We’re at this motel in Kerrville, Texas, where we’ve come so my friend Shulami can receive her next chemo treatment and have the conversation she’s been avoiding with the doctor. She has neglected to tell me that her cancer has spread, despite the most recent course of treatment. I know things are bad, but I don’t know how bad. We walk from our motel room, with its cute fifties decor, to the bottom of the grassy hill out back, where we dangle our feet in the Guadalupe River. It’s muggy but tolerable in the shade. As day fades to dusk, fishermen in boats glide slowly by — just a few of them, hugging the bank. Across the river, cows moo, and Shulami laughs: their lowing is music to her, like the water rippling against our feet and the cicadas and the kids up the hill shouting by the motel pool.
The next day, I go with her to see the big-cheese cancer doctor in San Antonio. He has all the moves down pat: looks me in the eye when he shakes my hand; answers all Shulami’s questions with thoughtful courtesy. He examines her briefly, measures the tumor by her neck, which is clearly not shrinking, and explains how the new chemo treatment will work and why she is not a candidate for a stem-cell transplant. Discussing alternative cancer therapies in a respectful tone of voice, he says that none of them has been shown to work and that he has never heard of a case of spontaneous remission from breast cancer. He barely glances at the X-rays and bone scans that Shulami has brought three hundred miles for him to view. Neither of them mentions prognosis.
We flee, still under the spell of the doctor’s detachment. Shulami is quiet. My own fear coalesces into a sore spot on my spine.
Later, we go out to eat at a homey Italian restaurant, where we sit on a balcony overlooking the live oaks and the parking lot. The air is damp but balmy. The waiters are attentive. We order wine and make toasts: to each other; to some old friends from our cancer support group; to the elegant, old-fashioned seesaws and swings we played on earlier when we explored the older part of town. We tap our feet to “Funiculi Funicula” and eat our smoked salmon and shrimp fettuccine.
Back at the motel, both of us drunk, I cut Shulami’s hair, or what’s left of it, reducing the thin wisps to chick fuzz. It’s cooled off outside, and we keep the window open as I snip. Across the river, a cow lows.
“Moo,” says Shulami, and we laugh. “Moooo!” she says again, out the window this time, hoping for a response. It’s quiet except for the crickets and the wind through the mesquite leaves.
“You want to hear a good moo,” I say, “you should hear my boyfriend, Charles. When he moos, the cows pay attention.”
“Yeah, I baa and he moos. We see a sheep, I talk to it. We see a cow, he does the honors. Hey, I’ll call him. He’ll moo for you.”
So I do. “Can you moo for Shulami?” I ask Charles. It takes me a minute to explain the situation; then I hand the phone to Shulami. A second later she smiles, and I know Charles has come through. Shulami whispers to Charles, and she holds the phone to the window. Even I can hear it this time: “Mooooooooooo.”
We wait. Then, from the other side of the river, we hear a moo in return, and Shulami and I whoop and shout and dance around the room, holding Charles on the phone, mooing ourselves into life.