I’m sitting with my old friends Ron, David, and Neil at one of the tables along the back wall of what was once my favorite bar. We’ve been pals since we were in high school, the surviving members of a close-knit group. It’s always good to get together with these guys, but it’s impossible to do so without thinking about the friends who are no longer with us. Roger’s been dead the longest, killed in a car accident nearly thirty-five years ago. Jason went next, from a heart attack at the age of forty-six, just a few days before he was to be married. And then Eddie about a year ago, after what his obituary said was a “long battle with kidney cancer.”
Ron’s recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer as well. The similarities are spooky. Just like Eddie’s, his tumor grew undetected, possibly for years, and had spread into his lungs by the time his doctors found it.
“Big as a softball,” Ron says with a kind of awe. If anyone at the table besides me recalls that this is the same image Eddie used three years ago to describe his own tumor, they give no indication.
According to the cancer-information website I went to after Ron called me with the news (probably the same website I visited when I first heard about Eddie), metastatic kidney cancer has about a 92 percent mortality rate over a five-year period. It’s an almost shockingly dismal prognosis.
“This treatment they’re going to try,” Ron is saying, “if it doesn’t cure me, should at least buy me some time — keep me aboveground for another year or two anyway.” There’s an awkward silence at the table. Seeing our discomfort, Ron quickly comes to the rescue: “What’s that old saying? ‘If you want to see God laugh, make a plan.’ ”
I haven’t seen my friends since Eddie’s funeral, and I’m struck by how much older everyone looks. Is it possible that we’ve aged so much in barely more than a year? Just about ten years ago, when I turned fifty, I was secretly proud that I looked younger than most of my contemporaries. Even during my years of active alcoholism and drug addiction, I’d never quit working out, half hoping that staying fit would keep old age and death at bay indefinitely. How could a man get old if he was running forty miles a week? How could a man die if he could manage forty-five minutes at the top level of a Stairmaster?
But I’m not running forty miles a week anymore — less than half that is the best I can manage — and I haven’t been on a Stairmaster in years. I no longer hope that I’m somehow an exception to the laws of nature. Besides, if fitness conferred any immunity to illness and death, Eddie, a superb athlete who was still competing with men decades younger than him well into his fifties, would have outlived us all.
At the table Ron suddenly looks directly at me. “So, Alan,” he says, “what do you think?”
I search for something worthwhile to say. Ron and I have been close since tenth grade. “Well,” I finally manage, “I’ve got to tell you, I admire your courage. If it were me, I’d be home curled up in a little ball with a bottle of Jim Beam in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other.”
Everyone laughs, but I’m not joking. Since the day I got sober back in 1986, I’ve reserved the right to go back to drugs and booze if I ever have what I consider a “legitimate need.” Being diagnosed with a terminal illness would certainly qualify.
There’s no question in my mind that Ron will fight as long as he has the strength. It’s certainly what Eddie did, going from one agonizing treatment to the next until the doctors ran out of options. The last time I saw Eddie, he couldn’t have weighed much more than ninety pounds, and yet I got the sense he still didn’t believe he was dying. I used to think that addicts were the world champs when it came to denial, but if a man doesn’t want to accept that he is near death, then just about nothing can convince him otherwise.
When my father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the age of eighty-seven, his doctor mentioned that he’d seen people with his type of cancer live five years or more. Although my father was a frail old man with a bad heart, he instantly adopted that number as his official prognosis. No matter that he quickly became very sick, he never stopped believing he had five years to live, right up until the very end.
“Five more years,” my father moaned, just a few days before he died, “like this?”
It’s not that time is passing faster as I get older. It’s more that time has been profoundly cheapened, as if by hyperinflation, like some runaway Third World currency. How many days would it take to equal the kind of day I experienced as a kid? Wheelbarrows full.
My wife, Anne, tells me I spend too much time obsessing about such matters. When I come in from a jog and complain about how slow I’ve gotten, she says, “Who cares how slow you are? Just be grateful you’re healthy enough to be out there.” Her tone is kind but with an undercurrent of impatience, as if she were trying to reason with a dull-witted child.
“Any slower and I might just fall over,” I say, unwilling to hear her. “I wonder if there’s something physically wrong with me.”
Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so bad about all the speed I’ve lost if Anne, who’s also a runner, had slowed down right along with me. But in the twenty-odd years we’ve been together, she’s only become faster — at least, compared to me. I used to relish letting her get out ahead of me when we raced, then speeding past her just before the finish line. Now she runs twice as far as I do, and much faster. More annoying still, she virtually never gets injured, whereas I’ve had just about every known running injury — some of them two and three times over. As if those blows to what’s left of my pride weren’t enough, she’s also three years older than I am.
“You know,” I joked recently, “if you were a professional athlete, I’d have to ask you for a urine sample.”
She laughed, but I’d happily trade what passes for my sense of humor for the body I had twenty years ago. I loathe getting older; my drooping chest and hairy ears are enough to make me cringe. If I can’t stand turning sixty, how will I ever handle seventy or eighty?
“I just don’t see how people deal with being really old,” I say to Anne one day after we get home from visiting my eighty-six-year-old mother. “If I were my mother’s age, I’d wake up every morning wondering if this day was going to be my last.”
“Sometimes I get the feeling you do that now,” Anne says with a pitying look.
She’s half kidding, of course, but it’s a valid point. If I don’t change my worrying, hypochondriac ways, I probably won’t live to be my mother’s age. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. Just a few short years ago my mother was still arguing passionately about politics and rushing off to aerobics class three times a week. Now she spends her days poking around her little apartment in an assisted-living facility and playing endless games of solitaire. She accepts her diminished circumstances without complaint, but if I were her, I’d be heartbroken. Isn’t there such a thing — speaking strictly for myself, of course — as living too long?
David, Neil, and I are driving to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to visit Ron, who’s receiving interleukin in an attempt to stop the spread of his cancer. The therapy is so arduous and potentially dangerous that they do it in the intensive-care unit.
In the car I ask if anyone’s read about the recent study that concluded — contrary to all reasonable expectations — that people tend to get happier as they get older. According to the study, happiness begins to pick up at age fifty and steadily increases from there. Something they call “global well-being” peaks at age eighty-five. My first thought was there had to be some mistake. Maybe somebody had put a decimal point in the wrong place. Maybe they’d meant to say your well-being peaks at age eight-point-five.
Neither of them has heard about the study, but Neil tells us about his elderly father, who’s just moved in with an overweight eighty-year-old diabetic woman with one leg. “I realize it sounds pretty grim,” Neil says with a laugh, “but I’ll be damned if the old guy isn’t happy as a clam. He says he’s in love for the first time since my mother died.”
Before I can stop myself, I have an all-too-vivid picture of Neil’s father and his lady friend in bed together, which causes a tightening sensation in my scrotum. I don’t like what my reaction says about me, but my body doesn’t worry about being superficial or “ageist.” It just knows what it knows, which is that, on some cellular level, it’s repulsed by old age.
When we get to the hospital, I’m surprised to see Ron sitting up in bed, joking with a nurse. If it weren’t for the dark circles under his eyes, I would never guess he’s ill. His attitude since the beginning has been one of almost heroic cheerfulness. He tells us that so far the treatment’s “not that big a deal.” The most bothersome side effects are chills and nausea, which they’re treating with medication. “No doubt in my mind I can handle this,” he says.
It’s hard to talk about Ron’s cancer, and soon the conversation turns, as it always does lately, to the good old days. I don’t remember them as particularly terrific, but everyone else seems to, and this is not the time to be a contrarian.
Whenever we get together, we tell the same tired stories: The trip we all took to Woodstock. (Only rarely does anyone bring up that we didn’t get within ten miles of the music.) The time we tripped on morning-glory seeds after having read in a magazine that certain types are more powerful than LSD. (I’m the only one who took the right kind, and I almost lost my mind.) The summer we got jobs as second-shift janitors and had a “blast” skipping work and going to the racetrack “all the time.” (I think we did it twice, and we all went home broke.)
The older we get, the more determined we are to believe that we had wonderful, adventure-filled youths, but for the most part I think of my youth as miserably squandered. I try not to live in the past, but there are times I can’t help myself. If I don’t watch out, I’m going to turn into the kind of pathetic old man I’d have secretly laughed at not that many years ago.
It turns out Neil’s wife, Lisa, has cancer too. A few weeks ago, feeling perfectly well, she went in for a routine colonoscopy; an hour later she woke up a cancer patient.
Colon cancer especially scares me, because it runs in my family. I’ve scheduled two colonoscopies over the last few years and found excuses to cancel both. Anne’s furious with me about this. I know I have to get one; the thought of leaving my wife alone because of my negligence is too terrible to contemplate.
“It’s not painful,” she implores. “Look what your friend Ron’s going through. How’d you like to be in his position?”
I wouldn’t. She’s right. I have no defense.
The trouble is, as the day draws near, I always back out. I’ll think, We all have to die eventually. There’s a lot to be said for avoiding the trials of old age. Maybe the authors of that happiness study should wander up and down the hallways of my mother’s assisted-living facility. Many of the residents can barely walk, and, unless they’re waiting until they get behind closed doors to break out the champagne, even those who do walk don’t seem brimming with well-being, global or otherwise.
I reassure myself by remembering the deal I made on the day I got sober: whatever happens, I’ve got a backup plan. Of course, I should know better. It’s as if I’ve forgotten why I quit drugs in the first place, which is that they don’t work on me anymore. The notion that I can somehow float painlessly through a terminal illness is absurd.
Meanwhile Ron doesn’t make it through his full course of immunotherapy after all. The plan was for him to be treated with the interleukin for five days, but the nausea and vomiting became unbearable, and he began to hallucinate. By day four he’d had enough.
“It was bad,” he tells me, his voice hoarse and weary. “Toward the end I was begging them to stop.”
I often wonder what I’d do if I were in Ron’s situation. He still feels well — or, at least, he did before the immunotherapy. I can’t help thinking that he’s throwing away precious months of relatively good health on painful treatments that are unlikely to work for long. But almost as soon as I think it, I’m disgusted by my cavalier attitude: what must it say about me that I’d consider giving up so easily? Resolving to show more fighting spirit, I promise Anne I’ll make another appointment for a colonoscopy. I mean it, of course. I always do.
Lately my dreams are full of death. Sometimes I have violent nightmares involving horrible accidents, and I wake up stunned by the gruesome workings of my own mind. Other times the dreams are not so lurid but just as frightening in their own way: I’m moving down some sort of reception line, dutifully shaking hands with a series of relatives and friends. I think it odd that I can’t quite remember what the occasion is, but I go on shaking hands anyway, figuring that it will eventually come to me. Only as I wake does it occur to me that everyone in the line was dead, including my father, who, despite looking healthy again in the dream, had a mournful, pleading expression, as if he needed help but couldn’t ask.
Eddie was in the reception line too, but not Ron. I might be tempted to see this as a good sign, except that his latest CAT scan showed the tumors have spread to his spine. There are times now when I sense desperation in him, as if he’s drifting farther and farther away, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Feeling irrationally guilty, I talk to Ron on the telephone, not saying anything particularly helpful, I’m sure, but attempting to be encouraging. Then I hang up and go out for a run, enjoying the sunshine and my own good health.
I suppose that’s why it feels almost deserved when disaster strikes — or at least my small-scale, self-involved version of it: Toward the end of a three-mile run I feel a sudden pull in my right hamstring. I limp the rest of the way home, praying it’s just some transitory tightness. A hamstring tear is one of the worst injuries a runner can have, usually necessitating three weeks off at a minimum, and often several months.
I’ve been running off and on since the early seventies, when joggers were still generally regarded as cranks. Through all the hard times — divorce, business failure, the hellish days of early sobriety — running’s been a source of comfort and joy. Over the last few years especially I’ve often felt that I’d be lost without the transitory sense of peace it brings me. Clearly I’ve become too dependent on running, and thus too dependent on my own aging body. I should adopt a more accepting outlook before I have to put away my running shoes forever, but instead I go on monitoring every minor ache and pain as if it were one of the ten warning signs of cancer that I used to read about as a kid in my parents’ Reader’s Digests.
As I limp through the front door, clutching the back of my leg and wondering glumly whether I should schedule an MRI, I hear the phone ringing. It’s my mother, who calls only when there’s a problem.
“I need help,” she says matter-of-factly. Dr. Green, the resident physician at her assisted-living facility, told her she’s “losing blood” and has to see a specialist in Boston. “I have an appointment for 10:30 tomorrow morning.”
I suppress a sigh. For one thing, she’s obviously misunderstood what the doctor said, as I highly doubt she’s losing blood. For another, driving my mother into the city will be virtually an all-day affair.
When Anne gets home, we have the usual discussion about who should take her.
“I’ll do it,” I say. “She’s my mother, after all.”
“Yes, but you know she takes a lot out of you,” Anne counters. “I’m much better with your mother than you are. You’re so impatient. Don’t you think she feels that?”
In the end we decide both of us will go. We pick my mother up at 7:30 A.M. and fight our way through rush-hour traffic to the hospital where the specialist has an office. By the time we get there, my hamstring is killing me from sitting in the car for nearly two hours, and my mood is as black as it’s been in a long time. I should be home icing my leg, not chasing up and down hospital corridors, I think as we search in vain for the doctor’s office. How stupid I was not to just let Anne take her.
We finally find the right door, only to discover the office is locked and dark. For a wild moment I wonder if I’m having an especially realistic nightmare.
“Mom,” I say through clenched teeth, “let me take a look at the information Dr. Green gave you.”
She meekly hands over a piece of paper, which says the appointment is for two days later.
My mother is old and confused, and she’s made a mistake. Nevertheless it takes every bit of self-restraint I have not to let my anger show. I’m so sick at heart I can’t speak. Only a pleading look from Anne saves me.
“It’s OK, Ma. It’s not your fault,” I finally say. “I should have double-checked with Dr. Green or at least looked at the paper she gave you.”
We turn around and slowly head back the way we came. But it’s a big hospital, and we get lost again and wander down a long, cavernous corridor with patients’ rooms on both sides. As I limp along, I can’t resist stealing glimpses through the doorways. Just about everybody I see is old: men and women with gray faces, disheveled white hair, and dull, pain-filled eyes. I wonder how many of them will ever leave this place.
When at last we locate an elevator to take us down to the parking garage, my mother takes my hand — something she hasn’t done since I was a little kid. I’m shocked to see tears in her eyes. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen my mother cry. “I’m so sorry to have made you and Anne come all this way for nothing,” she says softly.
“It’s OK, Mom,” I reply quickly, feeling my own tears well up.
I’ve never gotten along well with my mother, but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. She’s no longer the angry young woman who used to go on ferocious rants about what “miserable, ungrateful creatures” my brothers and I were. She’s an old woman who has lost or is in the process of losing just about everything: her husband, her health, her independence. And now her memory is going too. What can life be worth without memory?
And yet my mother holds on to the meager gifts remaining with a stoic determination I can only admire.
“Don’t give it another thought, Mom,” I say as the elevator lurches downward. “We’ll come back with you on Thursday. After that, we’ll all go out for a nice lunch. How does that sound?” Then, without waiting for an answer, I tell a huge lie, the one everyone tells: “Everything’s going to be OK.”