Halpin's memoir of his wife's struggle with breast cancer is a heartbreaking read. In the aftermath of tragedy, people will often say, "At least it happened quickly; at least there was no pain." Not so with cancer, even for survivors. Halpin, his wife, Kirsten, and their five-year-old daughter had just moved into their dream house and imagined a reprieve from life's difficulties. A biopsy forced them to face their worst fears: Kirsten's cancer was diagnosed as stage four. She was forced to confront her own death her survival chances hovered around 60% as well as the terrific pain and discomfort of treatment. Halpin, a high school English teacher in Boston, Ma., focuses mostly on his own struggles, his silence regarding his wife seems more respectful than self-involved. His eye is unflinching and honest as he observes the medical establishment's seeming indifference, satanic folksinging neighbors, family members too human to be totally selfless, supportive colleagues and, best of all, himself. Although cancer-survivor Kirsten is the true heroine of the book, Halpin is the loving "worried man" rallying behind her. By turns nauseatingly descriptive (the hose stuck through his wife's chest makes for especially queasy reading) and wickedly funny, this memoir of a husband's fight with his wife's cancer is an excellent though painful book for anyone facing similar situations. (Feb.) Forecast: If the statistics are any indicator (approximately one in eight women will get breast cancer), this book will find its way into the hands of many a husband. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Will people really want to read the rantings of a pouting, grouchy, grumbling, whiny 32-year-old? They will when they meet Halpin, a teacher in a Boston charter high school and the husband of a 32-year-old woman with Stage 4 breast cancer. Few books on breast cancer feature the husband's perspective (David Tillman's beautiful In the Failing Light, LJ 5/15/99, is a rare exception). Halpin's view is so in your face, so funny, so foul-mouthed, and so honest that everyone will want to read this and cheer for his wife, Kirsten, and their four-year-old daughter, Rowen. This is the yearlong diary of Kirsten's ordeal, which included high-dose chemotherapy and stem-cell replacement. Halpin describes every day, every complaint, every fear, along with his favorite (and not so favorite) music (loves the Carter Family, hates Dan Fogelberg), TV shows, movies, and food (especially food). He doesn't let family or friends off the hook except maybe the folks from the Unitarian Church where he belongs who do his housework, even cleaning the toilets, and his students, whom he truly loves teaching. Fortunately, there is no ending to his story. Kirsten is alive, her tumors are still palpable but considerably smaller, and she celebrated her 33rd birthday. According to Halpin, that "has to be enough." The language is graphic, which is to be expected of most 32-year-old males, but this book should not be missed. Highly recommended. Bette-Lee Fox, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A husband's frank, conflicted recollections of coping with his young wife's stage-four breast cancer. Brendan, a Boston high-school English teacher, and wife Kirsten are both 32 when she is diagnosed in September 2000. They have a three-year-old daughter, Rowen, they've just moved into a new house, and life so far has been pretty good. But the cancer has spread to Kirsten's spine, so before they perform a mastectomy her doctors advise chemotherapy. Brendan describes Kirsten's rounds of treatments (he shaves off his hair when she loses hers), his efforts at parenting, and his occasionally difficult relations with his mother and his in-laws, who are trying to help but have needs of their own. His story alternates heartbreaking moments of despair (a round of chemotherapy that doesn't work) with inspiring affirmations of love and life (a birthday party that fills their small house with supportive friends). Brendan is beguilingly frank about his fears and failings: his father died suddenly when he was nine, which has made him a hypochondriac fearful of death; he admits that he finds it easier to work than to stay home with his convalescing wife; and he does notice pretty women, though he is resolutely and lovingly faithful. At his Unitarian church, he wrestles with questions of faith, of good and evil; not always certain about God, he is deeply appreciative of fellow churchgoers who clean and pitch in when he needs them. Video games, music, and movies also help a little. Brendan admits that, although Kirsten has survived chemo, he is writing a story with a choice of possible endings, most unhappy. His prose is breezy, his attitudes hip, but he vividly describes real anguish and fears. Anaffectingly honest account of what it means to watch helplessly as a loved one suffers: a timely addition to the literature of disease.
Boston Sunday Globe - Book Critic
Raw, Undisciplined, and frequently very funny.
Read an Excerpt
Kirsten told me I should write it all down. I think she thinks it will be good therapy for me. I have noticed that the stuff written about my situation is usually a line or two in the cancer books: “This is a tough time for him too.” So maybe there is some room for my story. I begin this on October 7, 2000. Tomorrow is our sixth anniversary.Copyright 2002 by Brendan Halpin
Somehow, as much as I wish he weren’t, the Troll feels like part of this story. We lived for four years in a condo over a childless couple: a Grizzly Adams–looking, dyspeptic folk singer and his wife. We’ll leave the wife out of it, though she was a pain in the ass too. The husband, hereafter known as the Troll, is a loudmouth bully—one of those guys who is angry all the time and never stops to consider the possibility that maybe it’s not everyone else in the world who’s an asshole.
After our daughter, Rowen, was born, he became convinced that we were torturing him by allowing our daughter to walk. Honestly. This despite the fact that his favorite hobby was rattling our floors with his own special brand of 1970s wuss-rock. His response to our completely unreasonable practice of allowing our offspring to move freely about our home got increasingly loony, culminating in him pounding on our door one Sunday morning and running away and then calling Kirsten a “stupid, ignorant, tight-lipped bitch” in front of our daughter the next day. He did his best to make selling our condo and moving out difficult, including squeezing 175 bucks in bogus “fines” from the condo association out of us. Our infractions included vacuuming at 9:00 a.m. and“heavy footfalls.” Our lawyer told us the fines were bullshit and he’d be happy to fight them for us for two hundred dollars an hour. We paid the fines and sold the place for two and a half times what we’d paid for it. The Troll wrote “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA” on the back of the canceled check.
I never tried to take any revenge, figuring that getting into a lunacy contest with someone who has such a large head start is bad policy and that, you know, living well is the best revenge.
This has two implications for my story. One is that I took comfort in the knowledge that this hateful fuck would remain a hateful fuck and continue to find that the whole world was against him, while we would live happy lives in our new home.
The other implication is that we were busy moving all summer, and Kirsten decided to wait until her annual checkup in August to get those lumps in her right breast checked out.
The had painful lumps in her right breast. A year earlier, she’d had an ultrasound for some other lumps and been told that they were nothing. So it was easy for her to blow these off and wait.
It wouldn’t have been easy for me. I am a terrible hypochondriac. I worry constantly that every pain I have is a sign of a deadly disease, that my vision is blurring, that I have mad cow disease, that my pee is too bubbly, you name it. I also get chronic testicular inflammations. I had three ultrasounds on my nuts within six months because I was convinced I had testicular cancer. I mean, if your right nut feels like a bowling ball, that must mean something serious is wrong. Right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Sometimes my epididymis, which is a tube that carries sperm out of the testicle and sort of loops around it on the way out, gets inflamed. No big deal except, you know, my balls hurt a lot. C’est la vie.
Kirsten is always the steady one in these situations. She reassures me that I don’t have testicular cancer, that I don’t have mad cow disease, that my kidneys aren’t failing. She is the voice of reason.
So when she said that those lumps were probably nothing, I didn’t, you know, insist that she bust her ass into the doc’s office because it could be serious. She wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t concerned.
My Crisis of Faith
My dad died when I was nine. He fell over dead for no apparent reason. Kind of like a grown-up version of a crib death. He was thirty-five. I’m now thirty-two. Now you know why I’m such a hypochondriac.
My parents had been raised Catholic, but had lapsed. I grew up with a terrible fear of dying and a kind of vague fear of hell informed mostly by my five visits to mass with relatives and some horror movies.
My mom returned to the Catholic Church when I was in college. I still remember getting this letter one day in which she said, “I have been going to mass every day.” I was convinced she had lost her mind. Even Catholics think it’s weird to go to mass every day. Nobody does that except for the priests, who have to, and old ladies.
Well, she hadn’t lost her mind, and though now she only goes to mass weekly, the church has been a very positive force in her life. While she could return to the Catholic Church, I, who had never been in it, could not return. (I mean, yeah, they got me baptized just in case their parents had been right, but they stopped going to church about a week later. It doesn’t seem like it counts, though if the Catholics are right, this ought to be enough to get me past limbo and into purgatory, assuming I don’t do anything horrible between now and when I die.) I didn’t know what to do. I had vague religious leanings and too much skepticism to profess belief in Christ’s divinity or resurrection, both of which seem to me to be kind of beside the point of his message anyway, which I know is some kind of heresy. So, naturally, I became a Unitarian.
I have been going, more or less regularly, to the Wednesday night prayer group at my church. This is an unusually Christian kind of activity for Unitarians to engage in. We’re much better at petition drives and protests. Not only do we say the “Our Father and Mother” (we are still Unitarians, after all), we also sort of chant the 23rd Psalm at the beginning, without even trying to correct for patriarchal language. The 23rd Psalm, by the way, is great. Thinking of yourself as a sheep being led around by a benevolent God is a pretty comforting thought when things are tough. I also like the end: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We’ll see.
Though Emerson, the man who sort of runs the prayer group, is a spiritual superhero, and I do love everybody there, I found this summer that I was going less than I used to. While I like to pray, I need to go to group because I am too lazy to do it by myself. I started to have doubts, though. I know prayer makes me feel good, and I believe it’s effective, but if God can intervene in the world, I guess I wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. If God intervenes, where was he in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, etc. etc. etc.? Therefore God doesn’t intervene. So why am I asking him to look out for people, or grant healing to people, or to bring somebody home safely? What am I doing? Does it matter? I think I have now officially become a Unitarian. I am too tied in knots intellectually to pray.
This crisis of faith comes before—before, mind you—the Diagnosis.
Kirsten went for her annual physical. When she came back, she said that her doctor had recommended that she go for another ultrasound. So she went. Rowen and I went too. We walked around the pond near the doctor’s office looking at the geese and feeding them. Rowen picked up a stick and announced that it was a magic wand. There was goose shit everywhere, so we imagined that she could make it go away with her magic wand. “Zoop! No more poop!” she’d say. It was a beautiful summer day and I was happy.
Later I heard that they had found a dead bird carrying the West Nile virus very near to where Rowen and I had been walking. I worried about West Nile. Had I been bitten by a mosquito that day? Had Rowen?
The ultrasound came back inconclusive. The doc said something like, “It doesn’t really look cancerous. It doesn’t really look benign.” Apparently it was round on one side, which is cystlike, and nubbly on the other side, which is cancerlike. So they set up an appointment with a surgeon who is some kind of breast specialist.
Weeks went by, as they always do when you are waiting to see a specialist. We unpacked, worked on the new house, stripped wallpaper, and made a million trips to the Home Depot.
The breast specialist looked at the ultrasound and decided to order a mammogram and a “needle biopsy.” Here’s where it started to get scary. But okay, you can still talk to ten women and probably five of them have had an ultimately benign lump in their breast biopsied.
I didn’t go with her to the biopsy. It didn’t seem important. It’s just a formality. When they described the procedure to her, they said it was basically sticking a needle into the lump and sucking some cells out.