This fictional story is the first chapter of Cancer: A personal challenge.
It’s a bastard, facing a death sentence at nineteen.
My eyelids are a blessedly black barrier between me and the world. A light breeze is using the long grass to tickle my bare arms and legs. But most of me is in my ears, on the song of the creek.
It’s better to listen to the liquid symphony than to think about dying within three months. And hopefully, nobody will find me here.
I wish I could be a football hero or a karate black belt or something. I wish I was six feet tall. I wish I was anyone but myself. In particular, I wish I wasn’t dying.
So, I listen to the burble of the water, and for minutes at a time my mind goes blank. I don’t think I’ve slept, but the soft sound of a footstep jerks me out of the refuge of not-thinking, and when I open my eyes, the sun is considerably further to the west.
“Hi, Dale,” Sheila says, “Your Mom said you might be near the creek.”
She is nervous — her fair skin shows up a blush, and her hands are clenching into fists, then smoothing out. I’ve got to get rid of her. I just have to.
“Sheila. What the hell are you doing here?” I make my voice sound hostile.
Good, she looks hurt. “Visiting you.”
“Well, I don’t want you. I don’t need pity. Piss off.” I determinedly squeeze my eyes shut.
“It’s not pity, Dale. It’s–”
“Let me be. Go away.” I keep my eyes shut, my body is a board of wood, and with the tension even the morphine can’t mask the pain.
She gives a little sob and walks off. Good. I manage to relax my body a little, but cry inside. If only…
I can’t get back to peace. The creek’s chatter is now a mocking laughter. After awhile I struggle to my feet and go inside.
Mom’s at her computer but spins her chair to face me. Her black eyes have a dangerous glitter and her mouth is a tense line. “That girl went away crying,” she tells me.
“I didn’t ask her to come.”
“There’s no need to be rude to people!”
“Sometimes there is.” I keep walking.
“Dale. Hold up. Who is she?”
I turn to face her. Bitterly I say, “The perfect woman. You’ve seen her. Gorgeous. She topped first year Maths, that’s where I met her. She plays the violin like an angel. And if she calls, tell her I’m out.”
This time I make it through the door before the next question.
In the small hours of the night I wake from a dream of Sheila. As usual, she had her long corn-colored hair in a severe ponytail, but if anything that emphasized the beauty of her features, sculpted from a Viking’s dream. She’d been crying just before I awoke, mouthing words I couldn’t understand. Maybe she was speaking Norse, who knows?
Thousands of years ago, like before I had cancer, she and I were part of a group at University, not paired up or anything, but fun friends. I couldn’t stand to have her pity me. More important, if she took me up as a ’cause’, she’d certainly be even more devastated after my death. She’s always been a caring person, and it’ll hit her hard. Better to hurt her now, reduce the greater hurt later.
Wednesday, it’s my weekly visit to the Hospital, and Dr Ezekiel Hunter, head oncologist. I used to be his major exhibit, but blotted my book with the relapse. Too bad, Dr Hunter, too bad for me too.
Dr Hunter, now there’s a real Nigger, not like me, a token black only. He’s the Ace of Spades with curly cotton-wool hair and Satchmo lips. So, he’s had to be the best all his life, to prove to the world that an African-American (let’s be politically correct) can do it. Then I stuff up on him. I can feel it. ‘After all I’ve done for you, boy…’ Well fuck you, Dr Hunter, I did it just to spite you, hey?
Vicky takes my obs while I’m waiting. We used to joke and carry on before the relapse, but I’ve stopped that. Can’t be bothered. So now she does her jobs, scribbles it down and leaves. I’ve heard her tell another nurse that I’ve got a chip on the shoulder, developed an attitude problem. OK for her, she is not the one dying.
Dr Hunter still tries to chat with me as he refills the morphine pump. Him I can’t shut up, but it’s over in quarter of an hour, I can endure that.
I turn to leave. “Dale…” he rumbles.
“Look son, you’re not doing yourself any favors.”
“See you next week, Doctor.”
Why should I listen to another lecture? That’s all everyone wants to do. They all know how I should die. Fuck’em.
I’m so glad people can’t read minds. I hate the whining shit I’ve become.
Mom drives us back to the farm — the Law won’t let me drive because of the morphine — and on the way, for the millionth time, I brood about how to end it all. I mean, why should I force the family into bankruptcy, just so I can endure another three months of misery? Why not go now, so Mom won’t have to spend eight, nine hours a day on her computer for Mr. Barton, and Dad won’t have to be sixteen hours a day out in the orchard.
Trouble is, I’d prefer if my body wasn’t found by the family. I want them to be able to sell my car afterward, so I can’t just drive over a cliff or something. And the morphine pump is worth as much as the car, I don’t want to wreck that.
As Mom whizzes along the highway, I close my eyes and imagine what it must be like, being dead. I think it’s like when the creek’s song lulls me. No thinking. No pain. No shame. No anger.
I want it.
But as we bump to the end of the drive, my heart plummets: Carol’s red Range Rover is in front of the house, and the two kids are on the porch, waving madly, big grins on their brown little faces. I used to love being with them. But now…
Carol appears from the dark maw of the front door and strides over as I swing my legs out. “Listen, baby brother,” she whispers, “smile or I’ll kick your butt.”
“I don’t feel like smiling.” I start to stand.
A strong, brown, long-fingered hand grabs my wrist and she hauls me onto the driveway, takes me away from the house. She’s still whispering, and this makes the anger even more impressive. “Rachel and Cameron think you’re wonderful. Today’s a Curriculum day at their school, and when I asked what they wanted to do, it was ‘Visit Dale! Visit Dale!’ and I could do nothing to change their minds.”
“Carol, I’m not up to it.”
“Listen. OK, this monstrous thing may be killing you…”
“There’s no maybe about it.”
“Shut your face. Say you die in a few months. How do you want Rachel and Cameron to remember you? As the wonderful uncle they used to have, or as a grumpy bag of misery? Think of someone other than yourself for a change!”
“That’s not fair!”
“Life’s not fair. C’mon, brother, make them happy for an hour, then I’ll go.”
So I paint a grin on my face, though it feels unnatural, and give them a hug and run my hands through their curls. We play a three-way game of Chinese checkers and I manage to allow Rachel to win. Then they pester me to make up a poem for them. I used to do that every time we were together, but my creativity has died already. I get out an old scrapbook, and read them a few:
R is for a thorny plant called the rose.
Though it prickles, it’s one of those
people will pamper, and water, and prune.
The reason? Sweet flower, nice perfume.
Rachel tells me, very seriously, how lovely that is, so I read one specially for Cameron:
H just has to be for Horse,
a very useful friend of course,
who’ll pull a cart, or let you ride,
and gives us manure on the side!
Naturally he shouts “Hey Dale, it comes out the end, not the side!” and I laugh with them. Must be the first time I’ve laughed this month. So I give them a few more.
The story of bees has a sting in the tail.
Did you know, all useful bees are female? Rachel cheers at that.
The gentleman bees, well, just hang around
until a queen flies above the ground.
Then one of them mates, and all the boys die —
I’d rather be human, and that’s not a lie!
Garlic has a pungent smell
(keeps people away very well!)
It is used by many races
in cities and outlying places
to keep the dreaded ‘flu away
by eating just one clove a day.
And for hours after they’ve gone, I find myself smiling, and the world is a good place, and there’s no pain.
But at dinner time, Dad looks so exhausted that I feel a stab of guilt. I used to help him after school, and he used to hire more casuals than now. Why? The money is needed to pay my medical debts, and for the palliative care.
Misery crashes all about me again, and I need a pill to get to sleep.
It’s pouring outside. The window is a flat waterfall, and the rain on the roof has the sound of a stampede. Good: Dad can save a few bucks on the pumping. This’s a good time of the year for rain. But it keeps me inside.
So, I am at my second best place, getting lost in the internet. I’m at a science fiction site, reading this great fantasy story when the ICQ starts to carry on. It’s Nigel.
Hey Dale, where you been pal? Haven’t seen you in WEEKS!
I don’t feel like company.
Dale, I’m not company, I’m your best friend.
Well, you better get used to finding a new one, I won’t be around for much longer.
I’m here for you, I wish you’d let me come over.
Dale, I was going to ring you anyway. I want you to come to my birthday.
You REALLY don’t want me at your party. Not if you want people to have fun. And I certainly don’t want to come.
It’s not a party, buddy, just a few friends.
Dale, it may be my last chance to have some fun with you. Saturday night 9 o’clock at my place.
You know I’m not allowed to drive.
I’ll send someone to pick you up.
I can always refuse to get into the car. But I remember what good medicine my niece and nephew had been. Maybe I should go.
On Saturday night he comes himself, and I go after all. “Just tell me if you get tired,” he says. You can have a lie-down in my room, or someone can drop you home.”
“OK. Oh, who’s coming?
“Jane of course,” — that’s his girlfriend — “Mike and Giselle, and Sheila. That’s all. Not a party. All old friends.”
“Just one thing, Nigel.”
“If anyone preaches at me, or makes a fuss, I walk out.”
He doesn’t answer.
The others are there already, and they’re good at pretending. I no longer have the slightest interest in the travails of a student, like deadlines for assignments and boring professors, nor in baseball or football, but listening to their conversation, shouted over the music, does take me out of myself. Mike is great at telling jokes and actually manages to make me laugh, though I’d seen them all in the emails that whiz around the world. They didn’t make me laugh when I’d read them, though.
So the night passes and to my surprise I find I’ve enjoyed myself.
When it’s time to go home, somehow Sheila is the one ushering me into her car.
We drive in silence for a while, then she says “You were human tonight.”
“Dale, why won’t you let your friends help you?”
“Because you can’t. Get it into your head, I’m dying. I want to separate from all of you now, so it’ll hurt you less later. OK?” This slips out before I’ve thought about it. I’ve never told anyone else.
She pulls over, switches off engine and lights, then turns to me. A distant streetlight glints off her eyes, and from something below them. A tear. She is crying. “Dale,” she manages after a long moment, “that’s so crazy it’s wonderful. I… I thought you disliked me.”
“Nothing personal Shelia. I dislike the whole bloody world.” We both laugh.
“Look, this business about a death sentence, dying in three months and…”
“Three months less a week.”
“I’m telling you, it’s not like that! For all we know I could die before you, get shot in a bank holdup or have a meteorite fall on my head or catch a bug at work.” She is putting herself through University by working as a part time nurse’s aide at the Hospital. “And the three months for you is only an estimate. Something fatal could happen inside you tomorrow, or not for years. There is no bloody timetable!”
“Didn’t know you were a cancer expert. Why not go for Dr Hunter’s job instead of carrying bedpans?”
“You’re impossible. I don’t know why I bother. Listen buddy, remember the other day when I came to visit and you sent me off?”
“I came to tell you something wonderful I learnt that day in Psych. You know that each Monday we get a talk from a Graduate student. Well, the last one was this girl, Jackie something. She’d doing her Ph. D. in psychoneuroimmunilogy–”
“Talk English, would you? That means nothing to me. Even when I was a student, I was in Agriculture.”
“OK, OK, let me just tell you about her work. She is studying miraculous cures from cancer.”
“I sure ain’t one of them!”
“No but you’re the most aggravating fellow to talk to. So far, she’s studied five people who were in your position, having incurable cancer, on palliative care. Only, these people recovered despite the medical predictions. I was so excited I had a chat to her after her talk, then cut a couple of classes to come and tell you.”
“And then I sent you packing.” I feel like shit.
“You did, you bastard.” She is smiling, dim light glinting on white teeth. “But anyway, there’s something else for you to think of. Are you having fun, being a miserable sod?”
“Should I be having fun, on death row?”
“Dale, Jackie quoted one of her cases. He’d said, ‘Every person is living under a death sentence, from conception onward. When I was given a time limit, when I believed that I was going to die in six months, I decided to make them the best six months of my life. And I think that’s why the cancer left me.’ And Dale, that’s word for word what she’d quoted.”
I know for a fact that Sheila has a fantastic memory.
“So what I came for that day was to try and start you on that road. To say that, even if you do die in three months time, make them three GREAT months, don’t waste whatever time you have left on resentment and anger and whatever else has been eating at your soul.”
I feel like crying. I feel like leaning over and giving her a kiss. But I must make her understand. “Sheila, dear Sheila, the whatever else is shame and disgust. I don’t want to live another ten or thirty or fifty years in the body that’s left to me.”
I can’t go on, and we sit there for a while, then she asks without words, “Hmm?”
“You do know where my cancer started?”
“Yeah. They’ve cut it out. When I shit, it goes into a plastic bag attached to my abdomen.” I have to shudder, like I do every time I even think of it. “It stinks when I empty it. Can you imagine having sex with a guy whose asshole is between the two of you?”
I have to cover my face with my hands. She answers “I often help people deal with colostomy bags at work. It doesn’t bother me.”
“Well, it bothers the hell out of me! And something else. I’ve had so much radiation therapy down there that if I should ever have children, chances are they’d be poor malformed mutants.”
“Dale, I’m not offering to marry you. Well, not at this stage anyway.” She laughs, lightly, and despite myself I have to laugh with her.
“But that’s what I mean. Survival is not that attractive.”
“Dale, according to Jackie, that’s probably why you had the relapse. You felt disgusted with yourself and ashamed, and these feelings dragged your immune system down so that the cancer came back. And your depression since is why the metastases have been overwhelming you. You’re killing yourself with your emotions.”
“No it isn’t. That’s what psychoneuroimmunology is about. Jackie described a physiological mechanism linking emotions and the immune system. You’ve got it working against you. Her five cases have it working for them. You can change. And… and the change you need is to accept that yes, you’ll probably die, but to live life joyously to the full in the meantime. To get out of yourself, and start to do things for others. Come back to University and study as if you were going to live forever. Plant trees. Have fun.”
“You haven’t heard me. I don’t want to live forever. I don’t even want to live until tomorrow.”
“Because you have a colostomy and can’t have children?”
“Yeah, that, and rapidly growing lumps all over the place. Will your Jackie-magic shrink them when chemo couldn’t?
“Yes. If you give it a chance. It mightn’t. But it’s your best bet. And like I said, suppose the cancer does kill you. You might as well have the best possible life until then. You’re wasting the rest of your life in making yourself miserable, and in the process you’re making those who love you miserable too.” Even in the dim light, I can see her face look surprised, like she’s given herself away.
So, I can’t help it. I lean over and kiss her. Her lips are soft and moist and warm. She sucks in my lower lip and her arms pull me close.
Eventually I am able to force myself away from her. “This is what I wanted to avoid,” I mutter. Now you’ll be devastated when…”
“Dale, I am an adult. You don’t need to make decisions on my behalf. I’d rather have two weeks of heaven and then a year of grieving than live in a desert.” She fires up the car and takes me home, both of us silent.
Predictably, I have a nightmare. It starts great: once more Sheila is kissing me, this time in my bedroom. It’s so real that I can feel her, smell her, taste her. Then she spins away from me and slowly undresses. I’ve never seen her naked, but we’ve gone swimming together. Perhaps that’s why, in the dream, when she removes her T-shirt and kicks off her jeans, she is wearing her red bikini. I can see the nipples push against the shiny material as she slowly approaches. She unbuttons my shirt. I want to say ‘no’, I want to take hold of her hands and stop her, but I am a frozen statue. She pulls the shirt off me, undoes my belt and still I can say nothing, do nothing. She unzips my jeans and they fall to my feet. A terrible stench rises, like when I empty the bag. Her eyes are on the plastic bag full of shit that hangs off me. Her face is screwed up in disgust. She runs towards the door, screaming, and I wake up.
The screaming is a siren — police or ambulance — in the distance.
I wake again after ten o’clock, to a silent house. Mom and Dad have gone to church, and to my surprise I feel disappointed that I’ve slept in. I haven’t been to church since the relapse, guess I’ve been angry at God. But now I wish I’d gone.
I remember Sheila saying I should do something for others, and wasn’t that the thing that helped when Rachel and Cameron were here? Mom has stacked the breakfast dishes neatly in the sink, so I run hot water, make foam and start to wash up. Maybe…
I’m not half finished when an incredible pain stabs my back. The morphine might as well not be there. Somehow I manage to take a couple of Panedeine Forte and stumble to bed. It’s all bullshit after all, I know it’s wishful thinking, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to hope. I’ve had attacks like that before: it’s when a growing tumor pushes on a nerve for the first time.
A growing tumor means that the death sentence is still valid.
It’s not fair. Why couldn’t it have been true?
I take no notice of car sounds, the mutter of speech penetrating through the door, the ringing of the phone. I am back in my black hole, and nothing matters.
The door opens, Mom with a steaming cup and a plate. “You’ve taken bad?” she asks.
I manage to sit up. The pain has receded, it’s just background now. She places a cup of coffee and a couple of sandwiches on the bedside table. “I’ve got a pain in a new place,” I admit, though I usually keep quiet, not liking to worry her.
“Eat this, then have a wash,” she commands. “You’re getting visitors.”
“I don’t want to see anyone.”
“I’ve already invited them. It’s your lovely friend Sheila with a couple of people she wants you to meet. And you be polite, hear?”
Swearing doesn’t change the situation. I do as I’m told, and am ready by the time Sheila’s red Toyota pulls up. She and two other women get out. I don’t want this.
They come in. Mom must have told them, because Sheila is chewing on her lip, face a question mark. The brown-haired girl behind her seems hardly older than me, and walks with a crutch. Her left leg moves in an unnatural way, but there is a friendly smile on her homely face. A woman in her thirties is last. Unlike the other two who are in jeans, she wears a neat skirt and top.
Sheila points to the girl with the crutch. “Dale, meet Jackie Weiss. She’s the Ph. D. student I told you about. And this lady is Martha Mercuri. Ladies, this is my friend Dale Seddon.”
I politely mumble, but Jackie speaks over me. “Dale, I’ve got bone cancer, that’s why I walk on a tin leg. But I’ve been in remission for over three years, and I don’t plan on going back.”
“Sheila didn’t say anything about you having cancer, only that you were studying it.”
“I didn’t know,” Sheila answers. “I knew about the artificial leg of course, but thought that might have been a car accident.”
Martha Mercuri comes forward. “You’d better be worth it, young man,” she says in a pleasantly low voice. “I’m in the middle of planning my wedding, can’t really spare the time — but anything for Jackie. I started with stomach cancer. They took that out, but there was a secondary in the lower bowel, too. Look.” She pulls up her top until I can see the bottom of her bras. A capped little tube dangles from her stomach, and below it is a colostomy bag, just like mine.
“Well, thank you for coming, ladies.” I can hear the sarcasm in my voice, but don’t care. “As a matter of scientific curiosity, could you bring along a few people who failed with the magic?”
Jackie answers me. “You’re right, Dale, there are no guarantees. And actually there’s no magic. I learned about psychoneuroimmunology, and devised a method that worked for me. Then I went looking for other apparently miraculous cures. Each of the other four had a different method, but the essence was the same. And there are books published on the subject. One man teaches a course to cancer sufferers. He wrote that maybe ten percent of his students are able to make the necessary changes in thinking and feeling. Of these, eighty percent still eventually die of their cancer. But, and listen good, all his students feel their money well spent, all of them benefit, even the ones who can’t master his method. They live better lives until they die.”
“So, the chances are two out of a hundred?”
Martha cuts in, “You weren’t listening. A hundred out of a hundred benefit. Also, a hundred out of a hundred die, sooner or later, from one cause or another. Ninety-eight out of a hundred die of their cancer, but that barely matters.”
“Well, I thought I had improved, thanks to Sheila. But this morning, a new lump in me made itself known. I’m still galloping toward death. And I still think, the sooner the better.”
“Dale,” Jackie says gently, “it’s not like throwing a switch. It’s a race between your immune system and the cancer. You’ve been handicapping your immune system and so the cancer’s got ahead. Now you need to feed and cherish your white blood cells and antibodies and things. There are many tools you can use. I’ve brought you a stack of books, and also web site addresses. Give it a try — for Sheila’s sake.”
What can I do? I thank them, accept the pile of books and papers, promise to do my best. But I can see the disappointment on their faces as they leave. Did they expect me to light up like a neon sign?
Monday. Reading does fill the time, and I get sucked in. Before I realize, it’s half past four, and Sheila turns up. She looks delighted at the mess of books surrounding me. I’m well into the one by the Dalai Lama.
“C’mon, you’ve worked enough,” she commands. “We’re going out.”
“Get ready. You’ve got half an hour.” She walks out the door. Bossy women!
We grab takeaway hamburgers and soft drink — she’s driving, I can’t have alcohol because of the morphine — then she takes me to the movies. This theater shows vintage movies on Mondays. We watch Peter Sellers in ‘Dr Fu Manchu’. I laugh so much it hurts in a dozen places, but I don’t care. Sheila snuggles against me in the dark and I put an arm around her shoulders. She takes my hand and places it onto her breast. I stiffen. Old habits say I must not let her get too close, but she nibbles on my ear and whispers “Nothing exists but now.”
Afterward she drives me home. The house is dark, Mom and Dad are in bed. She comes into my room with me, then is in my arms, mouth on mouth, heart on heart. When we separate for air, she whispers, “I brought some condoms, but Dale, be gentle, I’m a virgin.”
I pull away. “But…”
“But nothing. I want you.”
She acts as if my horrible colostomy bag didn’t exist.
I’ve been brought up a Christian: sex is for marriage, but such ecstasy can’t be wrong.
I wake in the morning to see Sheila dressed, at my computer. “Come and look at this, love,” she calls.
She’s at one of the sites from Jackie’s list: anxietyanddepression-help.com. I put on a T-shirt to hide the bag, then look over her shoulder. There is a poem:
I know the thought is quite absurd,
but it’d be fun to be a bird.
To soar above the treetops high
and fly under a pale blue sky.
Birds are people of little brain
and that’s a great plus — let me explain:
Troubles and sorrows do not last
but soon become the distant past.
The joys of NOW fill all the world —
it’s quite clever, being a bird.
Come to think, you don’t need wings
to get such a good view on things.
“That’s what Jackie was talking about?”
“Exactly that, Dale. When you feel the horrible negativity creeping back, just say this poem to yourself.”
After she’s gone, I phone the Bursar at the University. Yes, I can apply to complete last year’s subjects at the end of this year. The cancer had struck me just before the exams.
And on Wednesday, I surprise Vicky by reciting the bird poem to her.
I don’t know if I’ll die in three months less two weeks, but it hardly matters. For now, I am happy.