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"SHE'LL GROW UP WITH NO MEMORY OF ME," my wife remarked, staring sadly at the infant seated on my lap.
"She'll remember you," I promised as I gazed idly at the blood pressure cuff dangling from the pale wall. "You're going to live to be a hundred."
"No," she protested. "I won't live to see Christmas."
I reached over and patted her knee. "You'll be fine."
"I'm going to die," she sighed. "I'll never see our daughter grow up." She stared again at the nine-month-old girl, and forced a weak smile.
It was our third wedding anniversary, and we were spending the morning in the examination room of a local surgeon.
"I'll do a biopsy, anyway," he explained. "But it's obviously advanced breast cancer."
"Will you have to cut me?" my wife asked anxiously.
"For the biopsy, yes," he answered gently. "No mastectomy, though. It's too late."
"Then I'm going to die."
Perhaps not, he told us. Not with tamoxifen. He had one patient taking tamoxifen who was still alive after ten years.
"No. I'm going to die," she replied with quiet resignation.
"How could they have missed the cancer?" I asked, fighting back my anger as I stood before her in our bedroom.
"They missed it," she replied calmly from the bed, where she sat knitting me a sweater.
"But you were over forty, and youwere having your first baby, and they watched you so closely," I continued, feeling the hot flush of my cheeks. "How could they have missed it?"
"They missed it." She set her knitting aside and patted the bed.
I sat down beside her, a feeling of calm returning as our bodies touched. "And you wanted to nurse your baby, but your nipple was sucked inside-out by the cancer. How did they miss that?"
"And you even had a mammogram," I said.
"Those miss it all the time," she replied.
We walked across the scattered weeds and rocks of the small park that bordered our yard, and the memory of the doctor visit followed us.
"You heard him," she said. "They caught it too late."
"No," I argued as I walked beside her with our golden retriever tugging ahead on her leash. "You're going to live to be a hundred."
A dog ran across the field, barking. It attacked our dog as I held on to her leash.
"You should keep him tied," I remarked as the owner trotted over.
"I've seen your dog loose chasing birds," he replied defensively.
"Yes, but she didn't attack you."
"Fuck off," he snapped.
We've got cancer. Fuck off to that. Fuck off to crime, and hunger, and a lot of other things. Don't fuck off to a small family walking sadly across a field of stones.
"I want to go away," my wife cried.
Flee. Yes, flee. The three of us, to some distant corner of the globe where cancer can't find us.
"For the weekend," she added.
"For just the weekend?" I asked.
"Yes. Can we do that?"
Sure. A weekend. A week. A month. A year. Eternity. It no longer mattered. What we had was gone. The world still looked the same, but something was gone from it. All that was left was so fragile: my wife, my baby daughter.
"Have you ever been to Lake George?"
"No," she replied. "Is it pretty?"
"It was," I said. "But that was thirty years ago."
We were silent as we approached the lake. Distant thunderclouds hung low over the region.
"Is it always stormy here?" she asked anxiously.
"In the summer," I explained. "Hot air, cold air, all these lakes and rivers."
"But it's sunny, too?"
"Yes," I replied. "After the storms have passed."
"It's not a very pretty town," she observed, staring out the side window as I steered our car through the holiday traffic.
Wax museums, T-shirt shops, wooden Indians. Roller coasters!
"No, but the lake is pretty."
"It's too bad the town comes before the lake," she sighed. "First impressions."
"And last impressions, too, when we leave."
"Couldn't we go home a different way?" she asked. "What's north?"
"Vermont, I think."
"No," she replied. "Vermont is east."
"Northeast," I corrected her.
We walked among the ruins of a faded estate. A part of it had been sold as condos, but the rest was slowly disappearing into the woods.
Deep in the woods, in the middle of a small clearing, a crumpled arch marked the entrance to a little garden. The fountain was full of leaves, and the stone dolphin that had at one time spouted water had dropped onto the cracked mosaic patio and split in half.
"It's a strange place for a garden," she observed.
"I suppose these woods were lawns back then," I surmised.
"It's a sad place," she said. "Do you know any place happy?"
"The game farm," I replied.
"No," I said. "It's better than a zoo. It's a game farm, and the animals run free."
But it was a zoo. My childhood memories had tricked me. And the vast fields that the animals had pranced across when I was five were actually cages now that I saw them again with my adult eyes.
A rhino was trapped on an island the size of a two car garage. We watched sadly as he trotted round and round, wearing a path into the ground that was six inches lower than the surrounding land.
"Let's see the bear show," I suggested.
"Like Clark's Trading Post?" she asked hopefully. "He loved his bears. You could see that."
"This is just like Clark's Trading Post."
Large groups of children sat on bleachers, laughing at the bears. Adults, too. I looked over to see if she was laughing, but she was crying.
"You're safe here," I said gently. "Don't think about what the doctor said."
"I'm not crying for me," she said, pointing. "I'm crying for the bears."
The humiliation. Wild creatures stuffed into pink tutus, riding about on undersized tricycles. Youngsters jeering, throwing popcorn. It wasn't like Clark's. They didn't love their bears here.
I cried, too, but I cried for my wife.
We visited a reproduction fort in town that sold plastic tomahawks. Made in Taiwan. Lacquer-coated photos of leaping trout pasted to the front of cedar slabs said `Welcome To Lake George.' Plastic hula skirts!
"Let's go home," she said.
"Don't you want a ride on the lake first?" I asked.
"No. It might disappoint me," she sighed. "We'll drive north and I'll see the lake from a safe distance."
"Through Vermont," I said.
"That would be east," she replied with a smile. "Not north."
"Northeast." I smiled back.
To Fort Ticonderoga. The Green Mountain Boys. Ethan Allen before he sold furniture. No plastic tomahawks. Quality! We had to stop.
"Look! The family pants." She grinned as she stood before a glass case on the second floor of the historic fort's museum, in the rebuilt officer's barracks.
There they were. They looked just like them—the family pants. Ten generations ago, more or less, my family fought with the British in the French and Indian War. A generation later, we changed sides and fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. The family pants were what remained of those distant conflicts. Originally, there were more than pants: an officer's jacket, a cartridge belt, a sword, a musket. There had been a powder horn; I'd seen that at my grandfather's farm when I was young. Each generation split the heirlooms among their sons, breaking up the set further and further until all that remained for me were the family pants, with blood and a bullet hole in the backside.
Run away. That's what my ancestor had done. Shot in the backside. Run fast, run far, run from danger. You can see it in the pants. It's in my genes. Come, my little family, let us run now from the danger that haunts us.
"Oh, look at that picture," she said. "Why did they do that?"
It was the fort, before reconstruction. Gnarled trees grew from the remnants of the eroding battlements. There were gaping holes and crumbling towers where after the war, the local farmers had pilfered the black stone to build their barns.
We could see by the very darkness that it was a haunted place then. But the dark spirits were now replaced by smiling tourists.
"It wasn't historic back then," I said. "It was an abandoned fort with a good supply of stone."
"I suppose so," she said. "It would be like taking cinder blocks from an abandoned Wal-Mart."
Except Wal-Marts are never abandoned.
We returned home to find that nothing had changed. We could have circled the globe a hundred times. We could have driven on and on, turning down nameless roads that appeared on no maps, kept going and never stopped, but our troubles would still have been with us.
There was no hiding from cancer.
I SENT MY WIFE AWAY. And my child. For a month she stayed with her sister in the suburbs of Boston, and I stayed behind in a house that we no longer thought of as ours. I was a trespasser.
"I'm dying," she said. It was her last day at our old home. Ever. I held her door open as she climbed into our car. "I'm dying, aren't I?"
"Ignore what that doctor said," I replied angrily. "He was a jerk."
He was a jerk. He was upset when the first tests came back and showed no cancer in her bones.
"I can tell by her skin color," he had proclaimed. "She's got cancer in her bones and liver!" But he was wrong about the bones. Nobody can see cancer by your skin color. Go down to the local hardware store and check your arm against the paint samples? If only diagnoses were as easy as that.
"It's in her liver, though. I was right about the liver!" the doctor had shouted jubilantly when the second set of test results came back.
I hadn't hung up the phone yet, but the decision was already made. Send her to Boston. Find a real doctor. What sort of oncologist sets up practice in the sparsely populated woods of northeastern Connecticut anyway? What sort of doctor cheers when he finds cancer?
"Don't listen to that jerk," I cautioned my wife.
She smiled sadly at our daughter sitting safely in a baby carrier, strapped in the car's back seat with a pile of soft stuffed animals.
"You'll live to be a hundred."
She wanted to go to Boston, to be near her family, to die near her family. I wanted her to go to Boston, to find a better doctor, to live near her family. To live to be a hundred.
She stayed with her sister in a house that was full before she got there.
"It's crowded," she said, her voice sounding far-off as she spoke to me through the telephone. "They don't complain, but we're crowding them."
"I'll rent you a house," I replied.
"With a back yard?"
"And a tree," I promised. "We've never had a real tree before."
"And a shady spot to set our hammock," she sighed. "That would be nice."
I found a house, a raised ranch. It had a big back yard. The house was next to the railroad tracks, though. Not just next to the railroad tracks—it was where the tracks crossed the road, and the freight trains had to blast their horns at two A.M. so that people sneaking their cars around the crossing gates would spend their final moments terrified out of their wits by the sound of impending doom.
I stayed behind, living alone in our old house. It was no longer a home. My in-laws had come and taken most of our stuff to Boston so that my wife could be surrounded by all her things.
What remained was a mattress and a portable television. One plate, a fork, and a knife. A toothbrush, an electric shaver, and five pairs of underpants—jockey shorts with the elastics growing weak. Some shirts and pants, and a frying pan.
Even our dog was gone, sent away to live with strangers.
It was Wednesday evening and I couldn't stand the loneliness any longer, so I hopped in my Daytona and drove two hours to the rented house.
"What happened to your hair?" I asked. I hid behind a bouquet of flowers as she opened the front door. She didn't expect me until Friday. Surprise!
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I missed you," I replied. "What happened to your hair?"
I stepped into the rented house and set the flowers on the staircase. Her head was wrapped tight in a red checkered bandanna, like she had been baking.
"I cut it off," she explained.
"I couldn't stand watching clumps of it falling off into my lap," she said sadly. "So I cut it all off."
Adriamycin. 5-FU. Poison the body, kill the cancer, and hope that the patient lives.
Hair falling out—it was good, and it was bad. Bad because every morning, she looked in the mirror and saw, yes, she had cancer. Good because it meant something was happening. If hair cells were dying, cancer cells were dying.
She started to cry.
"But I still love you," I said.
"No, you can't," she sobbed. "One breast is a tight little knot, and the hormones have made me fat. And now I have no hair."
"But I do still love you," I vowed. I watched as more tears welled up in her eyes. But the earlier tears of sadness were washed away now by tears of sullen happiness, tears of subtle love.
I slipped my arms around her waist. We embraced there on the front landing of the rented house, and I couldn't let her go. The face of a happy infant appeared at the top of the staircase, and I smiled up at her.
"How's my little pumpkin been?" I asked.
"Good," my wife replied. "My sister took her most of the day so I could rest."
We climbed the stairs to the living room. I scooped up my daughter and carried her to the center of the room, where I set her down on the pink carpeting. I sat down beside the little girl, and my wife sat on the sofa where she always sat, where she could look out and see the cars go by, carrying people with normal lives off to their daily activities. She picked up a medical book she had been reading and flipped it open.
"She's going to grow up and not remember anything about me." My wife looked up from the medical book, and I could see the tears in her eyes again. She looked lovingly at the child who played beside me on the pink carpeting. "That's the hardest part."
"You won't die," I replied firmly.
"You'll tell her about me, won't you?" She set the medical book aside. She had read it over and over, but nothing in it ever changed.
"Don't read it anymore." I had told her that many times. "They're wrong. You'll live to be a hundred."
She sighed and forced a smile. "Did we sell the house?" she asked, turning her attention outside. Summer. Her favorite time of year, but now she was too sick to enjoy it.
"No," I replied. "The real estate agent says we'll have to drop the price some more."
Did I? Could I? Fifty thousand dollars already sunk in the place and the real estate agent was telling me it was all gone. Pool.
"No," I said. "But I finally told my boss that you were sick."
"You shouldn't have." She continued staring out the window as though the concerns of the living were no longer hers.
"Did he fire you?"
"No," I replied. "He told me to stay as long as I could, to leave when I needed to. `Don't worry about giving two weeks notice,' he said. `Take care of your wife.'"
"That doesn't sound like IBM," she said.
"It makes me sorry to leave," I replied. "But I found a job in Boston. They called me today with an offer."
My wife smiled weakly. She didn't ask how much it paid. It paid half of what I had been making. That was okay. A mortgage on the house, a rental condo losing money, rent on another house, medical bills, a car payment. When your feet no longer touch the bottom, does it matter how deep the water gets?
"Then you'll be moving up here?" she asked hopefully.
"The end of the month," I replied.
"Two weeks," she said.
That was all. Two weeks.
Posted January 26, 2000
This is a wonderful book. By the time you are done reading,you feel as if they are your family. This book faces the real issues of breast cancer from the husband's point of view. You will cry, but I highly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 12, 1999
A beautifully told memoir by a husband who learns on his third wedding anniversary that his wife has advanced breast cancer. Doctors give her just months to live, which stretches to seven years. She¿s able to watch her only child grow up and balances dance recitals and PTA meetings with one therapy after another, including bone marrow harvesting. While she manages the disease, her husband manages the 'zoo' of the medical system: the callous doctors and twisted logic of insurance companies. Through it all, his mantra becomes ¿you'll live to be 100,' while his wife accepts that she will not. Especially good for any couple struggling with terminal cancer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.