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My husband had just been discharged from the hospital and I was terrified.

I would be responsible for helping him recover from surgery that had removed an orange-sized malignant tumor from the area around his ear and neck. The 24/7 envelope of comfort and medical care we’d received in the hospital was no longer. We were on our own. I was the care giver, the one who’d better know what needed to be done and what problems to watch for. As we started down the highway to our home, two hours away from this hospital, I looked at Bob. One side of his face was covered in a large bandage, he was leaning toward me on the other side of his face. He was partially asleep, woozy from pain medications. For several weeks preceding the operation we’d met with surgeons, oncologists, dentists, read everything we could find on squamous cell carcinoma. We talked honestly to each other about cancer, laughed and cried together. We’d done all of our homework. Well, almost all of it.

I’d forgotten to prepare for the moment when we’d drive away from the hospital, letting the life-line slip away. The fact that there are fine doctors and a good hospital in our town didn’t diminish my anxiety. I had to be responsible, but felt vulnerable. The muscles in my lower leg twitched, my eyes darted back and forth between watching the traffic and looking at Bob. Is he breathing okay? What if I hit a pothole and his head bounces against the window on the side where the bandages are? I know he trusts me to drive safely, but I had to be super vigilant. We made it home safely and familiar surroundings eased my concerns.

For the next few days Bob rested and took his meds. I hovered, nervously trying to anticipate his needs. There must be something I should be doing. Without taking away his pride and dignity, I kept track of the details, the schedule of meds and followup appointments. I watched him closely for signs of problems, though I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Bob slept in his recliner so he could keep his head elevated. A soft pillow protected the bandaged area. We’d found the right foods that were easy for him to chew.  He was getting better, but still hadn’t been allowed to shower or wash his hair. I knew it was driving him crazy. So I asked Bob if he wanted a shampoo. (This is a man who goes to a barber, not a salon.) To my surprise he said yes. Then I worried about getting water on the bandages or that the surgical site might open and start bleeding.

Bob sat on a tall stool in our kitchen, his back against the sink, with a towel draped around him and another towel over the bandages. I filled a small tub with warm water, soaked a wash cloth with the water, brought it to his head and gently wet his hair. I put a few drops of shampoo in my hand and spread it on his hair. My fingers massaged Bob’s scalp, the back of his neck, taking care to avoid the area around his right ear.  He smiled and relaxed and laughed, finding himself in this situation. I rinsed and applied more shampoo, which wasn’t necessary, but it gave me the chance to do more massaging. It was for my benefit this time. I worked up a good lather. The touching and massaging brought us close and our laughter helped reduce my worries. It was good to discover that there was actually something  I could do that would make Bob feel much better.

This shampoo turned out to be good medicine for both of us.