On Second Thought

Page 5


Kate was lucky to have Nathan, though I never would’ve put them together. At least she seemed to know it. She and Nathan were holding hands, which was sweet.
“Hey, Ains!” said Rob, one of Eric’s fraternity brothers. “What kind of cancer was it again?”
I bit down on my irritation. If Rob had been a true friend, he’d have read The Cancer Chronicles (or the CCs, as Eric called them). Or maybe even called during the past year and a half. Like a lot of Eric’s friends from college, he was something of a dolt.
I picked up Ollie and petted his fluffy little head. “It was testicular,” I said, still wishing I didn’t have to name boy parts. They all sounded so ugly. Penis. Scrotum. Sac. Girl parts, on the other hand, all sounded rather exotic and beautiful. When I was at NBC and we did a story on teenage pregnancy, there was a girl who wanted to name her daughter Labia. I could almost see it.
“Testicular? Shit!” Rob winced comically and turned to Eric. “Dude!” he bellowed. “Your nuts? Ouch, brother!”
“That’s the good cancer, isn’t it?” asked Rob’s wife.
“There is no good cancer,” I said sternly.
“I mean, the cure rate is really high. Like 98 percent?”
Her statistics were accurate. “Yes.”
“So it wasn’t like Lance Armstrong, then? The really dangerous kind?”
What was this? An interrogation? “It was the same type Lance had, but thank God, we caught it earlier. And all cancer is dangerous. I hope you never have to find that out.”
Sure, sure, I sounded sanctimonious, but really, people could be such jerks. Eric had talked about this in his column, how people threw around terms like “good cancer” and “great odds” and just didn’t understand.
No matter what, Eric had been afraid of dying.
There was part of him, I knew, that had wished his battle had been a little...well, a little more dramatic. He’d been prepped to be noble and uncomplaining. That was why he asked me to get him the column at Hudson Lifestyle. His journey, he said, would inspire people.
And it did. Well. I was inspired, of course. The blog didn’t get a lot of traffic, and Jonathan was irritable about it, so I lied to Eric about the statistics. He’d been fighting cancer. He didn’t need to know his views were in the dozens (sometimes not even that).
The truth was, the CCs were kind of...bland. Eric wrote about finding silver linings, living in the moment, being present, the transformation of the caterpillar to butterfly. There was a lot of detail about his treatment. Even a picture of the pre-and postoperative scrotum, which we had to take down as soon as Jonathan saw it, since it violated the magazine’s pornography rules (that was an awkward meeting, let me tell you).
Eric liked to use quotes: Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the realization that there is something more important than fear... Live to fight another day... You are braver than you know, stronger than you think... It’s always darkest before dawn. (That one made even me wince.)
It wasn’t exactly new territory, or great writing. Every Monday morning, Jonathan would fix me with a dead-eyed stare after he read the blog. I didn’t care. It wasn’t like Hudson Lifestyle was Newsweek. And besides, Eric was always very flattering when he referenced me. He called me Sunshine on the blog, rather than using my real name. To protect my privacy, he said, though I wouldn’t have minded being outed.
“Why doesn’t anyone comment?” Eric asked a few weeks after he started, and that was when I made up a bunch of fake usernames and started posting. Lucy1991, CancerSux9339, EdouardenParis, LivefromNewYork28, DaveMatthewsFan! and LovesToRead288 were actually all me.
There’d been this one woman who’d had chemo at the same place Eric went. Noreen. She’d been so, so sick, so thin it was a wonder her legs held her. No hair, no eyebrows, sores at her IV sites, yeast infections in her mouth, bleeding gums, yellow skin and slack, hollow eyes, a cough so hard I was surprised she didn’t bring up her large intestine. It was her third time around with cancer. The odds were not in her favor.
But Noreen always smiled, asked after the nurses’ kids by name, sometimes even crocheted little blankets for the preemies in the neonatal unit when she had the strength. Never lost her sense of humor, wore funny T-shirts that said My Oncologist Can Beat Up Your Oncologist and Does This Shirt Make Me Look Bald? She was never anything but gracious, kind and happy. Every time I went in to sit with Eric, I was terrified Noreen wouldn’t be there, that the cancer finally devoured her.
Against all odds, she made it. In fact, she ran a half marathon last month and raised more than twenty-five grand for cancer research. That was when Eric started training for one, too.
But Eric’s cancer journey had been...well, it had been easy. Easy as cancer journeys go, that is. No hair loss (though he did shave his head). Only two days of puking and diarrhea that might’ve been caused by some iffy sushi. He lost fifteen pounds, but then again, he needed to, and it was more through our new macrobiotic diet than because of chemo. There was one week where he took a nap every day.
So what Rob’s wife had said was true. If there was a cancer you had to have, testicular was the way to go. And Eric had sailed through it like a champ.
I knew he exaggerated on his blog, but I didn’t bring it up. He had cancer, for the love of God.
And he won. Maybe his battle wasn’t as tough as other people’s, but he won.
My throat was tight with happy tears. I set Ollie back on the floor so he could win more hearts and minds, and took a breath, wanting to press our night into my memory forever. Three Wall Streeters were laughing in the corner. Lillie, my college roommate, was giggling with her fiancé. Everyone looked so happy.
Almost everyone, that was.
“You really went all out, didn’t you?” My stepmother, Candy, appeared at my elbow. “I can’t imagine what this cost.”
“So worth it, though,” I said, determined not to let her ruin my mood.
“If you say so.” She gave me her patented, squinty look of disappointment—I did my best, but look what I had to work with.
A word about Candy.
She and Dad were each other’s once and future spouses, as it were. The first time around, they met in college, got married, had Sean and Kate. Then, when Kate was seven, they got a divorce.
Not very long after the divorce—a few months, I was told—Dad married my mother, Michelle, who died when I was three. A pickup truck hit her one Sunday afternoon as she was riding her bike. Six months after that, Dad went back to Candy and married her again.
Candy wasn’t an evil stepmother. She took care of me when I was sick and asked if I did my homework, but...well. She already had her children, and they were past the age when they needed help brushing their teeth. I was not encouraged to call her Mom. “Your mother is in heaven,” she’d say calmly if the M-word slipped out, as it sometimes did. “You can call me Candy.”
Dad, who had been a great baseball player in college but not quite good enough to play for a living, was an umpire for Major League Baseball. He traveled seven months of the year, so the bulk of my upbringing fell to Candy. And while she did take my father back, she never got over him dumping her for a younger, prettier woman. Every few years, she’d announce that she was divorcing Dad, though she never followed through.
Candy had a PhD in psychology and had authored several books on family dynamics, including The Toxic Mommy and Stuck with You: Raising the Recalcitrant Stepchild. Other cheerful titles included Freeing Yourself from Your Family and Parenting When You’ve Got Nothing Left. She was a bit of a celebrity on the parenting circuit, and also the advice columnist for Hudson Lifestyle, which she wrote under the name Dr. Lovely.