Samantha and I got home at midnight from the amazing Diana Krall concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I felt the rare, luxurious mother-daughter-school’s out companionship that vindicates the wear-and-tear of parenting. The great jazzy rough-and-tumble, piano-and-smoke Krall performance that night made a woman of both of us, especially the sultry “Peel Me a Grape.” A mother and a daughter, summer and jazz. Great.
At home, I picked up my messages. Between the usual business calls and updates from friends, there was a communication that came in at 5:15 from my doctor’s office. I had my annual physical last week and they’d taken blood.
“We have your lab reports back,” reported the nurse, Lizzie. “And we want to talk to you about them. Call tomorrow.”
Instantly a drum-roll of regret registered in my mouth.
I played the message over, listening to Lizzie’s glacial, professional voice, with the staccato words “lab reports” and “we want to talk to you.”
It was midnight. Nine more hours with the scores of “Jaws” and “Psycho” beating inside my brain with the thump-thump of terror. What intelligent forces in the medical world have determined it good policy to make unsettling calls after office hours, giving the pathetic patient no time to respond?
“What could it mean but cancer?” I called my friend Susan late though it was. There, I said the words, through a tongue of oatmeal and lips slack with saliva. Cancer. Six letters, two C’s, first the coarse c of hardship, the second a pitiable hiss.
“I don’t know,” Susan said.
12:20 a.m. I will not go gentle. I called the doctor’s exchange, hoping to wake up my physician should she be on call.
“Where is your intelligence?” I bleated into the uncomprehending answering machine, my voice screeching C above high C. “Would you want such a call made to you?”
Now to bed, lulled on by the vision of lacy cancer cells that were surely multiplying within me. I researched diseases in The New Our Bodies Ourselves, stopping just before chemo. Great.
In the stillness of my bedroom, I took on the mournful oboe sound of the soul entering its psychic Yom Kippur. Well, how long could a person hope to live anyway? My life had had its graceful passages, and its threats. My daughter was a fine young woman; I’d lived long enough to teach her to make chocolate chip cookies and how to light a match without burning herself.
I was glad that I had read from the Torah, had reconciled with my parents and had come to know the pleasures and limits of the spiritual life.
But now came the rumble of unfinished creation: It isn’t enough! The books unwritten, the hearts untouched. I didn’t win the MacArthur Award, I traveled fruitless paths. Why had I wasted so much time on Bruce, the paradigmatic Wrong Guy?
What is life about anyway? I am not Ecclesiastes, barking about wasted vanity. I want it all! Creme Brûlée for breakfast, fewer misunderstandings at lunch. I wish that my doctor had taken not just a sample of my blood, but an extract of my heart as well, so we could see how love and effort, Paris and Kiev, dear friends and lost suitors, and a decision made years ago to never substitute margarine for butter but always go for the real thing — how all this had made my time, terribly short though it now seemed, so very much worth living.
I went up and down my family tree, reflecting on all the women who had died, especially my grandmothers whom I’d never known. Compared to them, with their strokes and heart disease, I’d had it good. I couldn’t determine if I was young or old and if I were greedy in demanding more. Tossing and turning on the sea of possibilities, the light came.
In the dawn, I took my walk, saying goodbye to every cactus and eucalyptus tree and marveled not for the first time at the perfect turquoise where sea and sky dwell in eternity. I made breakfast for Samantha, confiding nothing, glad she was leaving the next day for a five-week college music program in Boston. Better she not be here, while I am under the knife.
The fact is, I did not feel done at all. Not done with being a mother, a writer, a lover, a friend. And I felt clear about one thing, if I was, by some strange misfortune, to have it all end right now, the “fault” would not be God’s. Nothing and no one to blame. There would be no fault at all.
The morning traffic throb held for me none of its usual despair or delight. Under the death sentence, what matter the tide and the times.
I called the doctor’s office before 9. My mouth was numb and I couldn’t say my own name.
“You called me,” I whispered. “You called.”
“Oh yes,” said the office assistant since Lizzie was out. “We call everyone after their blood tests. Your chart says you are fine.”
“FINE! I’M FINE!,” I said, a timpani of outrage. ” ‘LAB REPORTS’ and ‘WE WANT TO TALK TO YOU.’ How can I be FINE!”
I drove home, crazy, exhausted, flamboyantly hysterical from orchestral adrenaline rush. The traffic was joyously irritating. The very swerving of merging tractors and taxis held possibility. I was starved for music, for friendship, for love. I will dare to eat a peach. Relief flooded through me. I’m getting hungry. Peel me a grape.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will be on hiatus until the High Holidays. She is the author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press).
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.