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Dire Cure

Written by: William Matthews | Biography
 "First, do no harm," the Hippocratic
Oath begins, but before she might enjoy
such balm, the docs had to harm her tumor.
It was large, rare, and so anomalous in its behavior that at first they mis- diagnosed it.
"Your wife will die of it within a year.
" But in ten days or so I sat beside her bed with hot-and-sour soup and heard an intern congratulate her on her new diagnosis: a children's cancer (doesn't that possessive break your heart?) had possessed her.
I couldn't stop personifying it.
Devious, dour, it had a clouded heart, like Iago's.
It loved disguise.
It was a garrison in a captured city, a bad horror film (The Blob), a stowaway, an inside job.
If I could make it be like something else, I wouldn't have to think of it as what, in fact, it was: part of my lovely wife.
Next, then, chemotherapy.
Her hair fell out in tufts, her color dulled, she sat laced to bags of poison she endured somewhat better than her cancer cells could, though not by much.
And indeed, the cancer cells waned more slowly than the chemical "cocktails" (one the bright color of Campari), as the chemo nurses called them, dripped into her.
There were three hundred days of this: a week inside the hospital and two weeks out, the fierce elixirs percolating all the while.
She did five weeks of radiation, too, Monday to Friday like a stupid job.
She wouldn't eat the food the hospital wheeled in.
"Pureed fish" and "minced fish" were worth, I thought, a sharp surge of food snobbery, but she'd grown averse to it all -- the nurses' crepe soles' muffled squeaks along the hall, the filtered air, the smothered urge to read, the fear, the perky visitors, flowers she'd not been sent when she was well, the room- mate (what do "semiprivate" and "extra virgin" have in common?) who died, the nights she wept and sweated faster than the tubes could moisten her with lurid poison.
One chemotherapy veteran, six years in remission, chanced on her former chemo nurse at a bus stop and threw up.
My wife's tumor has not come back.
I like to think of it in Tumor Hell strapped to a dray, flat as a deflated football, bleak and nubbled like a poorly ironed truffle.
There's one tense in Tumor Hell: forever, or what we call the present.
For that long the flaccid tumor marinates in lurid toxins.
Tumor Hell Clinic is, it turns out, a teaching hospital.
Every century or so, the way we'd measure it, a chief doc brings a pack of students round.
They run some simple tests: surge current through the tumor, batter it with mallets, push a wood-plane across its pebbled hide and watch a scurf of tumor- pelt kink loose from it, impale it, strafe it with lye and napalm.
There might be nothing left in there but a still space surrounded by a carapace.
"This one is nearly dead," the chief doc says.
"What's the cure for that?" The students know: "Kill it slower, of course.
" They sprinkle it with rock salt and move on.
Here on the aging earth the tumor's gone: My wife is hale, though wary, and why not? Once you've had cancer, you don't get headaches anymore, you get brain tumors, at least until the aspirin kicks in.
Her hair's back, her weight, her appetite.
"And what about you?" friends ask me.
First the fear felt like sudden weightlessness: I couldn't steer and couldn't stay.
I couldn't concentrate: surely my spit would dry before I could slather a stamp.
I made a list of things to do next day before I went to bed, slept like a cork, woke to no more memory of last night's list than smoke has of fire, made a new list, began to do the things on it, wept, paced, berated myself, drove to the hospital, and brought my wife food from the takeout joints that ring a hospital as surely as brothels surround a gold strike.
I drove home rancid with anger at her luck and mine -- anger that filled me the same way nature hates a vacuum.
"This must be hell for you," some said.
Hell's not other people: Sartre was wrong about that, too.
L'enfer, c'est moi? I've not got the ego for it.
There'd be no hell if Dante hadn't built a model of his rage so well, and he contrived to get exiled from it, for it was Florence.
Why would I live in hell? I love New York.
Some even said the tumor and fierce cure were harder on the care giver -- yes, they said "care giver" -- than on the "sick person.
" They were wrong who said those things.
Of course I hated it, but some of "it" was me -- the self-pity I allowed myself, the brave poses I struck.
The rest was dire threat my wife met with moral stubbornness, terror, rude jokes, nausea, you name it.
No, let her think of its name and never say it, as if it were the name of God.



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