The smell of cancer

I visited Phil in the hospital today. He was neither awake nor asleep, and his hands kept grasping at things I couldn’t see. He gurgled like my father did as he lay dying, and the percolator-like sound made the last thirteen years disappear in an instant. Tears that never fell for my father, fell for my friend. An aide asked if I was his brother. I said I was, realizing for the first time that Phil and I could be mistaken for relatives. The staff treated me more familiarly than they would had I said I was his friend. They even left him in my care for a while.

Phil awakened, and tried to eat from a tray that had been in the room when I got there. He waved his spoon over his food like a magician trying to conjure a rabbit. Now and then, spoon and food would touch, and he would lift the resultant smudge of gravy or tapioca to his lips. I offered to feed him, but he would have none of it. I sat on my hands in frustration. An hour later, he gave up on the spoon, and tried to eat his applesauce directly from its plastic container. He couldn’t get the container turned so that the opening was toward his face, so I removed the foil completely, and watched as he tried to lap the applesauce with his tongue. I began to laugh. Phil didn’t care. He knows me too well.

He was in a talkative mood, but his speech was as amorphous as his movements, and I could only catch one word out of twenty. “Here I am,” I told myself, “missing out on what might well be my friend’s dying words.” This too struck me as funny.

The stench of cancer caused me to choke down vomit at times. A physical therapist asked the belligerent man in the next bed where he was. “Sacred Heart,” he replied confidently. “Can you tell me what kind of a place Sacred Heart is?” she persisted. He paused. “A large industrial complex with office buildings.” “Not bad,” I thought. The nurse continued, “Do you know what year this is?” “1976.” “Good guess,” I told myself—“close enough for working purposes anyway.” “Do you know what time of year it is?” Under my breath: “Geez, lady, he’s already missed the year by three decades. What is it you want here? Are you really going to chart” ‘Patient off on the correct year by thirty-one, but hit the month dead-on.’”

Phil’s room was six stories up and directly over Hilyard Street. I wondered if I could aim well enough to land in the back of a passing pickup (it tickled me to imagine how high the people in the front would jump), but reflected that the pavement looked more welcoming. I thought it a good day to die. Not the best, perhaps, due to a chill wind and a growing cloud cover, but not the worst either. I looked across Hilyard at the parking garage from which a woman jumped onto the top of the Subway Restaurant. She had told the shrink in the ER that she was suicidal, but he didn’t believe her. That’s the way it is at “a large industrial complex with office buildings” when you don’t have insurance.

I pictured Phil lying in that bed until he drowned, just as my father had. Give me a bullet to the head any day. Seriously. Take me to the woods; shoot me in the head; and leave me for critter chow. It’s a lot to ask, of course, and so I asked myself if I would do as much for Phil. “Yes,” I thought. “If Phil wanted it, and if I wouldn’t go to jail, I would blow Phil’s brains out, and watch the smoke waft from the hole in his head.”

I wondered if a wild animal would eat a malignant tumor. Some creatures will eat shit, and a lot of creatures will eat carrion; but I find it hard to believe that anything but a fire would eat cancer.

But then Phil wouldn’t want to be put away. Phil would choose life no matter what. I live everyday with the thought that I am dying. Phil didn’t think he was dying until this week. Long after everyone else accepted the fact that good old Phil wasn’t going to be good old Phil much longer, Phil was saying that he was going to beat this thing. It’s easy to think that we’re all basically alike, but we’re not. Phil’s tough. Phil’s a great deal tougher than I, at least emotionally, yet he’s going to die younger.

I caressed Phil’s thigh as he tried to eat. At my touch, his spoon paused in midair, and he tried to look at me through his remaining eye, but he couldn’t raise his head enough. The spoon resumed its arcs through space, and we sat in silence as I held his leg, and wished so very, very much that I could give him a long life. I left a note for Molly in which I offered to stay with Phil overnight, but as I biked home, the smell of cancer seemed to grow stronger with every passing block. Still, I will go if I am called, and I will be honored.