As I work proofs with my Calculus and Higher Geometries students, I often run across the Greek symbol that, in math, means “there exists." This might show up, for example, in statements such as “there exists” a point, a line or, (in economics) an equilibrium. Such existential issues are not foreign to mathematics, as arguably the most famous existential statement, “I think, therefore I am”, was made by Rene Descartes, who also gave us the “Cartesian Plane”, the intersection of the X and Y axes that becomes the canvas on which we draw analytic geometry. This time of year always makes me think of such things, as this weekend is the 20 year anniversary of what has so far been a successful battle with a brain tumor.
The battle included several detours on the way to recovery, and I marvel at the effectiveness of modern medicine as I realize that in those weeks I was hospitalized, I had brain surgery, a case of Meningitis, spent several days not waking up (but could remember conversations that went on around me when I did), and had a blood clot break off from inside my leg and go to my lungs. When this occurred, I did not know what had happened, but felt as if I was underwater and could not breathe. It was only recently that a colleague from our Nursing department told me that such blood clots are usually diagnosed during autopsies.
When brains are operated on today, the patient is woken up during key points of the surgery, to make sure that nothing important is being severed. However, in 1990, the surgery was done blindly while hoping that the patient would retain their short-term memory. When I woke from surgery, they gave me the word “Aardvark” to remember, to see if I had retained my short-term memory. When it was clear that I had, September 10th became “Aardvark Day” in my life and the life of my family. We celebrate the 20th annual Aardvark Day today.
When I was going through the ordeal, one thing that kept me moving forward was my desire to someday have a family of my own. Indeed, that desire was what led to one of the most memorable moments from those weeks. A doctor told me they wanted to do x-rays using a CT (pronounced “cat”) scan on my belly, since there was a chance I was losing blood and this loss was making me anemic. I didn’t know much about CT scans, but the idea of having x-rays taken of my belly sounded dangerous to someone who still hoped to be able to conceive a baby some day. When I protested, they told me that CT scans were safe for people- it was just cats that it was dangerous for. They told me that when CT scans were first invented, people were putting actual cats into them, with horrible results. So, they assured me, if I was not a cat, I would be fine. As it was, I did not need to have to have the CT scan, but the encounter left me laughing, thanks in part to the powerful pain killer that I was taking. As I laughed and laughed and could not stop, my dean came into my room to see how I was doing. In between gasps of laughter, I told him about cats in CT scans, and could not even carry on a conversation with him, as I was in such stitches (literally and figuratively.) Some might wonder whether that was the start of my difficulty in progressing towards tenure at that first academic appointment.
I eventually recovered, although it took a long time and included needing to be (at first incorrectly) medicated with anti-seizure medicine after I seized at a faculty meeting (there are some creative ways to get out of department meetings…) Through it all, I wished for a family, but as someone once put it, my best friend was a computer. Just as I achieved a level of resolve about staying single, I met my husband as he came by my office to sell books for a publishing house. He enrolled in law school soon after we married, and years later, we completed our improbable family when we adopted our daughter.
When I broke several bones last winter, the nurses told me that “this is the worst thing that will ever happen to you.” I easily told them “no, it isn’t”, since I had already successfully been through neurosurgery. This weekend, I will return to my duties as a reader in my parish for the first time since breaking my bones. I will process with only a small limp up the center aisle of my church, carrying a heavy book held high with an arm that only a few month ago could not cut food. Later this weekend, I will go out to celebrate with my husband and daughter, as I celebrate a full 20 years of life that statistics say should not have been there. But they are, and so I can say that, against all odds, there exists a family.