I pride myself on angelic awakenings from surgery. I'm happy to be awake, to be alive, to see my family. It's not that I plan on it, it just always ends up happening.
This time was different.
My eyes open and a giant, white snake thick as a pudgy child's arm emerges from my mouth where it wriggles out entirely. It's a breathing tube. For the last two days I've been lost amidst a sea of black far more quiet than the terrifying scenes that filled my dreams during the transplants. This time, waking up was what I was afraid of. Letting out a heaving breath, I reach towards my mouth. I can feel the stitches.
The cancer invaded the nerve.
I begin to thrash. Mom tries to comfort me, explaining there's no trache -- I can breath on my own. So I begin to cry. No, the nurse assures me. My nerve wasn't invaded. I bite down, and the right edge of my mouth curls into a smile. During the pre-op meetings, the surgeon explained if something was wrong with the nerve, the plastic surgeon would take a tendon from my thigh and attach it to the edge of my smile and the corner of my eye so when I clench my teeth, I'd make a smile. Either the nurse didn't know or she was lying. Then again, I can blink. Maybe they preserved some of the nerve?
This isn't my first brush with a major medical challenge. At 20, I was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. After five years and some personal challenges, my health went into decline and I needed a lung transplant. After a year, I rejected the graph, necessitating a second transplant. Since then, life has been relatively quiet, but last fall that began to change. Since doctors removed a nasty facial tumor last November, I've been assessing how physical appearance, race and beauty have shaped my life and my diseases. The Gabor Sisters are my cousins and when we were younger, Mom, my great grandma and me all took our turns as reigning beauty queens. My parents wouldn't buy us Barbies growing up and I wasn't allowed to wear makeup until I was nearly 16, but beauty was still a big deal in my house. Whatever happened, I was used to walking into a room and being cherished. When people found out that I was hard working, friendly and caring, that only confirmed a bias shaped more by my pageant-procured makeup skills than any virtue I had cultivated. When I began feeling pain in my jaw a month ago, I never imagined the fast growing mass which followed was cancer -- or as I found out early the following week, parotid gland cancer. I never imagined how it could change my face. At 4am in that dark ICU, I realized that bias along with my mega watt smile would never be the same. "You can't understand!" I sobbed at my gorgeous mother. She tried to reason with me before retreating, letting me explain my woes to my husband. A pretty 30 something nurse walked in, hoping to calm me down. "You don't understand" I repeated, over and over as she tried to assure me that in fact, she does. Her insistence, only serves to infuriate me further. I outline my lists of virtues against my challenges. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a nurses's aide. A tear falls from the side of her eye. The nurse walks away and I sit in my bed, defeated and sad. The aide steps in front of me. Pretty and about my height and a little slimmer, she crouches down. "I can't understand what it's like," she says, crouching down to my level and crying a few tears, "but if I can help, I'm here."
She stayed there, holding my hand for a few minutes more before asking to take my blood sugar.
A few hours later, I was discharged to the step-down unit. Just as the movers arrived to take me to another hospital floor, the nurse's aide ran into the room. "what you said -- most people don't understand most things, but they think they do. This is for you. She'll watch over you. I'll pray for you."
She stands about five inches tall, with skin painted a few shades darker than mine and a few shades lighter than Felicia's. This hasn't been my most heroic performance. I've been far from angelic. But Felicia reminded me that even in our darkest hours, there are angels among us.
Thank you to EVERYONE who has supported me and my family through this difficult times. Your time, flowers, packages, well wishes, prayers and love have sustained me. I'll try to keep you updated. With much love, Charity