I have another root canal today. It’s my second one in the past few months. For the first one, I had to leave Shawn at the hospital and go get the root canal and then come back immediately afterwards to be with him. He was having a hard time getting around at that point, and so he would make big goals like walking around the entire hospital wing three times. He’d wait for me to come to the hospital, and whenever I was there, we’d do his workout for the day. It was like watching someone do an Olympic event – he worked so damn hard, focusing on the task at hand, saying little, but persisting toward his goal.
He never complained. I knew when the laps were hard because he would reach for the railing or my hand and wait for a moment before continuing. Unless he was having a particularly good day, we walked in silence. We walked by other patients, almost all much older than us, and I could see in their eyes that they felt sad seeing such a young couple in that part of the hospital.
Before he fell ill, Shawn had been a CrossFit enthusiast, pushing himself to the limit in the gym and running around our neighborhood with a weight vest on the weekends. He was even lifting weights in our driveway mere weeks before being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. This was a man who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail on his own with just one pair of underwear and a man who performed crude surgery on a boil he had to avoid being kicked out of a training exercise for the Canadian army. He might complain about a cold, but real pain was something Shawn endured without comment.
And so that day of my first root canal, when I came back to the hospital in terrible pain, I stayed silent. I didn’t want to take any strong medication, because I wanted to be completely lucid for Shawn. I came in his room and he announced he was “ready to do laps.” It was a process – he had all sorts of tubes and cords and IVs attached to him – but we eventually got out in the hallway and walked the corridors. Our favorite nurse, a woman also named Shawn who had nerves of steel, saw us and said with great certainty, “You got this, Shawn. You got this.” He smiled, as he always did with her. I think he liked her toughness.
We chatted a bit that day, because he was feeling pretty good. I told him about the kids and the hilarious antics they were pulling over the winter break. He told me about his discussions with the many doctors who visited him that day. We joked about the wild New Year’s Eve we were destined to have. After a while, I mentioned that I needed to take a little something to ease my tooth pain. “That’s right,” he said to me, “you had your root canal today. I can’t believe you aren’t complaining about it!”
I laughed. “Well I’m not going to complain to you,” I replied. He conceded that this was a reasonable point, but insisted, “a root canal is still a root canal!”
I guess that’s true. And still, it felt like I couldn’t grumble even a little bit about it. Because a root canal is pretty awful, but when it’s over, the pain is gone. Forever. Problem solved. Even at that point in Shawn’s illness, I knew that there was no solution for his cancer that was as easy as a root canal was for my tooth pain. I knew it would be a much more painful and much longer path.
Turns out I was actually wrong about the “longer” part. Shawn was gone less than two weeks after that day. Wherever he is now, I know there is no pain there. But I’m still here, and my pain is real. To be fair, today’s specific issue is simple by comparison. Today’s problem is this intense tooth pain. Which is why I’m going to get that root canal.
The heartache is not so easy to fix. Try as I might, I can’t get myself to feel real joy for more than an hour at a time. It’s one of my therapist’s big goals for me – to feel sustained joy – but she wants me to find it outside of the moments when I’m with my children, which is the one part of my life that still brings me true happiness. She has lots of ideas about how to do this – spending time doing things I love, telling stories about Shawn, meeting friends for dinner – but she doesn’t have an easy fix. She can’t give me the equivalent of a root canal for my spirit.
But I do need a root canal on my tooth. It hurts like hell, and I want the pain to go away. I’m not going to complain, because all day today I’ve been thinking of that day on the hospital floor, the day when I had the first root canal. That day, instead of doing three laps, we did six. Each time we’d pass the door to his room, Shawn would just keep walking for another lap.
Today, I’m going to hear that nurse’s voice in my head, saying, “You got this.” And I’m going to keep hearing her say that after the root canal, when the tooth pain subsides but the heart pain remains. I’m going to get through the emotional pain by remembering to do what Shawn did that day.
I have to keep moving. I have to have the same strength he had, and keep walking past that door.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.