Last Friday, I went with my Sweet Mama to Cambridge, MD. No, we did not go to see President Bush. We did not even know that he was going to be in Cambridge that day. On the way over, I couldn’t understand the excessive number of state police cars that were convening on that small town. But I was careful, so I didn’t have opportunity to ask them personally what was going on.
My Sweet Mama was on her way to Dorchester County Hospital.
16 months ago, she and my Daddy had made this trek to have her esophagus stretched. Her family has a history of constricture to the esophagus, and she, in the Autumn of 2004, had come into some problems with food getting caught in her throat and being forcibly expelled back out. She remembers coming to, after what was to have been a simple procedure and hearing the nurse say, “Who is here with her? Has anyone told her husband?” She remembers hearing the word “malignant” spoken in her fuzzy post-proceedure daze.
That set our family on a journey that would not have been bearable, were not the LORD on our side. Our Sweet Mama had Esophageal Cancer. If this had been but a few years earlier, the doctor said, they would have told her to get her affairs in order. There would have been NO HOPE. But it was nearly 2005, and there were possibilities and opportunities that were beckoning us all with hope.
From the beginning, Daddy would not allow himself to hope. He felt that it was over for this wife that he had cherished all these years. He did not want to see her suffer through Chemo and radiation and surgery. He did not want her to lose the blonde hair that had captivated him from the time he first saw her. He was convinced that she would not survive any of the procedures. He actually did not want her to have this surgery, but in the face of what she wanted, he agreed. For she did want it. Very much, indeed. She believed that she could conquer this insidious disease. As her eldest daughter, I looked at the grim statistics, thought about all the possibilities, and my heart ached for them both: My precious Daddy, just pronounced “in remission” with Leukemia two days before her diagnosis, and my Sweet Mama, facing a battle that I knew she did not begin to understand what ramifications and demands would be visited upon her body.
We know the story and how it all worked out from this standpoint. My Sweet Mama had her surgery. We nearly lost her several times. It was not a pretty battle. There were times when Daddy would not even go to Baltimore to see her because he could not bear how bad she looked. But then, she turned a corner in her recovery and began to get better. Daddy also turned a corner in a different direction and, last May we heard that, short of a miracle, he had almost no time left.
There are those who say there was no miracle when it comes to our Daddy’s declining health. But what we know now is that every single month we had was a miracle of sorts. Every single day that Mark Yoder, Sr. did the things he wanted to do (and always did) was an extension of time that the medical profession did not expect and even now, cannot explain. Daddy was so tickled with the progress that Mama made. They spent long hours together, and Mama had a sense of urgency that she never had before. She did not believe that he was dying, but she had this desire to spend every available moment with him. “I just want to be with Daddy,” she would say to me, her eyes pleading with me to understand. “I don’t know why, but I just feel like I need to be with him.” And I, not really believing either, that he was going to die yet, thought that it was so sweet for them to be so happy to be together.
And then, way too soon, long before we were ready, Daddy went home to Heaven, and Mama, hardly able to believe that this had actually happened, has been trying to find her way in what has been far harder than our wildest imagination could have pictured. She has had trouble sleeping. She has had trouble eating. And no wonder. Eating was almost a religious rite with Daddy. He would bring breakfast over from the nursing home in those dark days after her surgery and set it down at her place.
“You need to eat, Alene,” he would say in that voice that none of us dared to disobey. And he believed in three meals a day. When she couldn’t cook, and no one else was available, he would do it himself. Pulling out leftovers, little dabs of this and that, adding canned peaches and tall glasses of milk. “Do you want some of this, yet?” He would query. Pushing her and prodding her to eat. And she, hating to eat because everything felt so “wrong” after her esophagectomy, would look at him with eyes that have often caused me to relent.
“Mark, I just can’t.” she would say.
“Yes, you can.” he would say. “You have to. Just eat a little bit.” And she would try so hard to please him, often picking away at things until she finally got them down. And if she didn’t, he would bring Ensure or other calorie packing drinks to make up the difference.
But now, suddenly, he was gone, and she found that it was easier to not eat. Easier to wait until lunch time to force some food down and hard to even think of supper.
We tried to fill in the spaces, inviting her to our homes for supper. Carrying food in. Taking her out to eat. But it was clear that she was getting skinnier, and skinnier.
Around the first of February, she confided in me that it felt like the food was “getting stuck” again. She has had numerous stretchings of the scar tissue of her esophagus, but none since Daddy died. She was worried that something was wrong.
“Do you have another stretching scheduled, Mama?” I asked her.
“I am supposed to go back in March,” she said, “but I don’t think I should wait that long.”
“Then we are going to call, and get an appointment,” I said. “There is no sense in waiting until March if you feel like you should have it sooner.” When I called, told them that she felt like it was getting tighter again, and asked about moving the appointment up, they were in complete agreement. So, last Friday, Mama and I went to Cambridge to have this procedure done.
This is the one procedure that I had never accompanied Daddy and Mama on. They went that first time, and somehow, Daddy never wanted anyone to go along. “This is something we can do alone,” he would say. And Mama always said, “Daddy can manage this just fine. We will be okay. He likes to go early in the morning and get it over with, so we will just go.” As you can imagine, the memories that walked with Mama up the hill to the outpatient department were private and overwhelming. I could imagine the two of them, coming into the cheery entrance of the hospital, and Daddy waiting in that same waiting room that held me captive, but I did not have the weight of memories or the slap of Daddy’s absence where his presence had always, every single time she had been there, that Mama had to deal with.
They let me stay with Mama while she got into her hospital garb, and together we waited until they said she was ready for the procedure. Then I went out to the waiting room. About an hour later, her doctor appeared and asked for the family of Alene Yoder. I dropped the things I was working on and followed him to the hall outside the waiting room. He closed the door.
“Everything looks good,” he began. “I cannot believe how good she looks for what she has been through.” He made a circle around his face. “She is amazing.” He opened his notes and brought out a series of pictures. “About what we did today. . .” he paused, then pointed to the first of a series of pictures. “Here you can see the top of the stomach, leading into the esophagus. If you notice, there is some erosion there, which is acid reflux disease.” He handed me some pamphlets. “I want her to follow this diet really carefully. She needs to eat more often, with smaller portions, but she never, never should eat any less than 3-4 hours before going to bed. Her bed needs to be elevated. This acid is starting to irritate the area and we need to try to get it stopped.” He covered the next few pictures in one fairly inclusive statement. “These next pictures are of the stomach, (and numerous other things that I forget, actually!) and as you can see, everything is clear. It looks smooth and really good. However – – ” and this is where my heart stopped. He pointed to a picture near the bottom of the page. “If you look right here on this picture you will see some nodules. I don’t know what they are, but I don’t think they are anything to worry about.”
I looked at that picture, and the nodules looked pretty pronounced to me. They were smooth, but they were definitely there on the smooth pink surface of Mama’s esophagus. I felt like I could not breathe. “What do you think they are?” I asked.
“I’m inclined to think that they are something that has come as a result of healing. I did biopsy them, and I don’t want you to worry about them. (Yeah, Right!) If you call me next Thursday, I will tell you what the biopsy says. And if it is something really bad, I will call you before. But again, I don’t think they are anything serious. Please don’t worry.” He gave me the paper with all the incriminating evidence, and then said, “She won’t be back for at least an hour and a half. Go get a snack or something, and then she will be ready.”
I made my way blindly back through the waiting room and got on an elevator for the main floor. Maybe a jaunt around the gift shop would clear my head. But the gift shop was closed. One of the volunteers had passed away, and they had closed the shop for the day. I got back on the elevator and went down to the basement. The cafeteria was closed, but there were some juice machines. I purchased an apple juice and then thought I would buy a snack out of the snack machine. I had my purse and Mama’s purse, and was trying to hold my apple juice while I organized my change. Suddenly, the apple juice slipped from my grasp and crashed to the floor. There was this loud cracking noise as the plastic top split away from the bottle and there was apple juice all over the floor, splashed up my stockings and just this incredible mess. I looked at the juice running out of the bottle and automatically picked up the shattered bottle, but I didn’t know what to do. There was this great aching hole in my heart that was as out of control and messy as this small ocean on the floor of the hospital basement. I retreated back to the wall by the elevator in tears, and a kind lady accosted a young man pushing a linen cart and asked him to call someone to clean up the mess.
He said, “Oh, that’s no problem,” and he took some folded towels from his cart and cleaned it all up. He was so cheerful and optimistic and efficient. It was so weird. but that helped me to not feel so out of control. I went back up to the waiting area to wait for Mama. And thought and thought and thought and thought. I kept thinking that I could not tell Mama. I didn’t want her to worry. And I felt like I shouldn’t tell my siblings. They didn’t need more worry than they already had. But I also knew that this was too big for me. I didn’t know how I could keep this to myself for a whole week.
Suddenly, they were calling me, and there was Mama, dressed and ready to go home. I decided to be cheerful as I could be for her sake, and we came on home. I made a wrong turn on the way home and ended up in Seaford, but it didn’t prolong our trip by even ten minutes, so it wasn’t too long before we were home. I had things to do at home, and Mama said that she wanted to sleep. I went over the results of the procedure with her and showed her the pictures. I told her that there were some nodules that they biopsied, but that the doctor said he was sure it wasn’t anything and that we weren’t to worry. She was sleepy, and she seemed to pass it off. I hoped that she wouldn’t think about it too much.
On the way home, I stopped by Daddy’s grave. I stood there in the cemetery at the as yet, unmarked grave and thought about these past months. I wondered what Daddy would think about the biopsy if he were here. I wondered what was ahead for us. I missed his quiet faith and steady hand. And I told my Heavenly Father how very afraid I was. I prayed that the biopsy would turn out okay, and I thanked Him again for sparing Mama this past year. And then I came on home.
And yes, I told my siblings. I decided that they and a few trusted others could help me carry the burden, and so the week has passed. Mama told me that she was “kinda worried about what that biopsy might show,” and I realized that I hadn’t fooled her for a minute. I guess she was trying to be brave for us! But every day, I breathed a little easier, because the doctor had said that if it was really bad, he would call me before Thursday (which was today). This morning, as soon as I could, I called the office. I was told that the results were not back yet, but that I should call between 3 & 4 this afternoon. At 3:15, I called again. This time the results were back, but the nurse couldn’t release them because the doctor hadn’t looked at them yet. She would have him call me as soon as possible. I was tempted to feel very disquieted, indeed, but decided that it would do no good at all, and worry is such a waste of energy and time. Around 3:25, she called me back.
“This is Doctor Murand’s nurse. Doctor Murand went over your mother’s reports and we are happy to inform you that everything is clear. There is no evidence of any cancer. We want to see her in a year (A YEAR? A YEAR??? LORD JESUS, THANK-YOU!!!) because of her history, but she looks really good, and the doctor said to tell you that there is nothing to worry about.” Somewhere inside my heart, that ball of ice that had been hanging around for almost a week suddenly melted into warm rivers of thankfulness. I knew that I was anxious, but I didn’t realize how much I had felt “on hold” these past six days.
I was on my way home from Mama’s when the doctor called, and on impulse, I wheeled in to the cemetery. There had been some silk Easter lilies that were intended for Daddy’s grave that had gotten misplaced over the last few days. (This is a story in itself, but maybe another time — ) but I wanted to find them and put them on Daddy’s grave where they belonged. I found them stuck haphazardly into another grave, and I retrieved them and brought them to the head of this plot that I have come to know so well. I anchored them into the ground and spread the cheery fronds. “I appreciate the ‘flours’,” I could hear my Daddy say, standing in the pulpit on a Sunday Morning at our Church. He always noticed, and I wanted there to be some here. I know they are nothing like the ones he’s enjoying now, but their hopeful green and lily-white contrasted with the brown of this grave that is not yet old, and made me glad. For the first time, I did not cry at this spot. I looked at the flowers, gleaming in the afternoon sun of a simply gorgeous day, and whispered thanks for answered prayer. How very blessed we are!