“Mrs. Starkman,” said the doctor, “sit down.”
Ten months, three weeks later, my husband was dead.
Cancer is an awesome opponent. Sometimes it wins. Even when it most should not. Even when all goodness is on the other side.
This was not the ending this book was supposed to have. This was not the end my husband was meant to meet. This was a cosmic mistake. That I know for certain and I will never believe otherwise. This ending — his ending — was not written by some omniscient hand, and if it was, it was a misprint. Some might call it plain, dumb bad luck. And bad luck is part of it; bad luck contributed mightily. But it’s more than that. It’s something gone drastically wrong. It’s a mistake.
This should have been a book about overcoming life’s obstacles, about getting up in the morning and making the climb no matter how relentless and uphill, about the rewards of never giving up. Imagining that book, a triumphant tale of love conquering all, kept me going through what I continually tried to convince myself was destined to be a finite nightmare, our annus horribilis.
As I typed random notes into my computer, midnight after midnight, in an attempt to purge the terror, I fantasized that maybe other people treading similar waters would read my words and find some small meaning, perhaps even faith in the inevitability of steadfast perseverance earning a happy ending.
The struggle to keep on top of the medical minutia was supposed to provide a lesson in the triumph of organization and persistence. The task of coordinating all the players in white coats was supposed to remind us that you cannot scream too loudly or cause too big a nuisance when you are saving someone’s life. Descriptions of the waves of panic that washed over me when Laurence was first diagnosed — and then, for the next three hundred twenty-nine days — were supposed to transform into passages reflecting a profound and abiding sense of accomplishment, a testimony to the power of hope. Words would blossom like my husband’s renewed health.
But no matter how hard I tried to pretend otherwise, no matter how I strived to mold the events of the past year into something that made some sense, this was not art. This was life.
As a screenwriter, I have been in the business of creating plots imbued with cause-and-effect. But there was none to be found here. No cause-and-effect. No set-up and pay-off. And, as it would happen, no happy ending. Because in life, unlike art, senselessness often prevails no matter how hard you try. And we did try. But cancer was the villain in our story, and while I emerged from this year with no glimpse of God, I began to wonder towards the end, if, in fact, the devil does indeed exist and if we were not battling him mano a mano.
There will be no revelations in these pages. No blinding insights. Just flashes of clarity about pain and fight and love that, on a good day, make this point in my life almost bearable. It is a weird, through-the-looking-glass starting point — dismally unwelcome — where hopes and dreams and the whole concept of the future are distorted at best, obliterated at worst.
I will say it right now, from the start, that the most I will be able to offer is this: for some inexplicable reason — at once miraculous and diabolical — the heart keeps beating even when it is irreparably broken.
Everybody needs to play hooky now and then. When Cami was in preschool, Laurence initiated the “playing hooky” tradition. If we were working on a screenplay at home, a hooky day probably didn’t look a whole lot different from any other day. But even if Laurence was in the middle of an editing job or designing a montage, it meant taking an actual day off from the studio or the camera house where his animation was being shot. And Cami would take a day off from the preschool grind. It was our little family secret. When I called the school attendance office to explain Cami’s absence, I would never report her sick, being a bit squeamish about bad karma. I simply pled “family business.” The truth was Daddy and Cami were playing hooky. And what do you do when you play hooky?
I would organize a picnic and they’d pack up their gear. Red tackle box. Cami’s Mickey Mouse fishing pole. The net for scooping a fish or two right out of the water if you got lucky. Everything you’d need. It was downright Mayberry.
The two of them headed off to parts northwest — slightly northwest — Agoura to be exact, to a place called Troutdale, a stocked lake (more like a pond) where Laurence had gone as a little boy. There was a small shack on the premises where they sold bait, shocking pink and fairly stinky. Laurence helped Cami bait the hook of her Mickey Mouse pole and then they’d settle in for a day of good ol’ fishin’, punctuated by trips to the vending machine which was stocked with more candy than the lake was stocked with trout. Laurence would buy Mike & Ike’s and Good & Plenty, the candy of his childhood, which Cami found utterly fascinating.
Then the waiting began. The first time they went fishing, Laurence wondered if Cami would be bored. But, like her Daddy, Cami was good at waiting, even at age four. They both enjoyed the company of their own imaginations. Mostly, they both enjoyed the company of one another.
It was with enormous glee that Laurence related the story of the first fish Cami ever caught. With a bit of help and much cheering, she had yanked the struggling creature out of the water. Laurence had maneuvered the hook from its mouth, leaving a gaping, bloody gash as the trout flopped in the bucket. Laurence checked for Cami’s reaction, fearing that she would be upset by the gore.
“Have you had enough?”
What on earth was he talking about? She was overjoyed. She was proud. She was hooked.
“Daddy, let’s stay all day.”
And they did.
All day, at least once a year, sometimes two or three times, until, sadly, missing a day of school meant missing actual work, and Cami decided the tradition would have to be replaced by others. A Saturday excursion to the lake just didn’t pack the same punch, lacking in forbiddenness as it would be.
But those days at Troutdale were worth a lot. More than a spelling test, or a play rehearsal, or conquering long division.
Because everybody needs to play hooky now and then.
AFTER — CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Cami and I bounce around the house for the next few days like pinballs. A sort of manic exhilaration. Strangely, there is a sense of accomplishment. We have walked through fire, our whole selves consumed by flames. Anything else we encounter in life can be no more than a little smoke wisping at our ankles. The scenario that had sprung to mind the instant Laurence had been diagnosed, which we had fought against for those long months, had come true. Yet I was still alive. Being alive suddenly meant something entirely different, entirely strange, but I was alive whether I wanted to be or not.
I just didn’t know how to be.
If only Laurence were here to tell me how. I remember that day when we returned home from the doctor’s after the recurrence had been discovered.
Laurence had said, “You’re going to have to carry on.”
“No, I won’t,” I’d insisted. “I’m not going to have to. We can do this.”
He was opening the door and I had refused to step through. The blackness on the other side was too frightening. And now he could no longer tell me how to face it. At that moment, denial felt like courage. Now I knew it was the exact opposite.
Courage would have been saying, Yes, I promise. I will carry on. Tell me how, now while you can. I promised him while he was dying, actively dying during that twenty-eight hours, that I would carry on. But it was too late to receive his advice. I had missed the moment when he could have held my hand and walked me through his own absence.
One morning I pause to listen to Randy Pausch on the radio. A professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, he is famously battling the pancreatic cancer that will soon take his life. He tells the interviewer, “My family’s going to be pushed off a cliff, and I won’t be there to catch them.” With enviable maturity and the clear-sightedness accompanying his scientific bent, he adds, “This gives me time to make a net.”
Where is my net? I wonder.
Three months ago, I should have turned around and looked over my shoulder to see how close the precipice was, but I did not. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have believed a net possible. I could not say to my husband, “Weave me a net.” The only safety net I ever knew was his being here, being in the thick of it with me, reminding me of who we were together. So now I free fall.