It had been ten years of coincidences, and now here was the worst: Dean’s second wife had the same kind of cancer his first wife had died from. It was a very common cancer, but still.
They had met in a support group, two surviving black spouses of white spouses dead from cancer. Dean tried to play down the coincidence of the group. Seventy percent of the reason anyone was there was to meet someone new.
They had also both gone to (separate) high school(s) in Philadelphia and taken circuitous life paths (entirely different in timing and stops, it was true) to land in Michigan. They both had a shellfish allergy. They had read Anna Karenina and War and Peace all the way through. Their hair, pre-graying, had been reddish. They each had two grown daughters.
“We both wear glasses!” Dean would interrupt, when this tiresome listing got started, usually by one of the daughters. “We both like peanut butter. We each have two legs. Our thumbs are opposable. Who cares! Not everything is interesting.”
His first wife’s name was Marie, and a stranger at a party once said to him, “Oh! I have a friend named Mary.”
“Yes,” he’d responded. “Everyone does.” He didn’t say, Her name is Marie.
If he had a life’s motto, this would be it: not everything is interesting.
Dean detected a bit of jostling over who, primarily, the new diagnosis was happening to. They all had grief cred. His own daughters hung back some, which was decent and fair, but they would have to witness their father’s grief a second time. That was no minor thing.
His step-daughters were about to be orphaned. They were forty-something, self-sufficient. They had their own children. Dean wasn’t sure whether having acquired a step-father as adults would mitigate the finality of orphanhood. Most likely not. They didn’t need him. They needed their mother. They needed their own father.
Of course, the one this was really happening to was his wife.
It was happening to him too, though. He didn’t want to compete with her, or with any of the daughters. But it was happening to him again, goddammit. Twice he had sat in a doctor’s office with a woman he loved to hear a too-young white oncologist foretell her end. This second time his initial response had been, eloquently he thought, “Fuck.”
The doctor had nodded, and his wife, bless her, actually snickered at his swear. Then they were off on a discussion of time left and how to preserve its quality. That old topic.
Here was another coincidence: each time news of the diagnosis got out someone had sent a card printed with a—what? poem?—called “Cancer Stops at Hope.” Cancer stops at love. It stops at friendship, and at the door to your heart. It stops at faith. Well, fuck you, because it also stops at death, but not before taking the long way through pain and precipitous weight loss and vomiting. Both times he’d intercepted the mail (such a lucky coincidence) and tossed out this treacly bullshit like the trash it was.
He felt righteous and rigorous and angry. There was some satisfaction in feeling this way, some relief. It was animating. The first time, though, the anger had surprised him. Why anger? What, rationally, was its object?
“Ah, Dad,” his older daughter had said, “you spend all your days at least half-indignant anyway. Maybe just go with it. Be pissed off.”
That was up there with the most tender things anyone had ever said to him.
He took long walks, then and now, striding, marching, thumping walks. He winded himself and got his heart rate up. The first time, a dozen years ago, had been easier. That is, the exercise had been easier when he was sixty than it was now, at seventy-two, not the grief and anticipation.
But he could still feel his own vigor as he strode, his heart keeping up in expectation of, perhaps, another two, even three decades. Would he go back to the cancer-loss support group? He would have to examine his purpose.
She wasn’t dead yet, his second wife, Lorraine. (Both his wives had French first names, a coincidence no one had yet remarked upon.) Barring a joint accident, either Dean or Lorraine would have to bury two spouses. They had always acknowledged this. He should be glad to spare her.
The doctor had said two years at most, but they all knew that didn’t mean twenty-four good months. It might mean a few normal-seeming months—through Christmas? it was now August—then a tumbling decline, then some bad, terrifying months. Maybe he’d have a massive heart attack in the meantime. This was a tremendously selfish but tantalizing wish.
It was how his father had gone, undetected arterial build-up (smoking, red meat, an aversion to [white] doctors all encouraging whatever tendencies his body had stored from conception). He’d been alone. It had likely taken just minutes. And though the shock had been indescribable for Dean and his mother, there was also some relief that what was done was done.
But he was thankful Lorraine wasn’t dead yet! Every day he was glad, every time she looked at him or made a morbid joke. He tried not to say I love you more than the usual amount because he feared she would hear I’m glad you’re not dead yet. He fairly pulsed with his excess I love yous and his not dead yets.
A heart attack was better than, say, Alzheimer’s, cancer in some ways better than a heart attack, illnesses better than accidents, losing a parent better than losing a child. A few good months were better than none, two happy marriages better than none, four helpful daughters better than none.
There were a couple of other cancer families in their neighborhood. This was no coincidence; it was probably the same or worse everywhere. His colleague Morley from the university was around the corner. Morley’s first wife had been gone six or eight years; the second wife was healthy, as far as Dean knew. And there was this Asian kid down the street, dead at nine or ten. For months Lorraine had taken casseroles to his poor parents. They had a new baby now.
So Dean was luckier than the dead kid’s family, less lucky than Morley.
“In some ways I feel lucky,” Lorraine said to him one night in bed.
He had started to drift. They’d had gentle, elderly sex—one of these times would be the last—and he had settled into sleep with his hand on her thigh. He was quiet a few seconds, rising out of unconsciousness enough to catch the echo of her words.
“What?” he said.
“I’m the lucky one. You know.”
“Well,” he said. “Yes. I am glad I can spare you.”
It was a lie. They both knew it.
“Of course,” she said, and then, “If I weren’t so selfish I would put your pillow over your face.”
Dean waited for her to laugh. When she didn’t, he said, “Maybe I should do it.”
He heard her inhalation.
“I mean—” What did he mean? He was half asleep.
“Well, don’t do it to me yet, darling.” Now she laughed.
He thought he’d meant himself.
“Maybe I could still spare you,” she went on. “If you don’t like the pillow, perhaps you can hope for a massive—”
“Hemorrhage.” She laughed again. He felt her leg under his hand, then felt it slide away as she turned from her back to her side, toward him. She laid her palm on his sternum. “But I’m not dead yet.”
We both like peanut butter. We both wear glasses. We’ve both read Tolstoy. Who cares! But how could he not wish for more of all of it? We’re both still alive. We’d both choose to go first.
“I hate this,” he said.
“What is the point?”
“No point. Wrong question.”
“What is the question?” Wordplay now. Sleepy banter.
“Eh. No question, no answer. Just…”
“What? Just what?” He wanted to know.
“Life. Nothing.” He tried it with different punctuation. Life: nothing. Too shrill and obvious. He put his hand over hers. If he could, if he believed it, he would tell her there was nothing to fear. But they both had too much terrible knowledge for that. So they held hands and waited for sleep, and tomorrow they would wake up, still two complex organisms, big animals with too-big brains, aware of the pointlessness of everything but willing, or at least not yet unwilling, to attend to it all anyway.