For the rest of her pregnancy, Chicago reeked. Every alley and aperture huffed its steaming stinks at her, specifically. Spiteful cat piss and aggressive onions. The odors of Albany Park, the zip code in which more languages were spoken than any other in America, no longer liked her. Humanity, it seemed, could not respect her sensitivities. “I’m just like a giant garlic sausage walking in the door, aren’t I?” her husband asked when he noticed her shrinking from him.
By then, the Rituxan-Velcade had worked, and Dr. Berman thought he was going to be fine. Lots of people were getting long remissions, and for some the cancer hadn’t come back at all. Plus, Dr. Berman said, if there was any time to have cancer, this was it. Every day a new miracle drug was being born.
Oh twins, what a blessing. I always wanted twins! women at the gym (where the elderly Polish and Korean ladies lotioned themselves in the steam room, flapping up their breasts and bellies, glaring at anyone who opened the door and released the pent-up heat) would say when they asked and she told them. Though often people asked, Do twins run in your family? And once, later in pregnancy, when all the lifeguards warily observed her elephant-head-sized belly, a stranger in the locker room took her in and quipped, as if affronted, Natural, or IVF?
Though the word blessing wheedled, wormlike, in her ear, as it always had, all sanctimonious sound and little substance, she couldn’t deny she felt it, even on the last month of bedrest, as she lay on the couch, doggedly plowing through a tome on the Russian Revolution while her husband stockpiled a Doomsday supply of soups in the deep freeze. She felt it bearing forth, breaking her back, seizing her legs with charley horses, parching her and keeping her awake, that which she had for so long forsaken or been forsaken by, maybe because there was no word for it, this blessed-in-foresakedness, which she’d been slow to receive, but, now, she knew, was nearly here. It’s rapture, a friend had said of having babies, a friend who shared her fascination with St. Teresa. But you’re not supposed to say so.
The first days after the girls were born, doped on the freak luck of two perfectly healthy twins, she and her husband had watched their faces unfurl between walls of glowing lambswool. Baby A mashed down her lids over eyes wide-set like a little lizard’s, smiled at some idea of the bountiful, contorted her lips into sideways hoots, rooted for a drink, and drew back with a smack. Baby B smirked as she slept, her eyebrows jigging, as if witnessing some amazement behind her lids; then yawned, then stretched, then goat-whinnied her way into a different dream. They bounced them on the yoga ball and napped with the lamps on and ate from the supply of soups. Outside, it was frigid February. Snow sugared the roofs of the garages, and ice pastry-flaked the block of chain-linked yards opaled by a hidden sun.
The first time they left the house, they took a walk around the block, through the neighborhood that had been advertised before the housing crash as HOT! ALBANY! PARK! The tax attorney, the Lavendería, the funeral parlor proclaimed their INCENTIVOS, their GARANTÍAS in bold. It occurred to her how long it had been since they’d actually looked at each other. When she turned to her husband, his clear gaze filleted her. “Do the babies make you think more about the illness?” he asked.
The white sky, blank as blotter paper, absorbed bare branches like aneurysms of ink. “Yes,” she said in a tone not entirely kind. “But it doesn’t change the joy.”
When the girls were two months old, her husband’s blood test showed a slight uptick in a certain, unpronounceable protein, an ominous but inconclusive sign. When they were five months, his knee blew up again, this time to the size of a cantaloupe. At the end of the summer, they learned that his hemoglobin was below ten. His knee showed signs of “extensive necrosis.” The bone had died. The orthopedist audibly gaped at the MRI and said, “I’ve honestly never seen anything like that before.”
She walked into the nursery and saw the girls’ toys: those primary-colored shapes that mothers are always waving before a baby’s face, contorting their own faces into masks of delight to conjure the child’s delight, which, at that age, is an emotion inseparable from seeing. The building blocks, the mirrored books, Mr. Whoozit—each of their shapes shrank through her like charms shrieking through a cauldron.
She knew the words to the hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This,” though they had always come to her at the wrong times, as once, shortly after the diagnosis, when she noticed a peach pit on the grass outside of their church in Chicago being devoured by ants. What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul. The words washed through her as she watched the ants clean the pit of its last fruit. What wondrous love is this / That caused the Lord of bliss / To bear these dreadful millions for my soul.
When the girls were eight months old, her husband was admitted to the fifteenth floor with an infernal swelling under his chin, ten out of ten on the pain scale. No one had a clue what it was, and he simmered in bed for days as the specialists crept in to inspect him. The view of the water, glowering beneath the towers, was breathtaking. She sat on the windowsill staring down until her breasts hardened into missiles, then went into the bathroom to pump. When she got back, Lake Michigan looked as little and immutable as a geode under glass. She was a soul peering down through a rip in Paradise, at the infinite spiraling toward damnation, contemplating falling through that scalding air without her husband—and with, my God, their babies.
When Dr. Berman walked in, gravely calm, and told them that the only option would be a bone marrow transplant, she sobbed aloud and buckled onto the bed. “Don’t cry,” said the nurse, an early twenty-something with a magenta streak in her blond hair. “Cancer is a word, not a sentence.”
Her husband wouldn’t look at her; he stared out at the lake, seeing, she knew, his death as clearly as the line between the water and the sand. That’s when she locked herself in the bathroom, fished a scrap of paper out of the diaper bag and wrote the thing she could never account for afterwards: It takes the pain of the worst in order to recall the hope—the total hope—for a cure, which exists, flint-like and as unlikely as any belief, somewhere inside me.
First he got his bones scoured by three treatments of Thalidomide-spiked chemo. For one week every month, they pushed his IV around a rink of reflected light, little lucid rooms where doctors and nurses and interns and PAs administered infusions. The tubing, the syringes, all of that precision, negated the urge to feel. Instead, the transplant team gave out gift bags of purple CELEBRATE LIFE key chains and thermoses. Then they harvested his stem cells. The morning of the transplant, a chaplain performed an interfaith blessing. A tech dressed in a Hazmat suit rolled in a hibachi full of dry ice that held the vial of her husband’s potential life. The tech unscrewed the container slowly, making a show of it as he unleashed the genie from its cowl of smoke. Then, to break the silence, the nurse with the magenta streak shouted, “You’ll have two birthdays to celebrate now!”
“Do you like this stuff?” her husband asks.
She’s found him at home in their Connecticut Tudor, sampling a gift bottle of Laphroaig. “Yeah, sure, I love it. It’s like sucking at the very source of Scotland.”
“Yeah, like drinking from a dwarf’s butt.”
He’s got the crazy light about him that he had in the beginning. Before cancer. When everything that he said startled her. He always appeared abruptly—just back from the gym, body flexed within his crisp, blue business shirt; at her door, offering her an apple; walking into Coffee Expressions as she was walking out. His eyes were lit, sharply faceted, prismatic almost, shooting in multiple directions at once, catching her at angles she didn’t expect to be seen from. He was brilliant; disconcertingly so. After work, they’d slip out of their offices separately and meet at the elevator of his high-rise, which sucked them up to the twenty-second floor like a gasp. The fact that no one knew they were together magnetized the view, those skyscrapers whose shapely differences they’d admired from the deck of the Chicago Architecture Tour. How some seemed to drip upward, or devour their own reflections.
Though they never would have uttered the word back then, they both felt the vertigo of teetering over Eternity—about to fall in it. Now here he is, in their kitchen, twelve years later, his eyes’ glacial blue deepening as he raises his eyebrows suggestively and says, “I like this flexible work schedule.” Alive.