CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize
"Second Time Around" by Patricia Webb
In this shortlisted story for the 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, history heartbreakingly repeats itself as a diagnosis comes back for good.
2013 - New sclerotic lesions within the vertebral bodies consistent with mestastases.
He demands copies of all his paperwork now. He never used to when he was seeing his late wife’s G.P., but the old guy retired; attained sainthood. Everything from that period has ascended to new and holier designations.
“She cried,” he says, and hands me a stack of papers.
“What’s this?” I can’t bear to look through it all. The tumors have spread and I ought to be crying. I feel guilty for showing less emotion than his doctor but someone has to remain strong.
“An end of life kit. She gives them to all her critical patients.”
“And these,” at least a dozen pre-signed PSA tests. PSA falling, he’s in remission. PSA rising, the panic sets in.
Obviously, the bitch has washed her hands of the whole affair and it is up to us now to monitor his progress and prepare ourselves. I don’t say this out loud. “We should leave,” I say. “Go and grab a coffee.”
He nods, then slumps behind the wheel and stares around the parking lot as if he’s lost. I slide my hand over his. The cancer is back and it has plugged the way forward; inflated like a giant, misshapen airbag.
He nursed his wife through ovarian cancer; shaved her head for her in the shower. They made love with a sarong tied over her colostomy bag.
He curses Vancouver traffic, idiotic pedestrians, splats of rain that flick the windshield. “Make up your mind,” he mutters. Turns the wipers on and then off again. The traffic signal changes and we screech to a stop. A triangular light appears on the dash, indicating the tire pressure is low. “Why don’t you take care of these things,” he demands, then shushes me when I try to answer. He turns down the radio. Cocks his head, and listens. He claims there is a ticking sound coming from the motor. “You’re driving this thing into the ground, but you know what—I’m sick of caring, if you don’t.” He slams the car into park and jumps out. Storms across the road, his black trench coat flapping back from his legs. Dress shoes, fedora, except for his jeans, he looks like a mafia Don. He pokes the crosswalk button but the light doesn’t change. He jabs at it again, and again. Even with the window rolled up, the radio announcer, two lanes of traffic blowing through the intersection; I can still hear him yelling.
2001- This 46 year old male has biopsy-proven prostatic cancer. Pretreatment PSA: 19.7 Gleason score: III + IV. Clinically, he is a T2B.
This 46 year old male as if there is a rack of men somewhere, hung like thin-skinned winter coats. Fuck them. He’s six feet tall, blue-eyed. He has a thumb size dimple at the base of his spine. He likes Ted Turner’s classic movies and eats Nan bread with his curried lamb. He nursed his wife through ovarian cancer; shaved her head for her in the shower. They made love with a sarong tied over her colostomy bag.
We are sitting at his desk reading through his medical history together. We disagree as to whether he should be dead already, or not. There is a ten year life expectancy if the cancer returns, but it is unclear, when you are supposed to start counting: after surgery fails? When the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, or the bones? According to my reckoning there has been some sort of miracle and I whisper to him about beating the odds. Whisper because it feels like a jinx to openly hope for anything. He plots his own trajectory. Talks of déjà vu; walks the same halls at the same cancer clinic, receives his medicine at the same counter as his wife used to.
2010 - Gleason 7 (maximum is 10) patient underwent radiation and hormone therapy. Unfortunately, the cancer has relapsed and he is seeing the specialist again for possible new procedures, as yet undetermined. Prostate cancer shortens a patient’s life and it is not different with this patient, so his life expectancy was shortened at the initial diagnosis and will surely be shortened again.
My birthday falls on the same day as hers. I water her fig tree and dust her photo on the mantle. He talks about the past a lot these days and I recognize the look on his face when he stares into her eyes. Yes, he is coming back to you, I tell her, but not yet. He keeps a second photo tucked away in his bedside table. It’s a snapshot taken a few weeks before she died, in which she is gaunt, unrecognizable. If I stare at it for too long I feel like ripping that fucking tree out by its roots, burning what’s left of her books. I don’t want to think about how it was to watch her die like that.
2011 - There’s an enlarging soft-tissue nodule measuring 3x2.6x2.6 cm pathologically enlarged lymph nodes .a 1.6 cm -cm obturator two further right iliac nodes measuring 1.6
With a pencil and ruler he plots out a three-dimensional image. “There it is,” he says. Sounds satisfied. As if he has managed somehow to remove the tumor from his own defective body. He groans. “I can’t sit still any longer.”
Hard to believe, as he walks away, that death is there too, schlepping across the living room in a thick house robe and velour slippers. But those calves, muscular from years of cross-country skiing, bicycling, they’re firmly alive.
I join him in the bedroom and he glares at me as if I have done something horrible. I know it’s the pain scrambling the messages between us, but everything inside me compresses. I cannot think another thought or feel another feeling. I force my body up onto the bed and lie there staring at his back: flanks of muscle, shrifts of bone. He slides his feet around mine and I soften. Strip down and shuffle in close. I love to spoon this way, even if sometimes, unreasonably, I suspect cancer is contagious.
“Remember to be nice to your self,” he says, and I flounder.
“I am so sorry for feeling sorry for myself,” I say, and he turns and pulls me in close. I want to disappear inside of him because he won’t always be here to be nice to me. This man who knows me well enough to say such things.
I haven’t told him yet, but she came to me once. Her fingers grazed my hair, a touch thin as static.
Seven a.m. and he is sprawled across the bed. The window is open a crack and the fan on the dresser is blowing the cool air around. It’s too cold for me to try and go back to sleep. I crawl across the bed. Kiss the length of the scar on his abdomen. A seam of bloodless skin, crimped shut, like the top of a re-sealable bag.
2001- Lower abdomen and genitalia were draped a 20 Foley catheter was placed into the bladder an incision made rectus muscles split vas deferens taken down bluntly endopelvic fascia opened levator muscles dissected dorsal bundle cut urethra cut...bladder freed from the prostate clipped cut The specimens received in four containers all labeled with the patient’s name.
I imagine all of my body dissected into little jars.
In the bathroom, he has forgotten to flush, or perhaps he wants me to see, this toilet full of blood. I wonder if she ever challenged him just try and ignore my suffering. I know he had a brief affair, but he cringes if I bring it up. I flush, and it wakes him.
“You want eggs for breakfast,” he calls out.
“No.” Callous bastard
When I emerge, I find him in the kitchen stood by the stove: back stooped, track pants pulled up almost to his chest, a blue toque on his bald head, the rim pulled down like a fringe. He clucks like Julia Child as he flails the whisk around, narrates a bastardized version of her cooking show. “Eggs Hollandaise,” he says, his voice nasal, jubilant. He flashes the contents of the bowl he’s holding. “I’m feeling a lot better,” he says. We should go for a walk later.”
We’re not far from the road, but the trail swerves downwards, fools you into thinking you’re headed deep into the forest: Birch leaves rustle and fall quiet again. A smear of light as the sun shifts position. I haven’t told him yet, but she came to me once. Her fingers grazed my hair, a touch thin as static. There is an echo, a chocking sound as we cross a wooden bridge between an overhang of trees. The sound of rushing water rains down on us, empties out of everything. He rests his arms against the damp wood rail and peers over the edge. I nudge him, a little too roughly. Catch myself and settle.
2012 - Recurrent disease in the region of the surgical clips, PSA 17 and rising...
“She told me once that it bothered her.”
“When I held back. It made her feel like she was already dead.”