by Caleb Wimble
I’ve stopped hearing him. I watch his lips moving, but they may as well be speaking another language. Two words. Two words are all it takes to send me into total systems failure.
What does he mean, “It’s terminal”? This isn’t happening. He’s screwed up somehow, a bug crawled over the x-ray, the nurse is going to come rushing in here any minute now calling “Doctor, doctor, we’ve made a terrible mistake!” and we’re all going to have a dramatic sigh of relief and a good laugh over the whole thing. Twenty-three year-olds don’t get brain cancer. And if they do, it’s sure as hell not “untreatable.” This is the twenty-first century! There’s no way it can be “too far gone” for chemo.
I’ll start the therapy this week. Sure, it’ll be hell, I’ll be in constant pain, I’ll be broke, I’ll start to lose my hair... But none of those are a huge departure from my current reality anyway. Then a year later they’ll tell me the great news: the tumors are completely eradicated! And I’ll go on with my life enriched by the experience and having grown from the pain.
Hell, I’ll probably even write a book, I’ll be one of those famous survivors, a near-tragedy. I’ll finish my degree and my life will go on and I’ll get my research funding and Ryan and I will get married and we’ll use the money from the book to travel Europe like we always talk about and probably even move over there and I’ll live to be a hundred and tell my grandkids the tumors were the size of bowling balls and... And I’ll stay in denial till the last minute because there’s no way I can handle this and keep my sanity.
Ryan’s calling again. I can only imagine why he thinks I’m not answering. I don’t know how many hours I’ve been sitting here in the parking lot. It’s dark, but in a Missouri November, that’s not saying much. I finally start up the engine. I start to check the mirror to pull out, then decide to let the car drive this time.
“Route includes toll charges. Do you want to avoid toll roads?”
“I don’t give a damn right now.”
“Estimated arrival in thirty-four minutes.”
“Take a longer route.”
* * *
I break down halfway through, but he’s caught enough to know where I’m going with it. Next thing his arms are around me, holding me so tight I can barely breathe, and we’re both crying now. I can’t take this. I can’t do this to him, I don’t have any right to. But I can’t do this alone. It’s too much. It’s too damn much.
Dad doesn’t believe it at first. He gets furious when I try to explain, starts ranting about incompetent doctors and rotten equipment, and it’s pretty obvious where I inherited my first reaction. Mom, on the other hand, isn’t saying anything. She’s just staring at me, keeps glancing out the window whenever I try to meet her eyes. God, I must be killing them. I’ve never hated myself more.
“I’m so sorry, Jacob... I... that doesn’t even begin to say it, does it? You’ll tell me if there’s anything I can do, won’t you?”
They’ve all said the same thing. They don’t know how to handle this any better than I do. I thank Dr. Jensen and assure her I will. She makes as if to shake my hand, hesitates, then embraces me. I’m shocked for a second. Have I ever had physical contact with a professor before? But I return the hug. I notice her eyes welling up as I turn to leave. Another first. I’d cry again too if I were still capable.
And that’s it, my last class dropped. I’m officially no longer a grad student at Wash U. God knows what I am anymore.
This is some kind of sick hoax. If I knew who was behind it I don’t know what I’d do to them. The migraines are getting worse now to the point where I spend half my time in bed sucking down painkillers, and I don’t have the slightest patience for this.
A second letter claiming to be from the neuroscience research department. Dr. Ian O’Neill specifically, Nobel-nominated for his work in synaptic pathway mapping. I can’t deny my growing curiosity as I scan the pages of the proposal. If this is a hoax, it’s as elaborate a one as I’ve ever heard of. I jump online to do some research of my own. It’s not as though I have anything better to do with my time.
Am I really letting myself consider this? This is beyond stupid. This is psychotic. I know that. By even thinking about the possibility for a minute, I’m setting myself up for the worst kind of disappointment. But then, what does that matter? Life can’t conceivably get more disappointing than it has. And the pain’s gotten bad enough that I haven’t been able to leave the apartment in days anyway.
Ryan tried to insist on quitting his job to be here round the clock, but I convinced him the guilt would only make me feel that much worse. And besides, the pity’s starting to choke me. God, if he knew I was considering this...
Am I actually considering this?
* * *
My third meeting with Dr. O’Neill, and he’s administering my first preliminary scan. I feel like I should be lying on a white slab sliding into one of those massive CAT machines like in those old movies — something like the kind of scanner I remember them using when my parents took me for my first full-brain psych checkup as a kid. God, did I panic at first, but Mom kept a hand on my foot and kept talking to let me know she was there, promised me ice cream or something if I was brave.
This time it’s just a reclining chair with a little light rotating around my head. Science marches on, right? He told me to sit still. I’m a statue, stone grip on the armrests like my life depends on it. And maybe it does.
I know I’m just enabling my denial. I know this is beyond grasping at straws. Hell, calling them straws would be too generous. But dammit, he’s got me convinced.
Three more weeks, O’Neill tells me. I’ve stopped eating at nights, since I can’t get out of bed in the morning without vomiting up the contents of my stomach. Not that I have an appetite anyway; I probably wouldn’t eat at all if Ryan and my parents weren’t harassing me about it every day. I can’t walk more than a few meters without getting dizzy to the point of collapse. The migraine meds aren’t working anymore, so lucid moments like these are becoming a luxury, little slices of painless heaven throughout the hell of my days.
I see the way Ryan looks at me when he gets home each night, and I know I must look like the living dead. How could I possibly tell him that could soon be close to reality? He’d freak out, he’d be furious I’ve been hiding this from him all this time, he’d break the spell and reason me out of my delusions. I can’t think about what he’ll say if this actually works.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Caleb Wimble