Jul/Aug 2013  •   Fiction

Love is not time's fool

by Joel B. Levine

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

She was in her early 50s, he older but only by years. Life seemed settled, and neither was afraid to be content. They did not know Joseph Heller had written Something Happened as if in waiting for these two. What happened was pancreatic cancer, a malignant mystery hiding the crime in innocuous pain and a little weight loss. It was an inoperable mass, and the best that could be done was to assuage it. She was to die before him, and that was that.

After the diagnosis, they had decisions to make. At least, we call them decisions. People are tempted to beckon disease with rationality, but it is, at heart, about risk. We want a voice, saying amidst the cold reality of a gambler's luck, "I will fight with you if I cannot fight for you." He spoke that willingly, at the moment when he could have pulled away.

Treatment started with them not knowing which way the clock's minute hand would go. The decision pierced the paper upon which he had written his own plans, but this was the price he would pay. He would not let her look at the clock alone.

When I spoke to him and asked how he was, he would only say, "It is hard." As good a summary as Faulkner could create. "It" is beast and beauty: the illness and the feeling life has been boiled down to an essence, essential in the way the matador needs the bull to find his fatal grace. "It," spoken as the Chinese would say "it," with the meaning in the tone of the word, or the French using a shrug to sprinkle a little fatalism. Hippocrates called the disease cancer for, like a crab, it would bite and not let go.

"Is" is a word of now, not when. A moment, a look or memory poured into their cauldron of brimming thoughts. Thoughts riveted to feelings, which, stored as compressed files, are in that moment zipped open far too quickly. But for him, "is" means she is surviving that day, and is enough.

And "hard" is the most difficult word, for Hippocrates also likened the physical manifestation of a cancer to that of a crab. Hard also to hold onto the softness and the ways he had learned to love the small things of the world. He was a collector of art, of designer mid-20th century furniture, of maritime steam engines, things letting him live with wonder at the past. He told me during the treatments that he had almost stopped seeing his collections. They still lined his rooms, covered every space on his walls, but they had become veiled and silent... and hard.

Twice now, she had gone to the Emergency Room. What chilled them most about these "visits" was the reentry into a world of strangers. An emergency room is a place where you bring a fear: that something new is wrong or something old has won. Fears brought to people you do not know and surely do not know you other than by the name of your disease. You enter their fluorescent world, one engaging her fear of anonymity and the costume the disease forces her to wear. A primer about "What is the worst thing this can be?" and after hours of testing and waiting, the reassurances that simply say, "Not yet."

So many times they traveled back home to a rush to embrace, a flickering of tenderness, reaching for passions that now felt colder and distant. He was sexual, but they could nurture that no longer. He could feel part of him becoming distanced, not from her, but from himself. He loved her and her pleasure. His role in it was always their kind of sinecure, a place without responsibility and without an identity other than what they created.

In a moment of harshest truth, he said he really had loved her and now, as their emotional contract worked through the fine print, he accepted this new role as the right thing, the noble thing to do, but a part of him, the part feeling the movement of his own clock, was moving closer to a next life. He knew that with the end of her life, he would come to the end of their life. So in his caring for her, he was still caring for "them." The word "couple" meant just that to him: coupled. And soon, inevitably, uncoupled.

As she became more ill, the disease became more visible. Some diseases remain so interior, other people may not see the physical change in you. Cancer burrows outward, and sooner or later, the disease or the treatment brands you as a cancer patient. The mirror then becomes your clock, and time passes by the change in your reflection.

She said it felt like she was withering away in front of the face in the glass that had always been her friend and ally. Gradually she retreated from its gaze and then from his. She was cropping the image, hoping if the light was different, her bones would not show as much, her lips would be less drawn, her back less stooped. For this woman, her face, with its look of serenity, had been a source of confidence. Now a tension, a sense of doubt was in the angle of her head, showing her less sure and almost on the edge of flight. She was being redrawn by her fears, and his arms could not encompass both her and them. Fears were pushing everything away and becoming her new skin, the layer she exposed to the world.

In the day, you see more than you feel. At night this reverses, and optimism is harder to make credible. Disease is bolder then, and it humbles everyone. Doctors know the night is the real test. Who in this world of illness is not afraid of the dark? It is then you acknowledge it is harming you, that it might—or will—kill you. She did not want to see him at night.

She could hardly walk up the stairs now, and coming down into his world, coming from her last nest, was rare. Upstairs, she began to accept her limitations and feel more languid than weak. She had been a Buddhist all her life, and now it led her to a space created by its teaching that our impermanence is proper and natural. Each day, sometimes each hour, she practiced sitting on different sides of time's fulcrum, balancing the number of tomorrows with yesterdays.

They had made a decision. The last treatment was to be the coda. They would meet with the doctor in a few days and gently resist the probability of a different outcome. Palliative comes from the Latin,"to cloak," and they would tell the doctor they had decided to draw the curtain.

He would now be on the other side, taking the dream of magic with him.

It has been said love has no currency of its own but borrows from admiration and respect. You can have desire, even need, but these alone are almost always the victims of time. In the beginning, we love in order to add something to our lives, a place for our lust and a confirmation of being the answer to another's questions. Those are the starters of love, but in these last months, they had learned the tender poetry of loss. Thinking well of someone and respecting them within this last kinship was the backbone of what would remain. By stepping away from treatment, by accepting, they had again stepped towards each other.

He told me of one recent evening when music returned. Their radio was always playing, hoping to force a stream of beauty into the air. It began to play Sinatra when he was with Tommy Dorsey and the love song was still the marrow of his talent. He climbed the stairs to Stardust: "And now the purple dusk of twilight time, steals across the meadows of my heart." They loved that song, and he walked into her room, her place of reconciliation, singing to her: "You wandered down the lane and far away, leaving me a song that will not die."

That late morning, when she did not call from the bedroom, he looked up at the clock, instinctively noting the time, or rather, the end of time. Patterns are webs woven to find our way back to a center. And on Sunday, at the usual time of her lunch, of the pattern of their meetings in her anteroom, she did not call, and as he looked at the frozen time, he did not move. But waited, feeling his heartbeat, keeping its own time, a time now of his own singular life.

He waited without calling, afraid of the knowledge his voice would be unheard. So he watched the clock, reimagining how things had been at their best, preparing himself to walk up the stairs.