Yesterday, I met a man who had the same kind of cancer that Mark had. I didn’t have to ask, and he didn’t have to tell me. I could see it in the carved-out neck where they’d taken out lymph nodes and muscle, and the grayness of his skin, and the puffy face, fleshy and swollen “bullfrog throat” under his chin. I thought he was in his late 70s – he was 58 years old.
He said, “I haven’t been here in a while because I’ve been fighting this cancer, but they say I’ve got it licked.” He said this a few times. “They say I’ve licked it.” He said this with his shirt pocket crammed with a pack of cigarettes, and a small box of Cigarellos.
I wanted to pick up the X-acto blade off the desk and stick it in his heart.
Welcome to This Week in Grief. I’m your hostess, Vicki the Variable.
It’s been a week, y’all. The anxiety motor ran pretty much non-stop for two days and nights. By the second sleepless night, I was thrashing around in bed thinking “You know, a career in alcoholism might not be such a bad thing.” Tennessee Williams’ alcoholic character Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” talks about “the click” in his head; he has to drink until it happens, until he doesn’t care anymore. I can’t drink that much. A blessing and a curse.
It occurs to me today that I did not want to stab that man in the heart with an X-acto. I didn’t want to stab Mark. I can’t blame him. I’m an ex-smoker, too. Mark smoked for more years than I did, but he’d been an ex-smoker for six years before he got throat cancer. It could have been me. It could still be me. “There but for the grace of God….”
This is grief, for real. It’s not Healthcliff and Cathy and romantic pining, not all of it. It’s visceral. It’s spiritual. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful. It’s neurotic, and flabby, and hateful and childish. It’s reality. It’s tortured hours in a dark room, pleading for relief. It’s flashbacks to bad, bad days. It’s a man old before his time wearing baggy clothes, with a ruined face, a ruined voice, left half-deaf and barely able to speak or swallow, eyesight ruined and too weak to walk to the bathroom on his own and yet somehow his hands are still strong enough to grasp yours, and you can look at him and still see him.
Grief is a house, one room to another, with some long damn dark hallways in between. Some rooms you walk through alone. No matter how many people surround you and love you, no matter what your faith, some rooms are yours, alone.
Open the door. Breathe. It is what it is. This too shall pass. Breathe.