Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.