Coup De Grâce
It’s a late afternoon appointment, and the waiting room is almost empty — just an old lady in a wheelchair and her husband. I’m there for a six-month check-up and feeling fine. It’s been a year since I finished my second dance with chemo, after the breast cancer came back, and the place feels as familiar to me as anyplace does when you’ve spent time there. I’ve been coming here for eight years now, ever since that first lump hiding under my milk-swollen breast, back when I was scared of death. Fourth floor, the Cancer Center. The doors of the elevator open and there’s nowhere for you to go but in.
They’ve re-upholstered the chairs since that first time eight years ago, but everything else is the same. I grab the clipboard and tick off the checklist: no new symptoms since the last visit; zero on the pain scale for the past week. I pour myself a hot brown water from the machine in the kitchen. It’s supposed to be coffee. I don’t think they get any complaints. Dr. Phil is staring a middle-aged man down on the TV and speaking very slowly at him. The man avoids Dr. Phil’s question by offering up his side of the story instead. Dr. Phil’s no fool and neither are we. This guy’s guilty as sin and I don’t even know why he’s there yet.
The old woman in the wheelchair is wearing a short chestnut-colored wig. There’s a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Her husband watches Dr. Phil interrogate the man. He’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt, socks and trainers. The man in the waiting room, I mean. He’s overweight. A nurse comes out to take the woman back. I know that part. The needles, the recliner, the heat lamp, the IV with its bag marked with a neon yellow toxic label going drip, drip, drip. It takes hours. It is already late afternoon and they’ve been here for hours. For all I know, they’ve been here for years.
The man on Dr. Phil is insisting he and his wife had a suicide pact before she went missing. He calls her “my loving wife,” which is suspicious. No-one does that. His daughter’s having none of it. The wife’s been missing for nine months. He says she was depressed. The daughter says she wasn’t. He claims to have talked to people who saw her just this week. The look on her face is sheer contempt. The air between them is thick with poison, you can tell, even through the TV screen.
The nurse comes back out to give the man a parking coupon. She sits down in the chair next to his and explains that she won’t see him at their next visit, but that someone else will. He seems unsettled by this news. Clearly she’s been the old woman’s nurse for the duration of her treatment. Someone else will see them, she says, it will be OK. Look, she says, her voice softening as she leans in close. You know that this isn’t curable right? he nods. We’re coming to the end of the non-aggressive treatment, she says. After this — , she says. He knows. I don’t know how aggressive you want to go, she says. The way she says it lets you know this is a thing she does know and it isn’t a question. The way she says it, you immediately understand she’s moved into euphemism. What she’s saying is that this is the stage of treatment beyond palliation; it’s the last time she’ll be there to speak to him, and it’s the end of her shift, and someone needs to spell it out euphemistically. He says No, you’re right.
I’m sipping my hot brown water and watching Dr. Phil and overhearing the nurse and the husband, and I have been cured of cancer twice and am feeling no pain. The man with the missing wife squirms under the studio lights while trying to explain what he means by “suicide pact” to his daughter, and why her mother’s missing, yet he’s still alive.
It takes four hours to get her out of the house, the husband is saying. You should see the state of the house. The carpet. She spills, everything. There’s a comma when he says it. He looks around at the neat waiting room. You’re doing a lot, the nurse says. I’m doing it all, the man says. All of it. Everything. Can you get a friend to help? the nurse asks. It’s too much, the man says. He’s on a roll. It’s too much to ask. How about your sons? the nurse asks. They — the man says. He stops, searches for words, finds none. Not really, he says. The one, he comes by sometimes, mows the yard. The other one, he’ll wash the dishes, but then he’ll leave his cup in the sink. You get up the next morning and it’s still there. He looks at the nurse and shrugs. He’s holding his hands out. I know what you mean, the nurse says. I’m tired, the man says. But she’s their Mom, the nurse says, and he says Yeah.
Dr. Phil is confronting the husband about inconsistencies in his story. On the giant screen in the studio, he brings up one of the man’s Facebook posts. In it, the man is talking smack about a football team. And yet, Dr. Phil drills, and yet you wrote this while your beloved wife was missing, the woman you said you couldn’t live without. It’s Dr. Phil’s coup de grâce — the trick up his sleeve his producer probably engineered with the daughter’s help months ago, back when the woman had only been missing for four months or so. We go to commercial break, because there is nowhere else to go.
There’s going to come a time, the nurse says, when you’re going to have to think about getting help. You’ve taken such good care of her, but she’s going to need someone to change dressings. There are places she can go. The husband perks up. He’s animated in his grief. Yes, he says.
Brian Williams has taken Dr. Phil’s place. He’s reporting live on the Pope’s motorcade as it passes through screaming throngs. The Pope in white is waving, while the secret service jog alongside the Popemobile. He’s so popular, he’s driven around twice. Apparently, reports Brian Williams, the Pope is a bit of a loose cannon when it comes to public outings. Brian Williams is rendered speechless, so is going to just let the viewers at home watch the motorcade and let it sink in without commentary.
I’ll see you in six, seven weeks, the nurse says, getting up. Oh? the husband says, concern returning to his voice. Yes, she reminds him; I won’t be here on your next visit. You’ll be seeing someone else.
When she leaves, we both stare at the Pope all alone in his chariot amid a sea of the faithful, the merely curious, and those lucky enough to snag tickets to watch the holy man drive by. Then we look at each other, only five feet away across the waiting room, yet on different shores of a planet we’ll euphemistically call Cancer.
By the time we return our gaze to the TV, the credits for Dr. Phil are rolling, and we’ll never know how that story ended. There’s nowhere to go but out.