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"Spence?"I had been turning the pages of a six-month-old copy of The New Yorker. My colleague and friend, Dr. Elizabeth Simmons, stands before me, her hands fisted in the pockets of her white lab coat. She is smiling, but I'm not fooled.
"What is it?"I ask,standing and nervously rolling the magazine into a tube,which I proceed to tap against the side of one thigh.
"Come on back. Zoe's getting dressed." Liz nods to the sole other patient in the waiting room."I'll be with you in a few minutes," she promises, then holds the door for me that leads to the inner sanctum of her practice. We walk down a long hall, past examining rooms, some open and empty, others with their doors shut, signaling occupancy. Zoe is in one of them and I am tempted to try each door until I find my wife. Instead I follow Liz into her office.
"Have a seat," she says."I'll get Zoe."
Before I can say anything,she's gone,closing the office door behind her with a soft click. I hear the murmur of her voice in conversation with a nurse or assistant as she retraces her steps down the hall. I fight the urge to go after her,grab Zoe and get the hell out of here before Liz can say whatever she clearly does not want to say.
Like Liz, I am a physician and member of the medical faculty at the University of Wisconsin. Like most doctors I am not good at being on the other sideas either a patient or family member. Liz is a gynecologist. I am a psychiatrist. We have often joked that between us we treat the whole personbody and mind. Zoe always reminds us that there's a key third component to any humanthe spirit.
My wife is what many would call a Renaissance womana lawyer bytrade,although she hasn't practiced law in years and that credential only scrapes the surface of all the roles she has assumed in her life.She is endlessly fascinated by the human drama that is inevitable in any gathering of one or more people.She is especially curious in medical settings.Perhaps it's all the years of living with me and listening to my"shoptalk"about patients.
I have watched her take lost souls under her wing and guide them through the chaos that is any hospital emergency room.And more than once I have arranged to meet her in the hospital coffee shop, only to arrive and hear her deeply engrossed in conversation with a stranger whose family member has been admitted for treatment. Once I walked in and found her leading everyone in the place in an impromptu toast to the first-time father who had burst through the door to announce the birth of his son. Everyone is drawn to Zoe.People love her. Trust me,I did not miss the averted but sympathetic looks of Liz's staff as we made that endless walk to her office.
"Old age.It's nothing I haven't experienced before," Zoe told me after I noticed her breathlessness as she climbed the stairs from our boathousea trip she usually made far more easily than I did."I see Liz for my annual checkup day after tomorrow. If it'll make you happy, I'll ask her to schedule a stress test."
"It's not about me," I said peevishly.
Zoe smiled and ruffled my hair. "Oh, Spence, it's always about you," she teased, then added quickly,
"because I love you, and if you're worried"
"Concerned," I corrected.
"Then that's reason enough."
"Thank you." I leaned in to kiss her lips.
"But it's nothing,"she repeated before accepting the kiss. Over nearly four decades of married life, Zoe has almost always gotten the last word.
We agreed to meet at Liz's office at the appointed time.I had arrived twenty minutes early and assured the receptionist that Zoe was on her way. Just as I was beginning to feel a prickle of irritation at Zoe's habitual tardiness, she burst through the door.
As usual she arrived in a whirlwind of activity,balancing magazines for Liz's waiting room with her usual shoulder satchelwhich was always overflowing with folders and lettersas well as her wallet,glasses and cell phone. She was babbling a litany of excusesmeeting ran late, got hung up in traffic, couldn't find her keys.
"Sorry," she said once she'd run out of both words and breath.The singular word, accompanied by a genuinely apologetic smile, swept through the waiting room to include the receptionist,the other patient and me. Zoe sat down next to me, arranged the magazines on a side table and unbuttoned her light denim jacket with the word Joy embroidered down one sleeve.
"No problem,"the receptionist replied,absolving Zoe of all responsibility."She's running a little behind."
"She's worth waiting for," Zoe assured the young woman sitting across from us.The woman responded to this announcement with a blank stare.
"Dr.SimmonsLiz,"Zoe explained."I'd trust her with my life." Then she laughed and squeezed my hand.
"Actually, I already have. I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly five years ago and look at me now."
There is no denying that Zoe is the picture of health, glowing with a zest for life that belies her sixty years. Her skin is smooth and the pinkish tint of her cheeks along with the pixie cut of her hair make her appear a decade younger than her chronological age of sixty-two.When Zoe's hair came back as snow-white instead of the brown of her youth,she was delighted."Gives me character, don't you think?"
The young woman's eyes widened with interest."It's my first appointment,"she admitted, then laughed nervously."I like your jacket,"she added after a brief pause.
Zoe grinned."Tag-sale purchase,"she said."One of my treasures."
"Oh, I know," the young woman replied, clearly relieved to have settled on a topic of conversation other than medicine and doctors."I furnished my entire apartment from stuff I got at garage and estate sales."
I've often thought that Zoe's personality should be considered for use as a weapon to disarm terrorists. Once she focuses her attention on you, she is impossible to resist. Complete strangers tell her things about themselves in that first half hour that they are loath to tell their dearest friends.
"I found thisthing," the young woman confided, lowering her voice and gently touching her own chest.
"It's probably nothing but " She blushed.
Zoe moved her chair closer to the young woman and took her hand."And even if it's something,"she assured the young woman,"the cure rate is really in your favor. You did the right thing scheduling this appointment."
She passed the woman a tissue and continued to stroke her hand,while I flipped through my magazine.
"Mrs.Andersen?" Liz's nurse has known Zoe almost as long as Liz has but maintains decorum in the office.
Zoe headed for the door."There's a sale Saturday at one of the churches on Johnson Street,"she said to the young woman."Maybe I'll run into you there."
The young woman smiled.I got up to accompany my wife into the exam room, but she stopped me with a quick kiss on my cheek."Susie will get you once we get past the physical, won't you, Susie?"
Liz's nurse grinned."This wouldn't be about your not wanting your husband to be present at the weighing in, would it?" she asked, and I heard the music of Zoe's laughter as the two of them disappeared down the hall and the door to the waiting room swung closed behind them. I checked my watch and then settled in to await my summons.
But I realize now as I pace Liz's office, rhythmically tapping the rolled magazine against my palm,that from the moment Zoe disappeared behind that closed door I felt uneasy. As if I were the one who had trouble getting my breath. Zoe and I are certainly no strangers to tough times, and something about this whole scenario is all too familiar. On the other hand, Zoe would laugh if she could see me now."And you counsel patients with anxiety issues?" she would say.
Liz's office is on the tenth floor of a professional building near the heart of campus and offers a bird's-eye view of some of the landmarks that are unique to Madison, Wisconsin.From the corner window, I make out the dome of the State Capitol building, reflecting the bright afternoon sun in the distance.Then I allow my eye to follow the length of State Streeta pedestrian shopping street that Zoe loves to frequent, lined with an assortment of merchants peddling everything from upscale clothing to trendy beverages toT-shirts and other logo-enhanced paraphernaliato where State Street ends and the campus of the University of Wisconsin begins.Zoe,born and raised in Manhattan,nevertheless considers this small midwestern city,with its unique mix of youth and politics,home.
Liz's office affords a magnificent view of several of the oldest buildings on campus set along the shore of Lake Mendota.Today the calm blue water is speckled with the colorful sails of windsurfers and a few kayaks. Below me is the Memorial Union, with its popular terracea tiered outdoor gathering place cluttered with its trademark jumble of colorful metal chairs and café tables.
I'm mesmerized by the terrace,lost in memory,when I hear voices outside the door and turn to see Liz and an abnormally subdued Zoe enter the room.My heart goes into overdrive as I step around Liz's desk and take Zoe's hands.She's dry-eyed,but her smile wavers as she sits in one of the chairs facing Liz's desk.My knees feel suddenly filled with water and I collapse into the remaining chair.
Liz assumes her place at her desk and fumbles with her computer, bringing up Zoe's medical records."I'm scheduling a few more tests," she begins.
"Just tell me," I demand between gritted teeth.
"The cancer's back,"Zoe says,stroking my hand with her thumb."It's spread."
"Let's not" Liz begins.
"Where?" I ask again.
"A spot on my lung,"Zoe says, then clears her throat and smiles."Guess that shortness-of-breath thing was a wake-up call. At least it's not just old age." Her voice cracks on the last word.
I focus my attention on Liz, studying every nuance of her expression."Prognosis?"
Liz blows out a breath she might have been holding in anticipation of a question she really doesn't want to answer."Spence, you know that I can't"
"Best guess," I say.
"Definitely treatable," she replies.
I have built my entire practice out of counseling patients suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. More than once I have heard them describe the kind of terror that is a physical reality,clawing at your insides until you think you can't endure it.In that instant in Liz's office, I finally understand what they mean.
I realize that my eyes are shut tight. When I open them, Zoe is on her knees next to my chair, her hand slowly massaging the length of my back."Whatever it is, we can deal with it," she says, and I notice her voice has dropped a register. It's raspy with her fear.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, here," Liz advises.
"I've set up more tests.They can run them today if you like and I can push through the results. Or if you'd like to take a few days to digest this "
"Let's gather all the facts," Zoe says.
Liz stands. "Susie will get everything set up for you. I wish"
"I know." Zoe stands, as well, and gives Liz an awkward hug across the expanse of Liz's cluttered desk.
"I have other patients."Liz is apologetic.I see that she is fighting to control her emotions."But I'll stop by the house tonight and we can talk some more, okay?"
"Of course." Zoe glances around the office."Should we just go on over to the hospital?" The uncertain waver has returned to her smile and permeated her voice,and I realize that for all her bravado,Zoe is every bit as scared as Liz and I are for her.
Liz nods,unable to make a sound.Then she hugs me and flees the room.
Zoe and I focus on the closed door, dimly aware of Liz's muffled instructions to Susie,the distant sound of a passing fire engine and the soothing splash of the small fountain in the corner of Liz's office.
Without a word, Zoe puts on her denim jacket, the embroidered Joy mocking us now. She hooks the strap of her bag over one shoulder and laces her fingers through mine as she starts for the door with the determination of a soldier headed into battle.
Zoe I can practically hear the wheels grinding in Spence's brain as he drives me across campus to the hospital complex.As a psychiatristthe bestI know that trying to figure out ways to get us both through this is as natural to him as breathing. He returned from Vietnam determined to complete his residency in short order and then devote his practice to establishing a center for counseling veterans,especially those returning from 'Nam. Because of all that he had seen and experienced over there in the relative safety of a medical unit, Spence was eager to help his comrades in arms get through reentry into "the world."
"You're right.We'll go at this one step at a time,"he says to me now, and I understand that he is talking more to himself than to me."It's one spot,right? Caught early "
I reach over and lay my hand on his knee."I'm not worried about the tests,"I tell him."After all,it's nothing I haven't been through before."
He concentrates on the road ahead.I notice how his hands grip the steering wheel correctly, positioned at ten and two, the way he taught the kids to drive."Last time," he begins, and his voice cracks. He clears his throat."Last time we caught it early," he says.
"Hey," I say softly, moving my hand to the back of his neck and rubbing it to ease some of the tenseness that is visible in the hunch of his shoulders. "It is what it is."