"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.
William Matthews is a professor of English at City College, in New York. His latest collection of poems, (1995), received the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Dire Cure; Volume 280, No. 4; page 70.