As we drove toward Lindsay Peter was understandably nervous. So was I. It’s not every day someone makes a mesh mask of your face. But not as nervous as our last visit. As we turned into the hospital parking lot Peter noticed the fare to park had gone up and started growling. “THIEVES” was his only comment. We circled the parking lot a few times till he found a spot that was just in the right location. To me, any spot would have done but Peter was driving. I’ve never fully understood about men and parking spots. I know their number one reason is “I don’t want the car door to get dinged” but it seems to me you run the same risk of getting “dinged” no matter where you park. After Peter put the car in park he took a deep breath before he said anything. Then he turned his head and faced me. “Thank you for come coming and thank you for being here” he gurgled. I thought he was finished. He wasn’t. He put his hand on top of mine.
Afterwards, we got out of the car, walked into the hospital and went to Dr. Willowbys office. After we walked in I announced our arrival to his secretary. Dr. Willowby took us promptly at 10:00 AM which really impressed Peter. Before we arrived he told me of his philosophy regarding medical appointments. “If I have an appointment for ten I expect to be seen at ten.” I didn’t think it was a very realistic attitude but I decided not to say anything. We were asked to enter the examining room. In it was Dr. Willowby and an orderly. Today Dr. Willowby was more relaxed. And he treated me like a daughter which was a big surprise.
“Good morning to both of you. This strapping young fellow to my right will take Peter to wear the masks are made.”
Dr. Willowby indicated the gentleman beside him. However, the term “gentleman” might have been a bit of a stretch. He looked like he was fifteen years old. An extremely well built fifteen year old who just happened to be six feet tall. The orderly was a fellow named Dean who wore bright orange scrubs. He then ushered Peter out a door. Dr. Willowby ushered me down a different hallway. “Cassie, you can watch the whole thing if you want”. I told him I wanted to know as much about what Peter had gone through and what he was soon to experience. But before anything happened Dr. Willowby made a stunning admission.
“Last time we met I made a few erroneous assumptions about the relationship between you and Peter. I thought you and Peter were…closer shall we say. I also did a little research about you. And I need to ask you a few questions. So I apologize ahead of time if any of these make you uncomfortable.”
Oh brother. Just what I needed. Questions about my love life. But they weren’t about me, at least not directly. They were about more about Peter.
“I don’t know how close you two are, but in the short time I’ve known Peter I’ve learned that he’s been burned emotionally…very, very badly. And he trusts very few people. So that makes you a very special person. And I’d like to know why you think he likes you?”
I explained I was on indefinite suspension from CKMT for putting the mayor in a head lock, and that I moved into the cottage next to him. However, I didn’t know who he was until I introduced myself. Dr. Willowby asked about our feelings.
“That is the sixty-four million dollar question, Doctor. I know he has feelings for me. Just what they are I can’t say. He has said they are not romantic but just between you and me I just don’t know what they are. But one thing I do know is that he wants to concentrate on getting better. He desperately wants to put this cancer business in the past and get better. Becoming emotionally attached to anyone at this time is out the question for me. My situation at present is best described as awkward. I don’t know if my career is over or simply changing from one thing to another. I just don’t want to see Peter hurt or cause him to be hurt. Right now I think our relationship can best be described like a brother and sister that care a lot for each other. Nothing else.”
Dr. Willowby bowed his head, put his hands in his pockets, frowned a bit and paced in the hall. He looked like someone struggling to say something without sounding intrusive at the same time. Suddenly he looked up.
“You and I will be working together, though not side by side, for some time. I want to make absolutely sure you understand this is not a short term commitment. Do you prefer the name Cassie or do you want me to call you Cassandra?”
I was used to this question. I had been asked it a hundred times.
“My given name is Cassandra, but I only use it professionally. My friends call me Cassie and that’s what I would like you to call me.”
“Cassie, you’ve put me in a bit of a spot. As Peters oncologist I’m going have to hurt him to heal him. Some of the cancer has been removed surgically but now we have to kill the cancer cells below the skin we can’t see. With razor like lasers. And that won’t enjoyable for Peter at all. But from what I’ve seen and heard he’ll need your friendship and your strength. Are you prepared for that?”
“What would like me to do?”
“Great! Glad to have you on the team.” Dr. Willowby suddenly extended his hand in friendship.
“I’m glad to know you, Cassie Carter. I’m Dr. Bill Willowby. When we’re talking in a group I’m just Dr. Willowby. If it’s just you and me please feel free to call me Bill. But if we’re talking on the phone and Peter is about please call me Dr. Willowby if you can. Peter doesn’t know my first name and I want to keep our relationship as professional as possible till he’s out of the woods which should be-“
“In five years.” I interrupted. Dr. Willowby studied me silently and wondered how much I already knew.
“May I ask just how you know that?” he asked puzzled that I would know the answer.
“Peter read the binder you gave him the last time we were here. He didn’t take the news at all well. He cried I think.”
“Is he in that much pain already?” asked Doctor Willowby.
“Most of it was pent up anger and extreme frustration. Peter’s a wordsmith. His life revolves around words. And right now it’s difficult and uncomfortable to talk. That’s how a writer checks his or her work.”
“He’s a writer? Can’t say I knew that. Say…he wouldn’t be the Peter James Christopher? I’ve got all three of his books. Great stuff! I’m going to ask him to autograph my copies. You’re sure it’s him?”
I nodded vigorously in the affirmative.
“As far as I know there’s only one P.J. Christopher.”
Dr. Willowby suddenly began smiling.
“Well, you just made my day my dear. It appears we’re treating a celebrity” he said with a certain amount of pride.
“It might be a good idea to keep that under your hat. His publisher hasn’t said a word as to why Peter suddenly stopped writing. From what he has said about them they don’t sound like the forgiving type.”
“Would you like to see how Peter is doing Cassie?” asked Dr. Willowby as he walked towards a large glass window. He described what was going on. I looked through the window in fascination.
Peter was scampering over a cold floor while holding on to his clothes with one hand and attempting to close the hospital gown at the back with the other. He let his clothes drop to the floor when he tried to get on a long dark table while trying to retain a little of his dignity. A technician has handling something. Dr. Willowby knocked on the window and indicated he wanted to see the mask.
The technician brought the mask over to the window so I could see it. It didn’t look all that menacing but from what I’ve learned the experience of creating a mask can be most unpleasant. Dr. Willowby then gave the technician the thumbs up sign to proceed and pointed at Peter. Dr. Willowby then stuffed his hands back inside the pockets of his white lab coat.
The technician then said something to Peter. I couldn’t hear what was said but Peter probably said something like “On with the show so I can put my pants back on. It’s freezing in here.”
Dr. Willowby kindly told me what going on.
“The mask you just saw is now soaked under some warm water to make it pliable. Now this is the hard part. The techs have twenty seconds to make the mask before the resin cools down to the point where it becomes useless. If that happens they have to start all over. Peter will soon feel hands all over his face. His eyes will be closed during the treatments so they’re closed now.”
Hands were soon patting down the rapidly cooling resin. Peter was either very obedient or anxious for this to be over because the mask was created on the very first try. The mask was then screwed to the table to make the fit even tighter. Everyone but Peter left the room for a few moments while a CT scan of Peter was done at this point.
“The purpose of the CT scan is to pinpoint the exact location of the cancer cells. We don’t want to kill any healthy cells. Peter will need those when he’s recovering. And that’s where you come in. The lasers will dry up the skin in and on his throat. In it’s simplest terms his left vocal cord is going to get an intense ten and a half hour sun burn. I want you to put Lubriderm on his throat daily even if he says he doesn’t need it. When the skin starts to break stop putting on the Lubriderm. I’ll show you how to make bandages for the outside of his throat. If we do our job right we’ll zap those cells silly and they’ll die. Peter will be very weak because of the radiation. He’ll also become very forgetful. Don’t be surprised if you have to remind him of a single event several times. And he’ll get angry at you too. He won’t like what’s happening to him, he’ll get angry and frustrated. When that happens you’ll have to use your best judgment on how to handle the situation. His anger is a side effect of the radiation. Try not to take it personally. He’ll experience a lot of pain during the treatments. Swallowing will become difficult for him”
I asked him to elaborate on that.
“You and I have a straight pipe that leads from the back of our mouths to our stomach. During radiation the interior of Peters neck will swell and that pipe will become narrow and bent making eating difficult and painful. We usually prescribe a liquid meal replacement for those tough days. You have to remember the pipe that leads to our stomachs is about about two inches wide. Peters will shrink to a fraction of that. During radiation therapy its imperative the patient not lose any weight. Try get him on the scales as often as you can. Make a chart of his progress. You may have to remind him to eat. If he refuses tell him you’ll call me. It has been my experience that if the patient knows the only alternative is a feeding tube in the stomach they’ll try drinking little bits a time. Sometimes a little fear is useful. It takes a lot of patience but I think you can do it. Do you?”
“Ask me again when this really bumpy ride is over”.
All of a sudden he hugged me. Not a lot but just enough to call it a hug. It was a gentle fatherly hug.
“I know you can do it. I’ve coached spouses and significant others for over twenty years. And I know you can do it. I sent my number to your phone if there’s any trouble. What do you say we go retrieve the local scribe?”
We were back at the window. Soon Peter was sitting up with the mask off. One of the technicians pointed to me. Peter waved and was soon clutching his hair. With two fingers he pretended to cut the hair. We agreed before hand that this would be the signal if he had to get a haircut. When he emerged he whispered that he was going to “save a mint on haircuts”. Even Dr. Willowby chuckled. He said it was always a good sign when a patient could joke after this. It also indicated that we shouldn’t expect any problems during the actual therapy. When Peter re-emerged fully clothed Dr. Willowby asked how he felt. “Now I know how the man in the iron mask felt.”
To celebrate getting the mask done we went on a small shopping spree. I wanted to get a dress for our dinner in Gelert the following day. Peter wanted to get something but was being secretive about it and would simply say “it’s a surprise”. What lurks in the minds of men and writers? I certainly didn’t know. But he needed my body for one of the surprises. We passed a small SCUBA shop where I got fitted for my very first wet suit. A woman fitted me out so I could help Peter put in my dock. The outside was made of black rubber. Inside was a substance called neoprene. It was the neoprene that kept you from turning into an icicle. When she handed me a twenty pound weight belt I tried to say I didn’t need it. But before I could say one word in polite protest Peter put a finger to his lips. “If you don’t have it you’ll float all the time. Shh.” Two other “surprises” awaited me but I’d have to wait one more day. And it was killing me!
…still more to come