Snow swirls around me as I try to wrap my mind around the news I received. I sit in the cold interior of my car unable to bring myself to start it. My tears add to the chill overtaking my body and I welcome the bitterness, hoping it will cause numbness, bringing on memory loss.
How am I going to tell Nick?
Thinking of my husband brings a fresh wave of pain and tears. My loving, supportive Nick. From the moment I laid eyes on him, in a club, of all places, I knew he was the one. It was the strangest feeling. My heart didn’t stop beating and I didn’t lose my breath like you read in romance novels, but there was an awareness that flowed through every fiber of who I was. His dark eyes and perfect smile called to me through the masses of people and I knew I had to meet him. I remember shaking my head, thinking, He can’t be the one. He’s so not my type. I couldn’t picture him running down a field, carrying a football. In fact, I would be surprised if he stood six inches over my five-foot-two frame. I had scoured the dance floor, looking for someone else to catch my eye, but something about him kept drawing me in. I chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Since my teen years, I had been attracted to jocks and the man to finally turn me to mush had me picturing cubicles and computers.
He’d ignored me that night, seemed to see right through me. It was actually my best friend, Amy-Lynn, who forced me to make the first move. I’m still thankful for that. At twenty-three, I may not have known what I was truly missing out on. Eight years later, I can say he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. We’re connected. I felt it that first night. I feel it now. Nick burrowed himself into my soul. That’s what’s making this so much harder. It’s going to break his heart. He was sure I would be alright.
I try to calm myself, but my mind travels back to the appointment, to the words Dr. Wendell spoke. My head falls onto the steering wheel and fresh tears fall as I tumble into the madness of my memory.
“Brenna St. James.”
My head pops up from the magazine I wasn’t really reading. An older gentleman with a kind smile awaits me. I stand slowly, holding the chair for support. If I try to move too quickly, it can bring on an “episode”. I know this is the best place for it to happen, but the embarrassment of these strangers seeing how my body tears me down is too much to handle. With slow, unsteady steps, I make my way toward the man and shake his extended hand.
“I’m Dr. Wendell. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I say weakly. With my nerves wreaking havoc on me, forming a coherent sentence feels impossible.
White hair, mustache, small beard, glasses, bow tie—I take in the entire picture of the doctor before me, trying to calm myself. He’s talking about the cold weather and I think I respond, but my brain feels so muddled. It’s not every day you have to meet a neurosurgeon. Unexpectedly, he breaks out singing Beyonce, her famous “to the left” line repeating on his lips while he does a little shimmy. I can’t stop myself from giggling. His antics have their presumably desired effect. My tension starts to ease, and I feel a bit more relaxed. I like this guy.
Two lefts later, he opens the door to his office. It’s surprisingly cozy. I expected it to be clinical, sterile…I don’t know, whitewashed. Instead, a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled with books, family photos, a globe, and a couple model skulls greets me. They aren’t as creepy as I would have guessed. Plants on coffee tables, a couch, and rocking chair—he’s gone to great lengths to make sure his patients feel comfortable. I hardly notice the exam table against the far wall.
We spend the first part of the appointment going over my symptoms and when they started. He talks about the tests I’ve undergone and why my primary doctor felt they were necessary. I try not to get irritated all over again. I’ve spent nine months getting worse while my primary refused to listen to how I was feeling. Then she sent me to a completely insane neurologist. Months of my life have been wasted on unnecessary tests and doctors who refused to help me, and nothing changed until I finally got angry enough to demand who I saw.
Those demands led me to this appointment.
“Dr. Nugent sent over your final work up from a few weeks ago,” he says after wrapping up his long list of questions. “I also have all your files from Dr. Herrington and Dr. Lauzier.”
“I signed a waiver for all the tests I had done at the hospital to be sent to you,” I add, hoping he has everything and I don’t have to make another appointment to start getting answers. After getting the runaround for so long, I just want answers, and I’m done waiting for them.
“Yes, I have all your scans, too. Would you like me to go through them with you? I find if the patient sees what’s happening to them for themselves, it helps them to be better equipped to make decisions.”
I’m not sure what decisions he’s talking about, but my nerves kick in to overdrive. I nod, unable to form words. Fear fills my entire body as he signs into his computer and pulls my scans on the screen.
At first, the grey images seem like a blur to me. I can easily tell it’s my brain, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing. He quickly shows me how part of my brain, the cerebellar tonsils, hang out of my skull, crowding my spinal column. In fact, they’re crowding it so much, I have a fluid obstruction forming. He explains that the massing can cause pressure on the brainstem, spinal cord, and block the CSF flow, the fluid running through and around the brain. My mind swirls, processing everything he’s saying too fast for me to make sense of it.
There’s a blockage between my brain and spine, fluid isn’t flowing correctly, and without getting the fluid to flow better, there is no way to slow down my symptoms. I want to shrink into the floor, become nonexistent…anything to take me away from his words.
“Mrs. St. James.”
“Brenna, please,” I squeak out.
“Brenna, your symptoms are progressing rapidly due to the lack of fluid movement. They are going to get worse as the obstruction gets worse. The tonsils are hanging too low, causing too much crowding. Your brain will continue to produce CSF, but there is nowhere for it to go.”
I stare into his blue eyes, begging him not to say what I know is coming. My heart races and I can hear the blood pumping through my ears. I blink twice quickly, trying to make it all go away.
“My recommendation at this time is surgery. I feel it’s the only way to provide you any relief.”
And my world disappears beneath my feet. I’m left free floating in a sphere of panic, disbelief, and anger. How could my body betray me like this? Where is Nick? I need his arms around me, protecting me.
No one should hear they need brain surgery alone.
Dr. Wendell continues to tell me about the surgery, but I’m too lost to hear him. I have to stop him and ask him to start over. His eyes full of compassion and understanding, he starts over and I do my best to keep it together. I manage to do just that until I get into my cold car.
I’m not sure how long I sit in my car, allowing myself to emotionally unwind, but my shivering spurs me into action. With shaking fingers, I rifle through the papers on my passenger seat, trying to find the keys I’d haphazardly thrown there in my need to break down. My eyes roam over the information and dates sprawled before me and my stomach churns. Fearing I’ll be sick, I slam my eyes shut, needing to block out the reminders of today’s news, and blindly search for the keys.
“Where the fuck are they?” I shout into the empty car, my voice sounding broken.
I am broken.
It’s why I’m sitting here, unable to call the one person who can comfort me. Comforting me, means breaking him, and I can’t do that. With my keys found, I start the car and pray the warmth that will soon fill the space can bring me peace.
Lowering my visor, I open the mirror and cringe at my reflection. Mascara streaks my cheeks and all the color has drained from my face. I look hollow.
I can’t talk to Nick looking like this.
I’m not sure where the thought comes from, or why I think cleaning myself up is going to make delivering this news any easier, but I grab napkins from the console and furiously scrub my skin. The paper is dry and my skin starts to feel raw under the pressure, but I don’t care. I need to be me for a little longer.
Shoving all the papers to the floor, I grasp my purse. I take a few minutes to touch up my makeup and then give myself another once over. My eyes speak back to me, telling me no matter how much makeup I put on, or how many times I touch it up, it won’t cover the truth. I try to push the thoughts from my mind, but I can’t—no amount of positive thinking will change what’s about to happen to me.
Closing my eyes, I lean my head against the seat and force myself to breathe. I need to be calm—get into character, so to speak. Nick will need me as much as I need him. My voice needs to sound sure. I can’t tremble. I can’t cry. I sure as hell can’t break—no more than I already have. It’s time for me to be strong.
One more deep breath and I open my eyes, pull my cell from my purse, and force myself to focus on the snow falling around me. Keep your eyes on the snow. Watch the flakes fall. Get lost in the white. My fingers type out his work number and I bring the phone to my ear. I’m not sure which is louder, the ringing or my heart. It’s beating so fast, I’m afraid it’s going to pump right out of my chest.
Keep your eyes on the snow. “You’ve reached Nicholas St. James. I’m currently away from my desk. Please leave a message and your contact information, and I’ll get back to you shortly.”
A deep sigh falls from my lips and relief floods through me. I’ve never been so happy for Nick to have a meeting.
“Hey, babe. Just left the doctor’s. Driving home now and it’s snowing. I’ll be home in about a half hour. Call me there.”
I drop my cell in the drink holder and start the drive home in suffocating silence. I leave the radio off, but without the background noise, I realize how loud my mind is. Thought after thought bombards me. Questions I wish I had asked. Questions I worry Nick will ask. Will he be able to handle this?
Will he leave me?
He’s stood by me through so much, but I can’t help but wonder if this will be too much.
My cell rings, dragging me from my wandering thoughts. I’m in no way ready to talk to Nick, but if I don’t answer, I know he’ll worry. Ten more minutes and I would have been in the safety of my home. With a sad heart, I reach for the phone, click that little green icon, and brace myself.
I’m about to find out how strong my marriage really is.
“Hey, babe. How’d the appointment go?”
Trying to lighten the mood, I joke, “The doctor said it’s all in my head.”
He sighs through the line and I have to choke back the sobs trying to break free.
“That’s great, Bren.”
“Uh…no. I’m so sorry, Nick. I shouldn’t have joked about this. It is all in my head, but that means I have to have surgery.”
“Surgery?” he questions.
Our call goes quiet while the news sinks in. I want to say something, but I have nothing to offer to soften the blow. How do I offer comfort when I feel so lost?
“I wasn’t there for you.”
His sad voice adds to the misery of the day. I wish I could tell him it’s okay, but I needed him with me. The more I think of what’s going to happen to me, the more I know how much I’ll continue to need him, so I say nothing.
“I’m so sorry, Bren.”