St. Louis, Missouri, USA
|Cognitive Dissonance: Gratitude in oncology|
Francis Delisle was coming out of Bard’s TrueValue Hardware with ant bait in a paper bag when he saw Marty Van Etten coming up Main Street. Marty’s wife Anne had died at winter’s end, only forty-seven, from glioblastoma, after surgery in Baltimore, radiation in New Haven, chemotherapy in New York. She’d only come home to Dr. Delisle’s oncology practice for hospice. Though not in pain, she’d died bitterly, as her growing tumor had stuffed her cerebellum down her spinal canal. At the end, when she could no longer swallow and Marty could no longer cope, Dr. Delisle had hospitalized her for a cocktail of intravenous narcotics, antiepileptics, steroids, and saline.
Francis tried to duck back into the store, but Marty followed through the vestibule, stopping him between red rototillers and the seed rack by the register where Jack Bard was making Agnes Plitskoski a new key.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Marty said, pumping his hand. “I didn’t get to thank you after Anne…”
“I didn’t make the funeral. I’m sorry.” Francis did not say that he found funerals a reproach and so never attended.
“Never mind that. I’ve wanted to thank you so much for so long for everything – everything you did for Anne and me.”
“Oh.” Francis tried to compose his face. He went through all the gestures: smile, tuck paper bag under left arm, place right hand on the husband’s shoulder, make eye contact, smile. “Happy to have been of service.” He recalled prescribed platitudes. “Such a strong woman, an inspiration to everyone, put up such a fight.”
“Yes, and you made that possible. She worshiped you, the way you were with her to the last, the way you listened to her complaints.”
“She knew she wasn’t being fair, but that bitterness…”
“…was grief. Nothing’s fair, dying young.”
“And the way you were honest with her. No one else would tell her the truth. She could feel she was dying, and in all the big centers doctors would only talk about experimental therapies and promising research.”
“You were her hero. I think she was even in love with you.”
“Oh, not that.” Francis looked through big windows, past lawnmowers on sidewalk display, folding ladders, a pyramid of paints. He saw his own face reflected and turned away. “I’m sure not that.”
“I was married to her nineteen years: I know. She was so grateful to you, and I am, and I just wanted to say that…”
Eventually Francis disengaged. He shifted the ant bait to his right hand, waved with his left. When he got to the car, he sat with the paper bag on the passenger seat for a long time, remembering interminable seizures preceding Anne Van Etten’s death, ones he’d been unable to break, ones that had gone on until he and she were both exhausted. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel, his head between his hands, his eyes shut, watching in memory as her body shook while he stood by: powerless, hopeless, useless. After a time, he lifted his head, drove away.
“Did you remember my lightbulb?” Ginny asked as he came into her kitchen.
He paused, mouth open, then set the ant bait on the counter.
“No,” she said. “Of course not.” She swept up the little bag and put it on the floor by the back porch door. “And don’t leave that on my cookspace, for God’s sake. You’re a doctor: don’t you know it’s poison?”
STEWART MASSAD, MD, is the author of the short story collection “Doctors and Other Casualties.” He has published short fiction and nonfiction in JAMA, Discover, Scope, and other literary magazines. He is a professor of gynecologic oncology at Washington University in St. Louis.