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Dire Cure Analysis

Author: poem of William Matthews Type: poem Views: 5

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"First, do no harm," the Hippocratic

Oath begins, but before she might enjoy

such balm, the docs had to harm her tumor.

It was large, rare, and so anomalous

in its behavior that at first they mis-

diagnosed it. "Your wife will die of it

within a year." But in ten days or so

I sat beside her bed with hot-and-sour

soup and heard an intern congratulate

her on her new diagnosis: a children's

cancer (doesn't that possessive break

your heart?) had possessed her. I couldn't stop

personifying it. Devious, dour,

it had a clouded heart, like Iago's.

It loved disguise. It was a garrison

in a captured city, a bad horror film

(The Blob), a stowaway, an inside job.

If I could make it be like something else,

I wouldn't have to think of it as what,

in fact, it was: part of my lovely wife.

Next, then, chemotherapy. Her hair fell

out in tufts, her color dulled, she sat laced

to bags of poison she endured somewhat

better than her cancer cells could, though not

by much. And indeed, the cancer cells waned

more slowly than the chemical "cocktails"

(one the bright color of Campari), as the chemo

nurses called them, dripped into her. There were

three hundred days of this: a week inside

the hospital and two weeks out, the fierce

elixirs percolating all the while.

She did five weeks of radiation, too,

Monday to Friday like a stupid job.

She wouldn't eat the food the hospital

wheeled in. "Pureed fish" and "minced fish" were worth,

I thought, a sharp surge of food snobbery,

but she'd grown averse to it all -- the nurses'

crepe soles' muffled squeaks along the hall,

the filtered air, the smothered urge to read,

the fear, the perky visitors, flowers

she'd not been sent when she was well, the room-

mate (what do "semiprivate" and "extra

virgin" have in common?) who died, the nights

she wept and sweated faster than the tubes

could moisten her with lurid poison.

One chemotherapy veteran, six

years in remission, chanced on her former

chemo nurse at a bus stop and threw up.

My wife's tumor has not come back.

I like to think of it in Tumor Hell

strapped to a dray, flat as a deflated

football, bleak and nubbled like a poorly

ironed truffle. There's one tense in Tumor Hell:

forever, or what we call the present.

For that long the flaccid tumor marinates

in lurid toxins. Tumor Hell Clinic

is, it turns out, a teaching hospital.

Every century or so, the way

we'd measure it, a chief doc brings a pack

of students round. They run some simple tests:

surge current through the tumor, batter it

with mallets, push a wood-plane across its

pebbled hide and watch a scurf of tumor-

pelt kink loose from it, impale it, strafe it

with lye and napalm. There might be nothing

left in there but a still space surrounded

by a carapace. "This one is nearly

dead," the chief doc says. "What's the cure for that?"

The students know: "Kill it slower, of course."

They sprinkle it with rock salt and move on.

Here on the aging earth the tumor's gone:

My wife is hale, though wary, and why not?

Once you've had cancer, you don't get headaches

anymore, you get brain tumors, at least

until the aspirin kicks in. Her hair's back,

her weight, her appetite. "And what about you?"

friends ask me. First the fear felt like sudden

weightlessness: I couldn't steer and couldn't stay.

I couldn't concentrate: surely my spit would

dry before I could slather a stamp.

I made a list of things to do next day

before I went to bed, slept like a cork,

woke to no more memory of last night's

list than smoke has of fire, made a new list,

began to do the things on it, wept, paced,

berated myself, drove to the hospital,

and brought my wife food from the takeout joints

that ring a hospital as surely as

brothels surround a gold strike. I drove home

rancid with anger at her luck and mine --

anger that filled me the same way nature

hates a vacuum. "This must be hell for you,"

some said. Hell's not other people: Sartre

was wrong about that, too. L'enfer, c'est moi?

I've not got the ego for it. There'd be

no hell if Dante hadn't built a model

of his rage so well, and he contrived to

get exiled from it, for it was Florence.

Why would I live in hell? I love New York.

Some even said the tumor and fierce cure

were harder on the care giver -- yes, they

said "care giver" -- than on the "sick person."

They were wrong who said those things. Of course

I hated it, but some of "it" was me --

the self-pity I allowed myself,

the brave poses I struck. The rest was dire

threat my wife met with moral stubbornness,

terror, rude jokes, nausea, you name it.

No, let her think of its name and never

say it, as if it were the name of God.

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