When a loved one is undergoing a serious surgery, we do a lot of waiting. During a pandemic, that waiting can’t even be at the hospital.
When our mother goes to the Mayo Clinic for cancer surgery, our family all stays in a house, found on VRBO, several blocks away. Beautified by the magic of real estate photography, it looked like a sumptuous abode, with a sprawling green lawn, an ultra-modern kitchen and trendy decor.
When we get there, we realize the lawn is the size of a pocket-square and studded with dandelions, and — although the furniture looks inviting — there isn’t a comfortable place to sit in the entire house. Something is wrong with the cable, so there is little to watch besides a non-stop marathon of “Golden Girls” on the Hallmark Channel.
So our family does a lot of puzzles. Bucolic town scenes with pumpkin patches, church spires and early 20th century townsfolk waving to loved ones as they depart on charming passenger trains to some mysterious cardboard destination beyond the puzzle’s border. One 1,000-piece puzzle is shaped like a bright-green tree frog, but interlaced with a collage of smaller, vibrant rainforest creatures. The work is tedious but just absorbing enough to keep minds from wandering and worrying.
We cook. A lot. In Rochester, Minn., the restaurants are slowly opening — but very warily, with diners encouraged to eat outdoors and warning signs everywhere. When our mother is 83 and has undergone months of chemo and radiation treatments, we don’t want to take any chances.
Especially after she’s undergone a four-hour surgery, known by the deceptively playful label as the Whipple procedure, which requires a skilled surgeon removing the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the duodenum, a portion of the stomach and the surrounding lymph nodes, then reconnecting the remaining pancreas and digestive organs.
Even though Mom isn’t there, we dutifully follow her example: planning elaborate meals that require loads of groceries and lots of planning. We test the rental kitchen like it has never been tested before, cooking lasagna and homemade buttermilk brownies and French toast and a meatloaf as big as a healthy newborn.
The woman who owns the house has obviously never had such culinary-minded guests, as there is only one giant mixing bowl in the kitchen, one 2/3 cup measuring cup and foil-thin pans that manage to burn everything. We joke that we need to get creative in such a kitchen, borrowing a brother-in-law’s golf clubs to stir the pancake batter.
We cook a lot, but don’t eat much. The refrigerator fills with leftovers until we declare that our last day there will be “leftoverpalooza,” and no one will be able to leave until they’ve eaten their share of day-old lasagna. We can’t waste food; Mom wouldn’t approve.
We play “Wheel of Fortune.” It is our parents’ favorite show on TV; they watch Pat Sajak and Vanna White every evening at 7 p.m. Our sister Mabel has found an online version that we can customize with curiously Swift-specific phrases that leave our in-laws baffled but which we can immediately figure out. Who else can guess that “Fish with a paper tail” was one of our dad’s favorite phrases for telling us we didn’t make any sense? (“Tammy, you talk like a fish with a paper tail!”) Of course, we shout out the phrase, giggling and reminiscing, while our in-laws just look at each other and shrug.
Mostly, we await news of Mom. Only one family member can be in the hospital with her after surgery, so Mabel has been chosen as her designated advocate. Mabel passes along the reassuring words of the surgeon: The cancer has been removed; the tumor margin was nonexistent — meaning the chemo and radiation have done an excellent job of purging outlying cancer cells.
Later, he will tell Mabel that hers was the easiest Whipple surgery he has ever done. Upon hearing that, it’s easy to assume Mom is healed now.
We briefly forget that it will take weeks and months of recovery. That her entire digestive system was affected. That it is pancreatic cancer, one of the most feared cancers out there.
But we’re reminded when Mabel sends a picture of Mom in recovery, her head sprouting a fine cap of new, silver hair and her body looking small and vulnerable in the hospital bed.
Or later, when Mom still feels so weak that she isn’t up for a Zoom visit with the family.
We remember: This will take time. And so we feel grateful that the journey has gone well — almost miraculously well — so far.
And so we don’t mind. So, still, we wait.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.