The train was so loud squeaking into South Station that I didn’t hear my phone ring. I had a short layover until the transfer to my homeward-bound line, so I jostled through the crowd, toward the CVS Pharmacy. Maybe I’d score some trail mix or yogurt-covered raisins. I needed something to tide me over until dinner.
It was a Friday, with a chilly pre-Christmas weekend yawning before this mass of humanity in the train station. The place was packed. In addition to the usual horde of commuters hurrying to the ‘burbs for home, hearth and highballs, there was a gaggle coming into the city for late-afternoon Christmas shopping and dinner. In the terminal’s huge main hall, a brass band bleated carols.
I pulled out my phone, hoping to blend in with the lemming-like masses holding phones in front of their faces. That’s when I noticed I’d missed a call.
No Caller ID, it said.
But I found it in my ‘recent calls’ folder. A missed call from the 305 area code, meaning South Florida or the Keys. The first 305 I could think of was Nicole’s mother. But she was in my contacts, so her name would have come up. Plus, she’d been dead since March. I’d be surprised if she called.
Could be a former student from my Florida days. Maybe it was someone from the Miami Herald, calling for a quote about a rock star who’d just died. Since I teach rock’n’roll history, I’m on speedial for death-beat reporters. Hell, since it’s South Florida, it could be a face-eating zombie.
I don’t answer phones if I don’t see a name on the caller ID, but I decided to call this one back.
“Oh… hello,” came the voice. “Mister, uh, McKeen. Yes . . . this is” — throat clearing — “Dr. Martinez.”
“Hi, how are you? The 305 area code threw me off.”
“Oh, yes, yes. This is my cell phone.” University of Miami Medical School — I’d looked him up.
I was bumped by a guy in some kind of apocalyptic hurry to make the train to Stoughton. No apology, no acknowledgement. Between the general harrumph of the crowd, the brass band and the distorted announcements on the PA system (why do they even bother?), I had trouble hearing Dr. Martinez. I looked around and saw a narrow alcove. They’d built the CVS that fall, and its display windows jutted out from the building, leaving a narrow opening between the side of one window and part of the old granite walls of the original station. It was tight, but I was pretty sure I could fit my controversial girth in the space. I slipped in, plugged my non-phone ear with my finger, and prepared myself for Dr. Martinez.
“Yes, well, I’m afraid I have some news — news that might be, well, I guess you could say it was disturbing news.”
I wondered how old he was. Thirty-three, thirty-four maybe? I wondered how often he’d delivered “disturbing” news. I braced myself, but felt the need to comfort him; he sounded so upset.
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Martinez, “but I’m afraid it is, pretty sure, as I had feared . . . you have cancer.”
“I have cancer?”
Three little words.
“Well, it’s not one-hundred-percent confirmed. I want to see you in my office on Monday and then I will get you in to see a specialist at Dana Farber. I’ve already made the call. Can you come to my office on Monday?”
I had two classes on Monday. I’d never been in a teach-or-die situation, but I figured I’d find someone to cover for me.
“Yes, okay,” I said. “I can be there. You name the time.”
“Okay, and I’ve arranged for you to see Dr. Corwin at Dana Farber a week from today. I don’t know him personally, but he’s supposed to be an excellent surgeon.” He went on, trying to give me hope. I’m sure he knew how hard it was to hear: you have cancer.
Probably the standard rah-rah’s of encouragement. Once the surgeon cut out the tumor in my colon, he said, everything would probably be all right. He assured me that cancer isn’t the automatic death sentence it used to be.
I still reverberated from the news: cancer. “Pretty sure” meant yes. I thought I was ready for the diagnosis, but then realized you can never really be prepared for that word — the cancer word.
We set an appointment and when I hung up, there was no more time for trail mix. I stepped out of my alcove — which henceforth I’d think of as the cancer corner when I walked by it every working day — and slipped back into the mass of humanity.
They had called my train and I walked stiffly toward Track 13. Of course, Track 13. What rotten luck.
I walked in the mob of commuters with the same phrase on repeat in my head: I have cancer; I have cancer; I have cancer.
I thought I was ready for it, but I was not. Sixty years sounds like a long time, but I was greedy. I wanted more. Was this it? Was that it? Am I done? Am I out of time?
Please, Sir, can I have some more?
I was slow and my legs were stiff and unbending. I walked like Gort the killer robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
I was late to the train and all of the comfortable and anti-social seats were gone. I sat on one of the bench seats and looked around at my fellow passengers. We all rode this train every day, but I didn’t know anyone’s name. Talking to a stranger on commuter rail was sufficient cause for a restraining order.
A stocky woman with short blonde hair sat next to me. I wanted to say, “Guess what? I just found out I have cancer.”
I looked at the other commuters and played Spot-the-Cancer-Patient. Who else was sick?
Guess what, everybody — I might die soon, so the train won’t be so crowded . . . .
All my life I’d been obsessed with death. At 8, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was certain I’d be vaporized. When I saw that “Twilight Zone” episode about the dead astronauts, I was gripped with the fear of imminent demise. I’d imagined so many ways of dying: a car crash, a house fire, a stabbing, a shooting, and the new addition to my gallerie du mort, a terrorist attack.
No one talks on commuter rail. I looked out the window at Boston. The Greenbush line runs along the South Expressway and hundreds of cars poked down the asphalt as we went gliding by.
At least this takes the mystery out of my death, I thought. Now I knew how it would happen. There would be no murder, no pain, no fire, no gallant charge of the light brigade, no self-sacrifice to save the lives of others. I probably wouldn’t feel much of anything. Instead of dying heroically, I’d be shot full of medicine and drift away. I would just . . . end.
I would be an ex-parrot.
I laughed, thinking about Monty Python’s pet-shop sketch. John Cleese returns his parrot to the shop where he got it because he has realized it is dead. Shopowner Michael Palin is dubious, but Cleese convinces him with brutal truth:
He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff — bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!
The Monty Python group effectively retired when founding member Graham Chapman died of AIDS in 1989 and at his irreverent memorial service — preserved by YouTube — John Cleese’s eulogy adapted the parrot sketch to Chapman’s death (“he has ceased to be!”) and called his old friend an “insufferable bahstad,” cracking up the church full of assembled mourners. I laughed again. Maybe someone would take the Cleese approach and make people laugh at my memorial.
My memorial — would I have one? And where would I be buried, and would I be alone, a solitary grave at the edge of an old New England cemetery?
The blonde woman looked at me for a moment, sizing me up: another crazy, laughing at traffic. One restraining order, coming up.
I couldn’t get it out of my head: you have cancer. I might just drift off in a haze, but still: I would cease to be.
Again I laughed, thinking about Woody Allen: What is about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours.
This time, my seat mate didn’t look up, but when a spot opened across the aisle when people got off at the JFK/UMass stop, she lunged for it. She’d obviously written me off as a crazy.
I didn’t get so far as to think about heaven, or an afterlife. I just thought of being gone — of suddenly being absent.
I still felt like a work in progress. I thought of duty to my children and what would become of them. The little ones, the boys, are louder than war. Too much for one parent. Probably too much for six or seven parents. What would become of them?
Would I suffer, and how would I deal with that? What kind of Cancer Guy would I be? I never really believed in Happy Cancer Guy. Hi, everybody! I’m Captain Andy and I have cancer! Let me tell you all about it! I’m too noisy and goofy to be Stoic Cancer Guy. I wanted to be Brave Cancer Guy. Now that it’s here, I wondered if I had the courage to be that guy.
I couldn’t get the grim thoughts out of my head, despite the efforts of Monty Python and Woody Allen. I just thought about the void, about what it would be like to be . . . nothing.
My phone buzzed with a text from Nicole: “Any news?”
“Yes,” I texted back. “I’ll tell you when I get home.”