the very real fact of his mortality. Due to the encapsulated nature of the growth—scientifically referred to as a Stromal Tumor of Unknown Malignant Potential, aka a “STUMP”—the doctors advised a wait-and-see approach, warning that eventually, the STUMP and at least part of the parts it was attached to would need to come out.
So we waited-and-saw through the seasons, accruing second opinions and MRI bills and third opinions and different insurance plans, all while raising the kids and running a business and keeping the lawn mowed and the dogs walked and everyone’s teeth cleaned. The spectre of the tumor and its complicated excisement haunted every family milestone, career choice, dollar spent. Along the way, new medical advancements were made and the kids grew tall. At the end of 2018, the latest doctor gave the definitive order—which was then stalled when I lost a job and therefore our health insurance. By the time that got sorted (thank you, Affordable Care Act) and options had been researched, COVID had delayed the entire damn world.
Last week, after more months of consultations and administrative trapeze acts with the insurance company and bucket-list trip to Iceland, a new doctor—The Best in the World for this type of surgery—readied his robotic tools like a maestro warming up his Stradivarius. I curled up with Mark in his hospital bed after the nurse had hooked up his IV, our heads pressed together as he started to babble from the barbiturates. He was still talking to me as they wheeled him around the corner.
I staggered to the cafeteria to wait, mindlessly putting a sandwich and something that looked like pudding on my tray as I acknowledged that the entity that had quietly pervaded our lives for so long would soon be cast out, our house no longer haunted by its presence. But the fears multiplied as I also realized the much-discussed risks of the surgery and the STUMP’s “MP”—that is, its malignant potential—would become known.
I sat down at a sanitized table already in dialogue with my Inner Voice—well, one of them, anyway, and not one of the nice ones.
Are we going to get through this?
Through it? Yes. Over it? That will take time. Under it? If necessary, but I don’t recommend it.
What if everything is worse afterwards?
Then there will be more doctors and more decisions.
What if he dies?
We’re all going to die. Get used to the idea, and you’ll have a much easier time of it all.
Hey, Inner Voice?
Fuck the Fuck OFF.
I stayed at the table for a long time as various staff members and other patient’s families came and went, one of hundreds of people that day—millions probably—worrying over their choices and uncontrollable circumstances, just another ordinary human chewing on her unpoetic fears and an underbaked pretzel.
I thought about my friend Miriam Center, who is the oldest person I know and also the wisest, who goads me into deep, difficult conversations about the ephemeral opacity of existence every time we’re together. She isn’t an atheist like Camus, preferring a fascinating amalgam of Judaism, the teachings of Krishnamurti, and Mae West bawdiness, but she certainly doesn’t pretend to have any answers.
“We don’t know anything, and anyone who says otherwise is full of it. I’m 95 years old, and all I know is you just keep going until you die,” she told me the last time I came over to hang around on her gorgeous suede furniture.
“Life is scary and strange and beautiful. Maybe death is the end, maybe there’s more to it. Won’t know ‘til we get there. In the meantime, there’s always sex.”
“What if that goes away, too?” I asked, thinking of the surgery’s possible side effects.
She shrugged. “There’s always a way.”
That’s Miriam’s secret: Stay sexy, and don’t let death get you down. It has its eye on you every single day anyway, so you might as well give it a wink once in a while. I like Miriam a lot more than I like some of my inner voices, even when they’re saying similar things.
Still, it’s not so easy. Death might be entertainingly absurd in the abstract, but not in the context of our favorite people (or the demise of global democracy at the hands of autocratic sadists). We don’t like surprises.
This week many of us are mourning the sudden passing of Savannah’s most beloved florist and bon vivant, John Davis, an animal-loving reveler who showed this city what it meant to “live life out loud.” I met John when he adorned our wedding chuppah over 20 years ago; he never failed to send me into screaming laughter with his scandalous stories and recently got up to some top-level mischief trolling a local DUI attorney. He will be deeply missed, and our hearts are with his wife, Jennifer Abshire. John always always capped his Facebook updates with the admonishment to “Buy Flowers,” and I think that’s as good a way to face mortality as anything.
Back at the hospital cafeteria, the crusts of my sandwich long stale, I was shaken from my philosophical reverie by a call from Dr. Best in the World: Mark was out of surgery, it had gone phenomenally, the side effects expected to be minimal, no surprises. Five days later, the physician’s assistant read us the pathology report, confirming that the tumor had remained encapsulated, and upon its removal, its malignant potential collapsed to zero.
Suddenly I remembered Camus’ view maybe wasn’t so angsty after all. “There is but one freedom, to put oneself right with death. After that everything is possible,” he wrote in The Plague (which admittedly, is still a pretty depressing read.)
We’re back home now, and my existential crisis has been downgraded to its normal low-grade neurosis. Mark is still on the mend, though already walking and talking at his usual pace, and all parts appear to be in excellent working order. Thank you to all who checked in and sent love and brought balloons.
I know very little about whatever happens next. But I know enough to believe we’ll get through it, over it, and if need be, under it for the rest of our lives, however long they may be.
Kiss your loved ones and Buy Flowers ~ JLL