Yesterday ended on a completely different note than it began. The husband of one of my cousins has cancer. This weekend, he took a precipitous turn for the worse, the cancer apparently having been chased by chemo to the spine and brain, finding sanctuary on the other side of the blood-brain barrier, which apparently the chemo cannot cross. That might not be completely scientific. In any case he is now back in Sloan Kettering and his oncologist told my cousin yesterday that he is not expected to go home. On hearing that news, I went to the hospital.
It took forever because I was at a conference on the far side of town from where the hospital was, and traffic in the city was snarled and roads were closed because of the unprecedented size of the climate march. More than 300,000 people marched for a myriad of environmental and social justice causes. It was thrilling out there on the streets. But in a dark corner room on a high floor of the cancer hospital, my cousin was contemplating women who throw themselves on the funeral pyre with their husbands and wishing she lived in such a culture.
Her husband Gary is dying, and very likely soon. It didn't look this way a week ago. He seemed to be responding to the chemo; his tumors had shrunk by more than half. He and my cousin spent the summer going to museums, hiking in nature, roaming around Chinatown, doing all the things he loved to do, just because he could. But cancer was cunning. Now his brain is swollen and his bones ache in places too deep to touch and he is moaning and writhing and he doesn't recognize anyone who comes.
My cousin sent out an email asking anyone who wanted to see him alive to come now. My cousin's sisters are coming in from Boston and San Francisco to be with her. And people from our little church, which Gary joined back in the days when he used to take my mother to Sunday services, also started visiting. No one had realized he was so closed to the end. Gary is a Buddhist but he joined that little Episcopal church in Harlem because he found such kindred souls there. He helped build the ramp that my mother's pushed her rolling walker up and into the church every Sunday when she was here. He felt enfolded, welcomed.
My husband and son also came to the hospital. I said to another cousin later that I was in awe of them, their ability to just sit or stand at Gary's bedside and be present and calm for hours. I am not so good at that. The hospital room closes in on me. I find myself wanting to flee. My cousin (not Gary's wife, the other one) suggested we all have different ways of serving. I did try to make myself useful. I called my cousin's colleague and asked that they cancel her classes for the week (she is a professor). My cousin also hadn't eaten anything so I took her downstairs to the cafeteria while my husband and son stayed with Gary. She was grateful for that. She hadn't wanted to leave the room because she didn't want Gary to die when no one was there.
Later, my son and I drove her home so she could shower. Gary is a musician and she also wanted to download the music he had been writing, his legacy album, she called it, so she could play it for him My husband waited at the hospital. My cousin completely broke down in the car, screaming that she had nothing left to live for, weeping that she wished she had been a better wife, that all her husband ever wanted was family around him and to be loved. Her husband is white and his brothers disowned him when he married a black woman. His family had been pretty fractured before that, though. He often expressed appreciation for the closeness of our family, even with our squabbles, and he became central to us. I'm trying not to think about his made-from-scratch cranberry sauce missing from our Thanksgiving table. I am thinking there is still time for miracles.
I remember when my Uncle Charlie was dying years ago, how Gary came and cleaned out his room and rearranged the furniture so that the hospice people could bring in a hospital bed and all the palliative care equipment my uncle needed. I remember how Gary visited daily and sat in the room with my uncle for hours. Now it is our turn. We don't know what comes next, how long he might have. All we can do now is be there with him, whether he is aware of us or not.