In the flickering light of Fritti's, a fancy pizzeria ideal for a fifth date, a look of worry rooted upon Dana's face. Taking quick sips of water and patting her chest, her brow angled downward and her eyes glistened as if recalling a painful event. I asked if something was wrong, and she characteristically shrugged it off with a joke. Unlike most dates up to that point of my thrity-six years, I didn't assume that I might have been the problem. From the moment since being paired by a mutual friend – a hilarious woman who sold my wares by assuring Dana, "Oh, you'll love Christopher. He's hilarious just like you. The thing is: Everyone thinks he's gay because he's thin and has a high voice but he's not!" – Dana and I were on the fast track to shunning all-comers. It took a mere two dates to change our MySpace statuses from "single" to "in a relationship." This was at the time considered a big deal.
We walked to my cobalt-blue Volvo station wagon after finishing our meal, and as I shut the door, her façade broke completely. Head in hands, Dana started to bawl as I looked on helplessly. Nothing prepared me to see such an outpouring of anguish from someone normally aglow. Dana isn't the one sulking in the corner.
Oh, she gets blue – especially these days – but Dana is the one dancing in the kitchen, trying to entertain the cats. Dana is the one making sure you have plans on your birthday. Dana is the one in costume when no one else gave a shit. Dana is the one who turns bizarre turns of phrase into comedic gold (On our first date, she referred to a particular DJ's skills as like being "fingered by the music"). Dana is the one who gets paid for this skill as a writer/producer for Adult Swim. Dana is the one who turned around a shiftless individual staring down his 40s, a person with scant motivation or hope, into a relatively less shiftless individual in his 40s with renewed belief in the good of the world.
Dana is the one, I thought as I caressed her shoulder.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's just," she said, "I don't think like other people."
Taken aback, I replied. "Oh, well, yeah . . . exactly. That's why I like you so much."
"I say weird stuff. I'm afraid of scaring you off."
"You couldn't. I mean, unless you're like super racist or something but even then . . .”
Dana laughed through tears. "Sometimes," she said, "I fear . . . my mind."
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Five years later: I am writing on a circular table in a room full of anxious, exhausted people, one of whom is asleep beneath a tiger print blanket that Dana would surely approve of. (My wife is also big on dragons.) This is the waiting room at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where, somewhere nearby, my 30-year-old wife is undergoing brian surgery. This isn't a rudimentary procedure – not that any of them are. Dana's lesion lies behind the right frontal lobe ("behind the dryer" she calls it.) Two neurosugeons from our native Atlanta looked at her MRI and punted away the responsibility to MD Anderson in Houston, supposed experts for this sort of thing. Nightmare undoers.
When "pitching" surgery six weeks ago, and that word here is instructive, two separate physicians at MD Anderson asserted that removal of the tumor could be the beginning of the end of the hell that began this past April. Never at a loss for words, Dana had looked up from a beanbag chair (shaped like Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Meatwad) she had brought home from work one day and said in a stilted, robotic way, "I . . . am . . . having trouble . . . trying to . . . talk."
Despite hearing this precise sentence 22 years ago from my father, who would soon wither away due to a brain tumor, I blew it off.
"Too much wine?" I asked, which was stupid because she's a lightweight.
She went to bed only to experience more of the same the next day at work. I drove her to the emergency room. Eight tense hours, CT scan, MRI scan and finally results.
"Possible glioma," the ER doctor said while, honest-to-god, scrolling through his iPhone. "But, you know, don't panic, it may not be."
There's no substitute for panic, only a variance of degrees, and we've experienced them all. Panic is crying yourself asleep and awake. Panic is watching a thousand bad horror movies instead of reaching out to an amazing support system of friends who are desperate to help you. Panic is owning the situation and making a series of videos, allowing you to interact with other frigthened souls (type UNFORTUNATE BRAIN NEWS into YouTube or visit unfortunatebrainnews.tumblr.com for alternating painful/uplifting/funny videos from my wife). Panic can ultimately lead to facing your fear and finding out what is slowly robbing yourself of . . . itself.
Panic led to Houston.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Right now, a sample of Dana's brain is being analyzed. Benign? Malignant? Just what is it? Five to seven business days, we'll know. We've become experts at angonizing waits.
Dana fought this tooth-and-nail. She worried she might die, to which the surgeon – the one currently at work – said the following, "It is more likely that you should die while crossing the street than when I am operating on you."
We call him Dr. Boots, so named for his ostentatious footwear. He exuded confidence and charm. Everyone did that day. While they didn't know what the growth was, everyone repeated how we had come to the right place, and with surgery, could turn this situation around.
Dana wasn't convinced. She distrusted the head neuro-oncologist, one of the main faces of the hospital, who rather than answering her questions, rattled off places to eat. He is now known as Dr. Yelp. To be fair, Dana's questions were largely unanswerable. No one knows how she got this (non-smoker, not a huge incidence of disease in the family, moderate cell-phone abuser). Even if Dr. Yelp witnessed every moment of her life he'd still be guessing. He did recommend a rib joint. "Tell them I sent you," he said.
After a hopeful but fruitless attempt with Eastern medicine, which I won't go into for fear of pummeling my laptop into dust, Dana decided it was time. We flew in Sunday, meeting with Dr. Boots, although this time, he wore moccasins. Gone too was the swagger. Scrutinizing the latest MRI, he noted an area that hadn't previously drawn comment.
"This," he said, pointing, "we cannot remove."
Dana, her mother, and myself gasped.
"This is near the hypothalamus," he explained. "It's too delicate. I'd need to do a biopsy, that's all."
"What does that part do?" Dana asked, trembling.
"Many things. But, well, that's the soul."
I'm an atheist. I don't believe in magic, voodoo, superstition. I believe Dana has a soul, if not in an actual sense. There is unfathomable power in this gift of a human being, this saint amongst friends, this creative dynamo – a power that springs from a place that's more than tissue and blood. The healing road is mountainous; that spirit will guide her.
Surgery will not end this. And until the biopsy results, the diagnosis is murky. But first things first: My wife must survive this operation and return as the same incredible person. And when that happens, I can state without hesitation that I will experience the happiest moment of my life. Dana will wake up, recognize me, smile. I will smile, tell her she's pretty, and we'll cry. Her mother will give her the tiger puppet bought in the gift shop. I will give the tiger a funny voice, and together we will beat this cursed, fucking thing.