Cancer in Midlife
There is a pause in the conversation. Each person takes a bite of dessert. Paul dreads the idea of what Iris may offer as news. She has been throwing around the idea of volunteering for an NGO in Iraq or Afghanistan. Iris has weeks and weeks of vacation time she has never used. So instead of taking a vacation she wants to go and help women in Baghdad, or the court system in Afghanistan. Iris has been completely against the war in Iraq and she has never talked about George W. Bush at their dinners out of respect for Paul's Republican upbringing, but she did allow the Omaha Democratic Party to put up a giant John Kerry sign in her front yard in 2004 and an Obama sign in 2008. People wrote letters to the editor of the Omaha World Herald about both signs. Her decision to do so was either heroic or scandalous, depending on who was writing the letter. Goodness knows what Iris will do this election season. She adores and loves Barack Obama.
Possibly Iris is going to work on another legal project for one of the Indian tribes on the reservations in Thurston County. Paul will have to listen, once again, to the trials and tribulations of what has been done to America's indigenous peoples. Iris is not starry-eyed about the problems of any of the people she serves. Nor does she ever insinuate that other people should be doing what she is doing, but Paul feels guilty when Iris is away helping the needy and he is lying supine on a chaise lounge beside the pool at Happy Hollow Country Club. Paul braces himself for some sort of Mother Theresa announcement, but Iris doesn't speak.
Finally the silence at the table extends beyond polite into awkward and he blurts out, "So, Iris, what's your news this evening?"
Iris looks at Paul and then at Martha.
"I did mention in February or March that I was going to have a colonoscopy?"
"No, I don't remember you mentioning that," Martha says.
"A colonoscopy is not news, Iris, that's healthcare," Paul says, trying to relieve his voice of the irritation that he is beginning to feel. "News is like you're going to Chicago and you have a reservation at Charlie Trotter's. Or Miles is getting married. That's news."
"Now, Paul," Martha says, raising her right hand off of the table. "Let Iris speak."
"Well in late February I had a colonoscopy," Iris tells them, looking out the window, her hands beginning to move nervously in her lap. "The gastroenterologist found something. It was biopsied, and I have cancer of the colon."
"I know so many people who have had that surgery and then boom they do the chemo and they're back on the tennis court in six weeks," Paul says, because he wants to say something that sounds positive, something less bitchy than "a colonoscopy is not news." Cancer is news, and Paul knows this. But now he can't quite remember any one person who has been diagnosed with colon cancer and then had the surgery and chemo and was back on the tennis courts in six weeks, but there must be someone in Omaha who fits this description. Paul knows he probably heard some form of this story at an AA meeting, because he hears everything at AA.
Iris takes Paul's hand and squeezes it gently as she continues to look out the window. Her hand is shaking. She returns it to her own lap.
"Before deciding on a plan for surgery and oncology for my colon cancer, the surgeon and the oncologist wanted CT scans of the area around my colon and the nearby organs. I worked the scan in around a court date, and to tell you the truth I didn't do it as quickly as the doctors wanted. But cutting to the chase of the story, this week the oncologist told me what the radiologist found."
Iris stops. Her hands are moving as she continues to look out the window. Paul knows that she is signing. It is a nervous habit of hers. He thinks that she says more in signs than she will speak aloud in words. It is a habit that he finds irritating most of the time, but it is Iris's second language. Her sister Bridget is deaf.
"Iris, what did the doctor find?" Martha asks. Iris blinks. A tear slides down the side of her face as her hands move into the space in front of her body, saying something that neither he nor Martha can interpret. Paul remembers the first time he saw Iris. It was at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She was sitting in the front row of a lecture hall. The seats on either side of her were empty. With her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Iris looked like a child. hardly more than a young teenager. lt bothered him that she was alone. Even then Paul's instinct was to protect her. So he walked down the steps and sat beside her though he hated sitting in the front rows of lecture halls. Iris looked like a sparrow among hawks, as the boys filed in to sit around the two of them.
"I have cancer of the liver as well," Iris says.
"My God, Iris," Martha says, her composure shaken.
"Are they certain? Doctors do make mistakes, you know, no matter how much they scream about the need for tort reform. There's a place for tort law in this world," Paul says in a raised voice. People at other tables turn their heads to look at him.
Paul hates doctors. He hates the smugness of all their smartness. He resents the way physicians seem to crowd the stage at dinner parties. He can't stand the fact that they peer into the recesses and cavities of his body and he cannot do the same. And when Cissy remarried she remarried a cardiologist while Paul was in rehab. The cardiologist owns a place in Aspen and he was Ak-Sar-Ben's fucking King of Quivera. Somehow Cissy got their wedding photograph into Town & Country. It was awful. Paul despises doctors. And now a goddamned fucking doctor has given Iris, his bedrock best friend, a diagnosis of colon and liver cancer. May that fool roast in hell someday.
"Setting aside the issues of tort reform for a minute, yes, I do think that the doctors are correct in their diagnosis," Iris says, leaning forward with a grimace.
"How do you feel?" Martha asks, giving him a glare that says "Shut up."
"At work, I feel good. I'm busy. I'm needed. But at home I feel some discomfort. The pain sent me to my internist in the first place."
"What do the doctors want to do?" Paul asks, thinking that this is the right question and Martha will approve of it. He is beginning to feel a sense of panic.
Losing Iris is not something he has ever considered. He loves Iris. if he hadn't been so stupidly besotted with Cissy and with the idea that he was going to wake up straight like the rest of the world he would have married Iris and been step-father to Miles and then divorced Iris in a much nicer fashion than his divorce from Cissy. Possibly he would have imbibed less, possibly. Of course, there would be no Max and Molly if he had married Iris, and that is the whole problem with revisionist histories, he thinks. Fuck it all.
"Would the two of you mind walking me home?" Iris asks, signaling to the server to bring them their bills.
At this moment, Paul Simmons would love to have a drink, many drinks, as a matter of fact. But he has promised himself that he will never have a drink again until he is dying, really and truly dying. Then he will drink Manhattans and gin and tonics and dirty martinis and single malt scotch and all the new-fangled beers that they are serving all over Omaha in the bars that he never enters. In Paul's Vision of his death, Iris and Martha are serving him the drinks as they wipe his fevered brow. The drinks taste wonderful mixed with the morphine dripping into a port in his vein and he feels safe because Iris and Martha are with him.
For many years on the three Saturdays of every month when Paul did not eat dinner with Iris and Martha after his twelve-step meeting and before he met David Richmond, Paul would console himself with this imagined drunken death scene. Since meeting David and promising David that he would be faithful to both him and to AA, Paul has not spent Saturday nights alone. For the very first time in his life, Paul has begun to feel like what he believes happy heterosexuals feel, safe, comfortable, breathing in and out, sleeping without fear.
The server appears and Paul takes all three checks from him.
"Paul, that's against the rules," Iris says.
"Tonight, the rules have changed," he says, as he hands over his Visa card.
Neither woman disagrees.