Nor for the towering dead/ With their nightingales and psalms
Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art”
Hamlet describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveler returns,” phrases that betoken death’s mystery, a subject so profound that you can almost get away with slipping in a moth-eaten word like “betoken.”
Woody Allen pigeonholes it as one of the two things that come only once in a lifetime.*
*The other is sex
My first 3-D encounter with a human’s death happened when I was around twelve or so on a rare Sunday when we’d all gone to church together, even Daddy. In those days TV consisted of a couple of channels, so we would occasionally drive for amusement, motoring around and through Summerville, circumnavigating the past – riding past clapboard houses where we used to live, past our former maid’s dilapidated cottage, past the crossroads where my grandfather’s gas station had stood before it burned down.
On this particular summer’s day, we encountered a cluster of hysterical people on the sidewalk right across the street from Dorchester County Hospital. The windows of our un-air-conditioned Ford Falcon were down, and as we rolled past, I witnessed a Mahalia-Jackson-sized woman throwing her hands back in the air while screaming over and over, “My Mama left me, My Mama left me!”
As our car crawled on, I caught sight of the outline of the body, already covered, the screams receding as Daddy sped up and drove straight home.
Later that day, we traveled to Lake Moultrie with our neighbors, another rarity, and I saw Mrs. Delasanti’s pubic hair peeking out of her bikini bottoms.
A first for me. Forbidden. Thrilling.
So, on that Sunday, I sort of got a peek at both sides of the coin, the tomb and womb, and, unfortunately, the tomb won out. Death had ruined my day.
“My Mama’s left me, My Mama’s left me!” rang out as I lay me down to sleep that night.
Horace Walpole has described life on this planet about as pithily as anybody: “This world is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”
Over the years, I have become much more of a thinker than a feeler. I’d like to believe that education, fairly wide reading/traveling, my dabbling in Buddhism, and maturity have brought about my detachment (rather than a callousness acquired from the onslaught of horrific images I’ve been bombarded with in over a half-century of a media-saturated life: JFK’s shattering skull, Vietnamese monks immolating themselves, starving African toddlers with bloated bellies, Donald J Trump raising his hand to take the oath of office).
Of course, since that first encounter with death, I have witnessed others, loved ones, shuffling off their mortal coils. As I held my mother-in-law’s hand as she was in the thrall of dying, she looked up at the ceiling, gazing intently at whatever she saw up there, and said, squeezing my hand, “Rusty, this is overwhelming.”
My beloved Judy had a harder time, though mummified by morphine, her breathing labored, yet right before the end, she quieted down, and I recited to her over and over “may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and I’m also almost positive she was at least dimly aware of my presence and words because she sort of smiled for awhile before she became still.
I have an oncologist friend who once told me that out there (wherever that is) lurks enormous amounts of anonymous funding for a dedicated (if not fanatical) group of scientists/physicians who believe that they can conquer aging and death-by-disease, a prospect that frankly gives me the heebie-jeebies. In that world, all deaths would be accidental, the afterlife a occupancy-challenged condo. I imagine suicide rates would skyrocket. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable would seem the never-ending daily routines in that Malthusian nightmare of a world!
I told my friend, “They don’t know the story of the Sibyl.”
“No they don’t,” he concurred.
Translation: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.”
No, I believe that Wallace Stevens got it right: Death is the mother of beauty.
Who would trade his or her short-lived ability to discern beauty for the undifferentiated undying existence of amoeba and paramecia, or prefer the perfect two-dimensional monotony of prelapsarian Eden to the depth and complexity of postlapsarian Babylon with its gardens full of fading flowers and kiss-stealing star-crossed lovers?
Biologically speaking, sex is what creates diversity, and its cost is death, the cessation of being, or, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade”:
[. . . ] no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.
Death for sex, not a bad trade off by my reckoning.
Unlike Larkin, death holds no special dread for me. Although I don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea of having my short-leased indestructible matter recycled into another form appeals to me. I think a burial at sea sounds exquisite – a quick re-entry into the animal world via ingestion.
In this interim between womb and tomb – let us be thankful to have ended up here and now and agree with Dylan Thomas that wise men at their end know dark is right.
Though, rather than raving as Dylan Thomas suggests, I’d like to think of myself in those final instants as surrendering to the fitting inevitability of it all. To try to enjoy the fleeing images of my consciousness as they’re jettisoned into nothingness.
Let’s face it, in this artificially flavored, dioxin-laden world of ours, either you or someone you dearly love is going to get cancer, especially if you manage to dodge the jihadists’ and nativists’ bullets to live long enough.
Obviously, people deal with cancer in different ways. Everyone from scientists to your Aunt Tessie will tell you to be positive, which, of course, is good advice, if not all that easy to take, especially if you’re facing chemotherapy.
For the last 17 months, my wife and I have shared our lives with a particularly rare and more-often-than-not fatal form of lymphoma known as Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified, or for shortness sake, PTCL-NOS.
Essentially, you can deal with cancer in two ways, the Dalai Lama way or the Woody Allen way, so I thought I’d recap my wife’s journey of the last year and a half focusing on her husband’s behavior, imagining him as either the Dalai Lama or Woody Allen so you can decide for yourself which role you might play if you ever face similar challenges.
9 July 2014
Woody Allen, husband of Judy Birdsong, spends the morning cleaning the house preparing for guests, an artist friend and former colleague who’s bringing an Italian mother and her two teenaged sons to go kayaking.
Judy has gone out “to run some errands,” and Woody is getting somewhat peeved because she’s been gone so long and has left so much of the housework to him.
Finally Judy calls.
“Where have you been?’ Woody asks.
“Getting a chest x-ray.”
“A chest x-ray? What for?”
“I have this lump near my breast bone. The doctor thinks it’s probably just some bone outgrowth. No big deal.”
“Oh, my God,” Woody thinks, “she’s got lung cancer!”
* * *
Tenzin Gyatso, husband of Judy Birdsong, enjoys picking up each individual knick-knack from the shelf and gently rubbing the dust cloth over its surface. Although he knows Judy’s getting a chest x-ray, he concentrates on the task at hand, gently returning the clay statuette of the Indian mother to her place on the shelf next to the hand-painted Mexican fish.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Woody, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He picks up the receiver just as Judy does but doesn’t hang up.
He hears: “The x-ray is inconclusive. It’s cloudy. Have you had any fever? Coughing? We don’t see a mass, but you have something called a pleural effusion, that is, fluid in your lungs, so you’ll need to come in tomorrow for a C-scan.”
Woody hangs up the phone and immediately googles “plural effusion.”
Numerous medical conditions can cause pleural effusions. Some of the more common causes are:
Woody spends a very miserable night, the worst one since his last night in jail (c. 1978), tossing and turning and speculating just what horrible type of cancer Judy has. Finally, because she’s had no symptoms, Woody becomes convinced that it’s metastatic ovarian cancer.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Tenzin, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He waits to see if Judy picks up, and she does.
After the conversation, she comes up and tells him the x-rays weren’t clear, that she needs a C-scan.
He takes a deep cleansing breath, then exhales slowly.
The C-scan did detect a mass, “a primary cancer probably a lymphoma,” according to the radiologist. Woody and Judy arrive at Roper Hospital for Judy’s initial visit with her oncologist. When they arrive, they discover the appointment is at a different facility across town, so they rush to their car and take off. Even though the receptionist has assured them they have enough time, this soundtrack plays in Woody’s mind.
They do arrive on time, and the oncologist, an acquaintance, the husband of a colleague of Woody’s, is a calming presence. He shows them the tumor on a screen and agrees that it looks like lymphoma, and says that’s what he hopes it is because lymphomas are curable. He introduces them to the paradox that the faster a cancer grows, the easier it is to kill.
Woody goes home and googles lymphomas, which indeed are very treatable if it’s the B-cell variety. T-cell lymphomas are a different story.
While Judy’s out kayaking with Tenzin, the oncologist calls and tells Woody they need to run about a thousand new tests on Judy to find out “what type of t-cell lymphoma we’re talking about.”
“Oh no,” Woody says. “T-cells are harder to cure, aren’t they?”
“They can be,” he says tersely.
When Judy returns, she can see it on Woody’s face.
“What’s the matter?”
He tells her. For the first time they weep together.
Tenzin has put Woody in a strait jacket, jammed a sock in his mouth, and locked him in a closet so he can call his sons and tell them the bad news. He also calls his siblings and closest friends.
Judy is stoic as well, suffering through a barrage of tests without a complaint.
They nervously wait to see how far it’s spread.
Good News! It’s Stage 1, confined to that one tumor. No bone marrow involvement. The treatment will be aggressive. 96-hour continuous hospital infusion, two weeks off, then another blast. There will be 6 to 8 cycles, then perhaps a stem cell transplant and even after that radiation.
28 July – Early December
Judy on the 5th Floor Balcony of Roper
Although Tenzin can sometimes hear muffled sounds from Woody’s closet, he – Tenzin – is very much in control. During hospital weeks, he wakes up at 5, walks their doomed dog Saisy, showers, etc., and delivers the paper to Judy on the 5th floor of Roper and sits down to enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he shuffles off in his blue footies, down the hall to the elevator, hitting the first floor, greeting the staff coming on as he heads to the parking garage and to work.
After only four days of chemo, the tumor has shrunk so much that the oncologist says he wouldn’t know it were there by external inspection.
Of course, everyone loves Judy because of her courage and exquisite manners. The nurses try to see to it that she gets the rooms that look out over Charleston Harbor. She walks a lot, dragging the chemo-shit along with her. She continues her work as a school psychologist from her hospital bed, and in the third week goes to work in Berkeley County wearing a wig. In the afternoons when she’s in the hospital, Judy and Tenzin sit on the balcony and note the beauty of the light as it falls upon the steeples of the city.
In October on a Friday, Tenzin returns from work to find a voice message from the oncologist. He’s delighted to inform them that Judy’s scan has come back all clear; there’s not a trace of cancer.
Nevertheless, they’re going to continue for two more cycles of chemo, culminating in a grand total of 6.
Late December 2014 – January 2015
Tenzin’s mother has had a stroke as Judy’s preparing for a stem cell transplant. Tenzin allows Woody to come out of the closet to google stem cell transplants, but marches him right back in there afterwards.
One morning they come downstairs to find that Saisy has died during the night. Tenzin and his neighbor Jim load Saisy’s carcass in the back of Judy’s SUV (Tenzin’s Mini isn’t an option), and she drops Saisy off at the Vet’s to be cremated. She then drives on to work as Tenzin does the same.
Over the next week, Tenzin tries to make it to his hometown to see his fading mother while meanwhile Judy suffers the worst part of her treatment, bone-marrow killing doses of a different type of chemo that incapacitates her.
When Tenzin’s mother dies, Judy’s very ill; she can’t attend the funeral because she’s been hospitalized. The good news is that Judy’s sister and sister-in-law have come to help. Despite all the negativity, spirits are somewhat high.
February – March 2015
Scans again clear. Time for radiation, which is no fun, but it’s much better than chemo.
Judy’s and Tenzin’s son is getting married in June, right after another scan. Woody, who has been released from the closet but remains under house arrest, thinks the scan should be put off until after the wedding, but Tenzin and Judy disagree. How great to hear the news beforehand they say.
But they don’t hear the news. Woody is not allowed to come up to DC for the festivities (though he does text twice). The wedding week is wonderful as Judy and Tenzin reunite with loved ones and enjoy interacting with their new in-laws. All agree the ceremony and reception are a blast.
When Judy and Tenzin return to Charleston, they learn the scan was “all clear.”
17 December 2015
Judy goes in for her six-month scan. Woody has been sneaking around googling, looking for PTCL-NOS success stories, and under that heading what’s below is all he can find:
To date: 17 chemotherapeutic drugs in 8 regimens. 4 of those drugs at least twice.
Knowing the redemptive value of suffering makes all the difference.
Woody also discovers that the median time for relapse is 6.7 months after primary treatment, and it’s been seven months since Judy’s ended. Plus her SED rate is way high at 38 (20’s normal). Woody googles for possible reasons for high SED rate. “Cancers: lymphoma, leukemia.”
18 December 2015
Judy tells Woody (who’s wearing a Tenzin mask) he doesn’t need to accompany her to her 3 o’clock appointment.
As soon as she leaves for work, Woody clobbers Tenzin over the head with a walking cane and shoves him in the closet.
Woody goes to work and grades one set of exams, attends a brunch, then goes home at one-thirty and tries to take a nap.
He falls into a fitful sleep but awakens.
The clock crawls. Three finally arrives. Why didn’t meet her there? Imagine a text message. Or if it’s bad, wouldn’t she call? Imagine her driving back by herself knowing. Poor thing. 3:05. Friday’s NY Times crossword puzzle. It’s impossible. 3:15. He imagines Judy being weighed, getting her blood pressure taken. 3:30, no word. 3:35 goes down to play solitaire. 3:50. Knows Judy might get irritated but calls.
She hasn’t been seen yet!
4:05; Billie Holiday’s text ring tone “Comes Love” sounds. He sees ”scan’s all clear” on the screen. Screams Yes!! Literally dances a jig. Judy calls. “Yes!” He texts his sons “Yes!” He texts friends. “Yes!”
He rides his bike down to the Jack of Cups where he finds the owner Nick sitting at the bar with Tyler, a Chico Feo bartender, sitting next to him, and Samantha, a lovely tattoo-covered “girl next door” stationed behind the bar. He shares the good news. Larry comes in. Lesley, Nick’s wife comes in. They all high five. Nick disappears and returns with six shots.
They raise their glasses and chug.
Meanwhile, Tenzin is just coming to back home. He walks slowly up the stairs to his study and takes from the shelf The Selected Poems of WH Auden. He looks at the index of first lines, flips to the sought after page, and reads: