Our flight to North Carolina took off at 8:45 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th, 2017. We took a taxi straight from the airport to the Duke medical center, and by 1 p.m., Matt was done with the first of his three day Gamma Knife treatment (technically, his procedure was called Stereotactic Radiosurgery, or SRS).
Matt experienced no immediately apparent side effects from the Gamma Knife radiation. He walked into the procedure the same way he walked out. And because Gamma Knife was an out patient procedure, we were—in theory—free to do as we wished the rest of the day.
But August 30th is not the story of an easy day. If this was fiction, and I was writing a novel, I might call August 30th my second plot point, the beginning of the third and final act of the story. In the second plot point, the stakes are raised, all the new information has been introduced, or at least hinted at, and the protagonist is on an inevitable path to meet the antagonist head on.
Earlier in the week, I’d asked Matt whether Duke had confirmed a time with him for his spinal MRI. He’d told me yes. I didn’t question the truth of this statement. Why would I? Matt had scheduled all his own appointments since the moment we learned of his diagnosis. But after the Gamma Knife radiation, when I checked the schedule of our appointments on our medical itinerary, I didn’t see a time or date for the spinal MRI. Matt couldn’t remember when the MRI was to take place, or who had called to confirm, or when the call to confirm had occurred. His explanation was simply: I don’t know.
We headed upstairs to the neuro-oncologist’s office to attempt to figure out why the appointment had been left off the schedule. The receptionist told us no appointment had been scheduled.
I realized that Matt had never received a confirmation call for the spinal MRI. He’d likely confused another conversation.
The receptionist told us that the MRI machine was booked solid for the next few days because of the holiday weekend. I told her we were desperate, we would take anything. She paused for a moment, searching our faces. I think she saw the fear and weariness and general despair in our expressions. She called a friend of hers at another facility and squeezed us into the last MRI slot of the week. A kindness I can never repay, one I can only hope to pay forward.
Afterward, we walked to get lunch at a place halfway between the hotel and Duke’s campus. This was often our routine, a way to stretch our legs, after a day of sitting around waiting for doctors. But the half-mile walk was hard for Matt with his carry on bag and we decided to call the hotel shuttle to drive us the other half-mile to the hotel. I called the hotel and they told us they would not come to pick us up because we had no reservation under either of our names.
Since the moment Matt and I started dating, he had been in charge of all of our reservations. I once tried to take the responsibility from him. I made a reservation at a resort that many of our friends had visited before. But somehow, (despite all the advice and reviews) I’d reserved a room on the wrong side of the resort, next to the theater which performed well past midnight, in a room too small for our family of four. Matt never let me live down the mistake—and immediately took over reservation responsibilities again. (I was only too happy to give up this responsibility.)
On August 22, I wrote that the devil was in the details. One year ago today, it didn’t occur to me to double check whether Matt had made his spinal MRI appointment. Just the week before, he’d made all his own appointments. One year ago today, it didn’t occur to me that Matt wouldn’t be in charge of our hotel reservation. Just the week before, he’d made a reservation at the same hotel for his overnight. When I asked him whether he thought he’d made the reservation or whether he’d simply forgotten, he responded the same way he’d responded to my questions about the spinal MRI: “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know” became an answer I heard too often as Matt’s ability to process information and answer questions grew more compromised.
We walked the half mile. I carried both of our bags and we made slow progress to the hotel that I could only hope would have room for us when we arrived. They did. And the receptionist’s kindness in the face of our fear and weariness and general despair is something I won’t soon forget.
When we were settled in a room, I went down to the courtyard to write while Matt rested upstairs. I texted a friend and wrote: I didn’t actually realize things were like this.
What I meant was that I didn’t realize Matt’s independence had been impacted. Despite the symptoms I noticed, despite the fears and concerns that had been making sleep impossible over the last week, I’d somehow failed to realize how much Matt had declined. How much help he needed to do things he’d always done.
That slow decline. The brutality of brain cancer. I hadn’t for a moment taken my eyes off of Matt and I’d still missed the moment his decline had taken a steep dive.
The day ended when Matt finished with his spinal MRI at about 9 p.m. We fell into bed, exhausted from the day, hopeful that with Gamma Knife, we were one day closer to the next upswing. Or, better yet, one day closer to a cure.
That night, for the first time in weeks, I slept.