This is the story that I entered in the Writers Unite Against Cancer writing contest. It didn’t get picked. I still like it.
He took a drag of his cigarette. It didn’t matter anymore now anyway, he thought. The burning cigarette paper made a small crumpling sound. John inhaled the smoke and felt it. On the exit door of the staircase that led to the doctor’s office was a “No Smoking” sign. He flipped it off. He was outside, he would not kill anyone else with this, only himself, and soon.
Lung cancer, stage four, inoperable, only a short time to live, get affairs in order, thank you very much. The diagnosis had come short and swift by his doctor. No cushioning of the blow, just straight information. He hadn’t even cried when he had heard it. In a way he had already known.
Now tears were misting his eyes. At least he was alone at the moment. His second wife was at the hairdresser and would pick him up soon. Would he tell her? He wasn’t sure. So far it was only stored inside of him. If he told her, he would share it with the world, somehow make it true. He would have to think about that. He coughed and spat on the ground.
Smoker’s cough, that’s what it was called. All his friends, all his colleagues had it. Hell, everyone he knew pretty much smoked and they were all fine. When he was younger you were the odd man out if you didn’t smoke. It had been a normal part of life.
He thought of his friend Andy, his former mentor. Old as dirt with a skin so tanned by the sun that it looked like crumpled shoe leather and teeth so yellow that they looked more like ancient ruins than something to chew food with; he had always
been smoking and still was. He had also worked in the same grind and dirt. But that guy was as healthy as a bull.
John thought back on the first time he had met Andy in the apprentice room in the factory. Andy had already looked old then. Why not? He was twenty years John’s senior and John had been just fifteen then. A kid.
“So you want to be a welder?” he had asked. “Then you better come with me.” That was fifty years ago. Damn.
A piece of tobacco had worked itself into John’s mouth. He pushed it out with his thumbnail. He looked at his yellowed thumb. Not very attractive, but not so bad either, he thought.
“Grimy fingers” his first wife had called them. She had always told him that he would end like this. Get cancer, shrivel up and die. He really didn’t want her to be right. Or at least he didn’t want her to find out. Thinking about Lisa still made his blood boil. He sat down on the stairs. So many years, wasted.
He should have not risen to her bait, her tempting, and her infectious laughter in the first place. But he had. She had been pretty, petite and not afraid to work hard for her dreams. But there had been something else in her. A darkness that he had failed to recognize and that darkness doomed them from the start.
They had tried to make it work, oh how they had tried. And good things had come out of this marriage. His daughters had for one; Nora the older with a flair for the dramatic, Susan the younger practical to the bone.
He was down to the filter of his cigarette now. He stubbed out the glowing stump with his heel and lit himself another one. He thought about his mom.
What would he had given to have her there right then. She had always been so strong. She had given him his first pack of cigarettes when he’d turned eighteen, declaring that he was a man now. She had raised him all by herself through decades of tough times. She had been a strong willed woman. Her neighbors had feared and respected her. She had been his protector and his touchstone, his rock in the rough surf of life. And then she had died; much too early and bewildered in the grip of a fast-moving dementia.
He had been in his forties when his mother passed. Of course, Lisa had chided him for his prolonged mourning. No surprise really as she and his mom had hated each other from the get go. He should have left right then and there, when his mom had died. But no, he had stayed, hoping for better times until he had wasted thirty years. Just like he had played the lottery again and again, week after week, hoping for the jackpot, never getting it.
He should have learned that he was not a lucky one.
Wait, that was not entirely true. There was Mildred, his second wife. She was everything Lisa wasn’t: a caring woman who did everything for him. She didn’t challenge him to be something he was not. She was perfectly fine to let him stay in his comfort zone, as long as it involved her and a bit of fun as well. She was the perfect woman for him. Too bad they had met only so late in life. Ten years was all they had gotten. And if the doctors were right, there would not be an eleventh year; at least not a full one.
How the hell was he supposed to tell her that their worst fears had come true?
He remembered the last time he had thought it was all over. That was before he had even met Mildred.
It was the tough time after the divorce, when he and Susan had lived alone. He had found in Susan an ally, stronger than he had expected. There had been a lot of her grandmother’s strengths in his younger daughter. Not much of the looks though, but sometimes gestures or the use of certain phrases. It was then when he had gotten the swelling in his throat, the never subsiding pain and irritation. He had been convinced that he was suffering from throat cancer.
He had told her so with tears in his eyes. She had told him to go to the doctor to check it out and not worry before he knew anything for sure. That had not been what he’d wanted. He’d wanted comfort and commiserating. She had given him a kick in the butt. It was understandable, she had seen too much shit already in her seventeen years to get emotional over his antics. And in the end, she had been right. He had gone to the doctor and his pain had turned out to be a particularly persistent case of laryngitis and not throat cancer at all.
But this time it was different. This time the cancer hammer had come down. The big C. Mildred had sent him to the doctor this time and had insisted that it could have just as well been a stubborn bronchitis. He had known it wasn’t. At least now he didn’t have to consider himself a hypochondriac.
He watched the ash from his cigarette drop to the ground, circle around with the wind and fly away. People always say that time is like sand, he thought, running through your fingers, but that was wrong. Sand you could just pick up again and it would look the same and feel the same in your hands.
Time was more like a cigarette turning to ash. Once you had smoked through it, it was gone, changed, a shadow of what it used to be. Memories turned gray and faded. And you yourself were only half the man you used to be after time had finished with you; wrinkled, bald, with a big gut and hair in your ears.
He used to be a good-looking guy, John thought. Girls had called him a mix of Elvis Presley and James Dean. And how they had come to dance with him, to be with him, to have a smoke by the willow tree. All of them had flown away like ash too.
He checked his watch. Not much longer now. Soon Mildred would show up with a helmet of blond hair, chemically molded in place, and an inquiring look on her face. She had already buried her first husband. Now she would have to go through it again with her second. And she would do it, go through everything with him. John knew that she wouldn’t bail on him. She would stare death in the face with him. She would be strong for him. The women in his life almost always were.
But what kinds of humiliations would come before the final show down? The doctor had talked about tumors in John’s brain. Would he go confused and bewildered like his mother? Would he lose the ability to speak? Would he have an ever harder time to breathe, because the big-ass tumor in his lung would be taking up more and more space? What was in store before his body would finally give up and what would come after?
And then there were treatment options. Either chemotherapy and radiation, to prolong the time he had, or palliative care. If had understood it right, it meant either more days in pain, or less days at all. What a lousy set of options.
John coughed again and blinked his eyes in the afternoon sun.
He saw Mildred driving into the parking lot. The hood of the little red convertible glinted in its freshly washed beauty. It had been a spontaneous buy two years ago
that he hadn’t regretted one bit. John smiled, thinking about the good times, the many good moments he’d had in that little car.
He pushed himself away from the wall and waved.
Wasn’t that what it all came down to though? An assortment of good moments, memories and stories; a life enjoyed and shared?
He had certainly done that the last ten years and even before that he’d had a lot of good memories to go along with the bad. He would die and soon. So what? Everybody had to die someday. And if his life was burning down quickly now, soon to be ash, floating away in the wind, he would make sure that he would go out burning oh so bright.