The cancer comes back again in March. Walking through Yale’s crenellated cloisters, observing sunshine single out the Victorian graves, the gargoyles, the cobblestones casting their circumspect romance, she recalls that March three years ago when her husband was being recruited to teach here, before the cancer came back the last time. How instantly she’d fallen for New Haven, this little city true to its name. Then, how soon the fantasy of welcome had been met by the insult of the bad blood tests, the pain in the knee, boot treads clomping bluntly on bleak sidewalks. Look but don’t touch. You can’t have this. Don’t let down your guard.
This is the vigilance in which they’re living when, in April, the cancer goes away again, and her husband is released from the hospital with a shrug from the Communist-bloc doc. “Who knows, maybe it was just a virus,” he grins. “We love viruses!”
In their neighborhood, buttercups smear Connecticut creeksides, and her daughters gather bushels to hold under her chin and ask, Do you like butter? Then affirm, by the degree to which her ever-whiter skin reflects yellow: Oh ho ho, do you like butter! Blossoms riot the earth because her husband has had cancer for eleven years, but is still alive. Unreasonably gleeful, she prays in her Prius outside Planet Fitness’s purple Judgment Free Zone, facing into two skull-shaped speakers between the headrests of a Chevette whose window reads NO JOKE in Olde English scroll, seagulls missiling down onto the asphalt to fight over a whole baguette none can lift, praising Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, kids, and dogs, and
blond reeds scallop the canals, wuthering
slithers behind the strip malls.
They’ve stopped going to the church where worship took place in a huge modern log cabin, dream catchers hung from the eaves, and quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maya Angelou were fingerpainted on the windows. There, they didn’t have to suffer the fact of being Christians. Christians there were professors, scholars of church history, and flinty New Englanders who, even in severest grief, persisted; who understood that Christian triumphalism was ahistorical, if not diabolical. Sermons often meandered into the latest geopolitical crisis—Syria or Zika—and ginned up the same kind of diffuse, self-righteous empathy she felt after gorging on her Facebook feed. Meanwhile, she craves the word Christ, sharpened at the end, as if to skewer her inner ear.
Now on Sunday afternoons they drive downtown to a church whose pastor and congregants ask God directly, “What are You doing here?” and are willing to hear an answer. They trust the visualizations that they get in prayer, and speak in confident detail about what God is doing in Beaver Hills and in Uganda. They seem liberal because of their t-shirts and Adidas, and because they agree that Trump may well be the Antichrist. But unlike the liberal churches they’ve attended since her husband’s diagnosis, this one believes in evil. These Christians think Satan causes racism and economic injustice. She wonders what they think causes cancer.
After the initial diagnosis, eleven years ago, in Chicago, they’d moved through Cancerland as if it were an iced Atlantis. The escalators pulled them up to the next level of glass balconies or spilled them down to the ground floor, where people milled, with their afflictions and aspirations, past Barbara’s Bookstore and Pulse, the Northwestern Hospital gift shop, its silk scarves pulled into pastel knots at the corner of her vision. She knew every entryway and exit, particularly the Skybridge connecting the parking lot to the second floor. She often walked swiftly above Saint Clair Street, between the various shades of ice blue, with a wind about her that was something like an avenging angel. It forbade her to look down, at that other, briefly radiant, romantic Chicago: the expensive city, those blocks between the beach and the Ritz. In all that hospital glass—some clear, some tinted aquamarine, some frosted or mellowed with milk—there was a certain concept of transparency that it behooved her to believe in. As if being seen were akin to being cured.
Recently the doctors have started saying that her husband’s disease has moved “beyond the end of knowledge,” a deeply un-doctorly phrase that makes her wonder what happens now to all she thought she knew, back then. She knew, for instance, the double revolving doors of Northwestern’s Galter Pavilion, outside of which the taxis parked, and which reflected the wide white panes of the Affinia. She knew the west-facing windows of the oncology waiting room that looked out on great, grated heating turbines and beds of furiously sparkling manila gravel. She didn’t know the first oncologist because they fired him after he cornered them in the exam room with his Zeus grin and drew a diagram of her husband’s projected life span on a whiteboard. Five to seven years.
But she did know Dr. Berman, as one might have known the radiantly sober ghost of Gershom Scholem. His parents had been sent to separate Nazi concentration camps, where they each assumed the other had died, only to run into each other—literally, bowed head to bowed head—at the water spigot in the middle of an enormous relocation camp after the war. Dr. Berman and his twin sister were two of the world’s foremost research oncologists, responsible for many of the drugs that now kept terminally ill patients alive indefinitely. He was calm—so calm, her husband joked, you could walk in with a hatchet in your head and he wouldn’t flinch.
She knew to bring her husband a Chicken Caesar Wrap from Panoply! on the days he got infusions; to let him sit up in bed, firing off emails, even as Crystal administered the drip; not to call it “chemo”; not to panic if he broke out in hives; to simply mash the CALL button and watch Crystal gallop in with Benadryl, burbling all the while over her recent humanitarian trip to Africa and the fiancé who’d quit her a week before the wedding.
She knew for the first time when she was twenty-eight years old, and knew it frantically every time the number after the decimal point in the blood draw ticked down. She knew it the way one knows a stiffened lymph node, rolling it like a bead under her thumb, as they drove home afterwards, Chicago’s Xanadus (the Rock N Roll McDonalds, Rainforest Café, Excalibur) looming up around them, their promises of pleasure as tasteless as helium, even as the Dan Ryan Expressway drew them down into its grip, and the winter city prickled up behind them like “the needles of the fretful porpentine.”
She knew it as if it were the only thing worth knowing. So what does she know now?
“Sure, take a look—they’re incredible,” her friend, the novelist, an atheist, says, without tilting her head up to look at the prize-winning orchids tendriling down from her father’s bespoke birdcage greenhouse. “The little bitches.”
Their laughter meanders through the sculpted paths, a garden of East Coast consciousness so well considered that even the touches of disorder—pokeweed meandering around the sunken slate—acquire an aspect of deliberate élan.
As often happens with her friend, they sit, drinking their seltzers, acknowledging the glory of the weather and their children, while their conversation nevertheless returns to Death. The fox with kits stalking the chipmunks behind the herbs. The alligator in the Guadeloupe. The dangers, mainly human, of camping. (“A cozy family, what stupid sitting ducks!” her friend leers, imitating a murderer.) And, most especially, within themselves: that place, beyond the pale, within the garden; that place of clarifying terror, which they each have touched and tasted, and to which they hope never to return; yet whose existence is witnessed by the understanding, twisted as DNA, into each others’ eyes.
Meanwhile, the children plop to the bottom of the narrow pool, like a slotted fountain in a Modern museum. After a round of Criss-Cross Applesauce, they erupt into a game they call Bubble Catastrophe, the highest pitch of which matches the cry of osprey overhead.
If earth can make me this glad, do I need God? she wonders while walking the dogs through Spring Glen, the cherries and the lilacs whooshing in the wind, whipped into cream, while the “thrush’s eggs look little low heavens.” When with instant ferocity her joy turns back on her to ask, Well then is this life what Christ calls you to sacrifice? Dualities are mean, she thinks. If any living things could withstand the Imperishable Light, they’re these. Anyway, in spring, even the unuttered, abject prayer is answered with
violets’ blue wigs madcapping medians
under the ALTERNATIVE HEALING sign
or cherries or pears or plums
rummaging blush from
Dr. Berman had been sanguine about the idea of them getting pregnant. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t,” he’d said, smiling sagaciously as if to imply that there were many reasons that they should.
It would require some medical intervention. Her husband, first of all, would have to preemptively bank sperm because the Rituxan-Velcade trial had been shown to mutate DNA. She’d have to go in for surgery, to remove a uterine septum, a piece of extra tissue that descended into the uterus like the cleavage in a Valentine heart and on which an egg couldn’t implant. All of this was uneventful, except for the fact that the sperm bank was staffed by a single man named Conrad, a bored fifty-something with bleached hair and an angular, leathery face that suggested hard decades spent as a cocaine-addicted cabaret singer. She and her husband thought it likely that, in his boredom, he had inseminated Chicago with leagues of little Conrads.
Nevertheless, they put ten vials on ice. Each time they used one, their chances decreased by ten percent. After the first two tries, the doctor, an ironic young Russian woman, prescribed Clomid, a low-key fertility pill, and when they didn’t get results, she had to shoot herself up every morning by squeezing an inch of belly fat and plunging in a needle full of high-octane hormones. It didn’t hurt. Soon, the ultrasound showed four viable eggs. What would happen if they all got fertilized? they asked, and were told that, by a process called “selective reduction,” the four would be reduced. It was the terminology, its clinical efficiency, that spooked them. “I wouldn’t worry,” Dr. Svetlana said, her pale face coming briefly into focus in the middle of her smudge of frizzed hair. “In these cases it’s unlikely that even one gets fertilized. That’s what you need to be worrying about.”
Astonishingly, when they went in for the next ultrasound, there were two embryos, exactly.
The morning sickness struck the day after she harvested the cilantro that had bushed up in the square foot garden they planted before she got pregnant. A lady at work who barked at everyone and liked to be called the Culinary Czar instructed her to make it into cilantro pesto. On their honeymoon in Costa Rica, blue Morpho butterflies had lifted up from a meadow of wild cilantro in a clearing in the rainforest. Now she threw up cilantro pesto all night long.
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.
During the recruiting visit to Yale, they’d stopped to see an old colleague, a designer respected for his protean, Modern touch. By coincidence he’d recently moved to Connecticut, too, bought a white Bauhaus-style tower on the highest point in town, and begun a massive renovation. The whole time he was undergoing chemo for incurable brain cancer. Gin-frizzled, bone-thin, he led them through the hanging streaks of construction plastic, the unfinished dream, while snow filled the valley below—the river, the yards, the factories, the red granite gullets of the towering rock against which red-tailed hawks dove. An elaborate Japanese garden, designed by the wife of the man who built the tower, twisted around one side of the property, but, as they gazed at it, the man said he planned to demolish it. “It’s got to go,” he said from beneath his oversized woodman’s cap. His eyes gleamed within his translucent face, just as they always had when he’d unveiled a new design. Why was he so radiant? He was about to die. What did he believe?
Make it new.
Modern artists often have the most Puritanical aesthetics, she thinks upon waking, in America at least, per William Carlos Williams and the exhausted tone of “Spring and All.” She, meanwhile, has become the sort who occasionally feels the urge to praise even azaleas,
the scarlet smirch of them, Velvet
Christmases and salmony
carpeting blurring into miniature
bottlebrushes, the awfuller
the azalea color—
the Gatorade, the cauliflower—
the more they overpower her
with joy at being heard.
By the end of May, all signs of the cancer have, impossibly, left her husband’s blood stream. They refuse to say so out loud, to inform their mothers, or to offer praises at church. Yet when one of the prayer ministers asks, “Do you mind if I lay my hands on you while I pray?” she agrees. And, as love charges blindingly upon her, she staggers forward and dissolves into a bliss of weeping.
Her husband is, in fact, well enough that they are able to fly, all four of them, to Texas. It’s still spring there, too. Wildflowers spray the weeds under the mesquites, and between the cacti the frayed blue and orange edges of the Indian paintbrush blur into fields where kids feed. A band of ibex graze on the pasture above the neighbors’ cedar, while Fern, the neighbors’ miniature milk cow, moons like a pet around their fire pit and putting green. After watching the sun rise on the horses, their daughters pretend to ride their shadows, and run barefoot to rub their noses, sun haloing uncombed hair and manes as one. Then they all walk out together to pick flowers, as she did when she was little, in Tennessee, soaking their sneakers with dew. The girls call the bright pale starbursts “highlighters” and seek the rare pink lipstick hue that stairsteps up a raggy stem like an orchid, until, in a clearing among crabby black cedars thorned like a fairytale lair, one girl finds one, delighting the other, who vaults downhill squealing onto steps of prickly pear and waving grasses dabbed with foam.
They walk and pick till the dew burns off into true heat, then traipse up into the deer blind and sit together in its cool dark vestibule. The girls tell them what Uncle Mitchell said the window was for—to watch, not hunt, for game—when just then a troop of antelope, a horned male and three females, spring on all fours out of the brush into their rectangle. Instinctually they all jump up and rejoice at such a sighting. As if this is what a deer blind were actually for.