What It All Might Mean

A little over a year has passed since my lovely wife, Jeanie, was first diagnosed with cancer, just nine months since she finished her chemotherapy, and six months since she was finally declared to be cancer free. I wrote this piece back in April 2015, when the nightmare was in full swing, and the outcome of her treatment was still very much uncertain.

Jeanie and I have developed over the past few months the enjoyable habit of beginning our days sitting together in our “comfy-cozy” clothes (as Jeanie calls them) and watching the morning unfold outside our front room windows. Jeanie usually has a cup of espresso-strong coffee and a slice of toast slathered with plenty of butter and a couple of spoonfuls of that delicious raspberry freezer jam our friend Mary made for us. My digestion isn’t so tolerant of bread–or coffee–so I usually stick to having a cup of strongly brewed black tea made mellow with lots of cream and sugar. We watch our cats Andrew and Sparky wrestle with each other on the living room rug, or the occasional car running the stop sign–again–at the intersection our house is located on, or the distant, strange flock of turkey buzzards, who roost in the huge trees visible from several blocks away, as they rise en masse into the blue sky like a slow-moving black tornado, then scatter to begin their day’s foraging. Jeanie finishes working through the gobs of emails and Facebook posts that have materialized overnight on her iPhone. Mostly, however, we spend the time visiting with each other. Talking. We talk about anything that comes to mind: how well we slept (or didn’t sleep); the weather, of course; the passing on of some little tidbit regarding just about anything of interest, that one or several of her Facebook friends has shared with her; and then there’s the latest developments in our online sales business, and the dip in revenue we’ve experienced since Jeanie was first diagnosed with cancer.

Some days, obviously, our conversation is mostly about the cancer. How quickly it had developed. How few symptoms Jeanie had had. How smoothly her chemotherapy cycles have been for her, how few side-effects she’s suffered through.

This morning, we talked about how lucky Jeanie had been. Actually, the conversation started by my remarking how lucky I had been. I’d been looking out the window at the beautiful day, imagining (stupidly, I know) what it would be like to be sitting there alone with just the animals and the silence to share between us, after having lost Jeanie to her cancer. The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I looked at her. “I can’t begin to put my brain in a place that doesn’t have you in it,” I said to her. “I just can’t imagine going on without you.”

Okay, I’m a bit of a sap. But I was speaking the truth. And Jeanie knew it. She looked back at me and smiled and nodded appreciatively.

I looked back out the window. “So, as far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we both dodged a bullet. No. That’s not big enough. We dodged an atomic bomb. It’s that big.”

She laughed then. “Okay, I get it,” she said.

Yes, we’d both been lucky. Truly lucky. Tomorrow Jeanie goes in for her fifth out of six chemo cycles. Her last cycle will end May 5th, and we’ve already begun planning a celebration at The Rio, a local Mexican restaurant, to have dinner (along with one of The Rio’s famously huge margaritas) with any of our friends and local family who can come to help celebrate. Just three weeks ago, we’d met with Jeanie’s oncologist, Dr. Schuster, who’d beamed when he showed us Jeanie’s latest PET scan and announced, “I’d say your tumor is ninety-nine percent gone. You can’t even see it on the scan.” He pointed to some data on the screen. “There’s every reason to believe you’re going to be cured,” he said. And that is what we fully expect to be celebrating come May 5th.

But when we talked about these things this morning, Jeanie looked more troubled than relieved. I asked her what was wrong. “My friends all tell me how ‘courageous’ I am,” she explained, “that I’m some sort of ‘shining example of strength.’ That sort of thing. But when I think of many of the other cancer stories I’ve heard, what a lot of those people had to go through–the pain, the nausea–and how many of them actually lost their battle…well, I can’t help but feel a little–guilty, maybe.”

We looked at each other for a few moments without speaking. I couldn’t think of what I might offer in reply. What she had been feeling wasn’t so much a variation of “survivor’s guilt,” as I saw it, but was more the idea that her friends and relatives were giving her considerably more credit than she was due. “I haven’t really, truly suffered,” she said.

I didn’t agree with her, of course; I knew better. I hastened to remind her that enduring the presence of an obstructive eleven-centimeter tumor in her chest, and the resulting blockage of one major vein running from her brain to her heart (which, we learned later, was mere days from possibly killing her), as well as the total collapse of a second of these blood pathways–not to mention the surgeries to correct these issues, nor to further mention the administration of the chemotherapy drugs nor their resulting (albeit, minimal) side-effects–could hardly be called a walk in the park. I could have mentioned even more of her various trials, but by then she was giving me a look that strongly suggested I was going a little overboard, and I let the matter just sort of drift away.

A new thought came to her, however: “But, if I haven’t really suffered,” she mused, “then what’s this whole thing supposed to mean?” She looked at me. “What am I supposed to be learning here?”

I hadn’t any idea, at first. “I don’t really know,” I said. Then my mind shifted back a few minutes, to where I’d allowed that Jeanie and I have both (apparently) been coming out of this thing relatively unscathed. “Maybe,” I ventured, “it hasn’t been just for your benefit, if that’s the word. Maybe this was something designed to benefit several people.”

“Like who?” she asked.

I smiled at the idea blossoming in my head. “How about all the people who love you?” I said. “Me; your children and extended family; the vast collection of friends you’ve accumulated during your lifetime? Everyone who has rallied behind you from the beginning of your illness?”

She looked at me skeptically.

“Maybe they just needed a little nudge to help them remember how important you are to them, how much they really love you. Maybe you just needed that same nudge to remind you of the same thing: that you are loved, too.”

Of course, this brought tears to Jeanie’s eyes. I was reminded then of when she’d first been diagnosed with cancer and had begun calling or messaging close friends and relatives, how quickly, how forcefully, everyone had started communicating back, in various ways, to cheer her on, offering to help in any way they could, to pray, to send white light in her direction. It was a veritable cacophony of love. Jeanie had several times nearly melted in a pool of tears, crying out how overwhelmed she’d been by the simple, heartfelt kindness of people–and not just those people close to her, either, but acquaintances, childhood friends she hadn’t heard from in decades, neighbors on our street we hardly knew, even friends of mine she’d never met.

We chatted a little more, until the morning began approaching mid-day, and I got up and went to the back of the house to dress and to begin prepping for our breakfast of French toast. I like cooking for Jeanie, and, thankfully, she likes letting me cook for her. She understands my motivation for wanting to do so, an idea I’ve carried in my heart for most of my life: food is love.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking, as I worked, about what Jeanie and I had talked about. That question she had asked: What am I supposed to be learning here? We’re all connected, I have always believed, so the question could have as easily been put to me: What are you (Bill) supposed to be learning out of all of this?

And when I asked myself that question, I realized I already knew the answer. But as yet I had no words for it, just an image stuck in my head. The scene was in our kitchen, shortly after Jeanie had had her second cycle of chemo. She had been “knocked on her ass,” as we both called it: a sudden, tremendous lack of energy combined with an equally abrupt inability to taste just about anything. She’d been angry and (I thought) depressed: we had already cut off what was left of her thinning hair, and now she was encountering the continuing reality of her illness, the effects of her chemo, and the steadily growing magnitude of the work that still lay ahead of her. She was certainly working now, and hard. She was sitting at the kitchen table, staring into an empty space in front of her. She was pale and listless. I’d fixed her a cup of hot coffee and had made her a slice of buttered toast with raspberry jam. I watched her. She sipped at her coffee and worked her mouth a bit, trying, it seemed, to find a place on her tongue that might allow her at least a little taste of the coffee. Then she picked up a half-slice of her toast from the plate and bit off a little of that, chewing with small but deliberate movements of her jaw. She closed her eyes, then, and made a barely audible ummmmm sound.

“You can taste that?” I asked her.

She opened her eyes and looked at me, a slight smile playing on her pale lips as she chewed and swallowed. “Oh, yeah,” she said then. “That was good.” She took another bite and closed her eyes again and chewed.

There was something magic about this. Something wafted over me like a warm blanket, something I thought must be joy. I really have no other words for this epiphany. But my heart understood. I felt it swell in my chest until I thought it might burst out of me altogether. It was then, I think, that I finally realized: there is no calculating how much I love this woman or how much joy I feel in her presence, and no words to describe how grateful I am that this woman–the love of my life–is still in my life.

Perhaps, I thought, that was what I was supposed to learn.

One Small Step Forward…


The Bronx ParkThere’s a beautiful park in Bronx, NY, with a paved walking trail paralleling the Bronx River Parkway running south from East 233rd Street down to the Mosholu Parkway. The park is about two miles long, with the Bronx River (the Bronx stream, really) skirting the entire length of the park’s western edge. This past spring, when this incident took place, I’d been in the habit over the previous several weeks of beginning my days “in the city” with a walk along this trail. It gave our Sheltie dog Annie and me some exercise, and killed a little time until the library near where my wife Jeanie’s son Aaron lives opened at ten a.m. This day would be the last day I would take my walk in the park before Jeanie and I left New York to return to our home in Colorado.

Despite its beauty, I hadn’t really enjoyed the park as much as I wished I could have. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first is its location. The Bronx River Parkway is like most other traffic arteries in most large cities. Huge. Noisy. Four (sometimes six) lanes of traffic, nearly always busy, and a Metro North Railroad track on the other side of the Parkway, with trains running (screaming, actually) by every few minutes. On the other side of the park (it’s a narrow park, about fifty yards wide at its widest point), is one of the several neighborhoods that comprise Bronx, New York. Large apartment buildings, schools, the busy Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. It’s predominantly poor–which leads me to the second reason I had not often enjoyed my walks. There is an attitude I often see in large urban areas populated by mostly poor people. How can I describe it? Unhappy. Angry. Frustrated. Depressed. People I encountered in the park rarely smiled as I passed. They rarely said anything. They rarely even looked at me. And if they looked at me, there seemed (to me) to be something angry and threatening in their faces. I felt likely to be attacked, even in the broad daylight, by someone waiting for me behind a tree or bush.

I realize I bring a lot of my own garbage into whatever situation I happen to find myself. I come from a poor background myself. I lived for several years in the McLaren District of San Francisco, otherwise known as the projects, until I was eight years old. There were many angry, frustrated, depressed people there, too. I learned firsthand just how violent such people can be. And I learned to be cautious, even suspicious (dare I say, paranoid?), when I was anywhere near them.

All of this notwithstanding, I still managed to suck it up and gut it out, so to speak. I dutifully snapped a leash onto Annie’s collar every day and together we strode purposefully from one end of the park to the other and back again. I told myself I’d be damned if I was going to let a little fear keep me from doing what I wanted to do.

Of course, there was no reason to think that this day’s walk would be any different from all the ones before. But as I started down the path, I noticed up ahead a young black couple crossing the street from (I assumed) their large brick apartment building and heading into the park on the grass. What caught my eye was this: the man carried what looked like a small shovel with a bright red handle; and the slender woman held a small bundle to her chest, about the size of a twelve-pack of beer, wrapped in red cloth, a blanket or towel perhaps. This was a city park, I thought. Why would they need a shovel? The pair walked slowly, deliberately, as if each step required great effort. When they came to a small shade tree still frosted with pinkish-white early spring blossoms, they stopped. They stood there motionless for a few moments and stared at the ground in front of the tree. Finally, the man took the shovel and drove it into the ground with his foot and began to dig. The woman stood and watched him, swaying a little, patting the bundle at her chest as if it were her baby.

It didn’t take much thought to figure out what was happening. They had come to the tree to bury a pet, a small dog or cat.

The paved trail passed within a few short yards of where this little ceremony was taking place. Something prompted me to stop for a few seconds, maybe even to say something to them. After all, I was walking Annie, whom I had grown to love over the nearly five years Jeanie and I have had her. Back at the fifth-wheel coach we were traveling in, we had our cats Angus and Argyle, and our Amazon parrot Pele waiting for us. They were (are) our “kids”, our family. I could easily understand what these people must have been going through. Nevertheless, I ignored the prompting, telling myself theirs was a private ceremony, I hadn’t been invited, and frankly, might not have been welcome. I hurried past without looking and continued my walk.

I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the park, the green against the sharp blue sky, the big puffy clouds like white elephants (to borrow from Hemingway), the smells of fresh cut grass (the park personnel kept the place immaculately groomed and free of the litter I’d been accustomed to seeing at other parks). But the image of the young man slowly digging into the grassy hillside, and of the young woman hovering nearby, watching, waiting, gently patting her precious bundle, followed me like an invisible ghost, whispering in my ear. How had the animal died, I wondered? Had it been sick? Was it old? I recalled the extraordinary efforts Jeanie and I had put forth just recently to save not one but both our cats from eating disorders and urinary tract infections which had nearly killed them. I guessed these people had had to put forth the same sort of effort for their own animal. I looked down at Annie, who was obviously happy to be outside, her tongue hanging happily from her mouth, her ears and eyes alert for birds or squirrels. It was easy to imagine the anguish I would feel if I lost her.

Suddenly, I realized, these people were kin.

That’s not to say that I had anything approaching a religious experience, that I was suddenly consumed with love and understanding and free of the fear which had plagued me. But something inside me seemed to shift just a little. I came upon a group of young girls, mostly black, sitting together inside one of the playgrounds. I heard their laughter; there seemed something free and clean about it, as if they’d somehow managed to avoid the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness amid which they lived. One of the park workers, a grizzled black man, looked up from raking a pile of dead leaves and nodded at me, just long enough to let me know he’d seen me. I gave a surprised nod back, and he turned and walked away, dragging his plastic trash can behind him.

The young couple at the tree were still working when I passed them on the return leg. The red bundle was gone, and the woman was patting and smoothing the fresh patch of dirt with the shovel. The man was busy nearby, carving something in the trunk of the tree with a large knife.

Once again, I was tempted to go over to them, introduce myself, tell them I was sorry for their loss. But, again, I resisted. I averted my eyes as I strode past with Annie, still telling myself they deserved their privacy. A few minutes later, I’d loaded Annie into the truck, and was pulling from the curb to begin the short drive back to Pelham Parkway where Jeanie and the library awaited me. And as I turned the corner for the on-ramp, I could see the two of them, she still tamping down the dirt, the man patiently working on the tree with his knife.

That’s the story, I guess, as far as it goes. And it might have ended there. I could just as easily have motored on as if nothing were different. But I think one of the things I am learning, slowly, is that pretty much everything we see, and how we see it, is a matter of conscious choice. If nothing changed in how I viewed life, it would be because I wanted for nothing to change. That day, I decided, I wanted different.

And so I tucked the moment away, safe in that small corner of my brain where I gather all the little snippets which serve to remind me that, despite appearances, we really are all cut from the same fabric, even if it’s from a far removed section of the patchwork quilt we call life. And I breathed a silent promise to this young man and woman, whom I would likely never see again, that I would share it with the other people in my life who care about such things, and so would understand.