Copyright © 1998, Ralph Warrington
On February 6, 1996, the first day of his life that Dick would never forget, nothing about the structure of the day seemed unusual: dental appointment, the usual office projects and problems. Dick waited for a phone call from his wife, Nancy. There was nothing unusual in that, nothing except the fear ripping his heart out, pulling it from the roots and clenching his stomach like a fist, while he hoped against hope Nancy would call and tell him it was nothing: a mistake, a benign cyst. He would gladly have endured the worst day of his professional career for just one day of the way his life was before. It wouldn?t have been so much a return as a reprieve--a reprieve from a death sentence. Not a death sentence for him, but for Nancy, his wife of 28 years. Dick?s own sentence was despair.
Nancy left the surgeon?s office, rode down the elevator, stepped out into the parking garage, her keys clutched in her hand, looking for her car. Twenty minutes later she was still looking for it. The keys had impressed deeply into her palm, as if she were trying to make a duplicate impression in wax. When she opened her hand the deep lines cut by the keys flushed pink from the returning blood flow; she didn?t feel any pain, and she?d forgotten she was looking for the car or where it was. It didn?t matter.
She had gone to the surgeon for a breast biopsy, a simple outpatient procedure to confirm that she couldn?t have what her doctor thought he might have seen on a mammogram. She had been prepared for another test, another period of waiting, another result that, might even be refuted and have to be repeated, perhaps even a second opinion. But it hadn?t happened. She?d been on time for her appointment, punctual as always, ready for instructions on what to do or not to do, perhaps some pain, and then to go back to work and wait for the result. But there had been no biopsy, no need for it the surgeon told her. The cancer was clear on the mammogram. There was no point to a biopsy to confirm what he already knew: Nancy had breast cancer. Her next surgery should be to remove the neoplasm growing in her breast. In the parking lot, she looked up from her hand, realizing from the keys and the imprint in her palm that she was looking for her car, but it was dark all around her. How would she find her car. How would she find her way out?
Dick?s phone didn?t ring. instead he heard his name on the overhead pager: call the operator. He snatched up the telephone receiver. Nancy was looking for him; she had come straight to the office instead of calling. When Dick saw her face he knew there was no reprieve. He didn?t have to ask, or he couldn?t. So Nancy told him: the doctor had done a mammogram and told her she had cancer. Then she told Dick what he knew she would: she wasn?t going to have chemotherapy. Dick knew she would tell him that because of a pact they had made together years before, that should either of them get cancer they would not put each other or themselves through the misery of chemotherapy.
Dick and Nancy?s experience with cancer had started back in the 70?s when Nancy?s cousin died from leukemia. The cousin had been treated with chemotherapy and suffered tremendously for a long time. One of Dick?s aunts took chemotherapy treatment and swore that rather than endure another round of chemo she would rather die--she did so three months later. In 1988, another of Dick?s aunts died on the operating table while having a tumor removed. In 1989, a friend of Dick?s died from prostate cancer, and in 1996, a woman Nancy worked with lived three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Nancy had filled this woman's position after her death and now sat in her chair, a reminder of the power of cancer every time she sat at her desk.
To Dick and Nancy, chemotherapy was not an option if the impossible ever happened to either of them; chemo made what little time left to cancer victims a torment, and the suffering didn?t even extend the time for those willing to endure it. It wasn?t even a fair trade.
In the moment that Nancy walked in the door, all Dick could think of was that his wife was going to die. Nothing in his experience offered him any hope. In a fog of shock, with dimming denial his only cushion, he called the surgeon. The lump in Nancy?s breast needed to be removed as soon as possible. Three days later the surgeon removed the malignant lump and seven lymph nodes, one of which showed traces of cancer. The treatment would be standard: chemotherapy and radiation, and Nancy?s answer was the same: no chemotherapy, no radiation.
Dick entered a blind alley with nowhere to turn. He wanted his wife to live, to recover, but he knew Nancy; when she made a decision she stuck by it. Throughout their marriage, in all their time together, Nancy had been a rock; she was always there for him and for their children, and she had always been consistent, providing an anchor in a constantly changing world. But Dick needed a way out of the blind alley, and he wanted to take Nancy with him, lead her out of the darkness. But even staring at death Nancy didn?t back down. She had seen the effects of chemotherapy with her own eyes, and so had Dick. Would he not stand by her in this, the most important stand she had ever taken, would he not back her up when she needed him to support her in her decision more than she ever had? After all, it had been Dick?s decision too. Neither of them made decisions lightly, and when they did they took their stand on their values. It was part of how they had forged their lives, how they had raised their children to face the world--to stand up for what they believed in, no matter how tough the going got. You didn?t turn and run in the face of trouble, or even death.
But Dick wanted hope; he wanted more than hope--he wanted Nancy. But he couldn?t see a way out of the blind alley, and it kept closing in, squeezing him. At home in the evenings he couldn?t keep his eyes off her. How could she be there now and not be there in the future? This happened to other people, not to them. He would wake up and the nightmare would be over, but when he did wake up, when he opened his eyes in the morning, it was the first thing that filled his consciousness. He would reach over and touch her, his lips moving silently.
At work a friend asked Dick the usual question by way of greeting, How?s it going? Dick stifled his automatic "fine" and told the truth. Nancy had breast cancer and would not accept treatment, neither chemotherapy nor radiation. His coworker suggested he talk to another employee, Michael, who had a cancer story.