Life with Cancer: “Welcome to a New World”

My partner’s out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis brought us closer together.

A forest in the late afternoon.

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On the afternoon Tom was diagnosed, we filled out forms as we sat side by side in a waiting area at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. One series of questions began, “Before you had cancer …”

We looked to one another, surprised by the bluntness of the questionnaire. He had just found the lump on his neck the week before. His ENT ordered an MRI right away, and then we were referred to Mount Sinai.

The cheerful nurse who’d greeted us for that MRI did not have a poker face. When she brought him back to me in that tiny waiting room, her demeanor had changed: No more cheer, she was all business. I knew she’d seen something bad, but I said nothing.

No one had said the “C” word yet, but there it was, spelled out in black and white on that questionnaire. Our shared dark humor intact, I said, “Nice bedside manner.”

Grim as it was, the news was not completely unexpected. He had been reckless with his health. He drank excessively, defending it as “legal” following drug addiction in his youth before I knew him. He boasted about heavy drinking as if it were a sophisticated and manly character trait. Everyone knew he had a problem. I didn’t understand how complicated it was. I didn’t understand any of that at the time.

I saw my seemingly healthier father drop dead from a heart attack when he was only 50. Tom was 56. I’d feared he would have a heart attack, too. I did not expect cancer.

No one had said the “C” word yet, but there it was, spelled out in black and white.

Once we completed the forms, Tom took the clipboard to a lady behind a desk. He said he hoped she was the correct person to hand it to, as this was his first time there. She gave him a world-weary look and, like Selma Diamond, she deadpanned, “Welcome to a new world.” Was she ever right.

The oncologist performed a needle biopsy that immediately confirmed the lump was malignant. His plan of action: Surgery, then radiation and possibly chemo.

The oncologist left us alone in the examination room to take it in, no hurry to leave. “I’m sorry I got cancer,” Tom said.

We looked to one another in silence. Then I said, “Let’s go to Le Cirque,” and he smiled. Le Cirque was our special-­occasion restaurant in the city, and this was a momentous day. We enjoyed a spectacular dinner, and we did not speak of hospitals or cancer or anything but the chef’s artistry and how much we delighted in one another. We were alive and we were in this together.

Over the next three years, we spent long hours, days, and nights at Mount Sinai, and I managed pre­authorizations, appointments, and billing. We got to know every curtained nook and cranny, every elevator bank in every wing, and the depths of endless color-coded corridors in the basement where radiation equipment is tucked away.

We explored the excellent video catalogue and watched inappropriate House marathons within earshot of other patients during his weekly 5-hour chemo infusions. One night following major surgery and after several days in ICU, we shared a “step-down” room with patients who were in their final days.

“You have two weeks,” a doctor said point-blank to beautifully coiffed ­Marianne.

“No comment,” she replied, and she spent the rest of the afternoon making cheerful telephone calls. She was alone, but large floral arrangements lined the windowsill beside her bed. Marianne made no mention of her latest prognosis as she chatted with friends on the phone. She did not say goodbye.

Tom had a vision of death when he was wheeled into that room past another patient, Ben. Ben was gaunt and gray. Tom claimed he saw a gaping hole in his throat. I’m not certain that was real. Ben was also alone.

Tom put on a show joking with nurses, his usual public persona. A nurse delivered a note. It was from Ben. “I will never speak again, but I thank you for your ­humor.”

“A smoker,” Tom whispered to me. “I don’t think he has a tongue.”

From beds separated by a curtain, he and Ben beeped the ­handheld buttons given to them to self-­administer pain relief. They beeped back and forth, responding to one another as if in a comedy routine, each pressing his beeper in varying rhythms, an inside joke as if that could bring more morphine than they were due.

I slept off and on next to his bed that night in an extendable chair ­several nurses and I appropriated from another room. The next morning, he looked at me gravely and said, “Get me out of here or I’m going to die.”

I found an expensive hotel wing they don’t mention that overlooks Central Park. I gave the hospital a credit card, and off we went. I ran alongside the gurney as he was whisked a full city block inside the hospital away from that sad place. May God bless Marianne and may God bless Ben, but Tom wasn’t ready to be there.

Through those years, as soon as his treatments were completed, whenever we could, we bolted from Manhattan and barreled up the Taconic Parkway to the country house in the Hudson Valley, away from all that. We were determined not to stop living as long as we could, and we held up well. As long as he would.

 

Lindsay Brice is a photographer and actor. Tom was a writer. He died in 2012.

This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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