The Big C

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Emily Dickinson Lied

When you breathe out, somebody else usually breathes in. She saw it coming. She finally knew she could bear it.

"I know that chemo will eventually take your beautiful golden tresses, but I will be your bald twin!"

One domino does not a chain make. One lie begat many lies, many assumptions and sins by omission; it will be an ongoing process. He'll give her his hope, but first he has to know the truth. She isn't doing chemo. Her golden tresses are in no more danger than the rest of her.

"It's not a good treatment for Stage IV. It'll just make me weak and nauseous, so I decided not to do it." And if she's not doing that, what is she doing? It's a reasonable question with no answer at all. "Living my life?"

When he looks at her like that she feels ridiculous. All the reasons she had melt away, seem foolish in that new light. She opened the door and the light is flooding in. She stumbles toward him, tells him about the chemical trial; he says this is tantamount to waiting for somebody else to figure it out. He doesn't know that's what medicine is.

Paul's been on the internet, desperate to rewrite the story, to redefine the facts into something that will let him breathe. All night long: Coffee enemas -- "we can do that as soon as you brew a fucking pot of coffee" -- and breast milk -- "we'll need a nursing mother" -- and all the things he read about, before the fear really even sunk in. It still hasn't. He's a boy on the beach, sand in his knees, begging her to get better. Begging her to have told him sooner, that she was dying.

"Paul, it's not an easy thing to say. It doesn't just roll off the tongue." She laughs at his hair, at his solidarity, but it's no longer unkind; she knows he'll retreat into himself when he realizes what he's done, and they can laugh about it. And they will.

To the salon, where a sweet man named Jackie is amazed at the patch torn out. Cathy shakes her head and tells Jackie that Paul did this to himself. "Actually," Paul says, "Cancer did it to me." She lets it go; it's not untrue. Jackie nods, sympathetic -- more than sympathetic, horrified -- for Paul. Paul doesn't know that's what he wanted, because it's an unkind thing to think about anybody, much less himself. And because he can't tell the difference between sympathy and pity, or between what's happening to Cathy and what's happening, now, to Paul. She kept her story secret so that it could stay her story.

"I get so many people who come in because they start the chemo shave and then they just can't finish it," Jackie says, and they nod; when he asks, Paul tells him it's melanoma, noting to his wife how easily it trips off the tongue. "That feels really good to just say," he says, taking her place in his drama that is hers.

"That's a tricky one. My partner's cousin had melanoma..." Paul asks about coffee enemas, and Jackie responds with apricots. Twenty a day, he swears, is a bona fide cure. She's tired of them both, so she rolls her eyes. "For what, pooping?" They look at her like a murderer and she just shakes her head. Her life has never been a story about Paul but Paul's life has always been a story about Paul that included her. He's never breathed enough to know the difference.

"They gave her six months, it's been three years, and she's still hanging on." Thanks to apricots. Not cold desperate cruel chance, not medicine, not Dr. Mauer, not Paul's unending enthusiasm for life, life, life: Apricots. Bona fide. "I'm gonna go get my special snippers, and I'll be right back," says Jackie, with a gentle pat. When he's gone, Paul half wishes he were married to Jackie instead.

"With our attitude and ideas, might actually be able to beat this thing." Cathy offers to fire her oncologist and just act on Jackie's advice. Paul wonders whether her oncologist wears a long black robe, no face, maybe carries a scythe. Like the one Paul's grandfather used to have, he says, illustrating her life by use of his own. "Apparently yours uses it to poke holes in people, so all their hope drains out."

No, she thinks. Mine cuts problems out of everybody's lives, so that I'm not a burden. So they can never call me that. And her oncologist is more attractive, and loving, than a thousand death's heads. Just because she's not trying chemotherapy doesn't mean she's not trying, but Paul can't understand that. Quantity, over quality, is the essence of Paul's life. Everything loud and very exciting. Nothing too quiet, or too small. If she's not following Paul's medical advice, she's following no advice at all.

She swears her husband Paul is crazy and he agrees: Crazy with cancer. He begs her to try things, apricots and coffee enemas and breastmilk, anything. "If not for yourself, at least for me and Adam." Not to prolong it, her life or her pain, necessarily; not for any reason beyond those he just named. Because they need to see her doing it, because watching her doing it means the nothing they can do is actually helping. Because in the absence of things to do he will be more alone than ever. Because Emily Dickinson lied: Hope demands everything to stay alive.

"When does this get to be about me?" she asks, and for once he breathes out and answers with the truth. "It's been about you all summer." He asks her to try it her way, just for a few days, and she asks what he means, by his way. "Blabbing about it to every Tom, Dick and hairdresser who'll listen?" And taking up their advice, taking it on like a ship takes on water, eggshells and bobbypins, until her life is a junkyard schedule of half-truths and home remedies? He'd love the opportunity, for a few days at least, to schedule and supervise and oversee her enemas, force-feed her those apricots. He'd love nothing more than to help. To prove that he is capable of helping.

"It feels good to talk about things," he says, which she only just learned recently. "You should try it sometime." She looks at him, loving him more than ever, and decides to give honesty a try:

"If I tell people, then I have to deal with their feelings. Like yours, now. It's a lot."

Paul -- and "incidentally," he says, their son -- is entitled to feelings about it. Feelings with which, yes, his wife Cathy will have to deal. And if she hesitates, there's the nuclear option: "I don't know how I'm going to be around Adam with this information, and not tell him. I don't know how I'm gonna do that."

It's a threat; it's exactly the way that it sounds. But it's also fact, self-knowledge, and that's hard-won. So she reasons with him, and with the feelings to which her husband is entitled: "I don't want him to know I'm sick until I seem sick." Paul finds victory in this, the upper hand. As though by fighting her he's fighting what's in her, on her own behalf: "Maybe if you just have a coffee fucking enema and pop a few apricots, you won't have to tell him at all!" She shakes her head. The special snippers arrive. Paul loves to be indulged. Paul deserves to be indulged.

She breathes in. She breathes out. She breathes so fast she's not really breathing. Dr. Todd is surprised and happy to see her; it's not worth getting surprised anymore when she rearranges their schedule so that they can meet again. It's only a reason to be happy. He gleams at her when she arrives, breathless; he's happy to hear that Adam's doing fine. "I'm hoping that his mild concussion will result in improved math skills," she says. Her heart beats fast.

"Probably because I did a coffee enema," she admits, and he's shocked. This isn't something they've talked about, or would ever talk about. She's talking about it now. "I used to think that the alternative world was just full of crystals and crazies, but, you know, I went online and I've got to say a lot of this stuff makes sense. Have you heard of a bee sting treatment, for cancer?" She's his first. Is this what clich├ęs look like, when they're born?

"Yeah! There's this doctor in Canada who does it, and you get stung by a lot of bees, and it throws your immune system into overdrive, and there's this one guy..." She knows she's losing him. "This one guy, look, he was cured spontaneously! I mean, that's amazing!" She's always been able to flip Dr. Todd, everything she says, he does. Why won't he give her this? She breathed out, and now there's hope to deal with. On top of everything else.

Caffeine and adrenaline. "And I was thinking, you know, maybe I should just go visit Canada? I mean, it's so close." Todd stares; the sadness he keeps at bay whenever she's around. The way she keeps the dark at bay.

"Are you trying to keep me sick?" she laughs, meaning it more the more she says. Surprising herself. "Do you have Munchausen By Proxy?" She's moving so fast; she's changing so fast. He thought he could see her, he could stay with her, but they've got her terrified now. He can't look her in the eyes, with that look they share, the look that is the basis of every single thing they share, and shut it down. Caffeine, adrenaline, shifting into anger. Anger that pretends it isn't anger; anger that shows on her beautiful face. Eclipsing everything else.

"I don't dismiss the alternative world completely," he says, more softly. "Acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation: A lot of my patients use them as supplements to what they're doing with Western medicine." Her face goes hard: To supplement. Not to cure. "To make themselves feel better," he says, and knows it was a wrong turn. Cathy grabs her purse and her fantastic rack and takes her leave. "You really know how to suck the caffeine out of a girl," she says, disappointed by him at last. Oh, she adds at the d

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The Big C

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