Spring 2004, they told him the cancer was back, hiding in places it hadn’t been before. Inoperable but treatable, the doctor said.
“No, thanks,” he replied. “I’m eighty-six. I’m not looking to draw things out.”
Three to six months without chemo, he was told.
Nine months later, winter 2005, despite the prognosis, he had only slowed down, a little. The ache in his leg kept him up some nights though he wasn’t sure if it was the pain itself or the knowledge of what it meant. The waiting was harder than he’d expected. He’d read obituaries of people who died in their sleep and feel a twinge of envy.
One afternoon the sun was bright, and he was restless.
“I’m going for a walk,” he announced.
“A what?” his wife said grappling with the concept. “It’s freezing. There’s ice.”
“But we don’t need anything,” she shouted.
He dressed warmly and stepped outside, moving slowly at first. Then realizing the streets were dry, he quickened the pace. His lungs were clear and he’d learned to live with the dull throbbing in his thigh. He said hello to a neighbor who asked after his wife. He passed the playground and wondered when he’d last been inside. Could his oldest really be pushing sixty?
He walked by stores, mostly new in buildings mostly old, not as old as he was, though many had been up when he’d moved to the neighborhood half a century before.
Half a century. He remembered a parade he’d seen as a child, men as old he was now, civil war veterans. How was that possible?
He was not in denial, but it seemed hard to fathom that he could feel so physically well while his body was in the process of shutting down.
He found himself in the industrial area of L.I.C. on a quiet block as yet undiscovered by artists or developers. Facing southwest, before him was the lower Manhattan skyline — that gap between buildings filled by the sun. He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath, suddenly aware of the beating of his heart and the realization of when he had last stood on that spot. Fall, 2001. There had been an acrid smell, and all he could see across the river was smoke.
A voice said, “This too shall pass.”
No one was there. A life-long agnostic, he did not believe it was the voice of God. Still, it was something.
As he walked home he noted everything as though seeing it all for the first and final time.
When he returned, his youngest daughter was waiting. She’d stopped by after work as she often did in those days.
Lately, even she, who dealt with suffering on a professional basis, had developed a catch in her voice when speaking to him.
“How are you, Dad?” she asked.
“Great,” he replied, without a touch of irony.