Tina had brain surgery. For six hours. Not the bi-frontal craniotomy we’d been expecting, but an orbital zygomatic craniotomy. Incision extends from top-middle of skull to front of right ear. Flap that skin down, let the eyeball hang out. The bad eye. We’d had no hope of vision returning to the bad eye, but the point of the surgery was to save the good eye.
The tumor, size of not one but two golf balls, had been wrapped around both optic nerves, the carotid artery, and the pineal gland. She was heading for a stroke. Would have died of one, the doctor told us, my mother and brother Dave and me, in the hospital waiting area.
We spent a day there, we three, playing cards and trying to read.
The surgeon, a tall white haired Irish man, sat down in the chair across from me. I was on the couch next to my brother. I felt childlike sitting there in my lower position, in awe of this man who spent his day opening up two skulls. My sister’s surgery took most of the day.
It was bloody, he said, the tumor was, and hardened where it had attached itself. He couldn’t remove it all, but the mass of it was now gone—eighty percent of it. As the handsome doctor delivered this information, in his slight Irish accent, I found myself staring at his profile, noting the age lines, the skin tone, the line of his nose. I asked a question, so he turned to look at me. I felt myself being looked at: self-consciously aware of my awareness.
Prior to surgery, in Tina’s pre-op waiting room, the doctor came in to see her, did a double take, ever so slightly, when he noticed me. Or so I thought.
He held up two fingers to Tina. “How many fingers?”
“Two!” she said, without hesitation.
The doctor addressed me, “Well I scared the heck out of your mother last we spoke.” Something to that effect. He went into some details, ones that would freak anyone out. But we were talking in front of the patient—one who couldn’t comprehend it all, but still.
When he turned to leave, he turned back, remembering what he came in for, and marked a purple X in front of Tina’s right ear. (The insertion point. I guess you don’t want to get out the scalpel and have to think, “Now which side was it again . . . ?”) Later that day, in the endless room of waiting, when the good doctor came to tell us of Tina’s outcome, I thought I’d never been so happy to see someone. He was pleased but not ecstatic, calm and serious, and probably exhausted. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes looking at my knees—the thin strip of flesh above my knee socks and below my long dress. The only flesh visible other than my hands and face. I felt compelled to pull my skirt down. I wondered, as he spoke of my sister’s tumor removal, if my knees were fat.
Of course, I tried to stay focused on the reality of my sister’s situation. As he described fluid removal and scraping, I tried not to imaging falling for this all powerful and attractive man—his occupation, what he actually does for a living—adding to his attraction.
Anyway . . . my sister’s brain!
We got to see her later. She could see us, too, in shadow, lying there in the intensive care room, the bed, large as a fishing boat with a mechanical arm above it.
She looked pretty darn good! Puffy as hell, but WOW. Huge staples where she’d been cut open. A round, black circular thing on her neck that added to the Frankenstein effect. Dave asked me to take her picture.
The nurse advocated on Tina’s behalf. I said, “This is for Tina. So she can see it later.” Then I added, “I wouldn’t want one taken of me, however,” referencing my own vanity to express my understanding of the nurse’s rally to Tina’s defense.
Tina is a unique case because of her disability. She is mentally challenged (hey—aren’t we all!) but does not have Downs Syndrome or any other nameable cause for her uniqueness. When she spent time panhandling in downtown Portland, the drug and/or alcohol addled people she met thought she was one of them, damaged somehow.
She is a bit slow, perhaps age eight if going by reasoning or reading ability, but she’s also visibly different. Her teeth are big and jaggedy, her ears stick out, and there’s something saggy about the eyes, a turned-down-ness, if you will. She has very fine and thinning hair. She is heavy set and bow-legged. She’s ADORABLE!
The day after surgery, Tina looked absolutely horrific. Like Rocky Balboa at his worst, only with that huge scar across her head, bulging where the metal staples crossed it—about sixty of them. Dave and I continued taking her picture each day, so that we could show each other if we were not there to see for ourselves, and so that we could try to determine whether or not the bruising and swelling were, in fact, dissipating.
Mom texted me a few days later with this message: “Dr O is only 8 years older than you.” She had told me—before I met him—that he was extremely good looking. When I met him, he wore a blue surgical cap that covered most of his white hair. “He is handsome,” I said, when I called her later. “You haven’t even seen his hair!” she replied.
I love my mom because she thinks that I actually have a chance with Dr O. “He’s probably married,” I said. “I’m sure doesn’t wear a ring because his hands are inside people’s heads all the time.” I could actually hear her disappointment over the phone.
My daughter and I went to see Tina the day after Halloween. I worried that Mads would shy away from Auntie Tina—as she had when we first start seeing Tina again. This was exactly a year ago. Back then, Mads would recoil whenever Tina was near. She would hide from her aunt and cling to her mother. Tina didn’t smell too good in those days, living on her own, before we learned of her blindness. But at the hospital, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mads had come to care for and accept her Auntie Tina and didn’t express the slightest disgust—only a mild fear of germ catching at the hospital.
Mads sat on my lap in the chair at Tina’s bedside. I said, “I heard you played Skip-Bo with the nurse.” Skip-Bo is Tina’s favorite card game, and we’ve played it with her often. Madeleine said, “Let’s play!” Tina said, “Okay. Turn on the light!” Madeleine looked at me and smiled. The light was already on.
I snuck in two pieces of Halloween candy for Tina. I didn’t know where to hide them. “I’ll hold onto them,” Tina said. Then she promptly unwrapped and ate them. Madeleine smiled at me again.
Ever since the tumor removal, I kept asking, doesn’t that hurt? Aren’t you in pain? She never took pain killers, never once complained. She said, “I don’t let it bother me. If I let it bother me . . .” and she trailed off, the implication being, “if I let it bother me, it’d be pretty fucking bothersome.”
As I told Madeleine when we left the hospital, “Tina’s amazing. Doesn’t complain at all. If it were me, I’d be complaining the whole time.” Madeleine could not agree more.
The next time I saw Tina, I brought her a new set of Skip-Bo cards. We played a game but I had to tell her where the piles were, what the numbers were. Her vision had clearly worsened since the surgery. It was a struggle for us both, but she won. She wanted a soda, but I told her she probably shouldn’t drink so many sodas (because I’m convinced her tumor was caused by her aspartame addiction!) “They’re not good for you,” I said.
“I’ve been drinking them a long time,” she said.
We were silent for a bit, and she kept looking from one side of the room to the other. I feared she might be pissed at me for the soda comment. “What are you looking at?” I asked.
“Just thinking,” she said.
“Just to be happy every day, ‘cause you never know what can happen.”
I don’t know how she does it.
The anti-seizure medication makes Tina flat. She is devoid of personality. Sleepy most of the time. Until she came home, I had yet to see her smile. Mom said she was full of personality when they took the staples out—without pain killers. They removed the first one, where the purple X had been, just below the temple, and Tina balled up her fists and would have punched the nurse if Mom and Dave hadn’t been holding her arms. Tina was f’ing this and f’that at each staple pull. Hell yeah!
Mads and I went to Mom’s to see her. Something I said made her smile, something about mashed potatoes and meatloaf, I believe. It was progress.
After dinner Madeleine suggested Skip-Bo but Tina said, “Better wait until I can see better.” We hope it will, and Tina can’t see the looks Mom and I exchange.
I showed Tina one of her horrifying post-surgery pictures. She held the iPhone up to her good eye and said, “Pretty picture.”
I held up five fingers. “How many fingers?”
“Two!” she said.
Tina has been blind and adapting for a long time.
At Thanksgiving, Tina said, “I am thankful for my eyesight,” then added, “in my head.” We all laughed, but I know what she means. She has a way of seeing without her eyes, as do all of us, and she may not have the language ability to describe it, but she knows it’s there.
After dinner, she suggested a game of Skip-Bo. Her vision had clearly improved since our last game in the hospital. Again, Mom and I exchanged looks.
Next week Tina will get to see Dr. O. Mom asked me to go with them. “I saw the way he looked at you,” she said. Somehow, his looking never crossed a line. It was within all the parameters of propriety, given the circumstances.
I will bring my list of questions. I will try not to be self-conscious. I will not get my hopes up, but I will probably wear something besides sweatpants. Because, as Tina is fond of saying, “Sometimes, you just never know.”