by Lauren Young
So let’s start with today.
How is death so terrifying, even when it’s not here yet? I sang karaoke last night, and had to leave Kyle at home because he was so tired. It’s always bad, he’s always fatigued, but he never misses karaoke. For a person so afraid of singing, especially publicly, I’ve become a veritable addict behind the microphone. People laugh when they hear that Kyle and I have a karaoke setup in the house, complete with surround sound, but singing is something we learned to love together. Four years ago. When we met. You know, before the tumor showed up.
But I can’t sing at home now, because Kyle needs to rest, so I just go to the local bar about a block away and serenade my friends. Last night, of course, I drank too much because I can’t close my eyes without thinking of Kyle. He seemed content when I left, lounging in his recliner, watching something noisy on TV. But how unfair, how lonely for both of us – we separate even while we could stay home together, since he is so empty these days, and has little to say.
My mind goes back to the first week in January, when my friend Pam called to tell me the news: She had a hunch. A haunting suspicion had entered her consciousness, which was likely to be accurate in her case. She’s our doctor, after all. My college roommate is our doctor.
“Okay, sit down, Lauren. I have a theory for you. And you may think it’s weird.”
“Oh, yeah? What is it?”
“Well, doesn’t Kyle have really large hands and feet? Like they’re abnormally swollen?”
“Yeah, of course, they’re the biggest ever. I make fun of him constantly. I can’t even believe you remember that about him.”
“Okay. And…do you promise you won’t get offended at the next question?”
“Oh, please. No, of course I won’t.”
“Doesn’t Kyle have large facial features? Like a large nose, large forehead, and sharp jawbones and cheekbones? Sort of like a Cro-Magnon man?”
“Yes, definitely. And you’re not offending me. I call him Cro-Magnon Man to his face all the time. The huge beard doesn’t help his case, either. He needs to stop watching Duck Dynasty, because he’s starting to think it’s okay to shave only twice a year.”
“Well, I just saw a patient who looks just like Kyle. And acts just like Kyle. He can’t sleep at night, and also had the same swollen hands, feet, and face that Kyle does. But Lauren, it turned out that patient had a condition caused by a brain tumor.”
Of course there was silence here. An eternity of five seconds passed.
“My God. What do you mean?”
“The condition is called acromegaly. It’s caused by a brain tumor on the pituitary gland. There’s a lot of issues that it can cause, but sleep apnea is definitely one of the most common. Acromegaly is sort of like adult-onset gigantism. Abraham Lincoln had it. It doesn’t make you grow taller, but your body grows wider in the areas that it can: the hands, feet, face, and internal organs.”
“Oh. God. Oh, no, my God. So you think Kyle has this?”
“Yes, because when I scoped his nasal passage last year, I couldn’t find any reason that he wasn’t breathing at night. But this explains it. And it explains a lot about Kyle’s behavior: the constant fatigue, forgetfulness, unwillingness to talk – all of it. If you thought he was acting weird, he really was. This disease will change your personality.”
“But I – I just thought he wasn’t sleeping, and that was the thing making him so non-functional.”
“No. Well, yes, that too, but he also has an overload of growth hormones surging through his system. He isn’t getting sleep, but he’s also processing extra hormones that are exhausting him. I mean, he’s probably growing like a teenager right now and his body can’t figure out how to stop.”
Anachronistic growth hormones. A self-inflating brain mass. An overzealously confused pituitary gland. A guy with five years to live, at most.
I believed Pam right away, my heart sinking as the words of her diagnosis flew through my mind. Sure, we still needed to get an MRI of Kyle’s brain to prove there was a tumor, but sometimes when you hear the truth, there’s no use in denying it for lack of evidence. No one wanted to hear that a brain tumor was growing inside Kyle’s skull. But when I hung up the phone with Pam and called Kyle to report what she’d said, he agreed immediately. At last. An explanation. For everything he’d been losing slowly — his words, his time, his energy, his relationships, his patience — he had an explanation.
Two weeks earlier, Kyle had almost lost me.
* * *
Thank God that I had the worst boss in modern American history. Unbeknownst to my doggedly unsuspecting self, Colin had been plotting to fire me for a couple months. He simply didn’t know how to get rid of me, because most people with an I.Q. above 32 would never accept a position as my replacement. Financial desperation was the only excuse I had for staying. My grueling servitude was as Colin’s personal assistant, which meant I did everything from put new laces on his shoes, to walk his dog, to tutor his children, to take the blame for any/all specks of dust that might land on one of his precious possessions. At some point, I must have unforgivably neglected some detail of his life, so, instead of confronting the issue, he mysteriously offered me a two-week break over Christmas while he furiously worked to find my substitute. At the time, I was too elated to be suspicious.
But as I said, I thanked God that my boss was a spineless, cowardly narcissist. Colin thought that his shallow regard for humanity made him a great businessman. In the end, his inability to confront me in a professional manner led him to send me that precious, duty-free Christmas break, while he worked to lure an alternate young professional into his web of icky mental disorders, which gave me time – and mental fortitude — to help save Kyle’s life.
As a couple, Kyle and I were not coexisting well. A few months prior, I had celebrated with gritted teeth one of my milestone birthdays. I was thirty now, and after several years of living with Kyle, I was waking up every day with anticipation that I might get an engagement ring before sundown. But month after month crawled by, and the engagement that we had discussed since our first weeks together never materialized. Was I dreaming? Hadn’t we committed to this long ago?
Anxious and confused, I finally addressed the issue with Kyle in tearful, explosive manner that comes from a sense of slow-cooked rejection. Was everything alright with him, and between us? Yes. Didn’t he want to get married? Yes. Was he going to make this engagement happen soon? Yes.
But then I finally asked: Had he even started saving for a ring? No.
No. No, he had not even started saving. A man who had no credit card or even a credit score to speak of was…not…even…saving. Our engagement, our marriage, was never going to come. And my sobs threw me downward as I tried to breathe.
But my heartbreak was met with Kyle’s utter confusion. He was foggy, and the emotional weight of my reaction escaped him. He comforted me, but without genuine empathy. Somewhere in his eyes, I could see that he loved me, but in that moment I felt an utter emptiness that imploded my stomach.
As long as I’d known Kyle, he had never gotten a decent night’s sleep. Everyone assumed his nocturnal breathing issues were caused by his deviated septum, since his nose is noticeably crooked, practically sideways, from the outside. When Kyle was a teenager, he crushed his nose during one of his many sporting events. His parents immediately paid for reconstructive surgery and all was rectified. So naturally, Kyle broke his nose the next chance he got, again playing some stupid sport. Probably rugby. This is yet another reason I loathe sports, and only go running by myself when I want exercise. I’m the least competitive person you’ll ever meet, mostly because I don’t want to be physically injured by other people. I can hardly bear to even watch sports, and I especially don’t care if I am “good enough” to get a ball to a goal, basket, or whatever. That is not an accomplishment to me. I’d rather draw a beautiful picture. I don’t want people running into me. I don’t want a trophy. And I don’t want a sideways nose.
Anyway, Kyle’s snoring was an incessant uproar, interspersed with violent choking. I always said, if Kyle and I were compatible for one reason, it was that I was the only living being who could sleep next to the nightlong serenade emitted from his nasal passage. One of my greatest natural talents has always been sleeping whenever, wherever, and under whatever circumstances. Long ago, I crowned myself champion of sleep for all humanity, and I have yet to meet a person who gets healthy, regular sleep as effortlessly as I do. By contrast, Kyle croaked and convulsed so aggressively that I would often wake him up to ask if he could possibly be pregnant, because I was pretty sure he’d been undergoing childbirth in his sleep. Unfortunately, my jokes don’t meet much laughter at 4:00 a.m.
So, I thought I already knew why Kyle was lethargic, unable to sustain regular work hours, inconsistent in following through on his obligations, and, now, approaching our relationship with lukewarm perseverance: That nose. His level of exhaustion was probably immeasurable at this point, compounded after years of insomnia.
Months later, testing revealed that Kyle was waking up an average of ninety-three times per hour. Not per night – per hour. On average, Kyle stopped breathing every 45 seconds or so, cutting off oxygen to his brain and jolting him awake. Over and over again, his exhausted body shook away the rest it desperately craved. The technicians at the sleep clinic told Kyle that he had set a new record, for the absolute worst sleep apnea case they had ever recorded. It seems humanly impossible that he could even pretend to function with such tumultuous sleep patterns.
However, at that point, in December, before Pam had called me with her diagnosis, or any doctor’s appointments or discoveries had been made, the truth was ominous: I had lost patience. Kyle had to get help, or lose me forever.
Crying on the couch, I prayed for guidance. I had plenty of time to think, because my demon boss had granted a two-week break to sit at home by myself. And then, before too long, God answered: Give Kyle one more chance. Take him to the doctor. Set him up with insurance, make him his first appointment, and if he doesn’t follow through, you have to let him go. I took a breath, and I was satisfied. I was glad to help Kyle start recovery, but I was comfortable with the idea of setting him free, if he refused to put forth the effort to get better.
“Kyle, I know what I’m getting your for Christmas next week,” I blurted at him when he came home from work. “I’m getting you health insurance, and I’ll make the first three months’ payments. Then you’ll take over. Also, I’m setting up your first doctor’s appointment. We have to figure out why you’re not sleeping. After that, your recovery is up to you.”
Kyle furrowed his brow and blinked a few times – a telltale sign that he lacked excitement.
“Okay,” he finally breathed. “Yeah. That sounds okay.”
And really, Kyle’s enthusiasm deficit was justifiable. We had already seen multiple doctors, to no avail. At the beginning of that same year, we had already gone to “Dr. Pam” in an attempt to tame his hellacious sleeping patterns. I had attended the appointment with Kyle, not only because I wanted to visit Pam, but because I knew he was going to downplay the severity of his symptoms. (To this day, Kyle still fails to grasp the magnitude of his health situation – but that’s probably best, somehow.)
I remember being giddy at the thought of rescuing Kyle from his exasperating insomnia. Cheerfully, I entered the waiting room, probably humming to myself as I envisioned a group of surgeons throwing Kyle on the operating table and cracking his nose back into place. Maybe we could book the surgery for next week? It couldn’t happen soon enough: Kyle was going to breathe again! He was going to have tons of energy and zeal for life! The only downside for him would be that he was never, ever allowed to play rugby again, as long as he lived.
Kyle’s digital nose scope (ew), which used a live camera to excavate his airways (like I said, ew), revealed a plethora of useless information. Apparently, Kyle had severe allergies of which he was not aware – unsurprisingly – and Pam began to focus on his enflamed sinuses as the culprit for his breathing difficulties.
“Here,” she said, handing Kyle some nasal spray. “Try this, and see if it helps open up your airways.”
“Hmm,” mumbled Kyle after he had injected a couple doses. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I think…I think it does help.”
Pam smiled. I did not smile.
I suddenly transformed into the patient who vociferously attempts to push the doctor into reconsidering the validity of her own credentials while I blatantly shove my own agenda into her face.
“But…but…!” I stammered, unable to see the forest of Pam’s professional experience through the trees of my personal expectations. “His nose! We’ve got to fix his nose!”
Kyle and Pam blinked at me.
“Well,” Pam said patiently, “his septum is crooked, but I can’t see how it’s causing breathing problems. The real issue is probably his swollen sinuses. This medication will fix that.”
My face has always been a curse, because I’m a wholly incompetent liar, and my facial expressions are insuppressible. Every time I need to mask my innermost feelings, my face leaves me out in the cold, inviting everyone to take a look at my private business. Usually my features are contorted into some manifestation of my inner-monologue before I even realize what I have been thinking. My face is always inappropriate, ill-timed, and mortifying in its refusal to help me politely lie to people.
So naturally, when Pam did not instantly drop her diagnosis so as to adopt my viewpoint, my face twisted into an obnoxious mix of disapproval and intolerance. I felt my onlookers’ eyebrows raise, so I stood up straight and attempted to make a neutral expression.
“Okay,” I said slowly, with pseudo-tolerance. “But. He’s got to have some issues related to the shape of his nose, right? I mean, his breathing has to be obstructed by that septum being crooked. Because…because you don’t hear how he snores. Pam, it’s ungodly. It shakes the walls. I’ve never heard anything like it, and when I was growing up I could hear my Dad snoring from across the house. But Kyle…Kyle can be heard in, like, Malaysia. Or Antarctica. He probably has interplanetary range.”
Now Pam and Kyle looked at me with amusement. This happens a lot. I’m trying to be serious or get an important point across, but I am met with smirks or laughter. This phenomenon occurs because my word choices are so damn weird. I’m aware of this, and I don’t really mind it. I could have worse problems than inadvertently entertaining people. What I really want to fix is my uncooperative face.
Pam wisely said, “Let’s try this medication, and if his nasal passages keep giving him trouble, we’ll make another appointment.”
Okay. Another appointment. I could accept that. Clearly Pam was not dropping her diagnosis, even though I was ready to strap Kyle to a table and start operating on him myself. We took the spray home, never knowing that Pam and I, in our respective professional and amateur diagnoses, were both completely wrong.
* * *
A few months later, at the start of spring, huge medical bills came in the mail. Apparently Kyle’s out-of-pocket insurance didn’t cover any appointments or medication that we thought it would. Fantastic. The nasal spray wasn’t helping much, and now we certainly could not afford to go back to the doctor.
To make matters worse, it was the spring that I had taken on another huge project: Working for Colin. The job had been advertised as having a flexible schedule of Monday through Friday, about six hours per day, with additional hours as needed. This idea thrilled me, as I believed I would find plenty of pool, shopping, and happy hour time after work – but this projected schedule was the first lie of many. Health insurance was also part of the package, which, I came to discover, was yet another cleverly designed layer of entrapment. When my new health insurance plan kicked in, I cancelled my old plan – and so did Kyle, citing the old company’s lack of cooperation with his medical costs. And I had to agree: The company had helped us none, despite the thousands of dollars spent in premiums. So I shrugged and let Kyle cancel his insurance plan, mumbling that he should find a good company as soon as possible.
As months passed, I began to completely forget about Kyle, and all of his nocturnal suffering. The job was edging out my personal and social life, and every workday blurred into the next. I had proudly accepted the position, only for my stomach to turn within the first hour of working with the devil incarnate who now called himself my boss. He was obsessive compulsive. There have never lived any homo sapiens whose everyday needs, real or perceived, were as endlessly numerous as those of this psychopath. My “flexible” work hours increased to 11 and 12 hour days with no break, and all to meet the whimsical demands of a madman. It was a relief to have health insurance, considering the nervous breakdown that I daily verged upon. Like a maniac starved for misery, my boss spent hours making lists of things to do, own, and control, hunching over his MacBook Air, replacing the unnecessary practice of sleep with Diet Pepsi.
My nerves were shot, and only workday survival mattered now. I had lost all patience with Kyle, particularly due to his low energy and lacking memory. His daily ambitions were getting pathetic. As soon as I walked in the door, I commenced my same daily rant:
“How can you only work a few hours per day and expect to make it financially, Kyle? I’m working, like, eleven or twelve hours and I’m exhausted trying to make ends meet! You’ve got to sleep! You’ve got to get help! And it’s not my job to make you! Get to the doctor! I’ve had enough, and I can’t deal with this crap anymore!” My words were always exasperated nowadays. I was struggling to respect Kyle, even though I loved him. I just wanted to think the world of him, like I always had before. But he wouldn’t take care of himself. Even for me. Even to save the relationship.
Kyle closed his eyes. He was too tired to respond, especially to an emotionally charged situation. I would continue with my tirade.
“And if you’re not going to work a full day, fine! Do the dishes! Why do I have to ask you? Every day! Is this a mystery? Is the pile of dishes something you haven’t seen before? I’m trying to be kind to you, I don’t want to yell at you, but when I spend my life pointing out the obvious, I get a pretty short fuse!”
Kyle rarely raises his voice, which is a pretty admirable quality, considering how loud I am even when I’m calm.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I don’t know what to do! The insurance company never helped me anyway, and I just don’t have the money to pay for everything. I’m just tired. I’m just…I can’t deal with this.”
And that’s how the conversation usually ended, even though we often kept talking. We basically bantered in perpetual helplessness, while I rotated through frustration, desperation, and empathy. Kyle, I don’t know what he felt. Insomnia had overshadowed his feelings long ago. Our talks typically ended with a string of his promises, which I could bet my life he wouldn’t keep: He’d ask for more hours at work, he’d look online for a trustworthy insurance company, and he’d go to the doctor. What he really ended up doing was going to take a long nap, which never led to anything. Except ear-crushing snores.
* * *
Along came the Christmas season, and I sat alone with God. My thirtieth birthday had come and gone, I was overworked and underpaid, I wasn’t engaged or married, and I was plotting the death of the man I loved.
How in the hell was I supposed to cope with a man who wouldn’t try to heal? Kyle was gambling away our relationship, sure, but his declining career had even higher stakes, if lost. He could only be an independent contractor if he sought out work, which was impossible to do amidst extended naptime. His body wouldn’t move, his brain wouldn’t function, and his girlfriend wanted to beat him senseless.
Am I a bad person? I asked God. How much patience is too little? Too much?
But that day, when I decided to give Kyle one more “push,” one more opportunity to see the doctor, I began to feel better, too – my resistance was melting away. I had stopped resenting him for being sick.
A week later, I filmed Kyle sleeping at night, and sent a clip of his uproarious snore session to Pam’s iPhone in the morning. Her text message response was immediate and succinct:
“We’re getting Kyle health insurance,” I messaged. “The plan kicks in on January 16th and we need an appointment at your office. The sleep is getting worse and worse. I’ll call the office to book a time.”
“I’ll look at the nose scope from last year,” replied Pam. “I don’t know what’s causing this. That snoring is terrible!”
I left for work, and Kyle continued snoring away. He wouldn’t be up for hours, but I would call Pam’s office in the meantime and make his appointment. I couldn’t wait to tell him that his problems were over.
* * *
Less than two weeks later, Pam called to tell me about the tumor – or her suspicion of it. Kyle and I hadn’t even made it to our scheduled appointment yet. Pam had just somehow intuited, through all her medical experience, that Kyle’s symptoms were out-of-the-ordinary. Once the results of the MRI came back, Kyle and I sat in Pam’s office again, gazing at a digital scan of his brain. And there it was: Undeniable visual evidence of his pituitary tumor, whose diameter was about the size of a half-dollar coin.
Its unexpectedly large mass, in the center of his head, left Kyle and me breathless.
“What’s that weird thick part, on the side? Is that the wall of the tumor?” I asked, not understanding much of the colored blob I was viewing.
“This?” Pam’s boss pointed to the top of the tumor on the screen, and I nodded. She explained, “It’s the pituitary gland. The tumor is pushing it up. It should be the size of a pea. Now you see what’s going on – there’s no room for the pituitary gland to expand to its normal shape. That’s why it’s going crazy!”
Kyle and I were agape, absolutely speechless. That tumor was crushing his pituitary gland into a flat line. Weeks later, the endocrinologist would tell us that Kyle’s hormones were about four times the normal level. He predicted that, if we hadn’t caught the tumor and scheduled its removal, it would be a year or so before Kyle would grow breasts and start lactating. And I thought his snoring was a problem – seeing Kyle’s breast milk may have committed me to years of psychotherapy.
* * *
The day after we saw the MRI, Kyle slept in and was visibly depressed when I left for work. I slunk into the office, with my head held low – I had to tell Colin, and probably the entire office, about my plight, so they would understand if I started acting strange or distracted. I hoped I wouldn’t disappoint anyone by becoming forgetful, which I typically do when I am sad.
Immediately upon my arrival, Colin called me into his office, where his secretary LeAnne was sitting with her laptop, ready for a meeting. This was our daily routine.
“How are you?” grinned Colin. I told him I was fine. A lie.
“Well.” Colin cleared his throat. LeAnne closed her laptop. “We’re making some changes around here. As a company, we will not be needing your help anymore. You’re no longer a good fit for the job position.”
I looked at Colin, then LeAnne, with surprise, and mild amusement. Fired? Was he crazy? Who else would put up with him? My mind immediately flashed back to Christmas break, which I suddenly recognized as the cowardly avoidance tactic that it was – he’d been searching for someone else for weeks, and my abrupt firing could only mean a replacement was on her way in the door tomorrow, if not later that day.
“Was it anything I did? Is there anything I should know about, even for future job positions?”
Colin lurched back, and a tight, phony smile tore across his face. This was his neurotic way.
“The decision has been made!” he snapped, forcing what he thought was a pleasant expression. “You have done nothing unethical or immoral. You are no longer a good fit for the position.”
He stood and uncomfortably extended his hand. I shook it. As I left, I could feel the two traitors stare at my back, probably with smirks.
I sat in my car, and a few tears trickled from the corners of my eyes. But then I grinned, genuinely.
God had answered my prayer. I had thought I’d known the whole answer, but now I really could see the big picture. The life-consuming, soul-sucking job had to disappear from my world, because my new job would be focusing on Kyle. This was a gift. I didn’t know how we’d make ends meet, but I now believed in myself, and in the provision of faith.
“I’m taking care of Kyle,” I cried to myself as I drove through the sunshine. “He is going to be absolutely, totally, completely fine. Now I know it. Thank you, God. I really, really know we’ll be okay.”
And taking care of Kyle is just what I did.
I don’t need to miss him anymore.
Lauren Young is a Professor of Learning Framework in the Social Sciences Division at Eastfield College. Between her years teaching at middle school and college levels, she has been an educator for over a decade. Her undergraduate degree is in English Writing and Rhetoric from St. Edwards University (Austin, TX), and her graduate degree is in Education from Endicott College (Beverly, MA). Also, she loves adopting rescue pugs.