By Heather Millar
I’ve written a few times about the dear family friend and neighbor who now fights metastatic lung cancer. Somehow you just know that he doesn’t want to talk in great detail about what’s happening to him. He bravely walks the dog every day. He smiles and waves when you see him on the street.
But I also suspect that it’s not going terribly well. I think he’s on the third different drug protocol. I just saw a piece by the Consumers’ Union of the United States that asserts that after three different treatment regimens, more cancer-directed therapy doesn’t usually make people live longer. He looks pale. His once blazing red hair has dwindled to mere white wisps. Steroids have swollen his face and his body.
A few days ago, I was running with my dog when I saw him and his partner on their hands and knees in the street about six blocks and at least a 100 feet of elevation from home, next to the 1960s black Volkswagen beetle that they have driven ever since it was new. They were looking for something.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I had the key just a moment ago…” the healthy partner said with frustration.
We talked for a couple minutes. They said they had another key at home. I said I was at the end of my run, and would call when I got home. If they still hadn’t found the key, I could drive down the hill and pick one of them up so that they could get the key at home. Then, when the key had been found in its hiding place, I’d drive partner and key back to the stranded car.
They protested, and blustered, but eventually relented. In their 80s, neither one of them really had the stamina to hoof it up the hill.
When I drove down to get one of them, they argued about which partner should go. The ill partner insisted he should. Before cancer intruded, he’d always been the practical one, the one who ran the household. He knew just where the key was, he said, and he prevailed.
He had trouble getting into my low-slung station wagon; how different from the years when he used to go on long runs with a towel rakishly twisted around his neck. As I drove him up the hill, he seemed to age a decade. Maybe it was because he no longer had to try to be strong and positive for his partner of 60 years.
He’s of my parents’ generation, a generation that values privacy and a public persona. But I’m not of that generation: I’m of the Facebook, over-sharing demographic. So I asked what I’d been dying to ask him for months. “How are you, really?”
“It’s hard,” he said wearily. “The chemo is really hard.”
We talked about how god-awful cancer treatment is. He laughed a little bit. He’s not the kind of guy to join a support group. I like to think he was a little relieved to just gripe with someone who’s been through it. Even so, I don’t think what I experienced is nearly as tough as what he’s facing.
As I pulled up in front of his house, he paused before he attempted the effort of getting out of the car. He shook his head, and made an exasperated comment about his partner losing the key. Decades of lovingly fixing things for his absent-minded, intellectual partner seemed distilled into that one sentence.
“What if something happens to me?” he asked. “What will he do? He’ll have to go into assisted living. He’ll have no way to manage this house. What if something happens to me?”
I wondered if he’d been able to say this out loud before. I wondered what would follow if something did happen to him. I wished that I had an answer.