August 30th, 2002


A Dolphin Named Mr. Tuna

She went into surgery around 7:30am. The doctor said it’d go on until around 11:30am. Depending on whether or not they found cancerous growth in other organs and had to remove them, in which case it’d go on longer. Yes, that "debulking" word again.

In the mean time, my baby sister had asked for a stuffed dolphin, so that’s what I was going to get her.

A part of me was focused on this task, because throughout all this you feel utterly helpless. You can’t grab cancer by the throat and beat the shit out of it. You can’t re-boot life, and start all over with a happier cancer-free version. But you can buy your sister a plush marine mammal.

I called four toy stores and even the Discovery Store and none of them had stuffed dolphins…

TOYS R US: Hello this is Donna speaking, can I help you?

ME: Yes, hi, I was wondering if you sold stuffed dolphins.

TOYS R US: Hmmm, let’s see. We have whales, seals, manatees… No dolphins.

ME: You have fricking manatees, but no dolphins?

TOYS R US: Well dolphins and whales are in the same family. How ‘bout a cute, furry hunchback whale?

ME: No, it has to be a dolphin. Thanks.

I finally found one at FAO Schwartz. And it was perfect.

When I got to the hospital, the nurses told me that my baby sister’s surgery was finished, but she’d be in an observation room for at least an hour. And we wouldn’t be able to see her ‘til one in the afternoon.

Every once in a while, when visiting my sister, we end up in her floor’s waiting room. But I never stay in there long, because it depresses the hell out of me. Stained, purple, vinyl chairs. A cheezy painting of a Southern belle standing in a lilac garden – except she looks Bulgarian. And this eerie howling noise that came out of the ceiling vent.

So I ended up wandering around the hospital. Me and the dolphin. I figured my sister would give him a name later, but for now I called him Mr. Tuna. No matter where I went, though, the nurses all seemed to have the same sense of humor.

"Oooh, is that for me?" They’d ask, giggling, pointing to Mr. Tuna. "Can I keep him?"

"Don’t you mind them, Mr. Tuna," I said. "Stay focused on your job ahead."

Somehow I bumped into the doctor at the elevators. I quickly asked him how the surgery went.

"We removed the mass," he said. "It’s a germ cell tumor. Very common for women your sister’s age. The pathologist still hasn’t determined whether or not the cells are malignant, but based on what I know, it looked malignant. The tumor had ruptured, so the cells may have spread to other parts of the abdomen. However, I saw no sign of cancer in the other ovary."

"Thank God," I was barely able to mutter.

"I saw no signs of cancer on the uterus," he continued. "The rest of her organs also looked fine. They all looked healthy. No signs of cancer, so that’s good news. I did find some tiny nodules, but I removed them. But overall I’d say her chances for full recovery are excellent."

"Thank God," I said again. And again. I think I threw in a "That’s awesome" in there as well. I don’t think the eloquent part of my brain – if I ever had one - was functioning. It was too overwhelmed with relief along with the rest of me. That cliché you constantly hear where people say that they felt a great weight lifted off of them. I’d never physically experienced that until now.

My baby sister had still lost an ovary, but I’d never been so happy in my life. I grabbed his hands until I almost crushed them. "Thank you. Thank you so much," I said.

After the doctor rushed on to his next patient, I told and called everyone about the good news. My mom broke down and cried. My dad yelled with joy. My other sister in Seattle, oddly enough, had the exact same reaction as me.

Mr. Tuna and I ate lunch in the hospital cafeteria, which resembled a Wendy’s more than the cafeteria you see in my current favorite sitcom "Scrubs." After lunch, I was waiting at the elevators when I saw pale blue flyers posted next to each of the doors, with a 40-ish black woman’s photo on them.

On the top it read "Clara’s Going Home Celebration." At first I thought it was announcing a going-away party for a hospital employee. But then I noticed the next line, which read "1959 – 2002." I looked at her picture again. And then I went into the elevator.

They finally let us see her. Like most post-operation patients, she was hooked up to some serious hardware. A tiny, very pleasant, Filipino nurse was monitoring her signs. But my baby sister was awake. Barely, of course. I held out the stuffed dolphin, and my baby sister – groggy as she was - instinctively tucked Mr. Tuna under her arm.

I told her the good news, but she couldn’t talk. It was too sore from a large tube they apparently shove down your throat during surgery.

She had a button that she could press every ten minutes for more morphine. But I could tell she probably would’ve preferred every ten seconds. Her face would twitch with pain every so often, so I told her to grab my fingers. And she squeezed them, like she did when she was one month old. She fell asleep that way.