Saccharine greeting cards, gut-binding chocolates. There's a contrived feel to Valentine's Day.
Instead, I picture a September walk with my wife, Laurie, as yellowing birch and maple signal autumn.
Laurie pauses and pulls on my bottom eyelid with her thumb, as if judging a dog show.
“Both of your eyes are yellow,” she says.
Laurie, jetlagged from a work trip to Zambia, has me checked in to the walk-in clinic within an hour. We brace for an assembly line of disinfectants, IV pokes, the sounds of ripping Velcro and mechanical bells, power-of-attorney directives and the check-here consent form all hypochondriacs dread. “Do you want to be revived?” Do I want to be revived?
I am healthy, I am semi-young, I am a vegetarian. A diagnosis of Stage 3, inoperable pancreatic cancer doesn’t square.
We receive the news, but I don’t make a morbid joke or reference Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich.” I’m fine discussing Ivan’s existential plight, mind you, I just don’t want to be Ivan. All I can do is think of Gene Hackman playing Little Bill Daggett in “Unforgiven.” “I don’t deserve this. To die like this.” Hackman says. “I was building a house.”
There are forty-eight hours of doughnut-tube scans, blood draws and an endoscopic procedure to insert a stent in my biliary tract. From the clinic to Swedish Hospital, the haze of bleak news begins to clear and to reveal a navigator: Laurie.
There she is, writing it all down. Everything. Computer-leering doctors and interns let loose a stream of acronyms, reassuring chatter about the week’s weather forecast mixed with an occasional You’re-gonna-die euphemism, as I fix on one word or one statement and blank out the rest.
Laurie answers all of the questions. She explains to the nurses that I’d like to be revived, thank you so much. No, we don’t have a written will. No, her husband hasn’t had any “falls.”
We should keep the diagnosis quiet, I tell Laurie. I’ll post on Facebook Dylan Thomas reading “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” a few times. Friends will clue in. No, she says, we’re telling everyone. And so we do.
Within days, I receive calls and emails from my old middle-school teachers, from pals I hadn’t seen since senior prom, even from parents and relatives of friends. We love you, they say. It’s a wave of peace and goodwill. Laurie and I are speechless. And emboldened.
Thanks to privilege, to Laurie’s insurance and to good fortune, we land the best oncologist on the West Coast, Dr. Andrew Coveler, at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. We opt for the full-fury chemo, to challenge the grim odds and perhaps qualify for an operation known as the “Whipple.”
Cancer world is a beast, cruelly democratic and unsparing. My infusion waiting area includes a child in a sun dress and a man who resembles an Old Testament prophet. We each wear a paper wrist band with a Safeway-style bar code. In her long essay, “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf writes about the poverty of language, hankering to convey the primitive otherworldliness of the sick and the dying. It’s visceral.
A port is surgically inserted below my collar bone. After a day of in-patient infusion, I get hitched to a take-home man-purse of chemo.
The man-purse clicks once a minute, like an underwater metronome. No click, no chemo. It shares our bed, and when it’s detached a couple of days later, we continue to hear the nightly clicks, like an auditory phantom limb.
Laurie also prepares for a potential chemo leak (I’m the spilled-milk, cartwheel-down-the-stairs sort.) In the closet sits a sealed bio-wipe bag with hazard-disposal instructions.
There’s infection followed by infection. Laurie takes my temperature and doles out Cipro. She shakes me awake to eat. We drive to the hospital, often at midnight or on a Sunday. She works fulltime, while still caring for me. And caring for me is fulltime.
My gall bladder ruptures, and doctors insert a drain. A week later, I walk from the bathroom in the dark. As I get back into bed, my toes fork the tube stretching from my torso to an IV sack, nicknamed “Mr. Bile Bag.” I scream.
Laurie rises and looks at me. “How did you manage that?” she says.
Laurie is okay with a James Madison colonial-era wig. She orders one. Friends visit us at home, and I sit in my recliner like a pasha, receiving guests. I don’t do a thing as Laurie fixes snacks, takes coats, cajoles, navigates.
“It’s bedtime,” Laurie says. “Go eat a piece of cheese cake.” I need to keep on the weight, which I do. She keeps me healthy enough to qualify for the Whipple. After the Whipple, there is more chemo, along with radiation, along with more Laurie.
So, my Valentine’s story is a love story. It begins with an unromantic scribbler who meets a romantic do-gooder. They fall in love and decide to marry, eschewing traditional wedding vows. In sickness and in health, for better or for worse? Bosh.
But people reveal themselves. Now I understand the “in sickness” crucible. Now I understand love.