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Field Report 10: It's All Relative


As a free-lancer, consultant, or whatever you want to call someone who works for cash and no fringe benefits, I spend a lot of my time worrying about where my next paycheck is coming from. Sometimes it feels like my life is a constant cycle that endlessly circles from worrying about where I will find my next assignment to doing the assignment and then back again. But occasionally life walks up, kicks me in the butt, and says "Get real, buddy. There are WAAAAY more important things than whether or not you get to write that 350-word piece on some chunk of rock whirling around the fringes of the solar system." My most recent bout with the so-called "real world" began with a single ominous sentence. My wife came back from a routine trip to the doctor and said "He found a lump."

This particular lump was "on or near her ovary" and, although the doctor assured us it probably wasn't cancerous, it would have to be "removed." Not that I heard a single word after "lump." To me, lumps mean cancer. And lumps on or near an ovary mean ovarian cancer. And women die of ovarian cancer. For the first time in several months, I wasn't thinking about my next writing assignment. The fear of losing my job paled in comparison to the fear of losing my wife.

The days leading up to her surgery are still kind of a blur, but they came into crystal-clear focus when I saw her lying wrapped in towels on a hospital gurney in the preparation room. She looked so alone, and I felt so helpless, that I almost burst into tears. But then the nurses arrived and started inserting needles. "Just a little something to take away the anxiety," they said.

My wife's, that is. Personally, I don't like needles in any form. During one brief altruistic period in my life, I decided to donate blood. That period ended when I awoke on the floor surrounded by concerned nurses holding cookies and lemonade saying "... then you turned white as a sheet and ... clunk!"

But before I even had a chance to look for a comfortable place to fall, the doctors arrived and wheeled my wife into the hall leading to the operating room. I found it very strange that the walls of this particular hall were lined with "In memoriam" plaques. Perhaps they meant to say "Take heart, you have already made it farther than these poor souls." As I tried to puzzle it out, a hand on my shoulder told me it was time for me to say goodbye and leave the doctors and nurses to their work.

The shortest 25 minutes of my life later--I was expecting to wait for hours--the doctor bounded into the waiting room wearing a big smile. "It went great. The tumor was sitting right there on the outside of the ovary, so we just snipped it out," he said. "And what a tumor. It was about the size of a quarter and made of what we call undifferentiated cells, which means it could form skin, fat, brain matter, hair, or even teeth!" Wow! I never knew an ovary could have teeth! Unfortunately, this one turned out to be made of unglamorous fatty tissue. Unglamorous and noncancerous fatty tissue. Whew.

A couple of hours later, my seriously drugged-up wife arrived on "the wymyns ward," as I called it. This is the part of the hospital where patients recover from "female troubles," which is apparently anything having to do with the female reproductive system. A few men do slip in now and again, one nurse told me, "mostly visitors and guys with apple cores stuck where no one should ever have apple cores stuck."

With the fear of cancer gone, I settled into a routine of helping my wife shuffle up and down the hall, calling all the relatives to give them updates, and organizing the dozen or so bouquets of flowers that arrived each day. As the days passed, and the morphine doses declined, my wife became more alert, and so we could occasionally finish a sentence before she fell back asleep.

And then, almost as suddenly as it had started, it was over. She came home. And even though it would be a couple of weeks before she recovered fully, she also didn't need me hanging around every minute of the day. What we really needed at that moment was money for the hospital bills; our insurance is good, but there are always the copayments and deductibles to pay. It was time to get back to work.

But where would that first assignment come from? Would it come at all? The old familiar cycle was starting up again. What a relief.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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