The Things I Already Knew
She’d been driving when she got the phone call. It surprises me that she’d gotten any reception at all – she frequently lost service on that part of the Blueridge Parkway. Not that she minded this, she actually appreciated the break from the busy technology, so long as it was only for a few minutes. My Livie had too many things to do and too many goals to reach to be away from her phone for long. But the news she heard when she answered the phone was probably enough to make her want to throw her phone out the window and never look back.
She’d almost missed the call because her ringer volume was on low and her windows were down so she could revel in the sweet smelling fall air. Should’ve kept my phone on silent, she’d said to me later with a tired smile, one of the only things she’d said about it. Maybe then, she said, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
Of course, missing that phone call wouldn’t actually have changed anything. She knew that, and I knew that. She would still have ended up sitting in Room 213 with her legs dangling from the cushioned table, absentmindedly fiddling with the wedding ring she’d picked out when she was a high school freshman and instructed her maid of honor to find and “suggest” that I buy many years later. I’d still be leaning against the starch white wall with my arms crossed, trying to keep my face blank but failing miserably as we waited for the news we already knew. I remember that she was shivering in the thin paper gown they’d given her a few minutes before when the overly smiley nurse led us into the stale – excuse me, sterile – room. It was cold in the room, but not too cold. Cold enough for some goosebumps, maybe, if you were wearing a short sleeve shirt, but not so cold that Livie should have been shivering like she was. No, she was shaking because even though she hadn’t been able to confirm anything officially, Livie pretty much knew, even then, what was going to happen. She’d known since she’d answered the phone and heard the nurse’s voice on the other end.
The phone call had come just as she’d accelerated through a sharp curve and started to race back up a hill. Not that she was an unsafe driver. No, Livie just loved living life at the fastest pace she could while still being under control. We shared a stick shift BMW, and few things were more fun for her than driving in the mountains in the afternoon, chasing the golden sunlight that streamed over the hills in front of her, feeling the car hug the curves and respond to every twitch in her foot. It’s why we always went out to the Appalachians for our yearly vacation. It started the first year we were married, and we kept it up every year after.
I’m not going to lie - her driving scared me a little the first time I saw her drive, but she’d just grinned and told me that she was a very safe driver and that nothing would ever happen, and that she loved me for being the overprotective boyfriend but I needed to get a grip. I mean, she was right and I stopped worrying about her, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t think she could stand to slow down a little bit. She’d answered the phone using the Bluetooth device I’d gotten her right after we started dating – I decided pretty quick that this girl was going places, and that wherever she was heading I wasn’t about to let her go alone, and that in order for us to get wherever we were going she needed to get there in one piece, which meant that she wasn’t getting in a car crash because she was too busy answering the phone.
Not that it was love at first sight – I wasted six months hating Livie and then another year before I finally asked her to go out with me. She was the optimist, the dreamer, the girl who believed that you created your own luck and that the universe believed in justice and would give her the breaks she needed at just the right moment when everything looked lost. I had been a DC divorce attorney for five years, which meant that pretty much everything she said the first few times we met annoyed the hell out of me. She told me that she wanted to write public policy – to reform the foster care system and change the national and agency-specific policies for investigating and prosecuting rape and stalking cases. I was a foster kid. I knew exactly how the system worked. So the first time she had said that – in almost those exact words, no less – I’d told her that I didn’t know what reality she was living in, but the only way that was going to happen was if she was filming a Hallmark Movie. She’d just laughed and replied that I couldn’t possibly have a legitimate understanding of reality – I was a divorce lawyer. And perhaps I was right, she said, it certainly wouldn’t be easy. Which was why, she’d said as she leaned back against the chair of the coffee shop we were sitting in, she’d found just the right person to partner with. Little did I know that she had been recruiting me for months. She needed a family attorney, one with experience in the nuances of the foster system. Someone who had worked with the rich and the powerful. Someone who was known as a realist, a pessimist, and who could navigate the large crowd of “cynical, backstabbing, and disillusioned” DC policymakers. Someone who had personal experience living in the hell that is the foster system. Basically, she needed me. And somehow, her persistence and optimism gave me hope that if I actually did something worth doing, I wouldn’t regret it. And somewhere along the way her idealism stopped making me want to shank myself and started making me want to be around her. Somewhere along the way Livie made the divorce lawyer fall in love. She was a modern-day feminist, independent without being over the top crazy and annoying. Passionate, but willing to listen and compromise when I called her on some of her more ridiculous claims. I gave her practicality, and she kept us moving forward past every setback. She dreamed of a successful life together and the world we would make and that one day we would raise our children in.
I’m sure that when the phone rang, she answered the phone in her “professional” voice out of habit. She’d perfected that tone of voice during her last twelve years working in DC. She believed that the fastest way to make a difference in Washington was by having a strong and noticeable presence, an aura of confidence and strength. Or at least that’s how she described it. And it worked on other people, just like it worked on me the first day I saw her. When people looked at Livie, they saw someone alive. She drew energy from late nights and long hours, lived for debates and got fierce when some obstacle refused to move out of her way. This obviously wasn’t actually case all the time – some days she’d come home completely exhausted and worn down, wanting nothing more than to sleep for a week. But she never let anyone else see that the work she loved could do anything but bring her satisfaction. So on some days she had to fake her enthusiasm to get through the day, but in the end, it was true – she loved what she did.
I’m pretty sure I know exactly what Livie did when the voice on the other end of the line identified itself as a nurse at Alexandria Presbyterian Hospital. She would have taken a slow breath, in and out, her eyes going blank and her jaw clenching. When the nurse told her that the doctor wished to see her to discuss the results of the latest tests and asked her please schedule an appointment, Livie would have automatically let her lips curve into a polite smile and responded, “Yes ma’m, of course I can. When is your next available appointment?” Livie called most people Ma’m or Sir. She said it was a part of her southern charm and helped set her apart from the other public policy analysts in DC.
Livie knew the second that nurse asked her to make an appointment why the doctor wanted to see her. I could see it in her eyes when she got back to our hotel room that night. When the doctor had asked her to take the blood test two weeks ago, he said that it probably wasn’t going to come back as anything to worry about. Her symptoms – chills, fever, exhaustion, lack of appetite, back pain – fit with many different forms of cancer, but certainly weren’t confined to cancer. Cancer might run in Livie’s family, but she was young and healthy. It was very unlikely she had cancer. Livie never seemed to believe the doctor’s assurances, which meant that I also was not convinced. She always said that she “knew her body” and that she had this sixth sense when something was wrong with her. It was true, actually, even though it sounds like crap. That day the nurse called, it took Livie a long time to speak after she got back to the hotel. She just walked in, set the keys on the table by the door, and sat down on the bed. We packed up from our mini vacation down in the Blueridge Mountains and drove back up I66 to our small apartment in Alexandria. Livie was quiet on the ride home. She did this thing where she bottled everything up for a while, telling herself that nothing she was facing was a big deal, until finally it went too far and she talked about the same thing for days, repeating a single observation over and over again until the listener knows everything she could possibly say. As her husband, I knew enough to try to get anything I wanted to get done taken care of while she was still in the silent phase. Then I’d just sit there while she talked – and talked – until I couldn’t take it anymore, which is when I’d give her the phone and tell her to call her mother who would get her through round two before handing the phone to her father for round three. (Yeah, the three of us had a system.) Usually, talking through things was enough for her. It gave her release, but it also allowed her to do something about her problems, to get angry about them or come up with a solution for them. When she talked, she talked with energy and frustration and passion – I mean, she was a politician. She was pretty freaking good at talking. All of this used to annoy me… you know, just one of those things you deal with when you live with a person. But now I know that talking was good. It kept her from breaking.
I had expected that as soon as the doctor came and told us what was going on, as soon as he confirmed what Livie already knew – that she had leukemia – the words were going to explode. At least, I hoped they would. She’d been quiet for too long. Way too long. Her stone cold “I’m fine, please don’t worry about me” façade usually never lasted so many days, at least not with me. She was silent as we drove home, silent as we unpacked, silent as I drove her to the doctors, silent as the nurse led us down the hall to this stark white smothering room. It was far past time for her to tell me her six point plan to overcome this obstacle, for her to give another passionate speech about why she had it within her to beat whatever stood in her way. It was time for her to bring herself back to life. The moment in which she decided to survive. It was time for an explosion.
The doctor slowly pushed open the door of room 213. His computer was closed, and he held it in front of his heart as the door clicked close behind him.
“Mrs. Wilson,” he said, walking forward and shaking Livie’s hand. “And Mr. Wilson,” he said as he held out his hand to shake mine. It took me a moment to react to such a normal gesture.
“Now, then,” he said, sitting down onto the chair closest to Livie. “Mrs. Wilson, I’m glad you could come in so soon. We got the results of your blood test, and I’m so very sorry, but all of the markers were there. We need to run more tests to confirm, but I believe that you have leukemia.”
He kept talking, but his voice had become a buzzing, a distracting cadence that interrupted the pounding of my heart and my anxious breathing. Livie, my Livie, had cancer. Dying of leukemia. I watched all of the dreams we had built – and all the dreams we had left to build – go toppling down like dominos.
“What’s our next move?” I interrupted.
The doctor glanced at me. “Well, as I said, there are still more tests to be done - ”
“I heard you. But why would we wait? Why would you not start treatment immediately?” the lawyer in me demanded. Livie wasn’t the only one who could use her voice to command the world around them.
The doctor paused for a moment. “Mr. Wilson, more information is needed before we can determine how to proceed. We need to run more tests.”
I barked out a laugh. “She has leukemia! How could you need any more information than that? Start fixing it!” The doctor stood and put his hand on my arm. “Mr. Wilson,” he said softly, “May I speak to you in the hallway?”
I nodded stiffly, and let him lead me out into the hallway.
The doctor began again. “I assure you, sir, we are working on it. We need more information before we can begin. I have some options planned out, and I would be happy to share them with you and Mrs. Wilson. But I need you to calm down and work with me. I promise you, we will do everything, everything, in our power to set things right,” he said, holding my glare but reflecting none of my fury. Only my sadness.
“We will do everything in our power, and the two of us will work together. The rest,” he said as he turned to go back into the room, “is up to her.”
Up to my Livie, the only person in the world more stubborn than me. That should have been enough to make the knot in my stomach loosen a bit. But when I walked into the room all it did was tighten.
Because when we walked back into the room and the doctor started talking, giving us all of the information about the treatments he was thinking about or the tests he needed to run, Livie just kept her emotionless expression. My world was ending, and she was silent. Completely calm and collected. Impervious. She listened, she nodded, and when he left, she stayed quiet. But her eyes weren’t narrowed in concentration and her jaw wasn’t clenched in frustration. Her eyes were impassive and her chin was slack. She didn’t speak, she didn’t look at me, she didn’t respond with any kind of energy. She didn’t try to make a plan, or reason her way around this, or talk about how terrible this was, or make a joke about her bad luck.
And that’s when I knew that I had already lost her.