Thirty-two years ago, I lost the love of my life, and my love lost his life, and all his loves.
It never stops aching. Not entirely. Every June 18, unless my living dear ones have crises that obtrude, I remember. Most years, I cry, again. Some years, I write another June 18 poem. I don’t talk about the date, lest it be thought an occasion. Let the stupid world think June 18 is just a boring day–I want it to myself, to remember the best man in my life.
He was a brave man, our Spence. He didn’t go to the hospital until 20 hours before his death. If you haven’t spent last days with a cancer patient, just believe me: that’s hard.
He had lied to all of us, his family, friends, and me. Especially me–he’d broken up with me inexplicably, just after we had decided to have a child. Still clad in the long cotton hippy dress I had worn for him that evening when he came to dinner with his dreadful verbal mission hidden in his throat, I lay on the river stones outside my shack, devastated, for two days. At some point I picked myself up, fed the wolfdogs, packed up into an old Ford Econoline van, and left for anywhere.
Two years later he came to visit me in Yukon, for no apparent reason. He still could not articulate why he broke us up. Lovely visit, but mysterious. I watched him stride away in the fresh northern morning, attache case banging against his knee, full of meaningless papers about the pipeline, geologist’s boots sticking out from under his suit with the leather elbows. The thought arose: "This is the last time I’ll ever see him."
He took a "business trip" to the Phillippines. I still have the tightly woven little bag he sent me as a memento from Baguio City. He was in the oil business, a geologist–so it all made some kind of sense. I had no idea he’d gone for the "psychic surgery" then so famous on the moccasin telegraph, later so infamous as the "cancers" allegedly removed from sufferors’ bodies were proven to match chicken flesh in every possible way.
Nobody knew Spence was sick until very close to the end. In those days, there were no early tests for colon cancer, and having cancer was, well, a little embarrassing. If you had cancer, you had probably done some bad living, bad loving, or wrong thinking in your life. You hid your cancer and prayed for survival.
Much later, I put it together. He’d been given a year or so to live, although he outlived the prognosis by two years. At one point, he’d been in the hospital for something–something he lied about, obviously–and of course I’d visited him there. I’d found him cheerfully piloting his wheelie-thing around the place so that he could continue his engineering-course homework in the brightest lighting in the building (other than the operating room). He was cheerful as only a faker can be, but I was naive enough to swallow his guff. "Why on earth are you taking more courses," I did protest, "when you already have a PhD and tons of post-doctorate work behind you, not to mention dealing with whatever this medical problem is?"
He said something about needing this course in the future and about life-long learning. I believed him. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that Spence would always exist in my life, whether we were a couple or not. I needed an immortal good man.
Someone in his group of friends was a doctor, however, and the cat crawled out of the bag. On finding him out, we all flew into his eyrie in Calgary, totally pissed off with his bravado. There followed six weeks during which we all practised mundane courage, exemplified by Spence, who refused to stop living a single day earlier than he had to. Though he insisted on doing for himself far beyond the capacity of 999 of a thousand mortals, there was no denying that cancer is a sticky, icky, messy, stinky business. Like most major bodily events, cancer is all about fluids and odoriferous bits of gunk. The last course Spence "taught", to us there on the 34th floor of downtown Cowtown, was Transcendance Training, up close and personal.
Although too sick to drive, he walked into the hospital that last night under his own steam. I seem to remember the nurse taking his hand as he stepped up into the bed, his final bed, and he said, in an altered voice foreign to the voice of the bear I so loved, "It won’t be long now," and she answered gently, "No, Dr. Taylor, it won’t be long."
It wasn’t. The next afternoon, with his good friend his ex-wife and me, his last love, each holding one of those great hands, he left us.
Sort of. We could feel his presence above us, relieved to be free of the battered body. It followed us back to his office, where we held the prescribed wake with the long-saved flagon of scotch, and I threw myself down a set of stairs in a paroxysm of grief which had apparently had turned me into rubber, as not a single bone broke.
This year, as my initial "You’re kidding me" response to my own diagnosis ebbed away, the thought arose, Of course. Of course I’ve got the same disease.
This is nonsense, of course. Everybody and his dog have colon cancer nowadays, because we all grew up in poisoned environments. For some people, that started way back. Spence, child of the Depression, rode the rails, sailed the high seas during WWII on the ill-fated Lexington, and kept samples of radioactive rocks in his library, shining eerily in jars of oil or water.
I asked my docs how long the cancer thingy had been fashioning itself in me. Three to six years, I was told.
Three to six years…. Spence died at fifty-nine, which seems criminally young now. I was then a few days short of 30. Three decades later, at about his age, I was growing the same kind of cancer.
Now that’s not nonsense. That’s a warning to all us Boomers. This is the age it happens, people!
If Spence could know that in just six short months, his last love was diagnosed, treated with surgery, and declared cancer-free, he’d whoop with joy for me and wish like hell those opportunities had been open to him. Because he loved life, and he loved me, and everything could have been different.
Roads keep diverging in the yellow wood, and that is what makes all the difference.