16 Months Out

Today is 16 months since my surgery. Kimberly and I started the day with a trip to UWMC for a follow-up with Dr. Futran. I’d gone for a CT scan on Friday. That was not too bad – it only took one needle stick, though it seemed like the actual scanning took longer than other times.


A couple of weeks ago, the students in the memoir writing class that I just finished in the UW Extension Writers Program had a public reading at the UW Bookstore. For the reading, I reworked a piece that I wrote early in the year. Before taking this class, I had trouble writing multiple drafts. My teacher, Laura Kalpakian, and my classmates have, through their regular critiques of my work, helped me learn about that part of the writing process. Here’s the piece that I read:

When Paul and I married seven years ago, neither of us knew this sad truth: I can’t make a decent latte. Early in our marriage, Paul demonstrated, more than once, the process of transforming dark- roasted coffee beans and cold milk into a steaming, foamy, caffeinated treat. Standing by my side before the black and chrome contraption, he patiently guided me through the process of grinding, filling, tamping, steaming and pouring. The lessons did not take. Oh, I made a latte or two, but my lattes hissed and spit out of the espresso machine either too weak or too bitter. The barista who served me such a latte would not have been tipped.

One morning, when I requested Paul’s assistance with the espresso maker yet again, he exclaimed in frustration, “I don’t understand why you can’’t do this. You’’re good with machines… hell, you understand how most things work without reading the instructions. Do you have some sort of a brain injury?” This question, from the man whose pet name for me is Brains, struck me as absurdly funny. I burst out laughing, and Paul joined me. We stood in our kitchen, hugging each other, giggling.

My supposed ‘brain injury’ became a recurring joke. Paul would marvel that my injury had impaired only my ability to tamp grounds and steam milk. I would nod in agreement, and comment that the workings of the human brain are not fully understood by modern science.

Once my condition had been identified, Paul shouldered barista duty at our house. Each morning he would bring me a latte in bed. One of the small daily pleasures of my life was waking to the sound of my husband walking into our bedroom, singing this short verse:

Coffee drink delivery service
Coffee drink, if you are nervous
About how you’re going to wake.
Have yourself a coffee break.

In January of 2004, Paul was diagnosed with an oral cancer at the base of his tongue. The surgery to remove the tumor would be long and dangerous, the lasting effects on his speech and swallowing uncertain. A few days before surgery, Paul expressed concern about my morning lattes. “You won’t have coffee drink delivery while I’m in the hospital. What will you do? How will you wake up?” While his tone was light, I heard the dark thoughts and real questions beneath the surface of his words: How are you holding up? I’’m sorry I’’m putting you through this. Are you going to be OK?

I could answer the surface question easily. Finding coffee in Seattle is simple. The espresso bar in the hospital lobby could meet my needs while Paul was hospitalized. We have five coffee shops within as many blocks of our house. I would not suffer from lack of coffee.

I had no answers, simple or otherwise, for the unspoken questions. Too many unknowns waited on the other side of Paul’s surgery. Would he survive the surgery, and the cancer, or would I lose him? What toll would his illness and treatment take on him, and on our relationship? I believed that I was coping well, but I knew that might change. I didn’’t know whether I would be OK.

Several weeks after Paul’s surgery, I woke, feeling cold, in our still-dark bedroom. Pulling the down comforter up to my ears, I turned to snuggle up to Paul. The hand I extended landed not across his shoulder, but on soft, warm fur. In an instant, I went from half asleep to worried. Why was Paul up so early? He had been out of bed long enough that our cats had claimed the warm spot against his pillow. Was he feeling ill?

I was about to call out his name when I heard footsteps on the stairs, and caught a whiff of coffee. Relaxing under the comforter’’s warmth, I waited. Paul’s singing wasn’t elegant that morning, but it brought tears to my eyes. The latte was the best I’ve ever tasted, the love with which it was made almost visible in its foamy top.