Third of three parts

With the tumor removed, Gabriella began the healing process. Lisa and I held a vigil at her cribside. In the lounge, they offered chairs that folded out to beds. We took turns clutching at sleep, more me even though my wife was pregnant with Alexander. I pulled my knees to my chest in an exaggerated fetal position so my calves wouldn’t hang off the end. Terror touched sparks off exhaustion in the hollows of night.

It was all too much.

Again we faced an exercise in waiting. My imagination painted all sorts of dour scenarios, radiation treatment and chemo and worse. Much worse.

During rounds one morning, the mesh helmet came off. Her hairless head, the scar circling her scalp, her exaggerated hazel eyes – all of it summoned a pity too powerful for tears.

“What are we going to do?” my wife said for the dozenth time.

“I have no idea,” I confessed in the dim early light. “I’m out of hope.”

“You can’t be out of hope,” she said. “You have to keep hoping for all of us. For her.”

I knew I was the optimist in the family. I said I would try.

Soon enough we got to take her home again. The routine was familiar: the packing up of tiny clothes and hospital blankets the nurses insisted we bring with us. (I fixated on whether it was right to keep these things.) When I picked up her pink snowsuit, I remembered a moment on the day of the diagnosis when I walked in on Lisa’s mother, clutching that same snowsuit to her chest and dancing a mournful waltz, struggling for breath and understanding.

When we arrived home and I carried her into her bedroom, lifting her onto her changing table with the smile widening on her stricken face and our family around us laughing and pointing and me shivering with a hesitant joy, I wondered how much more we would all have to do the same. And I realized that I would do it however many times I had to, to keep her safe.

And then, once more, we waited. Waited for the phone to ring, for the sign that the doctors had an answer. For the results, preliminary or final, of the pathology report, from our hospital or from Chicago. Waited for anything to chip away at the horror of the frozen section.

We had waited so often before, but this was different. I could think of little else. Days passed. Lisa called their offices, first one neurologist and then the other, the plastic surgeon and the oncologist. Nothing yet. By now they should have heard something. Our minds invented explanations, mostly that they didn’t want to break it to us until Chicago confirmed the bad news.

One day, Lisa called and they told her to hold on. The plastic surgeon was coming to speak with her himself. Absently I put Gabriella down on her playmat. The darkness filled me again. I watched my wife’s face, expectant but with a sickly expression, then clearing, almost blank. Was it good or bad? She hung up.

In a dazed voice, she told me. The doctor was reluctant to get our hopes up until we got the final report from Pathology and the second opinion from Chicago, but it seemed as if the frozen section was wrong. So why did she look so pale? “He was surprised his staff didn’t tell us the last time we called,” she said.

“That was two days ago,” I said.

“He didn’t seem too phased by that.”

Anyway, it looked as if the tumor might be an angioma, a benign growth.

We could have been angry at that point, outraged even, at having been denied the answer for days that we had been desperate for, and we wonder why they hadn’t bothered to call us when they found out. “Wouldn’t they think we’d want to know that?” I asked.

Then jubilation sang through the house. I grabbed Gabriella under her arms and swung her around in merry circles, my daughter giggling with the rush.

“Be careful,” Lisa said, laughing through tears. “She just had surgery.”

A week later, Chicago seconded the opinion that the tumor was benign, although they called it cranial fasciitis. It seemed an appropriate name for the creeping monster that had cost Gabriella a piece of her skull, but in the end I didn’t care what kind of benign-tumor label they gave it.