Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

No one is speaking

Nina Sokol

A translated excerpt from the poetry collection No One Is Speaking by Danish writer Birte Kont, depicting when her husband underwent cancer treatment. The collection has received considerable praise in Denmark in its honest portrayal of what loved ones and close kin endure when a family member is diagnosed with cancer. The loved one, in this particular case, a spouse, must take on the role of “no one” and set aside their feelings and needs for their sake. This collection is an attempt to give that loving spouse, “no one,” a voice.

January 2014

You are going to get x-rayed you say when you come home from our doctor. The zipper in you coat is stuck, I rip it free from the lining, won’t you join me for a walk. We walk hand in hand with the uncertainty in the silent winter garden, I try to say that which I think you need to hear the most but you mostly need not to talk and are sad about being so boring, that is because you know too much, I just have to be here. I am here, hold me, yes, like that. A star has torn itself loose from one of the spruce garlands hanging above our street, the trees by the bicycle shop blossom with lights, in front of the traffic light a queue of fuming cars, bicyclists and pedestrians with filled shopping bags flitting past the shops. As though nothing in the world has changed.

The ’70’s left its mark on us, too. Our friends’ divorces through the 80’s pulled at us, pulled us closer together separately, but we stayed and took up our battles. Had I known everything that I know today, then, I would have done it the same way. We got married in a hurry because we had to get that apartment which was teeny tiny but big enough for what we needed it for. Later we moved incessantly around the country according to the demands of your work, our youngest was born on the island of Falster. Back then there was a surplus of doctors and the hospitals experienced a bottleneck effect, your fellow student from our student days moved with his family to Greenland, I would have moved with you to the end of the world if it existed. The end of the world exists.

Yesterday our doctor called you herself. You talked about the results for a long time. I try to keep our plane aloft and have said that I think we should get the family involved. But you don’t want to talk about it yet, so I shouldn’t, either. You are getting the full treatment and have been called in for an outpatient examination at the hospital.

My Jutlandish-radiologist-daughter-in-law-friend’s words pound within me when I turn off the ignition in the parking lot in front of the outpatient clinic’s sullen gray shack: now I can forget everything that has occurred up until now, from now on I am a loved one. Loved one. It is just words, abstract, unreal, after all, we are us.

The fear in the waiting room behind the closed faces along the walls reach me like a chill in my stomach, you look down at your hands. It was your hands that settled the matter, back, then, and because we could talk. You wanted to be an electrician, you said, when we danced all the way home from the cinema and made love all the way up to the Milky Way in our petroleum-reeking pad on the third floor across from Assistens Cemetery. The hunch that crept into my sleep with death up its sleeve, will we ever dance again? The patients are sitting in pairs, I look at them from the corner of my eye and try not to guess who is who every time the doctor enters in his white coat to call out a name. And every time both individuals stand up and shake hands with the doctor and walk together down the hallway. Why do they have to call out everybody’s names so loudly? A stocky woman her hair made up in a bun enters and calls your name, you get up, I get up, but then you say that you don’t want me to come along. Taken aback, I sit back down. Not until we go out to the car do you say that they want you back in for more examinations, more waiting time, more uncertainty, far too much of that which has driven a wedge between us.

I pull into the parking spot much too early once again. We remain in the car in silence, there is an invisible wall between us until we are unable to look through the car windows. A tall, thin woman with blond, layered hair enters the waiting room and calls your name, you get up, I also get up, this time I remain standing with our oldest child standing in back of me, of course I am going in with you to get the results. In the doctor’s office we sit straight in our chairs. Looking through the papers she realizes that you are colleagues and gently reveals what they have concluded, she speaks only to you. Out in the parking lot I kick an overpissed snow drift, then we drive back home and celebrate the new certainty with red wine.

Two Weeks Later

A few weeks have passed, fourteen days torn out of the calendar. Now we are walking together through the revolving door to the big hospital with its own traffic, walkers with IV drip bags attached and wheelchairs and strollers with pale scrubbed children among all the visitors on an eternal walk one way and then the other to the cafe or kiosk. No, you say and take me by the arm, the elevator is this way, past the blood test queue. Up on one of the top floors the doctor’s name is Jaroslav, big angular face, he only speaks to you in a strange, cryptic language due to the many Latin terms with his Slavic accent, saying them slowly like a chant, he doesn’t listen to your responses, he doesn’t see you, either, to him you are a patient like any other. I can’t hold back: does Jaroslav know you are a colleague of his? The look in your eyes silences me like lightning I still haven’t learned: I am no one, my name is Loved One, but now he is looking through the papers. Finally, he looks up and offers you a therapeutic plan that sounds like three Treblinkas. You nod without blinking and look wildly calm, big, little you. I look over at the nurse, she is taking everything down, when there is silence she looks at me as though I am real. Jaroslav will be your contact person, he says, and gives you his card. The words contact person warm my stomach.

Down on the street I take your hand and try to say the right words. I don’t have to do that, you say, I just have to be here. Kasper Holten couldn’t bear his wife’s diagnosis, but I have been brought up to bear things, of course I can, when I must, when I’m not the one who has been given the diagnosis. In the packed bus a dark-haired young man gestures to me and gets up, he glares angrily when I give the seat to you instead. The bus driver is driving recklessly, people are complaining, I cling to grab the pole, from now on I will have to be the strong one of the two of us. My course secretary girlfriend’s husband died suddenly even though he wasn’t the one who had been given a diagnosis. She told me in Grand Cinema, she had just returned from Paris, her hair had grown back out, she had been on her way to her step-daughter’s book reception. The bus stops abruptly, the doors slide open, the wind is cold. You need to go straight home, you say. I will stop at the butcher’s.

BIRTE KONT is the former chief editor of the Danish Jewish Community’s monthly magazine. Her debut novel, A Place Nowhere (2011), received favorable reviews from, among others, the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, which called it “a superb novel [in its] portrayal of the Jewish silence after the War.” Birte Kont lives in Denmark.

NINA SOKOL is a poet and translator of plays, poems, and novels by Danish writers. She was a grant poet-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in 2011 and has received several translation grants from the Danish Arts Council. Her work has included a play by H.C. Andersen (published by InTranslation) and novels by such writers as Robert Zola Christensen, Kristian Himmelstrup (whose work, Pio, has just been nominated for next year’s DR Roman Prisen prize), Thomas Lagermand Lundme, and Anna Grue. Sokol lives in Denmark.

Spring 2024



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