Not Tonight, I Have a Headache

I sat, yesterday, in a firm chair in a tidy waiting room at 8:30 in the morning to see a neurosurgeon. I was dressed up, or dressed up from my usual costume, as I was quite unsure what one should wear when one finds out if a tumor has come to live in one's brain.

So I sat, white linen pleated skirt, white sleeveless cotton crew, gold ballet flats. No pearls as that seemed overdone. I was the first one there. Over the next thirty minutes or so a few other people trickled in. A summer intern appeared in short white coat inquiring where he should be. No one knew, but vowed to find out, and he sat behind me and I wondered if he were similarly disappointed that the magazines were dated and he had also not brought something to read.

I nearly always have something to read in situations like this, but rather than bringing a book I had instead brought a large white envelope containing a large shaded film. When the technician had handed me the envelope on Friday it was unsealed. When I got to the car I pulled it out and held it up to the sunlight coming through the window. I had somehow overlooked learning to read CAT Scans and this skill seemed significant as I squinted in the steamy car. At the very least there did not appear to be any goose egg sized masses resting in the nest that is my brain. I slid the film back into the envelope and eventually dropped it on my dining room table where it stayed surrounded by silky swim ribbons for the rest of the weekend.

I ran into the neurosurgeon who had ordered the scan at a very swank affair on Saturday night. My dress was something of a Grecian number that required a shocking amount of adhesive to ensure that my body stayed where it was supposed to be, mainly inside the dress. As we passed each other in the crowd he said, "Did you get the scan?" "Of course." "Do you have it with you?" "Um. No." But I was immediately reassured that if I were to receive the news that I had a brain tumor I would like it to be from this person who was willing to look at a scan in the stifling parking garage of the museum whilst wearing a tuxedo.

I confess that I had a passing acquaintance with the aforementioned surgeon. I was quite sure my headaches (truly, one headache that has lasted for almost three weeks) were quite ordinary. When they (it) started I concluded that I needed to get my eyes checked. Sometime soon. When I had time. When the children did not have me running to and fro. Mr. Blandings was quite sure I was spending too much time at my computer. Perhaps. Then, Friday, I awoke to find my left thigh was numb. Which was puzzling. It seemed like a good idea to go...somewhere, but I wasn't sure where to start.

It is one of the unfortunate facts of life that sometimes it's not what you know but who you know and sometimes a particular who helps things along considerably. I left a message for the surgeon, a fringe friend at best, timidly asking for a referral. "Hate to be a bother - completely understand if you don't get back to me." Because, you know, he's not driving people back and forth to the pool; he's cutting into brains. But of course he is a nice man and he called back and said something like this, "What you're proposing is a bottom up method of finding out why you are having headaches. What I'm proposing is a top down method. Let's get a CAT Scan or an MRI today and rule out all the really bad stuff and work from there."

Today. That seemed sudden. Serious. And then I was overwhelmed by being in a no-win situation. I either had something really wrong with me, or I was greatly inconveniencing several people to find that I am high-maintenance. Which is the last thing that I want to be but fear that I am. The later was better than the former but still incredibly bad form. "No, no. Completely not necessary." "Are you claustrophobic?" "Horribly." "CAT Scan. Hold on while I connect you with scheduling." Oh.

A few days later I sat in his waiting room with nothing to read, my scan in the possession of the nice woman behind the desk. Three people entered and sat down opposite me. A woman and her husband and her grown son. As they sat down the husband asked the wife, "Do you want me to come in with you?" "Yes. And write things down. And ask questions." Then they went on to talk about a friend's new truck, Father's Day and a couple of other family members who were making questionable decisions. The intern and I both sat silently.

The waiting room was startlingly large. When I turned my head to the right trying to keep my mind on anything other than my mind, I noticed that there were a series of photographs by a woman I wrote about several months ago. The coincidence made me feel oddly connected to the space, as if someone there and I had something in common. The husband began to twist the lid against the styrofoam body of his empty coffee cup. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch. Pause. And then again until his wife gave him a not-unkind look and he got up to throw it away.

The elevator dinged again and two women and boy in a wheelchair went to wait at the counter. He was significantly disabled with one arm held at an extreme angle. As the women talked with the receptionist he began to make a rhythmic humming noise that sounded like my phone when it vibrates on a hard surface. One of the women glanced back, retrieved lip balm from her bag and applied it to his lips then turned back to finish her discussion. The humming stopped. "You can take him back to the second door on the left."

"Patricia?" My turn. "He'll be right in." Oprah, finally, covered in pups had been hiding here in the exam room. After a brief wait, the doctor entered. We exchanged pleasantries about the party. "We'll look at the scan in just a minute." Then he had me push his hands with mine and then resist in the same manner. This underscored the amount of things I do not know and highlighted the fact that simple is sometimes best. It also occurred to me that this might be some kind of neurosurgeon humor, "Ha! They never question the push-the-hand thing. They always just go along with it. Knuckleheads."

Then he flipped on the lighted board and flicked the film into the top of it as I have seen doctors do a million times on television. "Well. No tumor. It's a good looking brain, actually. Quite young." Excellent. My brain, at least, will not need double sided tape to keep it where it is supposed to be. At least for a while. I stood up as he was starting to point at things (as I am determined to learn to read CAT Scans so as never to be in this position again) and discovered my sinuses are a mess. Also, stress may be playing a role in the headaches, which was not a surprise.

While relieved, there was not that wave of release you might expect. I was still hung-up on the knowledge that life changes direction in an instant for bad and for good. And mostly the side that we see is the side that puts on the ball gown or linen skirt and buys the coffee and applies the lip balm. Life's smooth exterior. As I hurried back through the waiting room so as not to be late for swim practice pick-up I glanced back and was struck again by its significance.

Image, top, by Cali Hobgood-Lemme.