Six weeks after my husband’s stem cell transplant in 2007, he drove our Subaru west on the New York State Thruway. A stocking cap covered his hairless head. I sat in the passenger seat. His jaw muscles popped with tension.
“Let’s make a list,” I suggested.
“I hate lists,” Vic said quietly.
“It’s important to write down your symptoms before we get to the doctor’s office. You love being a model patient. You’ll say you’re doing well and forget the problems. Then I have to correct you and tell the truth.”
Some of us fall into despair when we’re reporting symptoms to our doctors. Others become stoic heroes who minimize every discomfort.
Sometimes my prompts slipped close to nagging, but without them, Vic forgot to report issues that exploded into consciousness at 3 a.m. and chased away his fragile sleep. What could he do about foot cramps and swollen legs? What about the numbness in his hands? Was it OK to have his teeth cleaned? Could we stop sterilizing everything in the kitchen?
Vic drove in the slow lane. Flapping windshield wipers turned salty splats from passing trucks into arching streaks. When Vic went through chemotherapy six months earlier, he drove the two hours to Strong Hospital in Rochester and I drove home after his treatment. It became a habit.
The stem cell transplant was more debilitating than chemotherapy. He was getting stronger, but I wasn’t sure it was safe for him to drive two hours. For him, like many of us, driving was power and independence. He didn’t want to give up his turn at the wheel.
“What do you need to ask Dr. Fisher?” I asked.
“I want to know when I can stop taking that disgusting yellow anti-bacterial stuff.” He paused. “I want to know what to do about my numb feet.”
I wrote these down in my notebook and waited. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, when will my hair grow back. I’m cold.” He shot me a teasing sideways glance and grinned. I reached over and stroked his thigh.
As we finished the list, red lights flashed behind us. A siren screamed. Vic groaned and pulled over. A police car tucked in behind us. Vic rolled down his window as the cop strode up to the car like a gunfighter, pelvis forward, shoulders close to his ears, and elbows lifted out to the side. Vic put his hands on the wheel in plain sight.
“What is it you don’t understand about construction zone signs?” the cop growled.
“Sorry, officer,” Vic said. “I thought I was driving under the speed limit.”
Vic hesitated. He never used illness as an excuse for screwing up, but he liked to tell the truth. I wondered what he’d say.
“I have a doctor’s appointment at Strong Hospital to find out if I still have cancer in my body. I’m sorry I didn’t see the construction signs.”
The cop leaned his jowly face into the driver’s side window and bent low to look in my eyes.
“Do you drive?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, then, get in the driver’s seat.” He opened the driver’s side door for Vic. I scrambled over the hump between the seats and adjusted the seat and mirrors. Through the back window, I watched them speak and nod to each another. Then, the cop shook Vic’s hand.
“What did he say?” I asked when Vic was in the passenger seat.
“He said, ‘Good luck, buddy. I hope you get good news. But, please, will you let your wife drive?’”
Have you been or are you a caregiver? Was it hard to figure out when to take over and when to let the patient keep the little power they had left? For other articles about caregiving when someone you love is ill, see Betrayal of the Body or The Cancer Survivor. If you’re a caregiver, I suggest The Caregiver Space where you’ll find many helpful resources.