I am a cancer patient; I am sitting in a square room with all the other cancer patients. In the center of the room there’s a large fish tank where fish with human faces swim. The patients around me are in every imaginable state of decay. One is on a stretcher attached to a mobile IV. A man in a wheelchair dozes, his scalp a bright scabby red. A klatch of men with oxygen tanks and blue kerchiefs sit in a corner looking like biker dudes. Then there are those like me: women wearing synthetic hair, clinging to appearances. We read books or magazines, catch up on Julia Roberts’s latest problems, do office work just like we are waiting for the dentist. Our breasts are bare or maimed beneath cotton print smocks, our expensive jewelry is still on.
This is the Cox Ward of Massachusetts General Hospital, Radiation Oncology division. It’s as busy as Grand Central Station, a state‑of‑the‑art facility. Even those of us with illusions, we know: if we can’t be cured here, we can’t be cured anywhere.
I am lying flat on a table with a two million dollar machine looming above me. The radiation technicians tattoo my breast in six places, tiny green tattoo marks they assure me won’t be visible on my upcoming wedding day. My favorite doctor, Dr. Powell, soccer fanatic from Manchester, England, struts in quickly to oversee the mapping operations.
“How about that Leeds United!” he exclaims. My fiancé’s home team is making news among soccer diehards.
We’ve settled on soccer as the best topic of conversation, under the circumstances. Our first meeting, we talked about the odds of my survival. He gave me an 85%, then looked up suspiciously, like a little boy who’s just been asked a trick question: “Why, did you ask Dr. Younger already? What did Younger say?”
Jerry Younger, my oncologist, is an imposing figure with gray hair and downcast eyes. I can never resist trying to make him laugh because he always looks so low. When he walked in on us this first time I said, this cancer, it’s a blow to my ego. I’ve never received less than 90% on anything in my life. The two men smiled, taken aback that I could joke at such a time. Oh, I can always joke. It’s what you don’t say that’s hard.
In private, I imagine I am in a crowd of one hundred women. Fifteen of us will be chosen. I continually reposition myself among the hundred, hoping to hide, to get lost in the crowd. I try the same scene with only ten of us being chosen, then five. It never feels any better.
On Blossom Street there’s a very black man in a blue MGH jacket pacing languidly on the sidewalk. He is calling out directions to the valets, and they are dashing back and forth parking cars. Everything around this man is a blur of activity, yet he looks calm. Why does he look so calm, like he’s moving in a different atmosphere from the rest of us? Occasionally he hugs someone coming in or out of Cox. His name is Macallum Moore. Strange name for a black man. Mac tells me that his mother wanted to name him something “unusual.” Later, I will have the eerie feeling that Mac is an angel.
Today they give me a patient card that has a bar code on it. I slide the card through a sort of ATM machine, which lets the technicians know I’ve arrived. I change into a cotton robe and take a seat in the waiting room. In another few days I will begin to recognize people: the young man in a perpetual sweat, always neatly dressed in slacks and button down shirt, the man next to him, who must be his father. The woman with half a normal face; the other half is drooped and blind. Her husband sits next to her.
Volunteers in hot pink jackets offer us drinks, but I develop an instant aversion to them. They are always interrupting our conversations with their pinched little smiles and offers of insipid sodas or coffee.
Why I don’t like the volunteers probably has to do with the tepidness of their niceness, the generic nature of it. We notice the difference between people with jobs to do and people who unbidden will hand you a little piece of their souls.
Already, even on my first day of treatment, the waiting room has begun to divide into patients and their companions. Of course, I recognize the usefulness of the companions, but I don’t need company now as I did when Gwen with the voodoo doll pin pushed cylinders of Kool‑Aid red liquid into my veins with purple gloves, to protect herself from even the tiniest spill.
No, I don’t want the niceness of the volunteers, I don’t even want compassion. I just want to get in and out of here as quickly as possible. I’m not envious of the company the companions provide—I’m envious of their health. We, the sick ones, have lost what they take for granted—a future tense. We must continually steal shreds of it from our awareness of the odds, from our wounded capacity for denial, from our dreams. Of course we’re jealous. Sometimes, if we did not recognize how good they were to be here at all, we would hate them.
Take a number, any number. Mine is #5, which refers to Machine #5, a million‑dollar mama that zaps the hell out of brain, breast, and lung tumors. My technologists are Karen, Gidget, Mary Ann, and Tami. With the exception of Karen, who is large‑built and fair, these women at first all look alike to me. It does not help that they move so quickly, swarming around me with a practiced efficiency, adjusting my body on the gurney, the plates in the machine. They cradle my left arm above my head, pull me left or right by a roll of skin, like I’m an Akita pup. They call out numbers to each other from across the room. When they have everything just right they say, “All right, don’t move. We’ll be right back.” One of them puts on a Frank Sinatra CD, which I make a mental note to complain about next time. It had been dark and cozy in here; now they switch on all the overhead lights and scurry out, leaving me to stare up at the dinosaur stickers placed on the ceiling for the children.
I say hello to Mac, whose name I don’t even know yet, and he surprises me with a hug.
“How’re you feelin’?” he asks, with an unmistakable Caribbean cadence. “You’ll be okay,” he nods and pats me on the back. I think, grouchily, How could he possibly know I’m going to be okay? Maybe I have one month to live. But I will soon learn to trust what Mac tells me. Mac knows things. I don’t know how he knows them, but he does.
Downstairs, there’s the sweating boy again with his father and the woman with the drooping face. Her haw has begun to fall out in patches. Today, they smile radiantly at me. I get to chatting with them, and the boy volunteers that he has a tumor the size of a football in his chest, inoperable. The woman doesn’t volunteer her diagnosis, but I guess it is a brain tumor. Some of the other patients I will get to know by sight will never make eye contact with me, keeping their attention focused on their magazines. Others will meet my eyes only when I am wearing my wig, not when I am bald.
I am beginning to get the hang of this. I position my body quickly on the table, remember to ask Mary Beth to forego Frank Sinatra, and hear rather than see the shocked silence.
“You don’t like Frank?” she says from behind me.
I worry that I’ve lost points with Mary Beth just as Tami puts on Sean “Puffy” Combs. The lights come on and they leave the room as fast as lemmings.
As I wait for the loud electric buzz I wonder whether they turn the lights on as a way of indicating to others that there’s radiation in the room. Too dangerous for passersby. Not, however, too dangerous for me.
An older woman who is finishing treatment today is handing out the most sinfully delicious cookies. They’re pink butter cookies shaped like hearts and they’ve got butter cream frosting slathered on them. I could eat a dozen, but limit myself to two since—stubborn vanity!—I am trying to lose weight for my upcoming wedding. You’d think chemotherapy would make you thin but no—if anything, it puffs you up with fluid. What’s more, when the days of intense nausea end you’re ready to eat roast suckling pig off a slow-turning spit.
When the woman leaves she waves to everyone. Good luck to you! God bless you! She walks out happy and grateful—but what will be her fate? In my present state of mind, I can allow no one a spotless future.
It is a warm morning and I leave my wig at home. This morning Mac greets me with a hug and tells me I took pretty. I am bald as an egg but I have put on earrings and some lipstick. Mac makes me smile. Still holding onto my hand (has he forgotten he is holding it?) he tells me about a rich, well‑dressed, lady who came to Cox for treatment One day when it was very windy (Blossom street is always cold and windy) her wig blew right off and scuttled under a car. Mac trotted off to. get it for her but she just laughed and laughed. “Forget it,” she told him. “Leave it there.”
As for me and Olivia, as I call her, we have a strange and not entirely loving relationship. Olivia is one of two wigs I own. The first, whom I despised almost from the beginning is Lydia. Lydia is a blonde. She is pure human hair and cost over a thousand dollars. But her hair is coarse and scratchy, and makes me itch. What’s more, Lydia’s hair is so straight and thick that she makes me look like an orthodox Jew—a pale northern Jew with a low, dim forehead.
Olivia I picked up on the cheap and I’m glad I did because she’s very comfortable. Peter, my fiancé, thinks she’s “sexy as hell but a bit of a bitch.” She’s a gingersnap brunette styled in a pixyish flapper‑style bob, and when I wear her my blue eyes pop out, and my skin glows as white as the glass of poisoned milk Cary Grant carries up to Joan Fontaine. I don’t think you can easily tell it is a wig—but it looks obvious to me.
We go out to The Tuscan Grille with some friends. It’s a difficult evening because, while I’m happy to see my friends, I’m getting these drenching hot flashes one after another. I feel like ripping Olivia off my head and throw her onto the chef’s expensive Thermador grill. Grilled wig con funghi!
I’ve been offered a freelance job and must tell the group about it, since it will prevent me from getting zapped (a short-hand that sends proud Dr. Powell into a frenzy whenever I use it) at 1:10, as we have scheduled. The women whom I have begun to distinguish from one another—are excited for me. They already know my occupation because every morning last week I complained about the book review I was writing that I could not get right even after eight drafts.
The job turns out to be only a brief respite from our dire financial straits. What’s more, it is miserably stressful. Before I know it, I’m in this swank advertising agency in Concord and it’s nine p.m. and snowing hard outside, and I have to pretend to feel like I am filled with creative inspiration about some high‑tech gizmo and not dying on my feet. The truth is, I’m in no shape to work. My brain is damp and muffled, a small place stuffed with rags. My body rains sweat at the slightest hint of stress. Half a dozen young assistants offer me whatever I want—computer, books, phone, coffee—but I just can’t work like this, no matter how much they pay me.
After two days, they don’t ask me back and I don’t ask to return. Surely they sense that something is not quite right about me,, that my hair is too perfect, that I am too pale and sweaty, that my eyes shine not eagerness but fear?
Now that I can finally tell my ladies apart, I must admit I’m getting a crush on them all. Karen strikes me as so mature and efficient, with a lovely sense of competence, yet not the least bit bossy. Mary Beth, a big girl in the boob department (get ‘em checked, Mary Beth) looks like a cross between Mama Cass and a communist, with her long, brown hair and thick black‑rimmed glasses. She is always radiating (no pun intended) good will. She seems less complicated than Karen, but I could be, wrong. And Gidget, perhaps the warmest and most childlike of the group, bustles around machine #5 with awesome mastery, and I keep thinking: what mother names her girl Gidget?
When they hear about the job Karen gently suggests that this is “perhaps not the optimal time” to be under such stress. We get to talking about a book I am working on and of course they want to know what it’s about. As always, our conversation takes place in the few minutes during which they adjust my body, and is truncated by three minute-long flights from the room. I try to make the book sound interesting, but that’s a tall order even when I’m not being interrupted. Even so, henceforth my four loyal fans will always ask me how it’s coming.
I am happy that Mary Beth does not seem to be holding my dislike of Frank Sinatra against me. Once more they want to know about the book’s progress, but when I reveal that I am getting married in seven weeks all literary discussion ends and loud shouts erupt from room #5. They want to know every last detail.
Again our conversation is truncated by the coming of the bright florescent lights overhead, the hasty departure of human life, the expectant pause, then the long, lazy buzz, like the sound of a fly trapped in a window. There are moments, increasingly frequent, when I can actually feel the radiation, a deep twinge of pain. I lie there and think, randomly: of Macallum Moore and his unearthly ease, the boy with the football‑sized tumor, the woman with half a face. I think of the victim of Hiroshima, of their belated blackening. Of my mother’s own breast cancer, about which she has never once complained. The question mark of my end, my imagination perversely striving to go as close to it as possible, like Icarus to the sun. Except, of course, that instead of light it’s darkness my mind aspires toward. Over and over I imagine my final moments, replaying them until the whole scene should become comfortable, familiar. For I have this idea that only acceptance can release one from anguish and fear
I admit it: I’m a bit in love with Dr. Powel. And why not? He’s adorable. He’s got this troll‑like, dark little face with dark, sly eyes and a mordant wit, as precise as his profession. We talk about Manchester City and Leeds United, me pretending to know far more about British soccer than I do. The conversation is thus fairly brief. Then on to the hidden virtues of talcum powder, and the possibility of becoming burned on my back—where the electrons exit, he explains. The idea doesn’t bear dwelling upon.
Once a week, I see Dr. Powell. I must wait to see him after my radiation, and it displeases me to have to sit in a hospital robe even after I have finished on #5. I decide that from now on I won’t wear the hospital robe. After all, I think childishly, they can’t make me. It’s mortifying enough that I have no hair, and I think: we start to take control in militant fashion, even if it’s only over tiny things.
I know all the magazines, have read them cover to cover. The trials and tribulations of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; George Bush’s First 30 Days. I have even begun to recognize the tropical fish.
I look around: the men with oxygen tanks are still there in the corner of the waiting room. They’re hunched over, like they could be playing poker: but really they are just trying to breathe. Few people today meet my eyes and no one seems inclined to talk. I watch the fish swim around in the tank.
Every time I sit in this waiting room, I wonder: who among us will live, who will die? It’s impossible to tell just from looking, although the gray men with the tanks do not inspire confidence. Nor does the small, young man with the wife twice his girth. His color is wrong. It is not a human color—not flesh or even white but a kind of black‑green. His color suggests to me that he has not long to live. When he coughs, he can’t catch his breath. It’s painful to listen to him, but we all pretend not to hear. He takes his wife’s hand and places it on his back, so she can rub in gentle circles.
If I am early, which I try not to be, I avoid the waiting room. I stroll over to the gift shop, looking neither right nor left but dead on, straight past blowup photographs of women surviving metastatic disease, meant to uplift the seriously ill. I browse the jewelry, the hats, buy myself a piece of chocolate.
Between distractions, I wait for the burn, but as yet it hasn’t happened. I have pretty much despaired of ever having a serviceable left breast, whom Peter calls “Leftie.” The nipple is sore and too tight and cannot bear any touching. My doctors think it looks fantastic; they don’t see what I feel.
I don’t much care that I will be burned, but it is not pleasant to wait for pain. I’m diligent with talcum powder and to pass the time I read. Big, engrossing books like Fortune’s Rocks, which I have begun to discuss with Karen and Mary Beth. They are reading it in their reading group. As we discuss the book, I am once more struck by my new friends’ humor, intelligence, and elegant economy of movement. I like not just how they move but the way they talk to each other, the rhythm of it—words used only as necessary, in punctuated fashion, words made important by the dearth of time.
There is a new person in the waiting room. Within minutes of seeing her, I know she is different from the rest. She’ is a large woman with the familiar pale, puffy features. She has a blue bandanna tied around her head and looks in her mid to late forties. She is chatting amicably with a friend and with the boy and his father.
I listen in, as I am sitting right next to her. I hear her tell the story of how they found the lung tumor and how, going in to take care of that, they found the one in her brain.
“So the radiation is for your brain?” I ask, stupidly. But the great thing about cancer patients is that they’re pretty non-judgmental. What’s more, if they’re talking in a group of more than two, you are free to join in.
Her name is Mary Ann, and she’s a third grade teacher from Lincoln, Massachusetts.
“See,” she said to me, pulling off her bandana, revealing a full, thick head of hair, oddly bald in spots. “My hair even grew back.”
“Then why are you wearing a bandana? Gosh I would kill for some hair like that,” I say.
“I don’t want to get too attached to it,” she says ruefully.
“You mean, the radiation makes it fall out?”
She nods, though I know that hair is the least of Mary Ann’s problems.
It is just moments later that I receive the news: Mary Ann had breast cancer, too. Or, as she puts it, “Oh, that’s what I had, too! Originally.” She says it excitedly, like she’s just found out we come from the same home town.
On this, Treatment Day 10, I discover why so many of the others keep silently to their magazines.
Mary Ann can see the adrenalin ricochet through my body. She reaches her hand out to steady me, lets it rest on my forearm.
“Oh, honey, this won’t happen to you. I’m one in a hundred.”
I go home cursing myself for speaking to “those damned patients.”
“She probably didn’t have chemotherapy,” my sister said reassuringly. “Put it out of your mind. That’s not going to be you.”
But why isn’t it going to be me? Because I’m a fantastic person? Well spoken? Highly intelligent?
So is Mary Ann.
This, then, was the myopia that has you saying, “but I’m so ME! I am the center of everything. I can’t disappear.”
Oh, but you can.
To rub up with this blunt truth is cause enough for depression. But after some thought, the idea began to console me. For, while the world may lose me—and while I may lose myself—if the world itself doesn’t disappear and I am not in fact the center of things (an idea that I must at least entertain) then all is not lost. My son will have his life, and his children will have theirs. It’s not really necessary to the world, after all, that I exist
But it’s necessary to me! the ego cries.
All this thinking doesn’t get me very far. Still, Mary Ann’s generosity would linger with me far after the fear had passed.
She is not in the waiting room today, and I sigh with relief. She is my worst nightmare. From now on, I will look twice before I enter the waiting room. I do the usual strip, put my clothes in a locker, change into a robe. I search for a magazine I haven’t read—no easy task.
I try and fail to make eye contact with a woman wearing a straight blonde wig and sensible but expensive Ferragamo pumps, but she won’t look up from her magazine. I know she can feel my eyes on her, so her unwillingness to meet my eyes is deliberate. Another woman, slightly younger than me in a short brown wig, looks like a woman I met in infusion. I decide to take the risk.
“Haven’t we met?” I begin. “In Infusion?”
She shakes her head.
“You’re not married to Wayne?”
“No, I’m married to Jack.”
Jack’s wife goes back to her reading without giving me her name. Like everything else under this electric sun, our personal space either dissolves altogether or becomes absolute.
My brother and sister‑in‑law have come to visit. I am delighted to see them but worried I won’t have energy for them.
Nancy wants to be helpful. She comes with me to radiation and makes fast friends with Mac. She buys me a week of parking so I don’t have to run up for my pass each day.
After radiation, we stroll down Charles Street, where I find my wedding band in one of the antiques stores. We agree to bring Peter back to see it. It’s a simple patterned platinum band, just my size. While there, I spy a beautiful silver ladle and point it out to Nancy. We find Peter a Valentine’s gift and have lunch together. Back on the street, Nancy lights up a cigarette and I say something about tempting fate. She’s not happy with my comment. She rattles off the names of everyone in her family who has died of cancer, as if it is a club she hopes to join. I finally cut her short.
“Enough, Nancy. Enough.”
How can people think that a cancer patient wants to hear about all the people they know who’ve died of cancer? And yet, “Cancer Deaths I Have Known” is often the first piece of information people share. I suppose it’s their way of trying to connect, the closest they’ve come to the experience first-hand. Even as they speak, terror coils up tighter inside you.
The gift of tact—for isn’t that the ability to think before speaking?—can be found in surprising places. For example, my mother has been exceedingly tactful with me over the past few months. In all this time she hasn’t said one wrong or harmful thing. Her maternal desire to protect me from harm, never before strong enough to inhibit her own poison-dipped tongue, has prevailed. Now when my mother speaks to me she calls me “sweetheart” and “darling,” words I have never in my life heard before. My father, gifted but normally obstreperous, has likewise been a model of restraint. In fact, after I broke the news to him he just said, “All right, so is that all?”
Having siblings, I of course hear snippets of what goes on behind closed doors, my parents’ private suffering. Like how my father cried the day Peter shaved my head. This was hard. The thought of my eighty-five-year-old father weeping was very hard to bear.
Unlike my parents, who had never known tact before, my poor sister-in-law, normally quite alert to the faux pas, has said all the wrong things almost from the beginning—a verbal Vaudevillian comedy of errors. When I first told her of my diagnosis she joked that every year she asks the doctor checking her breasts if she is “going to live another year.” Sometimes I think she is so afraid of saying the wrong thing that she does so just to relieve her tension.
But there are worse things than tactlessness. There are those who so are so afraid to speak that they say nothing. They avoid you, or if they must see you, they avoid the subject. And this silence is the worst thing, silence and having to pretend that nothing has changed, when in fact nothing is the same.
We all go back to the antiques store together, and Peter agrees that the ring is lovely and buys it for me. I go to show him the ladle but someone has already bought it, a fact that disappoints me although I know we have no money for such luxuries.
In the car, Nancy reveals a stash of candy. She’s got them tucked away in a bag like they’re a First Aid kit: chocolate‑coated orange jellies from Trader Joe’s, jelly beans, salted nuts. I am both envious and shocked. I am used to an ascetic life by comparison. But secretly I make a note to find those same little candies at Trader Joe’s and buy them for myself. They remind me of my childhood, the simple delight of colorful candy. Perhaps that’s why Nancy likes them, too.
Matt and Nancy have left, and the house feels too quiet and lonely. I am halfway through my treatment, and still no symptoms except a lingering fatigue.
On the way to my appointment, I stop at Trader Joe’s and buy the orange and raspberry chocolate sticks. The raspberry ones in particular are totally addictive. But I quickly realize my mistake and when I get home give one entire container to my son.
I bring an assortment of the little treats to MGH and present them to Karen and Gidget. The candy cements our friendship right then and there. They take a few, then put them in a cabinet in the treatment room. I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to get zapped, since the only image I can think of, and which I know is inaccurate, is that I’m a slab of meat inside a huge microwave. But surely the beams are far more focused than that.
My skin is beginning to tan from breastbone to armpit to the base of my neck. If it just stays tan I’ll be lucky. The novel is nearly finished. I am racing to get it done so I can give it to my friends, for somewhere along the line they have offered to read it in their reading group. It is an offer I accept, for unclear motives. Is it heavy? they want to know. At the end of their day, they don’t want anything heavy. They want a good story. I hope mine is a good story, wondering even as they say the words what such a thing might be.
Mary Ann is in the waiting room this morning, this time with a different friend. Her face lights up when she sees me, and in a split second I make the decision to sit next to her even though I don’t want to. There must be no trace of indecision, for we patients are alert to ambivalence. Somehow, I am able to steer the conversation where I have wanted it to go for several weeks: back three years in time, to her original diagnosis. She knows why I want to know.
Mary Ann says she had been diagnosed at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. Her tumor was .8 centimeters upon discovery. She points to a place at the top of her left breast. No trace of lymph node involvement An excellent prognosis. And then, what I had secretly longed to hear: no chemo.
“I begged them to give me chemotherapy,” she says. “Begged them. They said I didn’t need it.”
I just shake my head, ashamed of my relief.
Mary Ann talks about her brain tumor and upcoming surgery. As always, her very existence moves me, as if we share a skin. Her presence makes me think about good and evil, and states of grace: What is the best we can attain? Not in the sense of achievement, but in our humanity?
Breathing in unison next to Mary Ann, I decide that it must be this seemingly infinitesimal movement one soul can make toward another, this invisible but morally gargantuan impulse to draw closer to another living being. To lend comfort and solace, share a moment of humor, or regret, or just the profound commonality of being alive at the same time in history. This moment with Mary Ann is as good as we get. And nobody in the waiting room even notices.
At the sinister end the spectrum, we patients likewise chill on contact with another’s coldness. Like the young Asian car salesman man who saw me swerve into his Acura dealership’s parking lot at 60 mph and told me to move my car or they would tow it. He saw how I trembled with my narrow escape. The car had suddenly died in transit, had no power. But he repeated his threat to me and I thought this man has no chance of getting into Heaven.
Now, I don’t believe in Heaven, but if there’s some kind of cosmic retribution, I hope the unworthy get their due. Peter, who is a believer, wants to know how it is I think I can know which people these are, and I say without hesitation: I know. It is the one who has never ventured beyond the false safety of his own skin.
I think of the psychopath in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, the one named the Misfit who chats with the grandmother a while before shooting her in the head. “She would of been a good woman,” he says almost plaintively, “if only she’d had a gun to her head every day of her life.” We patients in the Cox waiting room—we’ve got guns to our heads, and in our grief we become good and beautiful.
It makes me recall the month before my diagnosis, when I found out that my ex‑husbands wife had melanoma. I had formerly despised this woman—she had once, after A been the other woman. But when I heard the news I trembled, and the next day I drove to her house and we cried in each other’s arms and I told her I didn’t want her to die. She said she didn’t want to die, either. Then we walked together with my son, whom she has always loved, along the beach. I had cancer then, too, but I didn’t know it. And all this winter, she has rung me up after every infusion, the most faithful of my callers.
My hair has grown in sufficiently so that in ‑all but job interview situations I am able to go wigless. Today I’ve got an interview so I put Olivia on with a black skirt, a blue knit top, black lace jacket, and chunky platform shoes. The interview is downtown and afterwards when I arrive at the hospital I am in a drenching sweat. I have begun to feel occasional moments of really crushing fatigue as well, and this is one of them.
On Blossom Street I tear off my wig. I am literally standing on the sidewalk with Olivia dangling by my side, fuzzy head exposed. Even so, Mac’s eyes widen when he sees me and he hugs me to him, tells me I look beautiful. He is standing with a young friend, a handsome black man, and says, “Isn’t she pretty. She’s so pretty.” The other man smiles, and I am not sure if he agrees or not. To him, I must look pale and old.
My wedding is in six weeks, and I have begun the last mad quest for accessories. In the MGH gift shop, I spy a string of blue pearls. They’re expensive, but I put them on the “maybe” list. The wedding plans have intensified, and they’re an effective distraction. I wonder, though: what will happen after the wedding? What thoughts will then protect me from those other thoughts, that place in my mind to which I have already decided it is not wise to go, and yet toward which I keep drifting?
Karen, Gidget, and Mary Beth insist on having all the details as they evolve. What dress I’ll be wearing, the food, where we’ll go for our honeymoon. I enjoy telling my new friends about the wedding.
The weekend is hot and clear, and I spend it scraping 140 years of paint off our front door. It’s a grueling, dirty task, but I am less afraid of it than I would formerly have been. What’s a little lead paint when you have cancer? Friends, neighbors, and strangers pass by and smile at me in my mask and near‑bald head. Some actually stop and talk. Do they look at my hair and wonder? A friendly young woman asks me how treatment is going. Try as I might I cannot remember having ever met this woman before, or having told her my story. It’s disconcerting.
It’s Marathon day in Boston, and I let myself get pulled into the excitement. I live just two houses away from the route on Commonwealth Avenue. Thousands line the avenue, eagerly awaiting the sleek frontrunners. Across the street is a group of children all in yellow MGH T‑shirts, kerchiefs over their bald heads. I feel my arm reaching out to them, waving as if to compatriots of a secret land.
Today is the first of the last five visits with my beloved group. I am two days away from giving them my manuscript, but I don’t tell them that. I’m so broke I don’t even have the money to copy it, and my printer’s too decrepit to survive such a copy orgy. But what choice do I have? Copy it I will, and worry about where the money would come from later.
Each day we grow more excited and nervous about our wedding. We spend hours anxiously looking for last minute items. We argue about things like what tie he will wear; I buy several pairs of expensive shoes before settling on one pair of satin sling‑backs. I make a mental note to tell Maria, our caterer, not to overcook the pork. My son, Alex, still needs a suit and shoes, but I do manage to find him a handsome French‑cuff shirt.
My life is coming to fruition, even as it may be coming to a close. (Peter says I am being melodramatic, but it isn’t melodrama. Its the ironic mode, that harsh light my electric sun casts on everything.) In some ways I have never been happier: There’s this gorgeous man in my bed with a gleam in his eye despite my baldness. Every day when my son returns from school I want to snuggle him like a baby even though he is taller than his mother. I will have to learn to work with this: the fitness of life irrespective of its duration. I will learn to live like a mathematician, fashioning eternity from the halves of every distance.
Still, I can easily make myself distraught. I look at these beloved beings in my life and think; how will I be able to leave them? I cannot leave them. Not now, not in mindfulness. No, no, no, no.
This is the loop that tightens: the happier I am, the sadder I become at the thought of the loss.
I am saying this over a beer in a restaurant To lighten the heaviness of the moment, Peter, too enters the ironic mode:
“Your happiness makes you sad.”
I know he is only pretending not to understand; he has understood me perfectly.
When I get to Cox loaded down with all the manuscripts, I am dismayed to discover that neither Karen nor Mary Beth is in. Gidget, staring at the boxes in my arms, looks delighted but busy, and promises that the others will get their manuscripts the following day. I leave them on the counter, next to the monitor, which shows the skull of the human being presently lying on table #5’s gurney. I feel—not envy, exactly, but loss all the same. I take a seat in the waiting room, uneasy at the dichotomy between myself as triumphant author on the one hand and vulnerable patient on the other. In the waiting room, I’m just another fuzzy‑headed woman in an ill‑fitting gown with a scar on her breast, which is beginning to burn.
The thing about getting so close to the sun is this: suddenly, what once seemed glamorous looms rudely with all its ruts and pits. Money, even a lot of money, can no longer compensate for time. Still, I do want many material things: an addition we have planned for the house with a fireplace in the master bedroom. A sun room with French doors leading out to a rose‑covered patio. A little cottage in Maine. But do I want these things badly enough to write about cell phones for the remainder of my life?
All at once, I’m at sixes and sevens. While I desperately need a job, I suddenly, just as desperately, want to stay home and lead a life of the mind, pure and unencumbered. I want to continue to write and to come to some kind of agreement with death and tend my family and garden. And this is all I want to do. In sickness, I have become as ascetic as St. Francis of Assisi.
Peter understood about happiness making one sad, but he truly doesn’t understand this. He watches me silently as I work in my basement study surrounded by scant light and exposed electrical wires and dripping water pipes, and he tells me I need to get out of the house, that I’ll go crazy if I don’t. And maybe I do, and will. But I don’t feel the need. I’m plenty busy right inside my head with my laptop propped up on a zip code book. I am very busy! But my work is invisible to others. All the Important things are Invisible.
This is my last day on Machine #5. I am very sad, consoled only by the thought that I will see my friends again in a month’s time. I realize now that I planned it that way, used the book as a means to see them and not the other way around. For five weeks these have been my daily fare: their quick, intermittent conversation, grown more familiar and personal over the weeks; their touch as they arrange my body on the gurney; the sound of their voices calling out numbers and vectors to one another above my head as they adjust lenses and angles. It is not ideal not life as I have ever known it. But at the moment, it is the only life I know. And I am not a little uneasy at what lies outside of it, beyond my electric sun.
The outgoing manner of the radiology technician on machine #2 makes me recoil. She and the others try to make conversation with me, unaware that I am glum and in mourning for my ladies.
This machine is different, it is larger and the cone from which pure electrodes emanate noses rudely close, nearly flush with my nipple. When they leave the room, close the two‑foot‑thick steel door, and switch on the machine, I feel a jolt of pain. I am amazed that something invisible could be so powerful.
I am early today. Once more I am wearing a nice outfit and Olivia, in my perpetual quest for gainful employment. I am wearing makeup and sitting at the little mini‑cafeteria on Cox 1, eating a diet lunch because, despite the chemotherapy, I haven’t managed to lose a single pound. Except for the pallor against Olivia’s ginger brown locks, I look normal. Mid‑way through my egg salad sandwich, I look up and see Karen and Mary Beth walking right past me. I wave and, after a second’s confused pause, they come racing up.
“You don’t recognize me with my clothes on.”
They smile and admit they didn’t.
There is a burn beginning to take form in a perfect circle around my nipple. The technician remarks upon it as we talk about my upcoming wedding. But I am impatient to be done and resolutely have no feelings toward any of these new people. I have made my connections, am filled to bursting with them.
There is something almost biblical about the connections I make with others now. They are swift, fierce, and uncompromising. I love or dismiss, praise or censure. Former enemies become friends; and friends in whom I perceive cowardice become irredeemable. My reactions, almost intolerably visceral, give rise once more to that consoling inner dialogue: What makes a human being worthy of my friendship, my time? What makes an interaction valuable, meaningful? If nothing else, the scale I’ve built is a democratic one.
As I toss this one up into the clouds and that one down the pit, I’m aware of being harsh, but not unfair. It’s like suddenly I’ve got x‑ray vision. In normal life bad character hides beneath attractive conventions just as good character gets lost in the false glitter of rank and class, or in personal animosities. But under my electric sun, they’re both equally exposed, illuminated not just from above but from within.
I am at a loss as to how to bring this awareness back to “real” life. It is like returning to a world that is both finer and not nearly as fine as I had once imagined it to be. On the other hand, I am now also fortified by the understanding that goodness exists in unexpected places, too, in the irreducible crevices of human existence. In Mac, who cradles my whole fuzzy white skull in his big black hand. In the woman for whose demise I once prayed. And in Mary Ann, third grade teacher from Lincoln, who has the unworldly generosity to console me.
Speaking of Mary Ann, she is there today. It is the last time I will see her. She is with yet a third friend. She has so many, but I’m no longer surprised at this. We talk about everything from what her family likes to eat to the brain surgery that looms before her.
Specifically, she is complaining (tenderly, always tenderly) about people who bring her casseroles.
“My guys are strictly meat and potatoes,” she says. “They won’t touch a casserole.”
And I’m thinking, why haven’t my friends brought me casseroles? Why do I have such snooty, cerebral friends? But I stop myself, knowing it is perverse to envy Mary Ann. Perhaps if my tumor spreads, my friends will bring casseroles, too. (More likely, it’ll be takeout from Bread & Circus.)
The mind tests those waters. It asks: Who do you see holding your hand? What would bring comfort in those final months and days and hours? You compile your list, in no particular order: light; vision; the garden; a sister; the high school boyfriend who confesses he will always love you; a kind nurse; morphine. It does not do well to imagine these things too closely, to cast your mind this far. And yet, you keep putting yourself there. You keep bringing forth the things you could not bear to part with: lover, son, parents, assaulting yourself repeatedly with fresh grief, as if such grief came in limited quantities and could, eventually, run dry.
In fact, what you struggle to do is to acclimate; to shift and reorganize and shut down the universe so that, in this absolute relative space, the unbearable becomes bearable. It’s an artificial universe, to be sure, a twilight world that exists between life and death. But it is perhaps not significantly more artificial than other universes we construct for ourselves.
“So, the idea with the radiation is to get the tumor into remission,” I hear myself say. What else is there to say?
“That’s the idea” says Mary Ann, and I notice that her mind, too, has found the tiny slot of hope and squeezed itself into that. I won’t see Mary Ann again, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, my kindly doppelganger.
My skin is beginning to burn in earnest. I went to scratch a spot, and it just slid off. It smells like a dirty sneaker. I need to get all my friends a parting gift and am lying flat on the table wondering what it will be when the technicians on #2—those whose names I have refused to learn—tell me I have visitors. I turn on my side: Mary Beth and Karen slide boisterously into view.
“We finished the book,” they cry in unison. “We loved it!”
Karen wants to know if I’ve lived in Concord, where the novel is set, and when I say I haven’t she seems shocked, and not a little worried that she has somehow offended me. Both Karen and Mary Ann clearly struggle with the idea that I have created a lifelike portrait of something I have not experienced first‑hand. And to the extent they do, I feel I’ve succeeded, I go home overjoyed at my unsolicited praise, at the affectionate fuss that’s being made over me.
It’s my last day, and now I want to make a fuss over them, these friends that have taken such good care of me. I draft a note to them, eager to convey something that is hard to put into words: the way in which they have redeemed this bad experience, turned it into a nearly‑good and even at times joyous one. My gratitude to these women is such that it takes me several drafts to say something half way intelligible and not too maudlin.
I will miss them. It’s a selfish sort of missing, since they know far more about me than I know about them. In fact, at the moment I feel like I will miss everything about this place: the lousy cafeteria, the overpriced gift shop, Dr. Powell’s soccer bulletins, and Dr. Younger’s world-weary compassion—even the photographs of the women survivors, which I am finally nearly ready to look at head‑on.
Outside, just as I’m coming in, Mac tells me it’s his birthday. When he tells me how old, I nearly faint.
Mac is sixty years old. Yet he has the supple skin, the sensual, muscular figure of someone half that age. I had thought he was thirty‑eight, maybe forty. I have given him an envelope with a $20 in it, and a note thanking him for his kindness, and a chocolate orange from Trader Joe’s. We embrace for a long time, and when I finally pull back I look at him intently, trying to crack the mystery.
“What are you doing that I’m not, Mac?” I ask him.
“Oh,” he says, waving the air, “I don’ worry about anything. I am always happy.” I gape at him like he is of a different species. I’m not a worrier or even unhappy. But I need literally to worry things, hold them close, peer at them from all angles until they reveal their secrets. I need to probe and poke and get right up close to mystery and cannot let it go until it has become less of one. Until I understand. Sometimes, this is no easy feat: to understand the force that burns my skin; the sun that gives life beyond these gray hospital walls; the nothingness that will be my death and take it all away. And yet, I am compelled to try. Try as if my life depended on it, as maybe it does. Because, returning from that chasm, I am suddenly filled with light. Not just in some metaphorical sense but psychotropically. The color of a cornflower at dusk. Water glistening with mirror images on my does fur at the lake. The yellow eye of a parrot which looks at me quizzically. The amber beer in Peter’s glass.
As the ancient text reads, Dayenu. Any one of these would be enough. Would be more than enough. Would be? If what? If it had to be.
By day 30, I’m seriously burned. Dr. Powell advises a switch to aloe gel. In the oncoming week second‑degree burns will turn the left half of my chest into a charred mess. It is ugly, smelly, and deeply painful. It has become hard to sleep at night. I try my best to ignore it, concerned only that it will not heal in time for my low‑cut wedding dress. But I don’t even care much about that. My hair will be half an inch long. My skin will be pale. What does it matter? Even the vanity seems finally to have been burned out of me.
I have stopped off at Trader Joes for my gifts and now sit in the Cox cafeteria creating a huge basket of goodies wrapped in the most dramatic, tall bunch of cellophane, tied with hemp. Dried apricots, dried peaches; a huge chunk of dark chocolate; Japanese rice crackers; smoked almonds, and several other delicacies. Those who sit next to me admire the basket. But when I go down to deliver it I am a little disappointed to find that none of my friends are there—they are either with a patient or at lunch. Someone I know in passing assures me they will get the basket upon their return.
On the way out, I glance back once more at the waiting room, at the cancer patients and their companions reading about Hugh Grant and George Bush and Tom Cruise’s breakup with Nicole Kidman. I look at the huge fish tank, at the computer in which I slid my card every day for thirty days, and I think: with a little luck I will never pass this way again.
Outside, there is a crowd around my car. At first, I don’t understand what the fuss is about. Then it becomes clear: I have locked my keys in the car. I am blocking everyone, including ambulances trying to pull up to the sidewalk.
Mac and his team look dismayed; I have been scatterbrained before, have taken my keys with me into the hospital and Mac has had to come after me. But never have I done this.
I can’t help but smile at the transparency of my gesture. Indeed, it shouts: where does one go from here? Anywhere, the valets’ faces seem to say, but in this lane, blocking traffic. We a try to break into the car and fail. By now I am embarrassed. This is not the quick getaway I had planned! Mac calls security and after another ten minutes my car is open. Nobody seems to appreciate the enormity of the moment except myself. I am free to go.
One month later, our wedding day is a triumph. Everyone says it is the finest day of the year, clear and crisp after days of rain. Friends and family weep during the ceremony. When it is over, I flash a grin and a thumbs‑up at the audience, and several cameras snap the immortal moment. We listen to people toast us. We watch our families who have gathered from around the globe. We stand in astonishment and gratitude at friends, former lovers, and children as they search for frogs in the pond, or play on, the vast lawns of the house we have rented. We dance all day and evening, until we can barely stand. I feed Peter cake, an American custom he despises and which he had vowed hundreds of times never to let me do. And finally we go to our inn and crawl, laughing, on hands and knees toward the double Jacuzzi, where we gratefully soak our bones. The next morning, we buy roses on the way home and plant them. We open gifts, among which miraculously appears the gleaming silver ladle.
A week after the wedding, I will meet my radiation ladies for dinner. They will hand me flowers and run their fingers through my short hair. I will ply them with wine to tease literary criticism from them, though I am so happy to see them I hardly care anymore what they say about the book. But they’re dying to talk about it, as I am dying to forget. I get drunk on a glass of wine and forget about the electric sun, about philosophy, about resignation and understanding. Philosophy has been my consolation now. I set it down like an umbrella, right next to me and Mary Beth and Karen and Gidget, all the while knowing there will almost certainly come a time when I will need to call upon its shelter once again.